Canadian Civil Society I

Canadian Civil Society I


Howard Adelman

At the conference in Ottawa last week on “Our Whole Society: Religion & Citizenship at Canada’s 150th,” the objective was to advance solidarity among faith groups by allowing them to operate within a broader framework of shared practices, in spite of diverse perspectives. I was there to address the role of faith groups with respect to immigrants and refugees and to help comprehend the role of faith groups in society more generally.

In my talk, I addressed each of these topics. On the issue of solidarity, I challenged such an objective on two grounds. First, a family resemblance existed among different faith groups on shared practices and values that required no solidarity on perspectives. They already had a common frame; they did not need solidarity on content. As John Borrows noted in his keynote address, the goal should not be to close the space and eliminate the gaps between and among groups. Nor should it simply be to allow space for others. Rather, those spaces should be used to encourage dialogue and debate, to facilitate exchanges that encourage respect for others.

Secondly, I addressed the conjunction between immigrants and refugees and suggested a fundamental difference between the two groups, not in terms of the traditional difference between one group who came of their own free will and the other who came because they were forced to flee. Free will and coercion are not dichotomous choices. Rather they are ideal poles and different immigrant and refugee groups arrive with different degrees of each motivating their quest for Canadian citizenship. I then suggested that the groups could better be distinguished by the different ways they integrated into Canadian society, a process that had important implications for future support of refugees and for the premise of the interfaith dialogue that led to the cooperation of faith groups.

Third, I challenged the conception of “exclusive secularism” that seemed to have been presumed by the organizers. This is a brand of secularism that insists that a hard line had to be drawn between the secular and the faith worlds, as hard a line as Kant drew between reason and faith in his Critiques. I challenged this proposition on two grounds. First, in many jurisdictions, especially in France with its doctrine of laicité, secularism itself is a religion and a relatively dogmatic one at that. It is a value-rooted system that prescribes conduct and especially dress, not just the banning of the hijab by school girls, but the wearing of speedos by males at public swimming pools. Second, it is a myth that faith groups are excluded from the political process. They enjoy in many areas, but especially in the sphere of refugees, an intimate partnership with the state as well as with the rest of secular society.

Fourth, I insisted that research had pointed to the important relevance of history rather than the primacy of faith in explaining the hand religious groups extended to refugees. That is why the Mennonites and the Christian Reformed Church were first to step up to the plate in a partnership with the Government to bring Indochinese refugees into Canada in 1979 and why more established churches, the United Church and the Catholics, had been stragglers. There was a hierarchy of commitment among faith groups, but the degree of commitment was not determined by faith, but by the historical experience imprinted in a group’s priorities concerning the effort to be devoted to refugees.

But the major part of the talk addressed the family resemblance among the different faith groups. I argued that the same family resemblance was shared with a significant part of secular society so that it could be said that most Canadians share a Canadian Civil Religion. It is a civil religion because it is not rooted in a singular faith and because it influences and prioritizes what governments do and, in particular, how government deals with strangers, how it deals with immigrants and refugees, how it deals with the most important question a polis faces, who to admit into membership. They shared core values. The values as articulated below were all expressed by various participants on the first day of the conference. I merely wrote them down.

The easiest way to explicate the Canadian Civil Religion was to contrast it with the American Civic Religion currently dominant in our neighbour to the south. I stress the phrase “currently dominant,” because most Americans do not decry the Canadian values depicted below. Second, the current dominant American values are also present underground in the Canadian collective psyche.

A set of ten values as follows indicates the contrast:

Canada                                        U.S.A.

  1. Civility                                         Incivility
  2. Compassion                                Passion
  3. Dignity                                         Indignation
  4. Diversity                                      Unity
  5. Empathy                                      Insecurity
  6. Impartial                                     Partisan
  7. Egalitarian                                  Inegalitarian
  8. Fairness                                       Ruthless & even Unfair
  9. Freedom as a Goal                    Freedom as Given
  10. False-consciousness                 Humans as Falsifiers

Let me explore each of these dichotomies in turn. In doing so, I will make reference to the brilliant and gripping Netflix documentary, Get me Roger Stone, in which the Stone-Trump doctrine of cynicism is explicitly articulated. Roger Stone has been depicted by Jeffrey Toobin as the “sinister Forrest Gump of American politics.” Whereas the movie Forrest Gump provided a story in which a naïve innocent was present in every key event since 1960, Roger Stone’s biography reveals a cynical disrupter present in everything from an indirect involvement in the McCarthy hearings through his mentor and hero, Ray Cohn (who was also Donald Trump’s litigation lawyer) from whom Stone adopted his dandyism, to his own actual involvement in everything from Watergate to the election and performance of Donald Trump.

