Religion, Democratic Community, and Education: Two Questions

Article excerpt


Any contemporary discussion on Canadian identity cannot avoid including the influence of pluralism and multiculturalism, and particularly the impact and influence of religion in such a context. We saw, for example, that the issue of faith-based schools occupied center stage during the last provincial election in Ontario (October 2007). Whether this debate divided the province politically is a subject for another discussion, but it certainly politicized a matter that calls for reasoned analysis and judicious deliberation, and not just impassioned arguments based solely upon the often-divisive categories of religion and culture. I say solely because religion and culture are certainly powerful in forming human identity, but they need not be the only means of such a formation. In his book Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen warns against the miniaturization of human beings when viewed solely from the narrow confines particularly of religion, but also ethnicity and culture. He says that religion-centered analysis has been given great prominence, and he goes on to say that it is not helpful, indeed recent history would say it is very harmful, when it is considered to be the only legitimate lens to view and understand human identity. It is worth quoting Sen at some length:

Viewing individuals in terms of their religious affiliations has certainly become quite common in cultural analysis in recent years. Does this make the religion-centered analysis of the people of the world a helpful way of understanding humanity?

I have to argue that it does not. This may be a more coherent classification of the people of the world than civilized categorization, but it makes the same mistake of attempting to see human beings in terms of only one affiliation, viz. religion. In many contexts, such a classification can be rather helpful ... but to take that to be the overarching basis for social, political, and cultural analysis in general would amount to overlooking all the other associations and loyalties any individual may have, and which could be significant in the person's behavior, identity, and self understanding. The crucial need to take note of the plural identities of people and their choice of priorities survives the replacement of civilizational classifications with a directly religious categorization. (Sen, 2006, p.60)

For his part, in his essay "The Values of a Just Society," Pierre Trudeau said that federalism is "a superior form of government; by definition, it is more pluralist than monolithic and therefore respects diversity among peoples and groups."(Trudeau, 1990, p.360) However, Trudeau did not construct a foundation upon which one might secure human diversity. In attempting to construct such a foundation, it has been asked whether "our particular identities ... will take public precedence over our more universal identities as persons." (Gutmann, 1992, p. 9) This primacy of human personhood, in the midst of diversity and plurality, is also of interest to Jurgen Habermas, developed through his theory of "communicative action," which sets out how individual citizens as persons, (and their moral and civic responsibilities) are manifested through their personal "self- determination" and "self-realization" and stand in relationship to what he terms "unlimited community." He goes on to say, "an identity that always remains mine, namely, my self-understanding as an autonomously acting and individuated being, can stablilize itself only if I find recognition as a person, and as this person." (Habermas, 1992, p.192) Jacques Maritain asks, "why is it that the person, as person, seeks to live in society?" (Maritain, 1972a, p.47) His answer, like Taylor and Habermas, concerns the nature of human persons, such as their generosity of spirit and their desire for knowledge and communications. He echoes Aristotle's statement that men and women are political by nature because they are rational by nature, and that reason requires "development through character training, education and the cooperation of [others], and because society is thus indispensable to the accomplishment of human dignity. …