Written by Randeep Singh
Is Canada secular? Not according to Doug Thomas.
Thomas is the President of the Secular Connexion Séculaire. He points out that:
- Canada lacks a an explicit declaration in its constitution separating church and state;
- Canada’s Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II, is also the Head of the Church of England the Defender of Faith, and;
- The Government of Canada does not interfere with religion, but religion does interfere with government.
Thomas however is not so much interested in promoting secularism for all Canadians. He is interesting in promoting the rights of Canadian atheists. And in doing so, he mistakenly assumes that secularism is atheism.
This assumption is used by “non-believers” like Thomas to argue that secularism requires the absence of religion in the public sphere. It is an assumption also used by the “believers” (more in the United States than in Canada), to argue that a “secular” society is a “Godless” (un-Christian) society.
Secularism, however, is not atheism. Atheism is the denial or rejection of a belief in the existence of God. Secularism does not care whether there is or isn’t a God. It is concerned with the relationship between religion and the state as a political question.
And far from eliminating religion from public life, secularism seeks to create a public sphere in which the greatest diversity of thoughts, opinions, lifestyles and beliefs are tolerated. As Charles Taylor argues, secularism is not characterized by by an absence of religion, but by attempts by the state to maximize liberty of and equality between different beliefs.
What makes Canada secular is how the state governs. The Constitution Act divides political and legal power between the three branches of government, without any power accorded to an ecclesiastical authority. Canada has no official religion. The Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms guarantees both freedom of religion and freedomof conscience (for agnostics and non-believers). If Parliament and the Supreme Court of Canada have not “interfered” much with religion (which they did when ruling on or legislating on Sunday opening laws), they have certainly defied religious opinion by decriminalizing abortion, legalizing same-sex marriage and overturning the ban on physician-assisted suicide.
Canada isn’t atheist enough perhaps Mr. Thomas, but at least it is secular.