This article was translated by Julian Olson.

A challenge for today’s Quebec

My thanks to Gary Caldwell for giving me the opportunity to respond to his critique of the new Ethics and Religious Culture program. I would first like to make it clear that, contrary to what he wrote, I am neither the main author nor the official representative of the program. I had the privilege of working within several groups and committees interested in secularization, and the published lecture on which he bases his analysis is but a very secondary part of a collection of documents and publications, including, of course, the program itself, promulgated by the Ministry of Education, Recreation and Sports in July 2008. My book represents no school of thought, still less what could be identified as a philosophy or ideology of the Ministry of Education.

I proposed that reflection on issues of secularization be undertaken after the minister announced in June 2005 that the government of Quebec would not invoke the notwithstanding clause and would establish a common, compulsory course, extended across all levels of schooling. The texts of this program for the primary and secondary levels very carefully explain its educational and social objectives, especially those concerning its two fundamental aims: recognition of the other and pursuit of the common good. It is therefore appropriate to refer to these texts in discussing the ministry’s position, and this is what I will do here in addressing some of Mr. Caldwell’s arguments.

Education for pluralism is one of Quebec’s social priorities and hence one of the major recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.1 This commission, coming in the wake of the long and rich debate on secularization that followed the publication of the Proulx Report2 in 1999, was a busy political and social laboratory. Even though the Bouchard-Taylor Report does not reflect all the issues, notably because it does not contain a separate chapter on education, it has facilitated an essential analysis of the evolution of pluralism in our society. The commission’s promotion of the new course seems to me a good starting point for discussing Mr. Caldwell’s critique. Its work took place at the same time as the development of the program and reflects the same analysis of the social evolution of present-day Quebec.

The program has adopted the objectives of recognition of others and pursuit of the common good, and for the ministry these objectives call for initiating instruction that includes both ethics and religious culture, built on dialogue. Thus the program is put forward in a social and political context marked by the growth of diversity in our society, and is intended to give young people tools for their lives as adult citizens. It is a matter neither of ideology nor of indoctrination, unless one believes that democratic values constitute indoctrination.

According to Mr. Caldwell, the new course is the result of a philosophy of secularization based on seven fundamental and, for him, debatable pillars. I won’t repeat these arguments since, although some of Mr. Caldwell’s formulations seem to me unfair toward secularization in general and pluralism in particular (notably when he writes that normative pluralism represents a convoluted approach to universal truths), I can readily enough agree with his presentation of the fundamental premises of modernity. It was not our own intellectuals who discovered these. They are found everywhere in the development of Western societies that have reached modernity and have accepted the bargain of secularization: the rigorous separation of religious institutions (churches and others) from the state.

These premises are as present in Quebec as everywhere else, even if secularization here was the result of a much slower and more considered process than elsewhere. The public debate was long and highly nuanced and, contrary to what Mr. Caldwell has written, the consensus reached over the past 20 years is deep, because it is the result of a process of reflection carried through to maturity.

In this context, why is Mr. Caldwell opposed to the new Ethics and Religious Culture course? In his article, he seems to be torn between two main arguments. On the one hand, the new course is unacceptable because the premises on which it rests, which he characterizes as being based on utopian voluntarism, are fallacious. In other words, the course is a mistake precisely because it represents the modern secular position, based on the primacy of reason and individual liberty. This obviously puts Mr. Caldwell in the position of having to tell us, if modernity and secularism are errors, what multicultural societies should do to remain fair and tolerant in the face of growing diversity.

At this point we come to Mr. Caldwell’s second argument, certainly the most surprising in his article: Quebec, in his view, is not a multicultural society, but rather – like Ste-Edwidge, Mr. Caldwell’s community and reference point – still a very homogeneous society, little touched by modern currents. Heir to a great Catholic tradition, disputed by no one, this society is held to be still united at its core by a profoundly religious fabric. While surprising, this argument may explain Mr. Caldwell’s rejection of the premises of modernity: his denial of the role of reason in reaching consensus, his criticism of individuality and his argument against the establishment of a public culture of “vivre ensemble,” or living together, at school. The two lines of argument are no doubt complementary: challenging secularism can go along with promoting an idealized community and perpetuating the transmission of norms and beliefs inherited from the past.

