Paul Gosselin 2008©
Last Thursday (27/5/08) I attended an information meeting at Quebec High
School on the new Ethics and religious culture
course (ERC) that will be imposed throughout the Quebec school system beginning
next September. The evening began with a slick promotional video presentation
about how extraordinary the ERC course will be and how it will usher in a
new era of “tolerance” and “respect” within the context
of a “global culture”. We are promised a wonderful Brave New World.
This was followed by a PowerPoint presentation by MELS representative Denis
Watters which gave a glimpse of the actual content of the course. ERC is not
an abstract issue for me as I have two kids in the school system.
During the question period that followed, school commissioners and parents got to ask questions and voice their concerns about this new course. Some asked if teachers would be really ready to teach the course, but others had issues with the process that the MELS has used to force this course on the population. Teacher's and parent's legal freedoms have been abrogated in order clear the way, all in the name of “openness” and “tolerance” of course...
Polytheism in the Ethics and religious culture course
As a Social Anthropologist there is a serious problem with this course. On the one hand the MELS claims that in religious terms this course is ‘neutral”, that is it is does not promote one religion over another. But when one looks at the actual course content, particularly at the secondary level, one finds discussions of deities such as Allah, VIshnu, Jesus, Yahweh, and Coyote. There is a problem here. The definition of polytheism is simple: it's a belief system that promotes more than one god. Well, a first grader can do the math, count the gods... If you get to two, then you're dealing with a polytheistic religion. From an anthropological point of view then, the MELS is using the ERC course to promote many gods, so it amounts to a polytheistic religion. This totally destroys the MELS claim that the course is neutral as far as promoting a particular religion. World-wide, polytheism is very common. The great majority of the religions of the Ancient World were polytheistic as are many contemporary religions of the Orient.
Now one can expect the MELS to complain that they are not “promoting” the gods discussed in class. They are just having “discussions” about them. If that is the case, then there is a way out of such a situation. If the MELS is serious about denying the charge of polytheism, within the context of the course, they must provide students with criteria, which students can use to distinguish between true gods and false gods. If the MELS fails to provide such criteria, then the charge remains that they are promoting many gods
On the other hand the MELS could provide a criteria distinguishing between true and false gods. Such a stance would allow teachers to discuss many gods in class, but would void the claim of polytheism against the course. But the problem is that the only way to provide such criteria is to refer to a sacred text such as the Torah, the Bible or the Koran. Such texts do provide their adherents with criteria to discern between true and false gods. If the MELS provided such criteria then, then the accusation of polytheism would be groundless, but on the other hand, because of the reference to a sacred text, ERC would still be promoting a religion, a monotheistic religion in this case, but a religion nonetheless. Once this is considered then the MELS claim that the ERC course is neutral as far as promoting a particular religion is simply false and must be rejected. There is no such thing as a neutral religion course, especially in a context where we are dealing with young kids who haven't had time to develop their own belief system. The claim of just offering information about religions might make sense in the context of a one semester optional course in a university social sciences programme (targetting adults having had time to acquire their own reference points regarding religion), but NOT for a mandatory course targetting ALL of the Québec primary and secondary school population, a course they are stuck with over a 13 year period! The intent here is obviously to indoctrinate. The claim of neutrality is nonsense.
When considering polytheism another nuance has to be pointed out. Polytheistic belief systems do promote belief in many gods, but do not demand belief or worship of the whole pantheon. Some gods may demand more attention than others, but typically no one is required to worship a particular god. Adherents of a polytheistic belief system are welcome to pick and choose. In polytheistic Greece, for example, adherents could worship Venus and ignore Mars or vice-versa. Some gods may lose favour and eventually end up being taken out with the garbage... In Against Method, the philosopher Paul K. Feyerabend comments (1975: 184)
"Archaic man is a religious eclectic, he does not object to foreign gods and myths, he adds them to the existing furniture of the world without any attempt at synthesis, or removal of contradictions. There are no priests, there is no dogma, there are no categorical statements about the gods, humans, the world. (This tolerance can still be found with the Ionian philosophers of nature who develop their ideas side by side with myth without trying to eliminate the latter.) There is no religious "morality" in our sense, nor are the gods abstract embodiments of eternal principles."
