Tag Archives: secularism

Girl Guides, God, and Being an Asshole

Girl_Guides_centenary,_Priory_Park_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1759682This was going to be a post about not being an atheist asshole.

Back in June, atheist blogger Matthew S. McCormick posted a slide show presentation he had given to a students’ society, in which he argued that it is necessary for atheists to be assholes in order to counter the oppressive superstition and irrationality surrounding us. He cites Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to support this position, while criticizing Carl Sagan’s view that a kinder, gentler approach to fellow truth-seekers is more appropriate, given that none of us has all the tools necessary to fully understand the universe. McCormick disagrees with Sagan and announces, proudly, that he is an asshole in the name of atheism. He believes other atheists should be assholes, too. I disagree with McCormick’s position as a general practice — but today I feel the need to be a bit of an “asshole.”

On Saturday, the Guardian published an article by Observer columnist Victoria Coren in which she moved from bitching about new words (“linguistic horrors”) such as ‘chillax’ and ‘vino’ to criticizing the UK Girl Guides’ recent decision to drop loving God from their pledge. (The Girl Guides have also dropped the part of the pledge referring to loving one’s country, but no one seems to care about that.) Coren feels that the phrasing of the new pledge “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs” is mere gobbledygook:

“Oh for the love of God! (Or, rather, not for the love of God.) What ghastly committee meeting, what endless wrangle, what months of debate, what conferences and whiteboards and PowerPoint presentations led to this lame, weak, hollow clump of Californian couch jargon?”

I’ll give Coren points for alliteration here (lots of w-words), and certainly the old pledge to love God had a certain simple, direct charm. But the rant that follows demonstrates that Coren is an idiot.

She objects to removing God from the pledge because Brownies and Guides often hold their meetings in churches:

“It seems a mean trick to play on all those churches that lend their halls for Brownie and Guide activities – forcing them to choose between continuing to house an organisation that has publicly severed its link with what they stand for, or withdrawing the space and leaving local children with nowhere to gather.

In other words, they can choose between feeling foolish or cruel. It’s an insidious position in which to place anyone, especially given that the new Promise also swears to ‘serve my community’, of which churches are surely an important part.”

Really? The Guides’ pledge change is going to hurt the feelings of local churches? So badly that they will be wringing their hands over allowing a bunch of little girls to use their space without invoking God? Or so badly that they won’t let them use their space any longer, forcing said little girls to meet outside in the harsh elements (or, say, to meet in school gyms)? As for the community bit, the importance of a church within a particular community varies considerably. And is it me, or is Coren suggesting that Guides should serve the churches?

If British Brownies and Girl Guides are anything like Canadian Brownies and Girl Guides, then the pledge is about the only time God is mentioned. I noticed that Coren never refers to having been a Brownie or Guide herself — perhaps she thinks that meetings are like Sunday school.

The comment that made me shoot my morning tea out of my nose was this:

“But even if there is some reason why God must be dropped entirely, was there really no better alternative? Could they not have looked for something like the “higher power”, which Alcoholics Anonymous allows so cleverly to stand, in the minds of atheists, for cycles of nature, the universe, time, society or anything that helps a person to realise they are part of something bigger than themselves and behave with accordant responsibility?”

Let’s get this straight. “Higher power” in pledges and such means a god of some kind, or, at best, a force governing our lives. No atheist I’ve ever come across thinks nature, the universe, time (WTF?), or society is a higher power that requires us to promise to love it. For many of us, the point of atheism is that we don’t recognize, and certainly don’t worship, any higher power. “Higher power” is a useful way to accommodate believers of different faiths, as well as agnostics, who wouldn’t find a pledge to the Christian God meaningful. It’s meaningless to atheists, who don’t require a supernatural higher power to make them “behave with accordant responsibility”. We’re perfectly capable of being responsible members of society without granting our society higher power status.

Coren, in her ignorant priggishness, seems incapable of grasping that “be true to myself and develop my beliefs” allows all of the girls who might make that pledge to follow their own faiths, if they have one, without assuming that they must have a faith. Being true to oneself will, for many girls, include loving God. The new pledge does not take that away from them.

Some Girl Guide leaders in the UK are “revolting” against the new pledge, insisting on using it while allowing non-believers to use the new one (because, obviously, the sky will fall if little girls don’t promise to love God). The issue has been framed as a believer vs. non-believer conflict, as if those are the only two possible positions. There are religions for which pledging to love God (which means, let’s not pretend otherwise in the British context, the Anglican God) doesn’t make sense: Wiccans, for instance, don’t worship God. Neither do Hindus or Buddhists. Strictly speaking, Catholics and Muslims probably shouldn’t be taking the old pledge either.

Predictably, the Girl Guides have been accused of “secular totalitarianism,” while its opponents are “rebels.” This kind of language is worth paying close attention to, as it demonizes one group while romanticizing another with heavily loaded terms that manipulate readers and listeners. Who wouldn’t want to rebel against totalitarianism? The new pledge is not, of course, totalitarian in any way; it’s a clear attempt to be inclusive toward those who don’t share the official state religion. Those who want to keep the old pledge and let non-believers “opt out” fail to grasp how difficult it might be for a young girl to do that when her peers are following their adult leaders.

I don’t personally care very much about references to God in most pledges, oaths, etc. It’s not as if I worry that a non-existent being is going to punish me for breaking a promise to love it. But if we want children, especially, to take pledges and oaths seriously as commitments to act in certain ways, then those pledges and oaths had better make sense to them. It’s time for recognition that promises to love God, and treating a certain kind of belief as the default position, simply don’t make sense to everyone in pluralistic societies. Kudos to the Girl Guides for taking a step toward greater inclusiveness.