These two arguments seem to me to be quite weak. In the first place, the pluralist foundation of contemporary societies rests not only on confidence in reason but also on a secular ideal whose very purpose is to guarantee religious freedom and autonomy. It is astonishing to read that, according to Mr. Caldwell, supporters of modernity are against any religious presence in public space. The exact opposite is true: secularism, as first advanced by John Locke and later taken up by, for example, John Rawls, is the guarantee that the state will not interfere in belief nor in religious freedom in any way. Secularism is characteristic of the state and all its institutions, and in no way applies to individuals and groups that wish to claim a particular belief and express it in public.

The crucifix in the National Assembly and Christian prayer at the beginning of municipal council sessions are contrary to this secular ideal, since they express the state’s support for one particular belief, which it should absolutely refrain from doing. The Quebec government has chosen to keep the crucifix, saying that it it does so for reasons of heritage, not religious belief. This is a disappointing concession. Personally, I prefer the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s position, and I believe that the crucifix’s place is in church and not in Parliament. This is a revealing example of Mr. Caldwell’s antimodern positions.

Deconfesssionalization marked the end of the era of denominational privileges of Catholics and Protestants in Quebec education, maintained through the notwithstanding clause. But this in no way means that the place of religion in public space – in discussion of major social and moral issues or even in the international arena – has been reduced, and even less that it should be. Religions are more present than ever, but unlike in the past, this presence cannot and should not be identified with the state. Societies that preserve a state religion, whether Islamic states or Christian ones such as the United States (in spite of its constitution), are thus very different from our own, which has been marked by a very profound republican evolution.

From this point of view, the new course not only conforms to this republican orientation in strengthening secularism, but can be regarded as going further, in taking on the challenges of pluralism. Societies like France that have applied strict republicanism, as Micheline Milot shows in her recent book on secularism,3 show us the pitfalls to be avoided: rigidity, closed-mindedness, intolerance. In this sense, the new course takes note of the challenges of secularism, and takes an additional step toward pluralism. What republicanism must strive for – and in this respect republicanism is no different from societies that have neutralized religion rather than achieving authentic neutrality – is to maintain openness and to be truly welcoming. No state should promote a religious conviction, but all states should protect religious freedom, and the best way to achieve this is thorough education.

Concerning Mr. Caldwell’s characterization of Quebec society as homogeneous and fundamentally Catholic, a characterization also recently promoted by the Archbishop of Quebec, Cardinal Ouellet, it is unfortunately contrary to everything Quebec religious sociology has shown for at least ten years. In a recent talk at the University of North Carolina, relying on extensive empirical studies, Jean-Pierre Proulx showed that the proportion of the Quebec population that enters a religious institution once a year is currently not more than 6 per cent, a figure far below what studies have shown for most European countries, let alone the United States. In this respect, the process of de-Christianization in Quebec seems far deeper than the more general phenomenon of secularization. Not only has denominational religious education not succeeded in restraining it, but the loss of Christian religious reference points in the society has reached levels unforeseen barely ten years ago.

Thus, it is difficult to know what world Mr. Caldwell is referring to. It is certainly false to maintain that de-Christianization is restricted to large cities, or that the phenomenon of immigration is limited and has no effect on pluralism since immigrant populations are primarily Christian, among other such arguments. It would take too long to cite here all the sociological research that shows the opposite. I will confine myself to the core of Mr. Caldwell’s argument: his attachment to a tightly woven community culture, heir to a great tradition, and hence on a collision course with the new Ethics and Religious Culture program. This argument does not correspond to the facts and wears the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia.

