Monday, December 03, 2012

Securlarism is not nearly enough

I had the honour of being a speaker at the Eschaton 2012 conference, organized by the Centre for Inquiry Ottawa. I submitted the topic of my address before it was written: The Importance of Secular Governance for Canada. But (as often happens with me during the creative process) the speech I wrote was considerably different than the one I had in mind before I put fingers to keyboard. I believe the new title is a more accurate reflection of the content.

Below is the speech I prepared; my actual words did not deviate greatly from the text. 

Secularism Is Not Nearly Enough

What is secularism? Answering that question in the richness it deserves could fill all the time allotted for this session and then some. The Canadian Secular Alliance defines it as a political principle: government neutrality in matters of religion. In other words, government should neither support nor suppress religious expression among its citizenry.

As you might expect from a policy advisor to the Canadian Secular Alliance, I agree wholeheartedly with this contention. Today I will talk about the importance of secularism, highlight a specific Canadian policy that should be discontinued, and then broaden my focus to encompass a much wider view of the world. In the next fifteen minutes, I will discuss Canadian law, international efforts that would impact all of us, and finally I hope to convince you that secularism is a necessary, but nowhere near sufficient, principle for a just and stable society.

To start with, let's openly acknowledge that, overall, Canada does very well on the secular front, and furthermore, is generally moving in the right direction.

From removing restrictions on interfaith and interracial marriage to liberalising divorce laws; from the establishment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the Constitution of Canada, thereby enshrining freedom of conscience, to formally recognizing gay marriage as equal in all respects to heterosexual unions; over time, we are moving more and more to a society informed by secular values. This needs to be recognized, and should celebrated.

But we must also acknowledge that we do not yet live in a truly secular country. But in most cases, the exceptions, though still substantial, are rooted in tradition. Such is the case with prayers opening municipal councils; this is still common practice across the country. The discriminatory publicly funded school systems in Ontario are grounded in obsolete clauses in the province's constitution. We must always remember that while freedom of speech is a fundamental human right, freedom from offense is not.

Another historical artifact, albeit one with major consequences for Canadian society, has to do with our charity law. According to the Canada Revenue Agency, an organization must pursue at least one of the following four goals to be granted the designation of a charity:
  • The relief of poverty
  • The advancement of education
  • Other purposes to benefit the community that courts deem charitable
  • The advancement of religion
The first three items on the list are in accordance with a general understanding of the term "charitable activities". Whether and how the last criterion benefits society is far from clear.

A bit of history: In 1891, the British House of Lords ruled on what constitutes a charity in a dispute between the tax authorities and the Moravian Church. They developed a common law test, based on the preamble of the 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses (also known as The Statute of Elizabeth). This ruling is the basis for the Canadian government's determination of which organizations are deemed to be charitable in nature. Perhaps it is time for Canada to reconsider whether a decision made in the nineteenth century, itself based on the introduction of a law more than four hundred years old, is the best foundation for taxation practises in 2012.

Yet some traditions die hard. In a letter received by the Canadian Secular Alliance on July 27, 2012, Jim Flaherty, federal Minister of Finance, stated that "charitable status for the advancement of religion is based on the presumption that religion provides people with a moral and ethical framework for living and plays an important role in building social capital and social cohesion."

I, for one, would challenge that presumption. In my experience, there is a high correlation between deeply held religious belief on the one hand and opposing the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, the right to free speech, and the right of freedom of conscience on the other. Furthermore, this phenomenon is not limited to Canada - I submit that strong religious sentiment can have a significant detrimental effect on any society, as recent decades in Ireland, India and Israel demonstrate, to pick among countries starting with a single letter. (It is important to acknowledge, however, that the faithful do not have a monopoly on misogynist and censorious views that lead to social strife.)

But we are not talking about fine philosophical distinctions or abstract positions with little practical impact on Canadian society. Mr. Flaherty’s unchallenged assumption significantly distorts fiscal policy across Canada.

The Canadian Secular Alliance obtained from the Canada Revenue Agency a detailed list of charitable tax deductions made in 2007. All charities must declare what percentage of their efforts is devoted to the four categories of recognized charitable activities. According to their submissions to the Canadian Revenue Agency, over 26,000 Canadian registered charities did nothing beyond promoting the advancement of religion. This is nearly one-third of all charitable organizations in Canada! Not one of them declared that they spent any time, effort, or money feeding the hungry or clothing the naked. In total, they received nearly 14 billion dollars in donations in 2007, and the Canadian government granted them tax credits of almost 1.2 billion dollars.

