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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories editorial

The Secular Charter

by Don Webb

Irene Maschke’s “Food for Thought” appears in this issue.

“Food for Thought” begs the question: What will any society allow and not allow, and on what grounds? The story challenges “political correctness” by emphasizing and satirizing the truism that all rights have limits.

For example, the recent controversy in Quebec over the proposed Secular Charter raised similar but, mercifully, not identical questions. Briefly: the Charter would have forbidden public employees to wear religious symbols.

The Parti Québécois could have supported its case for the Secular Charter by emphasizing that no schoolteacher would be allowed to enter a classroom wearing a Nazi armband or dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, even or especially if the teacher considered the attire a religious symbol.

Likewise, would any jurisdiction permit a revival of the Aztec religion? It would require allowing its practitioners to sacrifice prisoners atop a pyramid, to appease Quetzalcoatl or some weird deity.

And the same goes for the ancient Celtic practice of sacrificing a “Corn King” to assure adequate harvests, or the ancient Carthaginian cult of Moloch, which demanded infant sacrifice for some obscure reason. The Spartans don’t seem to count; they were less superstitious than just plain bloody-minded. They practiced infanticide as a form of eugenics more than anything else.

“Food for Thought” presumes that a certain country’s laws permit murder to be committed as part of a religious ritual. In that scenario, the Aztecs, ancient Celts and Carthaginians would get off scot-free on grounds of religious freedom. That’s hard to take seriously. More realistic problems arise when no lives or property are at stake.

To my knowledge, the examples of Nazis and Kluxers were not cited in support of the Secular Charter. Rather, the discussion foundered on vague generalities about what, if any, religious symbols public employees might be allowed to wear.

Some pertinent questions were set aside a priori: The crucifix in the Assemblée Nationale was declared exempt as a historical relic. And male public employees would not be required drop their pants on request to show if they had or had not been circumcised. The example is beyond crude; nonetheless it draws a logical conclusion. And the logic itself is absurd, of course: what would such an exhibition prove?

When logic fails, motives must be questioned. What is the real motive behind the Secular Charter? It would not affect a notorious case in which a children’s soccer team was shunned because some of the players wore Sikh turbans.

Nor would it affect another controversy, where certain parties could not be identified in courts of law by conventional means because the persons in question wore face coverings purportedly required by their religious sect. In neither case — the soccer team and the law court — were the people involved government employees, but the Secular Charter would presumably restrict their clothing styles, if they were.

Quebec’s Secular Charter is a classic case of a solution in search of a problem. Which is more important: head coverings or safety in children’s sports? Face coverings or the function of courts of law? At most, the Charter can be seen as an opening gambit or “wedge” that might ultimately serve as a precedent for proscribing religious identification in society at large.

On the other hand, the case of ritual cannibalism in “Food for Thought” describes a problem in search of a solution, namely a society that has its priorities straight.

Copyright © 2014 by Don Webb

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