The Will to Religion: Obligatory Religious Citizenship

In a recent furore over whether the Gideon society should be able to continue to distribute copies of the Bible in schools in Ontario, Canada, a newspaper column reflected on the matter. The column was written by Jeffrey Miller, a professor of law and literature at a Canadian university. He noted:

Atheists should be thrilled that the Gideon Society wants to distribute copies of the Bible in our schools. Even those who support religious expression in public institutions miss the best argument for these giveaways. While the society’s fundamental motive is to promote Christianity, the books themselves are innocent of intention. To begin with, they contain not just the Christian testament but the Jewish Bible as well, and provide a platform for the Koran. They are anthropological artifacts, a prototype narrative expressing how we Westerners explain the world to ourselves. (Miller 2012)

The claim that Christianity is foundational to western society is perhaps better framed as Christianity being one of the key drivers of social institutions and social life; however, Miller is correct in pointing to its importance if one wants to delve into detailed cultural interpretation.

The place of Christianity and of religion more generally in public life and public discourse has drawn increased attention of late and has been a core preoccupation of some political theorists for some time. The well-known essay by Jürgen Habermas (2008), which unfortunately launched the idea of the “post-secular” into fame (see Beckford 2012 for a sound critique of this idea), deliberated on the desirability and methods by which religion might be allowed into the public sphere, taking up the torch passed on by Rawls[1] and others. Religion has gained a new currency in academic circles as something to be studied or paid attention to, and in the public sphere as a presence that has either been renewed and reinvigorated or as something that, it turns out, simply has not and will not go away. But to what extent does this require a certain level of virtuosity in relation to biblical knowledge in order to engage in public debate or deliberation? And, to what extent is one required to confess one’s own spiritual position? More broadly, what are the shifts in political and legal culture related to religion and how is it that we have moved from a discourse of the secular to an invocation of the religious?

A good illustration of the kinds of subtle and eye opening realizations one may glean from a solid knowledge of Christian text is to be found in a recent (unpublished) article by Robert Leckey (2012) in which he analyses the proposed Bill 94 in Quebec. That bill requires those seeking public services to present themselves with a “naked face” (Fournier and See, 2012), and is an obvious attempt to ban niqab and burqa wearing women from the public sphere. Leckey notes:

The general notion that common sense is culturally embedded leads to mention of one reason that face-to-face encounters might appear so natural and essential. On one genealogy, the emphasis on being face to face derives from the Christian scripture. The famous hymn to Christian charity in the First Letter to the Corinthians includes one of the New Testament’s best-known lines: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” What is crucial is the verse’s epistemological resonance that “[f]ace-to-face understanding outshines any other way of seeking to know.” The suggestion is not that legislative drafters consulted the epistles of St Paul while working. Without any effort on their part, his words would simply have permeated their consciousness.

Leckey’s tracing of “one” genealogy is thought-provoking indeed, but his discussion does not depend on this mapping for its effectiveness, and in fact his broader analysis draws extensively and effectively on queer theory to make its point. In short, Leckey leaves space for the complexity of the social and cultural context in which this biblical reference is situated. Miller (2012) goes much further, though, in his advocacy for Christian knowledge:

Ignorance of its narratives, and of those that preceded and overlap them in classical literature, makes it virtually impossible to really understand most of Western history and art. Even the imagination of Western atheists, not to mention their personal ethics and morality, is informed by the Bible, if (with some) only in how they react against the biblical ethic.

The move from a call for a more sophisticated knowledge of foundational literature and histories to the assertion that we all depend on religion for our values and morals is especially worrisome, as it assumes what is contested—from where do morals and values come? The more troublesome aspect of the claim, though, is the idea that one can only critically assess or engage with society if one is well versed in Christianity, and indeed, logically, that good citizenship may depend on Christian literacy. The “new normal”assumes that religion is the sole source of morals and values, and, that we are all religious or that we all have spiritual needs. Few are bold enough to overtly rest this burden fully in Christianity, but Miller (and others—see, for example, the decision of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Lautsi[2]) does exactly that. The challenge is to tease apart the ways in which religion, and especially in a number of Western democracies (Canada, the United States, Germany, England, Italy, Denmark, to name but a few) Christianity, is embedded in and shapes social institutions and power relations. Knowledge about Christianity can indeed assist in that process, but providing children with a Bible distributed through schools does not equate with a citizenry equipped to engage in cultural analysis.