That is over one billion dollars every year of government subsidies for religious proselytising. That is roughly thirty dollars for every Canadian citizen. Either these funds are completely wasted, or they are having a significant impact on Canadian society - though perhaps not for the better. In either case, might these funds be redirected to serve more productive goals?

Clearly, despite the progress Canada has made, secularists still have work to do to apply secular principles to Canadian governance, and to ensure Canadians do not lose the freedoms we currently enjoy that stem from secular policies.

But we cannot for a moment believe that our efforts should stop at our borders. Let us move from Canadian regulations to the realm of international law, and attempts to codify freedom from offense as a global norm. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has been agitating in the international community for over a decade to ban speech offensive to Muslims.

Of course, the question is not whether there should ever be restrictions on expression. No country provides for completely unlimited free speech. Even the United States, with its famous First Amendment, has several significant limitations on expression - the canonical example being that it is illegal to falsely yell "FIRE!" in a crowded movie theatre.

Most people support the principle of placing limits on unfettered speech. Some widely accepted examples include limited and well-crafted laws regarding slander and libel, truth in advertising, and uttering death threats.

Given that reasonable limits exist on speech, the question is: Do mocking religious figures or making other blasphemous utterances fall outside the bounds of acceptable expression?


The attempts of the OIC to classify satire as hate speech, and related efforts, have impacts on Canadians just as much as arguments within our own parliament. We cannot be blind to them.

Similarly, secularism itself is not a default position for democratic nations. Though it has not been used in decades, Canada still has a blasphemy law on the books, punishable by up to two years imprisonment. In 2009, Ireland passed a law that makes "Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter" an offense subject to a maximum fine of €25,000. The Arab Spring is replacing several autocratic regimes with democratically elected illiberal Islamist governments. There are many and complex factors behind the fact that dictators were generally more secular than their elected replacements - but the point is if we truly respect freedom of conscience as a fundamental human right, there is much work to be done in the world.

Certainly one's ire should be raised when religious dogma is upheld in the face of contrary evidence, or when governmental policy is used to buttress the faithful of one creed at the expense of those belonging to other groups.

But religion is far from the only example of ideology trumping facts. And many of the most pressing issues facing our world today have nothing to do with religious zealotry or a violation of secular principles.

Though some religious folk may welcome the rapture and thus dismiss climate change, humans are cooking the planet with our ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, almost entirely for secular reasons: an all too familiar litany of fear, economics, political expediency, and human short-sightedness.

The 2008 financial meltdown had everything to do with greed and fraud. Wall Street made huge profits not by increasing efficiencies, but by maximizing economies of externalities. A greater commitment to secular principles, if possible, would have done nothing to avert or reduce the impact of the real estate and financial crash.

The economic crises facing the EU and soon Japan have nothing to do with undue religious influence in the halls of political power.

Our current agriculture and animal husbandry practices are almost perfectly designed to evolve a superbug that could wipe out a significant portion of humanity entirely for the most secular of reasons.

Since the first human evolved, plant and animal species have been going extinct at an unprecedented rate.

We have polluted huge swathes of the earth's land and water to such an extent that significant areas our planet's surface are inhospitable to any form of life.

Little (if any) of this damage was done with religious motivations at its core. None was committed violating any secular principle.

So although secularism is important - and more than that, I believe it to be essential - it is also not enough. Not nearly enough, not by a long shot. Many of the key crises we face today as a species, as a global society, have nothing or at most little to do with religion. Secular governance is nowhere near enough to produce peaceful, stable, sustainable societies.

We should not waver for a moment in our commitment to secular governance. But we should also not forget for a second that there is much else that needs our attention as well.

We must resist ALL dogmas, whether they be religious, economic, political, philosophical, or scientific. All areas of human endeavour are open to scrutiny, question, and refinement.

Furthermore, no single approach works across all domains.

Science would fail miserably if its findings were subject to a majority vote.

Peer review would be a horribly inefficient way to run a corporation.

Unregulated capitalism has proven to be a dismal failure if environmental protection and sustainability is a desired outcome.

Yet in their appropriate domains nothing we have tried as a species to date has surpassed democracy, free markets, and peer review.

Consider this: maybe there is something better that we simply haven't tried yet. At a minimum, we need to be open to the possibility, or else this - what we see today, here, now - is as good as it gets. Even more, as good as it can get. And I, for one, emphatically do not believe this to be true.

Let our legacy be that we bequeath upon our collective descendants a better, more just, more sustainable world than the one we inherited from our ancestors.

Thank you.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Blasphemy is a victimless crime

In addresses to the United Nations in September, the representatives of several predominantly Muslim countries, as well as the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), called for a ban on expression offensive to Muslims and other religions.

