Our beleaguered and religion-soaked cousins south of the border may, from time to time, look northward with envy at Canada’s largely non-religious civil society. Our politics are not replete with the same invocations to the intercession of the supernatural that plague the American landscape; indeed, it is considered somewhat gauche in most circles to make large public shows of one’s private belief. Canada’s approach to religion is largely a ‘live and let live’ one, with the exception of certain rural areas where religious affiliation is held in the same grip as one’s self-identity.
As I’ve discussed at various points in the past, this laissez faire approach to religion has not stopped the Republican North government of Stephen Harper from deciding that Canada’s international role should be to protect religious freedom, despite the repeated warnings of those American officials who have tried the same and realized what a mine-field it becomes. An entirely unnecessary ministry has been created in order to oversee Stephen Harper’s desperate attempt to look after the evangelical base that he needs to be re-elected, but whose actual priorities (destroying women’s health care, legislating Biblical morality) he cannot espouse for fear of triggering a centrist backlash.
Yesterday, while discussing this mission, MP Scott Reid had this to say:
If our goal is to assign guilt, and this is point number three, then it is also true that advocates of all major religions are, or in the past have been, guilty of repressing others.
Atheists have been and continue to be among the world’s worst oppressors of religious minorities. I draw the attention of the House to North Korea, an atheist regime, and the People’s Republic of China and its oppression of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Muslims in the Uyghur region and Falun Gong practitioners to make the point. That is probably the world’s largest source of human rights abuse right there: atheism. We might want to look at Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and so on.
The reverse is also true, and this is very important. Members of each faith have done much to assist others to carry on their own faith. If we want to see how true that is, we should go to the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles in Jerusalem to take a look at the people who are commemorated there. We will see members of all religions, including atheists, many Christians, some Muslims and some people who are members of none of those religions.
Now, some context is crucial before losing our shit (as I did yesterday, before the text was available). This statement comes in the middle of a statement speaking out against the idea of blasphemy laws. His statement, which I encourage you to read in context, is more or less exactly what you would expect to hear from a secularist, the above paragraph notwithstanding. Indeed, when I first heard about this statement on Twitter, I was shocked to note who the speaker was, because Scott Reid is a Unitarian. There is very little to object to in the rest of his statement, and I would encourage you to look at the whole thing in its entirety.
That being said, the abstracted piece is troubling for a number of reasons. First, it is ridiculously hyperbolic and inaccurate to brand atheism as “the world’s largest source of human rights abuse”. Considering that the majority of religious persecution occurs in countries with a strong religious majority who has the ability to enforce its beliefs through the use of state power, and that the most atheistic countries in the world (China notwithstanding, for reasons I will elucidate below) are also the most peaceful, Mr. Reid has decided to abandon anything like facts or reason in his rush to score a bizarre point against atheists.
As I have laid out before, even the examples that he invokes of China, North Korea, Cambodia and Stalinist Russia are piss-poor evidence to support the claim that atheism qua atheism is responsible for human rights abuses. I will absolutely agree that a state mandated belief, or a state mandated non-belief, are dangerous and harmful. I doubt even most atheists would support the idea of state-enforced atheism.
The problem with Reid’s statement, aside from its inaccuracy, is that atheism and religion are not opposite sides of the same coin. Whereas religious belief is often (but not always) accompanied by prescriptions to convert unbelievers or long passages explaining the unworthiness of those who believe differently (and near-pornographic detail of the ways in which they will be punished), atheism has no such claim. There is nothing that logically follows from ‘there are no gods’ that leads to ‘and those who believe should be converted or punished’. If Mr. Reid wishes to lay particular blame, he has undermined the credibility of his own argument by holding atheism out for particular opprobium, and then trying to say “oh and religions are sometimes like this too”.
The timing of this statement is particularly interesting, given that Mr. Reid represents a west Ottawa riding, and Ottawa’s atheist/skeptic community is about to rally specifically in favour of religious freedom:
An international coalition of atheist and humanist organizations, led by the Centre for Inquiry and our partners the International Humanist and Ethical Union and American Atheists, will protest the arrest and persecution of atheist bloggers and other dissenters in Bangladesh with demonstrations in New York, Washington, London, Ottawa, and other cities around the world on Thursday, April 25.
Bangladesh has recently been at the centre of a human rights crisis as authorities have detained several prominent bloggers for “hurting religious sentiments,” followed by the arrest of a newspaper editor who printed quotations from the targeted bloggers, and two more young people for making “derogatory remarks” about Islam on Facebook. Tens of thousands of people have rallied in the country’s capital to demand more arrests, tougher blasphemy laws, and have threatened violence if their demands are not met by April 25.
These global demonstrations will be unprecedented for the freethought movement, as secularists around the world express their solidarity with those jailed for speaking their minds about religion. Protesters will draw the world’s attention to the plight of those persecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of belief and expression, and attempt to spur the international community to take action and compel the government of Bangladesh to change course.
It would be a powerful statement of his alleged commitment to religious pluralism and tolerance if Mr. Reid were to attend the event, or speak out in support of its aims. His statement certainly demands an explanation to his atheist constituents, or at least a retraction and apology.
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