Conclusion: Religion, Solidarity and Power

Conclusion: Religion, Solidarity and Power


Howard Adelman

I have tried to make the following points.

  1. There is no singular secular religion to which one can refer that can offer transcendent principles governing discourse in the public sphere; we are all fundamentally partialists.
  2. The secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism, even if now dominant, is only one among other competitors
  3. Current Western society may be dominated by the secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism, but its insistence that its secondary rules of discourse in the public sphere (civility, etc.) are universal, is also the source of its naïveté when combating the other major religious secular player.
  4. That other secular religious player in contemporary political culture, uncivil religious secularism, believes in a discourse of deceit and manipulation in the public sphere in contrast to the rules of civility, etc. proposed by the secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism.
  5. That competitor to the secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism, the anti-civility secular religion, is most wedded to the separation of religion and state, primarily so it can uphold high and lofty moral principles in the private sphere while demonstrating the most manipulative tools of discourse permissible and tolerated in its own society.
  6. The anti-civil secular religion evinces the greatest solidarity with the traditional religions with which it is allied and has a much stronger position on loyalty and solidarity.
  7. The secular religion of rights and humanitarianism engages in partnerships of convenience with its liberal traditional religious partners.
  8. The secular religion of rights and humanitarianism weakens itself most by insisting its norms are universal and transcendent, for it disguises the need to engage with and understand the rules of Machiavellian discourse required to beat its opponent in the public sphere.
  9. Another source of its weakness: it regards intellectual influence as the highest realm, rather than coercive power, and, hence, is often defeated because of its weak understanding of coercive power in both the domestic and international realms.
  10. Similarly, though I have not explored that dimension in this paper, the secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism also has the poorest understanding of the role of charisma substituting for authentic authority, and the role of formal authority given its significant reliance on the rule of law and the role of the courts that are founded on the primacy of influence.
  11. The secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism is often not generally as well attuned to the role of material influence given its almost singular emphasis on intellectual influence.
  12. Most fundamentally, secularism, in its various forms, is itself simply a religion with competing and warring sects, each governed by beliefs and practices, rituals and rites, which are themselves immune to falsification.

If it were not the fact that the secular religious principles of HRH were held so broadly and deeply by the majority of Western societies, it is a wonder that this secular religion achieves power and political authority at all. Yet, in most Western societies, the religious secularism of human rights and humanitarianism dominates, in both conservative and liberal guises.  It is the governing belief set of the polity.

Further, though both the majority (human rights and humanitarianism) and the minority (Machiavellian and manipulative politics) are the major secular religions in competition, both stress the sociology of groups, in spite of the emphasis of each on individualism, either the individualism of rights or of needs respectively as manifested in the free market. For, as Marx wrote, the free market delivers anarchy; religion is always about order. But each version of religious secularism, in stressing two different forms of individualism, undermines a system of fraternal ethics. But they do so in different spheres. The secular religion of rights undermines fraternity in what is called the private sphere and produces anomie.  The religious secularism that undercuts rights (MMP) reinforces fraternal ethics in the private sphere while denying ethical considerations as fundamentally appropriate to the public sphere.

Human rights religious secularism insists on positing internalized rules of the game that are made explicit in court rulings and, in terms of which, goals can be pursued and appropriate means chosen to chase those goals. In contrast to this emphasis on a normative structure for society, the competing alternative argues that its opponents, in the name of rights, undermine freedom and responsibility and, in the end, never really understand the need for order, an order which promotes sanctions and rewards, instils habits and celebrates preferences rather than rights. Thus, in the latter, instead of a theoretical egalitarian society, stratification is accepted as a dominant feature of the social order. In particular, even in our post-modern world, nationalism is celebrated in terms of a particular system of social stratification that allows each nation to be both unique while each, in its own way, offers political salience by connecting opportunities and contingency to measures of success. Some necessary conditions of success include the solidarity of the family and the community by means of which individual and group interests can be aligned.

So why does the religious secularism of rights and humanitarianism remain dominant even though it is weak in understanding the importance of coercive power, even though it is weak in terms of the value of solidarity? If it is so fundamentally weak in understanding the role of coercive power and the necessity and not just the reality of social stratification, why is it the dominant contemporary religious secularist belief system? Further, it remains dominant even though it is itself divided by sectarianism.

I do not have an answer.


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Refugee Policy: Indochinese versus Syrian Refugees

Secularist Religions – continued.

  1. Refugee Policy: Indochinese versus Syrian Refugees

How we treat and incorporate the stranger into the we that we want to become? This emerged as a central issue in the recent Canadian election. Language was used to convey the very opposite message than it appeared to have on the surface. Generosity stood for stinginess or miserly behaviour. Compassion stood for relative indifference. Balance came to stand for a very deformed policy. A speedy and sensitive response came to mean tardiness, delay and interference from the very top.

Stephen Harper asserted in debates and talks that the Conservative Party had been very generous but also very balanced in welcoming the stranger. But his government’s actions and behaviour demonstrated miserliness of the most extreme sort. Generosity came to mean the government sponsoring the intake of at most 2,000 out of over 4 million Syrian refugees in 2016, that is, .00005% of the refugee population. And the balance between ensuring security for the self and generosity by the self was the assurance that the process could be accomplished without spending any more money. Balancing the books took precedence.

In 2013, the government pledged to take 1,300 Syrian refugees over the next 12 months. It did admit 1,300, but over 20 months, or 780 over twelve months. Most of these were sponsored by the private sector, meaning the government merely had to financially support the intake. The government of Canada then announced that it would take 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years, or 3,300 per year with 60% allocated to the private sector, or almost 2,000. About 1,300 were planned to be government sponsored. The pressure on the government built, some of it from Tory party members. The government then upped the planned intake by 10,000 more, but now over four years. Further, they were to be a mixture of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, or 5,000 additional Syrian refugees over four years or 1,250 additional Syrian refugees per year, only 500 of them to be government-sponsored refugees.

It is one thing to announce miserliness dressed up as generosity. It is another to actually sabotage the process put in place. The Globe and Mail in a scoop revealed the Office of the Prime Minister had ordered a “temporary” halt to the processing of Syrian refugee applications. Conservative Leader Stephen Harped then acknowledged that his government had ordered an audit of Syrian refugees admitted to Canada. Why? To ensure security concerns were being adequately addressed. But that did not mean, the government insisted, that members of the PMO were processing files. Presumably, they were just vetoing some, but that was not processing. According to CTV News, quoting Citizenship and Immigration insiders, the PMO went through Syrian refugee applications to ensure that religious minorities, such as Christians, were being accepted over applications from Shia and Sunni Muslims. But the Prime Minister insisted the audit was warranted to ensure security issues were being taken care of properly. Security for the refugees themselves was barely a consideration.

Refugee issues had never heretofore been a significant factor in a federal election in Canada. But in 2015, the pressure on the government grew further. Bowing to pressure, the government announced on 19 September 2015 that it would take the initial 10,000 in 2015 instead of over three years. Further, applicants would be processed faster for they would not have to be cleared first by UNHCR and designated as Convention refugees. Canada would take them as prima facie refugees. This was the key step that would allow the government to take in the 10,000 refugees in one year rather than three.

The government then did take some important steps to help speed up the process.

  1. Even before the next steps, it waived the requirement of prior UNHCR approval for refugees to be considered for resettlement by Canada.
  2. Two top quality civil servants were appointed to coordinate an expedited Syrian refugee program, one for managing external relations with sponsorship groups  and settlement agencies, and the other for governmental coordination of Citizenship Immigration Canada (CIC) with provincial and municipal governments, UNHCR, the IOM, and overseas agencies which might perform specific functions for CIC; the two appointees were, respectively, Deborah Tunis and Bruce Scofield, two very seasoned and accomplished officers of CIC.
  3. In the last few weeks, the number of personnel at the Centralized Intake Office (CIO) in Winnipeg has doubled.
  4. The number of visa officers assigned to Lebanon has been increased to 15.
  5. As long as applications for sponsorship have been substantially complete, acceptance will not be delayed until corrections have been made; instead, acceptance will be issued and time given to make corrections.

Late, but nonetheless steps that will allow Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to get off to a running start on the Syrian refugee issue. However, by the time the writ was dropped and the election held:

  • No monies had been allocated to help private sector organizations complete the 64-page application (it was 6 pages at the time of the Indochinese refugee crisis);
  • Monies were not allocated to settlement agencies to assist with the additional responsibilities in settlement.

It has been a slow running start.

When stinginess is dressed up as humanitarian generosity, when selection of the most vulnerable comes to mean selection of Yazidis, Chaldeans and Assyrians (Christians all) from the urban wastelands of the Middle East rather than a broad selection of refugees from the camps, when processing times become so lengthy because of a shortage of personnel and political interference from the PMO, when we enter into the discourse of extreme contradiction, then we have to recognize that we are in the strongest expression of the post-modern ethos. In the name of the old values, in the name of “old-stock” Canadians as well as newcomers, in the name of us, we define who we are. And instead of a reputation for generosity towards refugees that had been built up after WWII culminating in the Indochinese refugee movement, Canada had become a terrible laggard.

Any quick examination of who we have been will tell you that it was only for a very short period, a half century at most, that we exemplified a Canada that welcomed the stranger and opened its doors to the oppressed. Perhaps since 9/11, the new issue behind the scenes was security and perhaps, Islamophobia. However, when I was in Calgary both before and as the election results were rolling in, I conducted interviews. Only one of my interviewees expressed outright anti-Muslim sentiments. “There were already too many in Calgary.” But security was mentioned by all those who said they were voting for the Conservatives.

All three parties had pledged that all Syrian refugees would be carefully monitored to minimize any security concerns. However, when I interviewed a Syrian mother and her three sons aged 18, 22 and 26 and they described the process they had been through, they were never interviewed by any security officer. Further, in reviewing the questions they were asked, no obvious security issues seemed to have been raised directly or indirectly, except to ask whether they were or ever had been members of ISIS. Again, there appeared to be an apparent discrepancy between rhetoric and what seemed to be happening on the ground, especially since, if individuals come to Canada on a student visa, on a vacation or as a tourist, it is far easier to avoid notice and suspicion of being a terrorist. The refugee route is the worst path for a camouflaged terrorist to come to Canada. Previous scholarship indicated that the refugee process into Canada was the route least likely to be taken by an undercover terrorist since it was a process through which would allow Canada to develop an extensive file on them. Coming as a student or preferably a tourist offered far better chances of avoiding detection.

