The Humanist Institute logo

Contact

Volumes available online
1: Ethics, Religion, Education, Welfare, Peace, and the State
2: The Aesthetics of Humanism
3: Science and Humanism
4: Rethinking Humanism: History, Philosophy, Science
5: The Enlightenment Reconstructed
6: Meaning in Humanism
7: Humanism and New Age Thinking
8: Humanism and Postmodernism
9: Humanism's Answers: Speaking to the Challenge of Orthodoxy
10: Living as Humanists
11: Humanists and Education
David E. Schafer
The Dilemma of Democratic Education
Harvey Sarles
The Emergent University
Philip J. Regal
The Brain and the University: Survival with Two Imperfect Organs
Robert B. Tapp
The Demise of the Humanities Department at the University of Minnesota
Howard B. Radest
First, Do No Harm! Medical Ethics and Moral Education
Don Page
Why Are We So Different? A Canadian View
Carol Wintermute
The Humanist Educator: Strengthening the Profession
12: Globalization and Humanism
13: Beyond Reason?
Volumes available only in print
14: Multiculturalism
15: Ecohumanism
16: The Fate of Democracy
17: Biomedical Ethics
Back issues
The Humanist Institute

Why Are We So Different? A Canadian View

Don Page

Introduction

An article in Canada's national magazine reports the results of a recent survey conducted by Angus Reid, a leading Canadian pollster. Entitled "God and Society in North America", the study questioned 6,000 adults--half in Canada and half in the United States--and relates political leanings and religious beliefs on both sides of the border. Profound differences between the two societies were found, as reflected in the following comparisons of "yes" answers:

Statement

% YES - Canada
% YES - United States

religion an important part of one's life

58
79

pray weekly

47
71

attend church weekly

21
40

read the Bible weekly

21
43

the Bible is God's word, to be taken literally

28
55

religion important to your political thinking

19
41

would vote for an atheist as government leader

72
43

would vote for a muslim as government leader

74
62

Belief in God, however, is not as different as the above answers might suggest, with Canadians at 84% and Americans at 93%. But while the level of church attendance of Americans closely reflects their belief level (as does that of people in such other countries as Italy, Ireland and Poland), Canadian church attendance does not, being roughly the same as that for the Netherlands, where belief in God is only 50%.

These observations support the major claims of this paper. It is not claimed here that Canadians are significantly less religious or spiritually inclined than Americans. It is claimed that Canadians are profoundly different from Americans in their religious commitment and expression, and that they are among the leading Western countries in progressing towards the tolerant, secular and open society espoused by Humanists. This article assumes that American Humanists will be interested in why Canadian society has developed in this way--and particularly, why it has done so under the deep shadow (historically, geographically, economically and culturally) of the United States, the most overtly religious, and therefore, in the sense used here, least secular of Western countries.

Canadians and Americans have fundamentally different histories. The northern colonies that became Canada inherited from Britain an empirical (evolutionary) approach to government. They emphatically rejected the American idealistic (revolutionary) approach. This difference and its consequences will be considered here.

In particular, the American idealistic approach to church/state separation will be examined critically. It is conceded that Americans have as secular a constitution as can be found anywhere--on paper. But human nature is perverse where prohibitions are involved, so that the practical result can be very different from that which was intended. The paper explores this point to suggest that its more empirical approach to its social institutions has allowed Canadian society to become profoundly secular in a practical sense that American society has not.

Canadian secularism is dealt with in Part II of this article. To explore the roots of this secularism we look first, in Part I, at the larger culture in Canada--a pluralistic outlook and way of living which is very different from American norms in important respects.

Part I: Canada's Social Values

When he was United States Ambassador to Canada, James Blanchard said that Americans were bewildered by the spectacle of a country submitting itself to an ordeal such as the Québec referendum of October 30, 1995, where the political unity of the country was in the balance. With this observation, Mr. Blanchard identi-fied a crucial difference between Canadians and Americans--namely, their very different concepts of nationhood. His comment also identified a fact with which Canadians are familiar--that few Americans understand their northern neighbours who, while sharing the same language, geography and material culture, differ from them fundamentally in the social values that bind them together as a country.

