Brits and the Devil

Since moving to England, I haven’t been able to participate in Angus Reid surveys (their site only allows Canadian IPs to participate), so instead I’ve been getting my polling participation fix through YouGov.

The most recent one I completed was just released and is part of a UK-USA comparison of belief in the devil, demonic possession, and exorcisms. Yes, it’s a Halloween novelty poll.

Continue reading Brits and the Devil

Sunday Assembly Schism!

No sooner had I talked about how churchy the Sunday Assembly is/isn’t then news breaks that several of the New York organizers have left the brand to form the Godless Revival.

It sounds mostly amicable, with a difference in emphasis being the primary difference. The Sunday Assembly is moving slightly away from the atheist brand, while the New York contingent is hoping to play up atheism and mock religion a bit more.

…we have [had] our first organizational division and it is at Sunday Assembly New York. The chief split is between those who are more on the atheist side of the fence, and then those who want to have a more inclusive message. This division has meant that the inclusive contingent resigned from the board. This then led the remaining gang to start a new group called The Godless Revival.

In the non-religious marketplace of ideas, the more the merrier. I’m happy to keep working with Sanderson and Pippa’s model that has evidence for its appeal (at least in secular Britain) but will wish well to the Godless Revivalists.

Sanderson will still be visiting the New York Ethical Culture Society (who have an incredible building that I hope to one day visit) to (re-)launch Sunday Assembly New York, and I look forward to hearing of their success.

One thing worth noting is that Sanderson is quite supportive of each group going their own way and the web-based infrastructure that will be crowd funded for later this month will eventually be used to help build godless congregations of all sorts (not just Sunday Assemblies).

Nevertheless, I guess one characteristic of churches I missed earlier was the tendency to schism over (a)theological differences.

How ‘Churchy’ is the Sunday Assembly?

Disclaimer: I’m one of the organizers for The Sunday Assembly Leeds and have met both Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans.

One of the key ingredients to the early success of The Sunday Assembly, in my mind, is the use of the paradoxical phrase “Atheist Church.”

It simultaneously describes exactly what the event is trying to do – host a church-like service for those who don’t believe in god – while also drawing attention by way of the oxymoron.

However, given the number of pedants and the psychological baggage of various terms, people have complained about the usage of the phrase. Atheism is not a religion, so there isn’t really such thing as an atheist church. Furthermore, although non-belief in god is upfront, The Sunday Assembly is open to everyone and many agnostics or spiritual people find enjoyment in the services.

This has lead to Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans distancing The Sunday Assembly from the word atheist.

But that leaves the question about the other word: How much church is there in the atheist church?

Continue reading How ‘Churchy’ is the Sunday Assembly?

Launching the Sunday Assembly Leeds!

Over the past few months, I’ve watched with keen interest as Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, two British comics that I hadn’t heard of before, founded and started hosting The Sunday Assembly in London. They billed their show as “part foot-stomping show, part atheist church” and set off with the goal of encouraging people to “live better, help often, and wonder more.”

What really got my attention was how successful they were in such a short period of time. The paradoxical marketing as an “atheist church” clearly had legs and was picked up by media around the world. The coverage created curiosity and a crowd of a couple hundred started to grow and spawn interest in America and Australia for more of these things.

Continue reading Launching the Sunday Assembly Leeds!

Political Atheists

The Huffington Post has a piece comparing open atheists in government in the USA with the UK.

They note that only two American legislators have only ever really professed non-belief: Pete Stark and Barney Frank (the latter admitting it after leaving politics). Meanwhile, the current deputy Prime Minister of the UK, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, is an atheist, as is Ed Miliband, Labour Party and Official Opposition Leader. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is a Christian but has brought in gay marriage and UK politicians are routinely reminded that Brits “don’t do god.”

Further to that, the British Humanist Association maintains a Humanist Caucus with over 100 elected MPs and unelected Lords in the three major parties.

The closest Canada has had to an atheist Prime Minister might be Kim Campbell, who is listed as a “lapsed Anglican,” although many Liberal Prime Ministers may not have been as Catholic as they professed. Pierre Elliot Trudeau was reportedly a board member of the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal. Several past federal party leaders have been reported as atheists, including Stephane Dion and Gilles Duceppe. Few Canadians wear their religiosity (or lack thereof) on their sleeves though.

