It will surprise nobody, I’m sure, to learn that I see myself as an anti-theist. Not content to merely disbelieve, I feel strongly that humans would be better off if nobody believed. Now usually when someone like me makes a statement like that, fingers begin a-waggin’, warning of the various dangers of forcing atheism on people. Folks begin sagely intoning the lessons learned from atheofascist regimes like Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and the anti-theist zeal of the French revolution. They say that we must ‘live and let live’, since waging a crusade against religion makes me just as bad as those who would wage one for religion.
The point would be a valid one if I had any designs on snatching religion out of people’s lives by force. The fact is, however, that while I think religion is unbelievably harmful, that does not give me the right to demand that people give it up. Freedom of conscience must remain absolutely inviolable if we are to have any kind of progressive, equitable, and just society. Even had I the means to lock up every Bible in existence and ban publication of the Bhagavad Gita, I would never use it. First, because it is wildly unethical to punish people for thought-crime; and second, because I don’t think it would work.
No, the war against religion must be a campaign of the mind, not of military might. The fact is that the strongest case that could ever be made against faith is simply an honest look at what faith is. When stripped of its undeservedly exalted position in public life, religion reveals itself to be its own worst enemy. In the “Rumble in the Jungle” of ideas, religion is George Forman: punch-drunk and completely gassed, seemingly inviting the champ, truth, to push it over and administer a crisp 10-count.
At least, it seems that way up here:
A nationwide survey conducted ahead of the Easter weekend has found that a majority of Canadians do not consider religion important to them, although two-thirds of the population say they believe in God. Just 42 per cent of those polled agreed with the statement “religion is an important part of my life,” with women (46 per cent) more likely to value religious activity than men (37 per cent) by a clear margin.
The online survey of 1,522 people, commissioned by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies, also showed relatively low levels of trust in religious leaders, with 48 per cent of respondents attributing the trait of trustworthiness to clergy. By contrast, 67 per cent of those surveyed said they trusted “people who are religious” in general, and even more respondents – 73 per cent – expressed trust in “people who are not religious.”
Has Canada waged a ‘war on religion’ against the clergy, lobbing volley after volley of attacks on the various religious institutions? Are our parliamentarians secretly pushing a secularist agenda at our children to convert them to worship of the self instead of the divine? Has Satan taken control of our populace through the vices of rock ‘n’ roll music and Dungeons & Dragons? If that’s the case, I’ve certainly seen no evidence to support those contentions. Far more likely is that Canadians are savvy to the fact that religious institutions have remained woefully out of step with our deeply-held values, and have repeatedly shown themselves to be corrupt. Add to that a more or less functioning social safety net that makes many of the charitable functions of churches a bit redundant, and you get a populace that is not held in thrall by the clergy.
There’s not much in this study that doesn’t confirm the stereotypes about who religion matters to the most:
Belief in God was expressed by 71 per cent of women and 64 per cent of men. Seventy per cent of respondents in both Ontario and Atlantic Canada said they believe God exists, while agreement on the question was slightly lower in Alberta (67 per cent).
ACS executive director Jack Jedwab, writing in an overview of the findings, highlighted a significant generational divide over religion in Canada: “Younger Canadians appear far less convinced about the existence of God than does the oldest cohort.” Only 30 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 agreed that religion is important to their life, while respondents aged 65 and older were most likely (56 per cent) to consider religion a force in their life.
Interestingly, the province with the highest number of atheists is Quebec, which has perhaps the most deeply-embedded religious history of any province. Of course contemporary Quebec is quite a bit more progressive than average, despite their occasional flirtations with borderline xenophobia. Happily, my home province of British Columbia was nestled right next to Quebec, boasting a population of 62% non-believers. Of course, not believing in the Abrahamic god doesn’t necessarily mean that people in Canada don’t believe in “some force that created the universe” or some similarly hair-splitting brand of deism, but we can take some small comfort in the fact that, despite not having a formalized church/state separation, Canada manages to be pretty non-theistic.
So the fight here in Canada is not trying to get gods out; it’s to keep brains in. While there is still a creationist lobby here that tries to exert its influence over curricula, it has a far less receptive audience than on the other side of the 49th parallel. The dearth of god-belief in Vancouver, for example, does not mean that Vancouverites are atheists because they are particularly skeptical – the abundance of reflexology/acupuncture/raw food/wi-fi fear/etc. in my fair city is testament to that fact. What that means is that our job as skeptics might not necessarily be to attack religion per se, but to focus our attention on the bad cognitive processes and sloppy thinking that lead us down the road to things like religion. Failing to do that may simply land us in a morass of woo-woo nonsense that simply changes the group of hucksters that deprive us of our money from a religious one to a quasi-medical one.
It still remains fascinating to see that religion in Canada seems to be expiring without the need for a lengthy, showy campaign forcing religious believers into the margins of society. Like the Grinch’s Christmas, the ‘war on religion’ came without boxes, it came without bags – we didn’t have to steal Christmas, we just had to wait until it got a little long in the tooth and we sent it to a farm upstate to run and play with other faiths.
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