A full response to Humanist Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation statement

Two weeks ago I began Tweeting my reactions to Humanist Canada’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report. I heavily criticized the organization for it’s response, which in my view used the opportunity to make an easy attack on religion while doing nothing on promoting reconciliation with Canada’s aboriginal peoples. I expanded upon my Tweets in a Storify, which I posted here, on Twitter and Facebook, tagging Humanist Canada.

To his credit, Eric Thomas, President of Humanist Canada thanked me for my comments and promised to circulate them with the Board. My hope was that Humanist Canada would engage with my critique and together we could work toward a stronger and more constructive statement. I have belonged to Humanist Canada in the past (I mostly don’t right now as I’m living in the UK) and, while Twitter is a glib medium, did hope my public criticisms would prompt action.

Continue reading A full response to Humanist Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation statement

Humanists discuss political engagement

Last night, I attended a discussion hosted by the pan London Humanist group on what new opportunities there are for greater democratic engagement following the Scottish referendum on independence. It featured Ian Scott and Gary McLelland from the Humanist Society of Scotland (Ian is Acting Chief Executive and voted yes in the referendum, Gary is the Policy & Public Affairs Officer and campaigned for no), Andrew Copson (Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association), Will Brett (Head of Campaiggns at the Electoral Reform Society) and Alex Runswick (Chief Executive of Unloock Democracy). Anoosh Chakelin (Deputy Editor of New Statesman) stepped in as the chair for the evening.

It was an interesting discussion despite being, as Alex said, “in danger of everyone agreeing with one another.” That agreement included:

  1. Electoral reform
  2. Lowering the voting age to 16
  3. A citizen-led constitutional convention for the UK

While some non-humanists see tradition as a way to keep society structured, the humanists on the panel agreed that we should critically evaluate our political structures and apply a more rational design, based on evidence and tested against other countries. Humanism is about rejecting dogmas and putting the state in service of the individual. We should ask what we can do to enhance one another’s lives.

They also worried about some of the bitter nationalism seen during the referendum debate. Andrew Copson reminding us that Bertrand Russell frequently spoke out against nationalism, saying that it offered simple silver bullet solutions to all of life’s problems (like Scottish Independence or leaving the EU). Nevertheless, the speakers were optimistic about the engagement generated by the referendum.

The most disagreement in the night came from the questions posed by some members of the audience. One worried that we are just “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” by not dealing with the problem of big business’ influence on politics. Another said we should have compulsory voting – to which Gary said he was against anything compulsory as a humanist and Alex pointed out that compulsory voting in Australia had failed to drive up turnout rates at the local level (where it isn’t compulsory). Another questioner asked how you keep small parties out of government in in proportional representation, and he pointed to Israel where (in his words) the Jewish far right has wielded so much influence their airlines can’t even fly 7 days a week – the answer is given by countries across Europe which have threshold levels before a party gains any seats.

The bet comment of the evening though has to go to Andrew Copson, who said the venue, the Palace of Westminster, “was the least democratic building in the Western world, architecturally.” A point I tried to illustrate recently.

Is the Humanist brand dying?

It’s no secret that the term humanism (or secular humanism) have never really taken off. Simply ask a random sampling of people on the street and you’ll likely be met with blank stares.

Now regardless of the utility of a word, I think it’s important for organizations to choose language that will be widely understood. If a word has little cultural understanding, then it may be too difficult for any one organization to aim to reclaim it or to bring it to prominence.

Continue reading Is the Humanist brand dying?

UK has “Systemic Discrimination” against freethinkers

Indi at Canadian Atheist brought the IHEU’s 2013 Freedom of Thought Report to my attention and has already done a brilliant summary of the issues facing Canada. Very shortly he’ll also be posting a commentary on the broader report.

I encourage you to download and read the entire 244 page report online and support your local IHEU Affiliate.

I thought though, given my current country of residence, that I’d focus on the United Kingdom’s status, which coincidentally to Canada is Systemic Discrimination.

Continue reading UK has “Systemic Discrimination” against freethinkers

A note on “Skepticism and Gypsy Stereotypes”

Hopefully you took the time to read the article I just posted entitled “Skepticism and Gypsy Stereotypes.” I want to give some backstory to this piece, separate from the article itself.