The viewpoint presented here is of one who was raised and educated in a mixed English-and French-speaking region in the Loyalist heart of the country, and who, having spent 30 years in bilingual public service, has a knowledge of the culture of both linguistic groups. Although French-speaking and English-speaking parts of Canada have been described as linguistic solitudes, they are, nonetheless, two communities which have been joined historically by a very strong tie--their mutual rejection of American-style libertarianism. Together, they have shared the goal of building ordered and peaceful communities on the northern half of the North American continent based on a system of shared social values. This common goal still exists, and explains why the people of Québec will only vote for political sovereignty when it can be achieved while maintaining a close association with the rest of Canada, following the model of the European Union. Whatever the eventual outcome of this unity debate, the two communities will continue to have close economic and political ties based on the social values which give them much more in common with each other than either has with their American neighbour.

There is a misunderstanding about Canada that was evident in the foreign coverage of the Québec crisis. Until a generation ago the English-speaking part of Canada tended to reflect the values of an ethno-centric WASPish elite. But outside observers are mistaken when they still refer to "English Canada"; that entity no longer exists. On the other hand, French Canada does exist; this is the community of "true Québecois" with whom the separatists wish to form an ethnic nation in the 19th century European sense. To quote David Wessel, "About 6 million in number, they share 400 years of common history, a common language, common geography, a common religion (lapsed Roman Catholic), perhaps a common genealogy, and above all a common culture and mythology." By contrast, "The rest of Canada, including the parts of the province of Québec who voted for Canada in the referendum, is a modern, cosmopolitan, democratic, new world state made up of a bewilder-ing array of ethnic groups, more or less integrated. [A few] live in relatively self-contained communities which share religion, language and culture ... [But most] of us have integrated into a new world culture to the extent that we may be totally unaware of any iden-tity other than Canadian." This is not to say that Canada is a har-monious, multi-cultural heaven. But "the very essence of Canada is different from the cultural/ethnic self-definition of the separatist Québecois. The distinction between Canada and [the separatist parts of] Québec is not a distinction between English and French cultures. It is a distinction between cosmopolitan and ethnic vi-sions of nation."

This transformation to a cosmopolitan worldview has occurred over the past generation in what was English Canada. A similar transformation is occurring within French-speaking Québec, but more slowly. In a recent study of the Canadian socio-political scene, Richard Gwyn concludes that Canada is emerging as a new kind of nation state on the world scene. The ceremonial patriation of its constitution from Westminster in 1982 symbolized the final shedding of its historic British connection and proclaimed a new Canadian nationalism which, while based on values inherited from its past, is nevertheless distinctive and new. As a result of massive immigration since WWII from continental Europe, the Caribbean, and from Asia, these values are producing the most open, pluralistic, multiethnic, multicultural society on the world scene--and, perhaps, the least sexist and racist in the Western world. Gwyn suggests that Canada has become the first truly post-modern society, in the sense that it is no longer a traditional nation-state based on common history, mythology, religion or even language. It is probably the first to be based simply on a shared set of social val-ues.

Gwyn points out that Canada exists as an act of will, based on the historic goal of its two founding communities and now shared by its other recently acknowledged aboriginal communities--namely, to build a more gentle and ordered society than that of its American neighbour. This point is supported by the results of a recent public opinion poll which found that 97% of all Canadians would reject any proposal to join the United States, whether or not Québec leaves the federation. Explaining this, Gwyn observes that a defining characteristic of Canada, including Québec, is its egalitarianism; its citizens are proud of their social democracy in which individual wealth is not to be flaunted.

A view of Canada from another perspective can be found in the United Nations' Human Development Index which ranks countries by a composite of human development criteria, including adjusted disposable income, education levels, health factors (eg. life expectancy) social stability factors (eg. incidence of crime) and human rights factors. For the second year in a row, the Index has found Canada to have a substantial lead as the most desirable country in which to live.

The following are examples of public policy issues where the Canadian outlook is substantially different from the American:

• The UN and Peacekeeping. There has been a contingent of 2000 Canadian peace-keeping troops in Bosnia since 1992, in situations of great danger, and with overwhelming public support. On a per capita basis, this commitment has been equivalent to that which the USA was only recently prepared to make, with much less apparent support from the American public. Canadian troops have been involved in all international peacekeeping missions since the UN was founded, commitments which are accepted by Canadians as a normal responsibility of world citizenship. It should also be noted that Canada joined Britain and France in resisting totalitarianism from the beginning of the two World Wars, in 1914 and in 1939. The isolationism that is so evident a feature of American society has never been characteristic of Canadians.

