Religious education and the public school–thoughts on the Quebec case

May 19, 2011

According to, a family in Quebec has decided to challenge a “compulsory ethics and religious culture” course, mandated provincially since 2008, by removing their two daughters from the class. The case has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, as the original ruling stated that “no exemptions” were to be granted.

Shades of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the 1950s, in what is paradoxically Canada’s most secularized (in terms of actual church attendance and apparent social values) and most religiously homogenous (in terms of personal identification–the overwhelming majority of Quebecers still consider themselves Catholics, like on the order of 80-85%) province? Not quite. This is a tricky case, but two wrong-headed responses can be gleaned from the article’s comments.

In the words of angus99, “This is a thinly veiled attempt to reintroduce RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION back into schools when it was already taken out.” A passing read of the article reveals quite a different story. This is not a Jesuit-led attempt to turn all Quebec students into faithful little Catholics. Rather, the course appears completely non-sectarian, discussing the different religions that have featured prominently in Quebec’s history–not only Catholicism, but Protestantism, Judaism, and something nebulously described here as “aboriginal spirituality,” for want of a better term. In my view, this is the way religion should be presented in schools. Let’s face it, religion has been an incredibly important force in human history. It would be impossible to do justice to the past by somehow pretending that religion had never existed and screaming “separation of church and state.” A well-rounded, educated individual should have the chance to learn about different religious traditions, their beliefs, and how these beliefs have shaped and continue to shape society. If this knowledge doesn’t come about in the fairly objective environment of a school, it has a great likelihood of being shaped by bias (from any number of directions).

However, a public school is rightfully not in the business of conversion. This is where the second instructive(ly wrong) comment comes into play. Tom 15 argues that the course “treats one’s religion as irrelevant folklore. This is the problem. It is an atheist indoctrination of our children.” This, in fact, is closer to the feelings of the course-challenging parents, who are Catholics and feel that the course violates their religious beliefs. The main criticism seems to be either that the course is too respectful of religion (from the secular standpoint) or too relativistic (from the religious parent’s standpoint). But frankly, a relativistic, respectful, but non-sectarian approach to teaching this content is the only possible way to get this done in a public educational setting. Different religions have competing truth claims. It is not the government’s business to take a stand on one particular religion and define that religion as absolute truth (here I’m showing my Anabaptist colours). Canada, even less than the United States, can make no claim to having ever been a unified “Christian nation.” From our founding, we have been religiously pluralistic, with the right to choose between Catholic and Protestant education for children enshrined from the very beginning. It goes without saying that our country is exponentially more pluralistic now than it was in 1867, and this situation is not going to change. The course basically seems to state “here’s what Catholics believe, here’s what Hindus believe, here’s what Muslims believe…” without saying “and that’s why you should believe THIS.” Students should learn, at the very least, that other religions exist, just as they learn that other countries, languages, and ethnic groups exist. The parent’s role as primary moral guide (along with their ability to share personal beliefs and opinions) is not diminished by this legislation whatsoever.

In short, knowledge about religion is basic to any kind of educated understanding of the world, but the school’s role should be to teach ABOUT religion, not to PROMOTE it. While doing this in a fair and objective way may be difficult, it is not impossible, and it should certainly not be avoided.