Is Canada a Secular State?

Some have asked about getting hold of a hard-to-obtain article of mine: “Of Course Canada Is a ‘Secular’ State—Just not Secularist and Only Partly Secularized,” Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law/Revue de droit parlementaire et politique 7 (July 2013): 189-99. So here it is in draft form:


Of Course Canada Is a “Secular” State—Just Not Secularist and Only Partly Secularized


According to the so-called secularization thesis, pre-eminent in sociological theory by the middle of the twentieth century, the process of modernization included several sub-processes each of which was understood to be a “carrier” of secularization. As societies became more modern, so the theory went, they would inexorably become more secular. Religions were understood to be constitutive of the pre-modern world and would inevitably decay and disappear in the light of modern progress.


As the modern world has turned out to be not nearly so secular as theorists had expected, however, this thesis has come under serious scrutiny – even certain forms of retraction. It is difficult to maintain that religion is ebbing in the face of resurgent Islamic and Hindu movements; floods of converts to Christianity and Islam in Africa and Asia; evangelical revivals in Latin America and Southeast Asia; a burgeoning church in China as that country modernizes—not to mention the “Great Exception” already noticed a half-century ago, namely, the United States, which is arguably the most modern nation on earth and still one of the most religious by at least most sociological measures of religious observance and influence.


The question, then, for Canada is first analytical and then normative: Is Canada a secular state and, whether or not it is, ought it to be? I will proceed by defining some of the key terms: the word-group around “secular”; Confederation, and thus “Canada,” as a secular enterprise; and then “Canada” understood both as a “state” and as more than a state. I will conclude that Canada is a secular state, but also a partially secularized society even as it is not a secularist one. I will conclude also that Canada is more than a state, and that this understanding of Canada is important for matters arising from this conversation in regard to human rights, freedoms, responsibilities, and the like. I will conclude, finally, by gesturing toward several very large implications that must be considered along the way to a full conception of Canadian society in terms of religion and the secular.


Secular, Secularization, Secularism, and Secularity


The word secular refers simply to “the world” and has no immediately anti-religious connotation. Indeed, in the history of the Christian Church, some clergy, such as the local priest, were called “secular” because they served parishioners out in “the world” while others remained cloistered.

Secularization in its earliest and most fundamental sense, however, is the process by which something that was previously held to be sacred is rendered profane, or “worldly,” or merely ordinary. Among the early uses of the term was the seizure of properties belonging to religious orders by monarchs such as Henry VIII of England in the early modern period. The monasteries and their estates were secularized. The word now applies to any process by which something once seen in religious terms is re-construed or reconfigured or redeployed in secular terms. In this sort of conversation it is almost always a social process, and on the largest level it means the process by which a society becomes decreasingly influenced by the institutions, values, and symbols of religion—usually a particular religion. Where once the Christian Church, for example, played a central role in Europe, it now is reduced to mostly ceremonial and charitable functions on the edges of contemporary life.


Secularization, furthermore, must be distinguished from two other closely-related terms. The first of these, secularism, is not a process but an ideology: an idea and a preference. It comes, however, in three degrees. Most generally, secularism denotes any ideology that is opposed to religion, particularly religion as understood in the everyday Western sense of “dealing with the supernatural, with God or the gods.” Marxism, Social Darwinism, and secular humanism, and thus are all—or strongly tend to be—secularist ideologies. Religion is for them not merely an alternative outlook, but importantly deficient in rationality or morality or both. Humanity is simply better off without religion.[i]


A second use of secularism is more restricted and refers to social life in pluralistic societies. Secularism now denotes a preference for religion to play no part in public life, but instead to be relegated strictly to the private sphere. The enduring resistance to “organized religion” in France since the Revolution, often referred to as laïcité, is secularism on a national scale in this second sense—often, but not invariably, animated by the first.


A third use is more restricted still: a preference for political life to grant no privileges to religious individuals or organizations. This position is sometimes summarized as the “separation of church and state”—or perhaps the “disestablishment” of a previous privileging of a particular religion—and the concomitant neutrality of the state toward religions and toward any claims they make beyond the secular horizon.