The only thing polytheistic belief systems do demand is the admission that there are many gods. Some gods may be viewed as relatively “more important” (Zeus), but none are really absolute, exclusive. The ERC course operates on precisely the same principles and it will certainly NOT allow questioning of the principle that all gods are fundamentally equivalent.
Do I want to hide my kids in a cave?
I accept that my kids, as they grow older, will be confronted with beliefs I don't agree with. I have no problem with that, but I DO have a problem when those presenting such beliefs exploit social institutions to their own profit and have the arrogance to pretend to be “neutral”. I'd much prefer that they get Hindu concepts from someone who isn't afraid of stating up front he is a Hindu and doesn't have the arrogance to use my tax dollars to indoctrinate my own kids...
I didn't get much of a response to my question from Mr. Watters. Some mumbling that the course involved “dialogue' and “tolerance”, etc... They avoided the question of criteria like a hot potato. This was not very convincing. The fact is that religion classes cannot be neutral and if you're going to provide one, you might as well as be honest and tell Quebecers up front which religion you are promoting. But then this raises further questions: When did Quebecers mandate the government to establish a State religion and use taxpayer's money (and State institutions) to promote it? Why don't they bother to make converts the old-fashioned way, by going door to door? But maybe that's too much hard work...
One of the questions brought up in the meeting had to do with the process that the MELS has used to ram this course into the school system. So far the MELS has run roughshod over parent's legal rights when they changed article 41 in the Quebec Charter of rights so that parents no longer have the freedom to choose which religion their kids will be subject to in the school system. This was done in June 2005 when Bill 95 was passed through the Assemblée nationale. But parents aren't the only ones to have seen their rights attacked by the government. In the past a protestant teacher could opt out (with no penalty) of teaching a catholic religion class. And the same was true of a catholic teacher being offered a protestant religion class. But now such freedom is a thing of the past and no teacher can opt out of teaching the ERC class and if he or she felt it contradicted his beliefs. If he or she attempted to do so unpleasant consequences would be guaranteed. In order to be able to coerce teachers in such a manner, the government has modified article 20 of the Public Schooling Act. This change in the law took effect July 1st 2008. The old protections that appeared in article 20 are history. So much for freedom of religion... Seeing how the government has behaved so far regarding parent's and teacher's rights, one can guess that school administrators now find themselves with their hands tied behind their back and having no choice, but to “cheerfully” dispense the “Good News” of ERC, knowing that if they don't, budget allocations can be reduced and jobs disappear... The rules of the game don't seem to matter anymore to the MELS technocrats. Such attitudes remind me of something C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay The Abolition of Man (1943: 44-45):
The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany. Traditional values are to be `debunked' and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it. The belief that we can invent `ideologies' at pleasure, and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere υλη, specimens, preparations, begins to affect our very language. Once we killed bad men: now we liquidate unsocial elements. Virtue has become integration and diligence dynamism, and boys likely to be worthy of a commission are `potential officer material'. Most wonderful of all, the virtues of thrift and temperance, and even of ordinary intelligence, are sales-resistance.