This article takes up the problematic of the “new normal” and its necessary twin, the “will to religion.” The notion of the “new normal” has been so named by Winnifred Sullivan to describe the shift to the persistent presence, indeed requirement, for religious assessment in all manner of public and institutional life.[3] The idea of the will to religion has emerged from my work on religion and diversity in Canada and in the context of a major international comparative project that examines the so-called governance of religious diversity ( In the first section I elaborate on these ideas, drawing on the work of Winnifred Sullivan (2005, 2009a, 2009b), Michel Foucault (1978, 1985, 1986, 1987) and others to outline the dual aspects of a renewed universalism related to the call to be spiritual or religious. Following Sullivan, renewed religious universalism can be linked to “a convergence between humanistic critiques of overly scientistic understandings of the person, social scientific and biological, and a contemporaneous shift in religious authority and anthropology from the church to the individual” (Sullivan 2007). In the second section of the article I point to four consequences of this shift to a new normal in which we are all religious, including the essentialization of religious identities, the overemphasis on religion, the infiltration of particular measures of religiosity, and the spread of religious freedom protectionism.

The New Normal and the Will to Religion: We Are All Religious Now

One of the most able analysts of the “new normal” is Winnifred Sullivan, whose work on religion and law illuminates larger stories of religious establishment. In her book, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (2005), Sullivan argues that religious freedom as a legal promise is untenable. In essence, Sullivan holds that courts create a hierarchy of religious orthodoxy when they arbitrate religious freedom claims. Sullivan delineates two models of religion: one is protestant,[4] private, voluntary, individual, textual and belief based; in contrast, the second model is public, coercive, communal, oral and enacted. It is the first model that Sullivan identifies as providing the dominant motif in the legal framing of religion and indeed which is the privileged model. The implications of this for religious freedom are profound, and in fact, destroy the possibility of religious freedom as a legally defendable and definable right.

In her subsequent book on religion in prisons, Sullivan (2009a) argues that it is the religious that has come to be seen, at least in the American context, as universal rather than the secular. Specifically, she examines the ways in which prison programs offered by evangelical Christians attempt to avoid being seen as violating the non-establishment clause of the US Constitution by framing the programs as representing universal values. Embedded in these values are assumptions about the spiritual needs of humans and the capacity of Christianity to meet those needs.[5]

Building on the works above, Sullivan’s research on veteran’s hospitals (2009b) brings together her insights about the dominance of Protestantism, its positioning as representative of universal values (and thus its capacity to speak for all) and the assumption of spiritual needs to point to what she describes as the “new normal.” Sullivan observed that in veteran’s hospitals patients’ spiritual needs were assessed beginning with the assumption that everyone has a religion and spiritual needs, reinforcing the idea that “we are all religious now.” Indeed, the possibility of not having a religion is not entertained in that setting, and those who insist that they have no religion are characterized as being in denial or somehow as being dysfunctional.

Two incidents in my experience resonate with what Sullivan is arguing—one was a con- versation with a Christian social worker who was in the process of implementing a spiritual care program in local hospitals in the Ottawa area, with the hope that the program would serve as a model across Canada. The beginning assumption was that people have spiritual needs that must be tended to, whether or not they are Christian. The second incident was during my participation in a meeting of a research team that included the head of pastoral care in the regional health authority of one of Canada’s larger provinces. The termination of that program (the week of our meeting) had caused her personal grief and had generated public discussion about whether the public purse should be funding pastoral care in hospitals at all. What struck me about the conversation in that context was, again, the beginning assumption that religion was a necessary component of offering good health care, and that we all have religious needs. In both contexts I have no doubt that those involved were well meaning, but the assumption that caregivers could examine or question the religious beliefs of others, holding them up for assessment, even if just to assess religious needs, was curious to me.

Maybe I truly am immersed in a protestant, privatized model of religion, but it felt as though they had been authorized to ask about something that is private, or, more bluntly, none of their business. Put another way, this imperative to confess one’s spiritual needs struck me as worrisome, especially in light of Sullivan’s research. Both of these caregivers admitted the Christian framework within which they worked, but insisted on their sensitivity to other religions and that they would of course not force anything on anyone. It seemed to me, though, that making queries about someone’s religion came with certain assumptions. It felt very much like the confessional, care-for-the-self framework (Foucault 1986) that required a certain self-reflexivity on spiritual needs and subsequent reporting by the patient so as to determine the appropriate spiritual care. Religion and spirituality were used interchangeably in these two contexts, but the framework within which they were situated used Christian language to assess spiritual need. We are all, it seems, as Sullivan would say, religious now.