• Cuba and Vietnam. Like most countries, except the USA and Taiwan, Canada recognized the new Cuban government after the criminal Batista regime was overthrown--and has traded with Cuba ever since. Canadians believe it was the refusal of help from the US (under mafiosa Cuban exile pressure) that forced Castro into economic and military reliance on the Soviet Union. Each winter since the revolution, tens of thousands of Canadians have holidayed in Cuba. Canadians did not understand, and were often frightened by, the apparent paranoia that characterized American society during the Cold War. Long before its defeat in Vietnam, Canadians were appalled at United States involvement there, and they welcomed the thousands of war resistors who came north for sanctuary.

• Gun Control. Massive public demand, following the Montreal massacre of 1990, has resulted in the most rigorous gun control laws to be found anywhere.

• Health Care and the Social Safety Net. For 30 years, health care has been available to Canadians on an equal basis regardless of ability to pay--as has been the case in most other developed countries except the USA. In Canada, equal access to health care is held to be a fundamental human right, as proclaimed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and its provision on a universal basis, outside of the for-profit market system, is considered to be an essential value of a civilized society. Related to this is the virtual unanimity among Canadians that, whatever its circumstances, every family is entitled to the basic necessities of food and shelter.

• Capital Punishment. Has not been practiced in Canada since 1962. Persons charged with capital offenses in states where capital punishment is used can only be extradited from Canada within agreements that capital punishment will not be used.

These observations draw attention to aspects of the Canadian worldview that need explaining to an American audience. An international consciousness has always set Canadians apart from Americans--due, certainly, to the fact that until WWII Canadian foreign policy was guided by events in Britain and France. Continued strong ties with the Commonwealth and the Francophonie maintain this international outlook. Today, however, Canadian international concerns are dominated by a preoccupation with the affairs and policies of the USA, its largest trading partner. Currently, there is an American attempt to stop Canada and other counties from trading with Cuba (the Helms Burton Act), a move that has escalated into a serious confrontation with Canada, Mexico and Europe, and in which the US is alienating its best friends.

Canada did not experience the trauma of the Vietnam War, thus enabling the social revolution of the 1960s to quietly continue. Today, same-sex spousal arrangements are recognized by government and many employers. Abortion is no longer in the criminal code (thanks to Dr. Henry Morgentaler's persistence, and the huge support he has had in public opinion); today, abortion is limited only by the medical profession's code of ethics. It has been established that rights of personhood do not exist until the moment of birth. Assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia are not yet legal, but publicity concerning recent cases have brought public opinion to over 80% in favour of enabling legislation. There has been good progress, also, in correcting inequalities for women, minority groups and aboriginal peoples, although much more remains to be done in these areas.

Part II: Pluralism and the Secular Multicultural Society

Pluralism Defined

Humanists consider that pluralism is an essential prerequisite for developing a truly secular society. But the pluralist ideal can only be achieved if a society's citizens are tolerant of diversity. Also, there must be agreement on the aspects of culture where diversity is tolerable. As in the USA, diversity may only be acceptable in the narrow sense of private culture, such as in religion or lifestyle. In a truly cosmopolitan state, however, the principle must apply in a wider sense--for example, to include language and nationality. On this question, Americans differ profoundly from Canadians, Britons, and Russians, all of whom accommodate ranges of languages, ethnicities and nationalities within their states. When viewed from this perspective, the narrower American "melting pot" model of their society appears to be firmly entrenched.

Canada is pluralistic in the wider sense; it was founded explicitly to be so. The institutions of the Canadian federal state were designed to allow the development of the two distinct Euro-cultures that came together in 1867--expressing a vision that, it is now generally agreed, was remarkable for its time. A century and a quarter later, the French-speaking and English-speaking founding communities have developed into fully modern societies which retain their distinctive characteristics. Moreover, this principle of pluralist accommodation is also, at long last, being applied to embrace Canada's many aboriginal nationalities.

Pluralism, practically realized, is an essential foundation for the truly open, secular society that Humanists espouse, where religious beliefs are no longer acceptable as rationalizations for public policy. It is suggested here that the difference in their understanding and practice of pluralism is one of the reasons why Canadian and American religious norms differ--and in particular, why Canadian society is so much more secular in practice.

