Years ago I remember while having a discussion of theology with a group of friends, one in the group referred to himself as a pious atheist. I was taken aback by his comment as piety and atheism were not terms I associated with one another. Piety is most commonly associated with religious belief and practice. Since then I gave this notion a great deal of thought: is secular piety a possibility? This question is worth considering in light of the reality that how one expresses their piety in an increasingly secular society such as Canada has become a contentious issue of late as is evidenced by the controversy surrounding the proposed Quebec Charter of Values (Charte de la laïcité or Charte des valeurs québécoises). The stated aim of the charter is to ensure there is a clear separation of religion and state and that public employees have religious neutrality. What this means is the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols or garb on the job will be prohibited.
Over the years I have thought about this question and concluded yes, one can be pious and secular. In a nutshell, I would define secular piety as the desire to express reverence and behave morally in a non-religious way. Though I have a religious background, I was a practicing Roman Catholic for many years, I express my piety in the present in practicing Deism. In doing so, I draw from my Roman Catholic background, particularly my understanding of the theory of natural law as it was articulated by Enlightenment thinkers. As Isaac Newton observed, “there is but one law for all nations, the law of righteousness and charity, dictated to the Christians by Christ, to the Jews by Moses, and to all mankind by the light of Reason, and by this law all men are to be judged at the last day.” (as cited in American Catholic Preaching and Piety in the Time of John Carroll) I express my piety in how I conduct myself in my daily life. The closest thing to a religious expression of my piety would be when I go hunting; yes, for me hunting is a spiritual experience. In going hunting I am making an ethical choice and while dressed in either blaze orange or camouflage hunter’s clothing am representing the past-time to the public at large. When I am out in the field hunting, either on my own or in the company of hunting buddies, I conduct myself in accordance with the regulations enacted by the state, my knowledge of hunting ethics and the dictates of my conscience. Otherwise, there is nothing in the manner I dress in my daily life nor do I adorn myself with any obvious symbols of my trust in Deism.
What of those people whose religious beliefs either require they dress a certain way or adorn themselves with the symbols of their faith? It is not uncommon to see people in public dressed in accordance with the rules of the religious institutions to which they adhere. I have seen a great many people dressed and adorned with the garb and symbols of a plurality of religions and sects here in Canada. These include Old Order Mennonites, Orthodox Jews, Mormon Missionaries, Franciscan and Dominican monks, Christian clergy in clerical garb, Buddhist monks, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. There is an array of head dress in the way some religious folk express their piety. Orthodox Jews wear the yarmulke; Sikhs wear turbans; Muslim women wear the hijab, for example. In addition, I see religious people expressing their piety in less noticeable ways, for example, wearing necklaces with Christian Crosses or Stars of David. While Mika and I are staunch secularists, we think religious liberty is good, right and desirable. That is not to say we approve of every religious custom, nor do we understand the degrees of orthodoxy to which some religious folk adhere. Honestly, I can say I do not like it when I see Muslim women dressed in the burka or the niqab. I find it most disconcerting seeing someone completely covered this way. That being said, however, this is something I tolerate; women who choose to express their piety this way are within their rights to do so. They do not require the approval of myself or anyone else. I am mindful of this when I remember that not everyone understands or approves of my hunting hobby in spite of the fact I consider it a spiritual experience and expression of my piety.
The place of religion in Quebec is a contentious issue, given its history of relations between religion and the state. Until 1960, which saw the onset of the Quiet Revolution, the Roman Catholic Church was entwined with the state, having jurisdiction over the health and education systems, since 1875. The Quiet Revolution brought modernization and secularization to Quebec. Church authority over health and education was abolished and anti-clerical sentiment remains quite pronounced in Quebec to this day. The proposed Quebec Charter of Values is in keeping with this sentiment. However, historically, efforts to impose the most radical secularization through government fiat have failed as was the case following the French Revolution in 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Canada remains a secular nation state; there is no state religion in Canada, but religious liberty is guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in section 2 Fundamental Freedoms. On that basis, it looks as though the Quebec Charter of Values will not withstand a court challenge as it will, in all likelihood, be declared unconstitutional.
The place of religion and individual expression of piety in public life in Quebec and the rest of Canada will remain a contentious issue. There are strong opinions on either side of the issue and for some there is no middle ground to share. The law allows for religious liberty so at best we can hope for tolerance in the face of this prolonged debate. Of course, to tolerate something means to put up with it; you do not have to like or approve of it. As individuals we find ways to express our piety in keeping with our own beliefs and values and as long as these are in keeping with the law of the land, why not try to live and let live?
Posted by Geoffrey