Anyone who has been to Montreal will have seen the giant crucifix, shining as a beacon unto the lost, on top of Mount Royal. It is not a public geometry lesson, not an art installation, it is a very large and very obvious religious symbol, testimony to the outsized role that the Catholic Church has played in Quebec’s history. France’s revolution of 1789 did not instill “secularism” at the heart of la nouvelle France but hived it off from history as a bastion of ancien regime Catholic power. Quebec’s embrace of secularism took place during the Quiet Revolution, some two hundred years after the original.
Yet, even after the happy rejection of Church power over daily life, the giant cross still shines every night from the highest point of the city. Notre Dame Cathedral has not been turned into a Temple of Reason, nor L’Oratoire St. Joseph expropriated by the nearby Université de Montreal to house its science faculty.
If Quebec is now the national bastion of “religious neutrality” and “secularism,” then I submit that the cross should be removed and the two great monuments to Catholic power and the credulity of true believers re-purposed. Believing that an old priest can cure the afflicted is surely at least as great a threat to democratic and scientific values as a relatively few women covering their faces in public in obedience to certain minority strains of Islam.
But it is only these women who will be obligated to conform to government dress code. Sorry- I forgot that worshipers at the Church of the Holy Sunglasses and members of the Sacred Order of Balaclava Wearers will also be be forced to partially disrobe before they can take the bus. Not a word have I heard about priests in collars or nuns in habits. Do these overt signs of religious authority not violate the supposed principle of “religious neutrality?”
The face! There is something about the face. What is it? According to Phillipe Couillard, Premier of Quebec, democracy requires face to face encounters. “Public services should be given with an open face,” he said. “Why? Not because of religion but because of issues related to communication, safety, and identification. It’s the characteristic of any society that when we talk to each other I see your face, you see mine. This is something that is very distinct from religion.” If this claim is true, that the bill is about safety and identification, why does the bill include the phrase “religious neutrality” at all? “Bill 62’s … English title is “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests in certain bodies.” Yet, the only supposedly religious garment the act would ban are the variety of face coverings worn by some Muslim women.
Hence it is clear and indisputable that whatever the framers’ intentions, its only effect will be to further stigmatize and demonize Islam and in particular Muslim women. Ostensibly, the law derives from the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on cultural accommodation in Quebec, although the co-chairs, sociologist Gérard Bouchard and Philosopher Charles Taylor have criticized it. As have the Parti Quebecois and the Coalition Avenir Québec, but in their case for not going far enough.
Although there can be little doubt about the real implications of the law, can one not argue that the value of liberal-democratic equality demands it? On the surface, religious-cultural traditions that demand any mandatory form of dress for women seem themselves stigmatizing and oppressive. If a tradition is rooted in patriarchal power over women, then it is hardly compatible with the idea of democratic equality, in which every member of the polity is assumed free to choose their political and religious beliefs, as well as the way they will present themselves in public. If the tradition to which the woman belongs requires her to cover her face, and imposes sanctions if she does not, then her power to choose is compromised, and she is oppressed. A law that opposes that tradition therefore opposes oppression, and should thus be defensible on grounds of liberal-democratic equality.
This argument has some merit. It rests on the Enlightenment view of religion as irrational superstition. It rejects pure tolerance in favour of critical evaluation of traditions on the basis of universal human interests in freedom of self-presentation. Values which claim the authority of history but are manifestly rooted in rationally indefensible hierarchies of power are judged illegitimate. The public realm is treated as a space for the harmonious interplay of differences, but only legitimate differences, ones that do not depend upon the marginalization and domination of others. In its liberal-feminist form, it rejects all paternalistic arguments that women must conceal themselves from the male gaze for their own good.
As I have argued in more detail in past posts, (How do You Like the End of the Enlightenment Now? February 22nd, 2017)) the so-called age of “post-truth” politics that we find ourselves has had the one salutary effect of reminding us of the political importance of these Enlightenment values. Frightening displays of far right violence have been encouraged by false historical narratives and empirically untrue social theory (e.g., that the Confederacy was the legitimate product of honourable Southern culture, or that immigrants “steal” “our” jobs). In the face of false and invidious ideologies, a dose of truth is most necessary (as are reminders about the value of liberal-democratic equality in the face of far right, exclusionary violence).
However, choice and liberal-democratic equality produce sometimes paradoxical results. When they do, contextual political intelligence is required to decide the paradox in favour of one or the other doxa in tension. Contrary to the expectations of radical Enlightenment critics of religion like the Baron d’Holbach, one of the first openly atheist philosophers and a determined anti-clericalist, whose System de nature mocks the hypocrisy of priests and demolishes all “proofs” of the existence of God, history has proven that religious belief is not rooted in rationality, and is therefore impervious to rational-empirical criticism. As Feuerbach and Marx understood, religious belief stems from deeper felt needs: to belong, to feel loved, to feel protected in a world that exposes us on every side to uncaring deprivation and violence.
While I would argue that it is the community that believers form that satisfies the needs (if they are in fact satisfied) and not the always absent, other-world God, this need is a powerful social bonding force. While the belief in a caring and protective other-world being is irrational, superstitious, and sure to be disappointed by the void which death no doubt is, the demand that the need be satisfied is rational, in the sense of essentially important for a good human life. I have tried to provide a secular-materialist explanation of this need and how it might be satisfied outside of religious systems elsewhere. (See Can Only Religion Save Us? The European Legacy: Towards New Paradigms, 15:1, 2010). So long as billions of people reject my argument and maintain their religious cultures, democratic societies are going to have to contend with the existence of communities some of whose members choose to belong even though the choice entails commitments which, on the surface, seem to limit their own rights in oppressive ways.
Here we have a paradox of self-determination and choice: rational people choosing to follow irrational belief systems to live in ways that appear oppressive from an abstract liberal-democratic perspective. Laws like Quebec’s Bill 62 claim to want to resolve the paradox in favour of abstract liberal-democratic equality. Given the reality and the power of peoples’ religious commitments, and the value of satisfying the needs for belonging and love that these commitments serve, this and similar laws end up being more oppressive and paternalistic than the practices they try to eliminate.
When it comes to oppression we must always listen to the voices of those who appear to be oppressed. If Muslim women who cover their faces say that they choose to do so because they do not want to be ostracized from their communities, then those of us who do not share those beliefs, indeed, even those who regard them as both irrational and oppressive, need to listen. Self-determination, the most essential democratic value, means that people can choose paths that might not be fully consistent with liberal-democratic conceptions of equality, but which cannot be uprooted without destroying the all-important democratic commitment to coherently inclusive social institutions. If there are groups who will not abandon certain practices which are in tension with some aspect of liberal-democratic equality, but which otherwise leave members free to change their mind and reject the practices at some future point, then the policy most consistent with democratic equality and freedom is to leave the people free to choose, trusting that they are capable, as mature, rational adults, of understanding what they are doing and accepting of the consequences.
That said, there is always room for argument: No group, religious or otherwise, has the right not to be criticized, and has a duty to respond the criticisms. If some members find their group’s answer lacking, eventually they will choose to leave, as many millions of people in Quebec chose to leave the Catholic Church to build a new secular Quebec. No one compelled them to do so, they decided collectively that they wanted a different avenir for Quebec. Unless we think Muslim women are a species apart, incapable of changing their individual and collective future for themselves, then we have to conclude, with Trudeau the elder, that the state has no more right to rifle through the closets of the nation than to police what goes on in its bedrooms.