CAQ cancelling ethics and religion course in Quebec schools

Cancelling Quebec’s religion course is wrong (and I’m an atheist)

Is the CAQ abdicating its responsibility to Quebec children in the name of identity politics?

Adding to the long list of questionable decisions the CAQ has made since it came into power, it has now decided to abolish an ethics and religion course taught in Quebec elementary and high schools.

Taught from a non-religious stance, the course has been the target of criticism and legal battles since it was adopted by the Liberals in 2008. Ironically, most of those battles have been waged by devout Catholic parents, uninterested in competing with other religions for their children’s attention in class. God forbid (pun intended) that young malleable minds are exposed to something other than what they were simply born into.

In 2011, a Catholic couple from Drummondville argued that the mandatory course curriculum interfered with their ability to pass on their faith to their children. They insisted it violated their freedom of religion and attempted to pull their son from class. Canada’s highest court ruled against them.

When handing down the judgement, Justice Marie Deschamps said: “The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.”

Learning my religion

Notice the words used here: “multicultural reality.” Whether or not some people have a problem with multiculturalism, they simply can’t pretend an ever-increasing multicultural reality doesn’t exist. 

This demographic fact inevitably comes with religious plurality. What this essentially means is that even if most Quebecers identify as atheist or non-practising Catholics, many new Quebecers do not. The main goal of such a class should be to provide the tools to students who share cultural and religious differences to better understand each other and promote civic harmony and mutual respect. If you remove the class, you remove those tools.

The CAQ believes that religion is currently occupying “outsized importance in the class” and wants to make room for “more 21st-century themes.” If the Education Ministry aimed to overhaul the course by simply adding additional subjects to its existing core, I would be applauding them. Instead, they are choosing to eliminate it and loosely incorporate a tiny fraction of it into another course because the people in charge no longer feel an affinity for the material.

High-quality pedagogy teaches — and ultimately requires — children to be critical thinkers, to be skeptical, to question, to not swallow whole and without analysis any theory or belief they are given. In this way, the school system acts as an ally to secularism, by exposing children raised in rigid religious systems that alternatives (including atheism) exist. It also means exposing them to other worlds and values, which in turn allows them to better understand their fellow citizens and, also, better counteract their own prejudices that they may have been taught to see as irrefutable.

Cultural competence

Linguists have long arrived at the conclusion that learning new languages improves tolerance. It opens people’s eyes to a way of doing things in a way that’s different from their own. It’s referred to as “cultural competence,” and it increases the tolerance of ambiguity, making someone comfortable around unfamiliar situations. Teaching others’ religions, cultural norms and traditions is precisely like learning another language.

If Quebec’s goal is to foster increased tolerance, less racism, less xenophobia, less individual and systemic discrimination and more understanding and respect for different cultures and religions, it’s imperative that we start teaching that early.

Why should we care? Because hate crimes motivated by religion are on the rise here and around the world. Because we live and will continue to live in an increasingly diverse student body and world, with people who are different from us. Because even if we choose to prioritize secularism in Quebec, one of the education system’s primary goals should be to develop globally competent citizens who understand it. That includes religion’s impact on history, culture, politics, art and world consciousness.

Open minds

You may consider religion to be nothing more than fairy tales or fables that have no relevance to your life, but a huge part of the world does not. Are you planning on raising kids who interact and are open to that world or will they be hiding under a rock, terrified and suspicious of everything that is different? Is the CAQ abdicating its responsibility to Quebec children in the name of identity politics? These are solid questions to ask yourself.

Even though I’m a staunch atheist and have been since the age of six, I have always appreciated and enjoyed learning about other faiths, cultures, moral codes and traditions. No amount of reading on the subject has ever made me believe in a god. Knowledge and religious literacy aren’t proselytism or indoctrination and I would be suspicious of anyone who claims that they are.

The goal of a class like this is to relay information and allow students and future members of society who will be working together, playing together, coupling up and engaging socially and politically to understand that their common humanity supersedes their varying world views and religious faiths.

So-called consultation

Starting next month, Quebec’s Education Ministry is launching consultations to overhaul its ethics and religion program. Quebecers have until Feb. 21 to have their say via an online survey, while three public forums will be taking place throughout the month of February. I looked at the online survey and a few things jumped out at me.

First off, I am amazed at the number of subjects they are attempting to introduce. I don’t see how one class can successfully cover important and complex topics like sex education, online digital literacy, eco-citizenship, citizenship participation, legal affairs and so much more. Each of these subjects could easily be a class in itself! The plan is ill-conceived and I’m concerned for the teachers who will be stuck with this mess.

The second aspect of the survey that troubles me is the “consultation” format because it only asks Quebecers’ thoughts on the proposed curriculum — not the current one. That makes me fear that, once again, the consultation is only for appearances’ sake and the final decision has already been taken to remove or incorporate the ethics and religious course into another subject.

Peace, love and understanding

If the ministry had bothered consulting experts, they could have easily found that research demonstrates the teaching of religions improves tolerance and open-mindedness. But the CAQ has already developed a well-earned reputation as a government that likes to steamroll through legislation with very little input from said experts. The cherry on the sundae? Teachers found out about the proposed changes via the media. That honestly doesn’t bode well for anyone.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: whether you worship in a church, a mosque, a synagogue or a temple, whether you’re an atheist like me and many other Quebecers who claim to identify as such, you owe it to yourself and to your children to understand the world. They going to have to make a life and shape their future in an increasingly multicultural and multi-religious environment.

Knowledge does not weaken faith or the lack of faith — it weakens prejudices and misunderstanding. The teaching of religion doesn’t blindly proselytize, it allows for other visions of society and community — it allows for openness and acceptance. In this increasingly polarized and fragmented world we desperately need more of that, not less. ■