This confessional, panoptic spirituality is part and parcel of the institutional implementation of the “new normal.” Sullivan’s work documents the institutional framework within which this new normal is implemented, whether in hospitals, schools, or prisons. Here there are resonances with Foucault’s work on care for the self, which focuses on the subject truth relation and the care for the self-imperative, which calls on the individual to assess, monitor, and adjust according to a particular truth—in this case, the truth that “we all have spiritual needs.” Without belaboring the Foucauldian inspiration, it might be useful to recall his words on the idea of “care for self”:

I think that both with the Greeks and the Romans and especially with the Greeks in order to behave properly, in order to practice freedom properly, it was necessary to care for self, both in order to know one’s self and there is the familiar gnothi seauton and to improve one’s self, to surpass one’s self, to master the appetites that risk engulfing you. (Foucault 1987, 116)

Ronald W. Dworkin’s provocative piece on the will to health, entitled “The new gospel of health” (Dworkin 2000), illustrates well the link between knowledge and the care of the self. He points to the healthy lifestyle movement as creating a new truth about illness and suffering, creating a pervasive institutionalized approach to health that calls upon the patient to monitor, assess, and follow the new gospel of health. The “truth” perpetuated is that illness can be avoided if one is properly vigilant. A similar confessional spirit is being evidenced in the “post-secular” era[6] that calls upon each of us to position ourselves in the new normal of the fact of human spirituality (or religion, in some cases). Even those who are ambiguous are pressed to name that ambiguity as atheism, agnosticism, religious “none,” or non-believer, rendering the ambiguous as “named” and thus able to be responded to institutionally. This “will to religion” accompanies the new religious normal, shaping the responsibilized citizen as a religious citizen. We are experiencing an era in which policy, law, and social institutions have come to imagine religion as a necessary part of the creation and expression of self. Despite a pervasive rhetorical commitment to religious diversity and religious freedom, the primary basis from which religion is imagined institutionally and against which the citizen self-assesses is a universal Christianity that is expressive of shared values.

The will to religion, then, is the idea that we are all religious, that we all have spiritual needs, and that those needs are available for scrutiny, examination, correction, regulation, and addressing both by ourselves and by others. These spiritual needs are assessed in terms of imagined universal criteria that are largely based in Christian understandings of religion. I have argued elsewhere that there exists a religious hegemony in Canada that is made up predominantly of mainstream Christianity (Beaman 2008). The edges or boundaries of this hegemony are blurry, to be sure, but it exists all the same, albeit in a variety of forms, the contours of which need to be more fully mapped in scholarship.[7] Most importantly, it infiltrates understandings and assessments of religion in public discourse, and in institutional realms such as law. William Connolly speaks to the ways in which this hegemony works:

Euro-American secularists typically overplay the autonomy of public reason (or whatever surrogate for it is adopted), underplay the layering of faith into bodies and institutions and discount the extent to which the concept of free will, punishment, and public morality that they deploy express the history of the Christendom in which they participate (Connolly 2005, 28).[8]

The idea of a neutral, Christian free space is also questioned by Jakobsen and Pellegrini, who argue that Protestantism stands in for the secular and “[i]f ‘secular’ is another name for a vague Christianity there is little social space to practice either the freedom to be religious differently or the freedom not to be religious at all” (Jakobsen and Pellegrini 2004, 114). Similarly, Talal Asad (2003) challenges the inalienability of the very concept of religion from Christianity. Understanding the myriad ways that Christianity shapes social institutions is vital to critically analyzing how its transmutation into universal values and the imperative to recognize as well as to have spiritual needs is taking place.

The Will to Religion: Four Implications

Why concern ourselves with the idea that everyone is religious or spiritual? What are the implications of a public space that is imagined as post-secular, where everywhere there is religion? The argument here is not for a re-invigorated secular space or sphere, but rather for a robust attention to the discursive construction of a normal in which we are all religious, and to which values are constituted as “universal.” The implications are worth pondering and may include an essentialized or flat understanding of religious identity categories; an “unnatural” foregrounding of religion; a reinvigoration of a Christian religious “normal”; and a colonizing discourse of religious freedom that acts as a guardian of the universal values embodied by religion.

Religious Identity

If measures of religious commitment are any indication of the importance of religion in its standard form, then it is especially curious that as religious commitment falls, the push for a categorical religious identity or concern about religious identity has become a pervasive framework. A Pew study found that one in three youth in the US are religious “nones,” with the numbers growing in almost every other age category as well (Pew Research Center 2012). The numbers in Canada are similar, with about one in four youth and one in five of the general population identifying as nones, with the latest census data from 2010 due out in spring of 2013 anticipated to show a further increase. If nones and those who have not attended a religious service during the past year are added together, the number rises to just about 50 per cent. The other interesting piece of the religion picture is that only one in five Canadians is what might be considered to be “devout” or religious, although the measures are so Christian-centered (attendance at a religious service, knowledge of the Bible, prayer) that it is difficult to assess whether this figure is accurate (coupled with the fact that most people in this category overestimate their religious participation). This means that on one end of the spectrum are the religious nones, who make up at least 20 per cent of the population, and the other end of the spectrum are the devout. What, then, are the other 3/5 of Canadians up to religiously? In the face of these statistics it is particularly interesting that all statistical measures of religion allow for only one response, meaning they cannot be both none and Jewish, or Hindu and Christian.

