Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Come hear me speak next week about talking with anti-vaxxers!

On Thursday, February 20, I will be giving a talk at the Tranzac Club entitled, "Stab Everyone You Love". It's part of Toronto Nerd Nite, which I have been attending for the past couple of years. Doors open at 7 PM.

I'll be discussing my online experiences conversing with anti-vaxxers, describe arguments they use (and why they are fallacious), and provide some advice on how to engage (should you choose to do so). I'll  also delve into human psychology and cognitive biases, how to distinguish between objective information and propaganda trying to masquerade as such, and what you can do to educate those in your social circle (in real life or online) on this topic (and many others).

I have designed the talk to be entertaining and informative, and if you're in Toronto next week I hope you can join me.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Two short articles: Atheism is not a Religion and Alternatives to God-driven Addiction Recovery

I wrote two short articles for January 2020 edition of Critical Links, the Centre for Inquiry Canada's monthly newsletter.

Atheism is not a religion, says Federal Court of Appeals


All Canadian charities must declare their primary purpose when the register with the Canada Revenue Agency; approximately 40% of Canadian charities exist for the "advancement of religion".

The Church of Atheism of Central Canada applied for charitable status under the "advancement of religion" category. Its request was denied by the CRA, and this decision was upheld by the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal. It is possible this will go the the Supreme Court, but that remains to be seen.

The core of the decision is: "Fundamental characteristics of religion include that the followers have a faith in a higher power such as God, entity, or Supreme Being; that followers worship this higher power; and that the religion consists of a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship." The Church of Atheism of Central Canada lacks belief in a deity, and therefore can not revere a Supreme Being, and does not have a system of worship, according the the Court. (That Buddhism is eligible for charitable status while also lacking belief in a God failed to persuade the Court that the Church of Atheism should also be considered a religion for charitable purposes.)

The Court also stated that charitable registration is a privilege, not a right, so no Charter considerations come into play.

Mark Blumberg, a lawyer specializing in charity law, writes, "Ultimately the courts are not planning on changing the status quo “In the absence of legislative reform”." This is likely a correct prediction. In my opinion, removing "Advancement of Religion" as a criterion sufficient to gain charitable status is preferable to including atheism within the definition of religious belief and practice.

Non-theistic addiction recovery programs now offered for BC Health workers


In the July 2019 edition of Critical Links, we told you about Byron Wood, an atheist nurse and alcoholic. He wanted to attend a rehabilitation program that was non-theistic in nature. His union did not provide one, and when he did not complete the Alcoholics Anonymous program because he refused to turn his life "over the care of God",  he was fired. (Half of AA's 12 steps directly refer to God or a greater Power.)

Though popular, AA and similar programs do not work for everyone. How effective they actually are is a matter of considerable dispute, with AA claiming "up to 75 percent of its members maintain abstinence," while addiction specialists "cite numbers closer to 8% to 12% for sobriety by [AA] members after the first year." Gabrielle Glaser in the Atlantic writes, "In 2006, the Cochrane Collaboration, a health-care research group, reviewed studies going back to the 1960s and found that “no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or [12-step] approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems.”" A 2012 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University stated, “The vast majority of people in need of addiction treatment do not receive anything that approximates evidence-based care.”

For many addicts, other treatment methods - including medication, counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, and deep-brain stimulation - have proven to be superior to the more well known 12-step programs.

Mr. Wood launched a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal in 2015, with support from the Centre for Inquiry Canada and the BC Humanist Association (among others). He reached a settlement with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) in early December 2019. Though the details of the settlement are confidential, Wood writes, "I'm really happy about the outcome — it means that VCH employees are not required to attend 12-step rehab centres, 12-step meetings, or participate in any 12-step activities if they object for religious reasons. It's what I've been fighting for, for the last six years."

As a result, the 14,000 employees of Vancouver Coastal Health will no longer have to attend AA "if that approach to treatment conflicts with their religious or non-religious beliefs."

The agreement is a settlement between Mr. Wood and VCH, not a ruling by the BC Human Rights Tribunal. As result, its terms are not binding on other organizations. However, CFIC hopes that other employers realize the intrinsic theistic nature of 12-step programs, accept the principle that attending any religious gathering should never be a requirement for employment, and provide an option for secular addiction rehabilitation services to their employees.

CFIC salutes the courage and stamina Mr. Wood has shown in his fight to have secular approaches to sobriety recognized by his former employer. Mr. Wood is applying to have his nursing license reinstated, and CFIC wishes him good luck in his future endeavours.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Decretum Symposium summary

Last month I was a panelist at the Cardus Institute's third Decretum Symposium, representing a secular perspective on the practical implications of human dignity. I applaud Cardus for a sincere effort to reach out to others in order to hear different philosophical outlooks. For important topics in society where significant portions of the country disagree on principles and the policies that flow from them, it is essential to have a frank and respectful exchange of ideas. This was my goal with my prepared remarks on human dignity from a secular perspective.