Most claimed that they were supportive of free speech, but that hate speech needed to be stopped.
The question is not whether there should ever be restrictions on expression. No country provides for completely unlimited free speech. Even the United States, with its famous First Amendment, has several significant limitations on expression - the canonical example being that it is illegal to falsely yell "FIRE!" in a crowded movie theatre.

Most people support the principle of placing limits on unfettered speech. Some widely accepted examples include (limited and well-crafted) laws regarding slander and libel, truth in advertising, and uttering death threats.

Given that reasonable limits exist on speech, the question is: Does mocking Islam's Prophet fall outside the bounds of acceptable expression? 


A cheap, tawdry YouTube video languished unseen until an Egyptian TV station translated it into Arabic and promoted it. Similarly, a two-bit religious huckster with an insignificant following gained the attention of the world only when media outlets spent weeks hyping his threat to burn a Koran. Who is more responsible for their infamy? A few individuals on the fringes of society, or the politicians and media that brought them from obscurity into the forefront of international relations?
Granted, these people are being deliberately provocative. Granted, these people are contributing little if anything to public knowledge or debate. Granted, they hold views that reasonable people find revolting. However, they also have the right to do all these things.

As a matter of public policy, one cannot be held hostage to the violent outbursts of others.

One might not support a woman's choice to terminate a pregnancy, but one cannot legitimately claim that abortions should be outlawed because many "pro-life" activists are provoked into assassinating doctors.

Freedom of speech is a foundational building block of human rights. Freedom from offence is not.
Free speech means that everyone - from 9/11 Truthers and vaccine denialists, to born again fundamentalist Pentecostals and God-hating rabid atheists, and even including Conservatives and Liberals, Democrats and Republicans - can take to the public square, make their arguments, and spew venom at their real or perceived enemies.
Many of the points made by the OIC, ironically, actually argue against its stated position. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the OIC, states, “We are not saying stop free speech; we are staying stop hate speech.” Mockery and satire cannot reasonably be deemed hate speech, though calls for "Death to America!" might qualify. When the OIC claims that "A line has to be drawn at incitement," any observer should ask which is the greater incitement: editorial cartoons, or calling for the death of cartoonists? “You have to see that there is a provocation." Certainly, Mohammad is a revered figure for many; but a movie trailer video mocking the Prophet is no more an excuse for violence for devout Muslims than the film "Anonymous" (which posited that the famous playwright was a fraud) would be for passionate Shakespeare aficionados. And certainly, the “international community must not become silent observers.” The international community should rally around the right of provocative cartoonists, incompetent directors, and childish reverends to say what they will.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that a genuine ban on blasphemy or disparagement of religious figures would place the greatest strictures on the faithful themselves. Numerous religious texts explicitly insult and denigrate other faiths. Raymond Ibrahim, Shillman Fellow at the David Horotowitz Freedom Center, argues that consistently applied religious defamation laws would quickly ban the Koran. What is a priest or imam to do, if blasphemy becomes a crime and as a result the Bible and Koran become illegal texts?

Monday, July 09, 2012

Circumcision and spanking on the John Oakley show

Centre for Inquiry Canada and Canadian Secular Alliance spokesperson Justin Trottier appears regularly in many media outlets across Canada, including a recurring spot on the John Oakley show on Toronto's AM 640. Last week he was on vacation and asked me to fill in for him for the July 3 show.

The discussion was about a recent German court ruling outlawing religious circumcision, and a study that claimed spanking children can lead to mental illness later in life.

It was my first time participating in talk radio. It was an interesting experience. Enjoy.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why religion should not meet politics

Secularism is simply the principle that government should be neutral in matters of religion. Neutrality implies that governmental bodies should neither support nor suppress religious belief or its expression among consenting adults. Michael Den Tandt, in a June 25 Ottawa Citizen article, "When religion meets politics," seems to equate removing unjustified governmental support for religious institutions with a campaign to remove all public declarations of supernatural belief.

The article asks, "Why should [...] churches, temples, mosques and a staggering 86,000 registered charities receive exemptions from paying business tax? Why should they be allowed to issue tax-exemption receipts to donors? And why [...] should churches get a pass on playing politics when, say, The David Suzuki Foundation does not any longer?"

Why indeed. Instead of answering these highly relevant questions, however, Mr. Den Tandt deftly avoids them. He first accurately acknowledges that once a serious discussion begins on the special treatment religious institutions receive in Canada, it quickly becomes clear the status quo is unjustifiable. Rather than directly confront this, however, Mr. Den Tandt dodges by calling it a "can of worms" that "would have been wiser to leave unopened." This is not how one should address serious questions of public policy.

