Imposed from above: the Ethics and Religious Culture program violates the tenets of Quebec's existing shared public culture.

Author:Caldwell, Gary

The Quebec state has imposed a new Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program, from primary one to secondary five (Grades 1 to 11) in all schools, public and private. (1) Officially in the making since 2005, the program was introduced in all Quebec schools as of September 2008. It replaces all previous religious instruction and moral education, and it is compulsory.

There is no doubt that this program represents a major development in education in Quebec, and that the thinkers behind it are serious and determined. In the words of the lead philosopher in the team that inspired the program, developed it and is now implementing it, Georges Leroux, "The choice that we are making [is] a historic and ... political. choice," and it represents "a genuine rupture." The major intellectuals involved in the gestation of this remaking of religious and moral education--Jean-Pierre Proulx, Fernand Ouellet and Pierre Lucier along with M. Leroux--are among the most competent of contemporary Quebec academics, and their stated motives are beyond reproach: their fundamental objectives are the "common good" and individual freedom and autonomy.

In this essay, I first distill the philosophical and political postulates of the program's apologists. I then proceed to issues the universal and compulsory imposition of the program raises for Quebec society: a population existing in space and time--in history--that is the inheritor of an already existing public culture the reformers manifestly wish to break with. Finally, I comment briefly on the implementation process, which has generated considerable controversy: active government "information" initiatives, resistance in the form of a citizens' movement, and two court cases to date.

The seven pillars

For the purposes of laying out the philosophical and political postulates or premises involved, I rely here on Georges Leroux's book published in 2007 for the explicit purpose of explaining the program, Ethique, culture religieuse, dialogue: arguments pour un programme (2) (Ethics, religious culture, dialogue: Arguments for a program), from which the above quote is taken. This book is the public and official apology for the program and is the culmination of a dominant academic school of thought that has been in germination for at least half a century, in Quebec and elsewhere in the West. Drawing on Georges Leroux is also appropriate inasmuch as be has graciously agreed to respond in Inroads.

There are at least seven pillars to the intellectual underpinnings of the program:

* unrelenting committment to secularism in all public institutions;

* a belief in the plausibility of normative pluralism, which is the tortuous access road to universal truths;

* an abiding belief in the role of reason in the formulation of our individual world views and, more particularly, of our ethics;

* belief in the feasibility, by recourse to critical reflection via dialogue, of each individual arriving at his or her individual autonomy;

* the necessity and capacity of the state in fostering and ensuring these ends;

* the need for a shared public culture if a society is to function and survive;

* the cultural corrosiveness of globalization.

Obviously these "pillars" are in many ways complementary and interdependent; nonetheless, they stand out as distinct articles of faith in M. Leroux's book.

"Secularism," as practised in the Quebec intellectual milieu, is a dogma from which there can be no deviation or exception. For M. Leroux, secularism is an achievement of modernity, a precondition of democracy and a condition of individual freedom. According to the most radical secularists, no religious authority may be allowed to prevail, even be visible, in the public arena. Hence the display of the Christian crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly or in municipal council chambers is an aberration to be suppressed as soon as possible--even if, as M. Leroux readily admits, Quebec's social and moral collective capital is the product of a Christian tradition.

As it happens, after the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on the practice of "reasonable accommodation" in Quebec recommended the removal of the crucifix from the National Assembly in 2008, this body voted unanimously not to do so. The commission was headed by two academics supported by an "expert committee" composed of 12 academics and a high-level civil servant. Many municipalities have also refused to remove their crucifixes, despite the directives of the Quebec Civil Rights Commission.

Secularism is of course both a product and a condition of "normative pluralism." The conviction that a society can function while recognizing the acceptability of varying normative systems is seen to be one of the characterizations of modernity. Differing and even contradictory value systems coexist in the private or "communautariste" niches of a pluralistic society, and their respective members interact together in the secular public sphere. A society that practises normative pluralism is not necessarily composed of individuals who practise normative pluralism. Indeed, given the spiritual dimension in our lives and our particular cultural heritage, many individuals will not be adepts of normative pluralism.

Normative pluralism is possible because in a modern secular state individuals will, as far as the public sphere is concerned, engage in "dialogue" during which, by the exercise of "critical reflection," they will arrive at a consensus as to the nature and content of the necessary shared public culture in a spirit of civility which is the hallmark of a "vivre ensemble," a way of living together. This is indeed the dynamic that is to prevail in the ERC program. As for the content of the program, it is ethics as entrenched in our charters and the presentation of the world's major belief systems: religions, atheism and folk myths.

Yet, for the process of society-wide democratic deliberative discourse to take place, there are conditions that have to be created. Apart from the attenuation of religious authority in the form of existing communautarismes, there is a necessary respect of all for all--the vivre ensemble. In the situation in which Quebec finds itself, and given the corrosive influence of global culture, only the state is in a position of being able to establish and foster these conditions. By seeing to it that these conditions prevail in the educational system, which presumably is an instrument of the state, one can ensure the emergence of a "genuine common public culture" and a vivre ensemble sufficient to the task. The task is also one of ensuring the social cohesion of Quebec society. How transmission of a new cultural canon, whatever it may be (the old classical Western canon having been dissolved by globalization), can occur...

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