Secular in the media

2015/10/29

(This is the second in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)
Rob Breakenridge

Rob Breakenridge is a media personality. He co-hosts a daytime radio show and hosts an evening radio news show (also heard here), as well as being a regular columnist in one of the province’s main newspapers.

He talked to us about being openly secular in the media. I did not take many notes – mainly because he is an engaging speaker, but also because there were no action points – things he was encouraging us to do to follow up on what he talked about. So this is a short post.

My main takeaway from his talk was twofold. First, his experience is that it is possible to be blunt and honest about what you do and do not believe, without suffering in the media. He does not feel editorial pressure to present a particular message or gloss over things or any of that. Second, that sort of pressure is more likely to occur in some places (small, local outlets in predominantly religious areas) than in others (larger media outlets and those in more diverse communities). As consumers, we should be aware of this, and not be afraid to let media outlets know when we feel they are taking a biased or unprofessional stance against our community (or any other group).

(If anyone from the conference is reading this, I would be grateful for comments to fill in the gaps – I know Rob talked about more, but as I said, I didn’t take copious notes.)

Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity

2015/10/28

(This is the first in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

Bradley Peter is a tall, slender man with a soft voice and a gentle, methodical manner. He is just the sort of person you can imagine being a therapist or a funeral director.

Actually, he’s a biologist.

But after witnessing his grandmother’s final weeks – where her options were to keep suffering, be drugged and “live” as a vegetable until her body expired, or to voluntarily starve to death – he found a passion for reforming our laws around death to enable people more dignity when the choice is no longer one between life and death, but between an excruciating, humiliating death and a dignified, comfortable death.

This February, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition on physician-assisted death is contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, denying people important rights. (It’s more involved than you might think. Apparently suicide itself isn’t a criminal act in Canada, but someone – including a doctor – can be jailed for up to 14 years for counselling or aiding in a suicide.) The ruling itself is here (somewhat hard to read, but it’s there), and there are many news reports and commentaries – here are some: 1, 2, 3. Their ruling, which strikes down the portion of the Criminal Code that pertains to physician-assisted death, comes into effect in 2016, on February 6. If nothing else happens, we will be left in something of a vacuum, with no prohibition and no clear guidelines on how to deal with patient requests for assistance in dying.

Our new Alberta provincial government, our new Canadian federal government, and various medical bodies all bear responsibility to prepare for this deadline by consulting with public and medical professionals and drafting legislation. Dying With Dignity, an organization which Brad is part of, is campaigning on various fronts to ensure that the rules we end up with respect patient rights, physicians’ conscience, and court rulings. We need to ensure that people are not abused – either by greedy relatives pressuring aging invalids into suicide, or by moralizing naysayers who would see suffering as some sort of heavenly gift, or anyone else.

A couple of things you can do right now from the comfort of your own browser are to complete online surveys for the External Panel on Options for a Legislative Response to Carter v. Canada (which will advise the federal ministers of justice and health – survey here) and the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (which will determine best practice in Alberta for physicians around this part of end-of-life care – survey here). I am sure the colleges of physicians and surgeons of other provinces are also working on this – if you know of them and any surveys they have going, leave a comment with links and I’ll add them to the post.

It is important to be aware that these surveys are not necessarily unbiased. Whether intentionally or not, some of the questions may be leading. Read carefully, and respond honestly and thoughtfully. At least the first one has space throughout and at the end for you to note things you think are important but were not covered in the wording or choices on the survey.

Brad’s presentation came at a perfect time to motivate many of us in the audience to take an active role in shaping the attitudes of legislators and informing our fellow citizens about the issue at stake.

There is also an upcoming National Day of Action on November 4th (Wednesday next week – there are events in cities across Canada). Will you join us, and Brad, and others who feel that the time has come for a careful, compassionate look at how we treat death and dying people in our country?

Dying With Dignity logo

None of the Above conference

2015/10/27

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.

Intelligence

2015/09/23

“I assume most of the people reading this book are more intelligent than a sea slug. The interesting question is why.” – Stuart Ritchie, Intelligence: All That Matters, opening lines of Chapter 4.

I seem to be coming to a new era in my life, where instead of reading books that are recommended by my friends and family, I read books that are written by my friends and family. In the last couple of weeks, I have put three on my reading list. Here, I will review the first one.

