Imposed from Above: The Ethics and Religious Culture Program Violates the Tenets of Quebec's Existing Shared Public Culture

By Caldwell, Gary | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Imposed from Above: The Ethics and Religious Culture Program Violates the Tenets of Quebec's Existing Shared Public Culture


Caldwell, Gary, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


The Quebec state has imposed a new Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program, from primary one to secondary five (Grades 1 to 11) in all schools, public and private. (1) Officially in the making since 2005, the program was introduced in all Quebec schools as of September 2008. It replaces all previous religious instruction and moral education, and it is compulsory.

There is no doubt that this program represents a major development in education in Quebec, and that the thinkers behind it are serious and determined. In the words of the lead philosopher in the team that inspired the program, developed it and is now implementing it, Georges Leroux, "The choice that we are making [is] a historic and ... political. choice," and it represents "a genuine rupture." The major intellectuals involved in the gestation of this remaking of religious and moral education--Jean-Pierre Proulx, Fernand Ouellet and Pierre Lucier along with M. Leroux--are among the most competent of contemporary Quebec academics, and their stated motives are beyond reproach: their fundamental objectives are the "common good" and individual freedom and autonomy.

In this essay, I first distill the philosophical and political postulates of the program's apologists. I then proceed to issues the universal and compulsory imposition of the program raises for Quebec society: a population existing in space and time--in history--that is the inheritor of an already existing public culture the reformers manifestly wish to break with. Finally, I comment briefly on the implementation process, which has generated considerable controversy: active government "information" initiatives, resistance in the form of a citizens' movement, and two court cases to date.

The seven pillars

For the purposes of laying out the philosophical and political postulates or premises involved, I rely here on Georges Leroux's book published in 2007 for the explicit purpose of explaining the program, Ethique, culture religieuse, dialogue: arguments pour un programme (2) (Ethics, religious culture, dialogue: Arguments for a program), from which the above quote is taken. This book is the public and official apology for the program and is the culmination of a dominant academic school of thought that has been in germination for at least half a century, in Quebec and elsewhere in the West. Drawing on Georges Leroux is also appropriate inasmuch as be has graciously agreed to respond in Inroads.

There are at least seven pillars to the intellectual underpinnings of the program:

* unrelenting committment to secularism in all public institutions;

* a belief in the plausibility of normative pluralism, which is the tortuous access road to universal truths;

* an abiding belief in the role of reason in the formulation of our individual world views and, more particularly, of our ethics;

* belief in the feasibility, by recourse to critical reflection via dialogue, of each individual arriving at his or her individual autonomy;

* the necessity and capacity of the state in fostering and ensuring these ends;

* the need for a shared public culture if a society is to function and survive;

* the cultural corrosiveness of globalization.

Obviously these "pillars" are in many ways complementary and interdependent; nonetheless, they stand out as distinct articles of faith in M. Leroux's book.

"Secularism," as practised in the Quebec intellectual milieu, is a dogma from which there can be no deviation or exception. For M. Leroux, secularism is an achievement of modernity, a precondition of democracy and a condition of individual freedom. According to the most radical secularists, no religious authority may be allowed to prevail, even be visible, in the public arena. Hence the display of the Christian crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly or in municipal council chambers is an aberration to be suppressed as soon as possible--even if, as M. …

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