The state’s new place in the souls of the nation
National Post - Wednesday February 22nd, 2012
Quebec’s religion course doesn’t just teach the facts about different faiths, but that all are equally valid.
Canada’s Supreme Court has erred in its latest ruling that a mandatory Quebec curriculum in Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC), from which a Drummondville Catholic couple wished to exempt their son, does not infringe the couple’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.
The ERC program, which begins in Grade 1 and continues throughout high school, was introduced into Quebec schools in 2008 without consultation with parents. It was designed to teach children about a wide variety of religious belief systems, including Catholicism, the religious provenance of 90% of Quebecers, with a view to creating a tolerant and open population. No Quebec child is exempt from it, not even the home schooled.
Justifying their denial of the bid for exemption, the Court privileged the entrenchment of a multicultural perspective in students over the parents’ right to entrench their son’s faith in Catholicism: “The early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.”
But it was not the facts about other religions that bothered the parents, nor do they deny or object to the reality that Canada is a multicultural society. The mother argued that the ERC courses are ideologically based in religious relativism, which is offensive to her. Religious relativism teaches that all religions are but diverse and equally valid manifestations of human creativity. In the ERC courses, children learn that Catholicism is no truer or more respect-worthy than Wicca or Earth-worship or the tinfoil-hat cult of Raelism. Indeed, one ERC student activity, entitled “Youpi! Ma religion à moi!” has students inventing personal religions, to be accorded respect by all. So how could the upcoming 11 years of such banalization of his religion fail to confuse their son?
But the parents were trapped in a Catch-22. If they waited years to gather actual evidence of the program’s deleterious effect on their son’s faith, their suit would be pointless. Their complaint had to be anticipatory. Yet the Court, unfairly in my opinion, imposed the burden of proof on them.
Liberal tradition asks the state to be cautious in matters of religious conscience. I agree with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, whose oral arguments strongly advocated that the burden fall on the government to prove it doesn’t infringe freedom of religion. The SCC’s shift of onus from the state to isolated, dissenting parents, insisting they justify their right to act as the child’s primary educator in religion, is something new and illiberal in Canada.
Quebec and the SCC have, crucially, failed to distinguish between a multicultural state and citizens who may or may not hold multicultural views. Surely the whole point of a multicultural state is to ensure harmonious and mutually respectful relations between those Canadians who do, and those who do not have a multicultural perspective, who indeed consider their own belief system superior to all others; and as well between people of faith and atheists who believe all religions are nonsense (atheism, by the way, is not represented in ERC and, logically, should be).
The ERC program is fixated on the idea of “tolerance.” But again, there is a difference between tolerance of other people and tolerance of other belief systems. The former is the state’s business; the latter isn’t.
How paradoxical it is that the foremost proponents of normative pluralism, a doctrine that exalts diversity, should insist on a one-size-fits all program of education about religion. But Quebec’s ill-conceived plan to inculcate children with the idea that all religions are equal — and therefore equally inconsequential — will backfire. Students will report what they have learned to their parents. Rightly defensive religious parents will “correct” them, which may well end in contempt for their teachers.
There is a simpler, and more equitable way for Quebec to encourage tolerance of the Other in the young. Scrap ERC. Create a primary school curriculum that promotes the secular values, principles and laws of Quebec. To wit: “Children, in Quebec, no matter where people come from and what they do or don’t believe, we respect and treat them as equals.” In secondary school, teach religions as objective phenomena in the history curriculum. It’s that simple. In matters of religious or a-religious belief, parents are the primary educators. The state has no place in the tender souls of the nation.