The author is Stuart Ritchie. Doctor Stuart Ritchie*. Here he is:

Stuart Ritchie

He is a psychologist who studied at Edinburgh while I was there. I like to think that he was a student of mine, but the full truth is that I first met him when I was a PhD student, running a tutorial session for introductory linguistics. Stuart was one of the students in my tutorial section. So in a sense, he was kinda-sorta-maybe my student. I remember that several times he managed to almost set off explosive and controversial discussions in the group. As someone who enjoys debate, I found it entertaining. As someone trying to help teach linguistics and get through the set material, I found it frustrating.

A year or two later, another friend and I founded the Humanist Society at the University of Edinburgh, and guess who showed up? Stuart quickly became a prominent member of our little group, holding office and being vocally involved in most discussions. He also wrote one of several blogs that were started by members of that group (including the one you’re reading right now). His most recent post is four years ago, so I guess he has moved on. As an increasingly active academic whose own personal blog is languishing, I completely understand.

All of this is to say that I know Stuart as a nice guy to have a chat with in the pub, and someone with a sharp and unapologetic wit. And as a friend.

He was studying for a psychology degree back when I first knew him. I remember him selecting term projects designed to test controversial and unlikely claims made about learning and other psychological phenomena. Now he has a PhD, and his research is primarily in intelligence research – including the much-maligned area of IQ tests. This is what his book is about. (He also gives popular talks on the topic and maintains an active Twitter account – an excellent practice for a modern scientist.)

The book is called Intelligence: All That Matters. (The “All That Matters” bit is a series name imposed by the publisher – after reading the book, it’s clear that Stuart doesn’t think intelligence is all that matters. Perhaps it’s best to read the title as “All That Matters About Intelligence”.)

Intelligence-allthatmatters

I’d love to walk you through all of the interesting points, but the whole thing is interesting and I am not inclined to regurgitate the whole thing. I got an electronic version from Google for $11**, so it’s easy enough to get it yourself. And the point of this post is to promote my friend’s work (and, ideally, encourage some royalties his way). So I’ll just hit the high points, by way of a brief summary of the chapters:

  1. Introducing intelligence, in which he identifies why we might be interested in intelligence, gives a quick history of intelligence testing, and even throws in a bit of light statistics that will help the reader’s follow the talk of correlations throughout much of the rest of the book.
  2. Testing intelligence, where we learn about what types of questions and exercises really show up on intelligence tests, how the “IQ” number is determined, and what this general intelligence thing (the “g factor”) is. We also learn a little about how people’s intelligence changes and doesn’t change over their life.
  3. Why intelligence matters, a thorough and careful chapter that goes into detail about all of the things that correlate (and seem to have causal relationships) with intelligence. This is mainly positive, but there is one negative correlation – something that intelligent people have more of and may wish they didn’t. Read the book to find out what it is.
  4. The biology of intelligence, a topic that can be wildly controversial. A more timid or less articulate author might pussyfoot around it. Not Stuart. In a fearless and sensitive manner, he discusses the obviously genetically-determined intelligence differences between species before getting into the subtle matter of variability in human intelligence and genetics. He doesn’t come across sexist or racist – not because he’s dancing around the matter, but because the evidence doesn’t point that way. Having read this, I feel that I have a solid grounding to discuss these issues with folks I know.
  5. The easy way to raise your IQ. In this chapter, we are led through various popular ideas, from the “Mozart effect” to “breastfeeding”, which people think can raise IQ, and what the evidence says about it. Stuart describes two ways that definitely work, from long and established evidence, to raise average population intelligence. What are they? You guessed it: read the book to find out!
  6. Why is intelligence so controversial? This book is not an evasion. Stuart has been in the field long enough to have confronted many forms of opposition, from quarters both within and outside of academia. This chapter confronts several of the dark episodes in the history of intelligence testing. He doesn’t make excuses for them; he acknowledges the racism, sexism, and even the eugenics. And he returns to the untarnished core of empirical evidence and the legitimate motivations for wanting to study intelligence – not just for the pure love of knowledge (though that is, of course, important), but for the social and economic benefits that we have reaped and may continue to reap through responsible research into the biological, sociological, medical, and other things related to intelligence.