The remainder of the article meanders into largely irrelevant tangents. Of course many Canadian politicians, past and present, espoused strong religious convictions of various sorts. But Bill Blaikie and Tommy Douglas (among others) are remembered for their contributions to the fabric of Canadian society, and to the continued well-being of millions of Canadians. Pierre Trudeau and Paul Martin may have been practising Catholics, but that did not stop them from liberalizing divorce laws or legalizing same-sex marriage (over the strenuous objections of the Papacy) during their tenures as Prime Minister. Their religious affiliations are of interest to biographers and historians, but are as relevant to their political legacies as their height or favoured sports teams.

Religious belief may inspire one to advocate for any given political position. But it is not a reasonable defence of public policy. It should be a basic tenet of governance that justification for a law be accessible to all, not just those that deem a particular scroll to be sacred. Insisting on objective, demonstrable criteria is not an attack on any faith group - adherence to this principle ensures that all of Canada's many religions (and the increasing number of those that profess none) are able to fully participate in all aspects of the political process.

The article then confuses cause and effect. Mr. Den Tandt openly acknowledges that "today's NDP is a dominantly secular party," and observes that the United Church agrees with most of its platform. This is not because the United Church has significant influence within the NDP, however; it indicates that the United Church, more than most other religious institutions, has allowed secular ethics to determine its stand on many issues such as same-sex marriage.

Instead of defining a non-secularist approach or defending its morality, Mr. Den Tandt instead rambles about the wisdom of "picking a fight with the churches." Of what relevance is this to the question of why religions receive over one billion dollars every year in public subsidies through tax credits?

The final two paragraphs are an interesting contrast. "Tighten up on the books, by all means. Reinforce the rule that says registered charities - whether religious or secular - should devote no more than 10 per cent of their resources to political work." This is excellent advice - something that most secularists would heartily endorse.

But the final lines then pose a mystery: "But then, for Heaven's sake, leave the churches alone. Let them say what they please, about what they choose." If the churches are anywhere near as politically active as Mr. Den Tandt states, enforcing the law that restricts political activism from charitable organizations would have a major effect on religious institutions.

Conversely, one could grant churches the right to participate in all aspects of the political process, including fund raising, campaigning for candidates, and soliciting legislation favourable to their philosophical perspective - as all other organizations, corporate and non-profit, can today (within limits). In return, churches would be taxed on their property, no longer receive tax credits merely for proselytizing, and clergy would pay income tax on their salaries - as all other organizations, corporate and non-profit, must do today.

"What was Senator Eaton thinking?" I surmise that she believes it is time for Canada to openly embrace a secular approach to governance. It is a sound, wise, moral, and - given the reaction of Mr. Den Tandt and others - courageous action to publicly call for it. Bravo, Senator Eaton.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A response to Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto

On Monday, May 28, 2012, Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto and President of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, released an official response to Ontario's proposed anti-bullying legislation, Bill 13 and 14.

The statement is a remarkable work of spin.

Essentially, the Catholic Church is denying students in the separate school system in Ontario the right to form any group that contains the word "gay" in its name. Yet Cardinal Collins attempts to portray the Catholic school board as the victim, because of the "proposed imposition of the GSA methodology on Catholic schools".

Cardinal Collins is wrong. Neither Bill 13 (Accepting Schools Act, 2012) nor Bill 14 (Anti-Bullying Act, 2012) state that all Catholic schools must form Gay-Straight Alliances on the off chance that some statistically insignificant minority of students will bully an even smaller number of individuals because they are perceived (perhaps incorrectly) as being potentially gay.

The bills state that where there is a desire from the student body to create such groups, schools cannot forbid their formation.

The difference is crucial. No one is imposing anything. The law addresses the arbitrary and unjust abuse of power that has denied Catholic students' right to freedom of association. Put another way, the anti-bully legislation removes the Catholic school boards' bully pulpit.

The missive also contains several misleading statements, if not outright lies:
  • "Those who share those views will no doubt wish to use the GSA methodology. They are certainly free to do so." They are not. Not if those who share those views are students in Ontario Catholic schools. Hence the lack of a single GSA group in any separate school in Ontario. Diversity and freedom of expression are rigorously suppressed.
  • "I question, however, why provincial legislation should make this particular method normative in a Catholic school." It is required, Cardinal Collins, because students are clamouring for this particular method, and they are being thwarted at every turn.
  • "If the point is that there is something unacceptable about those Catholic principles, then I find that troubling." If the point is that GSA clubs cannot be permitted because homosexuals are "intrinsically disordered", then I find that troubling.