But we now lived in the post-modern world of doublespeak. In the modern era, solidarity had substituted for unity in order to have a foundation for democratic thinking and practices. Religious tolerance and cooperation in a multi-ethnic world were celebrated. Even in the ancient world, the dictum was welcome the stranger. It meant expressing hospitality to him or her. It did not mean admitting the other into membership. Even Aristotle, by far the best of Plato’s pupils, but a Macedonian, was not allowed to inherit Plato’s academy.

The apogee of modernity in Canada was the acceptance of the Indochinese refugees into this country in what is known as the Boat People Movement. In that effort, there was a partnership of government and civil society, of political leaders and civil servants trained to serve that society as well as their political bosses, and, most interesting of all, a partnership of religious and secular communities in that civil society.  (Cf. Dionne and Dilulio 2001) In fact, the lead organizations in that effort were neither Operation Lifeline nor Project 4000 in Ottawa, but the Mennonite Central Committee and the Christian Reformed Church. They were on the scene both first and last and they contributed the most per member.

This was the great irony – the apogee of accepting the Other as oneself, of recognizing the rights of the Other as a human being, a right that necessitated making provision for those denied rights in their own state – was a movement that was lead, in terms of both order and priority, by religious organizations. The Mennonite Central Committee based in Winnipeg was the first organization of any kind to sign an umbrella agreement with the Government of Canada, to effectively partner with the government in the intake and resettlement of refugees. The Christian Reformed Church was both an advocacy organization on behalf of refugees, in spite of strictures that religious organizations, to retain their charitable status, could not engage in advocacy. More importantly, the church was deeply engaged in the process of sponsoring and resettling refugees. But it was all within a Christian religious context. They wrote that, “We remember that just like the child Jesus and his parents, millions of men, women and children around the world must flee because of violence, racial tension, religious bigotry and natural disasters. And we remember that God has much to say about welcoming the stranger.”

This seemed quite contrary to the traditional view of the separation of church and state, a separation that required a degree of distance between the two, “a wall of separation” in Jefferson’s phrase, and not a humanitarian partnership.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

But the partnership went further. In the Indochinese refugee movement, in Canada, the state had a politically contractual obligation to follow the lead of the civil society because of its guarantee to sponsor a refugee for every refugee sponsored by civil society over and above the number to which it was already committed. So, in the name of one strand of traditional religion and the new strand of the secular human rights and humanitarianism religion, both streams partnered with the government to bring into Canada 60,000 refugees in a period of eighteen months.

But the movement was not without an opposition. After the Canadian government announced its program to welcome the entry of 50,000 Indochinese refugees into Canada, the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) published two full-page ads opposing the new policy. NCC is a Canadian conservative lobby group that campaigns against public services, trade unions, and favours smaller government; Canada’s recently defeated Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was once president. It is not a membership organization. It was founded in 1967 by Colin Brown, backed by a small group of economic conservatives. However, in 1979 it ventured into opposing Canadian refugee policy.

The first full-page ad[1] declared that for every one refugee allowed entry, 16 more would follow sponsored by those already here. Thus, the 50,000 figure would mean 800,000 Indochinese immigrants would be moving to Canada within a few short years. The projections were a gross exaggeration stemming, in part, from using outdated and inapplicable immigration rules about family sponsorship in force after WWII. However, behind the ad were racist beliefs that an influx of a large group of Asians was unwanted based on the fear of “The Yellow Peril,” an interpretation reinforced when Colin Brown and a few others with whom he was associated were interviewed in the media and appeared on TV and radio shows to debate Ron Atkey, the Minister of Immigration.

Operation Lifeline and a large swath of the public, especially the segment involved in private sponsorship, saw nothing wrong with a significant increase in Canadians who could trace their origins to Asia. Nevertheless, this initiative of the National Citizens Coalition, stoked by further falsehoods rooted in racial fears in Canada, could be bad for the movement and would discomfort the refugees after they arrived. The ad was disturbing both in its challenge to refugee policy and in undercutting a positive integration for newcomers. The opposition to the new Canadian Indochinese refugee policy had its first organized leadership.

At the end of the summer of 1979, the NCC sponsored a second full page ad[2] in a number of Canadian newspapers. Based on a survey it had conducted and which it published, the NCC claimed that a majority of Canadians were opposed to the policy permitting the entry of 50,000 Indochinese refugees. The survey questions were both leading and misleading and did not follow scientific protocols for objective opinion surveys. The leadership of the private sponsorship movement viewed this initiative as a real threat to the successful sponsorship and integration of the Indochinese refugees. As it turned out, although the questions were misleading and significantly exaggerated the results, the totals opposed to the policy were not so far off the mark. A fairer secret survey, to which Operation Lifeline did not have access at the time, did indicate that a majority of Canadians opposed the Indochinese refugee program, in good part because of a latent racism in Canada.

Yet the leading sectors in Canada – professional organizations, business associations, municipal leaders, political parties without exception, most Tory cabinet members – all strongly favoured the policy, not just as policy, but as active participants in making the sponsorship program a success. Nevertheless, the private sponsorship movement saw an enormous potential for causing significant damage. Racism and anti-immigration are always potent dangers for a democracy. They stir passions and fears and do not enhance rational debate. They are also very hard to combat, for entering the fray in public just exacerbates the fears and enhances the credibility of those stirring up those fears, though this runs counter to the belief that the public sphere should be founded on rational and civil discourse and respect others.

Dr. Joseph Wong, a leading figure in the private sponsorship program, who would go on to become chair of Operation Lifeline, chair of the United Way in Toronto, leader of a number of important social causes and a recipient of the Order of Canada, met with the founder of Operation Lifeline to discuss this new challenge.[3] The two decided that they could not just fight the NCC by appearing in debates as opponents of the NCC position on the Indochinese refugee program. Nor would quiet diplomacy work behind the scenes. They needed leverage to cut off NCC support given their conviction that the financial sector, though opposed to big government, was not generally racist. In fact, given the amount of support Operation Lifeline had received from that sector, they were convinced that generally economic conservatives would be opposed to the NCC challenge to the policy. Hence, they launched what was then called “Operation Intellectual Kneecapping” to cut off NCC financial support. (Why it was called “intellectual kneecapping” was neither explained nor now recalled; it presumably had something to do with sending a message that the effort was non-violent.)

As it turned out, Joseph Wong knew a prominent supporter and contributor to the NCC. He also knew that this individual was not a racist, but did not know whether he supported the intake of Indochinese refugees. Joseph phoned him and he agreed to meet the two from Operation Lifeline for breakfast at a downtown Toronto hotel at 7:00 a.m. the next day. At that breakfast, the twosome outlined the problem. The businessman indicated that he actively supported the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees and was appalled that an organization that he supported financially would engage in such racist-baiting. He asked for a bit of time and he promised Joseph that he would get back to him. The breakfast ended before 8:00 a.m.

At noon he phoned Joseph and informed him that he had taken care of the problem. He had called a number of his friends who helped finance the NCC and asked for permission to speak on their behalf to Colin Brown who then headed the NCC. They unanimously agreed. He then phoned Colin to say that he was calling, not only in a personal capacity, but representing the group that he had called. He told Colin that if he or the NCC published or said another thing on behalf of the NCC opposing the sponsorship of Indochinese refugees, he and his friends would not only withdraw their financial support, but he would personally phone additional financial contributors of the NCC to urge them to withdraw their support. The NCC would be destroyed.

He assured us that we would hear nothing further from the NCC on the subject. He was true to his word. Operation Intellectual Kneecapping had been a success with relatively little effort on the part of the refugee activists. The credit belongs to the enlightened leadership within the business community. However, it was an example of the new reliance on networking to get things done, a method developed by activists in the sixties. Further, it reinforced a belief that public discourse would best serve a humanitarian cause and conflicted with the values espoused by the secular religion of rights and humanitarianism.

Contrast these events where there was strong government leadership, a solidarity amongst all the political parties and with the leading sectors in Canadian society with the role of government in the current Syrian refugee crisis. A strong letter had been sent to the government by leading figures in support of refugees which argued for a much larger intake.[4] At the beginning of 2015, the Minister of Immigration, Chris Alexander, finally announced a relatively modest but what appeared at first to be at least a significant program for 4,000,000 Syrian refugees, the largest single group of refugees under UNHCR responsibility on the planet. That figure excludes those who are internally displaced estimated to be over seven million. The announcement was widely communicated by the media that Canada had pledged to resettle 10,000 additional Syrian and 3,000 Iraqi refugees. UNHCR, in light of past performance, had set a very modest target of 100,000. Canada had pledged to take its normal allotment of 10%, or 10,000 refugees. But not in one year. The initial announcement spread the intake over three years, only subsequently modified under pressure to one year. Modest indeed!

This was on top of the 1,300 Syrian refugees Canada had pledged to take the previous year but somehow seemed unable to take even that number. Given the scope of the crisis, the pledge at the same time of $90 million in humanitarian aid was at least responsible, but it also communicated that Canada was far more interested in warehousing rather than resettling refugees.

Refugee sponsorship organizations[i] had advocated the entry of 10,000 Syrian refugees, but in a rapid resettlement program, not one spread over three years. The government seemed to have capitulated under pressure. But not in actual performance. Further, the refugee support community had advocated special expedited measures for those with family members already in Canada. The government subsequently backed off the ratio assigning 40% of the 10,000 to be sponsored by the government while 60% were left for private sponsorships, moved to expedite processing, the initiatives always came late and under pressure in contrast to the leadership role of the new Tory government in 1979. Harper had not provided a form of leadership designed to galvanize a nation. In contrast, Sweden, a smaller country in geographical and population terms, had already accepted 40,000 Syrian refugees and expected 80,000 asylum seekers in 2014 alone. Germany had pledged to take in 800,000 and settle 500,000. Canada had totally abandoned its leadership role in refugee resettlement.

