The Role of Religious Literacy in the Context of State Neutrality

This post is a summary of a presentation I gave at the Congress Conference 2014. A link to the presentation can be found here.

Our argument is based on the following premises:

Canada is becoming more diverse. Quebec has been challenged with this growth in diversity.
Quebec has attempted to address the emergence of this diversity through state neutrality.
We argue that the application of neutrality in Quebec has been highly problematic.

My co- presenter and I demonstrate how the application of neutrality has impeded the development of religious literacy but also that while there are issues in Quebec, there are also great opportunities for educational progress as exemplified by the Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program. The changing landscape of Canada is corroborated by the 2011 Census Canada data on immigration and religious affiliation. For example, Statistics Canada reveals that, “Immigration has contributed to a higher share of the population having affiliation with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist religions as well as to a higher share of the population having no religious affiliation. Of the immigrants who came prior to 1971, 2.9% were affiliated with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist religions, whereas 33.0% of immigrants who came between 2001 and 2011 reported affiliation to one of these religions.” This changing landscape forces us to examine how much we truly know about each other.

Religious literacy is the big buzzword that has been thrown around recently. Using Diane Moore’s definition of a religiously literate individual, we argued that this skill is essential in school curricula. Using Quebec as a case study, we look at how the government has managed the changing, diverse landscape. We map the context of Quebec, beginning with the reasonable accommodations debate starting in 2006 to the introduction of the Ethics and Religious Culture Program in 2008, and finally to the recent ousting of the Parti Quebecois and with them, the controversial Quebec Charter of Values. Throughout these policies, Quebec has established itself as a secular regime. Bouchard and Taylor have highlighted that the notion of ‘secularism’ has had various definitions in Quebec, one of them being the separation between Church and State and the other emphasizing “State neutrality.” The idea of State neutrality has been shown to manifest in the framework used for the reasonable accommodation debate, and the language in the Charter of Values.

The idea of neutrality has fed into educational policies as well. Though it is laudable that Quebec is the only province in Canada to have a mandatory religious education program, we need to understand how education is positioned in political discourse. We examine the ERC program on three grounds: who teaches, how it is taught and what is taught. First, teachers are asked to be “viewpoint neutral” or what educational theorists define as “neutral impartiality”- that is, teachers do not provide their own personal opinions, but can intervene in the case that where person’s dignity is threatened. Morris (2011) describes the ERC teachers professional stance when he states, “teachers are not to promote their own beliefs and points of view’’ and they should ‘‘maintain a critical distance’’ with ‘‘respect to their own convictions, values and beliefs.’’ It is their professional responsibility to exercise ‘‘judgment imbued with objectivity and impartiality.”

Second, pedagogies are not neutral, they are rooted in a specific worldview. Farrow (2009) points out that “by making ERC mandatory – universally mandatory – the State imposes its philosophy and its pedagogy on everyone.” Finally, the ERC curriculum places a particular emphasis on teaching Catholicism and Protestantism, in alignment with Quebec heritage. Judaism and Native spiritualities are also mentioned, and then students are to learn elements of “other religious traditions” (Ministry of Education of Recreation and Sport). This raises serious questions such as: Why are we learning what we are learning? How are we teaching what we are teaching? What is included and excluded in this process?

To conclude, we must question whether education can be a neutral endeavor. While Quebec should be commended for taking on the responsibility of fostering religious literacy among students, we should continue to ask who is involved in this process.

Image courtesy of the author.

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One thought on “The Role of Religious Literacy in the Context of State Neutrality

  1. Very nice presentation.
    Do you think it’s possible for you to give a presenatation in Crete/Greece next November?
    K. Zormpas

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