The relative lack of religious participation, combined with an increasing recognition of the complexity of religious practice, or, to use the words of Meredith McGuire (2008), Robert Orsi (2005) and others, of “lived religion,” raises some important questions about the empirical basis for measures that press people to identify as this or that religion. One could go so far as to challenge the very idea that “we all have spiritual or religious needs” as the basis for services such as hospital and prison chaplains, or the claim of some kind of universal value embedded in programs such as the one examined in Prison Religion by Sullivan (2009a). But, it is not only the nones or the inactives for whom the religious imperative has consequences.[9]

The new normal also presses religious identity into essentialized categories that simplify religious experience and that miss the nuance of lived religion. Thus the category “Muslim,” for example, invokes particular understandings about belief and practice that may have little or no connection to the lived religion of the person who has been pressed to use that category to describe herself. She may be imagined as needing prayer space, as refusing to be in a room where there is alcohol being served, or as not wanting to shake hands with men. Her lived reality and practice may be rather different.

Such an essentialization can have serious consequences for religious communities, especially those in smaller cities or more rural areas where diverse religious communities are often obliged to come together. Although this may seem like a positive development, and indeed can be, it can also result in higher tension within minority religious new to the community. Essentialization can also flatten outside perceptions or under- standings of difference within communities, particularly when dealing with religious groups that are relatively new to the community. In the course of conducting research with Muslim communities it has become evident to me that as communities struggle to maintain an equilibrium that can be welcoming to a wide range of believers—essentializations tending toward the more orthodox, fundamentalist or observant (all words used by community members themselves)—hard identity categories can work to shift the balance in one direction or another. In short, internal community dynamics about religious identity can be affected by external categorizations that are inaccurate, or that do not allow for the texture and multiplicities of religious lives that are also lives through which religion is woven, interpreted and lived. Understanding religion as “lived,” in the sense that McGuire or Orsi use it, leaves space for varieties of religious ways of being.[10]

Two examples may illustrate this point. At public consultations held by the Ontario Human Rights Commission last January, Balpreet Singh Boparai (himself an observant Sikh) of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, noted that only 10 per cent of Sikhs are fully observant, yet assumptions in law, among policy makers and the general public are that all Sikhs observe the five Ks. The religious identity category ‘Sikh’ thus carries with it rigid expectations about how all Sikhs, rather than just the ‘fully observant’, behave and appear. The question “what are you” (religiously) invokes a set of assumptions that may or may not be the case. Underlying this is: (i) the notion that one should identify oneself religiously; (ii) that one will then behave in a particular manner that conforms to a particular stereotype; and (iii) if one does not conform one is not really Sikh, or Muslim, etc.

Rather than normalizing religion as one identity point among many, or as a complex category that often defies easy characterization, it becomes fetishized such that the identification of religion becomes the beginning point from which social relations are enacted and from which institutional policy is developed. In a context in which religion becomes the primary identity marker, getting it “right” becomes a more pressing matter. Moreover, the ante is upped within religious groups to have this or that version of the religion in question become the benchmark against which others are measured. A second example is the case of the sharia debates in Ontario, which saw not only gross misrepresentations of Islam and sharia from those outside of Islam (the Us), but also turf wars between Muslim communities about the meaning of sharia and its implications. This turned into a public battle about “real” Islam, which in many cases resulted in essentialized caricatures of Islam rather than sustained discussion that explored the complexities of sharia and of the Muslim communities, as well as the existence of religious arbitration in family law among other religious groups (Syed 2012).[11]

Religion First

Related to the problem of essentialization is the tendency toward the overemphasis or foregrounding of religion. As sociologists of religion we have longed for the day when religion gained a place of prominence in the study of society, and so, as Grace Davie (2011) cautions, we should not be too anxious for that to disappear. Nonetheless, not everything is about religion, and religion is not always the beginning point for social relations. This is one of the points made by hijab-wearing Muslim women, who often lament the fact that they are not “seen” except as hijab-wearing women in day-to-day interactions with non-Muslims. In data gathered with Muslims in Newfoundland, Canada, one woman described her experiences of change in relations with non-Muslims when she began to wear a hijab:

I wasn’t reminding them of my Muslim identity all the time. You know. Because I was not wearing hijab...The community sometimes forgets that I’m just one of them...I’m someone who is different, who belongs to different religious group. So like communication was much easier. But I found after I decided to wear hijab and uh you know, I mean when I occasionally visited them or when they came to visit me here in Newfoundland, I found that little bit kind of bitterness. You know. They like kind of, you know, they were not that comfortable. Anymore. They were still very friendly but they were kind of, I dunno, because my Muslim identity’s always very visually there whenever they look at me or they try to converse with me. Maybe this reminder of difference was making the communication less easy than before.[12]

To be sure, the wearing of the hijab carries with it complex meanings for both its wearers and those who interact with them.[13] Nonetheless, in a context in which religious identity takes primacy, the hijab becomes a short cut to characterization, which in many cases, as is pointed out by Muslim women themselves, lacks nuance.

