So are atheists being censored in Vancouver?

Last week I meant to add a note that the Centre for Inquiry Canada has issued a press release about the fact that Pattison Outdoor Advertising had rejected their fairly inoffensive new billboard campaign in Vancouver.

A pretty slick ad that’s pretty hard to find fault with.

Continue reading So are atheists being censored in Vancouver?

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.

CFI: A case study in a PR failure

I won’t recap the full back story of what’s happened at Center for Inquiry Transnational (not to be confused with Centre for Inquiry Canada which is embroiled in its own difficulties) but take a look at PZ’s roundup for some of what’s been written on the subject. What I want to focus on today is how, at multiple times, this entire fiasco could have been avoided.

The simple lesson for group organizers is that you have to start treating blogs like legitimate (but opinionated) media. Continue reading CFI: A case study in a PR failure

A change of guards at CFI Canada

While Center For Inquiry Transnational has been caught in the midst of a foreseeable PR nightmare following Ron Lindsay’s comments and subsequent statements at the Women In Secularism 2 conference, Centre for Inquiry Canada has been caught up in their own, unrelated but ill-timed, controversy as news broke this week that National Executive Director Michael Payton had been relieved of his duties.

What follows will be the story I’ve pieced together from a few sources over the past couple days. I haven’t been directly involved in CFI Canada for the past couple years and really have no horse in this race. I’ve met Michael a couple times and he’s seemed like a reasonable guy – what I can also say for the few board member’s I’ve met (who unfortunately are all guys). I’m going to try to be unbiased but I undoubtedly have my view of things.

If you have no interest in intraskeptical politics, perhaps you may want to skip on this post.

Continue reading A change of guards at CFI Canada

CFI Canada skips critical thinking

Last week a story broke from Nova Scotia that a high school student was suspended for wearing a t-shirt that said “Life is wasted without Jesus”.

The story went that the student wore the same shirt several days in a row (let’s assume he washed it or had multiple ones and wasn’t suspended for stinking up the place) and was suspended when he refused to obey a demand by the school’s principal that he no longer wear the shirt.

Quick to stand up for free speech and religious freedom, Centre for Inquiry Canada released a press release condemning the school.

"While CFI sponsored the Atheist Bus Campaign, we are a strong champion of freedom of speech and freedom of religion," said National Communications Director Justin Trottier. "This shirt causes no harm and is a perfectly acceptable contribution to the marketplace of ideas."

I could point out again how CFI did not sponsor the Atheist Bus Campaign (except in Kelowna) – the Freethought Association of Canada did – but that’s not my point here.

With any sensational news story, I think we all ought to put our skeptic hats and try to figure out what is really going on before we rush to comment. And in this case, it turns out there’s quite a bit more there.

Students said William Swinimer has been preaching and making them feel uncomfortable, and the shirt was the last straw so they complained.

"He’s told kids they’ll burn in hell if they don’t confess themselves to Jesus," student Riley Gibb-Smith said.

Katelyn Hiltz, student council vice-president, agreed the controversy didn’t begin with the T-shirt.

"It started with him preaching his religion to kids and then telling them to go to hell. A lot of kids don’t want to deal with this anymore," she said.

Furthermore, the students father has begun pulling William from any class beyond the basics.

"He will not attend this school unless they are having reading, writing and arithmetic — good old-fashioned academics," he said, waving a New Testament bible. "When they’re having forums, when they’re having other extra-curricular activity, he will not attend that school."

I guess that means no evolution, sex-ed, or critical thinking for poor William.

This background doesn’t change the fact that suspended a student for wearing a t-shirt is wrong, but it does give the context of why such a seemingly disproportionate measure was taken. The school was fed up with an obnoxious Jesus freak shoving his religion down everyone’s throats. The school administrators have a duty to ensure that all students feel welcome and safe at the school and are able to learn, if one student is compromising that security, then they’re bound to find a way to deal with it.

If anyone else had worn that t-shirt, they would have been fine, but couple it to a continued campaign of disruptions, and I can understand and potentially support the school’s actions.

Of course, we likely still don’t have a complete story. We don’t know the extent that William pushed his religion on others and we don’t know how many people complained about it. We likely never will.

But this is precisely why organizations that want to maintain some semblance of credibility on these issues ought to hesitate before crying wolf. It’s nice to be the first to comment, but without the full context, one can come off as ignorant and closed-minded.

Friendly Atheist and high school math teach Hemant Mehta was also generally supportive of the suspension.

Skeptical leadership and CFI drama

I have a huge 3000+ word post over at Canadian Atheist on drama at CFI Canada. If you dislike the messy underbelly of egos and in-group politics, take a pass.

Related to the entire theme though is a recent Dan Gardner article on leadership in isolation. In it he discusses recent studies that have found that we make poorer decisions the more power we get.

The concept can be understood in Darwinian terms. Ideas, like organisms, compete for their environment. A bad idea with a lot of competition will die off, while it may have a better chance if not exposed to variation. I’m not talking about memetics, since we actively select out good ideas when we can contrast them with bad ones.

