Archive for the ‘news’ Category

Love and machines


I recently listened to the Tapestry episode about the human tendency to get attached to robots. It was very interesting.

The episode covers various things – including repeated references to hitchBOT. No, not a robotic reincarnation of the Hitch. It was a hitch-hiking Canadian robot that was destroyed (some say “murdered”) by someone in August 2015.

One point made in the episode is that humans’ emotional reactions to robots makes them valid objects of ethical consideration. I’ll mention a couple of things that came up. Let me know what you think.

First, consider Paro, a robot seal designed for therapeutic use with elderly people. It is used in the way that pet animals are sometimes used. It is not alive in the same sense, but it also avoids problems of hygiene and allergies that may make live animals inappropriate for use in some situations.


Now, is it problematic to use robots in a way that is designed to get people to form emotional attachments to them? Is there something wrong with using them as a replacement for live animals? On that note, is there something wrong with using non-human animals as a replacement for human companions?

I don’t think so. These all seem okay to me. But I can see how these applications may make some people uncomfortable. And of course, there is the potential to abuse that emotional connection. You could program the robots to gather personal information or to encourage excessive attachment. A really unscrupulous company might even use the robots to manipulate elderly customers to pay more money to keep the robot alive and happy, or to upgrade it, etc.

So, while the basic idea is fine, I think this is something we should keep an eye on (as with any technology, new or old).

Now, what about Spot, a robot that walks like a dog? Here is a video of Spot being put through its paces:

At a couple of points, people test the robot’s stability by pushing it with their feet. Kicking it. It is remarkably good at staying upright, but its dog-like scrabbling with its feet reminds us of a live dog that is being kicked. Check out the comments on the to see how some people react emotionally to seeing this.

Without going down the (fascinating but fraught) rabbit hole of “can machines feel pain/pleasure”, there are still some interesting moral questions here.

For example, if someone kicks a robot (or vandalizes one, as happened to hitchBOT) with malicious intent, is this just abuse of property, or is it a more serious problem? One researcher interviewed on the Tapestry episode pointed out that willingness to destroy a robot is correlated with low empathy scores overall.

I don’t think someone should be jailed for attacking a robot in the same way they should be jailed for attacking a person. But willingness to attack a human-like robot is evidence of the same antisocial character traits that make someone willing to attack an actual human. Surely we shouldn’t just ignore the risk such people pose.

What do you think? Is this still just the fevered dreams of science fiction fans? Or do we need to consider these issues now, before the corporations and other unaccountable entities decide for us how these things will work in our lives and our laws?

Correction: Linguistic war on terror


A week ago, I posted my thoughts on an attempt to rebrand the currently ascendent terrorist group in the Middle East with a name – Daesh – which avoids any implied legitimacy to their claims to (1) represent Islam and (2) be a state.

The article I linked to sounded quite authoritative in saying that the organization in question – ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh, whatever – hates being called Daesh.

On Facebook, a linguist friend of mine pointed out this article, in which the author combs through actual publications by the group and finds evidence to suggest they are indifferent to, not incensed by, the name “Daesh”. The article is from Cracked, whose reputation for careful and serious journalism neither I nor my friend can vouch for.

This is an appropriate place to remind everyone that I am not a journalist, by training or ambition. I can do Google searches like anyone, and I find conflicting reports. I do not have the time or expertise needed to vet these and try to sift out a more coherent answer for you, my loyal reader (or readers).

What I can say is that, based on my first-hand experience with Islam and Muslims (some, but not lots), the terrorists do not represent that religion. And they most certainly do not deserve to be called a state. So, regardless of how they feel about it, I think it’s appropriate to call them Daesh. All three of the other common names in the media – ISIL, ISIS, and Islamic State – implicitly reference the group’s conceit that they are a state and that they are Islamic.

Let’s not grant them that, eh?

The linguistic war on terror


Okay, that title may be a little grandiose.

But I’ve just read this amazing article about Daesh – a name being used in various places to refer to the organization that would like you to call them the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”, or “ISIS” for short.

