It seems like most Canadian columnists have taken a stab this week at the Quebec values charter. This morning, Heather Mallick gave it a go in her space at the Toronto Star.
It’s entitled “Quebec charter: An atheist speaks up.” Doug Saunders at the Globe and Mail had previously taken a swing at it on the same principle, arguing that even as a secularist, he can’t bring himself to defend the legislation.
Anyhow, Mallick does a very serious disservice to atheism in this country with this column.
We are not glamorous, we non-believers. We have neither gilded domes nor synagogues nor those other things the Swiss banned, um, minarets. Such is my lack of interest in religion that I had to Google all three nouns in the last sentence.
I’m a firm believer in the principle — and I can’t remember where I first read it, now — that “every atheist should know his Bible.” It behoves us to have a working knowledge of that which we are explicitly rejecting. To not have this knowledge base, and declare yourself and atheist, is the religious equivalent of the conservative bawling “socialist!” at any progressive policy.
Not only that, but in the nuances of religious debate, to be able to drop verses truly helps you. I’ve heard Christians insist, frequently and earnestly, that there is no condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible. Well, if they’d read the darn thing, they’d know to check Leviticus 18:22.
There’s a moment, in a documentary that Christopher Hitchens stars in, alongside pastor Douglas Wilson, when the two of them are riding in a car, discussing just how not frivolous the question of religion is. It does the atheist movement (such as there is a movement) no service to simply succumb to cultural agnosticism. God is a serious question, atheism a serious proposal, and it ought to be treated as such.
The portion of the Quebec charter that Mallick picks a fight with is medicine:
I care what’s in a doctor’s head too and if he or she is wearing the large cross shown in the now notorious poster of forbidden Quebec religious gear, I will decline to see that doctor and I will warn off my women friends. Religion has always been a weapon for controlling women. It must not stand.
It’s probably worth noting, as an aside, that if we had private medicine in this country, you’d have a much better chance at voting with your dollars … but perhaps that is neither here nor there.
On this point, Mallick is right: religion has long been the weapon for controlling women. Even if it can be argued that there are anthropological origins for patriarchal dominance, in the modern era, it’s hard to deny that religion is the single biggest boot under which women are ground.
If that doctor cared about the sensibilities of her female patients, he or she wouldn’t be wearing a large cross or a niqab, an emblem of the mistreatment of women through the ages. Why wear it at work?
Indeed. And this is why medicine is a strange example.
It’s probably true that a physician wouldn’t have a bling-sized cross around her neck while at work. It’s simply inconvenient; it’s mighty hard to have decent bedside manner if you’ve got a two-pound hunk of silver battering away at your patients when you move about them.
That said, Mallick is identifying a conceivable problem of gender relations — one that we’re free to debate — however, is there any evidence that this occurs, or is a problem anywhere in Canada?
Of course, it obviously is the case with abortion. You’d be a fool to not be suspicious of an obviously religious doctor, if you were going to seek advice on ending a pregnancy. However, with doctors, who’ve gone through years of medical school, examinations and professional training, the assumption is that they are capable of leaving their personal views at home. That doesn’t necessarily mean they need to leave their clothes, but they must be capable of dividing their professional life from the personal.
If we start to see evidence to the contrary, then this might become a much more meaningful consideration.
So what are we to make of the central issue, which is that there ought to be freedom from religion in this country.
I wish that were so. However, one of the mistakes consistently made about Canadian history is that there is some sort of Jeffersonian wall separating church and state. That just isn’t the case. Sure, it’s a commonly accepted principle, but that hardly makes a legal one.
Beyond the crass politicking of the Quebec charter, what it does portent to do is build this wall, and create a space where there is no religion. The debate over this question gets — rightfully — bogged down in the very serious questions about religion, racism and multiculturalism. These are questions — or problems, depending on your view — that European countries have been grappling with, and may be coming to Canada at some point.
However, what the Quebec charter does, fundamentally, is assume that we cannot coexist, and that there cannot be integration and assimilation unless the government nudges it. At best, this is a cynical view of our society.
At worst, it assumes that the values we hold dear cannot win in an argument against religion and the religious, and instead of rhetorical strength, the brute muscle of the state must be used. It denies the power of the fundamental values of a secular society, and demeans them by insisting they must be shored up by government.
Additionally, we’re not in any sort of climactic battle of values just yet, regardless of what folks like Mark Steyn want you to believe.
Catholics aren’t storming the gates of Parliament to restrict abortion (though they certainly try annually), FLDS sects haven’t won the battle for polygamous marriage, and imposition of religious law in Muslim communities hasn’t gained all that much traction.
When these things do come — if they ever come — we don’t need the muscle of the state to defend secularism.
What we need is people who are willing to defend secularism without going to the state, because arguments are best resolved by people, not plastered over by legislation.