After attending Imagine No Religion 3 this past spring, I had wanted to challenge the trope of Gypsy Fortune-Tellers that was tangentially brought up on a couple occasions by conference speakers. I don’t suspect and malice or intentional racism on the part of the speakers but the myths should be debunked and consciousness should be raised.

Looking a bit into it, I discovered a 1999 article by famed skeptical investigator Joe Nickell that quotes James Randi describing Gypsies as:

an ethnic group who “essentially live outside the cultures of the countries in which they choose to reside” and who often treat non-gypsies as “fair game for their fortune-telling, curse-lifting and other superstitious ministrations” (Randi 1995).

While I couldn’t track down Randi’s ‘95 reference, it appears he makes a fairly extreme claim about an entire ethnic group without evidence.

This is called racism.

So I started looking wider into the issue, and given my extremely limited background in social sciences, I recruited Edwin Hodge, the skeptical political sociologist, to assist me. Together we drafted the article over the course of a couple months (we’re both really busy) and submitted it to a leading skeptical magazine.

We were advised that it was a good topic to cover, we should shift the tone from an editorial to a more research-based piece (a legitimate request and expected given all of my writing is editorial). However, given recent concerns about the leadership of the various organizations which publish the major skeptic magazines, we opted to publish the article electronically as-is instead.

I hope you’ll share the article as you can. The Roma face a ridiculous amount of discrimination, especially from the Canadian government who, Jason Kenney in particular, view them as dirty thieves.

Skepticism and Gypsy Stereotypes

By Ian Bushfield and Edwin Hodge

At a recent skeptics conference and during a discussion of the sorts of charlatans and frauds that are best known for peddling woo, a couple of speakers drew upon the image of the ‘conniving Gypsy fortune-teller,’ a stereotype that has frequently been used to describe – and villainize – the Roma people for almost as long as they have lived in Europe.

The story is an old one: a caravan of vagabonds arrives at the edge of town. An elderly crone sets up her shop in a dimly-lit wagon, eager to part the townsfolk from their hard-earned wages. Lured from the safety of the city by the bright lights and raucous music of the travellers’ camp, a local approaches the wagon and is invited in, motivated by a hope of connecting with lost relatives, or eager to learn the secret of gaining wealth, power, or some other desire. The Gypsies, due to their nomadic nature, won’t stay long; just enough perhaps, to swindle the locals and perhaps steal a child or two.

Over time, suspicion  grows, and the townspeople begin to accuse the Roma of bringing crime to the community, or of leading their children astray. Suspicion soon turns to resentment, then threats of violence, and the Roma are driven out of town.

Yet like myths of revealed religions, skeptics ought to question whether this Gypsy stereotype truly holds up for the Roma people. This question becomes especially pertinent in Canada and the United States where many Roma are applying for asylum after facing persecution in Eastern European countries. In Canada, and in light of the growing number of asylum seekers, the Harper Government has recently taken drastic efforts to curb what it considers “bogus” claims by Roma refugees. Yet for all this, few people actually know much about the Roma, and fewer still know anything with any certainty about their history.

The term Gypsy derives from Egyptian, yet the best available evidence suggests that the more accurately termed Roma people emigrated from Northern India toward Europe around the twelfth century.

The Roma remained nomadic into the 15th century as they migrated into Western Europe. As local cities linked rising crime with the influx of Roma, anti-Gypsy laws began to be drafted, marking the start of centuries of persecution.

The historical accounts of the Roma and their activities deserve proper skeptical consideration; given the almost equally long history of anti-Roma prejudice and bigotry the Roma have faced. History, it is often said, is written by the victor, and like other ethnic and cultural minority groups throughout European history, the Roma have had precious few opportunities to write their own.

Even accepting the traditional accounts of Gypsy crime, one cannot discount the xenophobia that existed across Europe that would have prevented the Roma from attaining productive employment. Such systemic bias creates a negative feedback loop where people are forced to turn to begging and crime when no one will hire them because they believe they are by nature beggars or criminals.

Similar cycles exist in most marginalized communities, whether it’s African Americans or the indigenous people of North America.

