A resurgent secularist rhetoric in Quebec equates the wearing of religious symbols by public servants with a form of proselytism ranging from unconscious suggestion to outright coercion. Via the mouthpiece of François Legault’s newly elected government, this distinctively Québécois secularism proposes to revoke the legal right of public servants to wear such symbols while on duty—although any eventual legislation to this effect would qualify as a Charter violation requiring an application of the notwithstanding clause. In a popular instance of its logic, it upholds a child’s right to freedom from the ideological influence of cults exerted through the intermediary of a symbol-wearing schoolteacher. Private individuals, on the other hand, are free to display the symbols of whatever cult they like.
The most oft-cited reason for this position is historical. During the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the Québécois people, hitherto economically and socially repressed by the Catholic Church, undertook a series of reforms to establish a secular state. These were the very first steps toward Quebec’s economic modernization and social liberalization.
A first objection is exogenous to secularism, drawing its source from the counter-swing of history’s pendulum: ridding society of religion is too readily seen in Quebec today as an unalloyed good. One may interpret this view as constitutive of Québécois secularism itself, in contradistinction to the state secularism already enshrined in law. This broader secularism is the motive force behind the proposal for new legislation. The irony that secularism can be superstitious—namely, when it fails to supply or to respond to evidence—seems lost on the avowed anti-cultist, who nevertheless favors exempting the crucifix in the National Assembly. Yet the cited excuse (le patrimoine) is facile and contradictory, awarding a right to the majority while revoking it from any putative minority.
Despite its pretensions to the contrary, Québécois secularism is a set of beliefs, the cardinal one being that any religion is a counterfeit set of rules and promises. Its first error lies in the assumption of a difference in degree vis-a-vis ideological influence, for example, between a Muslim schoolteacher wearing a hijab and the same teacher wearing secular dress. To be more precise, the ideological burden on a student is thought to necessarily obtain in the first case but not in the second.
Insofar as one’s beliefs orient one’s behavior, this assumption is plainly false. A Muslim schoolteacher in secular dress is no less a Muslim. Her interactions with her students would be no different, perhaps excepting questions of a sartorial nature. How time-consuming, frequent, or suggestive would the discussions precipitated by such questions be? The data must be sparse if it exists at all, but I would wager that the panoply of other interests vying for the attention of a student in a free society would eventually tip the scales. Nevertheless, a fear arises. What if these questions were to lead to the study of Islam—or to Muslim practice? One could venture an answer by way of two interrogatives. First: so what? Second: how likely is the hijab the decisive element here?
On the other hand, if the schoolteacher in question were found to be actively proselytizing her students, she would already be in violation of existing law. This would be the case regardless of her dress. Québécois secularism’s first error therefore reveals its animus: a reactionary fear of the religious. No other conclusion could square the incongruity of positing symbols as proselytical while eliding the question of religious being itself.
Yet this secularism admits a second, more fundamental error. It lies in the assumption that a religious schoolteacher might impose an ideological burden on her students as a consequence of her cultic beliefs, while a non-religious teacher cannot. One can imagine two possibilities here.
(i) An enlightened argument would acknowledge the non-religious schoolteacher as ideologically committed, but would cast this commitment as representative of Québécois values, and therefore as an acceptable burden to place on students. To put it differently, the non-religious teacher ramifies a desired status quo. One may then ask whether this would qualify as a burden any longer, and to whom. The answer is: not to the state, for whom this kind of indoctrination is harmless a priori.
The foregoing argument may possess candor, but it contains a fatal flaw tantamount to an inversion of the stated goal of achieving a secular public service. For students are now burdened with the state-sanctioned doctrine of secularism, i.e. the absence of—all beliefs? Certainly not. Only those beliefs judged to be cultic are excluded.
Since secularism can be obtuse about beliefs and ignorant of the central position they occupy in any human life, it may demand particular ones by brandishing them as state-of-the-art knowledge, while proscribing others with glib excoriations of their cosmic claims or vague warnings about their potential to radicalize youth. Yet history abounds with radical secular ideologies: Nazism and revolutionary communism, to name but two modern examples. A modest appraisal of history would seem to suggest that any idea has radical potential under favorable conditions. Recent history would seem to indicate that this potential can be highly individualized, as the variegated creeds of mass murderers might attest. Why then should religion warrant greater or lesser trepidation?
(ii) A less enlightened argument would fail to recognize the absence of belief as an impossibility, and would insist on the non-religious schoolteacher’s neutrality. She thus imposes no ideological burden on her students. But she may have other beliefs, and she may willingly or unwittingly bring them to bear on others. Under the terms of the current proposal, a non-religious anti-vaxxer could still elect to wear a hypodermic symbol of her convictions. Yet even if this were prohibited, her beliefs could harm her students—through a casual comment here, or an innocuous link to a website there. Why should religious beliefs and their symbols warrant a targeted restriction?
If we were to push further collectively—by banning the anti-vaxxer’s symbols, too—we would have to confront the strictly imaginary dividing line between belief and knowledge, a favorite nostrum of modernity. For example, if a physics teacher were to wear a shirt extolling the merits of string theory or supersymmetry, would she be guilty of the kind of proselytism this proposal is meant to pre-empt? Contrary to the claims of the anti-vaccination movement, both of these ideas are legitimate—but there is little evidence they are true. Moreover, scientific theories are contingent working models by design, or legitimate beliefs awaiting their next challenge.
The foregoing comparison raises the unavoidable question of what qualifies as a legitimate belief. Any answer attempted here would be a mere sketch, and none whatsoever could escape a measure of belief. But on this I am sympathetic to the ethos of secularism, as I understand it, at its most modest and charitable. First, a legitimate belief is spare: it should not multiply its commitments beyond what is strictly necessary. Second, it may be challenged, and it may therefore change. Third, a legitimate belief recognizes its own contingency, its character as a belief. It does not misrepresent itself as an absolute truth or as a self-evident fact.
One may argue that anti-vaxxing and certain other cultic beliefs cause measurable harm to society, while a belief in string theory, even if cultic in the literal sense, does not. This is true, but largely by default: most beliefs have not been and will not be weaponized. It is too difficult to prognosticate the radical potential of every single belief, and too incongruous to censor one on the basis of what amounts to a belief about it. Better to let beliefs have free rein, to challenge them and expose their illegitimacy when necessary, and to win back their converts through compassion and the superior appeal of sparer alternatives.
Only a willingness to seriously engage with beliefs can help in this endeavor. To oppose insular beliefs disguised as facts, as we often do today, is a frivolous pursuit with violent potential. If we fail to remedy our addled public understanding of beliefs and of their importance in our lives, they will continue to lurk in the shadows, striking out at us from time to time through their exponents. We can no longer afford to feign surprise when they do.