For those who are wondering, the correct Arabic pronunciation of “daesh” is something like [daʕʃ]*. It is difficult for me to be more precise or certain, because (a) I do not know Arabic and (b) Arabic acronyms are exceedingly rare, so there may not be clear conventions on how to pronounce them. Language Log comes through with corpus-based observations of [dæʃ] (“dash”) from Barack Obama, or [dɐ.ɛʃ] (“duh-esh”) or / [dɐ.ɛʃ] (“dush”) from the French press. So it’s not hard to pronounce, though it may be a little while before we settle on a standard English-world pronunciation.

What is wrong with just calling them “ISIS”? Several things.

First up, that’s what they want you to call them. Calling them “ISIS” affirms three lies they would like us all to swallow: that they are legitimately Islamic, that they are a state and deserve to be treated as such, and that they have some claim on Iraq and Syria. (The “ISIL” alternative just uses a different English translation – “Levant” – for the Arabic word otherwise translated as “Syria”).

Now, I am no religious scholar, but when you have legitimate Islamic spokespeople from around the world declaring that you are violating the dictates of Islam, it’s pretty safe to say you don’t represent Islam. [References here, here, here, and all over if you look for them.]

As for being a legitimate “state”, Daesh are really just a bunch of thugs terrorizing people, displacing millions of people from their homes. This is not what a state does.

Anyway, back to the linguistic side of things. This new name for them, Daesh, seems to have been produced by Arabic-speaking opponents to strip them of any dignity that using their self-selected title would give.

Not only does it deny the legitimacy of the several claims embodied in the other name; it also, apparently, carries various pejorative connotations. Daesh is, in fact, just an Arabic acronym for the same words that we translate to “ISIS” or “ISIL”. But it sounds like it comes from the pre-Islamic period of Arabic history – a time that is associated with demons and ignorance in the minds of Arabic speakers. Also, as I said, acronyms are very rare in Arabic, so apparently the use of an acronym itself makes the group seem less legitimate.

Alice Guthrie, author of the article, tells us,

As al-Haj Salih [the Syrian activist who coined the term] very gently and firmly expresses to me by phone when I interview him for this piece, ‘If an organisation wants to call itself ‘the light’, but in fact they are ‘the darkness’, would you comply and call them ‘the light’?’ The second, and equally important, point that al-Haj Salih stresses to me is another take on why a neologism is insulting: it’s an obviously fictitious name, for an obviously fictional concept.

I doubt Guthrie or anyone else believes that calling them something else will solve all the problems with Daesh. They are still killing, still displacing, still terrorizing. But the points made in that passage are important. Let’s use language consciously – not just to label, but to describe and express reality.

It reminds me of how Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and shared their secret rituals through the Superman radio show during the 1940s – dramatically undercutting their recruitment. [Source here and here.] Some people might want to join an organization people hate and fear. Nobody wants to join an organization that others are busy laughing at.

So let’s keep fighting Daesh. Let’s support the military fight against them; let’s help their victims; and let’s poke fun at them by using a name that undermines their claims to legitimacy. The following graphic, which I reproduce from Guthrie’s article, references a play on words from Daesh – making the terrorists into donkeys:


‘Da’ish’ becomes ‘Ja’hish’ – “The state of donkeys in Iraq and Syria”.

Thanks to a Facebook friend for pointing me to Guthrie’s article.


* I suppose I should apologize to the non-linguists out there for the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. As a phonetician, it is the obvious place to go for representing unknown pronunciations, especially those that include sounds not found in English. If you need help working out this pronunciation, check out this chart. This is one of the things I teach in my day job.


Religion and kids: the latest study


I think I’ve heard variations on this headline from just about every direction in my social media over the last few days:

“Study find non-religious kids more altruistic than religious kids”

It is based on a study published in Current Biology – a study which you can find and read for yourself here.

My reactions to the initial study were mixed. On the one hand, this is not a surprising result. I’ve already heard of research which suggests rule-based moral education interferes with actual moral reasoning in children and adults. (I can’t find a reference to back that up, so I have to hold even that belief tentatively right now. If you can point me to work on this, please let me know and I’ll add it in.) Since a good number of religious traditions focus on rule-based morality (“thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” because of what a book says), it is natural to suspect that people taught in that way will have impaired moral reasoning.

