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Indifference in Disguise

An interesting article from last week’s National Post… Apparently, youngsters in Quebec daycare centres will henceforth be allowed to see religious imagery and symbols but not to have them explained:

The new policy will make it illegal for workers in the province’s network of subsidized daycares to teach their charges, aged five and under, about a specific religion. Teaching religious songs, including many Christmas carols, will be off limits, as will crafts with a religious connotation. Government inspectors will enforce the rules beginning next June.

“I want the young Quebecers who attend our daycare services to do so in a spirit of openness to others and diversity,” Family Minister Yolande James said as she unveiled the changes in Montreal. Ms. James said daycares will still be allowed to highlight “cultural traditions” rooted in a religious faith. “We will not remove Christmas trees from our daycare centres,” she said. A daycare could also display a crèche depicting the birth of Jesus, an aide to Ms. James said. “The line is drawn when a daycare centre teaches about the birth of Jesus, who is Mary, who is Joseph,” Geneviève Hinse said. “The line is crossed when there is a transmission of religion.”

I can’t say I envy the poor souls charged with patrolling Quebec’s daycares, searching for illicit Christmas carols or mentions of the word “Jesus.” Of course, it is difficult to know how/when/why to talk about religious themes in a pluralistic country like Canada. Policy-makers certainly have a difficult task. But as I read this article, I couldn’t help but think of Frederich Buechner’s words on the inconsistencies and inadequacies of tolerance as policy:

Toleration is often just indifference in disguise.

“It doesn’t matter what religion you have as long as you have one” is apt to mean really, “I couldn’t care less whether you have one or not….”

It is sometimes argued that no religion of any kind should be taught in schools. The name of God should not be mentioned, prayers should not be prayed, religious holidays should not be observed—all of this to avoid in any way indoctrinating the young. This is itself, of course, the most powerful kind of indoctrination because it is the most subtle and for that reason the hardest for the young or anybody else to defend themselves against. Given no reason to believe that the issue of God has any importance at all, or even exists as an issue, how can anybody make an intelligent decision either for God or against him?

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. I suppose the obvious answer is that there’s plenty of opportunity to indoctrinate the young at home and church without having it in government-run daycare as well. As for the Buechner quote, I can’t help but think it would be rather nice if more people couldn’t care less whether others had a religion or not.

    I’m actually in favour of teaching comparative religion in schools. It’s an important and interesting topic. Kids should learn the histories and beliefs of various faith traditions. Their parents and church leaders can have the job of explaining why any particular one is true.

    December 20, 2010
    • Interesting how when the worldview we are teaching our children is religious it is “indoctrination” when it is secular it is… what, “education,” I suppose? I think this is the main point of the Buechner quote. The question isn’t, should we or shouldn’t we “indoctrinate” our children” but how, to what end, and according to whose vision should we indoctrinate them (or, less negatively, “socialize,” “inculcate,” “educate,” “train,” etc?

      At any rate, I think we agree here: in a culture characterized by many different truth claims, it is appropriate to teach kids about religion in public schools/government-subsidized daycares without wandering into adjudicating between them. As you say, it is entirely possible to teach children the histories and beliefs of various traditions. In the case above, this would seem a fairly obvious solution to the potential problem of hordes of confused little Canadians noticing all kinds of religious/cultural symbols but not being allowed to be told what they mean (i.e, “Well Susie, that is a manger. A group of people called Christians believe that it is a significant symbol because…).

      December 20, 2010
  2. Paul Johnston #

    As imperfect as we are, one of the bedrocks of Catholic culture is our education system. I cannot comprehend, trust in or fully support a Christian culture that does not teach and defend it’s faith to it’s young, through the school system.

    If we didn’t have our schools we would soon not have our faith.

    December 21, 2010
    • Which is, if I’m not mistaken, why you have Catholic private schools, right?

      The question of how to handle religion in public government-funded schools in a highly pluralistic nation such as Canada is a very different one.