In does not help that the UNHCR greeted Canada’s initial announcement with diplomatic obsequious pussyfooting. The original pledge was dubbed “substantial” and a “generous commitment” when it was neither. It was not in keeping with Canada’s strong humanitarian tradition to offer resettlement to refugees worldwide.” It might be rationalized as a result of the weak response to UNHCR’s previous appeals. After all, it took an enormous effort to get the 30,000 in the last round, just over 1% of the Syrian refugee population. UNHCR had upped its target to 2.5% of the Syrian refugee population. Even with pledges not spread over several years, it would take 40 years to resettle all the refugees. Of course, this is somewhat of a distortion since most of the refugees will have settled in countries of first asylum like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. But the Canadian targets and pledges were so miniscule as to be embarrassing.

It does not help that the Canadian performance on the ground had been even worse. By the end of 2014, 1,285 of the year’s pledge of 1,300 had been approved for entry into Canada and Alexander insisted that 1,100 were already here. However, only 360 of that 1,300 had been government-sponsored refugees – 160 above Canada’s initial pledge of 200 – and the rest were privately-sponsored refugees. The refugee sponsors were constantly complaining about the slow and dragged out process of fulfilling those private sponsorships. Alexander’s contention that 1,100 had arrived hardly seemed credible. Further, when one recalls that in the Indochinese refugee movement, the government with only 16 employees in the field was transferring similar numbers of 1,300 per week rather than per year, one realizes how atrocious the Canadian performance has been and was likely to continue to be under a Conservative government. Doubling the total by another ten thousand intake, a number that included both Iraqi and Syrian refugees, yielded only an additional 1,250 Syrian refugees per year, only 500 to be sponsored by the government.

Generous indeed!

There was one ray of light in the announcement. “Canada is focusing on vulnerable individuals and those facing persecution. We make no apologies for putting focus on people in need, some of whom are being persecuted based on their religious beliefs,” said Alexander. In a message sent to the media, a government spokesperson, Kevin Ménard, said that, “Our priority is and will continue to be on those who are at risk because they are a religious minority, a sexual minority, or victims of rape.”[5]

Why is this a ray of light? Isn’t sponsoring Christians ahead of Muslims discrimination? The LGBT community who have been one group of sponsors for Syrian refugees at risk because of sexual orientation should have been delighted. But Professor Nicole LaViolette of the University of Ottawa, who passed away at the end of May 2015, disagreed. She denounced the discrimination. LaViolette, a research pioneering scholar on the persecution of LGBT members overseas who flee as refugees, had advised the LGBT community about the use of private sponsorship to help their cohort in Syria. She deplored the discrimination favouring using sexual orientation as a preference guide. As she wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on 11 February 2015, “Canadian LGBT communities must insist that the Conservative government respect its international obligations to provide refugee protection without discrimination. Sexual minorities know only too well the harm caused by discrimination. Queer Canadians should not support doing unto others what has long been done to us.”[6] So, in the name of the universal secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism, acceptance of the most vulnerable was rejected.

It is truly a strange world in which we live.

[1] The Globe and Mail, 24 August 1979.

[2] The Globe and Mail, 12 September 1979.

[3] This information is based on interviews and recollections of Joseph Wong and Howard Adelman.

[4] The signatories on the open letter included Dr. Muhammad Shrayyef and Fayaz Karim of the Canadians in Support of Refugees in Dire Need (CSRDN), Chris Friesen, Chair, Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance (CISSA-ACSEI), Brian Dyck, Chair, Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holder Association (SAH Association), Professor Jennifer Hyndman, Centre for Refugee Studies, York University, Dr. Aliya Khan and Dr. Irene Turpie, Doctors For Humanity (DFH), Dr. Anas Al Kassem, Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM) and Loly Rico, President, Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR).

[5] CBC News, 7 January 2015.

[6] See Nicole LaViolette, “Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and the Refugee Determination Process in Canada,” Journal of Research in Gender Studies 68:123, 2014. See also two chapters of hers: “Overcoming Problems with Sexual Minority Refugee Claims: is LGBT Cultural Competency Training the Solution?” in Thomas Spijkerboer (ed.) Fleeing Homophobia, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Asylum (Oxford: Taylor & Francis Books, 2013); and “Sexual Minorities, Migration, and the Remaining Boundaries of Canadian Immigration and Refugee Law,” in Soheila Pashang (ed.) Unsettled Settlers: Barriers to Immigration (Whitby, Ontario: Sitter Publications, 2012).

Beasts and Humans: Genesis Chapter 3

Beasts and Humans: Genesis Chapter 3


Howard Adelman

This week’s parshat, Lech-Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), is one of the most well-known stories in the Torah. It is a tale of an immigrant, Abram, who travels with his nephew, Lot, wife, Sarai, his servants and herds from his native land to the new promised-land of Canaan occupied by the Canaanites. There he is to found a great, blessed and famous nation that is to be a light unto the world. Rather than a land abundant in food, after building several altars to the Lord at different locations, he encountered a famine and went onto Egypt.

Before entering Egypt, the first event took place. Sarai was beautiful. Abram feared he would be killed if the Egyptians knew she was his wife so he told Sarai to say that she was his sister. Sarai attracted the attention of the Pharaoh and, “because of her,” Abram acquired sheep, oxen, asses, camels, male and female slaves. But, as a result, not Abram, but the Pharaoh and his whole household were afflicted with the plague. The Pharaoh learned that Sarai was really Abram’s wife and he asked Abram why he had lied and said that she was his sister. Abram offers no explanation, but presumably to lift the scourge of the plague, Abram was allowed to return to the Negev with all his possessions, including the slaves he had acquired.

Then the second event occurred. The herdsmen of Abram and Lot quarreled. Lest enmity result between Abram and Lot, they parted ways, Lot settling in the Jordan valley near Sodom, a city of wicked sinners against the Lord, and Abram remained in the land of Canaan settling near Hebron where he built another altar. In the meanwhile, the Jordan Valley was rife with the War of the Nine Kings that lasted fourteen years, possibly a conflict over oil in the Valley of Siddum. As a result of the war and Lot being found on the losing side, Lot not only lost all his possessions to the victorious invaders, but was taken captive and enslaved. But Abram with 318 men went to his rescue. After a daring and surprise night raid, and after the defeat of Lot’s captors, Lot returned to Soddom with all his wealth and animals.

I will not go on to relay the rest of the events, including the anticipatory nightmare of 400 years of enslavement in Egypt followed by freedom and escape with great wealth, birth of his children, first Ishmael by way of his concubine, Hagar, and then finally Isaac to the previously barren Sarai after Abram was renamed Abraham and Sarai was named Sarah. The story went on to tell of the covenant of the circumcision when an infant is eight days old.

Instead, I want to connect the first tale of Abram’s deceit in telling everyone, including the Pharaoh, that his beautiful wife Sarai was his sister, as a result of which Abram’s life was saved and presumably Sarai became the Pharaoh’s concubine and Abram became very wealthy in the process. Abram repeated the lie in Genesis 20:1-18, except then we learn that it was not quite a lie since Sarah was really his half-sister – same father, different mothers. What relationship does the lie have to Genesis 3 in the story leading to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden? Who deceives whom? And why?

One clue is that Abraham never takes responsibility for the lie for, literally, he was not lying. More importantly, Abraham blamed God for having had to tell a lie because, as Abraham said, it was God who sent him on his perilous journey, as if that excused his actions. And in those two ways, the Abraham story is a repetition of the Adam and Eve story. Both stories are about deceit, telling half truths, and about not taking responsibility for your actions. Abraham blames God. Adam blames Eve who, in turn, blames Adam’s penis.

That story starts with the cunning serpent who asks the woman in the Garden of Eden, “Did God indeed say, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden?’” The woman answers that God said that you should not eat of the tree in the midst of the garden or, she adds, even touch it lest you die.” The serpent responds that you will certainly not die. What will happen is that when you eat, your eyes will be open?  And you will know good and evil.

So who is lying? Or is anyone? Is this akin to the misleading statement that Abram told the Egyptians that Sarai was his sister and deliberately omitting to say that Sarai was his wife? God had warned – not commanded – that if you eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil death will be certain. The serpent had said that if you eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you will be like the angels knowing good and evil. Both are half-truths and, therefore, deceptions. Neither is a lie. For if you eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you will both know good and evil and you will also know that death is even more certain than taxes. When the woman tells God that the serpent deceived (הִשִּׁיאַנִי) her, she is really saying that she was tricked because the serpent never spelled out the consequences in full. But neither did God!

An aside. Last night I saw an excellent 2015 six million dollar netflix movie called Beasts of No Nation that surprisingly did not get a general release, evidently because the major movie chains boycotted the film because Netflix released it without waiting the normal 90 days after its general release. It was about the capture and conversion of a boy into becoming a child soldier in West Africa. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and adopted from a 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, the movie won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice International Film Festival and had a special presentation in Toronto at TIFF. Abraham Attah as Agu, the innocent, playful child who is made into a murderous child soldier and Idris Elba, the cunning Commandant who seduces Agu into becoming a murderer and, it is implied, physically as well, were both superb.

At one point in the story, the Commandant promises his boy soldiers that when they capture the next town, they will be rewarded with women who will really make their “soldiers” stand up. And that is the core of the movie. Children being seduced into both evil as well as strict and unquestioning obedience, and having their soldiers erect, though the former precedes the latter in the movie. In the Garden of Eden, the erect serpent, “the soldier” referred to in the movie, seduces Eve and says to her that she will be like the angels knowing evil versus good if she eats of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Abu was coerced and he became a “beast of no nation.” The woman in the Garden of Eden was seduced for she had a choice. She did not have to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But she saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food, that the tree itself was a delight to her eyes. Further, she was promised that wisdom would result. So she took of the fruit and ate. The woman added, she touched it as well. After all, Go had only warned her about eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She played with that tree. She ate of its fruit. As did her husband. So unlike Rashi, I do not see that the problem was that they had intercourse in public (ועוסקים בתשמיש לעין כל ונתאוה לה), and certainly not that they had intercourse at all. Sex in itself is no problem. Taking responsibility for it is, or at least blaming what happens on another. The feeling ashamed and engaging in a cover-up.