On the other hand, just about every study of social interest which hits the headlines gets distorted according to various agendas and narrative impulses (to support one or the other side, or just to make things sound more interesting). So I was prepared, on eventually reading the paper, to discover that its data supported none of the claims coming to me, primarily via the nonreligious people in my networks.

So much for initial skepticism – I had, I think, neutralized much of the impulse to uncritically accept claims just because they conformed to my preconceptions. But this was an actual study, peer-reviewed and published in a respectable journal. So there is something to learn, and I am fortunate to be trained in interpreting social science research. So I have read through the paper. Here is my attempt to report what I think it really says, and does not say, and what interesting questions we might want to ask next to probe the implications further.

The key number I was looking for was at the end of this sentence:

Results from a linear regression with number of stickers shared as the dependent variable and age (1-year bins), country of origin, socioeconomic status (SES), and religious identification of the household (dummy coded) suggest that age (βstandardized = 0.39, p < 0.001), SES (βstandardized = 0.16, p < 0.001), country (βstandardized = 0.1, p < 0.01), and religious identification (βstandardized = −.132, p < 0.001) are significant predictors of sharing, (model r2adjusted = 0.184).

The beta values indicate the size of each effect – and you see that age is about three times the magnitude of religion. That is, if we are taking these as causes of sharing, a kid’s age has 3 times the effect on sharing that the kid’s family’s religion has. But for me, it’s the last value that I was hunting for. The adjusted r², indicates how much of the variation in sharing is accounted for by the variables observed (age, country, SES, and religious identification). In this case, taking all three of these factors together, we are only able to account for about 18% of the variation in sharing.

What this means is that, even if there are no flaws in the study (and oh boy, there are flaws – see below), and the effect is really real, it doesn’t tell us all that much about any particular kid. The variation between individual kids, or kids within a particular religion, is several times as large as the observed variation between kids from different religious backgrounds. (This was a point that Lynn Honey, in her stats talk at the recent Alberta Secular Conference, made in general. Don’t just ask if there’s a difference between group A and group B. Ask if the difference is large relative to the unexplained variation.)

One thing that was almost completely lacking from the paper was an acknowledgement of mixed-belief marriages. A year ago I read an excellent book about the topic, and it was disappointing to see it left out of this analysis – although that could just be because of the small sample size. In the study, only Christianity, Islam, and nonbelief had large enough samples to be included in the main analysis. I would be curious to see whether diversity (kids with parents or communities with a mix of different religious or other identities) affects kids’ ability to empathize.

I am also struck that we are told only about select tests that the authors made. While I find p-values very useful, one way they become suspect is if people do a lot of tests and only report the ones they find interesting. What were the negative results? How can I know that the few results we are told about are the whole story, or just the bits of the story that make for a tidy conclusion? This is a problem with any study whose analyses are not pre-registered – ie, just about any social science research published these days. But it is a problem.

Last, I want to point you to a couple of other articles people have written criticizing the study and/or the conclusions that laypeople are drawing from it, which I came across after intially drafting this post. They contribute interesting different perspectives that add to the picture above.

According to Matthew: “No, atheist kids are not more altruistic than religious kids”

A secular writer who makes similar points to mine. Curiously, he ends his explanation of why we can’t draw firm conclusions from this study by stating that “this study does at least provide evidence that atheist kids are not less altruistic than religious kids.” As one commenter put it, “you can’t have it both ways”. I would say that “at least this study does not confirm that atheist kids are less altruistic than religious kids.”

George Yancey: “Fatal flaws in that religion and generosity study”

A religious writer. While I agree with him that the study isn’t as conclusive as some of the headlines suggest, his critique itself is unfortunately error-ridden. For example, he says the study should have controlled for parental education. It did (at least for maternal education). He also complains that the authors conflated “mercy” with “morality” in their study of punitiveness. I don’t think they did. In fact, throughout the paper they clearly separate their discussion of the altruism test (the dictator game) and the test of punitiveness. It is clear to me that the authors think these two tests measure distinct things.

Both of these articles highlight a crucial problem with the dictator game – the central test of altruism – which I had missed. They claim that, rather than testing altruism, it may simply test obedience. This seems very plausible to me. The test was set up like this:

  • The experimenter gives the child some stickers.
  • The child is then invited to share some stickers with another (unseen) child by putting them in a separate envelope while the experimenter’s back is turned.
  • The number of stickers shared is used as the operational measure of altruism in this study.