Further on, Cardinal Collins asks five questions:
  • Why is a piece of provincial legislation being used to micromanage the naming of student clubs?
No piece of provincial legislation is micromanaging anything. No students are required to name their groups anything. The legislation simply protects the rights of students so that separate school boards can no longer censor student groups to pretend that homosexuals do not exist, or that there are no heterosexuals who fully support their gay friends in finding happiness and fulfilment.
  • Why are Catholics not free to design their own methods to fight bullying [...]? Why must they instead be compelled to accept a particular method that comes from a different approach to the great issues of life?
This question is an exercise in misdirection. Catholics are free to design their own methods. If students want a Catholic anti-bullying support group, under the legislation the bishops may name one, administrators can create the charter, and students are free to join it. But the separate school board cannot ban other means of addressing bullying, pretending that Church created approaches are the only ones.
  • Why should the power of provincial law be used to override that legitimate adult authority?
Because adult authority in Catholic schools is being abused to contravene existing provincial law regarding educational standards, Ontario Human Rights legislation, and even the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The authority the adults wield in this case is anything but legitimate.
  • With the principle established that the legitimate local authority is nullified in this case, then is any student free to introduce any program, any club, or any advocacy group relating to any issue?

Groups whose purpose is to advocate violence are not and should not be permitted. Groups whose purpose is to advocate the prevention of violence should be permitted, but are not in Catholic schools. This is not a difficult concept to comprehend.
  • Is a GSA the most effective method to help students being targeted by bullies?
I don't know. Perhaps, perhaps not. Let's permit these groups to form and find out.

The main theme of the letter is how the Catholic Church is an innocent victim of targeted persecution by the Ontario government. This is ridiculous. Catholics are the sole religious group in Ontario to receive full funding for their sectarian school system, and yet they have the audacity to complain vociferously when they must respect the basic Charter rights of their students. Bills 13 and 14 do NOT entail an "extraordinary privileging of one particular way of dealing with bullying and personal support" - they forbid extraordinary censorship and suppression regarding one particular way of dealing with bullying and personal support.

The penultimate paragraph is a variation of the famous poem by Martin Niemöller, "First they came".  "Please consider the implications for all when legislation is enacted that overrides the deeply held beliefs of any faith community in our province, and intrudes on its freedom to act in a way that is in accord with its principles of conscience. If it happens to us, it can happen to you, on this and other issues." The paranoia and victimization implicit in this statement is revealing. Let's remove some of the obfuscation and be clear: this legislation does not intrude on the freedom of Catholics to act according to their consciences. No one is being forced to join a GSA. It enshrines in law the principle that the separate school board cannot impose its dogma on students when doing so violates their Charter rights to freedom of conscience, expression, and association. There is an old adage, "Your freedom to swing your fist stops at the bridge of my nose." Enshrining this in legislation is not persecution; it is the protection of everyone's rights. To implicitly compare the defending the rights of Catholic students to the Nazi persecution of trade unionists and Jews is despicable.

Shame on you, Cardinal Collins.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Religion gets it right, religion gets it wrong

Two months ago, American Atheists paid for several advertisements on billboards in New York City.

In largely Jewish districts, they had the word "Yahweh" in Hebrew with the words, "You know it's a myth... and you have a choice" in both English and Hebrew. Similarly, in Muslim neighborhoods, the billboard reads "Allah" in prominent Arabic text, with the same quotation in both English and Arabic.

The reaction from NYC's Jewish and Muslim communities delights me.

"I don’t think God is a myth, but that doesn’t exclude people to have a different opinion." Also, "The great thing about America is we are marketplace for ideas." I love it - no calls for censorship, no threats of violence, just a shrug and a bemused attitude suggesting, "Deny God's existence? You may as well claim gravity doesn't exist! Hah hah, those atheists sure are strange folk." It's so nice to read reasonable responses to provocative messages.

The people interviewed in the article have precisely the right attitude - religious individuals and organizations have the right to quote Torah, Bible, or Koran verses on advertisements they pay for,  and nonreligious folk have the same right to identify these beliefs as superstitious and offer another way to view the world.

If only all people and jurisdictions in were similarly enlightened. The County of Lackawanna Transit System in Pennsylvania rejected an advertisement that consisted of the single word, Atheists, along with the name of the sponsoring organization. In Canada, the poster, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." was initially rejected by public transit authorities in Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, Halifax and London.

Most recently, passions have been stirred about distributing Bibles in Ontario's public classrooms. When the Bluewater District School Board voted to discontinue distributing Gideon Bibles to young students, the religious community exploded with rage. (This is a recurring issue in Ontario: in late 2010, the Waterloo Region District School Board voted to allow handing out Bibles on school property during school hours. The reaction from the secular and several religious communities was negative.)

