The Rebirth of the Friction Between Religion and State

2013-10-16_122303Under the banner “Multi-Faith Gathering for Peace”, thousands of people marched two weeks ago in Quebec protesting a proposed Charter of Values which, if passed by the state’s government, will prohibit public workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols. In order to prevent any unavoidable subjective interpretation of the term, the Charter makes clear which religious symbols are deemed conspicuous: the Muslim Niqab and Hijab, the Sikh turban, the Jewish Yarmulke and the Christian cross (if large and worn around the neck).

Quite clearly, Quebec, today a part of Canada, is thus following in its ancestral progenitor’s footsteps, seeking to “purify” the public sphere of any religious symbols, just as France did in 2010 with its own law “prohibiting the concealment of the face in public space”, meant to do away with the Burqa and the Chador. No doubt, there is also quite a bit of Islamophobia here, just as in France, though I would suggest that at the bottom of this Islamophobia lies, among simple xenophobia and prejudice, a generous amount of old-fashioned enlightenment-style anti-religious sentiment.

Thus taken, Quebec’s Charter of Values seems to me not, in essence, about spreading or upholding liberty or equality. In truth, I would say, it is more of a reactive and clumsy attempt at defending an extreme version of separation between religion and state, one that was tried for the first time during the early years of the French Revolution, tried again in countries of the former Communist Bloc, failed horribly both times, but continues to live as a phantom in the minds of anti-theists for whom the idea of religious belief insults a particular conception of human dignity.

“The Kantian imperative to have the courage to think for oneself”, wrote Terry Eagleton once, “has involved a contemptuous disregard for the resources of tradition and an infantile view of authority as inherently oppressive.” Ironically, the same Kantian imperative is today enforced by the resources of the state, whose authority, as shown all too clearly in both the French and the Communist revolutions, can be just as much oppressive, if not a whole lot more.

What the current events in Quebec reveal to us is the rebirth of the friction between religion and state, brought about not only by the injection of fresh “belief” by Muslim immigrants to European countries, but also by the rising of new forms of Christian believers in North and South America, renewed struggles and cooperation inside Islam, and a new interest in the Jewish religious life in Israel. It is the frontline where believers and atheists, traditionalists and anti-theists meet, and where, all too often, liberal agnostics find themselves in the awkward position of fearing religious fundamentalists while at the same time envying their conviction.

The idea that religion is the result of some sort of faulty line of reasoning, and thus will gradually disappear as humanity learns to think strait (another inheritance from the Enlightenment), has today been almost completely abandoned by students of the sociology and psychology of religion. As Peter Berger observed, what modernity has indeed brought us in the religious sphere is not religions decline, but its plurality.

“Modernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily pluralizing” writes Berger, pointing out that what is characteristic of modern society is increasing divergence of religious forms and practices. And while this is far better, I would believe, in the eyes of religious people then the simple dwindling away of faith, it does pose not a small challenge for them, as they now have no choice but to contend with alternative answers to many of the questions their religious life asks. In other words, far from killing religion, what modernity has allowed is a competition between different religions, which, in an open and tolerant society, leads unavoidably to diversity.

If this diversity is not to be the first step on the way to a religious war, it is crucial that the very same open and tolerant society be the background for profound inter-religious dialogue. Speaking of the Enlightenment as we have, we must happily admit that what it has also bequeathed to us is the framework in which different faiths can live side by side, which is liberal democracy. It is by firmly maintaining the principles of liberal democracy on the one hand, and frank and candid dialogue between religious leaders and believers on the other, that a not only a tolerant atmosphere can be maintained, but also actual religiousdevelopment, as religions learn from each other.

Most of all in the Middle East, where religious tension, as well as diversity, is extensive, direct interfaith dialogue is essential. Extremism on all sides must be denounced by religious leaders, and an example set by them through meeting, recognizing and respecting both sides’ representatives and faiths. This will not only (and most importantly) contribute to the religious aspect of our mutual coexistence here, but may even be found beneficial if a multi-faith cooperation is needed in case of an attempt to restrict individual and public religious rights by the state, such as in Quebec. It does, however, call for courageous religious leadership, and the honest will to act not only when a person’s own free exercise of faith is jeopardized, but when the others’ is. I truly hope The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land will rise to the challenge.