Yes, an altruistic child will tend to put more stickers in the envelope. But so will a more obedient child. Without deeper knowledge of the psychological literature, I am forced to take this as a profound flaw. I have my expectations about whether nonreligious kids will, on average, tend to be more obedient than religious kids. But we’re doing science here, and my empirically un-tested expectations carry little weight.

So the conclusion? Well, it may sound dismissive, but I think this study tells us very little. It does fail to confirm the stereotypical religious expectation that religious people are more altruistic than non-religious people. But it also fails to soundly refute it.

With appropriate follow-ups, it may become a useful bit of evidence in the picture of how our beliefs shape our moral behaviours. For now, it is mainly useful as a cautionary tale in interpreting scientific results.

The best thing about this paper? It is freely available for anyone to read and examine. And this, in my mind, puts it a step ahead of many better-designed studies that are locked behind paywalls.

None of the Above conference


Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above

Earlier this month, on October 17 and 18, Deena and I attended our first ever secular conference: “None of the Above”. Around a hundred people, variously identifying as humanists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers – the usual spectrum of labels you get in this community – came together in Red Deer. (For non-Albertans, Red Deer is a delightful small city, about equidistant between Alberta’s two larger cities, Calgary and Edmonton.)

If you’re not an active member of the community, you may expect we spent the time congratulating ourselves on escaping the “delusion” of religion, and whingeing about how religious people make everything worse.

Yes, there was a bit of self-congratulation – though it was tempered with the knowledge that all human understanding is fallible, and we might be wrong.

And yes, there was some complaining – though it was focused and action-oriented rather than just self-pitying.

There were several social action issues raised that are important, not just for non-believers, but for anyone interested in having a tolerant, open, free society.

And then there was the whole social side of it: meeting people (some local to my own city) who I had never seen before, but who hold similar values and beliefs to me. It reminded me that I’m part of a larger community.

The fact that the conference was immediately before our federal election gave it an interesting tenor, especially when we were discussing politically potent topics.

So what did we get for our delightfully modest attendance fee? Here is a quick rundown of the schedule. I will be posting a series of short articles over the coming days on some of the talks and discussions.

Day 1:

Opening remarks. The MC for the conference was Karen Kerr, president of the Society of Edmonton Atheists, one of the conference’s two sponsors. (The other was Atheist Alliance International.) She set a nice tone – neither too formal nor too loose.
Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity. Canada is on the verge of a shift here, as a Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing physician-assisted death will come into effect in February. What things will look like after that will depend on how legislators prepare for this shift. How legislators prepare will depend on what they hear from constituents. Now is the time!
Rob Breakenridge: Openly Secular in the Media. An Alberta radio and newspaper personality, Rob talked about the issues faced by public personalities around their beliefs and identities.
Lunch. Not really relevant to a summary of the conference’s events, you say? Of course it is! This is where the ideas are digested, batted around, and where the human connections are made. People differed on the gastronomic value of the food on offer, but the opportunity to break bread together and share our thoughts was a crucial part of the whole conference experience.
Ali Rivzi. A Muslim who no longer believes in Islam. This was a compelling presentation on the difference between culture and beliefs, and on the danger of conflating the two, especially in areas of the world where democratic freedoms are still tenuous at best.
Lynn Honey: Statistics. Oh, to live in a world where every community of belief spent some of their time together talking about how to critically examine the numbers that wash over us in the media. And oh, to live in a world where Lynn Honey can teach these things to everyone!
Nathan Phelps: Son of Westboro. This presentation moved through Nate’s childhood in one of the most poisonous and hateful churches on the continent, through to a call for action and encouragement to vigilance. Not all religion is bad, but too many people use religion as a cover not just to be assholes, but to actively harm others in many ways.
Debate: Matt Dillahunty vs Jon Morrison on whether science points to God. An atheist heavy-hitter with dozens of debates behind him, against a Christian with no debate experience. This debate turned out much more engaging and worthwhile than I had feared.

