Taking them on Solo

I have, in the past, erroneously made the point that Canada’s Charter does not explicitly separate church and state. I thought it was cute and curious that a country like Canada, with a very secular population (particularly compared to the United States), has no need to enshrine and codify the explicit segregation between religious matters and governmental ones. Of course, as with so many things that I just make up off the top of my head, it turns out that I am wrong. Section twenty-seven of the Charter, guaranteeing a right to multiculturalism, has been interpreted by the courts as expressly forbidding government recognition of one religious tradition over others.

Someone should probably tell the mayor of Saskatoon that: [Read more…]

In loco parentis

One of the things that I have found in my relatively few years involved in scientific research is that there are parts that are much more difficult than others. From conception to execution to communication, there are a number of repeatable discrete steps in the research pipeline, and while it varies somewhat, there is definitely a pattern. I know that lab work is tricky, and nobody likes grant writing, but the hardest part for me is coming up with a research question. The way in which you ask the question dictates, to a certain extent, how you approach answering it. Some questions, like “why is math hard” are far too broad and poorly-defined to be operationalized. Others, like “does fire ruin my new phone” are too trivial and mundane to be worthwhile.

A properly-created research question is money in the bank. So, as an act of magnanimity, I am offering up this fruitful research question for free, to be researched by anyone who wants to tackle it. “What is it about having kids that turns people into stupid assholes?“: [Read more…]

The worst thing in the world (Thursday edition)

Trigger warning: sexual assault and other violence. Also, police.

When they tore down the Occupy Vancouver tent city, I was there. I was all geared up to get arrested for peacefully resisting the destruction of what was ultimately an important and helpful resource, not only for Canadian democracy, but for the city of Vancouver. I called my parents to tell them I might be thrown in jail; I called my close friends to put them on notice that if they didn’t hear from me in the next few hours, I would need them to start making phone calls. Then I headed downtown, fully expecting to see the scowling face of a judge before I saw my own bed again. What I saw instead was a massive cleanup crew with police helping to facilitate the voluntary removal of a bunch of supplies. The square was cleared without any confrontation whatsoever.

My Occupy experience was entirely bloodless, with the Vancouver Police Department behaving as though they truly understood the concept of peaceful protest and civil liberty. Their professionalism and restraint stands in sharp contrast with what we’re seeing out of their comrades in New York City: [Read more…]

The worst thing in the world (Wednesday edition)

Trigger warning: violence against children, women, and humanity at large. Also, cults.

As much as my lizard brain would love me to, I have a really tough time (intellectually) branding someone as ‘evil’. Sure, I am happy to call actions, ideologies, and institutions evil. By their fruits ye shall know them and all that – judge things by their consequences. Even in yesterday’s condemnation of neo-Nazi and murderer J.T. Ready, I avoided (with middling success) implying that Mr. Ready was an organically evil person. I find such descriptions do little to further our understanding of how to prevent these kinds of problems in the future. We only know who ‘evil people’ are after they’ve already done something evil, by which time it is too late. Plus, nobody ever thinks they’re evil – just misunderstood or held back by the forces of political correctness or something.

People are not ‘evil’ in the sense that such language use would suppose. People are people, and we are all occasionally cognitively lazy enough to embrace ideas uncritically. The worst offenders among us embrace ideas that, directly or indirectly, hurt our fellow human beings. When we see that behaviour in someone else, we should be able to recognize our own shared failings. In so doing, we are better equipped to act with compassion and critical thought rather than knee-jerk blame, which only narrows our own field of vision for potential solutions.

I know all this, and have believed it for some time. That being said, it’s sometimes hard for me to put that principle into practice: [Read more…]

A chip off the old blockhead

So, for reasons that I honestly cannot fathom, Ted Nugent has been in the news lately. A man who has not had a certified album since 1980 (i.e., 4 years before I was born) is suddenly being solicited for his political “opinions” – a more accurate term would be lunatic ravings. It’s kind of like asking MC Hammer for his opinion on the state of contemporary French cuisine – why on Earth would anyone care what a ridiculously out-of-fashion rock “star” thinks about the political process? Is partial name recognition and possible clinical psychosis all that is required to become a political player? If that’s the case, much of the mystery surrounding the morass of American politics has been rendered much clearer.

I feel more or less the same about Ashton Kutcher. I didn’t understand why anyone cared that Kelso from The 70s Show was on Twitter, I couldn’t fathom why the douche who “Punk’d” half of Hollywood was appointed to the lofty position of “less funny Charlie Sheen”*, and I was baffled by the fact that anyone would want him to be the face of their snack food. But whatever, that’s modern celebrity for you, right? At least he can’t fuck up a chip, right? [Read more…]

The worst thing in the world (Tuesday edition)

Trigger warning: graphic violence and extreme racism. Also, Republicans.

There was a subtle visual gag in an episode of The Simpsons where a Fox News chopper flies by the camera with a “new” slogan emblazoned on the side:

The chopper says "Fox News: Not racist, but #1 with racists"

This is more or less how I feel about political conservatism. I don’t believe that racism and political liberalism are antithetical – indeed, the racism one hears from liberals is often the most frustrating in that it is subtle and well-meaning, but no less damaging. That being said, there is a special relationship between conservatism and racism – a relationship we are beginning to understand. Conservatives will complain until they are blue in the face* that they are not racist, that liberals are the “real racists”, that calling someone “a racist” is just as bad as being racist… there are any number of weasel phrases. The fact is, however, that insofar as contemporary conservative ideology when followed to its natural conclusion will result in the continued (or exacerbated) disadvantage of non-white folks. The policies are racist, without necessarily meaning to.

