By Mark D. Wessner, PhD
Professor of Religious Studies at American Public University
What is the role of religion and spirituality in modern society? How should those of different faiths and those of no faith live together? These are big questions for both individuals and governments.
Last September, Quebec legislators unveiled a proposed Charter of Values, to further their quest for the creation of a “neutral state,” especially with regard to spirituality. As expected, controversy quickly sprung up throughout Canada, as people and leaders of all backgrounds reacted to portions of the proposed charter.
This is not a new issue on the world stage. Even though the Charter of Values is unique to Quebec, many governments throughout history have tried to create their own versions of a neutral state.
The Quebec government has stated that its ultimate cultural goal is to create a neutral state, free from favoritism and safe for everyone. While this may seem admirable at first glance, I would argue that complete “neutrality” is both undesirable and impossible once its elements and outcomes are explored.
Every person, and every state, has a bias of some sort; complete neutrality is impossible to achieve unless all independent thought is either suppressed or eliminated. The Quebec government’s proposed attempt to eliminate visible expressions of faith is anything but neutral; rather, it elevates one worldview (humanistic ideology) over all others (freedom of spirituality, diversity, etc). One must not confuse neutrality with forced conformity.
Proposal 3 of the charter (“prohibit the wearing of overt and conspicuous religious symbols”) reflects a deep misunderstanding of world religions and spirituality. I am a Protestant Christian, so physical symbols are not core to my daily faith; but to others this dictate could be seen as offensive and discriminatory. For example, for Sikhs and Muslims, a turban or a hijab is not an accessory; it is a core expression of their faith. To tell a Sikh that he cannot wear his turban is to tell him that he cannot be a Sikh.
It seems that the government of Quebec does not understand the essence of many of the world’s major religions. If the proposed charter came into effect, and if I were a Sikh or a Muslim and worked within any level of government, I would be forced to choose between practicing my faith or having a job (but I couldn’t have both). That would be neither freedom nor neutrality. In every other context, that would be intolerance and discrimination.
Unity or Uniformity?
The Charter of Values confuses unity with uniformity. Seeking a united culture is an admirable goal, and every society or government would do well to pursue it. Attempting to enforce a uniform culture, though, crosses the line toward oppression. Once religious expression is banned, religious practices could conceivably also be banned (prayer, public gatherings, freedom of expression of religious beliefs and values, etc). Again, the path toward an enforced neutral state looks more like increased oppression than freedom or neutrality.
Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values (which has yet to become law), with its goal of arbitrarily banning and restricting religious clothing and symbols, is a misguided and oppressive attempt to universally enforce cultural conformity, while trying to hide behind the impossible illusion of a neutral state. In short, unity within and among cultures is an admirable goal, but any attempt of this kind to enforce uniformity is neither tolerant nor sustainable.
What are your thoughts about and experiences with governments that desire to create neutral states? What do you see that is commendable, and as desirable?
About the Author
Professor Wessner earned a Ph.D. in Old Testament Studies from the University of Pretoria, and he has developed and taught numerous courses in community, business, and university settings. Along with being a Professor of Religious Studies at APU since 2002, he is also a pastor at a local community church. Professor Wessner has been an inter-faith Prison Chaplain at a medium-maximum security institution, and was also responsible for implementing and managing a new client-focused service delivery initiative on behalf of the provincial government in British Columbia, Canada.
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