The reaction to the Bluewater vote was astonishing. According to some, failing to distribute Bibles in public schools is a plot to "destroy Canadian heritage", and will turn Canada into a "warring nation". The rhetoric was raised to such an extent that trustees are frightened to drive to board meetings unaccompanied. Making threats - "watch your back" - isn't free speech, it's a form of coercion akin to terrorism: threatening or employing violence against civilians to achieve political aims. One wonders where the often paraded Christian values of charity, humility, and compassion go when their faith is no longer granted special and unique access to students in public schools.

It's not that religious texts have no place in our public school system. I assume (and certainly hope!) that the Bible, Torah, Qu'ran, Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, and many others are available in all school libraries. And students should be able to check out any sacred text as easily and anonymously as The God Delusion or the latest in the Magic Tree House series.

The Bible is worth reading for many reasons, but I question whether it's appropriate for pre-teens. There is more sex and violence in it than most Restricted movies.

It has long been my belief that if the bible were not The Bible, it would be banned by the Bible-thumpers.

But let's not ban it - as  Halton District Catholic school board banned Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Let's make both available - the Bible and the Golden Compass - in school libraries. When school officials distribute material on school time on school property, it provides implicit approval and support for its content. Students in school should not be subjected to any evangelical efforts. Let's keep our public schools places for education - and continue to allow students to decide what reading materials they want to sign out from the library. I hope that all religious communities will mature to become more like New York City's and less like Ontario's.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

News and satire are now indistinguishable

For the past couple of years, I have joked that the time was coming when I would unable to determine if a headline, stripped of its source, was from the New York Times or The Onion.

With recent political events in the United States, that moment has arrived.

When a friend sent me the clip below, I was sure it was a spoof - a Saturday Night Live skit with unusually good body doubles or a mash-up with some very clever dubbing.  It took significant corroboration before I was convinced this is a genuine excerpt from a Republican candidates debate.

Sometimes ridicule and reality are nearly identical. This satirical news clip was released in March 2011:

It was probably inspired by an actual law passed one year earlier in Oklahoma. If a doctor thinks providing accurate medical diagnoses might possibly lead to a patient choosing to have an abortion, he is permitted to lie. Kansas has a similar law, and just last month Arizona's Senate passed a comparable bill and sent it to the state House.

Less than two months ago, the US House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood. Senator Jon Kyl defended his lie (on the Senate floor!) that "well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does" is perform abortions by stating that his "remark was not intended to be a factual statement." These actions must be in direct response to the news that "Planned Parenthood opens $8 billion Abortionplex", right? Except that last headline is taken directly from the Onion.

An April 1st segment on CBC radio brought all this to mind. The Sunday Edition host, Michael Enright, interviewed the leading contender for the Republican nominee for President, Governor Mitt Romney. Mr. Romney repeatedly called his interviewer "Mr. Wainwright." He claimed that as President "the main thing is to have an administration that would create dogs! Jobs!" His closing statement was, "I've seen so many trees that I like in Canada." I am about 80% sure that it was an April Fool's joke (the CBC has done these before). But US politicians frequently make statements so bizarre and offensive that I cannot be sure. My instincts have not proven a reliable guide in this matter, and as H. L. Mencken is attributed as saying, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people."

Here is a direct test of my hypothesis: can you tell which of these headlines is real and which parody?
  • Rick Santorum relieved no one has asked him about interracial marriage yet 
  • Santorum says he 'almost threw up' after reading JFK speech on separation of church and state
One is from the Onion, the other from the Washington Post.

It is a sad commentary on the state of the world that news and satire are indistinguishable.

Updated April 9th: The CBC has now admitted that the interview with Mitt Romney was an April Fool's joke.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Canada's federal government has eroded its democratic foundations

The federal Conservative party may have stolen last year's election through fraud, blatant lies, and illegal acts. Why is anyone surprised? This party has been attacking Canada's democratic institutions since it first achieved power in 2006.

The Conservatives spout the rhetoric of fiscal prudence and small government, but in practice their actions violate these principles. The federal government has grown significantly in the past six years. When the Liberals took power in 1993, they inherited a record deficit from the Progressive Conservatives. Over the course of their thirteen years as Canada's ruling party, the Liberals turned these deficits into a string of fiscal surpluses (though they made plenty of mistakes along the way). The Conservatives took power in 2006 and promptly cut the GST (a consumption tax, which almost every economist recommends should be the last tax to be reduced, not the first) along with other taxes. As a result, when the 2008 recession hit, there was no financial cushion. They also increased spending to unprecedented levels so Canada now has, once again, a record deficit.

Strictly on macroeconomic concerns, given its practice of wildly diverging from its "small government" rhetoric, how can fiscal conservatives (I am one) support the federal Conservative party?