Day 2:

Greg Hart: Critical Thinking. The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1, this talk wound through several pitfalls of critical thinking. Just to reiterate: this wasn’t a talk about how we do it so much better than them, but about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.
Shelley Segal. A musical interlude with a thoughtful, expressive artist whose songs, often, express feelings and experiences in the world that no religious singer can capture, but which are central to the experience of an atheist life.
Panel discussion: Education in Alberta. Three panelists, with experience and knowledge about different aspects of education as it is influenced by religion: prayer in schools, creationism, and sex-ed. Enlightening, rather horrifying at times, and well-articulated.
Keynote: Matt Dillahunty. A wonderful, personal call to action – Matt responded to some of the things he had learned about “Canadia” during the conference, and gave a talk that left room for everyone – from a timid, closeted agnostic to a brash, letter-writing, sign-toting activist – to do their bit in making the world a better place for us all to live.

Deena and I left this conference energized, motivated to do a little bit more to engage with our atheist community and to push against infringements on our rights and values. In the posts to come, I will dive down a little deeper and give you a more complete recap of the message I took away from each presentation and event at the conference.

This was not just our first secular conference. It was Alberta’s first secular conference. There is already a plan afoot to hold another, to make it a recurring event in the province, rotating between the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer (at least). Things are looking up!

If you are in the area next year, I hope you will join us.

Too much power


Canada is currently in the middle of the longest election campaign in memory. It was officially called on August 2nd, and the vote will take place October 19. (Normal election campaigns run 5 or 6 weeks; one recent one ran about 8 weeks. But the current campaign’s ten weeks is apparently the longest since 1872.) And campaigning really began (unofficially) well before that – possibly as early as the tail of the Alberta election in May.

If the Conservatives win, Prime Minister Steven Harper will be the first in over a century to win four consecutive elections.

And that would be bad news.

It’s not that I don’t like Harper and his party.

Well, okay, it sort of is.

They have been systematically poisoning Canada in two unconscionable ways. First, they are destroying our capacity to know what is happening by muzzling scientists (ask the CBC, the Huffington Post, Democracy Watch, and the New York Times, for example) and turning a valuable census into an anemic survey. Second, they have been stripping Canadians of their rights by passing the abominable Bill C-51, which brushes aside civil liberties in the interest of a questionable strategy for combatting terrorism, and by treating dual citizens as second-class citizens with its bill C-24. These last are purportedly in the name of being tough on crime and on terrorism. But it betrays a lack of imagination that they think the way to protect us from the few bad people in our country is by breaking the core freedoms and rights of law-abiding Canadians.

So yah, I don’t like the Conservatives. I don’t like Harper.

Now, we recently managed to vote out a Conservative party in Alberta which had become so complacent after 40 years in power that even with advance survey results predicting the change, some of us didn’t believe it would really happen. But it did.

And, while I happen to be quite happy with our new government in Alberta, I am even more happy that we, a socially and fiscally conservative province, showed politicians that nobody is invincible. The NDP government is going to heroic lengths to ensure that their budgets and other actions reflect the needs and desires of Albertans. And if, in a future election, we bring back a Conservative government, I predict that it will be a much humbler, chastened party, and will try very hard to govern in line with what people want and need.

With Steven Harper aiming to win an alarming fourth consecutive term as prime minister, I think it’s time we taught our federal parties the same lesson. For most of Canadian history, the roles of government and official opposition have passed between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Now, polls are (tentatively) suggesting that the NDP – the federal counterpart of the same party that overturned Alberta’s political landscape – may form the next Canadian government.

Now, I’m not sure the NDP would be my first choice. I think the Liberals have some things going for them, though I share an antipathy that many Western Canadians have toward that party. (Harper gained power on the heels of scandals among the previous Liberal government.) Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, has (in my opinion) proven to be a much better leader than any of the other leaders in debates and appearances so far. But the Greens are a long shot, and as much as I hate the idea of strategic voting, I don’t want my support for them to split a vote and let Harper stay in power.

One thing that may get the NDP my vote over their opponents is a promise of electoral reform. I believe that proportional representation – the currently most-popular alternative – would make it harder for a single party to hold power for as long and to act as unilaterally as Harper’s Conservatives have done. I think that would invigorate and strengthen our democracy.