Now the ERC course is an excellent representative of the post-modern belief system which is popular amongst university profs. Basically this belief system rejects the idea there is such a thing as absolute truth. In pop culture this is commonly expressed as in the following manner “Everyone has their own truth”. That is why the ERC course is such a smorgasbord of religious beliefs. Post-modernism proposes a consumer approach to religion. No one has a right to tell me what is true. The consumer is always right... Post-modern salvation is found in "happiness" or self-realisation. Discussing the drift from the Judeo-Christian worldview to the Enlightenment worldview, in his book Voltaire's Bastards Canadian writer John Saul notes (1992: 479-480):
"The word happiness abounded in the early discourses on reason. Perhaps the most important invocations of it came in the American DecIaration of Independence. We know what the author meant when he wrote "that [all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." These are ideas which Jefferson expanded on again and again over the next forty-five years. And he was not alone. Rarely has a word spread with greater speed from philosopher to philosopher. As God slowly died, crucified on the structural cross of the rational state, so happiness rose to become one of the new deities in a civilization that was converting to unconscious secular polytheism. "
So one may view ERC as a religion promoted by a university sect. But universities aren't always sources of "light" and "progress". For example in the 1930s budding Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan penned an article entitled “Is Fascism the Answer?” where he extolled social initiatives promoted by the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini. During the same time period, in Germany when biologist and Nobel prize winner Konrad Lorenz and philosopher Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi party many other university professors and scientists joined them.Dutch Historian of science, Reijer Hooykaas points out that in the past intellectuals and scientists have promoted their own "new-fangled" religions. The only difference being is that now they have gotten more sophisticated and more hypocritical about it, denying being involved in promoting a "religion" but wanting to use their prestige as scientists to influence other in ideological terms (Hooykaas 1960/1994: 116-117):
Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, finally planned a 'Religion of Humanity', with a hierarchy headed by a Pope, and a saints' calendar in which great scientists, such as Newton and Galileo, took the place of Augustine and St. Paul, a system characterized by T. H. Huxley as 'Catholicism minus Christianity'. About a hundred years afterwards the German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald proposed to institute a monistic cult, and he published weekly 'Monistic Sunday Sermons' in which people were edified by digressions on such themes as 'Do not waste energy'. The old idea of Turgot was revived by Comte, viz that mankind passes from the theological or fictitious stage, via a philosophical or abstract stage, on to the scientific or positive stage (the definitive one), in which systems are no longer invented but discovered.' Liberty of conscience will be abolished then; it does not exist in natural sciences, and therefore it will disappear as soon as politics has been elevated to the rank of a natural science and the true doctrine has been established for ever.'[8a]
Now why does this sound familiar? Gee... no idea. So when prestigious university profs want to sell us on a new and improved religion, we should greet them with the same scepticism we offer carpet-baggers knocking on our front door on a Saturday morning... Journalists should also be met with the same scepticism. Recently I was interviewed by Montreal Gazette journalist Brenda Branswell about my stance on ERC. In her article entitled Ethics and religious culture to be taught in Quebec schools in September (June 27 2008) she had me "lamenting" that in the past we always had a choice, but in actual fact I was protesting that the MELS and the Québec government had ripped off parents as well as teachers of their civil rights, all in the name of politically correct expediency. When sources of information espouse "unpopular" views, subtle shades of vocabulary can be exploited to make people look like irrational fools and destroy their credibility... Normally journalists care about government encroachment on citizen's rights, but I suppose if you don't have the "favoured victim status" with the media, then such matters go under the radar, unnoticed... I was depressed to note during the interview that, in regards to government propaganda on ERC, I could detect in her questions none of that "critical perspective" that journalists pride themselves so much about. A paid government employee would not have done a better job of promoting the gov line... All her questions amounted to little more than rehashes of the official MELS line. No attempt at all to question the propaganda spouted by MELS "goodthinkers". No "distance critique" as we say in French... In general, the Quebec press seems to be taking it's Ritalin a bit too regularly and as a result is mindlessly locked into the government discourse. ZERO objectivity. Up until this point, I've yet to see even one journalist attempt to break out of this mould. Possibly there are journalists out there that might be tempted to express such doubts, but the "gatekeepers" ensure that such "heresy" does not get out... « Au Québec, la pensée unique nous va si bien... » This is an issue that Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn commented on in his 1978 address (A World Split Apart) at Harvard University:
In the Communist East, a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has voted Western journalists into their positions of power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives? There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the totalitarian East with its rigorously unified press: One discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole (the spirit of the time), generally accepted patterns of judgment, and maybe common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Unrestrained freedom exists for the press, but not for readership, because newspapers mostly transmit in a forceful and emphatic way those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and that general trend.
Professor of philosophy and Codirector of the Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London, Slavoj Zizek is a strange bird. He has been called "an academic rock star" and "the wild man of theory". He quotes with equal relish, St-Paul, Karl Marx and the Marquis de Sade. Zizek is a postmodern intellectual, but does in some cases proposes some very astute observations on current tendancies. In his book The Puppet and the Dwarf he notes:
And perhaps that is where we find the stake of today's reference to "culture,"
of "culture" emerging as the central life-world category. When
it comes to religion, for example, we no longer "really believe"
today, we just follow (some) religious rituals and mores as part of respect
for the "lifestyle" of the community to which we belong (nonbelievingJews
obeying kosher rules "out of respect for tradition," etc.). "I
don't really believe in it, it's just part of my culture" effectively
seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/ displaced belief characteristic
of our times. What is a cultural lifestyle, if not the fact that, although
we don't believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house,
and even in public places, every December? Perhaps, then, the "nonfundamentalist"
notion of "culture" as distinguished from "real" religion,
art, and so on, is in its very core the name for the field of disowned/impersonal
beliefs "culture" is the name for all those things we practice
without really believing in them, without "taking them seriously."