The will to religion prioritizes religion in ways that it is not prioritized in the day-to-day lives of people, both for nones and for those who are devout. Although anecdotes are not research, they do raise research possibilities, so I turn to three experiences to illustrate: the first was with a Turkish Muslim man after a talk I gave at Carleton University. In talking about “accommodation” of religious practices, he insisted that his expression of his religion was between him and god, and that he did not want provision made for prayer space, or to have his practices accommodated. A few months later a human rights official recounted to my research team the story of a Muslim woman who contacted the human rights office and wanted to file a complaint because her employer had approached her, knowing she was Muslim, to ask what accommodation she might need. She objected to being singled out on the basis of her religious identity. She did not want her Muslim-ness to be highlighted in the workplace. Finally, after a talk I gave at the University of Victoria, a Chinese immigrant came up to me and said that as a Chinese immigrant she does not want to be religiously categorized or perceived as someone with religious needs. These comments raised the problem of the delicate balance between responding to religious needs when they are present without assuming that religion is at the forefront of social interactions. I was also reminded of my early research with evangelical Christian women, most of whom reported that they did not want to talk about their religion all the time, and that evangelizing for them meant simply living through example, rather than foregrounding their religious beliefs in other ways (Beaman 1999).

In research on the Immigrant Youth and Immigrant Young Adults projects on which Peter Beyer is the principal investigator (Beyer and Ramji 2013), [14] we have found through face-to-face, one-on-one interviews with over 200 1.5- and second-generation Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus that religion as it is traditionally measured is sometimes hard to come by. As one of the Buddhist youth put it, “I guess I am a little bit Buddhist.” For Buddhists and Hindus especially, religion is simply one of a number of factors that make up their identities. It does not mean that it’s not important, but it also does not mean that religious identity needs to be foregrounded. For many people such a foregrounding moves quickly to essentializing, which ignores the complexity of lived religion.[15] Many of our participants, for example, supported a view of religion that sees it as a private matter, but which people should be able to manifest publicly. Many of the Muslim youth were a bit different, but the reasons for this are not difficult to tease out. The post 9-11 attention, whether negative or positive, has pressed them in a direction that may force the religion and identity issue in a different way. Islam has been demarcated as a religion that requires increased knowledge, scrutiny, assessment, and control. But, for them too, there was an expressed desire to simply get on with things in a manner that did not necessarily make a fuss about their Muslim-ness. Many of the Muslim youth and young adults felt pushed into an identity category that was not representative of the whole of who they were.

The Dominant Frame

Paradoxically, as the will to religion forces identity categories that wipe out nuance and texture in lived religion, and works to structure religious otherness (see Williams 2013), it also draws religion into a notion of universal religion that is fundamentally Christian in its shape. Thus, for example, in the sharia debate the world became divided into “good Islam” and “bad Islam.” Good Islam was imagined to be in accordance with Canadian values, with an ‘Us’ who was Christian and white (Zine 2012). Only religion that can be imagined as culturally continuous with a set of imagined values fits within the new normal—we are all religious, but within a certain template.

As previously mentioned, Winnifred Sullivan’s work offers an important elaboration of this idea in, among other places, prisons and courtrooms. Prema Kurien (2007) adds another dimension to these insights, observing that religious minorities must make themselves fit within a Christian model of religious organization and practice. If basic religious or spiritual needs are understood to be both universal and to take a particular shape, what implications does this have for law and policy and for religious freedom? The Bouchard-Taylor Commission report,[16] which advocates a bottom up citizen based approach to responses to religious diversity, cites with approval the compromise one Sikh family engaged in to respond to the kirpan controvery—to wear a symbolic kirpan, like a cross, on a chain around one’s neck. Belief rather than practice is privileged in such a compromise, which transports religious practice to a purely symbolic realm. Even the more expansive decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in Multani, which involved a Sikh schoolboy’s claim to protection under the religious freedom provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, involved a neutered version of the kirpan—one which was sheathed in wood (not metal), sheathed again in a sturdy cloth envelope, and sewn shut, the foregoing subject to inspection for compliance at any time by school authorities.