It should be emphasized that religious people themselves might endorse secularism in the third sense and even in some cases the second (this is the main position of Jews in the West, for example). At the same time, those who have no formal religious affiliation and may in fact be atheistic might still not be secularist in any of these three respects.[ii]


Secularity, to come to our fourth term in this word group, is neither a process nor an ideology but a situation. It is the social situation in which religion plays no (important) part. Everything that matters is transacted on a horizontal plane with no reference to the supernatural or spiritual. Secularity therefore characterizes society in Britain and Scandinavia today and increasingly also in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and other countries once much more observantly Christian.[iii]

What, then, of Canada? In what respects, if any, is it secular?



Confederation: A Secular Enterprise


The birth of the Canadian state was, in crude terms, basically a business deal or, at best, a kind of social compact. Canada was not conceived as a sacred project, a light to the nations. There was no cry of “Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!” Nor was there any (trumped-up) accusation of tyranny against good old King George III. (I pause to note that the Stackhouses were United Empire Loyalists.) Instead, some sensible people took a few meetings to form a country that could accomplish three pressing tasks:


(1) to let Britain off the colonial hook, since running a colony is expensive and with fish and furs no longer paying the bills, especially as the fashion in men’s hats had changed to the ruin of the fur trade, and Britain was glad to be rid of us;


(2) to keep out the predatory and unruly Americans, who had invaded Canada twice in the previous century (1775 and 1812) and then later turned their considerable energies to invading each other, catastrophically, in a Civil War (1861-65) to which Canadians had a front row seat; and


(3) to find a way to make a living in a vast, resource-full, cold, and forbidding land. I daresay the Fathers of Confederation aimed higher than Margaret Atwood’s terse summary of Canadian literary culture as Survival, but not a lot higher.[iv] Canada was formed to help Canadians live as best we could.


Yes, the motto of the country came from Psalm 72 (“He shall have dominion from sea to sea”) and in a country as well-churched as Canada was—with the vast majority attending church regularly, as they would for about another century—Christianity was the accepted outlook for all that was said and done in Canada. But what was said and done in the British North America Act (1867) was entirely secular. God isn’t mentioned, nor the Bible, nor Christian doctrine, clergy, or institutions. The formation Canada was about getting about the business of life as safely and prosperously as possible.


Such concerns, of course, were entirely in keeping with Christianity, so Christians—who, again, made up the vast majority of Canadians at the time—could cheerfully endorse them. So could, of course, many other people of many other convictions, hence the attractiveness of Canada as an immigration destination for people from around the world. Canada thus has had no holy vocation, no messianic purpose, no obligation to defend the faith or make the world safe for any particular ideology or religion. Canada, in sum, is a secular enterprise. As such, religious people of many sorts can participate in it, as can people of non-religious outlooks as well.


Yet Is “Canada” Merely a “State”?


Canada therefore is a state, but it is not merely a state. It is also not a nation-state for, as Lord Durham famously reported, there are “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” Those nations—English (mostly Protestant Christian) and French (almost entirely Roman Catholic Christian)—were imposing, moreover, on a wide range of nations who had gotten here earlier. Along the way, furthermore, groups of immigrants from elsewhere increasingly clustered in significant enough numbers as to form important social facts with which the so-called founding nations had to deal. The adoption of multiculturalism as an official federal policy in the 1970s meant that Canada was best understood as a “community of communities.”


These communities, and their constituent individuals, participated in a variety of social institutions: governments at various levels, schools, hospitals, charities, religious groups, sports teams, musical ensembles, professions, businesses, and so on. So Canada was obviously not merely a state nor a single nation, but a congeries of groups of various shapes and sizes that mediated life between the state and the individual. The state, then, played its part in regulating the development and interaction of these various groups, but with the 1960s came an increasing participation by the state in various spheres it had heretofore generally left alone. Hospitals, previously run by charities of various sorts, became state institutions. The same happened in postsecondary education, to the virtual elimination of religious university-level education beyond tiny, satellite colleges on the edges of burgeoning secular institutions. Social work, poor relief, mental health—these and many other forms of community care became increasingly regulated and even administered by the state.