If church/state separation is to be successful in a democracy, strategies must be used that suit that country's socio-political arrangements. Since these arrangements reflect the country's history, one must understand these arrangements to assess the efficacy of the strategies used. American Humanists often appear to assume that their constitutional approach to church/state separation is superior. It should be pointed out, however, that Humanists elsewhere may well disagree. In Canada we have arrangements that are very different from the United States, and which are closer to those of most other countries--and, judged by the results, these have been very successful.

Secular Society Defined

As applied to a person, the word "secular" usually describes one who upholds the philosophy of secularism. As applied to entire societies, however, it is necessary to invoke a different sense of the term.

We choose here to define the secular society in a way that can be applied universally. This requires that we agree to limit the definition to describing a society where the result is assessed, and not how the result is achieved. Thus, for example, it does not matter whether there is an American-style prohibition on the use of taxes to support religious organizations--or whether, as in Canada, taxes are used to support religious schools as well as secular schools. Let Humanists in each country do what is needed to ensure that whatever system is used, it is fair to them. Nor is our defini-tion of a secular society concerned with the number of its citizens who profess religious belief. Our concern is with an end result using a different criterion.

We define the secular society as one where its citizens, whatever their beliefs, separate out the sacred from the secular in their public lives. People who are secular in this sense respect the sensitivities of others by avoiding all religious references in their everyday affairs--and they expect their institutions to be equally circumspect. Expression of one's religious sentiment thus becomes a purely private affair. In a society that is secular in this sense, individuals may or may not be religious--only their family and close friends will know. That Canadian society has become secular in this sense is suggested in the poll results at the beginning of this article. This will be further documented in what follows, where the reasons are examined why Canada has developed this secular aspect more rapidly than other countries.

Canada as a Social Democracy

Americans probably expect Canadians to be much like themselves, and in superficial respects this is the case. They share the same continent and relate similarly to its geography; they share a similar (although not identical) North American language; and they appear to have similar material and lifestyle expectations. But because of their different history, Canadians are really more like Europeans in important respects. An example is the Canadian political culture which reflects a classic social democracy on the Northern European model--a result of the fact that Canadians never accepted the philosophy of individualism espoused in the American Declaration of Independence.

Canada has been a constitutional monarchy from its beginning. The two founding peoples--French-speaking and English-speaking--that came together in 1867 to form the Canadian federal state were both monarchist societies. Under the Québec Act, passed by the British parliament following the conquest of Québec, the French Canadians were granted the right to keep their language and Catholic culture; as a result, they chose not to join the Protestant American colonies in the War of Independence a generation later. The first English-speaking Canadians were the tens of thousands of Loyalist Americans who, rejecting the Revolution's libertarian idealism, left their homes to move north in the years between 1776 and 1812. In effect, both communities of Canadian settlers consciously opted for the traditional, organic view of society.

Over succeeding generations, Canadian society developed and democratized gradually, through an evolutionary process. Because it remained connected to its traditional monarchist roots, Canadian society today retains that organic characteristic that distinguishes a social democracy from the liberal American model where the individual is held to be supreme and independent. This fundamental difference between Canada and the United States explains the distinctive characteristics that Americans notice about Canada--the relative absence of crime, the higher respect for governmental authority which makes possible the enforcement of gun-control laws and the like--and the expectation of a social role for government in aspects of life such as the health care system with the provision of Medicare for everyone. This organic quality in a social democracy is due to the imbedded sense of being a collective--or extended family. There is a resulting sense of government as "us", in contrast to the "they" that appears to characterize the American attitude to government.

Related Historical Observations

Canadians have reason to be very critical of key icons of American secular religion. For example, it was President Thomas Jefferson who advocated acquiring the Canadian colonies by whatever means necessary. It was President James Madison who took the first opportunity to send an invasion force into Upper Canada in 1812, while Britain was preoccupied with Napoleon in Europe. The US was defeated in the resulting war, losing its entire navy in the process. But many lives were lost on both sides during the repeated American attacks, and the war left a long legacy of fear and distrust among Canadians. So it is that Canadians have little admiration for the legacy of men such as Jefferson and Madison. To a Canadian Humanist, the reverence accorded these men by American Humanists appears to reflect an unpleasant idealism that characterizes American patriotism. The Canadian empirical mindset senses the hypocrisy that is always associated with ideology. The beautifully crafted words of the Declaration of Independence led directly to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny--and to much death and destruction.