The 2009 Supreme Court of Canada decision Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony (2009)[17] illustrates the limits of “nice” or “allowable” religion. Famously known as the “drivers’ license case,” the case involved a small group (250) of Hutterites who believe that having their pictures taken contravenes their religious beliefs. This brought them head-to-head with an Alberta provincial statute, which requires individuals’ photographs to appear on their drivers’ licenses. The Hutterites had enjoyed a long-standing exemption from the law. They live a rural and communal lifestyle that is agriculturally based, and depend on their drivers’ licenses to do related business. Nonetheless the Court held that the requirement to have their pictures taken was not an unreasonable requirement, and that, if they wish to refrain from having their pictures taken they can find other ways to do their business, such as to hire someone to drive them.

The Hutterian Brethren case is important because it marks a dramatic shift in the approach of the Supreme Court for a number of reasons, including its minimization of the importance of a particular practice (through refusal and avoidance to have pictures taken) to a religious group. For the purposes of my argument here it further circumscribes the “type” of religion that is imagined as “universal” religion and thus protected under the Charter. The Court emphasizes the idea that groups cannot expect to have exemption from laws of general application, thus turning from a more substantive vision of equality it adopted in previous post-Charter decisions to a much more formal interpretation of equality in this case. The context in which the case occurs, which is about securitization, identity theft, and so on, shifts the boundaries of religious freedom and acceptable religious practice. As one of the dissenting judgments notes, there are some 700,000 Albertans whose faces do not appear in the central data bank, so why is it that 250 Hutterites are imagined to pose such a threat?

The Hutterite case needs to be understood not only as a case about the Hutterites, but about all religious minorities, and most especially about religious minorities who are not Christian. From its vantage point the Supreme Court could see “trouble” on the horizon in, for example, the form of a reference case on polygamy in British Columbia and a case involving a Muslim woman who wants to give evidence in criminal court wearing a niqab (a face-covering veil). Worried about the “slippery slope” and the threat of an “other” who is becoming more legally visible, the Court’s decision sent a strong message about the limits of religious freedom, and about what constitutes universal religious values, and thus Canadian values. A group that lives communally, is self-reliant, and deliberately distances itself from mainstream culture geographically and through dress and internal rules based on ‘peculiar’ readings of religious text does not fit into the imaginary of the universal religion that is part of the new normal.

A more pointed example that reveals a great deal about the contours of universal religion is the decision of the present Canadian government to cancel the contracts of part-time prison chaplains who offer services to minority religions. As reported by CBC:

The federal government is cancelling the contracts of non-Christian chaplains at federal prisons, CBC News has learned. Inmates of other faiths, such as Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews, will be expected to turn to Christian prison chaplains for religious counsel and guidance, according to the office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is also responsible for Canada’s penitentiaries.


The minister strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners,’ the email states. ‘However, the not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding (emphasis added). The minister has concluded...[Christian] chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths. (Both from CBC News 2012)

The idea that minority religions were receiving preferential status by having representatives among the chaplains (and that Christians do NOT have preferential status by having the dominant or only presence in prisons), and that Christian chaplains could provide a one size fits all type of service for Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Wiccans, for example, understands Christian religion as representing a universal religious perspective. Moreover, even as it is engaging in the business of giving preferential status to Christian chaplains, the government is insisting that it is “not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding.” Christianity thus becomes the default, the objective position, the “culture” as opposed to the religion.

Valorization of Religious Freedom

One of the consequences of the new religious normal is that religion has taken a higher profile in both domestic and international political agendas. Superficially, the protection of religious freedom would seem to be a good thing—a mechanism for ensuring that religious diversity and especially religious minorities are protected. Indeed, the Canadian government has taken religious freedom so seriously that it has decided to emulate the American model and create an office of religious freedom, to be housed in the Department of Foreign and International Affairs. Announced in the speech from the throne in June 2011 (and promised during the 2010 election campaign), the government held a stakeholder’s consultation meeting that was criticized for its narrow guest list.[18] Concern was expressed that the office was a platform to ensure Christian missionizing, rather than a broader mandate to protect religious minorities more generally. In an interview with CBC, for example, Arvind Sharma[19] noted that:

The [U.S. officials] tend to recognize and emphasize violations of the rights of Christian minorities and Christian evangelical groups to proselytize, rather than using the term “religious freedom” to cover the religious freedom of all communities. So this is a very deep bias. (CBC News 2011)

And about the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom he notes:

“There’s no representation of religions from Indian and Chinese this is very one-sided,” he said. “They are cloning the American institution and completely ignoring the Canadian reality of multiculturalism. America is not self-consciously multicultural.” (CBC News 2011)