But the Conservatives are guilty of far worse than fiscal imprudence. There is a crucial difference between a typical political scandal (sexual exploits, misdirected or mismanaged funds, abuse of power for personal gain) and attacks on democratic institutions. All parties seem unable to avoid the former. The Conservatives have not been immune to these, but their several destructive actions in the latter category over the course of their six years in power deeply concern me.

While all political parties waste taxpayer money while in power, the Conservatives have abused their authority to muzzle Canadian scientists if their findings contradict party orthodoxy - a qualitatively different offense. There is plenty to despise about the Liberal sponsorship scandal - but that breach of ethics pales in comparison to publicly slandering a civil servant who had the courage to expose the fact that Canadian troops were complicit in the torture of detainees by handing them over to Afghan security forces. The previous Liberal government spent a billion dollars to create a gun registry that should have cost two orders of magnitude less, but under a Conservative government Canada has abandoned its citizens abroad - examples include Maher Arar, Omar Khadr, and Abousfian Abdelrazik.

The federal Conservatives and the provincial Liberals turned Toronto into a police state during last summer's G20 summit. It is appalling that both parties were reelected.

The Conservatives destroyed the census as a valid research tool. In my view, for that reason alone they should be disqualified as qualified to run the country (though it seems an insufficient number of my fellow citizens felt similarly on May 2, 2011).

Finally, let's examine the behaviour of the Conservative party during the past three elections.
  • In 2006, the federal Conservatives illegally bought the election via the "in and out" scandal (to which they recently pled guilty and were fined a mere $52,000).
  • Calling an election in 2008 violated the Conservatives' own fixed election date law. 
  • For the first time in Canadian (and Commonwealth) history, the Government of Canada was found in contempt of Parliament on March 9, 2011.

In recent weeks, it has emerged that the federal Conservative party conspired to send automated messages ("robocalls") to Canadian households to suppress voter participation, targeting homes likely to vote for non-Conservative candidates. This is both deplorable and perfectly consistent with the party's behaviour under Steven Harper.

The Conservatives have eroded of our civil liberties, democratic institutions, and (the possibility of) fact-based public policy. How can the current Conservative party have anyone's confidence?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Religion and morality: choose any one

A CBC article published on March 15, 2012 has the headline, "Catholic University in Ottawa opposes free condoms."

The first sentence sums up the controversy: "A Catholic university in Ottawa is under fire from its students after it prevented the student association from offering free condoms."

The position of the Church (and of Saint Paul University, connected to the University of Ottawa) reminds me of the arguments made by the automobile industry a few decades back.

"No, it would be disastrous," they claimed, "to install seat belts in all vehicles. That would have the horrible, terrible effect of making our cars safer. And when that happens, people will simply drive more dangerously, leading to more vehicular fatalities."

Fortunately, seat belts (and later, air bags) were mandated by government regulation, with the net effect of saving over fifteen thousand lives every year in the United States alone.

Similarly, the Church argues that if sex is safer, more people will have sex, which is intolerable (for reasons that still elude me). Yet any moral philosophy would recognize that an intervention that significantly reduces the spread of disease and limits the number of unplanned pregnancies (leading to fewer abortions or unwanted children) is an unambiguously good thing.

Though often claimed, I do not accept that morality and religion are related. They are often, as in this case, in direct opposition.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The former Chief Statistician of Canada speaks

On February 28, I had the pleasure of listening to talk by Munir Sheikh, the former Chief Statistician of Canada, entitled, "The Importance of Evidence-Based Policy Development". In it, he described his tenure at Statistics Canada, the government's decision to make completion of the long form optional, and the reasons for his resignation from Statistics Canada.

Dr. Sheikh compared the validity of the 2006 census to the 2011 "survey" (he refuses to consider an optional long form a census). When given a survey, about half of Canadian households will complete it without further prompting. If there is a reminder, such as a follow-up telephone call, then compliance usually increases to about 70%. But only when compliance is mandated by law do participation rates increase to over 99%, as the Canadian census enjoyed until 2006.

But perhaps, Dr. Sheikh asked rhetorically, seventy percent is sufficient to draw important conclusions about the demographics of Canadian society. Unfortunately, response rates differ drastically across different groups. Recent immigrants to Canada, aboriginals, and those with low levels of education are far less likely to complete the long-form survey. Conversely, those with high income levels disproportionately participate voluntarily. Thus the results from the 2011 survey are inherently skewed, but the extent of the bias is impossible to determine.

This concept was explained to the government, which chose to proceed with eliminating the mandatory element of the long-form questionnaire contrary to the advice of Dr. Sheikh and Statistics Canada. The stated reason was concern for the privacy of Canadians. Dr. Sheikh revealed that out of a population of over 35 million Canadians, there were a total of two complaints about the 2006 census related to privacy concerns.