Unchartered Waters

Guest post by François Pageau


Here we go again.

Five years after the Taylor-Bouchard commission, the minority PQ government in Quebec is working on a Charter of Quebec Values which would prohibit public employees in public offices, public schools and hospitals from wearing religious headwear and symbols. The initiative was “leaked” on August 20 as an obvious trial balloon from Marois’ team, and is no doubt part of a larger strategy to set the agenda for a looming provincial election late this Fall or next Spring. As expected, the news provoked  knee-jerk reactions from the Anglophone press:the National Post, the Toronto Star, the Montreal Gazette and the Globe and Mail all spoke of xenophobia and discrimination, and raised the spectre of future constitutional battles around the yet unknown Quebec Charter of Values and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (this editorial cartoon from the Toronto Star sums it up nicely: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorial_cartoon/2013/08/22/editorial_cartoon_for_aug_22_2013.html).They all see this future bill as another conspiracy from an abhorred political party to awake a dormant sovereignty project in Quebec. They might not be wrong, but their analysis lacks finesse and is mostly based on a disproportionate emotional response.

The Francophone press in Quebec, even the usually more sovereignty-leaning Le Devoir, has also raised serious doubt about the viability of such a charter, and is well aware of the electoral opportunism which carries it. But they make sense of it in the more immediate framing of a coming election before diving into a deeper sociological analysis.

Politically, with 54 seats at the Assemblée nationale (63 is needed for a majority), the Parti Québécois needs to obtain the support of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ, 18 seats) to neutralize the Liberals (49 seats) when they present new legislation. While the Liberals pride themselves on an strong economic platform, the PQ has always defined itself as a value-based political party. CAQ, a new party whose membership includes the bulk of the old Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ), a right-wing party, tries to address both the economy and the distinct values of Quebec in its program. In 2008, the ADQ played a pivotal role in the “accommodements raisonnables” controversy which gave birth to the Taylor-Bouchard commission. Consequently, for internal coherence’s sake, they have to support a charter of values which they stridently demanded in the past.

The Marois government needs to steer the coming electoral debates away from the economy — the Liberals’ strong suit — because its record in the fields of economic development and job creation is less than stellar. With its project for a Charte des valeurs québécoises, the Parti Quebecois knows it can surf on the wave of an emotional controversy that polarizes the Quebec population in its favour, with the added bonus of a backlash from the rest of Canada, which will strengthen its constitutional posturing. The debate has also a strong regions-vs-centre component. The greater Montreal area is overwhelmingly Liberal, and the urban population of the island has a long tradition of accommodation with religious and cultural minorities. Not so much in the rural regions, where the population is far more homogeneous, particularly in the eastern part of the province, a PQ stronghold.

Strategically, the PQ move is crafty — and successful. A recent poll (August 26th) shows that 65% of the Francophones in Quebec are in favour of a charter of values. While the popularity of the PQ was lagging far behind the Liberals in June, they have gained 5 points and are now only 4 points behind, with 32% against the Liberals’ 36% in vote intentions.

That’s for the local political context. At a deeper level, the Charter of Quebec Values seeks to address a more fundamental issue, that of the laïcité of the state. The term laïcité is particularly difficult to translate. We tend to equate it with secularism, but it has a distinct history steeped in French republicanism, a strong political trend within the PQ. As John Bowen argues, laïcité “remains one of those essentially contested concepts that is politically useful precisely because it has no agreed-on definition.”

As a matter of fact, the future Charter of Quebec Values, until a few weeks ago, was called Charte de la Laïcité.

Beyond the obvious political opportunism, why is it so important for the current government to revisit such a divisive issue? As one columnist put it, the Charter is a bad solution to a false problem. The PQ lacks the courage needed to address the real issue here: the wearing of the burka. In the context of the increased paranoia against Islam that has permeated our media since 9/11, Islam has been closely associated with inequality between men and women, a central value of the PQ and the Quebec population. The PQ electoral program of 2012 clearly stated that la liberté de religion ne peut être invoquée pour enfreindre le droit à l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes (freedom of religion cannot be invoked to infringe on the right of equality between men and women). In its aspiration to reaffirm the distinctiveness of Quebec values from the Canadian ones, the PQ draws from the French experience in legislating  against the wearing of religious symbols in the public space.

Since to legislate against one religion at the exclusion of others would have been rejected massively by the population, Martin Drainville, the Minister responsible for the Charter project, has disguised the target in a larger sweep that includes all other religions. The project will most likely fail because it includes too many exceptions, beginning with the cross at the National Assembly, considered as a patrimonial object, not a religious one. Furthermore, while the wearing of religious symbols would be forbidden for civil servants, it would be permitted for elected officials, an incongruity that has been highlighted by many commentators.

I believe the more fundamental issue is the instrumentalization of laïcité in an attempt to legislate identity and further a nationalist project. The jurist Daniel Turp presented last winter a project of Charte de la laïcité which began with the statement that Quebec is a secular State. This is false. As Jean-Pierre Proulx said in Le Devoir, it should read that the Quebec State is secular, which is a quite different story. Quebec is made up of believers and non-believers, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, etc. It is the State that has to be secular, to be neutral in matters of religion. And it has been for quite a while. Between the existing Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms (by the way, the Quebec one pre-dates the Canadian one), freedom of expression and of religion are already well protected in Quebec.

We should wait until September 9th, when the text of the proposed bill will be revealed, to pass judgement on the initiative.  I am convinced it will prove, once again, that nationalism is an insidious social poison. Any nationalism. Even the more subtle one offered by our royalist, militaristic Harper. But that is another story.