I did not expect to change anyone's core philosophy, in the sense of converting the audience to adopt my worldview. My aim was get attendees - who were all adherents to a religious tradition, primarily Catholic - to think differently, and perhaps to recognize that people on the "other" side (secular folk, atheists, and non-Catholics) also had morals, values, and a philosophy based on a considered ethical foundation. If I was truly successful, they would realize that secularism (government neutrality in matters of religion) is the most reasonable compromise in a pluralistic society.

I had a couple interesting conversations before the event began. (Note that none of what follows is a transcript, though I am recalling what was said and maintaining the fidelity of all arguments to the best of my ability).

The Canadian federal election campaign had recently begun, so politics was a natural topic for conversation. There was a clear preference for the Conservative party in the room. The first person I spoke with told me, "One of my kids said the other day, 'I don't like team Red.' When I asked why, she said, 'Mommy told me they hate us.'" The "us" in his anecdote were observant Catholics. He didn't approve of his wife inculcating political partisanship in the children, though it was apparent he agreed with the sentiment.

Another individual (after introductions and an appropriate amount of small talk) lamented what he saw as an increasing trend toward censorship in today's society. He found there to be a trend of shutting down conversations, with a justification that once a decision has been made, it was time to move on. Surely, he asked rhetorically, we should welcome discussion, including dissenting views?

I inferred that the subtext was MAiD - Medical Assistance in Dying - but since he declined to make the topic explicit, I decided to follow his lead, and instead used a different concrete example to illustrate my thoughts.

I started by agreeing with him. I concurred that we should not censor dissenting views, suppress questions or ban conversation on just about any topic. But I provided two caveats: 1) Time is scarce. As the potential list of things to talk about is infinite, we ought to choose our discussion topics wisely, as the potential list is infinite. A person or organization may choose not to discuss something, or to discuss something other than your preferred topic, but that decision is not tantamount to censorship. Flat earthers are not censored, even if geologists won't talk with them or put their items on the agenda of meeting of their professional societies. 2) If a deliberative body has reached a conclusion on a matter, presumably there were valid reasons for coming to the decision. Anyone wanting it to be reconsidered has an obligation to review the arguments and evidence that underpinned the original conclusion. Unless members have new information, reveal a flaw in the decision making methodology, or can point out errors in the original premises, evidence, or reasoning, then there is no reason for an organization to heed some members' calls for a review. Again, as with those proclaiming the earth is flat, in the absence of any evidence of their claims, scientists are right to largely ignore them. They have better things to do with their time.

The Symposium began with a panel of four philosophers and theologians. As I had predicted, each presenter had a different definition of human dignity.

The first speaker, Dr. Moira McQueen of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, argued that human dignity arises due to each individual's uniqueness. This leads to a perspective of "radical equality, as each person has inherent worth." We should be considered full human beings "from conception to natural death, with no exceptions," and any definition of personhood that begins after conception "is an assault on human dignity." She stated that non-religious people are moral, who value truth and the good - which is a kind of faith, even if not in God. She also claimed that there was "no possibility of a state being neutral" in matters of religion.

Next up was Faisal Bhabha, a law professor at Osgoode. He believes that "what it is to be human is a philosophical and religious question, not a scientific one." There is no straight line between the Enlightenment and the development of human rights, he said, which came to the fore only after World War II. Though dignity is often mentioned in the law, especially Human Rights law, it is nowhere defined. The Supreme Court of Canada has "linked dignity to equality the exclusion of other human rights," which Professor Bhabha laments. Human dignity is a widespread concept, as illustrated by the Arab Spring's rallying cry of, "Bread, Freedom, and Dignity!"

The third panelist was Dr. Douglas Farrow. His address consisted almost entirely of Christian apologetics. It was biblical theism, he stated, that brought the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into being. Dr. Farrow gives Christianity credit for all the good in the world. If a worthy idea was in a Psalm, then it clearly inspired all implementations of that notion.

The final contributor to the first panel was Dr. Victor Muñiz-Fraticelli. He said he was surprised to be representing the secular perspective, because he's usually an apologist for religious authority. He is a moral constructivist, which follows from the writings of John Rawls. He spoke at length about Immanuel Kant's ideas about the categorical imperative. He argued that because humans have reason, we act contra-causally (that is, we have free will). He claimed that in liberal circles, only a philosophical account matters when justifying moral or ethical propositions; religious arguments are discounted, or must be translated. He seemed saddened by this state of affairs, though it's not clear to me why, and he did not elaborate.

My presentation was immediately after dinner. Between performing in innumerable plays and debates during my high school and university years, as well as more recent conference and debate appearances, I have some experience in reading an audience to gauge how my words are being received. However, during my speech I could get no sense of the mood of the room. There were still some people finishing their dessert or concluding their conversations from dinner when I began; within thirty seconds, however, I had everyone's full attention, which I kept for the duration of my speech. Whether it was because I was a compelling speaker that maintained everyone's rapt attention, or people were shocked into silence due to the heresies I was seriously proposing, I could not tell.