Note that in both the movie and the Genesis story, the erect serpent and the soldier are perceived as independent characters. So there are three characters in the story – the woman who would become Eve, the man who would become Adam, and the erect serpent soldier. However, unlike the soldiers in Beast with No Nation, it was a soldier not indoctrinated to unquestioning obedience. The serpent itself was cunning. It was the seducer, but as in the movie, as in most locker rooms across the world, whether called Oscar or Peter or a soldier, it was given a mind of its own. Which means that, like Abram, the would-be Adam took no responsibility for the actions of his soldier.

Then we have the birth of a culture of shame. Instead of owning up to what they did, they blamed others from When God called out, the man, instead of saying,                                                         הנה אניHine ani,” “I am here,” answered by saying that he was afraid to expose himself because he was naked. So he hid. God immediately knew he had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil for how else would would-be Adam be conscious that he was naked? God insisted that what he had issued was a commandment and not just a warning. The man then blamed his disobedience on woman for it was she who insisted that the fruit of the tree was worth eating.

As we all know, the consequences befall all three: the serpent becomes flaccid instead of erect and is even beneath the beasts of the field. Further, in addition to the politics of shame, the politics of denial and failure to take responsibility, the politics of resentment, are also born. The penis, instead of joining man and woman, instead of the seed of the man simply inseminating the egg of the woman, the penis becomes a bone of contention between them. It will become the Achilles’ heel of the man, and woman will nip away at that weakness. In turn, the male as a penis, but not yet an asshole, will, in revenge, try to continuously bite the head off the woman and turn her into thing of only flesh and blood. Childbirth will be painful, and not just in the physical sense. The husband will become the ruler and master in the relationship.

Together, they will travel on the historical road of responsibility and accountability.

The Niqab

An earlier version of this section of this series was published separately. It has now been rewritten in some parts.

  1. A Case Study of the Niqab

The jihab and the niqab become symbols as metaphors in our own self-transformation and definition.  The niqab is the veil worn by a small minority of Muslim women in this country. The following picture shows Zunera Ishaq with her niqab where the slit is very wide and the forehead and upper cheekbones can be seen. Many of us have seen Saudi women at airports where the slit is extremely narrow and some where even the eyes are covered by a netting as in wearing a burka.

The political issue arose over whether, when a person applies to become a Canadian citizen, they will be permitted to wear the veil in the public part of the ceremony. Of course, this is not how the issue was raised as part of electoral politics. The situation is made out as if it was about women being “forced” to hide their faces when they wish to become Canadian citizens. Or, at least, this is how our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his partners in the Conservative Party in Canada, framed the issue.

The following are the “facts”:

  1. Two women in Canada since 2011 have refused to take off their niqabs in the public ceremony, not in private, as a condition of becoming citizens.
  2. There is no law requiring them to take off their niqabs in such ceremonies.
  3. The government of Canada issued regulations banning the wearing of face veils when taking the oath of citizenship in the public ceremony.
  4. Zunera Ishaq, clearly no wilting rose, took the Government of Canada to court over the issue.
  5. She won her court case and, just recently, in the Federal Court of Appeal, won again.
  6. The courts have ruled that the Canada Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects Zunera Ishaq from being forced to remove her veil during the public part of the ceremony and that she should be given the right to wear and veil in the public ceremony, become a citizen and be allowed to vote in the forthcoming election on 19 October.
  7. The latest ruling by the Federal Court of Appeal was on 18 September.
  8. The Government of Canada even lost the subsequent court case asking for a stay in allowing Zunera Ishaq her rights.
  9. This is but one of a long series of cases where the current Government of Canada has sought through regulations to get around the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; the government has been thwarted at every turn by the Canadian courts.
  10. Note that, before participating in the public ceremony where the oath is taken, any applicant for citizenship must go through a number of steps to prove the applicant’s identity.
  11. Those steps include, in the name of the principle of political accommodation, that Zunera Ishaq remove her veil in private before a female official to establish her identity.
  12. The public ceremony is the formal part of the occasion, one that, if you ever attend, is very moving for almost all participants.
  13.  The Conservatives, as part of the election campaign, promised to “rectify” the matter by introducing legislation within 100 days of taking office that will require those applying for citizenship to take off face coverings during the formal ceremony confirming citizenship.
  14. They promised to do this without first hearing from the Supreme Court of Canada whether such legislation would be legal under the Canadian Constitution.
  15. The Conservative Party also signalled that it even plans to introduce legislation banning any federal employee from wearing a niqab when serving the public.
  16. Further, Catherine Loubier, a spokeswoman for the Conservative Party, stated that the niqab issue was part of the Conservative “agenda” as a well-established principle of the party, and that the party has simply benefited from a “coincidence.”
  17. The real issue is that Stephen Harper is the one really wearing a metaphorical niqab behind which he has been hiding to distract Canadians from really examining closely his mismanagement of the economy, his destruction of the “civil” dimension of the Canadian civil service and the myriad of other issues on which he has a deplorable record.
  18. The previous Quebec government tried to pass a Charter on Quebec values, in the tradition of France and in the name of religious secularism – in France, girls at school are banned from wearing a hijab, that is a headscarf. The previous provincial government introduced laws banning the wearing of any ostentatious religious symbols by Quebec officials and others in particular situations.
  19. The opposition parties came out strongly against the Government position based, not on whether they liked or disliked women wearing the niqab, but on the basis of human rights and upholding Canadian law and the constitution.
  20. One result, as established by polls, is that support for the New Democratic Party in Quebec, from which the party had most of their members of parliament and the vast majority of Quebec seats, fell precipitously at a cost of most of their seats, though there were other factors at work in that decline.

One cannot but admire how Tom Mulcair as leader of the New Democratic Party has handled the issue as a matter of principle in spite of the political backlash against his and his party’s views. However, while praising his principles, one can also be disappointed in the way he handled the spin. He based his objections on two issues – first on the rights of these Muslim women and the rule of law in Canada. Second, he attacked Harper for using such a politically miniscule issue to arouse ethnic and religious fears in Canada and a degree of hostility to Muslims in Canada that is beneath the surface. His principles may be admired and his diagnosis correct, but his ability at political counter-attack may not be.

Naheed Nenshi, the Muslim mayor of Calgary, and perhaps the most popular politician in Canada, offered a very spirited attack on the Conservative position. He did so, not because he is a member of any other political party to the best of my knowledge. He was just absolutely appalled by the position of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, Harper’s leading cabinet minister. Nenshi made the following points;

  1. He personally does not like the niqab and wishes people would not wear it.
  2. The wearing of the niqab may not be, for the women who wear it, a symbol of oppression and of masculine misogyny.
  3. The government’s position was contradictory for, in the name of supposedly protecting women against the oppression of their husbands, their families and their tradition, the government adopted the position of oppression to tell women what they can wear in certain circumstances even when they knew that Zunera Ishaq had not been pressured by her family to wear the niqab, but, to the contrary, had discouraged her from adopting the practice.
  4. The government has far more important issues to debate at an election that what two women in the last four years have chosen to wear at a public ceremony in which the oath of citizenship is sworn together with a larger group of applicants.
  5. Those issues include the disappearance of large numbers of aboriginal women; the Harper Government of Canada refused to set up a Commission of Inquiry.

In spite of Nenshi’s intervention, and that of many others, including very articulate Muslim women who would never wear a niqab, polls initially indicated that a majority of Canadians, not just in Quebec, supported the Conservative Party position. Léger Marketing found 82 per cent were in support of the policy nationally, and 93 per cent in favour in Quebec.

I am not a political spin doctor. But I would have advised a slightly different approach than that of either Tom Mulcair or even Naheed Neshi or Justin Trudeau for that matter. First, as Nenshi did, I would have indicated that I do not particularly like women wearing a niqab – but because I enjoy seeing the beauty in a woman’s face. Secondly, even though tattooing has grown in popularity, I have a very much stronger distaste for people who adorn themselves with tattoos and have been an oppressive father who banned my children, while supported by me, from ever getting a tattoo. Nevertheless, I would never think of passing a law or regulation banning this form of ostentatious personal identification by a civil servant, a student or an individual seeking to become a citizen.

But a tattoo does not hide a person’s identity. In fact, it establishes it more clearly – ask the number of criminals who have been caught because they were identified by the specific tattoo they wore. True enough, but the criterion espoused by Harper was his personal distaste for the behaviour of women wearing a niqab, since objective evidence and fact establish unequivocally that it is not an identity issue. I once had a woman who wore a niqab to my class and never had any difficulty whatsoever in identifying her, in fact even less difficulty than identifying most of my students – I was very bad at that very important skill.

The basic point is that my personal distaste, whatever it is and however much anyone agrees or disagrees with it, should not be the basis for making Canadian law or regulations. Further, it is not only I who say so. The Courts of Canada have ruled on this issue over and over again. My position on tattoos may be very appealing, especially to a number of older people who are appalled at the increasing propensity of young people to wear tattoos. But when it comes to public space and civil discourse, it is none of my business.

Mulcair and Nenshi attacked Stephen Harper for introducing such a trivial issue in an election because it was being used as a wedge issue for those who feared the influx of Muslims into Canada. That may be the case, but a vast majority of Canadians support Harper’s position. I do not believe they are anti-Muslim. They are against the practice of women wearing niqabs. The political issue, as opposed to constitutional one, is to focus the debate, not on the personal taste of the proponents of a ban, but on principles, the laws of Canada and the rights of women. But one can best, I believe, shift the focus of debate only once establishing an identity with those Canadians who are opposed to women wearing a niqab period.

The courts can decide what is lawful and not lawful with respect to dictates of the government re requirements of dress or tattoos. My personal distaste is irrelevant. Rights are. Respect is critical. Next to these principles, your or my distaste is irrelevant. What is most relevant is Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party’s effort on tramping on what I believe are prime Canadian values – tolerance, respect – not just acceptance – of others, and recognition that I should never make my personal tastes, whether for vanilla ice cream, diet colas or niqabs, a basis for making public policy.

