Lise Ravary: Why the ethics and religious culture course in Quebec had to disappear

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The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) is said to have declared: “I would rather die misunderstood than spend the rest of my life explaining myself”, although this is also sometimes attributed to William Shakespeare. I wish I could echo that sentiment, but I feel compelled to explain once again the concept of secularism – secularism – and why Bill 21 is not a racist law.

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Voltaire, one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, a movement that placed reason above belief, was known for his criticism of the Catholic Church. He opposed Church interference in state affairs. He fought against superstition, but he was not an atheist. He believed in a God who ruled the universe but hated churches for their intolerable arrogance.

Voltaire did not invent “secularism”, which arose about a century after his death. But we can say that he laid the foundations in France. I mention Voltaire because I will try to explain secularism by placing it in its historical and cultural contexts. I am not trying to convince anyone to like Bill 21. I want people to understand why francophones broadly support it.

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Last week, Sophie Durocher, my ex-colleague at the Journal de Montréal, wrote about François Legault’s decision to replace the ethics and religious culture course imposed on all Quebec students in 2008 with a civic education course focused on Quebec culture and citizenship to promote pride and national cohesion. This approach has its share of chauvinistic pitfalls, and I hope the course will be closely watched to screen teachers who might see it as a vehicle for promoting political ideals or a brand of introverted nationalism.

Let me explain to you why the ERC program had to disappear. By law, Quebec schools do not teach religion, but this course put a lot of emphasis on religious life, only presenting its orthodox varieties as authentic. A friend told a story that illustrates the problem well. A teacher showed his class a photo of a group of Hasidic men in full dress and told the students, “They are Jews. A Jewish student raised his hand and said, “My family is Jewish, but we don’t dress like that. The professor’s response? “Well, you’re not real Jews then.”

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ERC manuals only show Muslim women wearing the hijab. Not all Muslim women wear the veil, so why is ERC trying to give that impression?

Durocher applauded the government’s decision replace the ERC with a civic education course and harangue those who saw this decision as proof that Quebecers are narrow-minded and obsessed with identity politics. “Whenever Quebecers want to celebrate the strength of their culture, they are accused of rejecting others. So, we should be celebrating all cultures except our own? ” she asks.

Ditto for secularism, a principle according to which the affairs of civil society and religious life are strictly separate, and which has defined French society since 1905. In Quebec, the seeds of secularism were sown during the Quiet Revolution, when the The Catholic Church has seen itself as a door. At the time, few thinkers maintained that the rights of religious people were violated. It was done for the good of the people.

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In Quebec, as in France, collective rights take precedence over individual rights. No one is right, no one is wrong: Francophones see the world differently. Blame Voltaire if you will, but he wasn’t the only one who wanted Church and State to be separate. American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state.” Yet the United States, a highly individualistic republic, has failed to separate Church and State.

We have spent too much time on religious symbols. Secularism is a rich intellectual tradition which does not take anything away from the freedom to choose a religion and a cult.

I accept that francophones and anglophones don’t always see the world the same way – because they come from different intellectual traditions.

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