But, like many Canadians, my first priority this election is to get Harper out. Get the Conservatives out. I like the idea of a “third party” forming government, just to make it clear to the Conservatives and the Liberals that they don’t own this country, and tactics of fear and smear cannot buy them power.

I encourage other Canadians to do the same – especially Albertans. Don’t let Harper’s rhetoric of fear scare you into following him. Don’t let the uncertainty of an untested party push you toward the certainty of a party that strips away Canadians’ rights and muzzles the people who can give us an unbiased answer to important questions.

Change can be scary. But voting for Harper is choosing to stay in an abusive relationship.

I think I’ll leave the last word to someone who is experiencing first-hand the sort of muzzling that Harper’s party is happy to keep doling out: Tony Turner, writer and performer of the viral “Harperman” video:

When are you old enough for a double standard?


The other day on the radio I overheard the tail end of a discussion around a recent incident where a swimming pool attendant confronted an eight-year-old girl who was not wearing a top. (Here are a couple of articles about the incident: 1, 2.)

At the end, the radio host asked listeners to let them know: What do you think is the right age at which girls should be required to wear tops when swimming? I missed most of the radio piece, but I can imagine arguments – the prudes on the one side, the nudists on the other side, and a lot of sensible people who are neither prudes nor nudists taking positions between.

But the obvious answer lodged itself in my head pretty quickly. Girls should be required to wear tops at the same age that boys are.

If you think (as the City of Guelph apparently does) that “females ages four and older must wear a bathing top” in public pools, then require males four and older to do the same. Surely covered male bodies won’t offend anyone, so that should be an easy sell, right?

On the other hand, if we are unable or unwilling to make men and boys relinquish a freedom, then perhaps we should not be so ready to take that freedom from women and girls either.

I have a mountain of points I would like to make on this issue, but I suspect I would just fall into ranting tl;dr territory. So instead I’m going to leave it there. What do you think? Is there an appropriate age to require people to cover up? Is there any good reason to restrict one group more than another in this sort of issue? Let me know in the comments.

Facing our demons


For the past six years, Canada has been undergoing some serious self-examination in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its final recommendations are finally released – leaving the nation to digest them and think about how to move forward.

The backstory is a deep history of abuse, neglect, and antagonism between the European colonial culture of Canada and the indigenous cultures that were pushed aside, stomped on, all but annihilated.

I grew up in rural Alberta knowing very little about our First Nations, and the relationship between them and my own culture. I remember hearing sentiments such as “I was born here – I’m as native a Canadian as any of them.” I remember people saying that the alcoholism and other problems rampant on native reserves were their problems, not ours. I remember knowing one native person – she was at our school for a year or so. She did wonderful native art, but I never asked about her culture, her background.

I remember a persistent sense that, whatever the history, the relationship between our First Nations – the Indians – and the rest of Canada was unresolved. Unsatisfactory. Broken, somehow.

I didn’t know about residential schools (the last of which closed in 1996) until very recently, as the TRC began disseminating its findings.

There are many things that need to be said, and I do not feel qualified. I do not know enough about the experiences of First Nations people to truly address their sense of injustice. I do not work in a caring profession, where I could offer direct assistance.

But I do know that I grew up in a culture that worked to deny responsibility, to push it back onto the victims. I understand that urge. I never sent anyone to a residential school. I never stole anyone’s land, attempted to destroy their culture. When someone points to me, to my culture, and says that we are responsible, it feels like a personal insult.

And yet …

I grew up on a farm, with great open spaces, clean air, and a rich cycle of seasons. I would not have had that childhood if not for the forcible removal of the earlier inhabitants from that land.

True, it wasn’t me that did the deed. But I benefited and other suffered for it. Doesn’t that leave me with some responsibility? It’s not my job to single-handedly solve the problems. (What an ass-backwards solution that would be, eh? “My ancestors wrecked your culture by imposing their solutions on you. Let me fix things by imposing my solutions on you.”) But, until I recognize that the problem is at least partly mine, I can only remain a barrier to a solution. I have to own the demons of our shared past. An analogy might be finding a bit of garbage by a path. It wasn’t me that did the littering. But if the litterer is nowhere to be found, my choice is to leave the garbage there, or to pick it up. I choose to pick it up.

