The role of religion in Canadian public discourse explored at Montreal conference

The role of religion in Canadian public discourse explored at Montreal conference

“Our challenge is to foster a new spirit of civility … within an increasingly diverse society, where we can speak openly together about our beliefs, values and principles and how they relate to the common good.”

This statement describes the aims of a conference called “Bridging the Secular Divide: Religion and Canadian Public Discourse,” held at McGill University 27–28 May. The conference was the result of collaboration between the Faculty of Religious Studies and a steering committee on which the diversity of Canada’s religions was represented. Approximately 150 people attended.

The opening day of the conference featured speakers on the role of religion and secularism in spaces for public discourse such as the media, courts, Parliament Hill, and civil society. Most of the second day was devoted to sessions that explored the contributions of insights from different religions to public discourses on poverty and inequality, the environment and climate change, youth empowerment, public education, secularism in Quebec, truth and reconciliation processes, and foreign policy.

In the first panel discussion of the conference, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow commented, “Secularism in Canada has a double task: to protect the rights of religious minorities by guarding secular space, but also by showing a diversity of religious voices in our public discourse.”

Professor Patrice Brodeur, Canada Research Chair in Islam, Pluralism and Globalization, added that religious communities can feel pressured by secularism, but “our spiritual principles call on us to transcend victimization discourses.”

He added that we need to “change our construction of identity,” in which religion is a cause of social division. “We have a common human identity and we need to start with this to contextualize our other identities.”

As a member of a panel that featured speakers from different religious communities, Susanne Tamas spoke from a Baha’i perspective. She said, “We understand that the purpose of religion is transformation and that the transformation of the individual and society are complementary and interdependent processes.”

As religious communities seek involvement in the public sphere, she stated that “we should regard participation in discourse as a search for truth rather than an opportunity to persuade others to our views.”

The keynote plenary of the first day featured a conversation between two prominent public intellectuals – political philosopher Daniel Weinstock and former Member of Parliament Bill Blaikie. Weinstock asserted that we should be less concerned about the gap between religious and secular thought, and more attentive to the gap between citizens and the public sphere. “We want everyone involved in making our society better, and we want people speaking in an authentic voice.” That means welcoming the inclusion of religious perspectives in public discourse.

Blaikie added, “We need to find solidarity in the context of diversity; that is the task before us.”

The second day of the conference opened with remarks by theologian James Christie. He said, “There are two secularisms: one that is materialist and does not admit religion, and another that is characterized by radical inclusivity.” For religion to play a productive role in public discourse, however, he stated that it must “embrace and espouse positive goods” and be in harmony with and defend the value of science.

The conference concluded with a session on religious freedom and Canadian foreign policy, featuring Dr Andrew Bennett – the newly appointed Ambassador of Religious Freedom – and Anne Leahy, former Ambassador to the Holy See. Bennett emphasized that religious freedom “is not a theological issue, it is a human issue… we all must enjoy the freedom to pursue truth and to discover God.” He continued, “The value of human rights have moral standing that is not culturally relative – it is based on human dignity and common humanity.”

The conference concluded with expressions of intent to convene similar events in the future to carry on the conversation about religion and Canadian public discourse.

The Baha’i community was one of the sponsors of the conference. Geoffrey Cameron, Principal Researcher, served on the steering and program committees. Dr Gerald Filson, Director of Public Affairs, chaired a session on the media, and, in addition to speaking on a panel with representatives of religious communities, Susanne Tamás, Director of Government Relations, chaired the panel on foreign policy.

The conference received significant coverage from media such as the Toronto Star, National Post, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette, Le Devoir, and CJAD radio. The proceedings were live-streamed by McGill, in partnership with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. A link to recordings of the conference sessions will be available at www.bridgingthedivide.ca/.

The conference program is available here.

The conference framework document is available here.