Skeptic with an Eh?

Seeing a gap in the Leed’s Skeptics in the Pub event for September, I volunteer to give a talk on the skeptical movement in Canada.

Here are the details if you want to come stalk me in person:

Monday, 23 September 2013 19:00 at the Victoria Hotel (28 Great George Street, Leeds LS1 3DL)

While I haven’t written down the exact notes for what I want to cover (I have all weekend), I’m basically going to discuss the 6 years I spent organizing freethought groups in Edmonton and Vancouver, and what I learned about the broader skeptical/Humanist movement in Canada during that time. Hopefully I’ll also have time to get into some of the current issues in Canada and where people stand.

I’ll try to keep gossip and my personal opinions to a minimum during the talk but I may intersperse them during the discussion afterward.

Hopefully it will be filmed so I can post a video of it later for those who want to subject themselves to that. Hope to see you there!

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.

Not my secularism

Critics of religion (such as myself) are sometimes not precise enough in our criticisms.

We will sometimes lash out that the “moderate Muslims” don’t condemn fundamentalists enough or complain that liberal Christians only make space for creationists and anti-choicers (in both cases the truth is not difficult to find, for those who look).

So it would be equally remiss if we didn’t take the opportunity to condemn and distance ourselves from those whose versions of secularism, of humanism, of atheism, are diametrically opposed to our own.

Continue reading Not my secularism

A pox on (some of) your houses

Recently, numerous allegations have flown throughout the blogosphere (at least, the portion that I read), identifying numerous high-profile skeptics/atheists/scientists as varying degrees of creepy to rapist. Others have jumped to their defense, crying that we ought to be skeptical of anonymous accusations and that women ought to just drink less. (See the timeline for a recap.)

For those who believe the accusations (and I see little reason not to), it can be quite disheartening. From various comment threads on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook I have seen this frustration over and over as people worry about the ability of any major freethought organization to handle the larger issues of sexism and accountability.

Yet this strikes me not only as false but counterproductive.

The “institutional rot” that many see so far has been limited to 2 or 3 national US organizations (you can name them if you like). Every non-profit with a small staff, limited budget, and few active volunteers grapples with accountability and transparency in its decisions, yet the worst cases seem fairly isolated to me.

This is especially transparent if we look at the next generation of freethought leaders. The Secular Student Alliance and the Humanist Community at Harvard are arguably the two most progressive and forward thinking major organizations right now. Neither is remotely embroiled in scandal (that I’m aware of) and both are filled with bright, young activists.

Similarly, PZ Myers recently noted:

By the way, humanist organizations in general tend to discourage the kind of behavior that asshats take as a given privilege — if you’re looking for a group of people who won’t treat you as a piece of meat, look into the humanists.

As such we see the British Humanist Association and the American Humanist Association continuing in their good work without falling prey to the closed cultures of others. I like to think the BC Humanist Association follows on that path as well but I’m obviously biased.

By writing off the entire movement, these donors and volunteers forget how many people – and I suspect it’s a sizable majority – want to see things continually improve. By solely focusing on the negatives, they write off everyone who is actively working to make things better either within the troubled institutions (many of the local groups and volunteers are equally forward-thinking) or in independent organizations.

I guess my point is that we should not be so quick to dismiss the hard work of numerous organizations that are not involved in this mess. We can demand better and ought to work to see the movement we want to see.

At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

Atheist and Republicans

I haven’t had time yet to deal with a piece of nonsense from last week on Canadian Atheist.

The arguments put forward by the Monarchist League of Canada are entirely secular. You might or might not find them more persuasive than the arguments put forward by republicans, but this is in no small part a matter of subjective values rather than scientific and philosophical rigour. In other words, there are good objective reasons why one should be an atheist, but no equivalent reasons why one should be a republican (or, admittedly, a monarchist). – The Lad Who’s Born to Be King by Corwin for Canadian Atheist


This makes about as much sense as those who argue that you can make entirely secular arguments against women’s reproductive freedoms. The quasi-secular arguments strain human reason to the limit, better to be a pro-choice, republican atheist than whatever confused mess Corwin is arguing for.

Continue reading Atheist and Republicans