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Baroness Sayeeda Warsi: When religious ideas are banished from the public square, they are more likely to default, uncontested, into fundamentalism and sectarianism (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi: When religious ideas are banished from the public square, they are more likely to default, uncontested, into fundamentalism and sectarianism (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)


Beware the secular atheocracy Add to ...

In a recent column, The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders tackled British Baroness Warsi’s concern for the place of faith in the public square head on, concluding that “the problem in public life isn’t Islam, it’s religion itself.”

This came about because the baroness, a Muslim who is chair of Britain’s Conservative Party and a cabinet minister in Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, is at odds with a recent High Court ruling that the practice of prayer during municipal council meetings (and, by extension, in Parliament itself) is unconstitutional. While the baroness and many others denounced the ruling as the imposition of “militant secularization,” the column upholds the view that faith ought to be a private matter with no presence in the public square.

It is possible to reach a different conclusion, however, with the understanding that excluding faith from society’s public square creates the emptiness that fuels the fires of the fundamentalism – both secular and faith-inspired – some would prefer to hide from view.

Secularism is not the settled, intellectually stable public project that many suppose. It is not at all clear that religion is poisonous to Canadian public order, or even not implicit to it. Our Constitution literally says otherwise, and it is questionable whether the stark secularism of a political order with no metaphysical bias about the nature of human kind is even possible in a democratic society.

Like Britain, Canada was founded on certain values and principles it still upholds in law and government, values that cannot be demonstrated by naked, rational proposition. Those values come from somewhere. Call it religion. Call it the veil of ignorance, the creator spirit or a consensual contract of cosmopolitan creatures. Still, we believe it. We can’t prove it, like a math problem. It’s just something Canadians believe – theists and atheists alike. Now and then, we actually die for these things.

We have, globally and historically, maintained highly contested, remarkably precise beliefs that are anything but straightforwardly secular, i.e. untainted by faith. The very word “religion” and the separation between the sacred and the secular in public order is itself an invention. The word religion – religio, in Latin – was rarely in use prior to the Reformation. More than a few thinkers have noted the irony of secularism as itself constituting a de facto “religious” system of thought, which defines how and why we can believe things, and where we can talk about them. As some might put it: a secular atheocracy.

The utopia to which this argument aspires also ignores the role of faith as an incubator for commonly held social virtues. Common knowledge of the good religion inspires is the baby that goes out with the bathwater when it’s banished from the public square.

That “square” is the common ground upon which societies meet. In liberal democracies, it’s where their ideas mesh, clash and are ground by the polity into compromise. That, in fact, is true secularism: a place where all influence and none dominate. Yet when people’s most deeply held beliefs are banished from that public square, they no longer have a meeting place. Without that, the more likely it becomes that those ideas – uncontested – default into fundamentalism and sectarianism.

Religion is here to stay, and most sociologists and international relations scholars know it’s true. It is pitiable that the crutch of secularist mythology is being yanked prematurely from our public debate, but to meet the challenge of global politics, we need to stop asking how to keep religion out, and start asking what we believe, and why. Religion won’t stay out – keeping it so will only fuel those who would seek to radicalize it. Today’s question is not about silencing newcomers’ beliefs, but about what we believe, what is up for debate and what is not. That, I think, is just good old-fashioned politics.

Robert Joustra is editor of Cardus Policy in Public.

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