Brian Dijkema: Does prayer belong in the public square?

Quebeckers, unlike many in English Canada, are at least open about their fear of religion in the public square
People raise their hands in prayer at a vigil for  the four family members who were killed in a vehicle attack that police say was motivated by anti-Muslim hate, in London, Ont., in Ottawa, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

Does prayer belong in public spaces? This is the question behind a Quebec reporter’s question to Pierre Poilievre about why there were prayer rooms at last weekend’s Conservative Party convention. In Canada, the answer to that question depends—in a way that is, I think, underappreciated—on where you live.

If you live in English Canada, the answer is likely to look a lot like Pierre Poilievre’s. You might not personally need a prayer room, but the fact that some people might want or need one should be met with a shrug (Poilievre gave a few of those as well). Prayer rooms are fine and perfectly normal—we have them in airports, hospitals, and many other places run by and paid for by the state. And it’s not even a particularly partisan thing—the Liberals have them too. It is, as former Conservative staffer Garry Keller notes, not shocking to anyone.

The fact is that prayer is pretty close to ubiquitous. Research conducted by Cardus with the Angus Reid Institute shows that lots of people pray. Virtually 100 percent of those who are religiously committed do so regularly, and what might surprise people is that even 10 percent of those who are spiritually uncertain pray at least once a month. What is truly shocking is that 2 percent of those who are non-religious—the same group that is entirely unanimous in their belief that there is no God or higher power—still pray! So, whether or not you want to give a room for people to pray in, it’s most likely happening all around you. As research from the Pew Forum notes “one-in-five religiously unaffiliated Canadians say they pray, meditate, or engage in other forms of worship on their own at least once a month. Therefore, the term ‘nones’ should not be equated with ‘secular’ or ‘non-religious.’” It’s almost as if the religious impulse is a human thing!

So, politics and the Constitution aside, Poilievre’s shrug is exactly what we should expect from a purely sociological point of view.

What has shocked many in English Canada is the illiberal character of the reporter’s question. But I’m not shocked and you shouldn’t be either. Quebec at this moment is not—is self-consciously not—a particularly liberal province; and many within it don’t want it to be. And that’s not just because Quebec has the lowest proportion of religiously committed in Canada. Only 6 percent of Quebeckers are, and over 57 percent consider themselves spiritually uncertain—the lowest and highest proportions in Canada, respectively.

But it’s not just personal, it’s political. This is, after all, the province where you will be fired as a public school teacher if you wear a hijab. It is a place where students attending state schools are barred—by law—from using rooms in the school to pray. You can’t be a judge and wear a yarmulke, nor be a police officer with a turban. This is not an accident. The reporter is merely asking questions in line with political leaders who have made—and a citizenry that is largely on board with—an explicit removal of religion from places associated with the state.

As my friend Dr. Robert Joustra wrote when Bill 21 was still an embryonic idea:

This is a kind of secularism, certainly, but not the best kind, and not the sort that should be associated with Canada. It’s called laïcité, a kind of reimported civil religion which suppresses all other identities—religious or otherwise—beneath that of the state.

For the record, I think laïcité is terrible policy. It’s misguided not just for legal reasons, not just because there are other, better, ways for the state to exercise a principled and structural stance on religious freedom and its limits, not just because it is profoundly dehumanizing, but also, practically, because it’s likely to foment the very divisions and radicalism it aims to prevent.

But the one thing it has going for it is honesty. Quebeckers, unlike many in English Canada, are at least open about their fear of religion in the public square. In this, they are different than many (not all!) English Canadians

Many of the reactions to the reporter’s question—and indeed Bill 21—are indicative of what you might call a consensus on the theoretical commitment to religious freedom in the English-speaking parts of this country. Many people are religious; lots of people pray, and wear funny hats; it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why should I care? In some ways, the collective reaction to the reporters question is a perfect case study in what Robertson Davies calls a “sort of Canadian conventionality, which keeps religion strictly in its place, where it must not be knocked, but need not be heeded, either.”

But when it comes to actual attempts to live out their deepest convictions in public life (peacefully, as citizens) many religious people are keenly aware that the self-perceptions of English-speaking Canadians’ tolerance of religion is often more of a veneer that is quick to block participation, dissolve basic freedoms in administrative language of faux liberalism, or to publicly shame religion when its adherents want to move beyond fashion and articulate in institutions and action their view of justice and society.

I said Quebec was more honest, but they’re also, to their credit, more cognizant of the reality that religion is powerful. That power, it must be said, has of course been the source of great evil that has scarred our country, but it’s also the source of great good, the lasting benefits of which we still feel and which we don’t often even recognize. Our country has for too long assumed, rather than sought to answer in a careful and thoughtful way, the proper role of not just prayer, but of religion as a force for social and political change. And too often that assumption is a minimalist one.

Poilievre’s shrug was the right response to the question at hand. But if we are to live fully in our Canadian identity, we can’t shrug off the deeper question. Perhaps, like a heart that’s having trouble, a little shock might help us live more fully together.

Sign up for FREE and receive The Hub’s weekly email newsletter.

You'll get our weekly newsletter featuring The Hub’s thought-provoking insights and analysis of Canadian policy issues and in-depth interviews with the world’s sharpest minds and thinkers.