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FRS hosts international symposium on Religion & Society

A Report on the Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy Conference (2002)

Some three hundred delegates from across North America, and from several countries abroad, met for three days to engage with twenty-six eminent speakers and panelists. Hundreds more took in the two Beatty lectures and the René Cassin lecture, which provided a public component. Academics, lawyers, clergy, politicians, medical ethicists, journalists, civil servants, professionals in the social sciences, etc., and students from near and far, took part. Hospitality at the Birks Building, funded by the Office of the Mayor of Montreal, helped to make them feel welcome. The conference was covered by a wide range of media, including the National Post, which ran a series of related editorials. Pictures are posted on the Photos page.

What brought all these people together? There is no single explanation, but one crucial factor is today’s renewed recognition of the importance of religion in the public square and in international relations. Speakers and delegates were not content merely to notice that it is difficult, indeed impossible, to provide a satisfactory phenomenology of our moral and political landscape without taking account of religion. They wanted to debate the meaning of secularism, the nature of pluralism and democracy, and the possibility of consensus about human rights and human dignity. They wanted to discuss the relation between religion and the law, and the role of religion in the formation of public policy, particularly in liberal democracies and in scientifically advanced societies. Which is just what they did, in rigorous and disciplined exchanges.

The rich content of this symposium is impossible to capture in a few lines. At least two prominent features may be noted, however. One is the emphasis in several of the presentations on the primacy of religious (and other traditional or semi-autonomous) communities and social structures. As William Galston put it on the opening night, “political pluralism is a politics of recognition, not construction.” Or, in David Novak’s words, “what people bring to the social contract are their pre-political, cultural rights, which are their rights to be rooted in their original communities.” Beverley McLachlin wrestled with the same issue in positing and treating a paradox of opposing claims to primacy or comprehensiveness, that of religion and that of the law. Jean Elshtain, who also delivered a Birks lecture on “the culture of rights,” provided a lively response to the Chief Justice, questioning whether the rule of law ought to be understood as comprehensive in that sense.

A second and related feature is that various attempts were made to re-think secularism in a way more compatible with the fact of religion and to face the challenge posed by pluralism to the very possibility of a workable moral consensus in secular democracies. Here a note of urgency was sounded by bioethicist Tristram Engelhardt, as also by McGill’s Margaret Somerville, who in their different ways drew attention to the impasse at which our society appears to be arriving on issues of life and death. Professor Engelhardt’s lecture, entitled “Taking Moral Difference Seriously,” made clear that this is something our society must begin to do as it continues its social, political, and legal evolution.

The 2002 Pluralism, Religion & Public Policy Conference was an unprecedented event, not only for the Faculty of Religious Studies and McGill University, but in our nation’s public discourse. CD recordings of the entire proceedings remain available. Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society (McGill-Queen’s University Press 2004), a volume inspired by the conference but including a number of new essays, is now in its second printing. See the Thanksgiving 2004 page, and watch the Announcements page for news of future symposia.

Much gratitude is due to our sponsors (see the Acknowledgements page) and co-sponsors, especially to the Centre for Cultural Renewal's Iain Benson and Anita Thiessen; to HRH Prince Hassan and his staff; and to the many people at McGill – from the Chancellor’s Office and University Relations, the Office for International Research, the Beatty Committee Office, and the Office of the Dean of Law, through to the facilities and technical support staff – who together with our speakers and delegates helped to make this event such a memorable one. Special mention may also be made of Dr Barbara Galli, Stephen Backhouse, Helen Shepherdson, Joan Gross and her Conference Office staff, and David Lynse. - DBF