It should also be noted that Canada had the good fortune to avoid the problem of slavery. Most blacks who came north with the Loyalists were freed slaves, and so were settled on their own lands. Some remained in personal service, but the British governor in charge of accommodating the Loyalists in Upper Canada (now Ontario) prohibited slavery. Thus, the tragedy of the Civil War did not affect Canada, except peripherally. As the Civil War came to an end, the fear that grew of another American invasion was one of the motivations behind the talks between the colonies that led to the Canadian federal union in 1867.

A useful comparison between Americans and Canadians is to be observed in the watchwords of their founding documents. On the one hand, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" speaks to an ideal of the primacy of the individual. By comparison, the Canadian "Peace, Order and Good Government" speaks to empirical process rather than idealism, to organic social unity rather than to individualism.

The Religious Mix

The Loyalists who founded English Canada were mostly Protestant. The French colonists, who had already been here for nearly 200 years, were solidly Catholic. When the two groups came together in 1867 to form the Canadian federation, they were obliged to acknowledge the fact of two cultures and two religions--and to their credit they agreed not to establish any church. There was no explicit constitutional provision such as the Americans had written to force separation of church and state, but in the interests of pluralism and fairness to both English and French communities it was agreed that, with one exception, religion would be kept out of the affairs of state. The exception was a written agreement to guarantee the existence of Catholic and Protestant schools in all parts of the country; this was seen as a necessary compromise to ensure the viability of the two cultural groups.

After two hundred years of immigration, first from the British Isles, then from the continent of Europe, and in recent years from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, the cultural and religious mix has changed. French-speaking Canadians now number approximately 25% and are predominantly non-practicing Catholic. Canadians of British origin number approximately 40%. Most of the remaining population is of continental European origin. To complete the picture, more recent immigration patterns are reflected in rapidly growing numbers of Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. The following is a breakdown of religious groups as compared with the US:

Religious Group

Canada %
United States %

Christian

68
76

Nothing in particular

16
10

Agnostic

3
2

Atheist

3
1

Jewish

1
2

Muslim

1
<1

Other non-Christian

1
1

Something else

5
6

Don't know

1
1

Christians divide as follows:

Christian religion

Canada %
United States %

Roman Catholic

48
27

Non-Black mainline Protestant

31
25

Non-Black evangelical Protestant

15
33

Black Protestant

2
12

All others (Greek Orth., Mormon, etc.)

6
5

In the absence of an established religion, there are few signs of friction in the integration of non-Christian groups into Canadian society. There is also the fact of the necessity of cultural give and take--a habit that has grown from the ever-present need to accommodate the original French and English groups. There have never been overt political groupings based on religion (as occurs in Europe), and today it is inconceivable that this could ever come about. Publicly-operated radio and television programs generally avoid religious expression, except for state funerals and the like. The weekly CBC radio program that gives religious news is fair to all groups, even covering Humanism along with witches and devil-worship. It is considered very bad form in Canada to make religious references in public, whether by public officials and politicians or by ordinary citizens. Thus, Canadian society has a secular quality that is absent in the United States.

This secular outlook is now well entrenched in Canada. Because the different cultural groups have had to cooperate for political and economic reasons, they have learned the habits of tolerance that must be present in a truly pluralistic society. It is clear that this atmosphere of tolerance leaves little breeding room for fundamentalism-- and indeed, encourages the development of religious liberalism. As a result, Canada is relatively free of the kinds of pressures from Christian fundamentalists that plague the United States.

PART III: Discussion

In every country it is a Humanist objective to work towards a pluralistic society where there is complete freedom for each per-son to choose their religion, or non-religion, and where equal treat-ment is accorded by the state to all. In some countries such as the Netherlands, this involves state funding for all groups. In Canada, equal treatment is achieved by a largely hands-off position by the state, except for tax support for Catholic schools which is struc-tured to be as fair as possible, given the constitutional requirement for it. In both the Netherlands and Canada, religious practice is declining rapidly. In both countries, long-established habits of tolerant pluralism have discouraged the development of divisive fundamentalism.

The United States, on the other hand, has a constitutional provision which has been interpreted as prohibiting any governmental role in religious matters. Paradoxically, however, there is a degree of confusion in the US between religion and public affairs that is not found in most other developed countries. US politicians invoke God in their speeches, and their coins proclaim to Americans that they trust in God. Such proclamations of belief in God from the highest institutional levels in society cannot help the growth of secular attitudes among Americans.