Through the 15th to 17th centuries the Roma faced increasing legislated persecution across Europe, with penalties ranging from expulsion to death for even “befriending a Gypsy or Bohemian.”

The persecution of the Roma people arguably hit its peak during the Holocaust. Facing a similar fate of Jewish Europeans, the Roma were viewed as racially inferior and upwards of a quarter million were murdered by the Nazis. It was only in 1979 that the Parliament of West Germany found that persecution of the Roma by the Nazis was racially-motivated, years too late for many survivors who had died in the interim.

Roma in Europe today have largely settled, with only a few nomadic caravans remaining, and among the settled Roma, many have opted to bury their cultural heritage – even going to far as to change their names – in order to escape the anti-Roma bias that has come to permeate many European societies.

Even in an age when news organizations strive to maintain standards of ‘objectivity’, or ‘neutrality’, anti-Roma sentiment continues to creep in, as media outlets – perhaps unconsciously – grant greater weight to reports or accounts that reinforce the majority opinion, in this case the opinion that the Roma are not to be trusted.

One of the most pernicious forms of bias that manifests in discussions about the cultural or behavioural practices of an alien or ‘other’ group or culture is the belief that the crimes, faults, or failings of an individual from that group is indicative of a widespread cultural, or even a genetic failing within the group as a whole. This bias is known as the ‘outgroup homogeneity bias’, and it is used against many different groups, not just the Roma. If someone ‘like us’ commits a crime, we do not feel that we are culpable; their crimes are theirs alone and have no bearing on how someone ought to treat the rest of ‘us’. But when dealing with groups that we know little about – like the Roma – we tend to generalize. We see the crimes or failings of one member as the crimes or failings of the entire group. In the United States for example, crimes committed by African-Americans are frequently blamed on a “black culture” that stereotypically prizes “violence and criminality”, but whenever a white person is arrested for murder or some other crime, rarely do media outlets question the role of “white culture” in the motivations for the crime. And as atheists, this sort of shoddy thinking should matter to us as well.

Atheists, having been subjected to millennia of persecution at the hands of the religious, should tread lightly when discussing a demographic as maligned as the Roma. Our approach should be based on a commitment to compassion and human dignity. We must recognize that no person ought to be characterized based on myths about their ethnicity, whether those stories have any basis in reality.

By unskeptically repeating stories of Gypsy fortune tellers, we empower the racist stereotypes that continue to oppress millions of innocent people.

As skeptics and humanists we must do better.


Erjavec, K. 2001. “Media Representation of the Discrimination against the Roma in Eastern Europe: The Case of Slovenia.” Discourse & Society, vol. 12, no. 6, pp. 699-727.

Goldston, J. 2002. “Roma Rights, Roma Wrongs.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 81, pp. 146-162.

Livingstone Smith, D. 2012. “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others”, St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY

Mendizabal, Z. et. al. 2012. “Reconstructing the Population History of European Romani from Genome-wide Data.” Current Biology, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 2342-2349.

Petrova, D. 2004. “The Roma: Between a Myth and the Future.” European Roma Rights Centre, May, [Online] http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=1844. Accessed: 10 June 2013.

About the authors

Ian Bushfield is the outgoing executive director of the British Columbia Humanist Association and has a master of science in physics. Edwin Hodge has an MA in Political Science and is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Victoria with an interest in hate groups, race, and gender.

An Inclusive Community

I just added my signature to Adam Lee’s petition to “The Leaders of Atheist, Skeptical and Secular Groups: Support Feminism and diversity in the secular community.” Here’s the note I left with it:

In my view, it is important that Secular Humanist groups in Canada maintain their historic commitment to feminist values and human rights that were championed by Dr. Henry Morgantaler and the founders of our movement decades ago. Today, this means we have less fights to do at the policy level but more effort needs to be turned inward to ensure that equality exists within our own ranks. Accomplishing this means working toward diverse and inclusive communities, reflecting the changing communities we live in. It also means standing against those who would stifle the voices of the marginalized. I am proud to sign this petition and to do my best to champion these values in the organizations that I am involved in.

I encourage you to sign as well.