      December 21, 2010
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Catholic schools in Ontario are constitutionally guaranteed and fully publicly funded, as I would assume they could be anywhere else in Canada. Likewise there are political movements that would support a form of voucher system allowing parents to have there children schooled in environments where their moral as well as academic needs are being met.

    The tragedy in Canada, as I see it, is that we have no appetite for political struggle even when the cause is right and just.

    December 22, 2010
    • Sure, but those who send their children to Catholic school still do so fully aware that the education on offer will be specifically Catholic in nature. What about the schools where Muslims and Sikhs and atheists and agnostics and Buddhists and, yes, even other Christians send their children? How is religion to be taught there?

      Re: the “tragedy in Canada,” what cause do we lack the appetite to struggle against?

      December 22, 2010
      • Paul Johnston #

        If Christ is the way, the truth, the light, should we teach that in our schools? Yes or no? What others would choose to teach is not my priority, though I do believe that to the heart that truly knows God, introduced to a heart truly searching for God, Christian conversion is always possible.

        Explain to me as a Christian Canadian why you except the removal of implicit Christian values and expression from the public school system and for that matter the public form altogether, and I think you’ll find your answer as to why I think too many Canadians lack the courage of their convictions.

        December 23, 2010
      • Explain to me as a Christian Canadian why you except the removal of implicit Christian values and expression from the public school system and for that matter the public form altogether, and I think you’ll find your answer as to why I think too many Canadians lack the courage of their convictions.

        Um, well, because not everyone in the public school is a Christian… And because (as a Christian and for Christian reasons) I feel it is immoral in a pluralistic context to force a uniquely Christian education upon others (not least because I wouldn’t want my children to have a uniquely Muslim or Sikh or Buddhist or atheistic education forced upon them in a public school).

        I’m confused—how does this give me my answer as to why you think too many Canadians lack the courage of their convictions?

        December 24, 2010
  4. Ken #

    I think that the content, as well as other dimensions, of public education inevitably involves political decisions. The same is true in private schools – it is just that the political body is different.

    Education is indoctrination. Value-free education is impossible. So, it is fine for Christians to press their views, along with atheists, Muslims, etc. None of us wants to avoid learning something about religion, none of us wants any of them shoved down our throats. BTW, it is also a pity that athletics and physical education, art and music are also often pushed aside in education now, at least in California.

    Chinese friends send their children to school on the weekends to provide the cultural education they miss in public schools. That is, of course, ultimately futile.

    A Protestant neighbor sent her son to Catholic schools and he now attends a Catholic university (Georgetown) where the education is secular. He is an atheist now. Apparently, so are many of his professors. He took one mandatory course on religion. The course is called: “The Problem of God.”

    Coincidentally, and incidentally, last night I began rereading a book I read a long time ago – Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. It is a study, one might say, of what is gained and what is lost in education, indoctrination, that differs from the culture of one’s family. It is my wife’s story, as well as that of him.

    Personally, I think it is a pity for anyone to not receive a theological education in the West. I certainly value mine, more than all of my other education, even in those moments when I don’t believe. We cannot understand who we are in the West without it, whether or not we believe there is a God.

    December 22, 2010
    • None of us wants to avoid learning something about religion, none of us wants any of them shoved down our throats.

      That’s a pretty good summary of how to handle religion in the context of public education in a pluralistic world :).

      As you say, there are gains and losses with every approach to education. Increasingly, I fear that one of the losses might be that the default assumption in the public sphere seems to be that things like meaning and purpose belong solely in the private realm, where we are free to privately construct “what works for us” (or not). I worry about what the long-term effects might be of our children being “indoctrinated” into the view that facts are public and values are private.

      December 22, 2010
      • mdaele #

        RE: “I worry about what the long-term effects might be of our children being “indoctrinated” into the view that facts are public and values are private.”