Though not ever present in the Canadian sprawl, at the centre of the Canadian Civil religion is the quality of civility. For Canadians, it is the queen of virtues. It is what Americans refer to when they say, “Canadians are so polite.” Civility esteems reasonable behaviour that elevates courtesy to an art form. At the funeral of Ron Atkey, one could not ignore the civility that characterized this man during his life and the order and respect of the memorial service in his honour at Metropolitan United Church. For society to be civil, political engagement has to show reverence for civility in the conduct of those who practice the profession. Civility, relatively, is an outstanding trait of the Canadian Parliament.

In contrast, Roger Stone and Donald Trump raised incivility to a political art form by using discourtesy to others, innuendo, ad hominem attacks, personal insults, troll accusations and hate speech as the core of the political process. Whether Trump was telling the Russian ambassador that Comey was a “nut job,” or whether he and Stone were leading a mass crowd to shout, “lock her up” in reference to Hillary Clinton, Trump wallowed in libel and defamed his final competitor in the race for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz, by referring to stories accusing his opponent of being a sexual gallivanter when Trump’s own operators had written the stories. This is not a core value of most Americans. It is a core value of the Trump regime currently in charge of the polis in the U.S.

A second virtue extolled in the Canadian Civil Religion is compassion, a concern for the sufferings and misfortunes of others. Compassion entails not just pity, but self-sacrifice for others. Compassion is not merely driven by the sight of the dead three-year-old Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach, or abhorrence at the horrors of war itself, as Donald Trump was possibly motivated by the dead children killed in the chemical attack by Syrian forces that left 75 dead, including 20 children. Donald Trump called the behaviour an “affront to humanity” and castigated Bashar al-Assad for his heinous action. But his outrage was not based on compassion for it did not lead to sacrifice and the admission of Syrian refugees into the U.S. Rather, it led to blowing up runways, facilities and planes with tomahawk missiles.

For the ideology of the Trump brand extols passion for a cause rather than compassion for others. Zealotry, intensity and pugnacity are highly praised under a doctrine of “take no prisoners” and leave behind a scorched earth. For the object is not just winning, but winning at any cost and winning at great cost to the other. For politics is not a positive sum game or even a zero sum game. It is a negative sum game in which you lose, but your opposition must suffer even greater losses. Politics becomes provocation and the only response to criticism is to attack, attack and attack.

A third virtue of the Canadian Civil Religion is dignity. Dignity admires serious attention to a problem and self-control in dealing with it. But it is not only a virtue with respect to one’s own bearing and conduct, speech and self-regard, it is also the accord extended to others who one considers to be a being who is valued even as one disagrees with his or her opinions. The virtue is identified with respect for inherent and inalienable rights. Humans of all types must be treated with dignity. So must the dead.

The contrasting values of the Stone-Trump ideology esteem indignation in oneself and insults aimed at the other. The goal of the latter is to humiliate and lay open to scorn the character and conduct of others. Indignation demonstrates unconcern and indifference for the other and total absorption and care for oneself. The object is to debase the other and draw attention to oneself.  The irony is that indignation is seen to arise because of perceived unfair treatment of oneself. One is affronted and takes umbrage at the disrespect shown. But indignation does not normally result in the quest for fair treatment, but rather in a view that the world is inherently unfair and that the only response is fight if one does not want to flee the plane of battle. Indignation presumes a politics of resentment and uses that deep understanding to mobilize those suffering from indifference and disrespect.

A fourth value esteemed in the Canadian Civil Religion is diversity. Often, many think that this is the primary cultural attitude as we extol multiculturalism. But the curious question is why anyone would prefer monochromatic unity in opposition to diversity. We do not want to eat at the same restaurant every night. And we all do not love meat loaf and fast food. Canadians extol the richness of multiculturalism, the benefits to society brought about when multiple cultures live side-by-side and interact.

However, the reverence for diversity, the respect for pluralism, is not confined to civil society. It permeates the polis, its makeup, policies and priorities. Canadians do not favour assimilation; Canada has no melting pot. Canadians do favour integration. Canadians support strong multiculturalism, not simply tolerance and respect for differences, but a positive effort to promote diversity both in the political representatives of our society and in how the government deals with different cultural groups. This is a work in progress because the government has never been able to adequately address the status and role of aboriginal groups in Canadian society. However, John Borrows in his keynote speech offered a primer on how to do precisely that.

Trump trumpeted unity in his victory speech. This past American Thanksgiving in late November, when Donald Trump was forming his government, he offered the following prayer: “It’s my prayer that on this Thanksgiving we begin to heal our divisions and move forward as one country strengthened by shared purpose and very, very common resolve.” From the most divisive force in the history of American politics, this prayer may have seemed like an expression of hypocrisy, but Trump has a record of engaging in fisticuffs and then inviting all those he beat up for a drink, while notably abstaining himself.

