Catholics crash poll to protect privilege

Ontario’s Liberal government has done something really cool in setting up an online database for policy ideas that can be submitted and voted up or down to prioritize what the province should be doing.

One ambitious member of a local Young Liberal riding suggested merging the Catholic and Public school boards to save money and end the religious privilege. The idea gained quick traction and made it to the top four spot.

Unfortunately, this caught the attention of the Catholic school board administration, which circulated emails calling on their staff and trustees to crash the poll, down-voting the idea. At the time of writing it sits at –220 votes.

Go to the site, register, and vote up the idea and spread the word.

“If you don’t feel comfortable with your children in that kind of milieu, don’t send your students here.”

Following up on the religious proselytization and abstinence-only sex education occurring in Edmonton Public Schools comes a quote from Orville Chubb, candidate for the Edmonton Public School Board, from his time as executive director of Meadowlark Christian School Foundation.

Chubb was asked in 2011 about a proposed anti-homophobia policy at the Edmonton Public School Board (which was passed). As head of the school, Chubb stated in an interview about his school:

It’s not that we are anti-gay in any way, shape or form. We just need to be able to articulate the moral element to all Christianity … and our Christian community is not able to accept that homosexual acts are not immoral. If you don’t feel comfortable with your children in that kind of milieu, don’t send your students here.

It’s worth noting that since 2004 Meadowlark Christian School has been operated as an Alternative Program within Edmonton Public School Board. This means that despite parent’s paying up to $1,600 in tuition for their child to attend, the school still receives public funding and can discriminate against staff and faculty who aren’t Christian enough. Furthermore, it means that Chubb’s 2011 comments represented a desire to violate a proposed policy of their own school board.

When asked by local blogger Daveberta about the comments, Chubb argued the views were those of the parents and that

My position now, as it was then, is that you cannot legislate belief. I am a firm advocate for freedom of speech and conscience. I staunchly defend those who are discriminated against in any way.

Perhaps Chubb was just doing his job but the argument that “some” students should not be sent to some schools offered by the Public School District only highlights the discriminatory nature of permitting faith-based schools within a public system.

Edmonton voters, it’s up to you to push for a secular school board. Get informed and vote wisely.

Anti-choice Christian front promotes abstinence-only sex ed in Edmonton Schools

Anti-abortion Christian groups are notorious in Canada for setting up “Crisis Pregnancy Centres” as fronts to proselytize to women facing a pregnancy scare and are unsure whether to exercise their legal right to terminate it or not. The Centres are often filled with deceptive anti-choice propaganda and mislead women.

One such front group in Edmonton, Alberta offers a program called “WAIT! Let’s Talk Sex!” to local schools, with a strong emphasis on abstinence-only based education. Education that has been demonstrated time and again to fail students, leading to higher rates of dangerous sex, teen pregnancy, and sexually-transmitted infections.

The program is designed to fit the provincial curriculum for grades 7 through 10 and they claim to have reached 14,000 students in Edmonton and area. Edmonton’s ostensibly secular public district has about 80,000 students and lists the centre as an “approved vendor.”

There is a petition circulating to get Edmonton Public Schools to bar these ministers from proselytizing to students and to instead teach comprehensive sexual education, as mandated by the Alberta curriculum.

Sign and share it now.

If you live in Edmonton, make sure you contact your Public School Trustee candidates and have them pledge to keep Edmonton Public Schools secular.

(H/t Luke Fevin)

Two sides of a coin

There is no inherent contradiction in viewing fundamentalist religious headgear as misogynistic while still supporting an individual’s religious freedom, so why does the media keep painting it as such?

The Charter of Quebec Values is creating a huge, perhaps irreparable rift in the province’s women’s movement. For feminists, there is no halfway position over the proposed ban on religious symbols worn by public employees.

On one side are those for whom the Muslim hijab (or any kind of religious headscarf) is anathema because it’s seen as a symbol of female submission. On the other side are those who believe that wearing a headscarf is a woman’s personal choice and that the law will victimize Muslim women in particular by excluding them from a large sector of the labour market.

It’s similar to the concept of defending even that freedom of speech which we disagree with. I don’t agree with the choice* to wear a hijab but it is not my place to tear it from a woman’s head.

*A tricky concept in this discussion but where free choice is restricted we should target those coercing, not the coerced (don’t blame the victim).

Restore the whole anthem

RestoreOurAnthem.ca launched recently to quite a bit of media exposure, particularly because several notable Canadians including author Margaret Atwood and former Prime Minister Kim Campbell are behind the push to de-gender Canada’s anthem.

I fully support their effort, even if the political will might be missing (Harper introduced the idea from nowhere in a 2010 Throne Speech before retracting it a couple days later) and would suggest the change go even further and call for the anthem to be restored entirely to the first stanza of Stanley Weir’s 1908 poem:

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love thou dost in us command.
We see thee rising fair, dear land,
The True North, strong and free;
And stand on guard, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! O Canada!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

This version solves the gender issue and secularizes it, better reflecting a 21st Century Canada that is at least 1/4 non-religious.