What can I do? I can express my sorrow for what happened. I can assert that it was unjust, unfair. I can look through the recommendations of the TRC report, and talk to my First Nations neighbours, colleagues, students, to see what I can do, either in my own work or with my voice as a voter and citizen, to help in the reconciliation and healing process.

It feels unfair – it is unfair – that I have to deal with the mess the early colonizers created (and continued to create well into my own lifetime). And it’s unfair that my Cree, Stoney, Dene, and other First Nations neighbours have to deal with the mess too. But the mess exists, and the perpetrators are mostly dead – beyond our power to make them fix things. So we who remain will deal with it.

It won’t be a comfortable path. But, now that I have met some First Nations friends, worked with them, I know that it will be worth the effort. I want to live in a whole, united country, not one torn along its very foundation.

Since I drafted this post, the Alberta government has committed to expanding previous “residential school” content in the K-12 curriculum to “to ensure students learn about the legacy of abuse.” Concrete progress from our new government, days after they were sworn in.

Don’t pray on my kids


Oh, my dear Alberta.

Yes, we have just ousted a party that had been in power long enough to get a real sense of entitlement going.

We are still a socially-conservative province (though perhaps not so conservative as we might think). So we do occasionally get the same issues cropping up here as our southern neighbours get regularly. Today, I’m going to deal with the issue of school prayer.

Most recently, it is a school in Taber, in southern Alberta: Dr. Hamman Elementary School. What’s particularly interesting here is that they stopped morning prayers back in 2013. But the board has decided to reinstate them. (1, 2)

According to the article, they stopped prayers in response to complaints from parents. And now they’ve done a survey, where around 73% of families (91% of respondents) said they wanted prayer. So they’re bringing it back.

I understand that we need to respect everyone’s rights. And, to that end, I would say the obvious solution is for schools not to officially promote any particular kind of prayer. Does that sound one-sided and biased? It sure is one-sided, because the truth is one-sided. Anyone arguing for compassion, religious freedom, respectful education should be on the side of no school-led prayers. Here are the arguments I’ve come across:

Reasons for school prayer:

  • “It acknowledges the Christian heritage of our country.” Really? We have to alienate students who don’t share those beliefs, in order to respect and remember our heritage? Nonsense.
  • “It promotes community cohesion.” Except if you aren’t a member of one of the Christian churches behind this move. I guess the rest of us can just stand outside while the rest of you cohere our community, eh?
  • “It supports the right to religious freedom of the majority of students.” This is a right that people have with or without government-sponsored prayer. Those students who want to pray can do so anyway. Honestly, nothing is stopping them. That’s the same religious liberty that non-Christians are content with in schools.*

Reasons against school prayer:

  • It promotes one religion above others – something a secular school system has no place doing.
  • It makes some students feel ostracised. This marginalization is more of a problem in more Christian-dominant communities, so using a petition or survey as this school council did is exactly backwards (if students’ well-being is important).
  • It opens authorities to the embarrassment and expense of lawsuits, launched on behalf of marginalized students and families.
  • Assuming school prayer is allowed, the principle of equality suggests that non-Christian invocations should also be allowed. Perhaps we could spend the first hours of every school day reciting the basic creeds of all religious groups that students might belong to. How would you feel about your kids learning Buddhist meditation? The Muslim salat? No? Now maybe you see how some of us feel about you pushing prayer on our kids.

Honestly, people: the cause of religious liberty is, in this as in so many other cases, promoted by ensuring a secular public sphere (ie, a public sphere that isn’t bent on imposing one particular form of religion over any other).


* I have occasionally heard the claim from religious that they are actively prevented from praying in public spaces. I have yet to hear any substantial evidence that this is the case, but let me be clear. Preventing someone from praying (so long as they aren’t disrupting others’ freedom to go about their business) is not okay. If you feel you are being unjustly prevented from exercising your religious freedom, let me know. I condemn any unnecessary infringement on religious freedom, and would happily use my little soapbox here to speak against it.

[Edit: I’ve just seen this editorial from the Taber Times, which states things very clearly and eloquently.]

Cranky about voting


500px-Flag_of_Alberta.svgIt’s election season again here in Alberta.

