Progress Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Bill 62, Julie Payette and the Historic Bookends of the Religiously Neutral State

Bill 62 in Quebec and the recent comments of Governor-General Julie Payette to the Canada Science Policy Conference both provoke and answer the same question:

What does it mean to have a religiously neutral state?

Despite this fact, I have yet to find an analysis that treats them together. Yet it is worthwhile to consider these two events together, particularly from the perspective of one inclined to oppose the former and support the latter. Looking at these events from this perspective, we see an inevitable tension of a progressive government caught between the Enlightenment and post-modernity.

On the one hand, the so-called “superstitious” (i.e. those who believe in astrology, the Bible, etc.) have always been the great villains of the Enlightenment. Progress since the 17th century has self-consciously been about overcoming these people, or at least protecting the public sphere from them, thus the need for a religiously neutral state, and, in the French context, an explicitly secular state. What’s more, especially in its more radical form, this has been accomplished not solely, or even primarily, by rational argument, but through satire and mockery. Both this aspiration and feeling are succinctly captured in the content and tone of the Governor-General’s comments.

On the other hand, for the post-modern, the great villains of (lower-case “p”) progress have been the mechanistic and totalizing institutions of bureaucracy, industry, and war. These institutions have both been made possible by the advances of science, and purport, whether justly or otherwise, to reflect the scientific image of the world. That is, it’s important to remember that science has not only been a method, but as a set of ideals and institutions, a crucial pillar of modern Western cultures. The victims of these processes, according to its critics nearly from the beginning to today, have included among others: the spiritual life of the individual, the physical life of the soldier and civilian, and ultimately the victims of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb (see Arendt above). But most importantly for our discussion now, the post-colonial lens has sought to make clear what this violent objectivity had been doing (and continues to do) to people with other ways of knowing and going about the world. Bill 62 is a particularly stark example of how these “Others” are treated by bureaucracies claiming to be neutral.


Now, of course, in such a short space I am oversimplifying, but when it comes to day-to-day policy making, reaction to the news, and commenting on the internet, it is not in great nuanced tomes, but in, often unarticulated, assumptions and thoughts even shorter than this that these big ideas are expressed.


Now, on the face of it, there is no conflict between these two positions. A person can agree with the Governor-General and still think it is wrong to deprive somebody of government services because of their spiritual or cultural practices. This is a conventional position of tolerance, i.e. protection without agreement or even respect. The tension lies not so much in the acts themselves but in the attitudes behind them and how these come together in the context of our current government.

Consider the following. Recently, I have attended a number of events where Indigenous Elders and other communal leaders opened with prayers. At least a few times, these prayers have been to “The Creator”. While I know little about the spirituality of the nations these Elders came from, the title “Creator” suggests some kind of involvement in the origins of life. While I don’t know enough to understand whether these statements are meant to be taken empirically or some other way, I know that making the distinction is already presupposing a certain cultural lens.

In this light, what do the comments of the Governor-General then mean for a Government committed to new nation-to-nation relationships? As I recently heard Professor Douglas Sanderson argue, the residential schools were only possible because Indigenous ways of life and knowing were not valued so it only follows that reconciliation will not be possible until those ways of life and knowing are valued.

Now, you might be inclined to say that the tension I am presenting relies on a massive, and quite frankly offensive, equivocation between groups whose political positions have not only been vastly different but directly opposed (i.e. the Churches and the spiritualities of Muslims or Indigenous peoples). But if we remember that anyone’s spirituality is not merely a political posture but a serious claim about the world, we cannot so neatly contain the implications of our statements about the world or the tone in which we share them to the groups towards which we direct them. To state something and exempt some group from its harsh implications is as disingenuous as it is condescending. Supportive relativism is as patronizing as violent objectivity is dismissive.

But so what? All this has been said before, so why is it worth repeating? However the government chooses to ultimately manage our fundamental differences, it will need to be honest with itself and for the federal government that means grappling with this tension among others. I look forward to seeing that article.


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