I once had a family physician whose favourite expression was “God’s will.” He kept saying it during examinations, invoking the Creator as he slipped on the rubber gloves and citing prayer and heaven as the blood-pressure cuff inflated. It might have been one of those vestigial habits of speech, like “bless you,” but something in his emphasis convinced me that he really did believe there was a spiritual force at work on my health.
So I fired him. Who wants a doctor whose faith resides in anything other than medicine? And if he’s religious, he could at least keep it out of his profession – it creates a sense of bias, and unnerves his patients.
I’m sure you’ll agree that my action was right. But does that mean it should become the law of the land? Should there be a sign, in every medical practice, declaring that displays and expressions of religion will not be permitted here? And also in schools, universities, courts, police stations and vehicle-licensing offices?
This has become the big policy idea of the year, at least in French-speaking parts of the world. It was announced this week that every school in France will have posted on its walls, by the end of September, a “secularism charter” passed into law in 2012 that will tell students they are required to come to school on religious holidays, attend a one-hour discussion of secularism every week, and obey the nine-year-old law forbidding teachers and students from wearing Christian crosses, Jewish yarmulkes and Muslim head coverings.
Following in France’s footsteps, Quebec this summer began discussing its own proposed Charter of Quebec Values, which would banish turbans, kippahs, hijabs and visible crosses from the bodies of all public employees.
The secular philosophy behind the French and Québécois laws, known as laïcité, has a noble tradition. It was first seen in the United States, where the predominantly atheist authors of its Constitution wrestled with the question of how to create a single government for a country founded and populated by competing extremist sects. The answer was to separate religion from public life, creating a neutral public sphere and making religion strictly a matter for private life.
This idea was adopted even more heartily in France (alkthough the idea of restricting clothing is a recent innovation), and in Turkey, where it is still illegal to wear Islamic head coverings in government-funded places.
And there are understandable reasons why Quebeckers are more open than others to the idea: The memory of religious interference is far more fresh. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Union Nationale party of Maurice Duplessis created an effective Roman Catholic theocracy, harshly regulating private life. For historical and emotional reasons, laïcité holds a greater appeal.
But that doesn’t mean these charters are a good idea. You need to go back to the basic question: What problem are they attempting to solve?
Neither the French nor the Québécois charters were built on the idea of creating a secular public sphere. Rather, they both were born of bigoted attitudes toward Muslim immigrants, papered over with a slapdash bid for secularism that fails to confront the actual issues involved.
To start with, it’s hypocritical. “How can the government ask its employees not to display their religious beliefs when it displays a religious symbol in its own chamber?” asks Daniel Baril, a Quebec “radical secularist” who nonetheless took to the pages of Le Devoir to denounce the charter. “This crucifix, by which Duplessis attempted to seal the alliance between the state and the Catholic Church, is a symbol of non-secularism … When you want to clean up, you start in your own yard.”
Worse, though: If we take seriously the goal of eradicating religion from public life, this is a terrible approach. Any smart politician knows that the way to get voters to switch sides is not to insult them for having the stupidity to support the other party. It’s to make your side seem welcoming. This applies doubly in the battle against religious authority: We’re not going to convert people by humiliating and enraging them.
And the non-confrontation approach is working – fantastically so. The past 10 years saw the proportion of Canadians without religion rise by more than 50 per cent, to a quarter of the population; the same is happening in every developed country.
We didn’t make this progress by insulting the religious; rather, we got here by tolerating them and making secular reason appear the more moral and humane option. What I was forced to do to my doctor is not the solution for an entire nation: The way to win an argument is not by ordering your opponents to shut up. It’s by getting them on your side.