My counterpart for the second panel was Dr. Lucas Vivas of the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians and Societies. He started by asking, "Why should we care for others, beyond family, loved ones, and for economic benefit?" His answer was human dignity and an ethic of care. Of dignity, he said, "I know what it is - but I don't really know what it is." Doctors tend to define dignity by its absence. For Dr. Vivas, human dignity is inextricably merged with God: if He doesn't exist, there is no such thing as dignity.

Dr. Vivas attempted to refute my contention that "Human dignity demands that we be pro-choice." He argued that autonomy is the equivalent to rationality, so if human dignity is grounded in autonomy, it would be permissible to kill babies. He continued, "Rape is an affront. But carrying life is a blessing, while killing a baby is not. Being pro-life is not an affront to a woman's dignity."

After the formal addresses was a discussion among all six panelists, moderated by Dr. Andrew Bennett. As soon as he was given the floor for some brief remarks, Dr. Farrow spent nearly fifteen minutes laying into me. It was the only time at the Symposium when I experienced overt hostility. To start with, he took great umbrage that my address contained
So many - I counted at least a dozen - "should", "must", and "ought" statements. On what basis do you demand so much of others? Your speech had no philosophical grounding - it was anchored in nothing more substantial than clouds!
Though I was asked to focus on practical applications of human dignity (since the mandate of the first panel was to establish its theological and philosophical underpinnings), this was a a fair criticism. He refused to allow me a chance to answer, however, and continued his rant. He "cannot imagine a civilized society not based in gratitude to the Creator," which - though it allowed for other faiths that worship a different Deity - poses an intrinsic conflict with my proposed secular outlook.

At this point I managed to offer a brief  rebuttal: "No. There is no inherent conflict with a secular person coexisting peacefully with those observing any religious tradition. An issue arises only when one party uses force to coerce the other into adhering to their worldview." His retort was, "Your arguments remind me of Michael Ignatieff," - someone I respect greatly as an academic (and considerably less so as a politician), but I didn't get the chance to say so - "whose position I utterly demolish in Chapter One of my book." (He didn't specify which of his publications.)

He asked me directly: "What would happen if I reject your premise of mutual non-antagonism? What if I want your head on a platter?" He claimed to know all about Hobbes' Leviathan and dismissed it with a wave of his hand, asking, "In your proposed worldview, what's to stop me from killing you?" I'm not sure I truly understood what he was driving at - was he implying that the only reason he didn't decapitate me was his faith in God and fear of His disapproval? I tried to explain that there were laws and norms against such an action, on top of which I would attempt to defend myself against such an onslaught, but I was interrupted several times and couldn't get my point across effectively.

Dr. Farrow then linked increasing secularization in society with the observation that things are getting steadily worse. I rejected his premise, saying that overall humanity is making progress, as average lifespans are increasing and levels of violence, with some unfortunate spikes, are generally decreasing. The audience gasped in shock at this claim; it was clear they vehemently disagreed, and Dr. Farrow mocked me for it, saying this was only true if one cherry picked the data by ignoring all the wars of the 20th century. When I had the chance to speak again, I mentioned that my argument is documented in Steven Pinker's "Better Angels of our Nature", but unfortunately by that point it was too late to be an effective bolster.

Most interesting for me was the audience Q&A session. One attendee was struggling with Dr. McQueen's statement that human dignity is inherent, not something that is given or needs to be earned. "You are claiming," he said, "that humans do not have dignity because we are made in God's image, because that is in reference to God. If dignity is inherent, then God is simply an overlay, and He is not necessary for human dignity!" I realized I was leaning forward in my seat at this point - though the question was not directed at me, I was intensely interested in how he resolved his cognitive dissonance. In the end, motivated thinking won out - he had to reject the notion that human dignity is inherent because he could not accept that an important concept in how we relate to each other did not have God at its centre.

Dr. Bennett directed a question to me. "If we acknowledge that we should respect people's wish to die, does it made sense to spend money on suicide prevention? For these days we are investing millions of dollars to fight an epidemic of suicides among native communities in Canada."