And whether or not you fully accept the idea that non-human things (ideas, institutions, behaviours) can be racist in the absence of conscious hatred, you simply cannot ignore that when you scratch the surface of a racist extremist, you find a conservative. Sometimes you don’t even have to scratch: [Read more…]

Manufacturing a martyr

One of the valuable lessons that the atheist community has learned in the last little while is that it is possible to provoke a controversy where one didn’t exist before. The formula is pretty simple – make some largely innocuous public statement about atheism, wait for the predictable overreaction from a group of religious folks who just can’t seem to help themselves, and then enjoy as people fall all over themselves to try to shut the atheists up without violating the law. Every time an atheist bus campaign or billboard goes up, we see the same cycle of provocation, backlash, and blowup. It is an extremely useful method of sparking conversation in circles that weren’t talking before.

Now, to be sure, there are often completely non-exploitative motives behind these campaigns as well. Considering the number of atheists out there in the wold who feel completely alone – as though they are a solitary island of sanity in a sea of faith. Letting them know that they more closely resemble an archipelago with other atheists is both comforting and liberating. There is value in bucking the status quo and forcing the majority to contend with the fact that not everyone shares their myths, and that not everyone thinks of their delusion as worthy of praise and deep, abiding respect. That being said, nobody is so strategy-blind as to think that there is no ulterior motive behind the pronouncement that belief is silly (despite occasional protestations to the contrary).

Well it turns out that we are not the only people capable of exploiting such human frailty: [Read more…]

Edwina Rogers: the unanswered questions

Like many of you, I was a bit stunned to learn that the Secular Coalition for America had hired a former Republican operative as their new executive director. Considering the extent to which the Republican party is and has been decidedly anti-secular, the appointment of a party insider to this position struck me as strange. However, I decided to keep an open mind and extend the benefit of the doubt. After all, her political savvy and connections could be useful, and an unorthodox choice like Ms. Rogers would certainly shake things up. So she used to work for the wrong people, so what? People change, right?

Yeah… then I read this:

People are going to do a double-take when they hear a Republican strategist is now the leader of an organization working on behalf of atheists… what do you hope the public reaction will be?

I hope it will be a positive reaction and one that gets everyone thinking about the right direction for the secular movement. Often times, problems are arising from the conservative side and that’s one reason why it’s important to include both sides. The majority of the gubernatorial positions and state legislatures are controlled by Republicans. The Religious Right is a segment of the Republican Party — but it’s not a majority within the party and it certainly does not represent a majority of Americans. It’s a very active, vocal part of the Republican base, but it’s a minority.

I do think that for the vast majority of conservatives and Republicans, they are true believers of secularism — the majority of Republicans believe in the separation of church and state. Many of them are simply laissez faire about the issues, which gives us an opening to recruit them to the movement. Just within the last few months, talking to all my Republican conservative friends, the majority of them are in line with our thinking. They can be recruited, they just haven’t been active.

Hoooo boy. [Read more…]

Woodworth? ABORT! ABORT!

This morning I recounted the somewhat bizarre tale of a Republican North Party member of Parliament who tabled a private member’s bill to, in a semi-oblique way, spark debate over access to abortion in Canada. To my sincere surprise, the bill’s author (Stephen Woodworth of Kitchener) was rebuked by all parties in Parliament, including by a high-ranking member of his own party. Considering the fact that a sizeable proportion of the RNP voting base is anti-choice, it seemed odd for the government to come down so heavily on its own MPs motion, especially to have a high-ranking member dish out the tongue-lashing.

As I said in this morning’s post, all that really matters is that women’s reproductive autonomy is preserved and appears to be well-safeguarded from Parliamentary interference, even under this government. However, what I am profoundly unclear on is why this motion – doomed to fail as it was – even saw the light of day. There are a number of potential explanations I can think of, and I will spend a little time on each one.

1. The obvious one: everything is exactly as it seems [Read more…]

First things first

One of the great truths about religion, at least contemporary religion in North America, is that it has largely shed the fundamentalism of its past and has evolved (perhaps a poor choice of words) into a much more tolerant and forward-thinking practice. Gone are the days of slavish adherence to obscure and backward dogmatic beliefs that were the hallmark of a time when such things were necessary to hold society together. Everyone knows that, aside from a few fringe groups, religious institutions are really more about building fellowship and fostering community service than anything else.

Of course, like all religious “truths”, that’s complete bullshit:

The Vatican has ordered a crackdown on a group of American nuns that it considers too radical. It says the group is undermining Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality and is promoting “feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith”. The Leadership Conference, which is based in Maryland, represents about 57,000 nuns and offers a wide range of services, from leadership training for women’s religious orders to advocacy on social justice issues.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the nuns’ organisation faced a “grave” doctrinal crisis. It said issues of “crucial importance” to the church, such as abortion and euthanasia, had been ignored. Vatican officials also castigated the group for making some public statements that “disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops”, who are the church’s “authentic teachers of faith and morals.” [Read more…]