As I write this, I'm sitting in the McGill Faculty club in Montreal. McGill, of course, is the heart of the old evangelical establishment in Quebec, and it has plenty of wood paneling, paintings of men with mutton chops, and lovely crown molding to show for it.
Montreal itself—a beautiful and wealthy city—is in the heart of the province in Canada working hardest to move religion out of the public square and box it well into the private sphere.
It is very, very far away from places like Nairobi, Kenya and Peshawar, Pakistan as well as Iraq and Syria. However this is the context in which emerged this morning the question on my mind. It developed after I read the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby's call for a Christian response to these events. The question is: Are we willing to reap the whirlwind of privatizing religion?
The reasons for privatizing religion—in Quebec and in other places pursuing policies of laïcité—is to provide a neutral space in which shared values are assumed and in which "divisive" religious practices are minimized by forcing citizens to leave them at home. These are the theoretical reasons. The practical reasons—as far as I can charitably (if not necessarily accurately) describe them—comes from a desire to minimize truly horrible things: think subjugation of women, honour killings, religious violence, and the like.
But what happens if, in the effort to amputate these carcinogenic things, you cut too deep? What happens if you are removing the tumour next to the heart and you cause irreparable damage? I note this because public religion has as many—and I would argue more—positive things to offer the public as it does negative things. Are we willing to strangle the institutions and cultures which would speak words such as Archbishop Welby did when he declared, "We are also called as Jesus did at the Cross, to pray for those who are doing us harm."
The reality is that religion always has social consequences. It can be a disease—as is evidenced by the killings in Peshawar and Nairobi—but it can also be the cure. As the University of Notre Dame scholar Daniel Philpott notes in his book Just and Unjust Peace, the religion-free institutions of liberalism are not capable of generating the posture—and the institutional environment—which would say "pray for those who are doing us harm." The institutions who are capable of this are not only Christian, but they are all profoundly religious. A country which cannot abide by such a call will be incapable of overcoming the pain and anger that the attacks in Nairobi and Peshawar evoke in its citizens. It will not be able to achieve peace; the very peace and tranquility that Quebec is so vainly seeking.
Religion is always, and will always be, a double-edged sword. Hate generated by religion has social consequences, but so does love.