I responded as follows:
There are two parts to this. First, there is a qualitative difference between suicide and assisted death. The first is an over-reaction; a transitory, passionate response to a temporary state of affairs, which the individual lacks the perspective to realize at that moment. We know this to be true because of the many people who have attempted suicide and are subsequently glad that they were unsuccessful. Assisted death, at least in Canada, is restricted to those that have a permanent, degenerative, and fatal condition for which there is no effective treatment or cure, and even then only after significant consultation and evaluation by medical and psychological experts. 
Second, and more importantly, before we start creating rationales to halt suicide prevention programs on reserves, we have an obligation to give first nation communities the same opportunities that other Canadians living in urban and rural areas have. We could start by ensuring that all First Nations have safe drinking water, as some have had boil water advisories for decades. We should increase the amount spent on education and child welfare to match what other Canadians receive. And we need to eliminate the bias in our policing and judicial systems that has discriminated against aboriginals since the first Europeans set foot in North America. If we do that, it is entirely possible that there would no suicide epidemic among First Nations communities to contend with.
A little later, Dr. Bennett directed a second question toward me. He led with a quotation, "He who drools has just as much dignity as he who does not." (I do not recall the source.) He proceeded by querying whether our shared commitment to human dignity (though defined differently by each of us) precluded us from actively terminating a person's life. I decided that there had been enough talk about broad principles and abstract ideas, so I hoped that a personal anecdote might demonstrate the point more poignantly:
A dear friend contracted ALS several years ago. She did not speak of human dignity explicitly, but what gave her life meaning was her interactions with others. The nightmare scenario, for her, was to be trapped in a body with full awareness but be completely unable to communicate. Medical technology could have kept her alive with a feeding tube and a ventilator.
How can anyone claim it is ethical to put her through years or decades of what would be, for her, the worst torture she could imagine? If the key objection is taking active steps to end her life, can one genuinely argue it would be better to let her drown in her own saliva or suffocate because her body no longer could bring sufficient oxygen to her lungs? A decision to end one's life, and to assist someone to do so, should not be undertaken lightly - but I cannot agree that the moral thing to do would be to prolong her life, against her wishes, condemning her to a personal hell, indefinitely.
The conference ended on a positive note, from my perspective. Dr. Vivas had lamented during his speech that he did not practice in a Catholic hospital (and that many such hospitals are Catholic in name only). Further, the Ontario Medical Association is "prosecutorial" towards faith having any role in his medical practice - that is, while he is allowed to be a Catholic who practiced medicine, he risked official censure if he practiced Catholic medicine. In his final remarks to the conference, he explained that in Brampton his patients are overwhelmingly Sikh and Muslim. If his hospital reflected the local demographics, he would be a doctor in a Sikh or Islamic environment, a prospect that made him "distinctly uncomfortable". Perhaps, he acknowledged, "there is some merit in a secular approach," which allowed everyone, regardless of their personal faith, to focus on health.

Overall, I was pleased that I was able to contribute to the public discourse on the role of faith and secular ethics in a pluralistic society.


Sunday, September 29, 2019

A secular perspective on human dignity

On Thursday, September 26, I took part in the third Decretum Symposium, an event organized by the Cardus Institute, a faith-based think tank. I was invited by Andrew Bennett, a director at Cardus, whom I met in May while testifying about hate speech before the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights committee. 

The Symposium was about human dignity: what it is, and how it can be applied to the topics of assisted death, abortion, and conscience rights/freedom of religion. I was asked to present a secular perspective on these issues, representing the Canadian Secular Alliance

I knew little about my audience save that they would be predominantly practicing Christians, though there would be representatives of other faiths present as well. I will publish my thoughts about the Symposium in a few days.

Here are my prepared remarks:

Good evening. My name is Leslie Rosenblood, and I am a secular humanist. I have chosen this philosophical outlook because it most closely aligns with the principles, morals, and values I hold dear.

Human life is precious. It is precious not because of a deity, nor because of the words written on a sacred scroll centuries or millennia ago. Life is precious because it is rare. As far as we know, there was no life anywhere for the universe’s first 10 billion years, and humanity’s ancestors evolved only a few million years ago. Though we are fortunate enough to be living in Canada today, we can still glimpse just a tiny fraction of the vastness of the universe, and even then only for a minuscule sliver of its existence - on average, for a little over 80 years. The billions of years that will follow us will be known, if at all, only by our descendants. That is why human life is precious, has meaning, and is of value. This life is the one chance we have to experience and understand the world we were born into. It is precisely because there are no second chances, no guiding hand of Fate, and no divine safety net, that our decisions and actions matter. It is only us who are responsible for how we treat each other. It is precisely because I do not believe in an afterlife that I place such value on this one. This, for me, is the source of human dignity.

I have struggled over the past few weeks with the definition of human dignity. It has not been difficult because I don't think it exists. The challenge is that I have not been able to find a definition of human dignity that I believe will be shared by all present tonight. When we speak of human dignity this evening, we should do so with the caveat that we are not likely to have a common understanding of what the phrase entails.

When I speak of human dignity, I do so through the lens of the following two principles:
  1. Human autonomy
  2. Amelioration of suffering
A genuine commitment to individual autonomy means recognizing that people have different priorities, and will choose different things in similar circumstances. We must be humble enough to acknowledge we do not know what is best for others. Thus I do not think there exists a one-size fits all, simple rule that applies to everyone in all circumstances.

Reducing suffering is essentially an extension of the Golden Rule - suffering is defined as pain and distress, and by asking others to reduce my anguish, I have an obligation to reciprocate.