Last time I ranted about this (here, here, and here), I was living abroad. Now, I’m right in the thick of it. I’ve been living back in Alberta with my family now for four years. We have put down roots here – bought a house, established good jobs in the city in our chosen fields, reconnected with family and friends.

And I have a whole new swath of rants. Most of them, I will confine to private complaints shared with Deena, but I think a few deserve to be aired more widely.

First, on a personal note, I want to declare my deep dissatisfaction with politics. It’s an ugly, depressing, foul window into the dank recesses of human nature, recesses that are more concerned with power and image than with substance. So, you know, politics. What are you gonna do?

With that out of the way, I want to offer a little meta-observation. I noticed, as I was browsing the platforms of our parties and candidates, that my own impulse to tribalism kept wanting to take over. For candidates or parties that I identify with, I want to let vagueness slide. “It’s a platform – they only have room for so much detail.” “I’m sure they would work that out in a way I like.” And if I don’t identify with them – especially if I identify myself in opposition to them – they get the opposite: “They’re evading responsibility by offering empty words.” “I just know they’d find a way to wiggle out of that (apparently sensible) commitment.” Even when they’re not vague, I am inclined to trust or distrust specifics according to my own prejudices.

This is a very important thing to remember. I really don’t like the idea of identity politics – of saying, “This is my team, so I’ll ignore their faults and exaggerate their virtues and treat anyone on another team as the enemy.” That’s divisive and unhelpful, but it is a deeply human way to look at the world. One of many human traits that this humanist strives to overcome.

And, getting past that, I see that most of the parties are essentially saying exactly the same thing. Even when it sounds like they’re not. For example, the Wildrose Party* promises to “Expand the use of clean burning Alberta natural gas and propane for industrial and residential electricity production and transportation”. Which is all about promoting Alberta’s fossil-fuel-based natural resource economy. On the other hand, the Liberal Party promises to “phase out coal-fired power plants by 2025”: a clear commitment to cleaner energy, reducing our reliance on the worst-polluting energy sources.

But, on reflection, it occurred to me that both of these policies could be met with the same action (moving from coal power plants to gas and propane power plants). The same action, with two very different spins. (I don’t know that both parties have the same actual plan in mind, it’s just that their promises aren’t as different as they first seem.)

None of the parties are very heavy on specifics (except, it seems, for the New Democratic Party, the NDP**). And where they give specifics, I confess that I’m not qualified to judge what they really mean. I wish we had the folks from BBC’s More or Less program reviewing our election campaigns. Listening to their recent election coverage (round 1, round 2), I feel a twinge of numerical envy. (If anyone out there knows of people who are doing this, in Alberta or in Canada more generally, please let me know!)

At the end of the day, I have the same choice that citizens in democratic countries everywhere have to make: which person or party is the least bad?

I am zeroing in on my favorite. I don’t think I’ll have to resort to ballot eating. But I would like to close with two pleas which I have made before.

First, if you can votedo it! For all that we whinge and complain about the type of people that we have to choose between in our political system, democracy is still less bad than any of the alternatives. And if you’re going to vote, have a little respect for the power you are wielding and try to get informed. Don’t just vote along identity lines. Find out who is actually promising what, and vote for the person you think will create the change you want (or prevent the change you don’t want). I honestly mean this, whether you vote the way I do or not.

And second, can we please, please try something more informative than a single-mark ballot? Transferable votes are easy to fill out, and give me the option to vote my conscience without worrying that I’m letting the Awfuls in by not voting for the mediocre-but-more-likely-to-win party. As it is, I am sometimes inclined to give the whole thing a miss because it seems so likely my vote will end up counting for nothing. Electoral reform could help to solve the voter apathy problem that is rampant in Alberta, as in so many other places.

Okay, I’m done for today. Maybe my next post won’t be a rant. Have I become a cranky old man? Might have to merge with The Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist (written by an old friend of mine). Or start the “No Longer Friendly Humanist”.


* The Wildrose Party is our current contender for far-right – think a slightly more moderate Republican party. (Oh, how I’m glad to be Canadian!) The wild rose is the provincial flower of Alberta.

** The NDP is the most left-leaning of the main four parties. Roughly, from left to right, they are conventionally ordered NDP, Liberal, PC (Progressive Conservatives), Wildrose.


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