Published on The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land’s Internet site.


7 Responses to “The Rebirth of the Friction Between Religion and State”

  1. 1 unpatriote 19/10/2013 at 17:15

    I have read your article with interest. However I think your article only discuss one side of the debate which has sadly been monopolized by extremist (the religious and the non-religious) while for most Quebecers this is a social issue. So truly for us the title of this debate would be “The Rebirth of the Friction between Religion and Society.”

    First let me state that I am against the Charter of Values but for different reasons than you. However I believe it is a debate worth having but I am saddened by the fact that this debate has degenerated into accusations of xenophobia. This debate is social and not religious for most Quebecers. I believe that the individual space should not be legislated unless this personal space is used to harm others or conflict with the law or social values. At the center of this debate is the difference between the Niqab and the Hijab. For example, let’s say I am traveling to a Muslim country with my wife and my wife is required to wear the Hijab to enter this country. Do I have a problem with this? No. I think she will look quite pretty in a Hijab. Basically my wife and I would be seeing the wear of the Hijab as an act of courtesy and respect towards our host. However if the same country would require the wear of the Niqab, I would refuse to enter this country because accepting that my wife wears the Niqab would be accepting to disrespect her and to see her less than an equal. This would contradict my social values. This country can do what they want and I respect this but I can do what I want and not support this. However I would expect the people of this country if they are coming to my home to show the same respect and courtesy.

    As we can see there are religious objects and religious tenants that have social significance such as the Kirpan, Niqab and tenets such as virginity tests. There is a social message with these and this is what the debate should be about. The wearing of the Hijab, Christian Cross, Sikh Turban or Jewish Yarmulke does not change society. They are a spice that changes the flavor of a meal; making it more interesting without changing its texture. The Kirpan, Niqab and virginity tests… attempt to change the texture and as a result are subject to social debate and legislation.

    As far as I am concerned, virginity test should be considered a hate crime and prosecuted under the full extent of the law for anyone requesting it or doing it. And I agree with Collège des médicins president Charles Bernard who qualified this as a repugnant and outrageous practice. If this makes me a xenophobe then so be it.

    • 2 Tomer Persico 19/10/2013 at 18:43

      Thank you for this insightful comment. I have to say I agree in principle. That is, I think this question is a matter of degree. Some things will definitely not be allowed even if forbidding them will infringe on the individual freedom of faith. An obvious example is female genital mutilation in the name of tradition etc’. So in principle I think you are right. Whether the Niqab in particular is a tradition that should be outlawed is another question, but it may very well be so.

      • 3 unpatriote 19/10/2013 at 21:37

        Indeed there are many questions. It’s just too bad it is not a constructive debate. However at the source of this debate is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which starts with a preamble recognizing the supremacy of God and therefore giving a place to religious law in Canada (absolutely unacceptable in Quebec). Trudeau the main engineer of this Charter, himself was against this stating However the western conservatives had their way. Indeed there is a great possibility that this Charter of Values in Quebec will not be made into law and this is for the best. However what is certain is that the Quebec Charter of Rights will be modified under article 9.1 which declare that rights and freedoms are not absolute and can only be exercised according to democratic values, public order and well being of the population. To these limitations will be added the neutrality of the state and secular status of its institutions, this is guaranteed. The Quebec charter will then be fundamentally in opposition with the Canadian charter. There will be interesting judicial years ahead.

  2. 5 giavonie skin care 02/02/2014 at 11:37

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  3. 6 edwardfagan 04/01/2016 at 02:00

    Another great piece, as usual, very well written and informative, though I disagreed with some points raised.

  1. 1 The Rebirth of the Friction Between Religion and State | Edward Fagan Blog Trackback on 04/01/2016 at 01:54

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Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

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