Let us now take up another formulation of Mr. Caldwell’s antimodern argument. He sees the new course as a voluntarist utopia, resting on a quasi-totalitarian conception of the state’s educational mandate. But, he maintains, he state is incapable of promoting moral values, and further, the schools belong not to the state but to the parents and school commissions. Here is another form of the sociological argument from Ste-Edwidge: the schools, says Mr. Caldwell, belong to communities through school commissions, and should not be influenced by the state.

This position, well represented recently by the Action Démocratique du Québec, is also profoundly antimodern. What is being proposed here is a form of turning inward of the community, and the underlying logic of this position is communautarisme. Carried to its logical conclusion, this position leads to homeschooling, which is currently being fiercely debated in the United States, particularly in the work of the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum.4 Parents alone would be the owners of their children, as it were, and the state would be only a subsidiary instrument, at their disposal and subject to their direction.

Since the establishment of the Ministry of Education in 1964 and the launching of the Québec Education Program in 2001, how is it possible to support such an orientation? The mission of the school is social through and through, since its primary task is training democratic and responsible citizens. Young people cannot be isolated and deprived of the knowledge that will make them full-fledged citizens. This civic rationale underlies the project of public education and mandates the state to bring it into being. It also explains why there cannot be – in Ste-Edwidge or elsewhere – an education program that is different from the one established for the society as a whole, and why the means at the disposal of schools and school commissions are public means coming from the state.

The new course corresponds to this social (even political in the highest sense of the term, in its link with democracy) aspect of the educational mandate, which relates to recognition of others and pursuit of the common good. These are the two explicit objectives of the program, which are thus directly in line with the social mission of education – and especially education for pluralism, which alone will protect us in the future from the intolerance that afflicts so many societies that have entered, as has ours, into a process of accelerated cultural differentiation. The many examples in Europe, where we see great lapses every day, justify our insistence on education for pluralism. Only education for pluralism can put fundamentalism, religious or otherwise, in perspective.

Mr. Caldwell questions the reality of this pluralism, and evokes a culture that is thousands of years old and still shared today. No doubt he is referring here to the great Judeo-Christian tradition, but what is the basis of his argument? Does he claim, contrary to all the theorists of modernity, from Max Weber to Marcel Gauchet, that this culture is not being eroded and that the globalization of norms and beliefs is nothing but an illusion? This is what his article suggests. This vision seems to me to stem from an attachment to an idealized past, which refuses to take into account the the consequences of modernity for societies like ours.

It is certainly possible to envy people who live in Ste-Edwidge – I say this without irony – but who would deny that Ste-Edwidge is not typical of communities in Quebec today? Moreover, if Quebec society did somehow consist of a collection of identical villages like Ste-Edwidge, who would deny that they would have to be opened up to the world and its differences – the only way they could become sensitive to their own identity?

Like it or not, whether we agree to consider it or reject it, education for pluralism is at the heart of the school’s mission of socialization. The creation of the new course places ethical reflection and religious culture at the centre of citizenship training. To avoid it is to agree to blindfold our young people and deprive them of knowledge that is fundamental for understanding the contemporary world.

Mr. Caldwell’s critique, coming from a position that values transmission of values and beliefs within a community, is not the only one that has been heard in this debate. There has been a double-edged opposition to the course, coming from both the secularist and the religious fundamentalist side. A 2008 poll in Le Devoir showed strong support for setting up an Ethics and Religious Culture course, with 52 per cent of respondents in favour before the course even began. However, 29 per cent of respondents were against presentation of religion or religions in the school in any form, while 16 per cent favoured a return to denominational education.

This resistance to religious culture in itself, even when it is presented in a nondenominational or cultural manner in a course that combines it with ethics, represents an important contingent of people for whom religion, even as a social object, a system of representations and norms, an object of knowledge, must be kept out of school. This position is surprising in a world where there are more risks in being blind to these questions than in presenting beliefs and where ignorance of the beliefs of others is sheer poison. This republican secularism has supporters in Quebec, no doubt as a result of deep resentment of what is perceived as oppression by the Catholic religion in many spheres of social life. How can this hostility to religion in general be reconciled with the picture of our society that Mr. Caldwell suggests?

