Centre Article: Why the term secular should be dropped as misleading

June 18, 2008

For The Calgary Herald

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It is always pleasant to be quoted by a journalist who has the abilities of Nigel Hannaford. It is less pleasant to be quoted as supporting the wrong side of a definition.

How words are defined matter a great deal. Now that so many issues relating to religious belief are becoming news it's vital to pay attention to the key terms in the discussion. Principal amongst these is what we mean when we use the term "secular."

In two recent articles in this paper, one in response to the Christian Horizon decision of an Ontario Human Rights tribunal dealing with a Christian organization that provides residential care to a large number of handicapped people in Ontario, and another dealing with the recent Taylor/Bouchard Commission examining "religious accommodation" in Quebec, Hannaford got this understanding of the "secular" wrong and as a result the conclusions that flow from it are in error.

With respect to Taylor/ Bouchard, Hannaford quoted me as saying: "In Benson's view, the useful word secular which in its pristine state distinguished temporal from sacred, and thus identified the public sphere, has lost its meaning. In today's common usage, it has come to simply mean free of religious belief—a subtle, but dangerous change of emphasis."

Nowhere have I ever said or written that there was a "pristine state" to the word "secular" in which the temporal was distinguished from the sacred. I advocate dropping the word "secular" altogether because it no longer says what most people mean when they use it.

What we usually mean when we speak of "secular" is, in fact, the word "public" and more often than not what we seek is the proper language to discuss religion in relation to the public sphere.

So far so good. If we mean "non-religious" when we say "secular" we don't see how in doing so we are trying to actually strip the public of any presence from religious believers and their institutions—a move that is grossly unfair when you consider that all human beings are believers of one sort or another.

Let us start here. Every citizen is a believer—the question is in what? Some people believe based on religious presuppositions that, for example, "all human beings have dignity." Others believe that human beings have dignity, but find some other belief ground than religion to base this on. But here is the key point. Those who derive human dignity from religion and those who don't are both fully entitled to argue for their viewpoints and bring about policies in relation to this no matter what the basis is for their holding the view.

The current idea about "secular" that is so unfair is that there is some supposedly "secular" sphere that just happens to include government, law, public education and such things as medical ethics and that the only beliefs that should be preemptively shorn from this realm are those based upon or coming from religious believers and their communities. Were this true, which it is not, only the beliefs of atheists and agnostics would have power and presence in the public sphere and that would be unfair and unjust.

So we ought not to use the term "secular" as shorthand for "non-religious" when our understanding of fairness and justice ought to lead us to seeing society as inclusive of all sorts of believing citizens—religious or non-religious.

The second significant error that can be found in Hannaford's columns on religion and the state appeared in his article on the Ontario Human Rights Commission decision ruling that Christian Horizon cannot qualify as "religious" because it serves people who are not themselves religious. A kind of tail wagging the dog analysis that is very threatening to religions. This kind of analysis gives religious projects (think health care and education) the footprint of Barbie dolls in the public sphere. Hardly fair given that these projects often exist precisely to serve those outside the religions themselves.

In the course of his column Hannaford views the "state" as necessarily against religious believers and their institutions and says we ought not to be surprised at this. He urges disconnection on the basis that "he who pays the piper calls the tune." Well no. There is no logical or legal reason for antagonism between religious projects and the state (law and politics made up in many cases of men and women who themselves profess religious beliefs). The state can and does benefit from many diverse sorts of projects. As long as certain expected requirements are met in terms of quality (and there would need to be accommodation of certain religious rules—Jewish care homes, for example, could have kosher kitchens and religious orthodoxy tests for their rabbinic chaplains) then the state should allow, and indeed encourage, suitable religious projects to go along with all the atheist and agnostic ones it currently funds.

This religiously inclusive conception of the secular, in which religious believers are not preemptively excluded from the public sphere, was determined to be the law in Canada in that landmark decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in its decision in 2002 in the Chamberlain Decision in B.C. (dealing with same-sex books in the kindergarten to Grade 2 classroom).

The focus of most media coverage was on the same-sex parenting books, but what should have been examined is that "secular" in Canada now includes religions. Or, to put it a better way, the public sphere is not a scorched area for religious believers and religious projects.