The statistics given in the introduction to this article show a high incidence in the US of conservative religious belief. Why do so many Americans still hold narrow attitudes that are disappearing elsewhere in the West? Is it possible that the answer is related, at least in part, to the prohibitional nature of the American interpretation of church/state separation? The evidence shows that statutory forms of prohibition usually lead to stubborn resistance by those affected, and can only be effectively enforced if they have the support of an overwhelming majority of the population. This is not a matter of ideals--of rights or wrongs; it is a matter of empirical experience--of reality. Prohibition was counterproductive with regard to alcohol because it did not have overwhelming public support. It will also be counterproductive on the matter of the First Amendment when a substantial segment of the population does not support it. It seems clear to an outside observer that the First Amendment is a constant spur that energizes the sizeable minority of American evangelical Christians. From an outside Humanist perspective, it appears counterproductive to Humanist objectives--leading to an endless social war that drains Humanist energies away from the socio-political work that is needed to achieve real secularity in the US.

Developments in such countries as India and Turkey provide further evidence that secular practices cannot be imposed on a population through a secular constitution. As has happened in the United States, the secular provisions of the Indian and Turkish constitutions are being seriously undermined over time. It is clear that constitutions do not determine these matters. Democratic countries become secular when the people themselves become tolerant and accepting of diversity; political leaders simply reflect what the people expect. In a democracy, secularity must come from the people themselves, not from their constitution.

It is evident that the religious impulse, is a normal human trait--a fact of nature that Humanists must accept and live with. Neurological studies suggest that human beings are predisposed to transcendentalism by the way our brains work--a situation that seems to have played a necessary role in the evolution of our reflective powers. Religious belief appears to have been a cultural adaptation over the millennia which has given people the necessary means to deal with their existential angst in a world where famine, violence and disease have lurked as unremitting dangers.

Humanists who accept this insight and are serious about developing a truly open society will want to concentrate their efforts in socio-political directions that help to alleviate the root causes of virulent religious belief among the population at large. They will also work for true religious freedom by promoting public policies that encourage tolerant secular attitudes and practices. Of course, they will also establish Humanist groups and communities to nourish those who need the sense of connection that such communities can provide. The AHA, AEU and COSH exist to promote some of these goals in the United States. But are their priorities right? Are Humanists working hard enough on the public policy changes needed to remove the root conditions that cause widespread adherence to traditional religion? The question remains: why is success so elusive in the United States, while pluralistic secularism is becoming the norm in the rest of the developed world?

The answer must, surely, be found in the structural differences between the United States and other countries. The United States is unique among developed countries in being a libertarian democracy rather than a social democracy; it is also unique in its rigid constitutional prohibitions regarding religion. The question must be asked: is there a causal relationship between these unique features and the uniquely high incidence of religious practice in the US?

With its libertarian ideology, the United States is also unique among Western countries in the low level of security enjoyed by its citizens. To an outsider it seems obvious that the levels of crime and drug abuse in American society (levels that would be considered unacceptable in other Western countries) are symptoms of a massive social alienation problem. From a Humanist perspective, it also seems obvious that the continued virulence of religious belief among Americans is a further symptom of this alienation.

The experience of Canada and other countries suggests that the priority for Humanist action should be to help create the social conditions that weaken widespread religious commitment. In Canada, it is not the absence of belief that has been important to creating a more secular society; rather, it has been the widespread development of tolerance and respect for the sensitivities of others. Humanists will acknowledge that a longing for security and connection is a normal aspect of human nature. When will American society provide its people--all of its people--with a sense of belonging and of security in their lives here and now? It is suggested that only then will they become less vulnerable to the purveyors of other-worldly security.

Postscript

The invitation to write this article has provided an opportunity to reveal observations and opinions developed during my terms as editor of International Humanist and of the AHA's The Humanist, but which I have not expressed until now. This self-control was particularly difficult during my period as a student at The Humanist Institute. My former class colleagues will recognize strands of these thoughts which were only meekly mooted there, but which were never pressed.

