The role of religion in Canadian public discourse explored at Montreal conference

MONTREAL—Concerned about the increasing polarization between secularists and religious believers, along with the growing divide between fundamentalists and more liberal followers of every ideology, religious leaders from across Canada joined with scholars and public figures to explore the role of religion in a modern and diverse society here in May.

“Bridging the Secular Divide: Religion and Canadian Public Discourse” drew about 150 participants, who sought to reflect on the state of religion in society at large. The event was held 27-28 May 2013 at McGill University. Its sponsors encompassed a diversity of religious groups in Canada, including the Canadian Bahá’í community.

The discussion was wide ranging, touching on issues of religious freedom in a secular society, protecting the rights of minorities, and the role of religion in addressing social issues, such as poverty and inequality, the environment, and education.

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, in an opening panel discussion, said secularism has a double role: “To protect the rights of religious minorities by guarding secular space, but also by showing a diversity of religious voices in our public discourse.”

Patrice Brodeur of the University of Montreal said religious communities sometimes feel pressured by secularism, but “our spiritual principles call on us to transcend victimization discourses...We have a common human identity and we need to start with this to contextualize our other identities.”

Susanne Tamas of the Canadian Bahá’í community, in another panel, said that as religious communities seek involvement in the public sphere, they should “regard participation in discourse as a search for truth rather than an opportunity to persuade others to our views.”

“We understand that the purpose of religion is transformation and that the transformation of the individual and society are complementary and interdependent processes,” said Ms. Tamas.

The keynote plenary of the first day featured a conversation between two prominent public intellectuals—political philosopher Daniel Weinstock and former Member of Parliament Bill Blaikie. Weinstock asserted that Canadians should be less concerned about the gap between religious and secular thought, and more attentive to the gap between citizens and the public sphere. “We want everyone involved in making our society better, and we want people speaking in an authentic voice.”

Blaikie added, “We need to find solidarity in the context of diversity; that is the task before us.”