Atheist Freethinkers: Stop embarrassing yourselves

David Rand’s Quebec-based “Atheist Freethinkers” is positioning itself as an embarrassment to the Canadian freethought movement.

Rand stands nearly alone in the debate in English Canada by supporting Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values. The Charter ostensibly proposes to officially declare Quebec a secular province but only does so by demanding that some provincial employees remove some religious symbols, while larger declarations of religious privilege – like the crucifix in the National Assembly and state-sponsored religious schools – will remain in full force.

His latest press release dishonestly attempts to paint critics of the charter as ignorant, calling opposition “inflammatory and demagogic.” Thorough criticism of the Charter was nicely laid out by Indi (part 1, part 2) on Canadian Atheist after Rand co-authored an equally disingenuous “guide for discussion.” Another great resource is the UK National Secular Society’s response to France’s attempts to ban the burka in public.

Rand hypocritically declares the opposition to be mere “identity politics,” which is exactly what you could call arguing that those with an atheist identity calling for protection under a Charter of Values.

What grates me most about this sort of opposition though is the pure intolerance of it. As though someone’s choice to wear a turban somehow influences my ability to receive government services from them. Does Rand honestly think that these garments are worn for the purpose of proselytization and forcing others to become more religious?

The only way these symbols could be rationally viewed as state endorsement would be if all employees were forced to wear them. Put a headscarf on every woman and demand every man grow a beard and I might suspect a fundamentalist stream of Islam were infecting our government, but if I instead see a workforce that is as diverse as the population it is serving, I – and I suspect most rational people – don’t see it as anything more than multiculturalism in action. Meanwhile, as Rand correctly points out, the giant crucifix and tax privileges for religious communities are state endorsements of religion but this Charter is silent on those issues.

Finally, I really must call out this final bit of absurdity: “[The Charter should include] withdrawal of the Ethics and Religious Culture program from public schools.”

This is the mandatory class that all Quebec public school students take to learn about world religions and secular worldviews. Ironically for Rand, a number of Catholic parents also opposed the class, as they would rather their children remain ignorant about the existence of other strains of thought. Their fight eventually landed them before the Supreme Court, which rejected the argument and favoured requiring all students to learn.

Let me reiterate this point: David Rand and the Atheist Freethinkers are making the same argument as religious parents who want to keep children ignorant.

I can only guess at his motivation behind this but on the surface it looks like Rand is so afraid of (or so disdainful for) religion that he would rather children be ignorant than know that some people believe different things.

Perhaps the biggest irony here is that courses like this, ones that have students consider other perspectives, are among the best ways to promote critical thinking and atheism (since they can’t all be right, but they can all be wrong), and just in general make a more tolerant society.

So this isn’t me trying to pick another petty fight with other atheists who generally share my goals, this is me condemning versions of atheism and freethought that I view as toxic, ignorant, and dangerous. They are well on their way to becoming the Westboro Baptists of the Canadian Atheist community.

Postscript: I was considering also adding some criticism of their group’s effort to hijack the Montreal Pride Parade with an anti-religious message but I’ll leave it without comment for now.

2 thoughts on “Atheist Freethinkers: Stop embarrassing yourselves”

  1. I essentially been an atheist all my life but have been continually shocked by the way that some people who identify as atheists harbor a quasi-religious belief in the ‘objective truth’ of modern rationality, often fail in the exercise of simple rationality, and are just plain intolerant of anyone with whom they disagree. And in Rand’s case, all three of the above.

    As you pointed toward, it seems unreasonable to believe that allowing the wearing of personal, symbolic religious symbols is advocacy on the part of the state. Conversely, restricting such symbols can hardly be a step toward secularization because everyone knows such articles of clothing are purely personal. As I said in my own blog, I had a prof at university who wore a Che Guevara t-shirt but I knew that didn’t mean the state was not advocating revolutionary communism.

    Furthermore, as far as I can see, if ‘atheism’ does not contribute to our ability to embrace difference then it is no better than most organized religion.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out!

    What bugs me most about this whole affair is how much damage it has done to the credibility of secularists and secularism in general. I’ve seen Ministers on TV criticizing the “Charter of Values” by repeating the slogan “it’s freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion”, and while it’s obviously an abuse of the idea, it’s hard to correct them given the situation. Secularism itself might end up associated with intolerance, undermining years of work we’ve done explaining the opposite.

    We – all atheists, secularists, and humanists – should have been full-throated in unanimous condemnation of the faux-“secular” pretensions of the PQ. (CFI did a good job there, actually.) Anytime someone used the word “secular” in association with the Charter of Values, we should have spoken out and made it clear that the word was being co-opted and abused – that real secularism does not mean selective suppression of minority religions, or taking away individual rights to harmless free expression (while leaving the majority religion which actually does have influence on government untouched, and all existing inappropriate religious symbolism in government institutions intact). Instead, we’ve got these bullshit AFT press releases deliberately conflating secularism with the Charter (while at the *same time*, each spends 2/3 of its time pointing out exactly how the Charter is *not* actually about secularism).

    From now on any time we try to make a case for less religion in government, we’re probably going to have to deal with accusations of being like “that”, and waste our time and efforts trying to explain why we do not and never did support selective discrimination or suppression of personal expression, ultimately weakening our message and impact.

Comments are closed.