The idea that we are all religious now, and that having, rather than not having, a religious worldview is somehow normal, has created the platform from which religious freedom has entered in both domestic as well as international politics. Somewhat bizarrely, claims to religious freedom are now being used in the US context to protect establishment practices in which the state sponsors or prefers the practices and assumptions of dominant religious groups. [20] In other words, proper religious freedom requires state intervention. This reasoning takes its most convoluted turn in the recent Hosannah Tabor decision in which the Lutheran Church was essentially exempted from the Americans with Disabilities Act. The general message of the case is that churches should be free to run their own businesses, and the state should protect or intervene to ensure their ability to do so.[21]

Concern about the international construction and marketing of religious freedom has been a central research focus for Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, who offers a compelling criticism of the global circulation of the notion of religious freedom, which has in large measure been led by the United States. Hurd moves her analysis outside of the United States, and argues that religious freedom is promoting a political agenda that is driven by a particular understanding of religion and, more importantly, that:

The top-down promotion of religious freedom creates a world in which religious difference becomes more real and more politicized. It draws lines between communities, horizontally and hierarchically. It presses dissenters, doubters and families with multiple religious affiliations to choose a side. It compels them to define their identities in religious terms: “Are you this or that?” (Hurd, 2012)

In Hurd’s analysis, the state becomes a promoter of a particular kind of religious freedom, creating a framework of decisive religious identities that polarizes individuals and groups as “this” or “that.” Her position does not reject the need to protect religious minorities, but pushes for a deeper questioning of the power relations that are created and maintained by a US-led (and now Canadian joined) religious freedom initiative. Hurd’s critique points to the consequences of the new normal in which everyone is imagined as being religious, and in which Christianity is representative of a universal set of norms and values.

The transition of the religious to the universal is not limited to the United States and Canada, however. The decision of the European Court of Human Rights Grand Chamber in Lautsi suggests that this discursive shift is taking place in a number of countries as religious diversity comes face to face with majoritarian religions. In Lautsi the crucifix on a classroom wall (which is objected to by an atheist parent) is represented as a not strictly religious symbol, but one that represents universal values:

It can therefore be contended that in the present-day social reality the crucifix should be regarded not only as a symbol of a historical and cultural development, and therefore of the identity of our people, but also as a symbol of a value system: liberty, equality, human dignity and religious toleration, and accordingly also of the secular nature of the State—principles which underpin our Constitution. (Lautsi, para. 15)[22]

Thus, in this read, we are all religious, even if we are atheist, for the crucifix transcends the religious to represent everyone (see also Beaman 2013).


If the new public religion is complex, amorphous, spontaneous and lived, as some would suggest (Woodhead 2012), then this poses interesting challenges for a world imagined as “religious” in a fixed sense, such as that suggested by a new normal that pushes toward fixed identity categories so that the adherent can be categorized as friend or foe, safe or dangerous. This raises a question I have perhaps begged but would like to think I have addressed more subtly throughout this article—what are the drivers of the new normal? The purpose of this article has not been to offer a causal analysis, but rather to unpack some of the dimensions of a new normal that has been largely under-discussed in academic literature. However, there are some interwoven dimensions that are arguably propelling the emergence of a dis- course of universality rooted in Christianity and a compulsion to confess. These include the securitization of western states, the preoccupation with religious diversity and the concomitant need to “manage” it as something potentially harmful and dangerous, and the gradual yet significant decline of Christian churches as having relevance in the day to day lives of most people. Williams makes an observation that may point to a fourth vector that links the three dimensions above: the universalism of Islam that is partly facilitated by its placelessness (although Williams also identifies the very spatial aspects of Islam as well), and which renders it seemingly available to “all people everywhere,” creating and sustaining the ummah (Williams 2011, 143). Christianity’s transmutation as representing universal values thus pairs well with security preoccupations that largely imagine religious “others” as a dangerous threat.

The insistence that we are all religious, or we all have spiritual needs, leaves no space for those who are agnostic, atheist, for whom religion is simply not that important, or for those who would prefer to exclude the examination of their religious beliefs and practices from scrutiny and assessment. While religious affiliation has been declining and those who self- identify as none or atheist on the rise, there has been a paradoxical shift by states and within public discourse to a new normal that sees religious identity as the default beginning place. We all, after all, have spiritual needs. Ministering to imagined spiritual needs or requirements for self-examination for spiritual gaps creates a climate in which the governance of the religious becomes a shared project for self and for state. Exemption from the religious becomes, in this regime, impossible.

This article was originally published in 2013 in Critical Research on Religion 1(2): 141-157.

