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Brian Dijkema: Does prayer belong in the public square?

Commentary

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.

Opinion: Unmasking the Fun Police

Commentary

A lot has already been discussed regarding the Centre for Substance Use and Addiction’s (CCSA) report that recommends drastic changes to health guidelines for alcohol.The CCSA’s new guidelines state that no amount of alcohol is safe. They recommend no more than two drinks a week for both men and women. Experts from the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research (ISFAR) called it “a pseudo-scientific amalgamation of selected studies of low scientific validity that fit their preconceived notions,” and more recently 16 prominent Quebec-based harm reduction experts, professors, and researchers have stated that the CCSA’s report misleads consumers with statements like “even in small doses, alcohol has consequences for everyone.”

But beyond the criticism the CCSA has received from those who work in the field of alcohol research, there is a once-murky link between the researchers who regularly push for neo-temperance policy change and international temperance organizations like Movendi.

Movendi is an international temperance group that preaches a zero-consumption approach to alcohol. Movendi was founded in the 1800s under the name “The Order of Good Templars,” but rebranded itself in 2020, possibly because their previous name sounded like it was from a Dan Brown novel. 

Funny enough, Movendi funds its neo-temperance lobbying around the world by running a lottery in Sweden. Now, there is nothing morally wrong with running a lottery, or gambling for that matter, but running a lottery that has been sued by Sweden’s Consumer Agency for using misleading marketing tactics and defrauding consumers is certainly suspect and worthy of criticism. Not to mention the fact that they fund their puritanical war on one “sin” with the profits of another. 

Movendi is important in the conversation about alcohol policy internationally, because they officially partner with the World Health Organization, but also domestically, because their affiliate researchers are the actual authors of the CCSA report that has faced so much criticism. 

Yes, the authors of the CCSA’s report on alcohol, which was funded by your tax dollars via Health Canada, are openly affiliated with an international anti-alcohol organization whose main goal is creating an alcohol-free future.

How do we know this? Well, the authors of the CCSA report, Tim Stockwell, Timothy Naimi, and Adam Sherk, have open ties to Movendi that are clear for anyone to see. For example, just two days after the CCSA report was published, an interactive summary of the report was published on Movendi’s website, authored by the same set of authors. 

In fact, these CSSA researchers cite on their own conflict of interest page that they are affiliated with Movendi International. And while their disclosure states that they are volunteer members with Movendi, according to the disclosures, they have travelled on Movendi’s dime to Movendi events in Sweden, and are featured on the Movendi podcast, dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers of alcohol. 

And just how strident are these anti-alcohol lobbyists and the organization they are tied to? Well, again according to Movendi’s own website, their members take a pledge stating that they “are required to lead a life free from the use of alcohol and other intoxicating drugs”.

Now, there is nothing wrong with choosing to abstain from alcohol and other intoxicating drugs. To each their own. But taking one’s personal view and masquerading it as scientific, at taxpayers’ expense, and in turn lobbying the federal government for policy change, is another thing. Did taxpayers ask for their money to be used to fund anti-alcohol lobbying? Certainly not.

Imagine if the Government of Canada commissioned a study on the appropriate level of meat consumption, and it was discovered that the authors of the study, after coming to what is obviously a pre-drawn conclusion, are strident vegans affiliated with anti-meat organizations like People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)? Outrage would understandably follow, and the findings would be cast off as nothing more than ideologically driven pseudoscience. 

Well, the good news for Canadians who drink is that despite the headlines about the CCSA’s report, it would appear the federal government is approaching the report and the CCSA’s fuzzy accounting with caution. As of right now, Canada’s low-risk guidelines remain at two drinks per day for women, and three drinks for men per day—as they should be, given the very small changes in absolute health risk that exist at this level of consumption. 

At the end of the day, these anti-alcohol activists are just people who want to tax, forbid, and regulate as much of your lives as they can. They are nothing more than the Fun Police.