If a leader is surrounded by yes-men and women who agree with him or her, the landscape of ideas generated will be very small. Meanwhile, when people are able to disagree without fear of punishment, more ideas can thrive and compete.

This is why, regardless of one’s own aptitudes and skills, power corrupts. Everyone is susceptible to it.

Being good skeptics, we need to identify and be aware of issues like this when we design our organizational structures. The root causes of the ongoing CFI Canada debacle are a lack of trust, transparency, and accountability. Without an open exchange of ideas, corruption and acrimony spread.

Such drama isn’t the exclusive purview of CFI and it’s corporate structure. Humanist Canada was embroiled in a strikingly similar controversy a year ago when their board split over the actions of their executive director. HAC seems to be getting back on track, potentially a testament of the ability of the membership to throw the board out and elect a new slate.

I don’t know the perfect solution to these types of divisions. I think there needs to be clear lines of accountability, and a means of dealing with divisions in boards that doesn’t make every issue so personal. I’m wide open to any and all ideas, and I’m definitely willing to try anything to ensure the stability and longevity of the BC Humanists for years to come.

My November Cafe Inquiry: Humanism and Interfaith

In December I’m going to be doing a sermon for a Unitarian Church in Surrey on Humanism as part of their interfaith series. In preparation for that, I agreed to do a Cafe Inquiry for CFI Vancouver on Humanism.

Realizing that we all (generally) agree that humanism is good, I decided to mix it up a bit and my topic is now more focussed on the continuing spat between Greg Epstein and PZ Myers. Here’s the abstract I threw together this afternoon.

Humanism and Interfaith

Humanism can be described as atheism with a heart. Yet some New Atheists and Humanists have sparred recently over a number of issues. Some of these key issues are how we structure of our communities; the legitimacy of humanist chaplains; and whether secularists should engage in interfaith dialogues with the religious. Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, calls humanism a faith in his 2009 bestseller Good Without God. He has recently announced plans for a new book to serve as a how-to manual to establish groups similar to his Harvard community. On the other side of the debate, many atheists recoil in disgust at terms like interfaith and chaplains. They argue that the unquestionable hierarchy of religion is antithetical to free inquiry. Such structures are to be demolished, not simply rebranded. Amidst the debates on Twitter and the blogosphere, humanist communities are thriving in cities and on campuses around the world. Progressive theists are also actively starting to seek out humanist representatives for interfaith panels.

In this discussion, I will attempt to weave our way through the arguments and concerns raised by both camps. What does a humanist community look like? Are humanists trying to create church for the unchurched? Is there a need for humanist chaplains and officiants? Is humanism a faith? And can, or should, atheists participate in interfaith events?

Some related reading and viewing:

Do Atheists Belong in the Interfaith Movement? Christ Stedman, 15 June 2011

Transfaith, The New Atheist Interfaith, Ed Clint – Secular Student Alliance, 18 August 2011

Nonbelievers striving for humanist connection, Boston Globe, 17 October 2011

Atheist church? NO THANK YOU. Pharyngula, 17 October 2011

Just don’t call it church then, Canadian Atheist, 17 October 2011

A Successful Humanist Community in Boston, Friendly Atheist, 18 October 2011

Just call me a Quaker, I guess, Pharyngula, 18 October 2011

What #HumanistComunity? Pharyngula, 19 October 2011

#HumanistCommunity, Twitter, ongoing

The event is scheduled for Saturday, November 19th at 11:00 am at SFU Harbour Centre and there should be coffee and donuts.

I haven’t written the talk yet (that has to wait for the 18th of course), so I’m open to any and all suggestions.

And I’ll post something about the Unitarian event closer to that date.

Donate to CFI Canada to establish physical centres across the country

I don’t usually cross-post with Canadian Atheist, but I think this is an important, and ambitious campaign.

I’ve had my differences with CFI Canada in the past, but we are on the same side, and they continue to do the most for freethought in Canada. I therefore urge you to donate to their “Next Big Step” campaign to help raise half a million dollars, enough to lease or buy physical locations for each of their centres in Canada.

So go and donate now, and again, and get your friends to donate to the Next Big Step campaign.

The deadline is September 30th, so there’s not a lot of time to reach this goal.

Pride 2010

Yesterday was the 2010 Vancouver Pride Parade.

There was a total of 146 entrants, of which the 135th scheduled entry was the BC Humanist Association. With the BCHA marched the SFU Skeptics and CFI Vancouver.

I had previously marched in the 2008 and 2009 Edmonton Pride Parades with the Society of Edmonton Atheists and they marched again this year with a great FSM sculpture (write up and photos). Our first year there was a bit tame, but we had a table and showed some spirit. It looks like they’ve gotten really good at parades since then.

I’m proud to say that yesterday’s turnout was fantastic. We had almost 20 people out, facepaint, banners and lots of dancing. We unfortunately weren’t quite organized early enough to get a table (I brought this idea to the BCHA in early June and the entry deadline was June 30).

(video and photos below fold)

Continue reading Pride 2010