Laicite in Quebec

Je Me Souviens?

When profoundly Catholic societies go off religion, they really go off religion. Religion doesn’t become simply a matter of indifference; people seem to feel they must uproot religion entirely from public life, in order to compensate for and distance themselves from the benighted ways of the past.

Societies need some common identity to bind them, though, and when shared religion is no longer an option, they substitute other things. In a First Things essay this week (“Canada Divided Against Itself”), David Koyzis observes this dynamic at work in Quebec. Once a famously Catholic place, he says, since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Quebec has become an overwhelmingly secular society. (Strangely, they have kept a very Catholic-looking flag (above)). The province’s motto may be “Je me souviens,” but the Quebecois are trying to forget all about their religious tradition. What unites the province today, he says, is not Catholicism, but Quebecois national identity:

Ironically, despite the secularizing impact of the Quiet Revolution, Québec has not abandoned religious faith; it has simply redirected that faith toward a state-centered nationalism, around which the province’s main parties are largely united. What was once a French Canadian nationalism bent on defending a Catholic society whose traditions harked back to pre-revolutionary France has become Québec nationalism, which looks to the state to protect the province’s linguistic majority in a sea of English-speaking jurisdictions. If protecting this majority comes at the expense of minority interests within the province, then so be it.

As evidence, Koyzis adduces a new law that prohibits public employees from wearing religious symbols–crucifixes, kippas, hijabs–while on the job. The idea, he says, is to encourage the Quebecois to think of themselves, not as members of distinct religious communities, but simply as Quebecois. This is the same reasoning behind the ban on burkas in public places, and the ban on “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools, in France.

Koyzis says that the forceful laicite of Quebec is in tension with the multiculturalism that animates Canadian public life outside the province. I don’t know enough about Canada to evaluate that argument. But his point about nationalism as a substitute for religion seems sound. You can read the whole piece here.

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