Nonetheless—and I mean to imply no value judgment on these developments—Canada has not become merely a state populated by individuals. It remains a complex society stocked with corporations, charities, advocacy organizations, leisure-time clubs, community service groups, and, yes, religious communities. Despite the pressure of a wide range of social factors to reduce this complexity to a “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower) staffed by atomized individual producer/consumer/citizens, Canada remains a state comprising a community of communities as well as an increasingly diverse range of individuals.[v]


“Is Canada a Secular State?”


The first answer to give to this question, then, is the one in this article’s title: “Of course it is.” From the very beginning of Canada as a state in 1867, it has been a political framework designed entirely to help make the best of life for everyone living “from sea to sea (to sea)” north of the United States. We all recognize at least some of the ways in which the Canadian state has failed to facilitate the best life possible for everyone involved, but that secular ideal is the standard to which all critics can and do appeal in their very indictment of the state’s shortcomings.


Canada as a society, however, has not restricted itself to the secular. Indeed, for the first century of Canada’s existence, it was largely a churchgoing population whose governments, laws, and other dimensions of public life were clearly informed by Christian values—from sabbatarianism, to implicit “just war” theory in prosecuting wars, to growing recognition of universal human rights, to statutory holidays for Christian festivals, to criminal and civil codes regarding sex, marriage, and family life.[vi]

Has Canada since been secularized? Undoubtedly it has and in many respects. But the influence of religion remains and in several respects.


First, religion remains as a recognized part of the Canadian heritage, acknowledged as (mere) monotheism in the English version of “O Canada” (“God keep our land”) and as actual Christianity in the French (as it makes reference to “the cross”), while the new Constitution refers to God in the Preamble. Our public calendar still—perhaps anachronistically—includes Christian holy days as public holidays.[vii] And Canadian historians detail the effects of religion on Canadian life, from the cultures of First Nations to the motives of Samuel de Champlain (missionary concerns among them) to the faith commitments of such innovators in Canadian culture as William Aberhart and Tommy Douglas, Margaret Avison and William Kurelek.


Second, religion continues to play a part not only in the private lives of many Canadians but also in public life as well. Orthodox Jews, conservative Muslims, and some native communities seek their own courts to adjudicate at least relatively minor matters according to their distinctive norms and customs. The legal definition of marriage has been changed due to one set of ideological commitments to include same-sex unions and may well change again in our lifetime to include freely undertaken polygamous ones—among certain Mormons and Muslims in particular. Canadians still provide tax support for particular religious schools and even school systems, from kindergartens to universities, while religious colleges participate substantially in the lives of secular universities in every province. And Canadian religious organizations both receive government assistance in various forms of social service while other religious organizations freely interact with governments over a wide range of public policy matters. Even as Canadian public life today is almost completely shorn of explicit religious commitments and symbols—although significant exceptions remain—religious ideas, persons, and institutions remain conspicuous and influential.


Third, most Canadians seem to agree that the disestablishment of particular Canadian Christian denominations and the resulting separation of church and state is a good thing. Given the wide range of state involvements nowadays, however, we might more carefully say that Canadians generally approve at least of the separation of governments and courts from the privileged influence of any religious leaders, organizations, and values. For Canadians are divided about other questions of church-state separation, such as government-funded chaplains in the armed forces or health-care systems, tax support for religious schools and social service agencies, religious practices (especially invocations) at public events, and so on. Thus secularism in any absolute sense—whether the complete evacuation of religion from public life (definition two) or a sustained campaign against religion in any form (definition one)—is an ideological extreme frequently encountered only in Quebec and, one senses, among elites in both Francophone and Anglophone cultures.


So, yes, Canada is a secular state—but Canada is not only a state, and as a society it has been only partly secularized and certainly has not become beholden or committed to secularism.



Some Remaining Questions—and Implications


Scholars of religion define religion in two different ways. The first way is perhaps the more typical. A religion is a particular system of beliefs, practices, and (for want of a better term) passions—what is sometimes referred to as “affections.” We normally identify such systems with names such as Judaism, Shinto, and Buddhism. Islam, for example, teaches particular ideas to be true (“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet”), prescribes certain actions (such as the Five Pillars of Islam), and encourages the cultivation of particular concerns and emotions (especially submission to God: the word “muslim” means “submitted one”). Religions thus are described in terms of what they are, and so this is called the substantive definition of religions.