Neither of these rules is absolute. A prohibition on killing others is a justifiable restriction of untrammeled individual autonomy because it infringes both precepts of human dignity – it is the ultimate violation of another person, and adds greatly to the suffering of the victims and their loved ones. Yet even here, our proscription is not absolute – we allow for an exception when one kills in self-defence.

In addition to avoiding universal or binary rules, we should also agree to a philosophical commitment to truth. We need to examine not only if an idea makes sense in principle, but also be willing to honestly evaluate its real world effects when implemented, and adjust our thinking accordingly. Because while in theory, theory and practice are the same, in practice, they are not.

With this groundwork laid, we can apply these ideas to the specific topics in tonight's discussion.

It is clear that a forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term against her will is a violation of her autonomy. Doing so in cases of rape is cruel, adding to instead of reducing her suffering. When this topic arises, some argue that terminating a set of rapidly dividing largely undifferentiated cells is the moral and legal equivalent to slaughtering an adult human being. This contention contradicts the knowledge about human embryology and development we have accumulated over the past few centuries, and contravenes our commitment to truth and avoiding false dichotomies. Human dignity demands that we be pro-choice.

Nonetheless, I support measures that have the effect of reducing the number of abortions within society. If that is your goal, there is much we can agree on. Fortunately, we have data spanning decades from many countries and we know several things society can do to significantly reduce the number of women seeking an abortion, even where they are readily available:
  1. Comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education. When people understand how their bodies work, they make more informed decisions about what to do with them. We know that abstinence-only curricula are positively correlated with teenage pregnancy rates. Accurate information drives down unintended pregnancies, which in turn reduces the number of abortions. 
  2. Ready access to birth control and contraception, such as condoms and the pill. Humans are sexual beings, and tend to have intercourse no matter the parental or societal taboos surrounding it. We need to accept this about our nature, and permit the act without the often undesired consequence of a pregnancy. 
  3. Increase support for parents of infants and toddlers. There is a clear inverse relationship between structural societal support for babies - such as paid parental leaves and affordable child care - and the number of abortions. When having a child does not threaten a lifetime of poverty, more people choose to become pregnant, and fewer decide not to carry the fetus to term. 
We also know that restricting or banning abortion does little to reduce its prevalence. Introducing education, contraception, and societal supports dramatically lowers the abortion rate. I put it to you that we can agree on public policy goals, even if we arrive at our conclusions starting from different premises.

Assisted death is a complex subject. If we are to consider voluntary euthanasia, we must build in protections against errors and abuse. A temporary condition, such as some forms of pain, should not lead to an irrevocable decision. When people approach the end of their life, they are often robbed of the ability to make informed decisions - and next of kin, regrettably, sometimes prioritize their own interests over the ailing person's. And medical professionals, being human, sometimes make errors in judgement - so we need to independently double check every decision to ensure no mistakes have been made.

Given the extensive efforts required to even consider assisted death, perhaps we should reject it outright. But once one sees what transpires so often in our medical centres today - excruciating pain; dementia; seizures; involuntary expulsion of bodily fluids from every orifice; with many of these cases being untreatable and/or incurable – one cannot conclude that it is moral to prolong their agony for as long as technologically feasible. Human dignity demands otherwise.

I therefore reject both extreme views - that we should take active steps to end a person's life at the smallest inconvenience, and that we should always take all measures to extend every life to the maximum possible extent. Our commitment to autonomy and minimization of suffering means that we must respect a person's desire to die, under appropriately constrained conditions.

A respect for autonomy also informs freedom of conscience. As a secularist - meaning I believe government should neither support nor suppress religious expression - I believe in both freedom of religion and freedom from it.

Let us consider seriously the premise that conscience rights imply one may refuse to perform an aspect of their job that violates their faith. In such a world, the simple act of ordering a bacon cheeseburger at a restaurant may be fraught with difficulties. A Hindu waitress could refuse to serve the burger. A Muslim chef would possibly refuse to cook the bacon. A Jewish employee might forbid the mixing of dairy and meat. And if the customer nonetheless persevered and ate one, a Jehovah's Witness physician would perhaps refuse to perform a lifesaving blood transfusion after the heart attack that followed.

This may seem a trivial thought experiment, but its lessons apply broadly. Let's imagine an employee of the Canada Revenue Agency holds the sincere belief that religion is the root of evil in society today. A church, temple, or mosque applies to have its new house of worship recognized by the CRA as a charitable organization, in full accordance with Canadian law. Should this employee be able to veto the application if it crosses his desk?

I would argue no. This CRA employee cannot claim his personal beliefs override the rights of others to services (or, in this case, tax credits) to which they are legally entitled. By the same token, a sincere belief that homosexuality is a sin does not mean that a justice of the peace may refuse to conduct a marriage ceremony for a same sex couple. Nor, for that matter, should a doctor be permitted to deny an effective referral to a patient that is seeking an assisted death. Religious freedom, and freedom of conscience, cannot be used as a cudgel to enforce one's personal or religious preferences upon others.

