Thursday, June 27, 2013

Religion and Canadian Secularity

The very few people who find their way to this page (like my father; or Tyler, who may find later part of the article interesting because it reflects to very different legal cultures) may be interested to read an essay published by an old classmate and housemate of mine: 'Bringing Religion into Foreign Policy' by Robert Joustra.

The essay is a compressed version of Rob's thesis on the public debate around the establishment of an Office of Religious Freedom in Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs. The Canadian discussion has been divided between two rival versions of secularism: Laïcité and Judeo-Christian Secularism. The former sees secularism as a rejection of a role for religion in politics, while the latter sees a secular political sphere as the special creation of a Judeo-Christian outlook on life. What happens when an office of religious freedom is  charged with monitoring religious freedom around the world as part of Canada's foreign policy? Obviously the two secularisms come to blows. Laïcité secularists gets uncomfortable about the an overlap it thinks shouldn't exist. Judeo-Christian secularists sees oppourtunities to promote their own Judeo-Christian outlook on life. The story is naturally a little more complicated than I just described. Rob does an excellent job detailing the holy mess. He concludes with a quote of Jacques Maritain discussing how the committee drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were able to achieve consensus despite being of very different intellectual persuasions. If any of this interests you, the article is well worth a read.

My quibbles with the article are a little more esoteric. The meaning of terms like religion and secular has changed over the centuries, Rob rightly points out at the beginning of the article, and that's where things begin to fall apart. It's seems that Rob has adopted the problematic phenomenological language of 'neutral' description of 'historical entities'.

Here are a few of the examples:
  • Scholars need to do 'a better job of making sense of a thing called religion'.
  • 'These efforts to engage with religion are motivated by the misguided belief that the inclusion of religion encourages a more peaceable global order.'
  • 'But it does not necessarily follow that there is no historical thing as religion and its freedoms.'
  • 'Only once we clarify these meanings can we decide if we are prepared to truly acknowledge religion’s contested nature in the structure and aims of our foreign policy.'
A few points to note: religion is a thing, religion has the capacity to encourage, religion has a contested nature. Turn these phrases over in your mind a few more times. The more you think about them, the stranger they get. Religion is a 'thing', but I bet no one has ever seen it. Religion encourages peace, which seems to imply that is has a capacity to act like a human being acts. Religion has a contested nature--but then again, so do most invisible entities you can't see or touch, but encourage you to love your neighbour and seek the welfare of your fellow human beings.

While Rob does a really good job dissecting different versions of secularism, he doesn't really clarify what he means by religion. If I was in an uncharitable mood, I might venture to suggest that the initial talk of religion being an essentially contested concept is just a smoke screen to cover over...something. I am not sure what.

Rob himself uses the term religion in two distinct and readily discernible ways. The first is as a way of talking about communities. When politicians want to engage with religion, that usually means engaging with religious communities through their clerical leadership. Whenever we talk about religions in history, more generally, we aren't actually talking about something called religion, but about a profoundly powerful way of organizing communities. The second is the way people think about themselves in relation to other things, other people, and ultimately to the world at large.

Instead of telling his readers how he uses the term religion, why does Rob hide behind postmodern rhetoric about the fluidity of meaning? I mean: anything is better than talking about a spooky something that you can use to make people do things, which is the upshot of calling religion a thing, trying to figure out its uses, what it does, how it works, and so forth.

My suggestion is that Rob is actually a Laïcité secularist. My evidence? Talk about the humanity is incredibly sparse. In Laïcité secularism, religion is something added onto human nature in the course of human history, and can be excised from human nature via the application, for example, of scientific thinking. So the Laïcité secularist talk about religion as if it were an object out there that human being can talk about, but which has no necessary relation to the human being.

And that's exactly what Rob does. As I pointed out above, it's obvious he is talking about religion either as a form of community defined by clerical leadership or a way persons think about themselves in relations to the wider world. But he doesn't draw those conclusions. My best guess why he does not do so is because he thinks about religion as something extraneous to the human being. If he had thought about religion in relation to humanity, he wouldn't be hiding behind the smoke screen of an 'essentially contested concept'--which, I note, is exactly what it seems to be: an idea in a person's head, a way of thinking about things, and maybe even a way of thinking about ourselves in relation the rest of the world.

My conclusion: Rob is practically an atheist. Emphasis on the practically. Cheers, Rob.

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