I am clearly a partialist who belongs to the secular religion of human rights while, at the same time, I deny that this secular religion has any transcendental base or role. I also belong to the secular religion of humanitarianism, or what I have called the HRH secular religion, again without any claim that such a foundation has a universal transcendent status. On this, credit must be given where credit is due, The MRM religious secularists do not claim a transcendent status for their religious convictions. In interviews with them, I found them to be immune to falsification even when presented with contradictory evidence, immune to considerations of contradictions in their position, and stubbornly intent on repeating over and over again the party line. But they were quite proud to insist it was their party line and made no claims to the universal status of their position. In contrast, members of the HRH secular religion were much more open to falsification, much more willing to critique and examine their claims, much more protean in the defence of their positions, but stubbornly insistent that the foundations of their belief were unassailable and universal.

Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society

Part II: Cases


  1. Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society

“Solidarity Forever,” written by a member of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies), Ralph Caplin, in 1915, and sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was the most widely belted out tune by the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) when I was a kid. It was the anthem of the Jewish communist organization. It was popular among unions and socialist groups. We sang it at our non-communist summer camp and it was adopted by the social and racial protest groups of the sixties in which communists played a very minor role. When I was active in the cooperative movement in my twenties, however, the “Battle Hymn of Cooperation” was sometimes sung as a substitute and rival. The words of the original are as follows:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,

But the union makes us strong.



Solidarity forever,

Solidarity forever,

Solidarity forever,

For the union makes us strong.

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,

Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?

Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?

For the union makes us strong.


It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;

Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;

Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;

But the union makes us strong.


All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.

We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.

It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.

While the union makes us strong.


They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.

We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn

That the union makes us strong.


In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,

Greater than the might of armies, multiplied a thousand-fold.

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old

For the union makes us strong.

The themes are simple. The lone individual is weak. The collective – in this case the collective of the trade and labour union – makes us strong. Why do we need that unity and strength that comes through membership in a worker’s union? Because the employers, the capitalists, the greedy parasites and idle drones, are exploiters who would, if they could, turn workers into serfs, even though what you see all around you has been built by those workers and is ostensibly owned by those workers. Yet when times get tough, workers are dispensable even though what has been constructed, what feeds us, has been built and supplied by those very same workers. The only way we can repossess what was once rightly ours is to break the power of the capitalists. The only way to do that is through the union, through solidarity. That is the only way that the exploitive character of the capitalist system can be overthrown and a new world order rise from its ashes.

Why were we singing this song in camps in the forties and fifties and in the protest marches against nuclear testing and then against racial segregation in the sixties? The words did not match our positions, our beliefs or our role as students, at least for the vast majority of us. We did not think of capitalists as slave drivers and exploiters, idle drones and parasites. Workers in unions were earning good wages. Nor did we in the New Left believe that the individual was powerless without belonging to a collectivity.

I raise this issue for two reasons. First I want to introduce the vertical bar of power and the horizontal bar of solidarity. The premise of the song is that the less power you have, the closer you are to the bottom of the vertical bar of power, the wider and the more unity needed in the horizontal cross bar of solidarity. The undisclosed ironic premise was also that, in such a world view, more coercion was required to maintain and enhance that solidarity. The union was not just the aggregation of individual interests, but a larger entity to which the individual owed his or her proportionate rewards.

The second reason is because I want to telegraph a theme – the incongruity between what we said and sung and our own predominant values. In the sixties in the nuclear protest movement and in the striving for the rights of those who suffered from racial discrimination and social injustice, we did not identify with their struggle because we experienced the absence of power at the root of their suffering or because we shared in their interests. Nor did we believe that the ruling order was intent on blowing us all up or even were just lackeys of the military-industrial complex. Nor were they drones and exploiters. They were just politicians inattentive to our priorities, values and concerns. Countervailing power was not needed to bring them around. Pressure and education would be sufficient to influence them. Nevertheless, we sang the old Wobbly union song to express our solidarity with the downtrodden and those who were racially excluded or segregated in inferior situations. We wanted solidarity among people with very different interests and we did not believe that we needed power to challenge power.

These incongruencies and contradictions are apparent in periods of historical transformation. In the sixties we were in the final stages of society’s transformation from a modern society based on rights and freedoms. Solidarity played a very ambiguous role no longer linked to the acquisition of coercive power. The secular religion that developed vied with a secularist religion which relegated both morality and traditional religion to the private sphere as it manipulated to acquire and hold power in partnership with economic interests that worshipped at the feet of the idol of the free-market. This was the new postmodern world. In this world, traditional religion was sidelined. The two forms of religious secularism occupied the main space. To understand the character of this shift, it is necessary to offer a very potted overview of fundamental paradigm shifts in the structure of our beliefs, thoughts and passions. But first a note on coercive power.

Solidarity is horizontal. It attacks the problem of how one achieves unity among a myriad of individuals. There are three dimensions to that effort. The first is power, the vertical bar discussed above. It has two faces – the creative use of the energy of each of the members of the group and the group as a whole, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the way coercion is applied to exclude outsiders, identify outsiders as threats and enemies, and promise security and protection for the members within the collectivity.

The second dimension is influence. That influence may be material focused on how an organization serves and enhances the material interests of its members to maintain their sense of identity and inhibit a desire to leave – exit. Alternatively, that influence entails ideas and ideology, a common set of principles and values to bestir loyalty and a system for ensuring input to defining those values. The third is authority which also has two faces.  On the one hand, there are the formal rules and regulations by and through which the organization is run. The tensions between the coercive versus creative uses of power and the competing interests and ideas are provided with boundaries by those rules and regulations. However, those same rules and regulations do not let us discern whether the leadership is authentic behind that exercise of authority or whether the authority is merely formal. Does the leadership represent the interests and articulate the best ideas to allow the organization to persevere with the minimal application of coercion or does the leadership simply pick and choose among rules and regulations as an exercise of power (Adelman 1976)?

How does one know whether the authority of an organization or the state as a whole is being used in a manipulative way or, alternatively, to represent the interests and values of an organization? One clue is whether the leadership emphasizes and exaggerates the role and place of external enemies and plays on the fear of its members about dangers from within or without, and, in turn, induces flight and exit from that collectivity altogether. On the other hand, to what extent are ideals allowed and encouraged, to what extent are interests represented? And how is authority actually exercised? These various dimensions of authority, influence and power determine the degree of solidarity of a group. This essay, will, however, primarily focus on the interaction of power and solidarity and largely bracket the other two dimensions. But a few notes on authority and influence first.

In the case of the solidarity which we praised and sang hymns to in my youth, we were free of any authority of any organizational rules which governed our behaviour. Further, we usually had leaders truly identified with the interests and values of the membership since there were few material or other rewards. Authentic authority counted, not formal authority. In the area of interests, we were fighting for interests that were either not our own (people suffering from racial discrimination or, in the case of aboriginal Canadians, from neglect and material exclusion), though in the beginning in the nuclear disarmament movement we were focused on interests that were our own and, as in the contemporary environmental movement, interests that encompassed us all. We fought battles through ideas, not material influence. But most of all, we fought against the misuse of coercive power that could end up blowing up the whole world in the name of providing for our collective security.

Because we ourselves lacked coercive power, because the authority of the organizations were weak and the continuation ephemeral, and because we had never really worked out how to reconcile power and authority while enhancing both material and intellectual creativity, we could sing songs of solidarity with a substantial message that had virtually nothing to do with reality. They were the hymns of the Old Left adopted by the New Left already inhabiting a very different world. The totally apparent contradictions of the hymns offered the best clue that the issue of solidarity in reconciling power, influence and authority had not been resolved.

We were not free of identifying an enemy without (the political-industrial complex), though most of us eschewed such simplistic reification of those responsible for the nuclear arms race. The common interests were usually one-themed objectives – stopping nuclear testing and the production of strontium 90 that got into the milk of babies. The organizations fostered open dissent and disagreement, but had difficulty working out methods of resolving fundamental differences that avoided exit or sectarianism. (Hirschman 1970). For the core question with respect to solidarity is who is included and who excluded. In our modern states, this fundamentally revolves around the basic question of who can and cannot become citizens of that state and the entry or exit routes for that decision.

On the level of solidarity, the major question is one of either exit or participation. There are two basic alternatives:

  1. A normative method, such as in traditional religion or in what I argue are the elements of a new secular religion, wherein every individual is instilled with a common set of rules and practices that are internalized to form habits. In that way, political systems need the least coercive power to attain and maintain solidarity while fostering individual freedom;
  2. Structural control so that system of distribution of power as defined formally wherein that formal system infuses every relationship and provides a hierarchy of power and stratification that defines how power is distributed and how influence, both material and ideological, may be exercised.

There are three routes to travel in dealing with these two alternatives. On the one hand, the principle of solidarity may take from traditional religion the internalization of rules, values and practices, and, via state structures, the system of authority and organization of power in a dialectical tension to promote the self-realization of the individual. Second, one can break away from a system of internalizing rules altogether and foster material self-interest through the discipline of economic market forces now operating globally on the foundations of an ostensible rational choice model. Third, one can build a system which decreasingly rests on the rule of any law, internalized or external, though often using traditional internalized rules and practices to undermine the rule of law, and instead rest authority on a single leader or party, usually married to nationalism, as the way of translating and using the rules of the traditional religion to foster a new one.

This is the case in Putin’s Russia or in Iran’s theocracy or Egypt’s military state or in a host of would-bes, with a particular concentration in states where one sect or other of Islam is ascendant, and corrupt. Authoritarian governments and leaders disrespect internalized norms of traditional religion that foster tolerance and respect for differences. Instead, they use external norms and dress codes to control populations, particularly the population of women. Most of all, these regimes rely on fear to keep their populations in line. Stephen Harper’s divisive efforts in Canada and disrespect for many established democratic norms, however much hated by a majority of Canadians, have been a very weak and insipid version of such mechanisms.

Western democracies faced with these two outliers find that the political party most wedded ideologically to both extremes – the worship of the free market with minimal political input and the worship of an authoritarian leader – also generally emphasize most of all a set of values inculcated through habits and traditional practices, usually religious, to foster solidarity. That religious secularism has the strongest tendency to rely on the politics of fear. That party also faces an opposition that tries to meld market forces that are policed and governed by polities and the rule of law, with political institutions that protect against authoritarian tendencies by marrying the internal coherence of the market with lawful authority through the new religion of universal human rights. Unfortunately, the effort operates as an abstraction representing the actual invisible and internalized practices fostering tolerance in such a society. As such, that opposition lacks the power and appeal of such forces for bonding as nationalism. Inability to foster loyalty and solidarity is the Achilles’ heel of the religious secularism of HRH.

