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Religion has a role to play in the public square


It is a secularist truism: Religion and religious voices and views have no valid role to play in the public square. Indeed, many secularists are openly hostile to any such participation. But are they correct?


If you've paid any attention to the media over the last week – for instance, regarding whether the G8 "maternal and infant health initiative" should include abortion, or The Current's and The National's programs on CBC that focused on Marci McDonald's new book, The Armageddon Factor, that raises alarm about the rise in political power and influence of the "Canadian religious right" – you'll find this secularist truism espoused both front, centre and behind the scenes: Religion and religious voices and views have no valid role to play in the public square. Indeed, many secularists are openly hostile to any such participation. But are they correct?

To respond, we need to examine the arguments for and against their participation.

First, the nature of the issues being debated is relevant. Recently they have included euthanasia, abortion, new reproductive technologies, sex education of children, access to health care, being soft/hard on crime and drugs, medical marijuana, safe injection sites, business ethics, corruption, environmental ethics, aid to developing countries, and so on.

These issues involve some of our most important individual and collective social-ethical-legal values. Many of them are connected with respect for life, and with birth or death, the two events around which we have always formed our most important values. These values, together with our principles, attitudes, beliefs, myths and so on, make up the societal-cultural paradigm on which our society is based – that is, the "shared story" that we tell each other and buy into in order to form the glue that binds us as a society.

So, in a "secular society" such as Canada, does religion have any valid role to play in determining what these values should be?

That depends on what we mean by a secular society.

Secularists argue it means that religion has no valid role to play in forming our shared values and has no place in the public square. I believe they're wrong, but it's true religion cannot function in the public square in the same way as in the past.

We form society through a journey of the collective human imagination. In the past, societies used a shared religion to find their collective imagination and bind themselves together. That's no longer possible, but can a purely secular approach replace this function of religion?

Religious studies scholars Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young have examined what they call "secular religions." For instance, humanism and atheism function as secular religions binding their adherents through common belief and ideology. Science also functions as a secular religion when it becomes scientism. The same is true of ethics when it becomes moralism. As well, sport can become sportism, especially when combined with another powerful "ism," nationalism – "Go Habs Go!" And environmentalism is at least a secondary religion for more and more people – but even that has its disbelievers and critics. In short, we are witnessing the emergence of a very large number and range of secular religions.

None of these "isms" is harmful in itself, but they are harmful to finding shared values and ethics when they are promoted – as, for instance, scientist Richard Dawkins does with scientism – to deny any space for spirituality and traditional religion in the public square and replace those with secularism, the most encompassing secular religion that functions as a basket holding all the others.

In other words, I'm arguing that it's a mistake to accept that secularism is neutral, as its advocates claim. Rather, it too is a belief system used to bind people together. And if, despite being a belief system, secularism is not excluded from the public square, then religious voices should not be excluded on that basis. The mistake is in taking a disjunctive (either secularism or religion) approach to a situation that requires a conjunctive (both secularism and religion) approach. We need all voices to be heard in the democratic public square and they have a right to be heard.

The basic principles on which democracy is founded are liberty and equality. To privilege secularism, as its advocates argue should be done, is to contravene the liberty and equality principles of democracy and to prevent democracy functioning as it should – in short, it's profoundly anti-democratic.

A frequent argument used by secularists to justify excluding religious voices from the public square is that secular democratic societies require a separation of Church and State. That's correct, but the question is: What does respecting that separation require?

"... A religiously informed conscience should not be accorded any privilege, but neither should it be placed under a disability. ... The meaning of strictly secular is thus pluralist or inclusive in its widest sense."

First, it means the state, and its laws and public and social policy, are not based directly on religious beliefs and laws as, for example, in Islamic societies such as Iran. There is no "religious litmus test" that must be passed for a law or social policy to be valid.

The doctrine is meant to protect the state from being controlled or wrongfully interfered with by a religion or religions, and to protect religions, within their valid sphere of operation, from state interference or control. For instance, the Chinese government's interference in the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in that country contravenes the doctrine of separation of church and state. The doctrine has division of powers or demarcation of jurisdictions functions.

Those using "separation of church and state" to justify excluding religion from the public square have created confusion among: Freedom of religion; freedom for religion; and freedom from religion.

Freedom of religion: The state does not impose a religion on its citizens and there is no state religion. Freedom for religion: The state does not restrict the free practice of religion by its citizens. Freedom from religion: The state excludes religion and religious voices from the public square, in particular, in relation to law and public policy making. The first two freedoms are valid expressions of the doctrine. The third is not.

This mistaken interpretation of the doctrine of "separation of church and state" has been used by secularists to win a victory for their values in the culture wars by eliminating consideration of the values of their opponents on the basis they're religiously based. But for many people, their moral reasoning is connected with their religious beliefs. To exclude them and their moral views from the public square, because of the source of their beliefs, would be to disenfranchise them.

In Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36, Justice Kenneth Mackenzie, writing for a unanimous Court of Appeal for British Columbia interpreting what "strictly secular" in the British Columbia School Act meant, made a "distinction between religion and morality." He wrote "religion and morality are not synonymous terms. (M)oral positions (whether secularly or religiously based) taken as positions of conscience are entitled to full participation in the dialogue in the public square where moral questions are answered as a matter of law and social policy. There is no bright line between a religious and a non-religious conscience. ... Moral positions must be accorded equal access to the public square without regard to religious influence. A religiously informed conscience should not be accorded any privilege, but neither should it be placed under a disability. ... The meaning of strictly secular is thus pluralist or inclusive in its widest sense."

Religion brings to bear important considerations that secularism doesn't, and vice versa. We need to hear both sides and give proper weight to each, if we are to make wise decisions about the values that should take priority, when values are in conflict.

I suggest that the most important task of the religious voices in the public square is to help to place and keep social-ethical-values issues in a moral context. Religion should be seen as an important holder of our "collective moral memory," a memory we lose or ignore at our peril. We need to revalue religion, even if we are not people of faith, to see it as a store of traditional knowledge and wisdom.

We need also to extend the scope of our analyses of contemporary social-ethical-values issues beyond an intense present to consider the needs and rights of future generations. And we must "hold on trust" for them, not just our physical ecosystem, but also our metaphysical one – the values, principles, beliefs, stories and so on that create and represent the "human spirit," that which makes us human. Religious voices can help us to do that.

Values conflicts cannot be solved by excluding religious voices from the public square. On the contrary, doing so is likely to exacerbate those conflicts.



Margaret Somerville. "Religion has a role to play in the public square." Montreal Gazette (Canada) May 18, 2010.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Margaret Somerville.

The Author

Somerville2Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia. Until recently, she was Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, and Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Montreal. She is the author of Bird on an Ethics WireThe Ethical Imagination: CBC Massey Lectures, Death Talk: The Case Against Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide, The Ethical Canary: Science, Society, and the Human Spirit, and Do We Care?.

Copyright © 2010 Margaret Somerville
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