Secularism and obscurantism

December 15, 2021

Jean-François Lisée

Le Devoir, December 15, 2021

I found it long. Two years, before the opponents of the Loi sur laïcité de l’État (Bill 21) put a name, a face and a story to their arguments. It was written: as soon as a case was identified that could be made into a cause célèbre, the empire of Canadian self-righteousness would pounce with all the vigour conferred by the moral superiority complex that inhabits Toronto scribes, Liberal and New Democrat elected officials and, now openly, English-speaking Conservative MPs. Their arguments are heavy. This law must be fought and eradicated, they say, because it contradicts the very core of Canadian identity, because it challenges decency, equality, inclusion. It reeks of racism and xenophobia. It is, in the words of Minister Marc Miller, a personal friend of Justin Trudeau: cowardly.

The time has come to respond uninhibitedly about this Quebec law. It is feminist, anti-discriminatory and forward-looking. It is part of a centuries-old struggle for enlightenment and against obscurantism. It is exemplary and courageous.

A feminist law. The major religions are all fundamentally misogynistic and opposed to equality between men and women. The Law on Secularism ensures that the State will henceforth refuse, for its employees in positions of authority, to endorse and normalise the symbols of these religions. At a time when our public policies are engaged in a major effort to give women access to equality in employment, in decision-making positions, in filing complaints against their aggressors, in promoting boldness and risk-taking in business and politics, it is inadmissible for female public servants to wear symbols expressly intended to signal the modesty and submission of women.

Proudly acknowledging, by banning this misogynistic display, that the State rejects the concepts of modesty and submission for women is also a service to all women in Quebec who are under the influence of a backward-looking religious and family environment, and who are trying to escape from it.

An anti-discriminatory law. It is in two ways. First, it puts all beliefs on an equal footing. Before it, it was forbidden for an employee in authority to display his political, social or even ecological convictions, beliefs rooted in logic and science, with buttons or clothing, but it was permitted to display his religious convictions, which are based on mythical stories and dogmas whose historical and scientific falsity can easily be demonstrated. The Act puts an end to this unacceptable discrimination. Secondly, it establishes equality across time for religious displays. Massive social pressure led Quebec’s Catholic clergy to stop wearing their cornets, Roman collars and ostentatious crosses in the public service in the 1960s and 1970s. More diverse immigration on the one hand and the rise of rigorous currents within Islam on the other, have led to the reintroduction of religious displays in the Quebec state over the past 20 years. The law on secularism re-establishes equality before a single standard by applying, legally, to all what had been imposed, socially, only on Christians.

An avant-garde law. It is clear that the Quebec experience with religion is unique in North America. Nowhere else have religious beliefs hindered the development of a people. They forbade the opening of bookstores and blacklisted new ideas, refused to extend secondary education beyond their control (until 1964), discouraged entrepreneurship, except in agriculture, diverted the brightest young people from every family to the clergy rather than to science or industry, repeatedly called for submission to the powerful, not to mention the sexual abuse perpetrated by some of the male and, we learn, female clergy on Quebecers and Aboriginals. More quickly and more firmly than in the rest of America, Quebecers are individually and collectively declaring an increasingly strong independence from religion. This can be seen in our more progressive and earlier positions on abortion, gay marriage, end of life and secularism, which form a continuum.

A courageous law. The Canadian pollster Allan Gregg once explained to me that if you call someone a “pervert” often enough, and publicly, simply because they wear black shoes, he will eventually stop wearing them, no matter how insane the accusation. The flood of insults that have fallen on Quebec over secularism, as well as over language or any affirmation of its identity, would have made many governments bend. So it took a real dose of courage, first for the Parti Québécois, then for the CAQ, to stand up to the storm. It is therefore, by far, the exact opposite of the cowardice that Marc Miller talks about.

From Guy Rocher to Jolin-Barrette to Bernard Drainville, the proponents of secularism have always shown more respect to their opponents than they have received in return. This is because we do not doubt their good faith and their conviction of being on the right side of history. Nevertheless. Whether they like it or not, they play into the hands of misogynist forces that want to display symbols of the submission of women within the State itself; they advocate discrimination that places religious beliefs, and therefore superstitions, above all other beliefs; they protect minority, ostentatious religions to the detriment of others that are more respectful of civil rule; they turn their backs on the growing number of citizens who are distancing themselves from religious myths and dogmas. Far from participating in enlightenment, equality, the primacy of science and reason, they are harming the march of progress.

It is high time to let them know this.

Michel Virard