Religious symbols vs. religious uniforms

The following was published as a Letter to the Editor in The Suburban, 2018-11-21:

As a psychiatrist, I am fascinated by the ongoing debate in Quebec society about secularism and the attempt by the CAQ government to ban selected religious symbols. I suspect that the palpable fear of outward signs of religious belief manifested by many Quebecers has much to do with early childhood experiences in school and in church. I know, because I experienced some of the same, growing up in Toronto. As a student in private Catholic schools, taught by priests or brothers dressed in ankle-length cassocks or soutanes, I experienced real fear upon being told by these worthies that shaking my penis more than three times after urinating was masturbation, that masturbation was a mortal sin, and committing a mortal sin meant an eternity in the burning fires of hell! The only way to escape this certain fate was by subjecting myself to the humiliation of confessing to a priest my “sin” of inadvertently shaking my penis four times!

And in grade school, both boys and girls were taught by nuns in forbidding-looking ankle-length habits and hoods or veils who imparted fearful messages about behaviour and sin.

What made these messages and their messengers so powerful? I believe that it was the uniform: a cassock or habit, all black, with a very distinctive Roman collar or hood. Uniforms for many people instil respect for authority, if not fear; consider the uniforms worn by police and armies. That is exactly why people in power wear uniforms.

But are those uniforms worn by Catholic clergy and religious who exerted so much authority over ordinary people in Quebec for so many years, comparable in their power to the religious symbols that the CAQ wishes to proscribe for today’s teachers? Does wearing a kippah, hijab, crucifix, or turban evoke the same fear as a full-length black soutane or habit? Not in my mind, but apparently it does to many other Quebecers.

On the other hand, a full-length black chador or burqa bears a remarkable resemblance to the uniforms worn by those teachers years ago. So perhaps from a psychological point of view, proscribing teachers from wearing these uniform-like garments makes more sense. If so, the ban should be not on the wearing of religious symbols, but of uniform-like attire, religious or not.

What about judges, police officers, or prosecutors? They already wear a uniform, making it impossible to simultaneously wear a religious uniform when working. But I think it makes little sense to also ban people in authority from wearing religious symbols. I can conceive of situations where I would prefer to know if a judge or a police officer could be biased against me for religious reasons. Because biases cannot be taken off or put on like religious symbols, it’s better to know about someone’s biases than to have them hidden from you. If you are a Sikh and want to enter the National Assembly while wearing a kirpan (ceremonial dagger), or an Outremont resident angry that narrow streets are being clogged with school buses serving the Hasidic Jewish population, wouldn’t you want to know up front if the authority figures involved are biased for you or against you? Hidden biases help no one, in the end!

What should be done, then? By all means, ban uniforms or uniform-like garments for people in authority, including teachers, except those uniforms required by the position. Do not ban the wearing of religious symbols, because it can be helpful to know about the biases of people in authority. And for goodness’ sake, take that crucifix off the wall of the National Assembly, and put it into a museum! It’s a religious symbol, and when it’s “worn” by the National Assembly, it suggests our legislature is biased.

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