Along the way, he answers many burning questions, such as:

  • Does intelligence testing reveal anything important? Yes.
  • Don’t they just test your ability to take a test? No.
  • Do we really want to reduce people to a single number? No, and no responsible psychologist would ever want to do that anyway.

(For deeper answers, go buy the book.)

I really enjoyed reading this book. It has been several years since I’ve seen my friend in person, and this book is so clearly in his style that I could almost hear his delightful Borders Scottish accent coming off the page. I hope Stuart will not mind if I say that his active wit seems to have been tempered and seasoned a bit. He still has a sharp and delightful style, but some of the wild reactionism of youth has been replaced with the thoughtfulness of … slightly less youth.

This is a great read. It’s fun, and it will help you understand your own brain – your own mind – a bit better.

Footnotes:

* Stuart, I’m sorry, mate. It’s awesome that you got your PhD, but it’s just too hard to consistently refer to you as “Dr Ritchie”. In my heart, you’ll always be “Stuart”. (If it helps, I still find it hard to believe that have a PhD too, and it’s weird that people call me “Dr Mills”.)

** Well, $10.99 Canadian. That works out to what? $5 US, probably two quid in Britain? I don’t know – go figure it out yourself.

Too much power

2015/09/02

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?

2015/06/30

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.

A new voice in the Tapestry

2015/06/08

CBC_Logo_1992-Present

In the car going grocery shopping on Sunday, I heard a voice on CBC that I recognized from secular podcasts I regularly follow: Mandisa Thomas. Then there was an interview with Karl Giberson, a physicist who learned how to break the literalist Creationist mold as he learned about how science really works, and what it reveals (without abandoning his Christianity).

The show is Tapestry, a weekly show airing on Sundays, also available as a podcast. The website says about the show:

Governments change, economies tumble and soar, and headlines trumpet the scandal of the day. All the while, Tapestry deals with the more subtle news of life — a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be human.

Tapestry is the place where you can wonder about the big questions you’ve been too busy to consider during the week.  We’ll hear rabbis and gardeners getting equal time on the topic of belief. Science-fiction writers and physicist-priests kick around the world’s great creation myths.  Athletes explore the hero’s journey as a spiritual metaphor, and musicians make the connection between song and the human spirit.

We’ll also meet regular people just trying to make sense of the world, whether they’re finding their way as believers or atheists – or everything in-between.

What stands out to me is that this show is clearly about the topics that religions try to address (and, often, to monopolize). It’s about “what it means to be human”. But, unlike many radio shows addressing these topics, this one doesn’t even pretend that religions have a key (or even particularly special) place in this conversation. Guests are “rabbis and gardeners … science-fiction writers and physicist-priests … athletes … musicians … regular people … believers or atheists – or everything in-between”.

I have gone back now and listened to the whole episode. (The opening interview, which I had initially missed, was with James Grupa, a teacher of evolution at a university in Kentucky.) It’s a fascinating way of approaching this conversation – dismissing neither non-religious voices (like some shows do) nor religious voices (like many atheist blogs and podcasts do that I listen to).

I’ve subscribed to their podcast feed – I look forward to seeing what else they have, upcoming and in their archives. I’ll let you know if I come across any particular gems.

If you know the show or another that fills a similar niche, please leave a link to any episode you think is especially worth checking out.

Facing our demons

2015/06/06

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.

Secular parent advocacy in Alberta

2015/06/04

This is just a quick cheerleading post. I want to highlight a rather cool Facebook group: Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning. That’s “A PUPIL” for short.

They’re not new, and I’ve been a member of the group for a little while now. But as I become slightly more active on Facebook, I’ve become aware of how active the group is at alerting people to issues coming up across Alberta – not just around school prayer, but around sex education and other issues that bear on that idea of unbiased and inclusive public education in our province. (Most of those links are to newspaper articles that have been posted on the group.)

They also have a Twitter account, but it seems to be dormant right now.

Kudos to the group’s organizers and its over 200 members for keeping these issues visible and injecting some secular sanity where, sometimes, either populism or the spirit of compromise are taken too far, and allowed to swallow up basic principles of equality and good education.

Don’t pray on my kids

2015/06/02

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).

Footnote:

* 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.]