        The conversation here has been largely spot on. I’m not sure your valuation of the dominant discourse is entirely accurate. To contend that pluralism, as manifested in the public sphere, indoctrinates TOWARD facts being public and values being private seems a fairly arbitrary and largely subjective judgement.
        It has been my experience that the desire to shift public policy toward pluralistic notions has been motivated by the intolerable injustice performed in the name of bigotted (and mostly fundamental) religiousity. It would be wonderful to decry the horrors of pluralistic ‘indifference’ if radical pugilistic strife were not the all too common result of religion endorsed injustice. One need look no further George Bush’s claim of God’s endorsement for his less than righteous acts of self interested war mongering.
        It is also valuable to note that history shows that radical pluralism /secularism has had a relatively short life cycle. The Quebec policies that you have cited here precisely these kind of policies. There is a place where pluralistic public policy becomes an affront to the values of the majority at which point the door conveniently opens for radical ideological values to gain ascendancy.

        December 22, 2010
      • To contend that pluralism, as manifested in the public sphere, indoctrinates TOWARD facts being public and values being private seems a fairly arbitrary and largely subjective judgement.

        The extent to which this “indoctrination” is deliberate or incidental might be debatable. In my mind, there’s still a pretty straight line. The existence of competing truth claims about value and meaning in the public square seems to lead inexorably toward relativizing all of them for the sake of political peace, in my view. This may not be a bad thing. But it seems, at any rate, like a necessary one, given our political reality.

        Has the historical bad behaviour of religious communities leant urgency to notions like pluralism/tolerance, etc? Certainly. But I think there are also times when “bigoted religion” is used as a kind of post hoc justification for making a political necessity a national ideology (at least in the Canadian context). I’m certainly not one to gloss over historical injustice perpetrated in the name of religion. I’m also not naive enough to imagine that official pluralism is the virtuous white knight to rescue us from our dark religious past. That narrative certainly gets a lot of traction, but it strikes me as a little too convenient. As you say in your last paragraph, the limitations (practical or intellectual) of tolerance and pluralism as official values inevitably do appear.

        December 23, 2010
      • mdaele #

        Its still hard to see how you are drawing up the paradigm of the almost mutually exclusive -Public=facts // Private=values.
        From my vantage point the public sphere has a fairly tight grip on values. And never has there been more ‘freedom’ in the private sphere to espouse wildly disparate ‘facts’. The reality that the church no longer has control over what public values ought to be may seem to force individuals to hold their values privately out of public scrutiny. Western society in particular seems to revel in the adoption of values of minority groups as the ethical standard. Relativity is fairly distant when it comes to how issues around homosexuality. Think about smoking or pornography or drinking and driving where public policy has determined the dominant values of society.
        Even more think about the incredible change in public policy in regards to what has been called acts of ‘hate’.
        At times the complaints about pluralism sound like thinly veiled laments over the lack of authority afforded the Christian church in determining public policy. The same is true for tolerance. Its not indifference that is produced so much as the marked shift in political control.
        I stand with the former and late Prime-minister who suggested that government ought to stay out of the private lives of individuals as much as possible. Any religion-back public policy ought to fight vigorously to prove its public good. If we don’t want to gloss over the problems of bad religion then we should find meaningful ways to reinstate Christian values onto the public sphere. Keeping in mind that these public policies ought also provide interdictions against the sort of horrors that religion has exercised in the past. Of course it seems logical to bear in mind that a religious value system propped up public policy might just as easily be evidence of an inherent weakness in that value system as it might be evidence of it ability to serve the public good.
        I know that there are places within the public sphere where an avoidance of religion is standard practice. The public school system seems an all too convenient locus for this criticism. While the system clearly has shifted away from supporting the core values of Christianity, I think it would be hard to prove that an avoidance of religion is standard practice.
        I think of a student teacher who was told to prepare all of her lessons without any use of multi-media. This was not due to the lack of these facilities (which lamentably are ubiqutous). In fact this school was equipped with the latest technological apparati available. It was due to the fact that her school was the public learning center for children of Old Colony Mennonite families (she was also asked to anticipate the reduction in class size to less than half due to their annual migration to warmer climes). This isn’t an avoidance of religion – it is an acknowledgement of its powerful role in dictating pedagogical function. I think this is the sort of toleration that is precisely necessary in a society that aims to avoid the mediocrity of conformity.