I will next spell out how these tensions manifest themselves in one case study of citizenship rites and another case study of refugee policy in Canada, particularly the policy on the intake of Syrian refugees.

The Symposium: State, Society and Contemporary Competing Religions

  1. The Symposium: State, Society and Contemporary Competing Religions

I believe it will be helpful if I place myself within the context of the positions of the other participants of the symposium where this paper was initially presented.[1] As I will try to show, most of the other papers presented an aspect of one of the contemporary secular religions that I have dubbed HRH religious secularism.

Simone Chambers, who has previously written on democratic theory and secularism as well as the role of civility in public political discourse, in her paper “Towards Radically Inclusive Citizenship,” essentially offered four types of internalized values and rules that do or should govern conduct in the public sphere. They were:

  1. civility
  2. accessibility to others through the use of reason
  3. accountability by others by allowing for critique
  4. respect for and openness to outliers for inclusion.[2]

This was an attempt to codify the internalized norms of our contemporary liberal secular religion concerned with fostering reason, tolerance and accommodation in the public sphere. It has an appeal across many traditional religious lines, particularly traditional religions committed to universal humanitarianism – the Mennonites and the Christian Reformed Church. Like traditional religions, the HRH secular religion, which incorporates the above principles, internalizes a set of values and rules in a set of attitudes and practices. This is the religion of public reason that goes beyond individual human rights to try to define what holds us together as a collective. The rules enunciated and brought to the surface are based on a religion of secular liberal civility without any appeal to authority. I identify this as one of the contemporary secular religions.

This liberal secular religion is in competition with another secular religion that could be labeled as classical liberal, one that draws a heavy line between state and religion, or as conservative because within the private sphere it is wedded to the preservation of traditional cultures and senses of morality, or Machiavellian and manipulative because it empties the public sphere of any moral compass and allows the contention for power to be determined primarily by Machiavellian manipulation in the quest to acquire and hold power. Because of the latter characteristic, I have labelled it as MMP religious secularism. There is no presumption in this polar categorization that the religion of liberal humanitarian secularism that I have labeled the HRH secular religion is or should be the overriding catholic religion which unites us all or that its claims to universal validity are sound.

Phil Triadafilipoulos, whose scholarship focuses on immigration and citizenship policies that reflect and reconfigure boundaries of national belonging in liberal-democratic states (to which I will refer in more detail in my case study of Stephen Harper’s refugee policies), in his paper on, “Debates over Religious Accommodation and Competitive Group Formation: Evidence from Canada and Germany,” argued that such debates are not so much expressions of the implicit rules of a liberal society around which solidarity can be maintained, but the result of competing group formation and boundary construction. In that interpretation, the rules proposed by Simone are efforts to define the boundaries of “liberals” in Western societies, an effort characteristic of any religious organization in its effort to maintain a coherent group identity. The identity now sought is of those who support a liberal polity.

This means that the liberal community not only competes with the norms of some religious traditionalists, as in the abortion debate, but with the religion of secular conservatives, what I have called the secular religion of manipulation and mastery to acquire and retain political power, the MMP secular religion. It is the one contemporary secular religion that is most closely connected first to the idolatrous worship of an unbridled free market in the economy and a specific type of traditional religion, usually labelled evangelical.

Both secular religions (HRH and MMP), at the same time as they define their own identity, compete to win over the floaters, those wedded neither to a liberal nor a conservative view of the world. Simone’s rules really only represent the religious norms of a liberal secular religion. They are not the shared values of all of us. Further, within the ranks of HRH religious secularists, there are extremist puritans who constitute a distinct sect.

For example, in the case presented by Phil on the clash over male circumcision in Germany, the protesters took up the mantra that infants have the right to their own bodies and no one has the right to mutilate them. This position clashed with Jews and Muslims for whom male circumcision is a sacred right.  In this case, the protesters battling male circumcision “as a barbaric practice,” (a phrase Stephen Harper and his Cabinet Ministers used to characterize the wearing of the niqab in his campaign to retain office as Prime Minister of Canada), based their attack on a practice of traditional religions. They were joined by many very liberal clergy. Jews and Muslims were relegated to being traditionalists currently defending against the attacks of the believers in the liberal secular religion of rights, even though most Jews also belong to the secular religion of rights and humanitarianism. Freedom of religion was not protected by the puritanical proponents of the liberal secular religion, but absolutely subordinated to the values of the new system of beliefs when traditions crossed the puritanical red lines of the new religion.

In other words, I accept very definitively Phil’s suggestion that any religion defines itself in contention with other religions by specifying public practices that are acceptable or unacceptable. If one is a liberal humanitarian who largely rests his or her belief on rights, then this is normally an indication that the individual belongs to progressive religious secularism that I have dubbed the HRH religious secularism. However, if one is aligned with the other secular religion, the conservative one that relegates religion to the private sphere, if one holds that the public space is about who obtains and holds power and really not in the end about values, then these characterize Machiavellian behaviour. This is the secular religion of power politics that I have dubbed the central belief and practice of an MMP religious secularism. Further, both HRH and MMP as secular religions remain undeveloped and currently only consecrate norms that govern conduct and attitude. Neither has matured in developing a specific set of virtues or the rites and ceremonies that will reinforce the rules held sacred by that religion.

That problem is a general one for various types of both traditional and secular religion. The development of virtue has been largely left behind and relegated to the periphery by the contending secular religions and their sects, though different traditional religions retain an emphasis on different sets of values and practices still found in the most traditional of non-secular religions.

Many American universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures. But over the course of the 20th century they became officially or effectively secular. Religious rituals like mandatory chapel services were dropped. Academic research and teaching replaced character formation at the core of the university’s mission. Administrators and professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription either because they didn’t know what to say or because they didn’t want to alienate any part of their diversifying constituencies. The humanities departments became less important, while parents ratcheted up the pressure for career training.[3]

David Brooks, the well-loved New York conservative columnist, became a traditionalist Jew through the efforts of his wife, a convert to Judaism. As he describes himself and the workings of his conscious and unconscious existence, “Judaism’s powerful laws, customs and rituals — the understructure of life — [became] embedded in the mind,” his mind. And for Brooks, that embedding is valuable, whether that embedding is the result of secular or traditional religious sources.

But what happens when the secular religion of human rights, especially puritan members within HRH, clash with the values and norms of traditionalists, especially those who also consider themselves small “l” liberals even if they are, to some degree, social conservatives? For that is what happened in the debate over ritual circumcision in Germany. Political conservatives joined with many traditionalist religious followers to defeat the secular religious effort of the puritanical liberals lest they repeat what happened in Sweden and South Africa. There they succeeded in creating an alliance that banned ritual circumcision of boys before the age of consent.

The secular religions are not about virtues, but about those very rules of discourse and debate that Simone reviewed as the basis of what I call the new liberal religious secularism (HRH) to which contemporary universities largely adhere. For although universities have given up the task and obligation of teaching virtue based on the classics, they do concentrate on inculcating social rather than personal norms, such as tolerance and a respect for diversity. The religion of procedural liberal universalism based on rights and humanitarianism is generally supreme in universities. The classical religions of virtue are not generally taught in universities today. Neither is the doctrine of Machiavellian acquisition of power characteristic of the public sphere, for those who truly and deeply believe in the so-called relegation of traditional religion to the private sphere.

Ronald Kuipers, Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics
and Associate Professor, Philosophy of Religion at the University of Toronto, wrote a very interesting overview on Richard Rorty (2013) that is particularly strong in analyzing his ironic liberal approach to philosophy and his anti-clericalism. In Kuipers’ paper, “Towards a Radically Inclusive Citizenship,” he offered one answer to the issue of various types of traditionalists either warring against the new dominant religions of secular liberalism within the body politic of the nation. He focused on the radical separation of science and religion rather than the private versus the public sphere. Each traditional religion forges its own partnerships with some secular ones. Ironically, the secular religion of rights forges partnerships with religious traditionalists, such as those with a very deep commitment to social justice, but is unable to form alliances with so-called evangelicals who focus much more on individualism and individual salvation more particularly. The secular religion of power, again ironically, defends and usually relegates the traditional religions to the realm of “private belief systems’ in opposition to secular religious norms that attempt to define the values of and for our public space to govern and provide boundaries to the quest for and distribution of power.

Ronald on his bio page wrote the following:

What is faith today? What does it mean to be a Christian in a secular age? In today’s world, the act of continuing to identify with an ancient religious tradition can seem outdated. Modern Western society demands that we answer the invidious question, ‘Do you believe in God, or Science?’ But what happens to religion and faith when we force them to fit within the frame of a scientistic culture, one in which all of reality is reduced to what may be discovered through the quantifiable methods of the physical sciences alone, while everything beyond that is understood as mere wishful human projection on an otherwise meaningless cosmos? In this picture, faith becomes readily understood as a form of intellectual assent to propositions whose scientific warrant is dubious at best…The reformational tradition has taught me that Christianity, if it is anything at all, is a holistic pattern of living, and not simply a matter of intellectual believing. More than that, Christianity remains a live option for those living in a scientistic culture because it can still fuel our ability to imagine relevant alternatives for contemporary human existence than those our scientistic culture affords. My work in the philosophy of religion takes up Wittgenstein’s challenge to speak an old language that yet belongs to a newer world. In so doing, I hope we may retrieve redemptive possibilities for our current existence, possibilities that our current culture has trouble envisioning.

Redemptive possibilities in Christianity are personal and do not define public space. Ronald’s response to the failed effort to hive off traditional religious practices and the alienation religious conservatives experience is to offer a set of strategies for reconciling the traditional and what I call secular religions, leaving aside the sects within each one of them[4]. In an effort at defining principles of reasonable accommodation that can be absorbed and imbibed by each religion, he tries to define the responsibilities of the secularists and those of the traditionalists who also had to adapt to assume and partake in the responsibilities of citizenship. Kuipers articulates the cultural factors in society that might help each of these faiths to engage in such accommodation rooted in the writings of Vico, Hugo Grotius, John Locke, Hegel and Charles Taylor.

