For Secularism in Hospitals


The draft bill on secularism proposed by the current Quebec government should be extended to apply to medical personnel in hospitals. Andréa Richard explains why.

Sommaire en français Il est à souhaiter que le projet de loi laïque proposé au Québec soit étendu pour s’appliquer au personnel dans les hôpitaux. Andréa Richard nous explique pourquoi.

Ce blogue est aussi disponible en français.

The Draft Bill 21 proposed by the Quebec government—welcomed very favorably by both the population and all secular organizations in Quebec—represents an excellent advance for secularism. Nevertheless, this draft legislation is very incomplete. It bans the wearing of religious symbols by public servants in positions of authority, including public school teachers, but the ban does not apply to hospitals.

Andréa Richard, former nun, author of Au-delà de la religion (Beyond Religion) and Femme après le cloître (The Uncloistered Woman), and winner of the 2018 Condorcet-Dessaulles Prize, is very concerned about this omission. She therefore decided to express her concerns in the form of a brief, addressed to the Committee on Institutions of the National Assembly of Quebec, in which she eloquently explains the necessity for religious neutrality among medical personnel. The brief is not yet published (although it should be soon on the web site of the National Assembly, but Ms. Richard has graciously allowed me to quote several excerpts (which I have translated). She begins by presenting the problem at hand:

I wonder if it would be possible, during your parliamentary deliberations, to addess and solve the very real problem of ostentatious religious symbols worn by doctors and nurses. Now would really be the best time to discuss this issue, so that Bill 21 on laicity might be more complete. If dealing with this issue is delayed, it might be too late and the task would evidently become more difficult.

In fact, to allow doctors and nurses to wear such symbols constitutes a religious accommodation, a privilege granted to religions, an advantage which benefits some employees to the detriment of others. Such religious accommodations necessarily constitute breaches of religious neutrality.

Those who demand accommodations of a religious nature are considered by their respective communities to be fanatics. By ceding to such demands, we do not serve progress of our society but, on the contrary, cater to religious fundamentalism which is a brake on social progress.

Let us get to the heart of the problem, with a few examples to illustrate:

In a hospital, patients who, more often than not, are vulnerable, should not have to suffer discomfort caused by the very caregivers whose purpose is to care for them. […]

Imagine a dying man who, in his youth, was raped by a pedophile priest and who is confronted by the sight of a priest, wearing a Roman collar and crucifix, who arrives at his bedside to ask if he would like the last sacraments. The patient would certainly be ill at ease, or worse…

Imagine a Muslim woman, hospitalized because she was beaten by her father for refusing to wear the veil, who sees a veiled female nurse or doctor arrive at her bedside to care for her. What do you think her reaction would be?

My father-in-law was an atheist and had specified that, if hospitalized, he did not want a priest to attend to him. And yet, the hospital chaplain came to him to offer the last sacraments. He was dying and unable to express his refusal…

Ostentatious religious symbols have an obvious purpose: to symbolize a doctrine which goes beyond the common humanity which we all share. They are the very image of religious fundamentalism.

Ms. Richard exposes very clearly the victim-playing game which some religious apologists play in order to denigrate secularism:

To claim that an employee of the State who refuses to remove her ostentatious religious symbol is being denied employment is totally incongruous, because it is she who excludes herself by choosing her religion over her profession. If an individual is unable or unwilling to obey the rules of the job, then it is up to that individual to choose between her/his religious convictions and her/his professional obligations.

Absolute tolerance is not a virtue:

Tolerance is an admirable quality, but to tolerate the intolerable can easily become an abdication of responsibility. A religious symbol, for its part, is inappropriate on the clothing of a public servant because such a symbol is not “proper” for the job. […]

The society of tomorrow will be either theocratic or secular. For the benefit of future generations, we must face our responsibilities now. If we do not, those who follow us will accuse us of allowing a return to the Middle Ages and they will be right. […]

To grant religious accommodations enables the development of communitarianism which is a fertile breeding ground for fundamentalism. Those who claim to speak in the name of God are usurpers. To accept their word is to be complicit with their dishonesty.

In conclusion, Ms. Richard reminds us that it is our duty to resist the flood of religious obscurantism which currently threatens our world:

The foundation of every religion is indoctrination, a strictly human phenomenon whose precepts are erroneous and necessarily deceitful. When we concede to demands for accommodations from religions or from their adherents, when we endorse them in one way or another, our behaviour is complicit with their errors and lies.

We need to wake up to this reality.

Next blog: CFI Canada Rejects Secularism—Again