When he appointed South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, it was not done to highlight America’s multiculturalism, but to honour the success of its efforts in assimilation. When he gave his first address to a joint session of Congress, he extolled unity to end a toxic, partisan environment, ignoring totally that he was the prime source of the toxicity. When he is in charge, everyone should march to the tune of the pied piper even as he plays very different tunes at different times. Unity is a virtue as long, and only as long, as it means unity in “following me.”

That appeal did not last as divisions worsened in society at large, between Democrats and Republicans, within the Republican caucus and even within the White House itself. Trump does not invite or welcome dissident voices. He sees himself as the captain of dissent and difference, but a captain intent on winning the big prize and forging a regime of unity under his suzerainty. It does not work in politics or in society, and Canadians know why.

To Be Continued


With the help of Alex Zisman


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.

Religion, Solidarity and Power: The Contemporary Scholarly Landscape

Religion, Solidarity and Power


Howard Adelman

This article is divided into two major parts. Part I is divided in three beginning with a prologue that sets the article amongst contemporary discussions of the relationship of the secular to the religious. The second section of Part I adopts a diachronic rather than synchronic perspective. Instead of orienting the reader within contemporary intellectual space, it offers a sketch of how our new secular religions that characterize our post-modern age emerged out of the trajectory of the past. The third part then sets this paper within the context of other papers discussed at the symposium where this paper was first presented.

Part II gets to the core of what this paper is about – the relationship of solidarity to power in the contemporary world and, more specifically, within the context of traditional religions in competition with contemporary secular religions, and all in competition with each other and with the only secular perspective that is truly idolatrous and not a religion at all. Part II then offers two very specific case studies which are seemingly peripheral to the central issues at stake in the Canadian 2015 political election, but which exemplify the nature of the contemporary struggle between the two dominant secular religions.

Part I: Framing


  1. Prologue: Locating this Article in Contemporary Scholarly Landscape
  2. A Philosophical and Historical Overview
  3. State, Society and Contemporary Competing Religions


Part II: Case Studies

  1. Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society
  2. The Issue of the Niqab in the 2015 Canadian Election
  3. The Issue of Syrian Refugees in the 2015 Canadian Election

 1. Prologue: Locating this Article in Contemporary Scholarly Landscape

Studies of the role of religion and religious symbols in public life have been legion. Some of my own writings (2011) on Quebec and French divisive debates over the hijab and niqab (Adelman blog, 12 October 2015) fit into this classification. The writings of Chidester (1991), Green (1996), Hams (1999), Miller (2005), Lambert (2008) and Fowler et al (2010), as well as many others, have covered the role of religion in political life in America, and certainly peaceful accommodation in civil society (Putnam and Campbell, 2010). We have always had studies of the role of religion in violent conflict by historians (Underdown 1986; Harris 1990; Wilson 1995; Shugar 1997; Martinich 2002) where profound conflicts over fundamental values were at the root of violent clashes. In our time, religious differences have been at the centre of violence in Yugoslavia (Babel 1992), Sri Lanka (Tambiah 1992) and Northern Ireland (Jordon 2013) as well as at work in the peace process itself (Brewer et al 2014).

Religious values, symbols and concepts permeate our secular politics as well (Sung 2007). In fact, if I interpret him correctly, Schewel (2014), who is part of this symposium, claimed that Christ was indirectly the first secularist. For if reconciliation between man and God could not be obtained in one’s lifetime in this world, then, “This created the idea of an autonomous and wholly secular plane of political existence and taught religion to abandon its claim to worldly power.” (p. 50) Nevertheless, even as modernity ushered in what were perceived to be the final stages of shoving religion to the periphery of political life, Elshtain (2008) and Gillespie (2008) documented how deeply religious conceptions underpin the very basis of contemporary politics.

We have also had writings on secular society, especially modernity, as also having its own religious and ethical foundations that provide the basis for cohesion and the peaceful operation of the polity. Traditional religion has also provided the foundation for contemporary culture. The studies of Bellag (1967) and Cristi (2001) try to document that this is not just an influence on secular culture, but has itself produced a civil religion on its own. On the other hand, there does seem to be an increasing trend towards the importance of religious strife in violent conflicts (Bibby 2001) and a wider and broader conviction that our contemporary culture is increasingly divorced from a belief in an unchanging sacred social order that is so characteristic of traditional religion.

On the one hand, religion seems to be everywhere; on the other hand, our society has become increasingly secular (Taylor 2007). Secular in this context refers to the privatization of religion as initially just another distinctive realm among many (usually focused on institutional attachments), a set of beliefs and practices that entail value priorities and even fundamental commitments, and then, in the case of traditional religion, its ostensible exile from the public sphere. For some, this also implied a trend towards extinction of religion from any influence in the public sphere at all.