Of course it still maintains some awkward older English and the odd phrase that could be improved upon (native land), so here’s where I’d go with the final version (or at least the version I sing to myself):

O Canada! Our home and cherished land!
True patriot love in all of us command.
With glowing hearts, we see thee rise,
The True North, strong and free;
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! Glorious and free!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

Of course the French version ought to drop the references to carrying the Cross but my grasp on French isn’t strong enough to recommend an alternative.

While in the UK, I probably won’t be caught singing God Save the Queen (except for The Sex Pistols version).

Closure of Muslim Free School highlights folly of government policy

A bit of welcome news came today that British government inspectors have forced the temporary closure of an Islamic free school over “health and safety issues.” The school promises to re-open soon.

Over the past few years, the British government has been increasingly trying to solve its broken education system through a combination of market-based reforms. Key among them have been the opening of many “free schools,” that is, fully government-funded schools that are free from the control of local authorities (locally-elected school boards).

Many of these free schools are religiously-motivated and are permitted to have discriminatory admission policies that favour students of a particular faith. The system is loosely based around similar programs in Alberta and BC where independent schools receive a certain amount of government funding.

The British Humanist Association’s Fair Admission Campaign has highlighted that these free schools end up increasing social fragmentation and class separation, with students of higher socioeconomic standing being admitted disproportionately.

Support the Campaign for Fair Admissions

The end of Catholic Schools: Not with a bang but with “creeping incrementalism”

The Windsor Star has a story about how declining enrollment a in local secular and Catholic school boards (both publicly funded) are forcing creative solutions as funding declines.

It sharply highlights the growing need to consider amalgamating the competing systems into a single non-discriminatory body.

Unsurprisingly the local Catholics remain quite comfortable with their privilege, despite an increasingly secular and aging population.

Such integration has caused some concerns among those in the Catholic system about a gradual merging into one system.

“There is the fear of what I call creeping incrementalism,” Iatonna said. “I don’t have that fear.

“I think Catholic schooling will be around because of the desire for it from Catholic parents.”

Minor efforts are already being made to reduce administrative duplication, and it’s predicted to save the province of Ontario over $10 million. One report by a Liberal delegation suggested the total savings for the province could be up to $1.6 billion.

As local boards make this minor steps toward amalgamation, the rights of non-Catholic students to have a secular education must be protected. It’s very foreseeable that a shared Catholic-Public school would push Catholic idolatry and worship on the public side and would potentially limit job prospects for non-Catholic teachers.

Better for the provincial government to take the initiative and provide clear guidance toward a path for one school system.

Quebec Charter hurting secular efforts

Efforts to defend the separation of church and state in English Canada are already suffering as Quebec’s Charter of Secularism Values is used to argue that secularism is “exclusionary” or intolerant.

The latest example comes from the City of Saskatoon, where the city is considering options for a prayer policy for before city council meetings. This move comes after complaints were raised against the long-standing Christian prayer used to open city functions.

City administrators have correctly identified that the principles of secularism and equality leave only two options for prayers at city events: Include all (and no) faiths or none. Either the city makes an effort to include different perspectives during opening remarks (including non-theistic views) or they rid the entire process and leave people to celebrate their own beliefs before commencing business.

Some provincial legislatures have opted for the first option and in some cases Humanists have given opening invocations. Nevertheless, the “all” approach is cumbersome and a bit awkward. Realistically, you’re likely to miss many worldviews (as there are as many religious views as there are people) and each event will alienate those who do not share the faith on display that day.

My preference is therefore for the state to not take a position on religion, as an institution, and let individuals believe what they will. The government has no need to validate different religious viewpoints through collective worship and such activities are best left to the religious.

The complicating factor in making this argument is that the Quebec approach ignores individual freedoms, imposing state secularism over individuality. This inevitably leads to statements from the Mayor of Saskatoon arguing for more religion in the city:

I think everyone has the opportunity to have prayer. If they don’t wish to, that’s fine too. I certainly don’t want to become like Quebec, I’m all for all prayer, I’m for an all-inclusive community, not excluding anyone.

We also get the same language from Councillor Randy Donauer, who instigated the first complaint with Christian prayers at a civic event,

Our goal is not to clamp down and ban any of these things. Like I said, this is not Quebec. I think they’re totally going down the wrong road here and I’m really concerned we’re going to take a first step down that road.

The media loves a simple contrast between two overly simplified views. Here we have repressive and anti-religious Quebec secularism versus an attempt to be inclusive and promote religious freedom and rights. Supporting the Quebec Charter of Values (like some Canadian Atheists are apt to do) feeds this false narrative and works against efforts to end state endorsement of religious privilege while protecting individual freedom of conscience.

Secularism isn’t about taking away people’s rights to pray, believe in god, or express their religiosity (all so long as it doesn’t harm anyone), but an effort to end the privilege of any one theological viewpoint. It protects people through their freedom to believe or not. Unfortunately, the misguided Charter of Values is now being used as a scare tactic to argue that secularism is an attempt to remove people’s religious identities.

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