Lori G. Beaman, Ph.D., is the Canada Research Chair in the Contextualization of Religion in a Diverse Canada and Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her publications include: Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law (UBC Press 2008); “Is religious freedom impossible in Canada?” in Law, Culture, and the Humanities; “Religious freedom and neoliberalism: From harm to cost-benefit” in Religion and Neoliberal Policy and Governance; and “Battles over symbols: The ‘religion’ of the minority versus the ‘culture’ of the majority” in the Journal of Law and Religion. She is co-editor, with Peter Beyer, of Religion and Diversity in Canada (Brill Academic Press 2008). She is principal investigator of a 37-member international research team whose focus is religion and diversity ( Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


I would like to thank the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada who provided funding for this research.[23] I would also like to thank Tess Campeau for her editorial assistance, Heather Shipley for her helpful comments and questions, and Rhys Williams and Warren Goldstein for their suggestions for clarification of the arguments I make.


[1] For ideas of justice as fairness, see John Rawls (1993).

[2] Lautsi and Others v. Italy (Eur. Ct. H. R. 2011) (Application no. 30814/06) Judgement Strasbourg, 18 March 2011.

[3] This, of course, raises the question of what the “old normal” might have been. To some extent that normal was produced as secularism, whose central myth was the a-religious or neutral public square. The new normal is a pendulum swing in the other direction, with its own consequences and mandates.

[4] Regarding the use of small “p” protestant, Sullivan says, “I use ‘protestant’ not in the narrow churchy sense but rather loosely to describe a set of political ideas and cultural practices that emerged in early modern Europe in and after the Reformation; that is, I refer to ‘protestant’ as opposed to ‘catholic’ models of church state relations. (According to this use, Protestants can be ‘catholic’ and Catholics can be ‘protestant’.)” (Sullivan 2005, 7-8).

[5] Academics, too, are engaging in research that begins with Christian values and moral frameworks as desirable ways of being. See, especially, Christian Smith (2007, 2010, 2011).

[6] See Beckford (2012) for some compelling reasons not to engage in the postsecular rhetoric.

[7] One of the underlying assumptions of this work is that the ‘secular Europe’ position is a too simplistic characterization. As Winnifred Sullivan and I argue in the introduction to our volume Varieties of Religious Establishment (Sullivan and Beaman 2013), religious establishment is pervasive. The challenge therefore is to explore the dynamics of that establishment. In Italy, for example, the Lautsi case clearly relied on the idea of Roman Catholicism as a universal religion which is applicable to all. How the will to religion and the new normal plays out across geographies is a matter for further study.

[8] Khandelwal (2009) argues that this is a problem especially particular to the United States in relation to women and religion in that most people in the US overestimate their own agency and underestimate that of women elsewhere.

[9] We might read the rise in nones as a countervailing trend to the will to religion and the new normal. More specifically, though, the anti-religion focus of some new atheists might be seen as a reaction to the public and institutional emphasis on the centrality of religion to identity. There is no doubt that the tension between the new normal/will to religion and the empirical reality of a growing number of nones (who also, it must be remembered, include people who self-describe as spiritual but not religious) has yet to fully manifest in public and academic discussions.

[10] For a sophisticated discussion of the two forces of lived religion of everyday Islam and imposed imaginings of Muslim identity in the creation of an American Islam, see Williams (2011).

[11] For an extensive and varied discussion of the debate, see Korteweg and Selby (2012).

[12] Data drawn from the two year study, “Religion in the Everyday: Negotiating Islam in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador,” where Jennifer Selby and I are co-investigators.

[13] See Williams and Vashi (2007) and Alvi et al. (2003).

[14] These data are drawn from two 3 year projects. The first, which started in March 2004, was entitled “Religion Among Immigrant Youth in Canada,” where I was a collaborator. The second started in March 2008 and was entitled “Religion Among Immigrant Young Adults in Canada,” where I was a co-investigator.

[15] For more on lived religion, see Orsi (2005) and McGuire (2008).

[16] In 2007 the Quebec Government, in response to pressure from other political parties, the media and a sense of rising fear of “out of control accommodation,” struck the “Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences” (known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission) to study issues of accommodation. In addition to recovering alternative versions of some of the more controversial media stories, the Commission held public hearings and received in total some 900 briefs from individuals and groups on religious accommodation. The result was a report which is over 300 pages in the English version and which received much attention through- out Canada.

[17] Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 S.C.R. 567.

[18] See CBC News (2011). Since the original writing of the article, Andrew Bennett was named ambassador for Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom on 19 February 2013. See CBC News (2013).

[19] See also Sharma (2011) and interview with Sharma on Radio Canada International (2012).

[20] Thanks to Rhys Williams for this observation, which follows from his work naming this a “majoritarian” view of church state separation. See Williams and Demerath (1991).

[21] Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. (2012).

[22] This is a quote made by The Administrative Court, which is cited by the European Court of Human Rights (Grand Chamber) in the Lautsi and Others v. Italy (2011) decision.

[23] Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Religion in the Everyday: Negotiating Islam in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. SSHRC-funded 2 year study conducted by Jennifer Selby and Lori Beaman. Started June 2012.

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