Laws must be generally applicable, and apply equally to people of all faiths, as well as those that have none. I want there to be Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Hindus, Mormons, Wiccans and more represented in our various municipal, provincial, and federal legislatures and in our civil service. Laws and public policy must not be dictated by any of these faiths. The beliefs of an individual employee should have no effect on the governmental services one receives.  

A secular society allows for the greatest religious freedom for all citizens, subject to reasonable limits in a free and democratic society; it does not include a protected right to coerce others to behave according to the tenets of a particular faith. Recognizing that human dignity consists of individual autonomy and reduction of suffering leads to a society with greater freedom and diversity, thus creating the conditions for human flourishing. I hope that everyone here tonight shares with me that objective. 

Thank you.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Once again - restrictions on religious discrimination is not religious persecution

The essay below first appeared in the August edition of the Centre for Inquiry Canada's newsletter, Critical Links.

Secularism can be defined in several ways. The definition that I subscribe to (along with the Canadian Secular Alliance and the Centre for Inquiry Canada) is government neutrality in matters of religion, whereby the government neither supports nor suppresses religious expression for its citizens.

Quebec's functional definition of secularism seems to be removing all religious symbolism from the public square. It recently passed Bill 21, which forbids new government employees (including civil servants and teachers) from displaying any religious paraphernalia on the job, including crucifixes, turbans, yarmulkes, and hijabs.

The Quebec government was clearly concerned this almost certainly violated section 2 a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (guaranteeing religious freedom), because it preemptively invoked the Charter's section 33 (commonly referred to as the "notwithstanding clause"), shielding the legislation from most legal challenges.

Therefore I was interested to read an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail on July 11 entitled, "Religious expression is under attack in Canada – and not just in Quebec". I was unaware of other attacks on religious expression, and wanted to see how Canada was violating secular principles elsewhere in the country.

It turns out the piece is half precisely right, and half entirely wrong.

I agree entirely with the sentiment in the first part of the essay: It is worrying that Quebec behaves as though "Even the most benign expressions of religious conviction must be kept out of the public service, and accommodation will only be afforded to employees who are non-religious or who agree to give that appearance. This should alarm believers and non-believers alike, regardless of whether they are directly affected by this law."

But from this solid foundation, the article quickly loses its way. It makes sweeping claims, such as Canadians increasingly believe "religion should not be accommodated if it makes others feel uncomfortable" and "decision-makers are increasingly upholding religious-rights violations with little, if any, discussion of the important interests protected by religious freedom", that are wholly unsupported by the remainder of the piece.

The article cites only two examples of how religious expression in Canada is under attack beyond Bill 21. Both cases are presented in misleading manner. They involve not a suppression of religious expression, but the protection of rights from religious discrimination. The difference is crucial.

The authors decry the Supreme Court's decision on Trinity Western University's(TWU) proposed law school, describing it as having "denied graduates of Trinity Western University’s proposed law school equal admission to the practice of law based on the university’s faith-based code of conduct". I have written extensively on the TWU decision; in essence, the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of religion does not grant to right to discriminate against others. TWU demanded from all students that sexual intimacy be restricted to between a married man and woman; homosexuals (married or not) are welcome, but must commit to celibacy while a student at TWU. Violators are subject to academic discipline up to and including expulsion. Blatant discrimination against the LGBT community is not moral or acceptable solely because some interpretations of scripture attempt to justify it.

The other case is that Ontario physicians "can be forced to help facilitate procedures that violate their ethical judgment" and "religious convictions". The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario created a policy whereby a medical practitioner cannot prevent a patient from seeking an assisted death, in accordance with Canadian law. Individual physicians may recuse themselves, but "must not impede access to medical assistance in dying, even if it conflicts with their conscience or religious beliefs." They must provide an "effective referral". Again, this is not an attack on the faithful; it is protecting the rights of Canadians from those who seek to deprive patients of medical procedures to which they are entitled.

Religious freedom allows for the maximum autonomy for individual religious expression, subject to reasonable limits in a free and democratic society; it does not include a protected right to coerce others to behave according to the tenets of a particular faith. Quebec's Bill 21 is a travesty that is justifiably opposed by almost all religious and civil rights organizations, including the Centre for Inquiry Canada and the Canadian Secular Alliance; if religious expression is under attack elsewhere in Canada, Mr. Ross and Mr. Kinsinger have failed to provide a single legitimate example.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Justice Committee publishes its report on online hate

A couple months ago I participated as a witness before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, testifying on behalf of the Canadian Secular Alliance. The Committee has now published its report, "Taking Action to End Online Hate". (You may read or listen to my testimony. A Q&A session is transcribed at the latter link.)

This is the first such government report I have read, so I do not know how it compares with others. I found it dry, equivocating, lacking insight, and rather unhelpful into developing any understanding into the issues surrounding the intersection of hate speech, free speech, and online interactions.

