How Liberal Are We Really?

Ruth Chitiz
MA Student
School of Religion

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Scholars have presented a variety of theories as to why religion persists in the current Western world. Classical theories of secularization underestimated the extent to which religiosity would prove salient in contemporary societies and political arrangements because, let’s face it, the Western world is still very religious. This seems to be a contentious fact given the current liberal-conservative schism that continues to take place in the Western world, as has been most poignantly demonstrated in the recent American election. This polarization of worldviews has resulted in what appears to be all sorts of fundamentalisms, both secular and religious.

One solution to this schism scholars have proposed is the notion of postsecularism, that bearers of both secular conceptions and religious worldviews would start taking each other’s contributions seriously through a process of complimentary learning. This concept implicitly rests on the presumption that both secular modernity and religious traditions are capable of self-reflexivity. Western modernity has always prided itself on being an ongoing process of self-critique and has juxtaposed this ethos of rational criticism with religion’s frozen and incontestable nature. I want to suggest that the reason a postsecular society seems like an improbable cognitive enterprise may actually have more to do with a general unwillingness from secular individuals to reform their worldviews than their religious counterparts. The pervading secular narrative consistently presents religiosity as an intellectually inferior and therefore regressive mode of thought, making religious worldviews incapable of penetrating and potentially aiding Western self-reflexivity. It seems that secular dispositions are only self-reflexive in so far as they continue to be critically evaluated based on internal presuppositions. In doing so, they limit religious paradigms of thought by defining religion (and its worldviews) as oppositional to the glory of Enlightenment ideals through systematic dispossession and subjugation (sounds a bit like intellectual colonialism, no?).

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It seems to me that by disallowing religious worldviews from having a seat at the table of public discourse, Western secular ideologies make it increasingly difficult for a dialectical, complimentary learning process to occur. Is it possible that the secular epistemic disposition has become a form of secular authoritarian discourse purveying the ethos of a second wave Enlightenment where those with religious convictions can be educated out of their worldviews once they understand liberal convictions, and will thus, inevitably, disappear? It seems that religious individuals in the West do not make such claims about their secular counterparts. I guess the real question is—how ‘liberal’ is Western society really? Or rather, are Western societies liberal so long as those with dissenting views start playing by their rules to fit within a secular normative framework?

Is Secularism a Form of Christian Proselytization?

Ruth Chitiz
School of Religion MA Student

Secularism involves separating governmental institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious ones. Within a Western context, secularism works because of Christianity: the Protestant Reformation was central to the development of both the nonreligious state system and Western legal traditions. Secularism has become synonymous with modernization and progressivism and this insulates secularity from critique. This false notion of a universal secularism has caused the West to demand other parts of the world to follow suit.

The problem is that secularism does not make sense in parts of the world that were not historically Christianized. The fact that secularism is not necessarily compatible with Islam, for instance, in the same way as it is with Christianity suggest that the Middle East’s hesitance toward and occasional outright rejection of secularism has less to do with an anti-Western mentality and more to do with a rejection of Christianity. Because secularism’s ideological tenets are directly incompatible with the union of religious Islam (shari’a) and political sovereignty in the Muslim world, perhaps secularism is in fact Christian proselytization.

Religious Cultures and the Elusive Secular School

David Emory
MA Education and Society, McGill University

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Secularism, when considered in relation to education, seems to be one of those terms that means completely different things depending on who you are talking to. To some, it represents the idea that schools can be open places, neither favouring nor disregarding any one specific faith. To others, it is equated with atheism or even represents a threat to all religion, not just in public spaces, but personally. Again, to others, it is the absolute removal of all spiritual elements from learning and schools. Many academics have worked to explore this concept in relation to the modern, western world but in spite of the growing library of academic writing and research on secularism, the concept itself remains elusive to many Canadian teachers. Speaking from experience as a substitute teacher in several public schools in suburban Montreal and a student teacher in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, I can attest to a wide variety of interpretations and understandings of secularism. In Quebec, public schools are considered to be secular spaces where students’ guaranteed rights to freedom of religion are respected.

15227969_10153901384021640_1258036755_nNo one religion is meant to be privileged above any others, but it is still considered important that students are exposed to the different tenants of various world religions and spiritual perspectives. Religion is not to be removed from the curriculum, but explored from a neutral stance. The document that governs (for lack of a better word) a teacher’s approach to religion and spirituality in the school is the ERC (Ethics and Religious Cultures) program, which expects teachers to “be discreet and respectful, and to not promote their own beliefs and points of view.” The three competencies of this program are that students reflect on ethical questions, demonstrate an understanding of the phenomenon of religion, and engage in dialogue. Teachers are expected to step away from their own religious perspectives when teaching any subject area, but religion is not to be absent from schools in Quebec. It is to be explored and reflected upon.

Even with our professional obligations towards the ERC program, many of the teachers that I have spoken with seem to skip over the second competency and focus primarily on the first and third in the small bloc devoted to ERC each week. In some cases this is an act of rebellion from a teacher of the old guard, still clinging, however weakly, to the catholic or protestant school system that they grew up and were trained in. For the most part, however, I do not believe this to be the reason why religious cultures are ignored. One of the justifications for the religious cultures aspect being often left out is that there is a concern for misrepresentation. Teachers are afraid to discuss something like religion, particularly a religion that is not their own, for fear that they will misinform their students, and many opt to avoid the topic altogether rather than risk making a mistake. Another reason for its omission is that religion might seem to come with the potential for controversy. I do not know if this is related to schools being secular spaces, coupled with a misunderstanding that secularism = no religion, but it’s very possible that this idea is looming over the hesitation. In some cases, the degree to which religious cultures are explored is directly related to the diversity of the school population. In a homogeneous community, some teachers are less likely to explore different religious cultures simply because it seems less relevant to their student population.

Having a document that outlines expectations towards religion in relation to secular schools puts Quebec a step above many other provinces, where schools are secular in that religion is absent from the curriculum or even avoided outside of, in some cases, an optional world religions course. Much of the confusion over secularism in Quebec schools might come from the lack of clarity towards it in other provincial curriculums, and a simple lack of exploration on behalf of the teacher, but in spite of the existence of a document that emphasizes the understanding of religion without privileging it, there is a struggle to foster such an environment in many Quebec schools.