In 2018, reporters asked the newly minted national NDP leader Jagmeet Singh about his views of violence after videos surfaced of him at previous rallies supporting an independent Sikh homeland. In one video Singh was on a panel where a fellow panelist indicated that violence may be necessary for Sikhs to obtain their independence. When reporters pressed Singh about his views, Singh initially stated that the issue was too complex to answer with a simple response. But columnists continued to criticize his lack of “clarification,” although a CBC columnist hastened to add that the issue was not one of religion, but of politics. And therein was the problem.

The problem was the columnist’s definition of religion and the assumption that religion can so easily be separated from politics. Granted, defining religion is incredibly complex. Academics debate whether religion is an irreducible and unique phenomenon or a social construction. They further observe that:

  • Religious traditions are dynamic, changing over time and place, and internally diverse.
  • Some religious adherents highlight belief while others might emphasize practice and/or experience.
  • Some religious adherents prefer the term spirituality, although this term is as ambiguous as religion.
  • Some individuals may have more than one religious and/or spiritual identity.
  • Some do not separate their religion or spirituality from politics and ethics.
  • Some see religion as only one among many motivating factors (e.g. economic, social, and political) when explaining people’s actions.

How a society defines religion matters. And the points listed above remind us to avoid reducing people to their religious identities, to avoid a form of essentialism that ignores the totality of how people live their lives. At the same time, it is equally problematic to assume all religious traditions are primarily individualist and private.

A columnist more aware of these complexities would not assume that a question about an independent state for Sikhs is merely a political question. Similarly, a humanist cannot separate their philosophy from the ethical question of how a society can best support the dignity of every human person. Worldviews, both religious and non-religious, are often comprehensive, informing one’s economic, social, and political views. Questions regarding one’s views of violence are, and indeed must be, open to investigation. One of the roles of the media is to bring such views to the surface, especially those of our political leaders. But to think that complex questions like the ones posed to Singh have nothing to do with religion perpetuates the myth that religion is nothing more than private sentiment.

The CCRL, with its focus on religious literacy, supports all Canadians in learning more about religious and non-religious worldviews, about definitions and why they matter, and about how we can better live together when we more thoroughly understand each other.

To see a more detailed version of this article with explanations for each bullet point and a reference list, download Definition of religion_MPatrick_CCRL.

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