The Supreme Court & Education about Religion

The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled on the matter of education about ethics and religion in Quebec Catholic schools. The course required of all students in the public system is to be taught also in private Christian schools, as the government of Quebec seeks to ensure that all of its citizens–and those in its educational system who are being trained to become citizens–have a grasp of the history and contemporary complexion of religion in Quebec. The course also aims to help students learn how to make ethical decisions intelligently.

Despite worry and protests from various Christian groups, including groups I usually support, the Supreme Court has made the right decision. Christians have embarrassed themselves, in fact, by refusing to get behind the idea that all Canadians should have an education in the religious make-up of our society that is not biased toward or against any particular religion. Some parents (and some Christian lawyers and activists who ought to know better) seem to be confusing a state-mandated course that must reflect the neutrality of the Canadian state toward each particular religion with a  relativism that teaches that all religions are, in fact, equally valid. The latter proposition is both patently ridiculous and not at all implied by the Quebec curriculum, and parents (and others) should stop being worried about it–and worrying others about it.

Not quite a year ago I set out my arguments at some length in this weblog–arguments I just made in Calgary at that city’s annual public school teachers’ convention–so I won’t repeat them in this space. But the arguments apparently have to be repeated among my own tribe of Canadian evangelical Christians, among certain Catholic Christians, and beyond. So I direct you to them once more in case you’re interested.


12 Responses to “The Supreme Court & Education about Religion”

  1. D.J. Brown

    Oh thankyou, thankyou John, for publicly applauding world religion courses in our schools. The baby was certainly ejected with the bathwater a few decades ago in public schools.

    Most adults that I chat with are utterly ignorant about the main teachings of any of the main religions, and this certainly includes Christians, whether evangelical, liberal or otherwise.

    If all students were educated about, first, what we mean by the word “religion”, and why a person’s religion is important, and second, at least the basic beliefs of major faiths, our discussions/debates on the street and indeed within our churches would be at a much higher and helpful level.

  2. Steve Wilkinson

    Boy do people in the USA need to hear this! I very much agree with what you have said, especially in the linked article. It always upsets me to see such a fuss about what is or isn’t taught in the public schools when too many churches seem to have little concern in the matter of education (especially the parents… I realize many churches don’t have the resources for the pastor(s) to do it all). We certainly speak with our finances on how important it is, if one looks at most church budgets!

    People who work with our youth are either volunteer or paid wages not worthy of making a living with. We’ll buy some pizza, maybe a volleyball net, and if the money is pouring in, a curriculum or two. Adult education is barely existent and when it is, it is often poorly attended (How about we have Sunday school for BOTH adults and kids at the same time w/ child-care for the really little ones! Then the whole family could actually worship as a family. But, that’s a whole other pet peeve of mine.). How are all these parents going to teach their children? Answer: They expect the pastor of youth leader to somehow pull that off (which shows their lack of understanding), and that failing (which it likely will), they want to push the public schools to do it. Hence the situation we see, especially in the USA.

    All this said, I do have a few reservations. First, does this curriculum look at religions more like worldviews, and as such, treat naturalism and secularism as such? Or, is it secularism, and oh, for cultural reasons, you should also know something about these religious things over here? Either way, a basic world-religions education is important, but I’m curious about this.

    Second, would the Christian worldview get slighted, as it often does in the public square these days? Are there provisions to make sure this doesn’t happen? I guess the same would apply to other religions, but it seems the backlash against Christianity makes it the target. I could see a similar concern for Islam. And, which version of Christianity or Islam gets presented? A rough stab at the whole range?

    Third, how in the world does one pull off ethics as part of it? This is where I do see the relativism complaint coming into play. Since all these systems don’t agree on the grounding for ethics, aren’t we left with some kind of ethical relativism of Canadian culture? I guess I’d see that more as a ‘Intro to acceptable Canadian Behavior’ than an ethics class. I’m not sure that is necessarily a bad thing, but it also seems to open a can of worms. For example, one of the biggest ethical areas we face today is ‘what is a human / what grounds human rights’ (ie: abortion, euthanasia, etc.) and I can only imagine how that would be approached in public schools.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      Hmm, so I just ran across this:

      John, are you familiar with the curriculum? Anyone else here? In other words, in concept, this sounds great (and I fully support more education on religions and worldviews, even on the ones I disagree with). But, I can also see how such a program could be used by the ‘state’ to push agendas which are anything but balanced.

