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The Governor-General and Good Government

Updated: May 23, 2023

The furore continues over Governor-General Julie Payette’s attempt to solve several outstanding problems in one speech. She’s only one month into her new job, so she has started small: sorting out global climate change and the origin of life on earth, for instance.

On the face of it, there is a lot wrong with what happened, and pundits have enjoyed the target-rich situation. On the political side, a Governor-General is not supposed to wade into controversial matters of public opinion and of public policy. Queen Elizabeth II, whose representative she is, has proven a past master at such reticence, even as her son Charles, the man who shouldn’t be king, hasn’t resisted opining on all manner of things on which he is unqualified to speak.

And that’s the other side of it. As an astronaut and engineer, the Governor-General doubtless has interesting things worth the public hearing about, say, astronautics and engineering. But she decided to take on sciences well out of her expertise and whole disciplines (philosophy, religion) entirely beyond her training. She has nothing more interesting to say on those matters than the next person, and she demonstrated that sorry fact in her blithe dismissal of hundreds of years of careful thought, not to mention billions of her fellow human beings.

The Prime Minister has defended her. This will surprise no one, of course, as she was appointed on his recommendation. But it will surprise no one also because she is cut from the same cloth, being a Québecoise of the same generation who takes for granted the secularism they inherited from their Quiet Revolution parents.

In this culture of determinedly anti-Christian dogma, “whether life was a divine intervention” is not even plausible—that is, not worth arguing with. The Governor-General instead resorted merely to scorn, the contempt of the confidently correct. And the Prime Minister seems unruffled by this backhanding of his father’s religion, the cultural heritage of his home province, and what is still by far the dominant outlook of his country.

Only those who have enjoyed a mutually reinforcing community of like-minded young secularists—typical of the Quebec intelligentsia, and common in urban pockets across the country—can utter such nonsense with such esprit.

For it is nonsense. At least, it would have seemed nonsensical at the conference I attended last month at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, which was hosted by that university’s Professor of Nanomaterials, another Oxford professor of quantum physics, and a professor of philosophy from Princeton University—all of whom are passionate Christians and for all of whom the idea of the divine origin of the universe seems not only plausible but, well, true.

As I have mentioned in this space before, the room, in fact, was full of similar people. The woman beside me graduated from Princeton and Edinburgh and works now at St Andrews studying the intersection of science and religion. The fellow across the table studied physics at Harvard, while my lunchmate earned his doctorate in meteorology at London’s Imperial College. All of these reasonably well educated people would have been appalled at the Governor-General’s snide disregard for views that they, as reasonably well educated people, thought worth holding.

One might hope that Her Majesty’s representative will withdraw to ponder the firestorm she set off, to mull over why something she thought was so luminously obvious turned so wildly incendiary.

Maybe she’ll use her royal office to convene a high-level discussion of religion and science. Maybe she’ll first read a few serious books on the subject, such as those by such scientist-believers as John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, John Lennox, and Francis Collins.

Or maybe she’ll start by finding a scientifically or philosophically educated Christian and asking him or her ‘round for tea. There are such people—millions of us, actually—and many of us would be happy to take her call.

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