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Welcome to Secularism.v3

Written on January 22nd, 2015

[caption id=”attachment_10297” align=”aligncenter” width=”516”]800px-Pope_Francis_among_the_people_at_St._Peter's_Square_-_12_May_2013 By Edgar Jiménez from Porto, Portugal (Papa rock star) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons[/caption]
Did you catch the shift?

Everybody loves Pope Francis, Right? This man has certainly caught the imagination of many Roman Catholics, Protestants and leaders of other faiths around the world. Even the secular international news organizations consider him a refreshing voice. Remember their coverage of his comments on gay relationships?

A refreshing voice, that is, until he spoke out after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. While the world was saddened by this tragic murder, while world leaders marched in solidarity in Paris, while one leader after another pledged to defend freedom of speech, while police were hunting terrorists, Pope Francis cautioned the world to be more respectful of religion.

“There is a limit,” the Pope said. “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.” Later he restated it, “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith”.

Did you catch the shift in the tone of the secular media after these comments? Pope Francis’ comments did not sit well with the secular press. Many openly challenged his exhortation.

Polly Toynbee’s comments in The Guardian on January 19 are typical of the criticism the Pope is now facing. She wrote, Whenever the faiths come together to protect their rights jointly, you should smell a rat. They don’t just believe very different things; their professions contradict one another. In real life, it’s Catholic against Protestant, Hindu against Muslim, except in the soup blender of Thought for the Day, where only gentle and similar voices preaching peace and understanding get a voice. Absent is the red-hot ferocity that fuels the Islamists of Isis as they slaughter Christians, or the proselytizing Nichiren Buddhists, or the extremists from Northern Ireland’s religious fringes. Religion is gentle only when it’s powerless, without secular influence.”

That is quite a shift from the previous adulations for this Pope!

Secular leaders are pushing back. Religion needs to be powerless and quiet. If a religious leader speaks out in the public square, he will be challenged and scorned. Religious ideas really need to stay in a small box preferably shoved into a corner.

Welcome to the brash new secular world! Canadian author Charles Taylor[1] has re-named this manifestation of muscular secularism as “Secular (3)”. We are seeing this aggressive side more often these days.

In case you missed it, the Trinity Western law school case is best understood from this new understanding of Secular (3). Ten years ago, TWU finally won recognition for its teacher certification program despite holding its students to a moral covenant. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2014, this same university is being challenged again in its attempt to graduate students from its law school. Same university, same covenant. Another aggressive response from the secular power brokers; this time coming from the Law Societies across the Canadian provinces!

Remember the Loyola case that also went to the Supreme Court. The Government of Quebec wants to speak into how its mandatory courses are taught; not just requiring the particular content for the teachers in private schools. How does one understand our culture when a secular government feels it can dictate the conversation in a religion course on the campus of a faith-based institution?

Watch the pressure being placed on the Catholic schools in Ontario as they had to accommodate the government on Bill 13. Watch what will happen when the new sex education curriculum is implemented across Ontario soon.

The old-fashioned secularism (secular v.2) that we all understood until recently is quickly disappearing. We used to have some appreciation among secularists for the religious persuasion that lives in our hearts and is expressed in our public engagements. Secular leaders demonstrated respect for faith and granted it space within a private sphere and uncontested public recognition. Our faith was accepted if not embraced. For us in the Christian school movement it has meant that we can have our Christian schools; just do not expect us to give public money towards their upkeep.

Taylor contends that this latest expression of secularism comes with an edge against faith-based communities. All religious convictions are open for critique. All religious tenets are contestable and ripe for satire. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews; all are in the way of “exclusive humanism”, Charles Taylor’s term for this muscular secularism. Charlie Hebdo’s printing presses must be free to print satirical cartoons. All newspapers should be free to castigate Mohammed, the Pope or whoever they wish.

I am concerned that the intolerance demonstrated in the TWU cases, the Loyola case and recently espoused in the reaction to Pope Francis has already crept into our freedoms to operate vibrant, private Christian schools. It helps me understand the chill that our schools have experienced from the Ontario Government since 2005. Regardless, I believe we need to speak boldly in the public square about who we are and how we want to re-create a better world. We need to be willing to work with public square partners to create spaces for grace and flourishing; resisting the urge to retreat.

However, we also need to understand the shifts in our culture and be vigilant. Reflecting on the insights of prophetic voices such as Charles Taylor and James K.A. Smith is part of this ongoing responsibility for Christian school leaders.


[1] See Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age (2007), or the new guide to this book, How (Not) To Be Secular (2014), written by James K.A. Smith.