      • John Stackhouse

        The link you provide here, Brother Steve, is clearly to a hysterical bunch on the Christian Right. Sad. The curriculum itself is still being worked out, but what I have read of what is officially available seems to be the right sort of thing. Of course there can be problems, but (a) there don’t have to be–I have no problem with what I have read of it so far and (b) as Brother Spencer writes below, of course some teachers will skew things one way or another (they shouldn’t, yet they will), but students need to learn to cope with that AND the teachers who err too far can be criticized according to the curriculum’s own express rationale.

        Again, Canadian parents do not have the “right” to keep their kids ignorant. Canadian parents do not have the “right” to make public institutions say only what they prefer them to say–as if “public” means “an extension of what I believe with nothing I find objectionable” instead of what it really means, which is “shared with people of other views.”

        And I’m suspicious now–not cynical, but suspicious–of certain groups’ dressing up their concerns as matters of generic “parental rights” when they object like crazy to OTHER parents not wanting Gideon Bibles presented in the public schools or OTHER parents not wanting prayers uttered at public school events….

        • Steve Wilkinson

          I’m totally with you on our parents and kids being able to deal with the stuff, even if slanted. But, I’m curious about that statement, for example, that “homosexuality is a normal choice for family life.” Agree with that or not, it certainly isn’t neutral… but sounds like something a government that has legalized same-sex ‘marriage’ would want to promote. (So, true or not, that doesn’t seem hard to believe, or hard to believe that would eventually come.) How about abortion or any other number of moral issues? I’m more concerned about that, as my previous post indicated, than I am about the teaching of world-religions.

          Also, I’m with you on the tone of that link (it was just an example I ran across), but I’m wondering if the underlying concern isn’t valid. As teachers do skew things, who gets to decide how they are corrected. Who’s views get excluded within the ‘public’ discourse? Certainly, though, we both agree that putting up a bubble isn’t the answer.

  3. Spencer Capier

    The unease some Christians feel about this kind of course stems from the fact that particular teachers are going to teach the course with a certain secular or relativist agenda. Well, yes, they are. These teachers are also going to teach English and Physics with a secular relativist agenda. So if one is afraid one’s children cannot withstand the influence of their teachers then homeschooling is the only option. But then what? Are you going to home college them? To avoid this kind of course in public schools makes a much larger statement about religion and the public sphere. The court made the right decision in Quebec.

  4. geezeronthequad

    When I first heard this on CBC, I assumed the protests would be from secularists screaming about separation of powers. I was surprised to hear that it was Catholics and Christians of various stripes. Here in the states, the secularist screaming and religious groups squabbling over whose faith might get preferential treatment scares most school districts off. And we need such teaching badly. This class marks a step toward civility that must enter public discourse so we can actually talk to each other instead of ranting past each other. Good one. Spot on

    • Peter Stockland

      You need more information John. The way this course has been imposed on private religious schools in Quebec has been sharply criticized not by the religious right but by the judge in the Loyola case. He eviscerated the Quebec government for its intolerant disregard for religious freedom and parental rights. The ERC is not just a comparative religion course. It is not about neutrality. It is about agressively enforcing the decidedly non-neutral dogma that religion must be made an entirely private matter. If you want to see the effects of that, read the articles by John Zucchini and Douglas Farrow in our upcoming issue of Convivium magazine on State worship in Quebec. John is chair of the history department at McGill. Doug is professor of Christian Thought at McGill.

      • John Stackhouse

        I’m all for “more information,” Brother Peter, but what you’re offering now is just more commentary: a judge here, some professors there. And since you and I have disagreed before on similar matters, you’ll understand if I don’t immediately retract my opinion in this case simply on the face of your disagreement, or that of Professors Zucchini and Farrow.

        What we need to sort this out is, indeed, information, but information about what the curriculum is/will be and how it will be taught. If you–or anyone else–can actually show in the official texts how this curriculum teaches a privatization of religion, the secularization of the public square, or “State worship” (whatever that is), then please do. If you–or anyone else–can demonstrate that this is how the curriculum will be taught or has been taught, please do. I’ll stand by to look at Convivium and will be grateful for what you or anyone else can offer to us here in the way of actual information.


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