He offers a set of overarching norms – accommodation and tolerance, inclusion versus exclusion, participation as opposed to passivity for all. I interpret him as simply advocating a larger view of the dominant liberal secular religion, selecting those norms governing the public space that are acceptable to most religions as well as the dominant secular one. But it is a mug’s game. For though the thesis deals with members who primarily define their religion in terms of affiliation, it leaves out those who define their religion in terms of beliefs, particularly beliefs that clash with the dominant culture. Though Ronald is clearly out to reconcile a life of faith with the dominant secular religion, yet one asks: what and where is the place for those who define religiosity in terms of commitment and giving witness to one’s beliefs? As adjuncts to the dominant secular religion? As supernumeraries to provide a traditional scaffolding for the new secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism?

Finally, Ronald omits the cultivation of virtue since the liberal secular belief system applies to public norms, usually norms governing discourse in the public sphere. This omission becomes acute when religion is defined as private and the public sphere is left as the space for the work of the devil where Machiavellianism holds sway. Though his thesis is compatible with, even if not integrated into, the secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism, it seems to have little to say to secular traditionalists who believe in the primacy of ensuring security for the public so that they may practice their religion peacefully and in private. Further, the virtues of honesty and telling the truth are bracketed. That demoralizes their liberal secularist allies, especially since the latter also claim to speak for one branch of religious traditionalists.

Ingrid Mattson, a Muslim religious leader and scholar, offered a complementary effort to resolve the impasse between the secularist religions and the traditional ones by stressing practices rather than beliefs and certainly not affiliations. What does she offer as the principles governing the public space where conservative secularists and liberal secularists, where traditional religious believers who retreat from the private sphere or reverse that propensity and try to recapture the public sphere, where these traditionalists war with both their alienated liberal traditionalists and liberal secularists, and where even puritanical versus tolerant liberal secularists clash with one another? Her suggestions for overarching norms include prohibitions against harming another and obligations to assist others in need, to do good rather than harm. These initially appear to be transcendent norms since both religious traditionalists and liberal secularists believe in them. But what about those religious traditionalists who uphold the radical separation of religion and state and believe that the public realm is the space for Machiavellianism and manipulation? How does one reconcile such norms with traditionalists who regard the public sphere as the realm for divisive rather than inclusionary politics? In the process, MMR religious secularism may undermine trust in government altogether and relegate legitimacy to a sideshow. The adherents also usually bracket inflicting harm on another when the “other” is regarded as alien and obligations to offer assistance to their own religious tribe and its allies in the secular world are taken to be primary. In the process, the whole idea of transcendent norms is undermined.

What seems clear to me is that my fellow participants in the symposium were simply advocates of one version or another of liberal religious secularism as the foundation for including religious traditionalism in the discourse within the body politic. Mary Jo Leddy, the closest approximation to a saint that I ever have known and a member of my own panel, complemented Ingrid Mattson’s stress on a caring culture and core values, but drawn from traditional belief rather than contemporary humanitarian liberalism. Sharing rather than ownership was the mantra. But this stance merely relegated economic conservatives to the sidelines and never directly dealt with the clash between and among the various beliefs systems and their respective sects. Mary Jo promoted the effort to promulgate a doctrine of accepting responsibility for our public space rather than having our private spaces of possessive individualism dominate and even have a virtual monopoly over the public sphere. As I understand Mary Jo, she wanted to relegate the religious secularism of business that favoured low taxes and minimal government, the antithesis to Mary Jo’s definition of the transcending religion governing our public space, to an inferior and even alien status.

Ben Schewel, the other member of my panel, delivered a very rich paper entitled, “Comparative religious ethics and the problems of forced migration” which intersected with an area of my expertise other than ethics. I have also written on the important role of traditional faith groups and their contributions to the protection and resettlement of refugees. Schewel focused on the ethical concepts originating from faith groups that permeate the discussions of forced migration. Through this route, Schewel sought another route to define the transcendental values and norms that purportedly embrace these traditional religious efforts as well as the norms protecting refugees in contemporary society. He did this by probing the realms of convergence.

He began by dividing academics who discuss religion and the public sphere into partialists and impartialists. Michael Walzer was an example of a partialist who contended that the public sphere is a realm of contention among various communities with different but overlapping norms and beliefs. Peter Singer was offered up as an example of an impartialist, that is, someone who bases his views on what are contended to be universal norms. Schewel would likely classify me as a partialist, I believe, the only one on the program in the symposium. However, I characterize myself as an impartial partialist, someone who sees the whole range of partialists and so-called impartialists, while speaking from my own perspective which I claim to be more encompassing than those normative advocates who are on the side of the angels defending caring and sharing, tolerance and rational discourse, rights and responsibilities. However, I would fit in with his thesis that in the dialectical interaction of secularist and traditional religions, each is transformed by the other in that interaction.

The last keynote speaker was Armando Salvatore. His keynote talk was too intricate and complex to easily summarize, except to suggest that he was arguing in the tradition of Jurgen Habermäs and Charles Taylor. But the main voice he reflected was that of Karl Jaspers, especially his conception of the Axial Age when many of the so-called world religions emerged out of the womb of history. He also dissected the idea of transcendence sought by traditional religious thinkers into three distinct meanings:

  1. A standpoint from which one can offer a critique;
  2. A second order kind of framing;
  3. The convergence of the cognitive and ethical that looks at the subject as a whole, but sacrifices any serious consideration of rites.

The combined result of this tripartite reach for transcendence was the construction of a disembodied self that became the foundation of a new axial age and ushered in modernity, not only in Europe, but also in the Islamic world and Asia. (The latter received only glancing attention, and then only in the discussion of developments in Japan focused on order and stability in an age of large scale migration and human movement.) This was followed by a detailed account of this emergence in the Christian world through the work of Franciscans and Dominicans, in which (from St. Thomas Aquinas) caritas, healing, compassion directed at the other, and the self-sacrifice of chosen poverty, became central themes, themes clearly compatible with the modern liberal religious secularist culture of humanitarianism and rights.

In Islam, the trajectory followed a different path because it was more differentiated as well as more cross-border. Further, the emphasis was not on caritas or self-denial, but on knowledge and developing a didactic formulaic and a dyadic relationship between self and other, stressing victimization, on the one hand, and innovation and change on the other hand. Charisma also took a central place in the process. But the goal was the same – to provide a ground for political legitimation as Islam became an urban religion and also became noteworthy for its extremism. Like its Christian counterpart, the process yielded the idea of a public sphere, however one that instantiated a social hierarchy in that realm instead of permitting traditional religion to be relegated to the private sphere.

When what we are actually observing is the rise of an idolatrous form of religion that treats a finite nation-state as an infinite good (2011), when religion no longer contains other spheres within its compass, but rather acts as a separate realm that demands influence from its own position of distinction, there is no transcendental foundation as much as liberal religious traditionalists and liberal religious secularists wish there was.

What is the alternative to a transcendent voice of reason and an underpinning in universal norms that does not surrender to Machiavellianism becoming the dominant ethic governing the public sphere?

[1] “Religion and Citizenship in a Post-Secular Society,” University of Toronto, 2 October 2015.

[2] As an aside, Stephen Harper, Canada’s soon to be former Prime Minister at the time of this writing, is not an observer of the rites and rituals, nor holds to the beliefs and practices, nor belongs to or validates the institutions of the HRH secular religion. His attacks on certain symbols are a clear indicator. Of the four principles above, he does adhere to the deep Canadian value of civility, but he has been a leading figure in undermining the other three in upholding the principle of accessibility – he avoids not only press conferences that are not under his tight control, but denies the press access to civil servants. Nor are civil servants accorded rights of free expression on even scientific issues. Through omnibus parliamentary bills and a host of other measures, including the firing of civil servants expressly put in place to guarantee accountability, he has done his best to destroy that principle and contributed to Canada’s current democratic deficit. Most of all, he has been a politician of divisiveness and exclusion.

[3] David Brooks (2015) “Politics, culture and the social sciences,” The New York Times, 5 October.

[4] Think of John C. Calhoun writing in the years before the American Civil War demanding that the rights of minorities – those who believed in slavery – and of states within the federal system, be respected and protected by the majority.

Religion: A Philosophical and Historical Overview

Religion, Solidarity and Power


  1. A Philosophical & Historical Overview

In the ancient world, politics was the means of expressing the will of God and/or the nature of man. The principles were given. The issue was to interpret that will and/or nature; there was no separation of the religious and the secular. Further, horizontal solidarity and the vertical distribution of power were complementary. One enjoyed solidarity within one’s allotted class and a stable order as long as the “natural” distribution of power was recognized.

The enlightenment changed all that. Instead of the will of God or the nature of man, the foundation became the will of man and man’s mastery of nature in the construction of the social and political order. Nature was no longer regarded as a problem of custodial care. Humans saw themselves as entitled to an unbridled use of labour and thought allowing an unhampered exploitation of nature and its conversion into art-i-facts and possessions. The unnatural laws of the economic market provided the governing norms, not divine sanction. The inversion that made human will primary was accompanied by the separation of the secular and the religious, the separation of state and church. Politics became an issue of possibility, of change. Even for conservatives, the issue was and remained who could manage that change to best maintain stability. In the process, art itself was revolutionized; it became a construct rather than an imitation of reality or the icons of a holy world. Self-creation replaced mimesis as the modus operandi.

This was as true of the sciences as the humanities. Science was not discovering “natural laws,” but patterns and laws that best explained nature. Science itself became a process, a methodology of providing a disciplined way to sort out competing claims or constructs. Religion was relegated to the realm of personal belief and faith while science became the expression of reason and art the expression of the imagination unleashed even from the boundaries of nature.

Kant wanted to give a boundary to the natural world to make room for faith. Further, epistemology, knowing the world itself, was based on universal premises that were preconditions for any scientific knowledge rather than products of science. Thus, in the realm of science, the proposition that every event has a cause is not a scientific conclusion, but a universal principle without which there could be no science whatsoever. In the realm of practical as distinct from pure reason, of prescription rather than description, the universal premise that one should treat every other human as an end and not as a means was not a moral proposition itself, but the necessary condition of having and living in a moral world at all.