        December 24, 2010
      • I’m not “drawing up a paradigm.” I’m simply stating a common construal of things. In a culture where diverse people must live and be educated together the basic governing principle is often that we will teach “the facts” and leave divisive things like religious values to the private realm (Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society lays this out very well).

        Is this division neat and tidy or even totally accurate? Of course not. As Ken has pointed out here, all education is indoctrination into some view of the world and every presentation of the facts comes with values attached. But as a very general heuristic, I think the shoe fits, however awkwardly. In the public sphere, we at least claim to be giving kids “the basics” (i.e., math, science, reading, writing) and allowing them to construct their worldviews (i.e., what, if anything, all of this means) on their own time. Whether or not this claim is true is, of course, highly debatable.

        December 24, 2010
  5. Ken #


    Re: “the default assumption in the public sphere seems to be that things like meaning and purpose belong solely in the private realm, where we are free to privately construct “what works for us” (or not).”

    Here too. As we know, these things cannot be private. We place an impossible burden on people when we assert that they are private, not to mention the damage done to society.

    Re: “I worry about what the long-term effects might be of our children being “indoctrinated” into the view that facts are public and values are private.”

    Me too, although I think what happens here is that the “facts” are value laden.

    My sense is that here, children learn the value of ecology, for example, but not theology. Moreover, the ecological values are not those of deep ecology, like I have, but those of a shallow ecology or an economic ecology in which what is at stake is the preservation of a way of life, a diverse habitat of abundance for all humanity, production and consumption for all.

    December 22, 2010
  6. Paul Johnston #

    I get that there are competing understandings of what is moral but do I understand you to say that it is more moral to have a public option that doesn’t offer Christian education, than one that does? If millions of Canadians would identify themselves as Christians, could not those millions of taxpayers have a Canadian publicly financed Christian school option if the had the temerity to insist? It certainly has worked for Catholic education in Ontario.

    Speaking for myself if our government ever looked to kill the separate school system within our province, that would be the deal breaker for me and a lot of others I would hope. I’m Catholic before I’m Canadian. I identify with Christ and the Roman Catholic Church before I identify with any other tribe or politic.

    As for Catholic education and atheism, it is true that many young people develop inflated opinions about themselves and what they think they know and become quite dismissive about those things that can only be sustained through faith. Then one day you realize that we take , for the most part, love, on faith. So live the love life of an atheist. Then one day you have children, your children have children, you lose a parent or a loved one…I knew lots of 20 year old atheists in my day, I see most of us back in church today.

    December 24, 2010
    • I get that there are competing understandings of what is moral but do I understand you to say that it is more moral to have a public option that doesn’t offer Christian education, than one that does?

      No, I just think it has to be consistent. As I understand it, the Ontario system is not. Catholic schools receive public funding while other religious schools do not (if I’m wrong about this, feel free to correct me). If I were a Sikh or a Muslim or a Hindu in Ontario I would have a big problem with this. In BC, all religious schools receive some funding provided they meet certain academic standards. This seems like a pretty commonsense approach given the basic realities of the wide diversity of people in this country.

      “I identify with Christ and the Roman Catholic Church before I identify with any other tribe or politic.”

      Me too (minus, of course the “Roman” and the big “C” in Catholic :)). But I think this allegiance can be demonstrated in the public sphere in many different ways. I’m a good Mennonite—I don’t think it is the government’s job to give my kids a Christian education.

      December 24, 2010
      • Paul Johnston #

        If your kids receive a government/public education and you hold that your small “c” catholic identity is who you are, why wouldn’t you want your children immersed in a government/public Christian education.

        It seems to me that be rejecting the Christian component you are supporting the public/facts, private/values dichotomy that you seem to be opposed to earlier in this thread.

