Religion, Public or Private? : A Panel Discussion

By: Rebecca Ralph, M.A. Candidate, Department of Religious Studies

A Memorial University of Newfoundland Scholarship in the Arts-Sponsored Event hosted by the Department of Religious Studies, January 15th, 2014.

Event Description

On a warm evening in January, with financial support from the VP Research's Scholarship in the Arts fund, Drs. Dold and Selby from the Department of Religious Studies organized a well-attended public panel discussion downtown on religion in the public sphere. Dr. Alison Marshall of Brandon University and Dr. Paul Bramadat, director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society (University of Victoria) attended as panel speakers, as did Mr. Remzi Cej, member of the Human Right's Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador. Drs. Kim Parker (Department Head), Jennifer Selby, Barry Stephenson and Patricia Dold also spoke on the panel. The event attracted over 60 members of the public and generated discussion on the role and place of religious traditions in the public sphere.

The event began with each speaker responding to the question of whether religion is public or private? Speakers described how their own research examined religion's public presence and perception, touching on multiple historical periods and various geographical locations including Newfoundland, Canada, Europe and India. Dr. Stephenson began by engaging historically with Enlightenment thinking, opening up a discussion about the Western foundations of the idea that religion belonged to the private sphere. Drs. Parker, Selby, Marshall and Bramadat focused on religious groups' public activities and perceptions in Canada, while Dr. Dold broadened the discussion to include India. The diversity of subjects discussed and the multiple perspectives presented a wide-ranging body of knowledge with which members of the public could engage.

These short presentations were followed by an energetic question and answer period moderated by Dr. Bramadat. One topic of discussion was the media response to a religious accommodation request at York University in Toronto. A number of panelists underscored that the student and professor had resolved the situation prior to the administration's intervention, demonstrating how the issue was blown out of proportion in unnecessary and sensationalist ways. The theme of the night was that open conversations, much like the ones being had at the event, were the best way to deal with questions about religion's public presence in Canada.

Raising Awareness

The goal of the event was to stimulate discussion about religion's public presence in the Canadian context and to engage with current debates. This goal was achieved with multiple members of the public actively engaging in discussion with members of the panel. People offered up their own experiences and perspectives on the issues; one woman spoke about zoning laws in Ontario and how they had been changed to not allow new mosques to be built. She described this incident as a form of institutionalized racism. Another focus of the discussion was about how Canada has never been a religiously neutral nation: there is no separation of church and state like there is in the United States. Thus, the banning of religious symbols in government services as proposed by Bill 60 in Quebec is complicated. This point led to engaging discussions about how religion's presence in the public sphere and recent discussions about Canada as moving toward a secularist consensus were complicated and at times paradoxical.

Panelists also conversed on how the presence of religious symbols like the hijab in public spaces has often perceived by the majority as threatening to secularist values. This opened up discussion about how Canada's official relationship with religion is multi-layered given the diversity of its citizens' religious backgrounds and status in society. With this in mind, the discussion moved to explore how citizens want to see public policy more pointedly deal with questions about religion in public places.

Generally speaking, the discussion about secularism centered upon defining it and on whether or not it is incompatible with Canada's lack of religious neutrality. Through this event the Department of Religious Studies and the people of St. John's, NL actively engaged with these current debates in Canada, arriving at a consensus that more awareness of how the media often sensationalizes events like the York accommodation issue, polarized opinions and inflamed controversy. The main issue arising from sensationalizing events was that it limits potential meaningful dialogue.

The panel concluded, that opening up more dialogue and increasing education about different religious groups is becoming increasingly important in the Canadian context. Policy discussions are ongoing, especially in Quebec, and given Canada's lack of religious neutrality combined with developing interests in secularism, it is increasingly important that members of the public are provided with more information about different religions and the Canadian legal system. We also enjoyed wonderful treats from the Rocket Bakery in the second floor Rocket Room.

Following the success of this evening event, the department looks forward to hosting similar forums in the future.