Hegel turned Kant on his head and inside out. Religion, the path of spirit, was to be found in the development of science, even in the development of classical and ancient belief and thought that brought us to the realm of reason. But the realm of reason that did not recognize the historical revelations of spirit, the premise of the enlightenment based on the separation of religion and the state, of faith and science, of unreason and unreason, was to be discovered in the reason of irrationality and the irrationality of reason, of the quest for mastery over self and an Other in the quest for recognition. With the re-emergence of the realm of spirit and the realm of nature, of faith and of reason, the seeds of the post-enlightenment had been sewn. The highest achievement and realization was not the realm of reason, but the realm of spirit, in what we now refer to as post-secularism that Schewel has dissected so well in his writings (2014).

In politics, reason was embodied in and expressed through the state; the state was supposed to be the highest expression of reason. Spirit was expressed through the nation and the sinews that kept people of the same nation wedded to common values. The spirit of a nation trumped even the commanding heights of the state. In the end, the state was not there simply to serve instrumental reason, which in turn served the functioning of the state. It was the expression and protector of that national spirit. That vision differed radically from Fichte for whom the spirit of a nation became the ultimate measure; for Hegel, the spirit of a nation was bounded by reason and subjected to its critique.

In this nascent postmodern vision, man was no longer viewed as having an intrinsic nature but, instead, was viewed as a “product of his time” and a person through whom that time received expression and articulation. In this sense, in history we began witnessing the marriage – not the merger – of traditional religion and the secular which finally characterizes the nascent stage of the new post-enlightenment order that we are all living through.

Instead of reading a sacred text: “In the beginning of God’s creating the heaven and the earth,” instead of reading a scientific treatise about the objectification and evolution of the natural world independent of any spirit, the sprit was viewed as a place where this new non-natural evolution took place as spirit tries to recognize itself in his or her own actions. The most significant element in this process of self-recognition of oneself, and oneself at one with the world, was language. In the classical age, God said and there was. Language, whether used by God to create the world or by humans to identify different species, was the vehicle for the world coming to be and to be known.

That shifted with the enlightenment. Language was reduced to describing rather than determining the world. The job came to be checking the degree to which our words corresponded with the “facts” out there, and then whether our categories and our laws did. Instead of Truth being determined by an all-knowing, all powerful deity, the world decided what was and what was not true. However, in our current post-modern world, God doesn’t decide, nor we as the instrument for God’s will. Neither does the world decide. Practice, convention and custom make that determination. In that case, the realm of the political becomes much more about the boundaries of practice and belief acceptable to the rest of the community. We observe the birth of secular religions.

In 1912, secularism was consecrated as the official religion of France (Baubérot[1] 1990; 1994; 1998; 2007a; 2007b). The notion of secular (laïque) of course emerged much earlier, even before the French Revolution. In the gestation period, laïcité consisted of the gradual disassociation of state institutions from the Roman Catholic Church. In his blog on 29 September, Baubérot reiterated his long-held view that, “since Durkheim, a sociological literature shows that there is a social sacred, which may very well be secular.” He has also differentiated between laïcité as political secularism and secularization which entails the protection of individual political choice. Even though Jean Baubérot, to the best of my knowledge, never directly called laïcité or political secularism a religion, his writings on laïcité are invaluable in understanding it as a religion.

Quebec more recently has tried to follow the example of France. The English world was more tolerant. In Canada as a whole in 2015, the target was the niqab being worn when one joined and pledged allegiance to the modern extended family, the state. In that part of the country much more influenced by French beliefs and practices, much more determined to define the national family as Quebeçois rather than Canadian, one would be banned from wearing the niqab when conducting any transaction between the public and the state. The prohibition would not simply be restricted to when one swore an oath of citizenship.

The fewer these matters affected – 200 school girls in France, two Muslim Canadians who insisted they wear the niqab for the portion of the ceremony of oaths that was public – the greater the importance seemed in the life of the nation and the greater the public controversy over the practice. Those who swore their allegiance to the secular religion of human rights labelled such bans intolerable and a challenge to human rights and freedom. But those who sought to define the re-marriage of the secular and the religion in more classical terms of rites rather than rights, seemed to have the greater sense of what is missing in the modern enlightened world. They appeared more sensitive to the epidemic of alienation, to what it meant to define an individual separate from his or her community as the foundation for society.

The religious secular battles took place over symbols and practices about covering the head and/or the face. However, since we had already left the historical period of modernity when the world would decide which secular religious practice would prevail, the attitude of the community rather than a realm of universal rights and freedoms would determine the outcome, not via a court of law which consistently ruled in favour of a secularism based on the sacred state of human rights and protection of the individual. Secularization itself became a secular religion which divorced itself from religion altogether and was consecrated by the courts. I call that secular religion founded on the sacred priority of human rights and humanitarianism HRH secularism.

However, in the court of public opinion in deep need of costumes and colours and uniforms to decide the fracture lines that divide one community from another, the secular political religion became a variety of versions of laïcité. Political state clerics took over responsibility from church clerics for determining acceptable public costuming in the name of the separation of church from state. By relegating morality to the private sphere, the public arena allowed, no, was encouraged to become the realm for manipulation and mastery of the instruments of power and authority. I call this competing secular religion MMP secularism.

If we speak, rather than having our actions governed by universal natural rights and freedoms, if the words we speak, especially the oaths we swear, cause us to determine the beliefs we have, then subjectivity reigns and is reified by modes of costuming that declare the primary community to which we owe our allegiance, whether that costuming be the colours and styles of a biker gang, the style of dress of one sect in a high school versus another, the costumes of sports fans and their idols, or the minimal standards of dress of a whole nation. So just when the language of rights and freedoms had ostensibly achieved legal supremacy as the epitome of modernity, it was being undermined by the new wave of post-modernity and all in the name of “conserving” our values. In this new world that was being created by defenders of the old “old” world, reality was what we made through our language, and not by a reality independent of the words we use, the language we adopt and the practices we deem to be “sacred”.

In the Greek classical world, an outcome was best determined by those who argued best. In the classical Hebrew world, it was determined by those who interpreted text best. In the modern enlightenment, those practices were determined by a natural world independent of ourselves. But in the post-modern world, conventions were ordained by the will of the community. “We” determine who we are and nowhere and no time is that determination made clearer than when “we” invite “they” to join our community, to join our family. MMP secularism tries to bury modernity and make “we” rather than the transcendental “I” of modernity the trump card for self-determination.

We determine how we should be responsible and to whom we should be responsible. That responsibility was no longer determined by God or by the nature of who we are as humans. For that “nature” itself was subject to the self-determination of the “we”. The criterion for determining the boundaries of the world and its subdivisions was no longer to be determined by its adequacy in describing the world – whether that adequacy be determined by a pseudo-biological classification of race or of our nature as human beings as a whole or even by our nature as sentient beings in a world where even animals have rights – but by ourselves as unfettered divine creators. The height of irony in the contemporary world is that this vision of the world has its greatest proponents in those who contend that they live in a traditional world, a world where a non-secular world ostensibly still reigns supreme. That, of course, is an exemplification of the ironic nature of human self-transformation á la Richard Rorty.

No longer is the core determinant an external divine or even natural force, nor a divine core being within each and every one of us, but what we believe according to the latest opinion polls. Some people think that the mushrooming of opinion polls in the last forty years was about giving us greater knowledge of the external world and the society in which we live, or, at least, an understanding of trends so that our choices can be strategic. Though on the surface they are both of these, at a much deeper level they are the new sacred rites for instantiating the process by which “we” are defined as the source of that which is sacred in defining ourselves.

The “we” that decides and the decision about who belongs to and constitutes the “we” becomes the most sacred act of all. And it is most often done, not in any direct challenge to the sacred foundation of modernity, the nature and rights of the individual, but by those who claim to be most rooted in tradition. Further, the result is not the greater reification of that tradition, but the consequence that the sense of ourselves as fundamentally protean is reinforced. Polls simply and most fundamentally tell and instill in us that we can no longer define ourselves in reference to one pole rather than its opposite, but in terms of the nature of fluid polls. We have come to recognize that we are quarks, perceived from one view as bundles of energy that completely fill the space available or, from an opposite perspective, as solid particles that concentrate the energy into a compact space of the individual entity. Post-modernity, unlike one of the oldest traditions, has still not been able to integrate the heh of openness and self-transformation with the yud that together constitute the sacred deity Yahweh.

Twentieth century philosophy has been described as the era in which Aristotelian insights into language as a mode of equivocation and the era in which language was the most instrumental of tools and the medium through which we could best reach out to the truth of the given world, has moved us, and we have moved ourselves, into an era where language itself defined that world and defined the “we” who defined who the “we” is. Language was not just a medium. Rather, the medium had become the message – and we all recognize the source of that insight. Just as the radical divide between the secular and the religious characteristic of modernity was now being overthrown, so was the radical divide between the self and the object, between the self and the other, between oneself as an actor in the world and the transcendental self which allowed that self’s thoughts to cohere and its practices to be rooted in a continuing identity. “I” had become “we”.

In the terms of Friedrich Nietzsche, the greatest nineteenth century prophet of the contemporary age and the most reactionary advocate against it in reverence for the individual, we are the “mobile army of metaphors”. We are not simply the community, but the crowd and the mob. We are at heart protean, which means that we have no heart at all. Nor head for that matter or even gut. We are the collectivity of ones that make the we that makes ourselves.

Next 3. Religion, Solidarity and Power in the Context of the Symposium

[1] A specialist in the sociology of religions, Baubérot was the founder of the sociology of secularism and has held chairs in both fields. He not only understands religions, but also understands important aspects of secularism as a de facto religion. Of the 19 members of the Stasi Commission in France that studied the headscarf issue, a commission that included a number of prominent French philosophers, he was the only member who abstained from banning headscarves in French public schools, but, in fact, he was a supporter of laïcité and really either wanted headscarves to be differentiated from bandanas which showed the neck or “ostentatious” to be defined, not in terms of the size or prominence of the religious attire or symbols, but only as a way of defining items used for proselytism, as he claimed that they disrupted the educational process and put pressure on other students.