Montreal conference grapples with the secular

(L to R) The Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, and the Rev. Dr. Ellen Aitken, dean of religious studies at McGill University. Photo: Harvey Shepherd
(L to R) The Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, and the Rev. Dr. Ellen Aitken, dean of religious studies at McGill University. Photo: Harvey Shepherd
Published July 30, 2013


Dating from the 1930s, the Gothic design of the Birks Heritage Chapel in the building that now houses the McGill University Faculty of Religious Studies is dominated by a huge stained glass window depicting the Ascension. Its several panels are divided and supported by a lattice or framework.

Welcoming multi-faith participants in a conference May 27 and 28 under the title “Bridging the Secular Divide: Religion and Public Discourse,” Ellen Aitken, dean of the faculty-and an Anglican priest-was at pains to offer a few words of explanation. From the outset, she said, the chapel reflected the pioneering ecumenical approach of Divinity Hall, as it was then called, a co-operative venture of several Christian denominations. Since then, the chapel has come to accommodate the different Christian and non-Christian faiths now active on the campus and in the faculty and is also used for multi-faith events and academic gatherings of no particular religious purpose, as well as weddings and other such events. It is also adorned by art from various faiths.

Over all, the predominantly Christian ambience of the chapel seemed no problem for the participants from different religions. There were times when the influence of the chapel window seemed benign.

At least two speakers including at least one Muslim saw the window as a metaphor for what she the conference was aiming for. The lattice between the panes, they suggested, could be taken to represent the secular framework of society and the multicoloured panes between them could represent the rich plurality of religious traditions they support.

It was interesting to hear a prominent Muslim make this point, since Islamic tradition is said to be quite dubious of representational religious art, never mind Christian stained-glass windows.

Perhaps this was one example of the emphasis on civility that was a hallmark of a number of the talks by representatives of various traditions at the conference.

It was clear that organizers of conference–which was sponsored by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, founded by the former British prime minister–considered civility in public discourse about religion to be a key goal. And, while the conference was pan-Canadian in its scope, the choice of a Quebec venue was clearly no coincidence.

The relation of religion and public life is particularly topical in Quebec these days. The conference was originally expected to coincide with a debate in the Quebec National Assembly on a Charter of Quebec Values proposed by the government-the debate is now expected this fall-and the conference coincided roughly with a controversial Supreme Court decision on prayer at meetings of a Quebec municipal council and was just in time for the kerfuffle about the wearing of Sikh headgear by amateur soccer players in Quebec.

While faith traditions including Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Baha’i and aboriginal spirituality were represented among the organizers of the conference and other faiths by participants, this was not an interfaith conference where the emphasis was on exploring similarities and differences among various traditions. This may have helped maintain the civil atmosphere.

I would also go so far as to say that, notwithstanding the key part the Jewish interfaith icon Victor Goldbloom played in the conference and the major contribution by Baha’is, the conversation was largely among Christians.

Both what used to be called mainstream Christian groups, as represented, for example, by the Canadian Council of Churches, and more conservative groups including the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and certain Catholic conservative organizations were well represented. And they were noticeably friendly toward each other. One tactic that may have helped was a tendency to stick to what I might be call meta-arguments in dealing with hot-button topics–with pro-life people, for example, arguing not directly that abortion is bad but that anti-abortionists ought to be free to express their views.

This conference was not, it seemed, about issues between different faith traditions but, as its title said, “bridging the secular divide: religion and public discourse”-the divide, perhaps, between religion in general and public discourse. At first, the phrase “secular divide” struck me as puzzling: should it not have been “the secular/religious divide” or some such phrase?

The debate that preoccupied the speakers was whether religion has a place in public discourse at all. But, while several speakers spoke in favour of dialogue between both sides of this issue, open to both people of faith and people without any, the conference was not itself such a dialogue. A “framework document” issued before the conference began took a clear position on one side of this question, one generally consistent with the presentations (and, let me say, my own views).

“We recognize the value of secular public institutions insofar as they promote equal treatment for all people and prevent one religion from being favoured over others,” the document says. “However, secularism, in a more extreme form, espouses the restriction of many public expressions of religion. It assumes that religion is inherently exclusionary, or divisive, and that democratic civility is promoted by restricting its role to private belief. This is a form of secularism that limits the advancement of our public discourse by excluding perspectives that draw from the insights of religion.”

Or, in the words of an opening talk by Mike Hogetorp, director of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue in Ottawa, “Fundamentalisms, either religious or secular, are a fraud. Civility, even in the presence of profound differences, is important for democracy.”

For some people, secularism is becoming a religion in itself, said Dr. Imam Hamid Slimi of the Canadian Centre for Deen Studies in Mississauga, an institution for the study of Islam.

Comments by Archbishop Christian Lépine, the new Roman Catholic archbishop of Montreal, and some of the reaction to them outside the conference, pointed up the issue. He endorsed a “laicité ouverte”-open secularism-that would recognize even atheism as a form of faith in the human being. But he warned that if a closed secularism assumes political power it can become a state religion, a cult of the state.

I would have been tempted to consider endorsement by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Montreal of open secularism and religious pluralism would be gratifying to almost anyone but a few ultramontane screwballs. Silly me.

At least some of the media response to it found it ominous that the Roman Catholic archbishop of Montreal would endorse religious pluralism.

“Quebec is on the way to becoming a multi-religious society,” Louise Mailloux, who has written a book on the subject, bewailed in an article in Le Devoir. “One religion was already too many, and now several of them are supposed to be better. That’s what open secularism is. Openness to everything, including religious fundamentalism. What a mess: one that is only beginning with a big contribution from our multicultural establishment!”

Not everyone, it would see, is interested in bridging a religious/secular divide. As I thought about it, it occurred to me that perhaps hardly anyone is. Perhaps there is no religious/secular divide.

For many atheists and some religious people with a particular view of the place of religion, there is no need to bridge any gap; religion is merely to be eliminated or at least excluded from the public sphere. To be sure, some people who to not regard themselves as people of faith do seem themselves as facing the same issues as religious people, but their existence was only adumbrated at the conference.

On the other hand, for religionists like many of the speakers at the conference, there is no gap between religion and the secular either; they are aspects of the same reality.

Rev. Karen Hamilton, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, suggested that a current tendency to exclude religion from political discourse seems to coincide with a decline of interest in discourse of any kind on political issues.

One imam made the point that Islam does not recognize any basic distinction between the sacred and the secular. (I think that one other occasions I have heard people from many faiths, including Christianity, make that claim about their own faiths.)

Indeed, Archbishop Lépine made the point that he himself is a secular priest. At one level this was just a play on words: in Catholic jargon that predates modern meanings of secular the phrase means he is a priest of his diocese and not of an order like, say, the Dominicans. But for him this phrase also illustrates the absence of any fundamental difference between the secular and religious.

Perhaps the people who dreamed up the conference title got it right. What needs to be bridged, or at least addressed, is not a secular/religious divide but a secular divide-if you like, a secular/secular divide.

One the one hand, there are those who see the religious and the secular as ways of seeing the same reality. On the other there are those who call for the secular to exclude the religious altogether-which might in fact just open the door to cults of a more insidious kind.

The debate continues.

Harvey Shepherd is editor of Anglican Montreal, the newspaper of the Anglican diocese of Montreal. This commentary first appeared in the newspaper’s Summer 2013 issue.


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