Bridging The Secular Divide

By Father John Walsh on June 9, 2013

McGill University was the site of a two-day Seminar that gathered people from all over Canada to discuss and debate how religion can or must bridge the growing divide between religion and secular society.   Persons from a myriad of religious faith traditions were represented and each took an active role in contributing to the Canadian religious mosaic and expressed varied views of how religious people are investing time and energy to dialogue with the secularization of society.

The topics discussed and the quality of the speakers sent fireworks of ideas that were streamed throughout the world.   Important distinctions were made to clarify how the dialogue can be initiated, maintained and flourish.  Common agreement was reached by the participants that a primal distinction must be made between a closed and an open secularization of society.  The foundational premise of the former is that religion must be excluded from the public sphere and this idea was held to be untenable; the latter that religious freedom is to be respected and its presence in society should be a contributing element in the building-up of society as a whole and should result in a dialogue with all members of society.   The concrete activity of all religious people and faith communities found unity in a common quest for social justice.  Disparate views were evident but accepted as part of a process yet to be completed.  The variety of paths to understand faith requires a bifurcation for religious communities; the one inward to better express what each faith believes in terms of its relationship to society from the perspectives of the immanence and transcendence of God, the other to affirm secular society as the framework to protect religious freedom of thought, expression, and presence in the public sphere.  An interesting distinction was made between religious persons and religious institutions; the former to be given total religious freedom in the public sphere, while the latter were not free to do whatever they pleased in the public sphere.   Personally I will have to give more time to rethink this distinction.  

One of the conclusions of the Seminar was to point to the future with hope.  There was no sense of animosity for secular society or its desire for secularization, either in the deliberations between speakers or in the interventions of the members of the audiences at the presentations.  However, hope was not a blind hope but one which would courageously deal with those instances of a divide where religious freedom was not respected whether in one’s local community, nationwide, or world-wide.  The reality is that while Christians may be the most persecuted faith community throughout the world, all efforts, big and small, when any community experiences a lack of protection of human rights, a united effort by religious people and religious communities must be brought to bear on these situations.  

A specific challenge remains for Quebecers.  In the fall the Government will table what was formerly called a Chartre de laicite and now called a Chartre des Valeurs Quebecoises.  Religious people and religious communities, in fact all Quebecers of whatever stripes, must begin today to follow in detail what will eventually be the law, the foundation upon which society will develop and how we will function as a society in our inter-personal relationships with fellow Quebecers. To repeat, of all stripes.  

Martin Niemoller, a Protestant pastor (+1984) who was a foe of Nazi oppression and Hitler, is best remembered for the quotation: 

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--

Because I was not a Socialist. 

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- 

Because I was not a Trade Unionist. 

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- 

Because I was not a Jew. 

Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me. 


Today’s greatest challenge for religious people and communities is to stand against political correctness when human values are not respected.   This is the cost of faith. 


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