Religions historically and currently have been a major source of both prejudice and warfare, as well as tolerance, the latter illustrated by Putnam and Campbell (2010). “America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity.” (1) And where is that religion to be found? Not just in churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, not just in civil society institutions, but as foundation stones for civil religion and for our most fundamental political institutions.

In this paper I try to do something somewhat different, though clearly complementary, analyzing not just a portion of civil society as a civic religion, but secular society as a whole as itself made up of several competing secular religions, each allied with different variations of traditional religion. They attempt, as religious and political theory have in the past, to reconcile cooperation and solidarity as the foundations for unity in tension with coercive power in a polity. Like traditional religions, the various secular religions include institutions dedicated to its operations, a set of beliefs and even an obligation on the individual to pay attention and participate in certain rituals and rites, including often forms of speaking.

I adopt an international studies perspective even when undertaking very specific case studies of conflicts. For although the contention for power is restricted largely to states, the real competition is global; the debate often becomes most heated over transnational issues even when the discourse is about one woman wearing a niqab at a ritualistic public ceremony when an immigrant is becoming a Canadian citizen. Sometimes those clashes are related to war. Sometimes only which and how many refugees will be received. But in all cases, conflicts over fundamental values are at stake that cannot be resolved by reference simply to empirical data.

At an annual meeting of the International Studies Association (ISA) in 1996, Andy Knight opined that the time was ripe to examine the role of religion in world politics. He stressed focusing on the connection between modern specific conceptions of world order and those embedded in various religious traditions in order to understand the way religious ideas could influence the shape of the international system on the premise that religious and spiritual forces shape our cultures and human institutions, not just political, social and economic forces. I myself have written on the conceptual relations with a focus on eschatology (Adelman 2004; 2011e), but more about the effect of religious conceptions in restoring peace than in bringing about conflict and violence.

Fox and Sandler (2004) articulated the importance of culture, religion and identity in understanding international relations. Just over a decade later, this sentiment was echoed this past year by Janice Stein, former Director of the Munk Centre for Global Affairs at the University Toronto. “Religion has become a major construct that needs to be seriously considered when intervening in cultural wars in foreign lands.” This is a very different conception of the role of religion in political life, for it is not about how religious ideas and concepts permeate current politics, but about how religion is an integral part of contemporary politics in the international sphere.

“Seventy years ago we made a deep mistake in thinking about the world; we didn’t foresee the importance of religion in politics. The post-war consensus was rather that secularization would continue to grow as societies developed and became more educated. As religious beliefs became a respected private matter, the secular liberal order would deepen and strengthen around the world. We now need to understand the important role that religion plays in large parts of the world, and build that into our foreign policy.” (Lynch 2015) Janice Stein reminds us that religious ideas, that the teachings of Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Bab, and Bahá’u’lláh, have not only influenced our conceptions of world order, but have also impacted on the organization of political battles on the ground in the contemporary era.

There is a third way to examine the relationship between religion and culture by pointing within civil society to a civil religion that mediates between secularism and religious tradition as we generally identify it. That civil religion exists alongside of and clearly differentiated from the churches, synagogues and mosques (Bellah 1967; Cristi 2001).

A fourth way looks at the secular non-religious sector as itself consisting of religions (Levinson 2013). In other words, whether encompassing only part of secular civil society or all of it, there exists a collection of values, beliefs, symbols, and rituals that are considered sacred for a particular segment of society and that are institutionalized within a collectivity that can contribute to fostering tolerance or intolerance.

The battle among religions, both traditional and secular, is international. It is domestic as well (Keating and Knight 2004). In my 2011 essays, I documented the differences between the Stasi Commission in France and the Bouchard-Taylor commission in Quebec over Muslim women wearing headscarves. Those differences reflected contradictions between the two dominant secular contemporary religions and the interpretation each gave to liberalism. Much of the French debate, unlike the Quebec one, related to a perceived threat of international Islamism; what was the proper balance between persuasion and protection? In the 2015 Canadian elections, that perspective was introduced into Canadian politics in a major way by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. So did the issue of humanitarianism versus security concerns in the differences over the issue of the Syrian refugees in Canada. (The niqab issue and the Syrian refugee issues will be discussed at the end of this essay to illustrate the warfare between two contemporary secular religions, each with a different set of traditional religious allies.)

Those four different approaches to examining the relationship between the secular and the sacred in contemporary society as it relates to international and domestic politics and particularly those events related to and involving violence are:

  1. The influence of religious concepts on modern secular society and politics;
  2. The role of religion in contemporary international and domestic politics as core religious tensions within that play out in contemporary religious/political wars as well as facilitating peace;
  3. A civic religion that exists between traditional religions and the state;
  4. Secularism itself as a religion and the interaction of traditional religions and various forms of religious secularism.

I am interested in the fourth approach, but one which subsumes the other three as part of the analysis.

Next: 2. A Philosophic and Historic Overview