The functional definition instead considers what religions do. A religion, in this view, is what orients, motivates, and structures the central zone of life. Our religion is our fundamental beliefs and values. It is whatever functions as some individual’s, or some group's, ultimate concern, the core of one's existence around which everything else is wound.


Clearly Christianity, Hinduism, and Daoism function in this way and are recognized as religions. But so do Marxism, secular humanism, and pragmatism. So do hedonism, status-seeking, and other forms of egotism. Some objects of devotion are unusual: “He looks after that car religiously,” we might say. More comprehensively, Richard Dawkins clearly intends his brand of atheism to function fully in place of the Christianity he has discarded and now opposes. Whatever it is that gives meaning, and purpose, and direction, and intensity to life; whatever gets us going in the morning; whatever drives us forward; whatever consoles us in misery; whatever stands at the center of our lives—functionally speaking, that is our religion.


Religions therefore are not matters merely of private concern, much less matters merely of private belief. It has been convenient for political liberalism to restrict religion to a matter of belief. The public sphere thus is preserved from the violent clashes of religious absolutists—exactly the situation that encouraged liberal thinking in the likes of John Locke under the shadow of the English Civil War—while preserving the core liberal value of, well, liberty. People thereby are free to practice their religion privately—in their own heads, which is “privately” indeed—but not in public.


Religions, however, involve beliefs, affections, and practices. Furthermore, they typically (not invariably, but typically) have public entailments: dress, speech, kinds and protocols of contact with others, civic obligations or refusals, and the like. Moreover, since most religions teach that what they assert is true for everyone, not just for members, then followers believe that their teachings will benefit the common good by being observed by everyone—at least partially, if not entirely, and at least voluntarily, if not legally, depending on the religion in question.[viii]


Religion therefore cannot be confined to the private sphere of life, much less to the shadowy existence of mere belief. It also is not merely an individual matter, but a matter that shapes and motivates communities—communities with which the Canadian state has been willing to deal as such since the BNA Act itself, even as the individualism of more recent law and jurisprudence, particularly since the arrival of the Charter, has rendered communities legally more shadowy, even insubstantial.[ix] Indeed, a pressing category in contemporary Canadian law has been the matter of community or group rights as deserving of respect alongside individual rights—whether issues of aboriginal self-government, Hutterite communal ownership, the restriction of leadership in Christian student groups to those who endorse the stated values of the group, and so on. Religion, furthermore, is literally everybody’s business, since (functionally speaking) everybody has one and lives according to its precepts, more or less consistently, all the time.[x]


Many Canadians, including those in senior positions in law, might assume that it is a basic principle of Canadian life nowadays that all religions/philosophies/worldviews (to which I will refer hereafter as “religions”—in the functional sense) should be treated the same by the state. The state should play no favourites and instead remain resolutely neutral toward all religions.


That principle, however, must be heavily qualified and the challenge of our time is to both articulate and apply the right qualifications. For religions differ in ways that matter to Canadian society. The distinction between protection of religion and of support for religion, furthermore, also requires further attention.


In the first place, while most religions encourage at least a certain amount of charity among their respective fellowships, some religions motivate and even require their members to engage in charitable work toward outsiders as well. Canadians understandably, but mistakenly, take Christianity to be typical of “religion in general” in this respect, but Christianity actually has a unique history of investing resources in a wide range of services to others. It is simply a matter of fact that Christians have engaged in medical care, education, disaster relief, political advocacy, resistance to human trafficking, and many other modes of “loving one’s neighbour” that are unparalleled in scope and investment. So the Canadian state might well recognize that Christian organizations have been engaged in a wide range of services that Canadian society can affirm on secular grounds. Thus the Canadian state might well protect all religions equally, but support some religions more than others in fact because some religions serve the public good more than do others—even as in theory the state would support any religious group involved in such service.

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