Where does religion fit into Canada’s pluralism model?

The recent wave of Syrian refugees — and acknowledgement of Europe’s flawed multiculturalism — has prompted new ways to think about religion’s place in an inclusive society. Geoffrey Cameron explores whether Canada is post-secular, and what this might mean. 

By: /
September 16, 2016
Syrian refugees sit during a welcoming service at the St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church at the Armenian Community Centre of Toronto, December 11, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Geoff Cameron

PhD candidate, Trudeau Scholar and Principal Researcher with the Baha’i Community of Canada.

The recent proposal to screen potential immigrants for “anti-Canadian values” — put forward by Conservative MP Kellie Leitch — has once again raised questions about whether Canada’s religiously diverse society can profess to have a set of shared values.

Canadians saw a similar debate arise recently after a Christian-inspired law school in B.C. was denied licensing by the province’s law society for requiring adherence to a code of sexual ethics, and with the proposed Secular Charter in Quebec.

Religion posits values that not only shape the private lives of citizens, but how those citizens see society and the public good. Where we have greater religious and non-religious diversity, it can seem difficult to articulate a social consensus on the values that define common citizenship.

The problem of achieving unity and consensus on values is not new; many thinkers have grappled with how to resolve it within the framework of a democratic pluralist society. Solutions often start by focusing on the role of religion in public discourse. 

Three approaches to the religion-secular divide

Perhaps the most influential approach has been to enforce a separation of the public sphere from intimate, private life. Its advocates say that privately people can believe and do what they wish, but in public they should speak in rational, non-religious — in other words, secular — language. Mostly, religious values are to be confined to private life and background cultures.

Some critics of this view say that the secular approach cuts us off from important sources of moral and ethical guidance, which are typically rooted in particular traditions of religious or philosophical thought. Although less prominent in Canada, this thinking is reflected in efforts by certain intellectuals in Europe and the United States to excavate and uphold the Christian roots of Western society. Instead of bending over backwards to use neutral language, these people say politics and discourse should be guided by some authoritative tradition of thought.  

This approach, however, tends to have a similar effect as the first one, which is to flatten diversity by upholding one tradition over others. Therefore, a third group has proposed that we abandon our aspirations of consensus and unity altogether and focus on creating a robust system whereby people can debate and struggle with their adversaries. At one extreme, this approach proposes an amplified identity politics. Advocates say that group-based identity differences should be accommodated, and attempts to present some overall set of values ought to be avoided.

Although each of these approaches has its merits, none seem fully up to the task of guiding us through our contemporary debates on the values of common citizenship in Canadian society. 

Enter post-secularism

This challenge has been highlighted within a growing intellectual discussion on post-secularism, which comes out of a growing sense that many Western societies are in a period of transition.

Where it was once thought that the Western world was moving through a natural and inevitable process of secularization, we now see that instead of disappearing from modern public life, religion is undergoing a process of transformation. Although the nature of this transformation is hard to pin down, it is clear enough to render anachronistic the notion that religion is inherently ‘traditional’ and out of date. 

"There is a new consciousness of the fact that...we are going to have to not only live together but also somehow talk with, and understand, one another more fully."

In societies where Christianity was previously hegemonic, it has moved into the realm of civil society, alongside other secular and religious voices. Old religions have become more modern, and new religions and spiritualities have appeared on the scene – embodying values and ideas that are fully modern. There is a new consciousness of the fact that society has religious citizens and secular citizens, and we are going to have to not only live together but also somehow talk with, and understand, one another more fully. These conversations often lead to debates over values, and how we envision the public good beyond a defence of individual freedoms. As one philosopher put it, post-secular thinking aims “to achieve a new reconciliation of unity and difference.”

To call Canada a post-secular society, however, is still imprecise. Like other academic neologisms like ‘post-modern,’ ‘post-structural,’ and ‘post-materialist,’ the term ‘post-secular’ signifies the end of a prevalent way of thinking in a way that invites new approaches. It does not propose something specifically new. For that, we need to look for examples of discourses that are trying to generate a unified conversation on values, while including religious and secular voices.

Creating a new space for religious and secular citizens

One place to look is the discourse around reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The role of churches in perpetrating past harms on Aboriginal people, which included efforts to eradicate Aboriginal spirituality, have stimulated a wider conversation on the role of religious groups and spirituality in the process of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission highlights church apologies in its calls to action, and it calls for the creation of new dialogues on Indigenous spirituality. Its program for educational reform includes the development of new curricula on comparative religious studies that incorporates Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and practices. It is increasingly accepted for public and government events to include invocations by Aboriginal Elders, which can include prayer. Furthermore, the broader conversation about how to effect reconciliation reaches beyond the political, economic and legal, to touch on themes of oneness, justice, love, healing and forgiveness. This discourse is in many ways a post-secular one, in the sense that it invites participation by diverse religious and spiritual traditions and also insists on basic freedoms, respect and equality.

"Our public conversation about refugees often ends up being post-secular."

We can also consider the discourse and practice related to welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada. The majority of these refugees were privately sponsored, and many such sponsorships included citizen cooperation with the government, in association with churches, synagogues, mosques and faith communities. The language of humanism sponsors used to describe their motivations was often mingled with religious or philosophical beliefs about solidarity. And the arrival of predominantly Muslim refugees opened up new conversations about creating appropriate prayer space, customs related to diet and modesty, and learning about the varieties of Muslim experience. Our public conversation about refugees often ends up being post-secular, as religious and secular citizens alike talk and act about expanding the basis of their community by welcoming refugees. This kind of dialogue among the diverse voices of society can serve to create new social understandings and an expanded sense of human identity.

Our public discourses on reconciliation and refugees point in hopeful directions. They suggest that we are capable of creating space for religious and secular citizens to talk together about the public good in a way that invites discussion on questions of values and ethics. These conversations often open up spaces for minorities and their voices to be intentionally included in public discourse.

This is distinct from the kind of laissez faire multiculturalism that has divided Europe, including the United Kingdom, where cultural difference was often tolerated without commensurate measures to promote social integration. It also differs from the reflexive embrace of liberal or republican secularism – with France as perhaps the most rigid example – which seeks to expel non-Christian religion from the public sphere. 

It might appear to be a fool’s errand to talk about ‘shared values’ within the context of Canada’s diverse society. However, our tentativeness may simply indicate that we are still working it out. If we really are in a post-secular transition, the present moment may call for forbearance with our fellow citizens as we work out the new terms of social consensus. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has suggested, we also need to use our “inner eyes” to see one another with a “curious and sympathetic imagination.” In the process, we might eventually move beyond the post-secular moment, and develop new answers to our questions about citizenship, multiculturalism and belonging in Canadian society.

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