Yet the reason Dr. Sheikh resigned from public service was not that the government decided on a course of action against his advice. His duty as a civil servant was to provide recommendations based on the public interest but ultimately to follow policy as set by the federal government. It was only when the government claimed that Dr. Sheikh counseled that "a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census" with equally reliable results that he submitted his letter of resignation. "It can not," he wrote.

His speech was followed by a question and answer session. Many people wanted to know (or speculated themselves) what the government's true motivation was for eliminating the long-form census. The audience seemed convinced it was a mixture of Conservative party ideology and a firm commitment to avoid the possibility of policy being questioned by facts. Dr. Sheikh consistently refused to speculate on motivations, sticking strictly to the facts and refusing provide further commentary. His professionalism was exemplary. It is possible that Canada could return to a proper census in 2016, he said, if the government so chose. However, the Conservative party announced its intention to eliminate the census before the 2011 election, and achieved its first majority. Therefore the likelihood of an about-face on this issue is unlikely.

I had the opportunity to ask two questions. If one wanted demographic data for any reason in 2013 (after all the results from the 2011 survey are published), what source would be best to use? The 2006 census, the 2011 survey data, or some combination of the two? Were there reliable sources other than Statistics Canada?

 Dr. Sheikh responded that it would be best to use the 2006 census as a baseline, and to use the 2011 survey to inform about trends since then. However, good judgment would need to be used when using any data from the 2011 survey, since there is no means to determine how accurate its results are. Other surveys are not particularly helpful since, by definition, they are completed by those that fill out questionnaires.

I also asked about the census question on religion, which is asked on the long form every second census (once a decade). It asks about a person's religion, with instructions to "Indicate a specific denomination or religion even if this person is not currently a practising member of that group."

This question, as worded, measures the faith group one grew up with, not how one presently identifies oneself. If one is non-practicing, then "No religion" is probably the most accurate descriptor - but an unknown (presumably large, given the discrepancy between the 2001 census and recent survey data) number of non-practicing individuals will probably select from the list of denominations provided. Given his knowledge of extensive experience, does Dr. Sheikh believe it likely that Statistics Canada will improve the wording of this question in the future?

Dr. Sheikh replied that Statistics Canada was aware of the problem, and that it had met with groups defending each side of the issue. It will also likely consider the question again prior to the 2021 census. But there is tremendous value in maintaining the same question over long periods of time, to allow for comparison and analysis over the decades. Therefore there needs to be something fundamentally wrong with a question (or the improvement needs to be vast) in order for Statistics Canada to change its wording. My impression was that Dr. Sheikh believes it is unlikely the wording of the question on religion will be changed.

Overall, I was very impressed with Dr. Sheikh's intelligence, discretion, and articulation. The federal civil service lost a consummate professional when he resigned in 2010.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What is "militant secularisation"?

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Cabinet Office minister of the British government and chair of the Conservative Party, wrote yesterday that "a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies," and "one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant."

According to Baroness Warsi, failing to "fund faith schools" and prohibiting the signs of religion in government buildings are examples of this militant secularization. It would seem that any curtailment, restriction, or limitation of any sort on the activities of the ordained is, by definition, an attack on religion and a demonstration of secular fundamentalism as extreme and dire as any witch burning or suicide bombing. Similarly, not providing the faithful the amount of public funds they desire for their own sectarian purposes is tantamount to banning religious practices outright.

Imagine, for a moment, a truly militantly secular state. 
  • Any display of religious dress on publicly funded property is forbidden. Wearing hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes, or crosses while walking on the sidewalk or driving your car is illegal. 
  • All evangelical activities are forbidden in the public square. 
  • Any public avowal of a particular faith automatically disqualifies you from eligibility for a public office (elected or appointed) until an equally public declaration repudiating such views has been made (possibly under oath).
These propositions are, of course, absurd. Secularists support government neutrality in matters of religion, which means, among many other things, that public monies, contrary to Baroness Warsi's claims, should not be directed to factional religious schools.   

Baroness Warsi acknowledged that "we all know that too much blood has been shed in the name of religion." And yet she also claims that "in order to encourage social harmony, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities, and more confident in their beliefs," and "Europe needs to be more confident in its Christianity." Yet any honest appraisal of the world today (and throughout history) would conclude that bloodshed is far more likely when secularist principles are violated - when the power of the state is used to support or repress religious sentiment.

Public policy should be based, to the greatest extent possible, on reason and evidence, not dogma or ideology (whether economic, political or religious).