On Euroscepticism

One of the most influential books I’ve read in the past couple years was Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature.

In it, he attempts first to build the case that over all timescales of human history – from the first civilizations through the Middle Ages and into the modern world – war and violence have been in decline. He goes to great lengths, invoking numerous studies measuring in various ways that you face less chance of dying today from violence than ever in human history. It naturally attracted criticism but I think his thesis holds.

In the second part, he tries to provide several reasons for this decline, with arguments from across the humanities: sociological, psychological, political, and even economic reasons.

He notes that since the end of the Second World War there has not been an all-out war between any two major powers. Plenty of skirmishes and civil wars continue and the Cold War was largely fought through intermediaries but it has been decades since troops marched into battle across Europe.

He argues that the rise of global trade and increasingly strong intergovernmental organizations, like the United Nations and European Union may be part of the reason behind this long peace.

Which forms the basis of one reason that I have always had a soft spot for the EU. If Pinker’s analysis holds, then the EU, despite its flaws, is a key ingredient to maintaining peace against the nationalistic attitudes that led to the near perpetual state of war that plagued much of Europe through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

All of this leads me to be wary of arguments from both the right and left that nations ought to be returning to their nationalistic roots rather than reinvesting in the EU.

I do recognize that there are a lot of issues operating a parliament of over half a billion people. The complexity of the job means that it’s incredibly tough for representatives to explain their work to their constituents who have centuries of mistrust for many other members of the EU. Further, when faced with troubling economies at home, many are left worrying more about their own nation than about building a stronger continent. Add to that the inequality between nations, with varying levels of corruption, poverty, and crime, and it can be hard to make the case that the Germans should be bailing out the Italians and Greeks once again.

Nevertheless, I maintain my hope for the EU project, even it’s just naive optimism.

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.

Good and Bad People

There’s a Steven Weinberg quote that my atheist friends like to trot out (and I’m likely equally guilty of sharing).

With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

The problem is though that there really aren’t just “good” and “evil” people. Never-minding shades of grey, you have good people who do good and bad things, often depending on their hormones, their mood, peer pressure, and a variety of other causes.

This is why restorative justice programs are so important. Prisons are a very easy way to turn a “good” person who made a mistake into an “evil” person. Instead, by having the perpetrator own up to their crime and learn from it, we can begin to make better citizens, less likely to reoffend.

Go read the latest on the Rationalist Association blog for more about the success of restorative justice programs in some of America’s highest crime districts.

Critics deride restorative justice as the soft option, letting criminals off the hook, but in fact it can’t work without perpetrators acknowledging and taking responsibility for what they have done. “This is not a mediation,” explains Denise Curtis, Program Manager for the Restorative Community Conferencing program in Alameda County, “which usually operates on the assumption that no one is wrong or right. Here the message is ‘You have to make things right.’”

It’s a cultural change that takes time to build. But, according to recent data, it has led to dramatic reductions in fights, aggressive behaviours and suspensions where it has been implemented. The goal is to break “the school to prison pipeline”.

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

Canada doesn’t have a sexism/racism problem

International Women’s Day is a good reminder of how far we still have to go toward gender equality.

Women represent just 11 per cent of board members on companies listed on the S&P/TSX composite index, which represents large publicly traded Canadian companies.

Among the TSX-composite-listed companies, 42 per cent have no women on the boards of directors, while 28 per cent had just one female board member.

While we’re doing marginally better than the United States, even the Nordic countries still lack gender parity on their corporate boards. Norway leads with 36%, Finland and Sweden each have 26%.

Meanwhile, the past decade has been increasingly harsh toward aboriginals, who make up an increasing proportion of our prison population.

The correctional investigator pointed to what he called "alarming" statistics.

"There are just over 3,400 aboriginal men and women making up 23 per cent of the country’s federal prison inmate population," Sapers said.

"In other words, while aboriginal people in Canada comprise just four per cent of the population, in federal prisons nearly one in four is Métis, Inuit, or First Nations."

Sapers found almost 40 per cent increase in the aboriginal incarcerated population between 2001-02 and 2010-11.

I guess I don’t really have any good news here. Also, this weekend is an hour shorter.

Religion, Politics, and Rex Murphy

Tomorrow, the Canadian polysyllabic pontificator Rex Murphy will be in Vancouver recording a live episode of Cross Country Checkup on religion in public life..

The Checkup is a long-time Canadian radio talk show, designed to spark dialogue across the country.

To arrange my thoughts for the discussion, I sat down for a Google+ Hangout with Mavaddat and discussed some of the issues that might come up. You can watch the discussion below the fold.

Continue reading Religion, Politics, and Rex Murphy

California Rejects GMO Labeling, and why I approve

You may have missed it, but Barack Obama won re-election Tuesday in what the media wrongly called a very close race. While Mitt Romney was able to score over 70% of the vote in Utah, he failed to achieve either the popular vote nationwide or the only one that matters – the electoral college vote.

But what I found more interesting than the presidential election that was essentially pre-determined (at no point did Nate Silver’s 508 analysis give Romney a leading chance), was the array of ballot initiatives across the USA.

Obviously, I’m happy to see a number of states approve gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. There were many more smaller ones though. For example, Florida voters rejected two proposals, one that would have made it legal for the state to give money to religious organizations and another that would have made it illegal to provide state funding for abortions. These results also make me happy.

I’m disappointed that California upheld the death penalty and probably have to read more about the failed Alabama proposition that would have removed racist language from the state constitution, which was opposed by black legislators (I think because it would have removed education as a right as well).

But today I want to talk about GMO labeling in California.

Continue reading California Rejects GMO Labeling, and why I approve

Who’s in jail in Canada?

A report came out today on CBC that the federal government is taking a page from the PQ book of secularism and will be removing funding from all chaplains in prisons… except Christian ones.

But rather than focus on the obvious affront to the separation of Church and State, I want to focus on the numbers shared in the CBC article.
Continue reading Who’s in jail in Canada?

The Liberals should champion the Arrow

There’s a story going around that a small design group is pitching a revised design of the Avro Arrow as an alternative to the Conservative’s F35s with its skyrocketing price tag.

it’s an interesting and promising idea, although its not clear that the industry is here any longer to support such a massive enterprise.

Nevertheless, this presents a golden opportunity for an up and coming federal Liberal leadership candidate to champion the idea once more. It was a Liberal government that originally introduced the Arrow, while Diefenbaker’s Conservatives killed it.

The Liberals have been without a grand vision for Canada for a while, and while this one is far from perfect, it would give them something to point to.

(Of course I realise in an ideal world such a fighter redesign should be put through an open bidding process, where the best proposal – in terms of costs, Canadian job prospects, and performance – is awarded on its merits.)