CCRF Chair: Quebec’s Marois shows we need more religious education, not less

 On Sept. 12, 2001 — the day after New York City’s Twin Towers were hit — a Sikh friend of mine suffered an attack on his business.

The property was covered with swastikas and anti-religious slurs. Quite understandably, my friend was furious, hurt, and felt very vulnerable. What surprised me on that occasion was the reason for his anger. Despite the expense of the damage, he was most deeply incensed that the vandals had mistaken him for a terrorist, and — yes, he said it — for a Muslim.

In most places in the world, such simple facts are taken for granted. In places like India, almost everyone would know the difference between a Hindu, a Sikh, and a Muslim. The same could be said for most other countries.

Why is it then, that in North America questions about religious identity and the role of faith in history are often reduced to that which can be found in Holocaust films or episodes of Little Mosque on the Prairie?

According to Reg Bibby, a Canadian sociologist who studies religion, a majority of Canadians see their identity in spiritual terms. One would think that the formation of well-rounded, thinking citizens and future leaders would integrate such knowledge and experience into public school curriculum. Instead, in almost all cases, such discussions are either marginalized, stereotyped, or maligned.

The gaping hole in the religious knowledge and experience of Canadian students was driven home recently by Quebec politician Pauline Marois, leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois — a highly experienced and intelligent woman, who may well become premier of Quebec following next Tuesday’s Quebec election.

Marois recently introduced her latest nationalist brainchild, that a PQ government would introduce a ban on religious symbols (such as turbans, veils, kirpans, or a Star of David on a chain) in all provincial government workplaces. The one exception Marois made was the cross (or more specifically, the Roman Catholic crucifix), which she said was an exception because the cross is a symbol of Quebec culture, and not a religious symbol.

As an Orthodox Christian priest, I wear a cross every day — a big one. It’s not a national symbol: It’s very specifically a Christian symbol, just as a Star of David is a Jewish symbol, or an aum is used as a symbol of Hinduism. In a world where fewer and fewer people take an interest in getting to know strangers, such symbols immediately tell us something about someone — presuming we know what the symbols actually mean.

There is a certain honesty about wearing religious symbols.

The trouble with Marois’ plan is she sets the cross aside as an acceptable religious symbol in a secular Quebec — since presumably the cross has no universal meaning for her, or for many Quebecers. But what happens when some future political leader decides that the cross is out, too? France recently passed such a law, under the pretense that the only way to keep government workplaces neutral was to implement a ban on the wearing of religious symbols. It, at least, seemed to satisfy a vocal minority whose narrow view of faith teaches that all religion is bad.

So what about constitutional freedoms for the majority of people? Presumably, a statesperson like Marois would follow the old dictum that if you want to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs. After all, what are the rights of a few Muslims, Christians, or Jews, Marois might ask, when we have bigger principles at stake, like — well — freedom.

Marois has another problem: Quebec’s flag is full of Christian symbolism (the Cross, the fleur-de-lis, and the blue and white are all connected with the Virgin Mary). Quebec’s legislature is painted blue for the same reason. The original French version of the Canadian national anthem is explicitly religious, too, although perhaps Marois never learned Canada’s anthem.

If Marois hopes to build Quebec into a self-governing nation, she might start with herself as a first-rate example of the results of a second-rate education — education that is heavy on ideology, and light on the weightier questions that shape the history of the world.

And if she really believes in the principles of liberty, freedom, and democracy, she might start by learning something about the spiritual roots of her own culture, as well as other cultures.

As it stands, Marois is an outstanding example of the reason schools need to offer students many real opportunities to learn about the true life and beliefs of people of all faiths — not fewer.

As a former world religions teacher, I’d be happy to offer to teach Marois’ PQ caucus such a course. I’d consider it a service to my country. I’d do it for free.

Who knows — it might even be fun.

Maybe we could start with letting Marois in on the history of that cross on the Quebec flag.

Father Geoffrey Korz is a priest of the Orthodox Church, and Chair of the Canadian Council for Religious Freedom. Read the original article at–quebec-s-marois-shows-we-need-more-religious-education-not-less