Reconceptualizing Higher Power(s)

Exploring new religious movements in Quebec

Montreal’s religiosity, both past and present, seems to be permanently etched into the city and its people. Mount Royal emerges from a grid of streets blessed with the names of saints most beloved by the ultramontane Catholic Church, which played a dominant role in the province’s history. These snowy roads are dotted with buildings that insinuate faith, whether they be places of worship, like synagogues, or symbolic details in the mouldings of the interior. The province’s citizens use the religious instruments of Catholic mass – such as tabernak, osti, calice – as curse words in Quebecois French. The Quiet Revolution has without a doubt influenced the rapid secularization of the last fifty years. The Catholic and Magisterial Protestant churches have seen a decline in membership, but does this necessarily mean that there will soon be no place for religion in Quebec?

Religion and secularization
After the fall in 1960 of the ultra-conservative political party, the Union Nationale – which had protected the status quo of the Catholic Church and controlled many of the province’s social services – and the Liberal party’s rise to power, Quebec went through a process of rapid secularization. This period, known as the Quiet Revolution, involved a major reconceptualization of French Canadian identity, which, aside from becoming more closely tied to Quebecois nationalism, disassociated itself from its foundation in Roman Catholicism. Public services, such as education and healthcare, were taken out of the hands of the church and became the government’s responsibility.

Theories of secularization follow two main streams of thought with respect to religion. When dominant religious organizations undergo transformations from their traditional and ritualistic systems of teaching to appeal to modern audiences, members may choose to branch off into a sect, seeking to restore the faith to its original form. Peter L. Berger, a sociologist of religion, suggests that this splintering will weaken the establishment of the dominant religion and lead to its demise as a whole. However, given the persistent importance of religion to society, it seems far more likely that religious pluralism strengthens religion in general. Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, sociologists of religion and the authors of A Theory of Religion, argue that these schisms will actually reinvigorate the religion from which they stem. These various smaller groups will fulfill the various nuances followers need while providing a new outlook and way of presenting the same material. However, there is a threshold for what can be changed within a religion for it to still be considered under the institution’s umbrella. When the core beliefs and material are changed, the new religion can be labelled a ‘cult’ – a term often considered derogatory by people involved in these religions.

Susan Palmer, a sociologist focusing on new religious movements in the department of Religions at Concordia, alleged in an interview with The Daily that Quebec is a comparatively good place for new religious movements to start and grow. “Quebec is a really good place if you are a new prophet and you want to set up your religious organization. […] There is a kind of void that new religions rush into opportunistically,” says Palmer, describing the state of the province since the sixties.

Unlike the stances of many advocates for religious minority rights, who often experience the provincial government’s policies on religious minorities as xenophobic and racist, Palmer seems to take a very positive, idealistic attitude toward the policies. She claims that there are attempts at accommodating and providing a safe space for the growth of these religions and that the diversity in Canada has a large influence on the variation within these new religions’ doctrines and practices. “You have communities from the Middle East or India or Latin America in Montreal, and they bring in their religions with them and their religion’s experts. […] They want to find ways of translating their virtues, or making [them] attractive, or hooking up with issues that they are interested in. And you know, sometimes it has [an impact] on their religious rituals or beliefs, so in fact there are religious communities that are transformed by society, compromising their beliefs, and then they’ll be called cults because they are somehow a bit different from what they were originally.”

Palmer suggests that the predominant Roman Catholicism in Quebec is generating “quasi-Catholic groups that you wouldn’t necessarily have in [British Columbia] or Alberta.” Like other mystics and messianic figures, these were “people [who] were naturally inclined toward spiritual experience or [who] seek religious solutions to personal [and social] problems,” says Palmer. Some of the most prominent of these “outstanding Quebec messianic figures” include Jean-Gaston Tremblay, whose quarrels with the Catholic Church led him to split from the institution and establish the Apostles of the Infinite Love. There he would set up the “new Vatican” in St. Jovite, Quebec, and be declared Gregory XVII, the legitimate Pope of all Catholics, by his followers. Also splintering off from the Catholic Church was Marie-Paule Giguère, who founded the Army of Mary or the Community of the Lady of all Nations. She is believed to be the incarnation of the Virgin Mary, directly contradicting the Vatican’s belief in Mary’s bodily ascension into heaven and their rejection of reincarnation as a whole. Both movements have been rejected by the Vatican and deemed “heretical,” but who still choose to align themselves with Catholicism as a whole.

Another interesting manifestation of new religion stemming from Quebec is in groups that associate themselves with Quebecois nationalism and environmentalism. “For example, we have this group […] that believes that Quebec was protected from ecological disaster and that the francophones would exist after the rest of the world had been destroyed. […] They say that Quebec is the safest place in the world because it has a solid bedrock,” says Palmer.

We forget that many of the religions we consider legitimate and demand tolerance for today were in their early years accused of the same immorality and heresy and not considered “respectable.”

“Not real religion”
Despite these new religious movements being sociologically very similar to the institutionalized ones, they don’t seem to be granted the same legitimacy by the public. Sara Parks, director of McGill’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (MORSL), explains this in an interview with The Daily, by stating that “many of these religions are the same as any other.” She continues to explain that although there is not an abundance of people with new religious faiths seeking out services at MORSL, the organization is still very willing to make the space accessible to those with beliefs alternative to the mainstream. A large part of this seems to be our conception of what a ‘real’ religion constitutes. The established religions “claim [these new faiths] are not religions or they are ‘heretics.’ So you will find Christian ministers saying Scientology is not a religion, because they do not even believe in God, [or that] the Raëlians don’t believe in God or the soul. You’ll have [people] criticizing Pentecostalism, because [it is] a different type of Christianity,” says Palmer.