Report Recommendations


The first five formal recommendations of the report are about information collection and dissemination. These are reasonable, if somewhat obvious, steps to take. One cannot address online hate unless one has good data about its prevalence, where and how it takes place, and effective means of countering it.

Though the report is about online hatred, hate speech is never defined in the report. The sixth recommendation is for the Government of Canada to "formulate a definition of what constitutes ‘hate’ or ‘hatred’ that is consistent with Supreme Court of Canada jurisprudence" without any guidance or insight into what this definition should be (except by noting that it must acknowledge at least seven types of groups are "disproportionately targeted"). This makes it impossible to understand whether the many witnesses, who are quoted and referenced extensively throughout the document, are using the term in the same (or even a similar) way.

The seventh recommendation is for a "a civil remedy for those who assert that their human rights have been violated under the Canadian Human Rights Act", suggesting a reinstatement of the former section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act (conveniently reproduced in an Appendix), updated to account for social media. Why the Committee saw fit to make this recommendation is unclear, as there was no consensus among the witnesses on this issue. As page 32 states, "On the one hand, some witnesses [...] argued that former section 13 of the CHRA [Canadian Human Rights Act] or any similar provision should not be re-instated." This section consisted of quotations from three organizations, including the Canadian Secular Alliance and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. On page 33, the report continues, "On the other hand, some witnesses expressed that the repeal of section 13 of the CHRA left a gap in the legal tool box to counter online hate." After quoting from testimony arguing for section 13 restoration, the report moves onto an entirely other topic without addressing or resolving the contradictory opinions from different witnesses.

Why and how the Committee recommends reinstating the former section 13 of the CHRA is left to the imagination of the reader. This is not the only case where the document describes the different (and at times incompatible) recommendations of various witnesses, but undertakes no analysis to determine which of various possible policy options would be effective.

The one point of consensus among witnesses is that the problem of online hate speech requires government leadership and regulation. No one was content to leave policing content to the social media corporations, which makes the report's eighth recommendation all the more baffling. The report suggests "online platforms and Internet service providers [...] monitor and address incidents of hate speech, and [...] remove all posts that would constitute online hatred in a timely manner". This recommendation, if implemented into law, would be problematic on several levels:

  • Internet Service Providers would be required to spy on their customers. I don't want my ISP keeping logs of all of my online activity. Anyone with the slightest concern for privacy should be concerned about this provision.
  • Censorship would become a competitive advantage for big online corporate entities. It is very expensive to monitor every online interaction; only the largest companies can afford to create (inaccurate) algorithms to determine what constitutes hate speech or pay for (tens of) thousands of people to manually read all flagged content to see if it runs afoul of Canada's (as yet undefined) hate speech provisions. 
  • There are no provisions to restore content erroneously removed. Companies will default to a position that exposes them to the least liability. If they are given an obligation to remove all "hate speech", online platforms will likely take the simplest approach, as they have in the past: in addition to removing hate speech, they will also delete reports describing how individuals have suffered from hate speech, posts decrying the hate speech of others, articles about how to effectively combat hate speech, and more. Innocent bystanders, mostly likely disproportionately those groups that hate speech laws are intended to protect, will be caught in the hate speech dragnet and will have no recourse. 
The final recommendation is worth quoting in full: "That online platforms be encouraged to provide optional mechanisms to authenticate contributors and digitally sign content, and couple this with visual indicators signifying that given user or content is authenticated, and provide users options for filtering non-signed or non-authenticated content." This is an intriguing idea, worthy of exploration to determine if its implications would achieve its aims. Where it comes from, I do not know - it is not referenced anywhere else in the report.

Appendices


The Conservative and NDP members of the Committee each wrote their own response in an appendix.

The 1.5 page Conservative "Dissenting Report" was disappointing. Over half of it was partisan bickering (attacking the Liberals and Prime Minister Trudeau while bolstering the Conservatives and its leader Scheer). The content of its report relevant to hate speech was slight, but what little was there was reasonable.

The NDP's 5 page "Supplementary Report" highlighted a key weakness of the Committee's report, stating "it is essential that the government standardize the definition of hate speech and its interpretation by law enforcement". The NDP's five recommendations track closely to the first seven recommendations of the overall report. The NDP suggests increased funding for media literacy and several community groups, ensuring "that law enforcement at every level [...] reflect Canada's diversity", and reinstating "an updated version of section 13". The NDP supplementary report makes no mention of striking a balance between curbing hate speech and protecting freedom of expression.

Observations


Police reported 2,073 hate crimes in 2017 (many witnesses expressed dissatisfaction that our best information comes from police reports, and recommended a more rigourous and systematic way of tracking such statistics). There were 349 hate crimes against Muslims in 2017, or 16.8% of the total. There is clearly strong anti-Muslim bigotry in Canada, as Muslims represent 3.2% of the Canadian population according to Statistics Canada. What I found surprising, however, is that Antisemitism is an even larger problem in this nation. The are less than one third the number of Jews in Canada as Muslims, but were the target of more than 2.5 times the number of hate crimes.

