Church, State, and Culture

Have you ever wondered why the separation of church and state is good idea?

I'm assuming, of course, that most everyone in my immediate social circle actually thinks it's a good idea, though since I read about that fiasco involving the mayor of Saguenay, this assumption is perhaps on shakier ground than I would have liked.

But, assuming that I'm correct, have you ever sat down and actually thought about why you think it's a good idea?

I've noticed at least two schools of thought among my friends. Some of them are simply anti-religion. They look at, for example, the Catholic Church's history of child abuse, or the practice of sati, and they conclude that the separation of church and state is a good idea for much the same reason that the separation of murder and state is a good idea. Religion is bad and the less it has to do with public life, the better.

Other friends are a bit more abstract. Religion, on the whole, may or may not be a good thing (some people insist that a religion of some sort is the only way to be truly moral) but, however that debate turns out, it is simply not the role of the government to get involved in such matters. Religious conviction, or lack thereof, is seen as a strictly personal thing with which the government doesn't get to meddle.

My own views veer towards the latter. I consider myself an atheist, and I don't feel that I need religion to be (what I consider to be) a good person. Other people, I understand, feel differently, and find inspiration in whatever religion they practice. Whatever floats your boat, I say, and the government should simply stay out of it. I should stay out of it too - it's all about leaving each other alone.

So which one are you? Do you think religion is bad? Or do you think religion is personal?

Let me ask another question. Do you think culture is a personal thing? A culture is a collection of values, beliefs, norms, etc. shared by a group of people. Do you think that someone's culture is a personal matter, or do you think that the government gets a say? Do you think that you get a say in the culture I choose to be part of? Or that I get a say in yours?

Do you believe in an "official" state culture? Do you believe that it's the government's job to protect this culture?

If you answered yes to any of these questions then, as a mental exercise, you should ask them again, but with the word "culture" replaced by the word "religion" . The definition of "culture" as a "shared collection of values and beliefs", after all, works as a partial definition of religion as well, and I've blogged before about the blurry line between religion and culture. Try the exercise, and see what your answers are.

Here's what I find weird. Many of the most enthusiastic supporters of the separation of church of state in Quebec have no qualms whatsoever about Quebec endorsing an official culture. Religion is a personal matter, but culture - that's a state matter, apparently. People will use terms like "shared cultural heritage" and at the same time be completely oblivious to the fact that, in Quebec, catholicism was actually a big part of that. So why an official culture, but not an official religion? Why do they get to manage one but not the other?

I suspect many people make a sharp distinction between religion and culture. I think, in many cases, this distinction is completely artificial. We need the separation of culture and state, in exactly the same way, and for exactly the same reason, that we need the separation of church and state.