American Humanists may be shocked to learn that key icons of their patriotic secular religion are not revered by Humanists elsewhere. The libertarian ideology expressed by Thomas Jefferson, and the idealism engendered by it, is deeply imbedded in the American psyche--so deeply that even rational Humanists may have difficulty discussing the following proposition: "that the idealism upheld by American Humanists is itself counter-produc-tive to their movement." I propose this with some trepidation, but am comforted by the notion that if the 'North American' appella-tion inherent in NACH is to have meaning, such issues should not be out of bounds. Given the task assigned, it would be disingenu-ous not to put this proposition forward. I will now make the case, as gently as possible.

My Canadian cultural heritage includes a very deep distrust of ideology--of whatever sort. This is a heritage that dates back to 1776 when my cultural ancestors were dismayed by the language of the Declaration of Independence and frightened by what it could mean for the future. "Can idealistic words really be a sound basis for a new Jerusalem?" There were many doubters in the thirteen colonies.

This is still the Canadian mindset. It is cautious, empirical, and very much concerned with what will work rather than with the rightness of any set of ideas. The Canadian instinct is to compromise and accommodate--to see all sides of an issue. It sees idealism and hypocrisy as two sides of the same coin. Canadians know that the beautifully crafted words of the Declaration of Independence led directly to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny--and as a result, to death and destruction beyond US borders.

In my long and, on the whole, very agreeable association with American Humanists, I have found this idealism difficult to deal with. Idealism is a mindset that is both attractive and very annoying. It is attractive because it engenders an obvious confidence, optimism, and yes, naiveté. But it can be very frustrating to one whose culture has engendered an empirical mindset. Idealism is characterized by a tendency to judgmentalism and confrontation, which makes for great discussion and debate but often, it seems, with no one's mind being changed. This is the American way. At the same time, idealism can prevent discourse with others who do not share the same mindset. It must surely be good to be so certain of the virtue of one's ideas--but it is that very certainty that raises the red flag for an empirical thinker.

This matters when Americans interact internationally. One can see Jeffersonian idealism (and its associated hypocrisy) in current US dealings with the United Nations, or with Cuba--and yes, with Canada and the other countries who refuse to stop trading with Cuba. It has appeared, as well, at international Humanist forums.

In the early 1990s I was involved in trying to resolve a difficult problem in the IHEU. The issue was a resolution presented by the Belgian Humanists to the 1990 Brussels World Congress which, it turned out, pitted the world community of Humanists against the united opposition of the delegates from the US. The resolution attempted to come to grips with a serious problem that many countries were then having--to achieve equity with the churches in the matter of government funding for their schools. It called for the IHEU to support such equity by calling for funding to be provided to humanist or secular schools on the same basis that it is provided to religious schools. One after another, the delegates from each American Humanist group rose to speak against the resolution, and it had to be tabled for further work by the Board. The American delegates were implacably opposed to any language that seemed to condone state funding for sectarian schools.

I recognized the problem the Belgians were having, and strongly supported their resolution. At that time equity of school funding was an issue in Canada as well. With Harry Stopes-Roe of the UK and a delegate from the Netherlands, I was appointed to an IHEU committee charged with preparing a new draft, and the result of our work was presented to the IHEU Board meeting in Prague in 1991. This new draft was an improved version of the original, and we had carefully circumscribed the intent of the resolution to apply only to countries where sectarian school funding is the norm--in other words, virtually every country except the US. Still the American delegates were unanimously opposed--an IHEU resolution must not in any way appear to condone support for state funding of sectarian schools--anywhere--in any country! It seemed the US delegates only wished to support a resolution that opposed sectarian school funding--an unrealistic stance for everyone else. Again we had to postpone, this time until the Amsterdam Congress in 1992. By the time we had received clearance from Edd Doerr, Joe Chuman and others in the US, our committee was reduced to presenting a resolution that was a disappointment to us--and two valuable years had been lost. It was during the saga of this resolution that the Europeans made their final decision to form the European Humanist Federation. Among other reasons, they needed a forum that could deal more expeditiously with their concerns.

And finally......

An idealistic mindset makes it difficult to see the other's viewpoint--and in its pathological form it makes compromise impossible. This leads to my final point. It seems very likely that it is American idealism that is the destructive factor in the American Humanist movement. Why can American Humanists not make the compromises that are needed if they are to come together in solidarity as a coordinated movement? Can Thomas Jefferson's legacy have been so perverse?


© 1997 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

ISSN 1058-5966

Copyright © The Humanist Institute - www.humanistinstitute.org. All rights reserved.

If you have comments about this web site, please visit The Humanist Institute's contact us page.