Some Thoughts on Secularism and the Public Sphere

Recently, it came to the fore that the Parti Quebecois were planning to try to prohibit civil servants from wearing religious symbols or religious headgear through the planned implementation of a “Charter of Quebec Values.” Much of the analysis of this Charter has focused on the fact that the PQ seems to be trying to capitalize on the xenophobia present in Rural Quebec.  However, this Charter forces us once again to reconsider the meaning of secularism and what interpretation of secularism is best, as defenders of the Charter of Quebec Values” have noted that this Charter is not an attack on any particular religious group, but rather a means of uniting Quebec much in the same way that Bill 101 helped to unite Quebec and this is very tied to the interpretation of secularism known as `Laicite`. `Laicite` is the idea that the private sphere is the sphere where religion should play its role, while in the public sphere all citizens should appear as equals devoid of any visible religious or cultural affiliation. In this way, `Laicite` privatizes difference in order to ensure that the state is free from religious influence. Since the Quiet Revolution in the 60’s in Quebec, it has been the dominant interpretation of what secularism means in Quebec.

It should be noted that I am not suggesting that this bill was not an attempt to marginalize particular religious groups from working in the public sphere, but rather that even if the Charter is being used in this way, there is a still an interpretation at its foundation that is worth considering,.

While `Laicite` has been a dominant model of Secularism in Europe and North America, it is not the dominant model, and in the Anglo- American world the more dominant model of secularism has been the idea that secularism does not require the privatizing of difference, but rather the diversifying of public space. Let’s call this the “Anglo- American Model.” On this interpretation, instead of preventing all public employees from bearing religious symbols we would allow them to wear any religious articles that they wanted to provided that these do not endanger other’s rights. The idea is that rather than banning all religious symbols from the public sphere, we should admit all religious symbols into the public sphere. This is still an interpretation of secularism as it stands in opposition to the formation of a State Religion.

Both models of secularism have difficulties, and I would like to take a moment to clarify them before making an argument in favour of either. On one hand, Laicite is problematic because by banning religious symbols we will certainly alienate many religious people whose political beliefs are intertwined with their religious beliefs. Now if a significant minority of people are religious and are alienated from the public sphere they will be less active in formal politics and this will likely mean their beliefs and interests will not be adequately taken into account in the formation of the public interest.  Somewhat ironically, while `Laicite` tries to create solidarity, it can have the negative effect of actually pitting certain groups against the public sphere and failing to be properly inclusive.  On the other hand, the “Anglo-American Model” is certainly inclusive enough, but it is problematic in that it seems difficult to figure out what the public interest is when all citizens come in bearing marks of distinct religions and cultures.  When there are conflicts between the values of the majority culture, and a religious minority whose value ought to take precedence? The “Anglo-American Model” of secularism on its own provides us with no answer to this question. In this way `Laicite` give us substantive values of citizen equality and solidarity, but fails to be inclusive, while the Anglo-American model is extremely inclusive, but makes it difficult to adjudicate what the common interest is, by bringing all of the fractious differences into the public sphere.  

It seems to me, that with a qualification, the Anglo – American model is superior to the `Laicite` model. The qualification is that it is understood that we do not value diversity in itself, but rather respect all equal citizen’s right to bear religious symbols and clothing in the public sphere. In this way the foundation of including religious symbols in the public sphere is not because diversity is inherently positive but respect for the equality of all citizens. This also gives the state and its citizens a barometer to adjudicate what is in the common interest and what is not, and what values ought to take precedence when conflicts occur. This solution certainly has its own problems, but it provides a substantial barometer as to what is in the common interest, and embodies an inclusive spirit that encourages all to see themselves as full citizens.






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