These attitudes are reflected in public opinion and are fueled by the mainstream media, which stamps them with the ‘cult’ label. This does not necessarily reflect the sociological sense of the word – which just distinguishes a new faith – but seems to carry adverse implications, and is applied in a derogatory fashion to connotate illegitimacy and inferior morality. Palmer highlights the “brainwashing argument” as often-used. She says, “Another criticism is that they somehow get people to join through illicit, sneaky means, or undue influence. […] So, the criticism is that people do not choose to join, they are kind of tricked to through technology and brainwashing. The brainwashing theory has been heavily criticized by psychologists, there is nothing valid or scientific. The whole point is, when a ‘weird’ new religion gets people to join, they are brainwashing, but if a ‘nice, respectable’ old religion like the Catholic Church gets people to join, then that is a deep, spiritual conversion.”

We forget that many of the religions we consider legitimate and demand tolerance for today were in their early years accused of the same immorality and heresy and not considered “respectable.” Palmer compares Quebec’s situation to the anti-cult movement in France, which enshrines these attitudes at the government level, as there is a ministry to suppress cult formation. “There is very heavy persecution of religious minorities going on in France, and to some extent this is important to Quebec, because there are attempts to import these kind of attitudes. You find visits from these ministers, who are part of the ‘anti-cult ministry,’ who come to Quebec and work with election groups. And you find certain journalists who have contacts here, and you have Quebec journalists who follow the lead of French journalists. Another thing is that groups that were heavily persecuted in France have fled and are now in Quebec, where they have a more tolerant climate,” says Palmer. She mentions that she is unaware of any major organized initiatives similar to those in France. “There is a kind of anti-cult organization in Montreal called Info-Secte, but the director […] seems more interested in cult awareness.”

Despite these new religious movements being sociologically very similar to the institutionalized ones, they don’t seem to be granted the same legitimacy by the public.

Raëlism in Quebec
The Daily contacted several newer religious movements in Montreal to learn about their experiences trying to establish themselves within the larger community. The Church of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon church and the River’s Edge Community Church – both in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce – and the Church of Scientology were contacted, yet none seemed as eager to be interviewed as the representatives from the Raëlian movement.

After going through several levels of communication, I finally got to speak with Raëlian Bishop Nicole Bertrand, who has been part of the [Raëlian] movement since 1980. She discussed her abandonment of Catholocism with The Daily. “I was raised in a Catholic family and then I took my distance when I was a teenager. When I was allowed not to go to church, around 18, I stopped going. […] I was told by my parents, by my teachers, ‘stop asking questions, the questions are too complicated. Some theologians, they study for years and years and years and they still don’t have answers. It’s too complicated.’” However, she mentioned her continued curiosity in humanity’s creation. “I was always wondering: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is the purpose of life?”

The Raëlians believe that human beings and all life on earth were created by the Elohim – extraterrestrial beings. They left life forms on Earth with what Bertrand called “intelligent design,” which would evolve into all the present life forms. Raël, top leader or the “Guide of all Guides,” says that he is the last prophet in a long stream of prophets including Jesus, Moses, and Buddha, who he claims mistook the Elohim for god(s) and angels. Although adherers of these religions may disagree, Bertrand says, “This is why this is a universal message that can give light to all of the past religions.”

Bertrand’s opinion on the receptiveness to their new religion in Quebec contrasts directly with Palmer’s view that the province is a generally positive place for these faiths. “In the beginning, in 1980, it was growing very fast. And now, in the past ten years it has stabilized. […] Because of the media mocking Raëlians about ten years ago, we are targeted all the time.” As with many new faiths, the media attacked Raël for brainwashing his followers and stealing their money. Critiques specific to Raëlism include claims that the movement stirs up controversy for media attention and to increase membership. Examples of such controversies include the use of the swastika in order to reclaim its historical meaning of good luck and peace and claims of successful human cloning. While Palmer suggests the claim of controversy for the sake of membership, to Bertrand this is “completely false.”

Bertrand explains that the media’s attack on Raël’s followers is demeaning and that the situation is portrayed as “the intellectual manipulation of poor, fragile, vulnerable people who are in a ‘depressed’ state of mind. [This] doesn’t hold because we all have jobs, we all have a family, we all live in our private space. We gather once a year and we have some meetings on the weekend to which we are allowed to go or not go. So we have our total freedom. Our colleagues and family members don’t see unbalanced people, ‘crazy’ people.” She defends her choice to donate money as well, “When people ask me, ‘Do you give money?’ I say ‘Yes, I give money. And? Do you have a problem with me giving my money?’ It’s my money. […] It’s my freedom and I’m never forced to give any money. I give what I can, when I can. We all do. And there is no consequence. If one year I cannot contribute, there is no consequence.”

Bertrand alleges that such accusations have tarnished the reputation of Raëlians in the public opinion and have led to persecution. “Canada and Quebec brag that they are nations that respect democracy and human rights. Not in your workplace. […] Some of us lost our contracts when they found out we were Raëlians,” says Bertrand, who herself lost a job because of her religion. The employer told her she should have brought up being a Raëlian, and when she said he was not even allowed to ask her about her religion, he said that his company “doesn’t want to be associated with Raëlians.” Of the incident, Bertrand states, “It shows you how narrow-minded people are. We question. We try to understand the story of God, we try understand the nature of God. We can question the singularity of God. Those people go to church and say God is one, but we say God is many. They say God is immaterial and we say the Gods are material. They say we are evil and they cancel our contracts.”

The Raëlian movement exemplifies the persisting antagonism that new religious movements still experience in today’s supposedly ‘tolerant’ society. While Quebec may be a healthier environment compared to other places, it does not negate the fact that there is very real persecution of religious minorities, especially ones which have not been established or that the public does not recognize as real religions.