Perhaps, as I have just suggested, the source of this position is a feeling of historical oppression by Catholicism in Quebec, leading to an attitude of resentment and rejection that persists among many people. Perhaps it is also a lack of reflection on the substantial gap between religion as belonging and belief, which is rightly rejected in the school context in line with the principles of deconfessionalization, and religion as a social fact, as an inextricable part of reality and culture. Either way, dialogue with this position, as with Mr. Caldwell’s, seems to me essential.

The humanism advocated by the Mouvement Laïque Québécois, for example, is present in the program; indeed, it is the focus of its ethical reflection. The coherence of the Ethics and Religious Culture course would be more evident if we emphasized the complementarity of ethics and religious culture, rather than insisting only on the alleged danger of knowledge of historical religions, of relativism, etc. In the same way, the Greco-Judeo-Christian humanism that Mr. Caldwell seeks is the basis for the primacy of Judaism and Christianity in the religious culture component, to which the minister has added the importance of learning about Aboriginal spirituality. This complementarity is the foundation of the citizen perspective, on which we need to reflect. I am surprised that in his critique Mr. Caldwell never mentions the importance of ethics and dialogue and their role in training for deliberation as citizens and in the evolution of a common public culture, of which he has been and remains one of the most respected theorists.

The discussions arising out of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission may have strengthened the opposition of those who want no religion. On several occasions, these discussions illustrated the perils of religious conflict and the consequences of intolerance. The commissioners concluded in their report that the foundations of our society were not seriously threatened, as Mr. Caldwell reminds us, but they nonetheless took pains to recommend a philosophy of open secularism, taking very seriously the dangerous tendencies that appeared while the commission was doing its work. In this sense, the commissioners’ recommendations also stem from a “voluntarist” political position: that is, they intend to promote in Quebec a democratic ideal, assumed by all citizens.

Mr. Caldwell seems to be opposed to having the state take on this ethical mission, so it is not only the religious culture component that he rejects, but the ethical component as well. Fear of indoctrination, mistrust of the state in the transmission of values and norms: this attitude seems to me inspired primarily by a great fear in the face of the turbulence of modernity, along with a refusal to engage in a troubled and uncertain world. But it is this world that our young people will know, even if some of them continue to receive a normative religious education in the context of a community such as Ste-Edwidge.

The retreat to a communautariste position where each religion would be taught from a denominational point of view to whoever has the right, wherever numbers justify, is no doubt inspired by this fear. This position is complex. It reflects a very deep resistance to change and to the principle of equality put forward by the Proulx Report on the place of religion in the schools. The new course offers both knowledge of universal religious traditions, including the majority Christian tradition, and ethical reflection that makes it possible for students to use reason to question the answers the traditions give to all the major problems. Hence, it seems that what is being resisted is the position of the state as an agent in the moral training of youth.

But the new course, although compulsory for all levels of primary and secondary school, occupies only a very small place in the schedule. Built on three basic competencies – understanding the religious phenomenon, reflecting on ethical questions and engaging in dialogue – this course represents a necessary minimum in a democracy. In the context of Quebec’s educational reform, it is connected to the history and citizenship education course: the goals, competencies and subject matter of the two courses overlap in many places.

It is to be hoped that this resistance to a course that is so well adjusted to the challenges of pluralism will yield to young people’s need for the precious tools it offers. Ignorance of religious culture has serious consequences: the perpetuation of stereotypes, inaccurate representation of others and fear. But, as the American theologian Diane L. Moore demonstrated again recently,6 this ignorance can be reduced through nondenominational education clearly justified by the social project of the state: breaking down the rigidity of a strictly republican approach, opening up our concept of secularism and making dialogue possible by practising it from a very young age.

On October 3, the Dalai Lama spoke to a group of education students who are currently being trained to put this new program into effect. In his talk, the Buddhist leader lent his support to the Quebec program, seeing it as above all an instrument of tolerance and respect. This message came through to our students. It might even come through in Ste-Edwidge.

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