        December 24, 2010
      • So if I push your questions here to their logical conclusions, it would seem that you are saying that those who do not enroll their children in Christian education (which, in parts of Canada, is prohibitively expensive for some), are not as committed to their Christian identity? You sure you want to go there?

        As it happens, our children have experienced both the public and private Christian schools. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages of going the public school route is that Christian kids in a public school have the opportunity to embody a different value system than the one implicit in a good deal of public education. They have the opportunity to be salt and light in a way that they don’t in a Christian school.

        I was educated almost entirely in the public (secular) education system from kindergarten right through my bachelor’s degree and I somehow managed to maintain my Christian identity. I may not always have been salt and light (!), but I never even remotely felt like my identity as a Christian was somehow in jeopardy because I wasn’t at a Christian school. In fact, I think that my faith was strengthened in the process of having to negotiate it in the context of other worldviews.

        I’m not sure where you get the idea that I am “rejecting the Christian component.” Throughout this conversation I have maintained that I am fine with Christian education being offered. I have simply questioned whether it deserves preferential treatment in a pluralistic society.

        December 24, 2010
  7. Paul Johnston #

    My understanding with regard to Catholic funding is that it is a consequence of a pre confederation deal between French Lower Canada (Quebec) and English Upper Canada (Ontario) intending to protect the cultural heritage of the then exclusively Catholic Quebec. As a further consequence, Catholic minorities in Ontario and Protestant minorities in Quebec were afforded the same deal. I’m told that the constitution offers no similar standing to other religions.

    December 24, 2010
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Yes, that does seem to be a rather provocative and unnecessary categorizing. How about saying that it seems logical that a parent with a committed Christian identity should want a publicly funded Christian school option available for his/her child.

    Personally speaking, I don’t think I would want to burden a young child with a “salt/light” responsibility. Non conformity can be so difficult for the young, particularly in a culture that is becoming increasing less Christian.

    I remain convinced that the world wide Catholic phenomena is very much dependent on a robust Catholic school system. I don’t think it unreasonable that the many millions who claim the Catholic faith as theirs should also demand that their school tax dollars be used to fund a wholly Catholic system. I feel other Christian groups should either cabal with us or where numbers warrant, seek a similar deal for themselves. At the very least a demand for particular faithed based studies within a broader public/secular system should be the bare minimum. Christians children could and should have regular study time allotted for Christian studies as could other faith groups, where numbers warranted.

    Offering service to none as a means respecting the integrity of all, is at best logically retarded or perhaps even a deliberate secular/atheist intention.

    December 26, 2010
    • Paul Johnston #

      oops I meant to say faction, not cabal.

      December 26, 2010
    • Well, again, maybe it’s the Mennonite DNA, but I’ve never really thought it was the government’s job to fund religious education. We’ve never had much use for the idea of the church being an arm of the state or vice versa. Mennonites have historically been pretty big proponents of the notion that the church is an entity that is set apart/called out of culture (and at times in opposition to culture) so the idea that we ought to expect government money to train our kids to be disciples of Jesus is a bit foreign.

      (I should hasten to add that I do not agree with the posture Mennonites have taken toward the broader culture in every instance. I am simply musing about the lineage of my mixed feelings about government-funded Christian education)

      December 26, 2010
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Yes, the church as arm of the state is an anathema to me also. The intention is to have the school system as the arm of the church, mediated through catholic laity, while at the same time meeting or exceeding state standards regarding education. I’m no expert but the union has met with mixed results. It depends on who you talk too. A few schools, some of the better ones, (at least by reputation) have remained or returned to being private. Some others worry over the gradual watering down of catholic principals in those schools that are public. They see the administrative school trustees and teachers organizations having usurped the authority of the church. Tail wagging the dog, so to speak. Still others who think that the religious nature of the schools needs to be tempered to meet modern realities….the devil within…so to speak :)….

    I can understand your concern, Ryan but in spite of the risks I think political activism that seeks to stake out a fair representation of the Christian voice within the public square, is both our democratic right and our moral obligation.

    The devil, I admit, is in the details.

    December 27, 2010

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