Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The myth of secular neutrality

I was just thinking the other evening, about the proposed new Quebec "secular values" charter, and the thought crossed my mind, how it is that some people are able to entertain the idea of what would amount to the implementation of an institutionalized secularism, over all other belief systems, and it occurred to me that this may be because there is this ongoing myth in our culture that secularism amounts to a sort of neutral ideological zone. But is it?

I'm just thinking about this, feel free to help me out. If we were to transplant "modern western secularism" to another part of the world, I don't know, how about present day Asia or Africa or ancient somewhere or other, would it be a neutral zone there? They would have to start answering questions pretty quick wouldn't they? Such as well, what is secularism? What does it mean? Where does it come from? Or most interestingly, why do you believe that? What would modern-day Quebec secularists say to those questions?

Now you might say Marg, it's really quite simple, secularism is a lack of religiosity or simpler still, separation of church and state in a political sense. But when people start to impose secularism on the expression of individual citizens, they're moving towards something else aren't they, an overarching secular society where people are expected to conform to formal secular institutions, which is one very big issue in it's own right. I'd like to go a bit deeper though, in asking if separation of church and state is enough in itself to ground a culture, to bind a people, to fight for?

You know the funny thing, for me looking back on my early life. I grew up in a little town in northern Nova Scotia in the 80's and early 90's. I don't remember anyone talking about values, in between reciting the Lord's prayer or singing O Canada first thing in the morning at school. Nor can I recall a political party ever talking about values. Do you know what I remember? This would have been when I was about oh, ten, twelve years old or so. I used to think that Canadian politics was sooo boring, because there was so little difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals, and they always got in (one of them), so it hardly mattered who you voted for, or at least that's how it seemed to me. Now I look back and I think maybe that wasn't all bad, when the left and the right met more in the middle, and there seemed on the whole to be more respect. But you know the first time I can remember a politician talking strongly and unequivocally, emphasizing "our values" presumably over someone else's values or lack of values? Paul Martin during a political campaign after 9/11. That's not that long ago, is it?

Just a crazy question, but how did we ever survive as a society without talking about values for so long (if my memory is correct)? What I'm saying is that growing up in that little northern Nova Scotia town, where the population was 83% Roman Catholic, which included my family, why would there have been a need to talk about values? There was an assumed values, and everyone knew it. That's my point.

I chat with secularists online sometimes. They're nice people. They really are. So often they are the nicest of people, and the questions they ask me are often along the lines of, well, why can't we just be nice, we don't need religion. People are just naturally nice, aren't they? Why can't we all just be-nice?

I was listening to Ravi Zacharias the other evening. I love Ravi. Ravi was answering a similar, why can't we all just be nice question from an audience member and his response was to quote a hardline Muslim saying very directly to a visiting westerner having a lite lunch somewhere in a Middle East cafe "first we're coming for the Saturday people, then we're coming for the Sunday people." Fun stuff, while you're eating your tabbouleh (sigh). But the important thing to take from that, is that in that person's mind, that would be a good thing! A good deed, do in one enemy, then the next. That's a worldview folks, as was communism, and why is it may I humbly ask, that it seems as though the countries with a strong Judeo-Christian heritage, are the ones that offer the best quality of life, the most respect for their citizens as individuals? Why is that? Is it secularism, separation of church and state, that is the source of all good things, or is it the once common values and intrinsic egalitarianism of our western spiritual heritage? If it's secularism, then why wasn't that same quality of life evident under secular communist regimes, the more secular the better, right? Ravi also mentioned speaking to a woman from China in her seventies, who had been to many countries abroad, but was shocked to hear him pray and thank the kitchen staff for a meal. That, from a representative of a great "classless" society.

I don't agree with Quebec's proposed values charter. I wear a crucifix as a Christian, and I stand with my Muslim and Jewish neighbours in asserting that this is a discriminatory piece of potential legislation. I support religious freedom, the right of people to disagree with me, and my right to disagree with them. I think we're living in a very scary time, but also a time when there is an incredible opportunity for dialogue, through modern technology, where the world is opening up in amazing new ways, where we can share ideas as never before, we can agree to disagree, but a better society doesn't start with reducing freedoms, nor do I think it necessarily starts with a given political model or separation of church and state. It starts with respect for all human beings and an understanding of the equal worth and dignity of all people.

In closing, it's not enough to assume that secularism is just the fallback metaphysical position. There is no such metaphysical neutral ground. All ideas have underlying statements of belief beneath their worldview assumptions. If they didn't, then what would a "secular values" charter be based on, if not belief in something? But also, secularists will not be able to assume their worldview much longer, because we're living in an increasingly globalized and interactive world. I just wonder though, as someone who was raised as a cultural Catholic myself, what's going on when supporters of the secular charter say that crosses are okay, because they've been secularized. Have crosses been secularized or is the cross an historic symbol that represents the bedrock foundation of Quebec's "secular" values? Could it be that the cross still has a place in the hearts of Quebecers, that despite their frustration with an historically oppressive and abusive church, they're still not quite ready to let that symbol go.

Je me souviens, God bless Quebec,

thanks for listening,

M.A. Harvey




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