Is this not also why science is not part of this notion of cultureit
is all too real? And is this also not why we dismiss fundamentalist believers
as "barbarians," as anticultural, as a threat to culturethey
dare to take their beliefs seriously? Today, we ultimately perceive as a
threat to culture those who live their culture immediately, those who lack
a distance toward it.
Recall the outrage when, two years ago, the TaIiban forces in Afghanistan destroyed the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan: although none of us enlightened Westerners believe in the divinity of the Buddha, we were outraged because the Taliban Muslims did not show the appropriate respect for the "cultural heritage" of their own country and the entire world. Instead of believing through the other, like all people of culture, they really believed in their own religion, and thus had no great sensitivity toward the cultural value of the monuments of other religions - to them, the Buddha statues were just fake idols, not "cultural treasures"." (pp. 7-8, Slavoj Zizek (2003) The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. MIT Press 188p.)
ZIzek's comment here goe straight to the heart of ERC's basic approach. Children in class will be made to discuss their parent's beliefs in the most neutral manner possible. In other words, they are forced/harassed/manipulated to act as if these are not their own beliefs. They are ordered to "judge" the faith of their parents ... They are forced into seeing the religion of their parents as part of their own "culture", but not something to really believe, just like belief in Santa Claus. How many kids can resist such manipulation? Perhaps the best we can hope is that they will be bored and kill time by text-messaging in class... Postmoderns, such as the developers of the ERC course, avoid like the plague dealing with the principle that beliefs have real consequences. If they were to make such an admission, it would be the death knell of their belief system as it relies on the idea that religions are all the "same". But such an assertion is easily refuted, just compare different belief systems when applied to societies in the real world... Ask a Jew who lost relatives to the Nazi Final Solution.
Judging from their behaviour in abolishing parent's and teacher's rights, though they enjoy using the term "democractic" very much, our post-modern elites actually care very little for democractic process (unless it can be used for their purposes). After World War II, many Western intellectuals such as George Orwell feared the future would hold brutal totalitarian States similar to Stalinist Soviet Russia. Aldous Huxley however, in his book Brave New World Revisited, had a different perspective, and as it turns out, had our situation all figured out. He commented (Huxley 1958):
"Under the relentless thrust of accelerating overpopulation and increasing overorganization, and by means of ever more effective methods of mind manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms- elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest--will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial - but democracy and freedom in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit."
We must face the fact that the promoters of ERC exploit State institutions to impose their post-modern brand of polytheistic religion on Quebec society and suppress (or efficiently marginalize) any dissident view in public institutions. For the time being religious views other than those expressed in ECR, can legitimately be held “privately”. But don't hold your breath, they define what that means... Our State thought-manufacturers are quite efficient. Josef Goebbels (1897-1945), who knew a thing or two about propaganda, made the following comments :
"When democracy granted democratic methods to us in times of opposition, this was bound to happen in a democratic system. However, we National Socialists never asserted that we represented a democratic point of view, but we have declared openly that we used the democratic methods only to gain power and that, after assuming power, we would deny it to our adversaries without any consideration the means which were granted to us in times of our opposition."
At least Goebbels wasn't a hypocrite about his motivations or intiatives...
 - In French: Éthique et culture religieuse.
 - A First Nations deity.
 - Usually just a code-word for “endoctrination”...
 - In French: Loi sur l'instruction publique.
 - In physiology 1973.
 - cf. DEICHMANN, Ute (1996) Biologists
under Hitler. Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA & London 468 p.
BERGMAN, Jerry (2001) Influential Darwinists Supported the Nazi Holocaust. Creation Research Society Quarterly vol. 38 no. 1 pp. 31-39
[8a] - HOOYKAAS, Reijer (1972) Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Scottish Academic Press Edinburgh 162 p.