I was pleased to see that the Canadian Secular Alliance's recommendation to repeal section 319(3)(b) of the Criminal Code (which exempts “a person who would otherwise be subject to an indictable offence, if their hate speech is ʽbased on a belief in a religious textʼ”) made it into the report, quoting its position that this section “is a clear violation of the principle of state neutrality in matters of religion.” This suggestion, however, was not among the nine recommendations made by the Committee.

My largest disappointment is that the central issue - how "to protect freedom of expression and to avoid censorship" - is stated as a priority, but left completely unresolved. Near the end of the first chapter, the report clearly states that, "None of the recommendations presented in this report derogates from an individual’s constitutional right to freedom of expression protected under section 2b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms." But there is no way around the fact that regulating, deterring, restricting and/or deleting hate speech is an encroachment on free expression. Are such curbs justifiable in Canada, which purports to be a free and democratic country? How can the government curb hate speech while not also banning merely unpopular opinions? The report is utterly silent on these matters, which makes its ultimate utility on this important topic marginal.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

House Committee on Justice and Human Rights Q&A with the CSA

In May, I testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights as part of their investigation into hate speech on behalf of the Canadian Secular Alliance. You may read my testimony here, but if you prefer to hear how I sounded, below is an audio recording.



After the testimony of the Canadian Secular Alliance, the Cardus Institute, and an assistant professor from the University of Prince Edward Island, the Members of Parliament on the committee had the opportunity to ask questions of us. I have excerpted the audio that includes all of the questions directed to the CSA below (it also includes some responses from Andrew Bennett of the Cardus Institute).



The text of the questions directed to and the responses from myself and Greg Oliver, President of the Canadian Secular Alliance, are included below. The full text of all questions, answers, and comments made by MPs and witnesses can be found here.


Mr. Michael Barrett:
    Instead of confusing a motion for action—and picking up where you had closed, Mr. Rosenblood—and understanding that at this stage of this Parliament we're unlikely to effect legislative change, what would you see as important recommendations that could come out of this committee?

Mr. Leslie Rosenblood:
    There needs to be recognition of how the way Canadians communicate with each other has changed. I think it is appropriate to take a look at a considered approach on how existing legislation might be amended to reflect that. Our concern is that we take a look at the alarming trends, and rather than take a well-thought-out approach that we feel, based on evidence and research, is likely to have the greatest impact to mitigate these harms, we instead take a knee-jerk reaction, an instinctive approach, that will most likely have little to no effect and could very possibly exacerbate the harms we are attempting to reduce or eliminate.

Mr. Colin Fraser (West Nova, Lib.): 
    Thank you to the witnesses for being here and giving your points of view on this. I would like to start with Mr. Rosenblood and Mr. Oliver.
    Can I understand the position of your organization with regard to online speech or online content as it is now on Facebook and on other social media platforms? Do you think there is a problem?

Mr. Greg Oliver (President, Canadian Secular Alliance):
     Absolutely. In particular harassment, things like doxing, and misinformation campaigns are real problems that we're facing.

Mr. Colin Fraser:
     What do you mean by doxing?

Mr. Greg Oliver:
    That would be the revealing of personal information like addresses and phone numbers to the public against the intended target's permission.

Mr. Colin Fraser:
    Do you think, sir, that there are minority groups who are specifically being targeted and treated unfairly on social media platforms?

Mr. Greg Oliver:
    One of our own members was a victim of this when he was promoting the idea of removing public prayers from his city council in Saskatchewan.

Mr. Colin Fraser:
    Do you think there is a role for government to play in combatting what seems to be agreed upon as a rise of intolerance on social media platforms?

Mr. Greg Oliver:
    Yes, we do. We just urge caution that any measures taken are done cautiously and judicially, and there's no overreach.

Mr. Colin Fraser:
    When we're dealing with impressionable young people who are using social media platforms and, in their growing into adults, informing themselves about different world views, about different religious philosophies and about different ways to interact with other individuals, do you think there's a role for government to play in order to limit to a certain extent the abilities of individuals who are trying to exploit impressionable young people into certain hateful ideologies?
    Do you think there's a role for government to play in order to try to curb that, or do you think it should be unlimited and up to the individuals...?

Mr. Greg Oliver:
    No, we lean towards more of a civil libertarian position with respect to free speech, but we certainly acknowledge that there are limits. This is a great debate to have as to where that red line is. We don't object to government action when needed, if that's your question, and certainly there are a lot of ugly ideologies out there. Also, it's a brand new platform, the Internet. There are all sorts of complexities to this issue that I think we're all grappling with.

Mr. Colin Fraser:
    If a certain religion is being targeted.... I totally understand the point and agree that you can attack a person's ideas, but you can't attack the individual's dignity or character or their right to hold those different views. Do you see that it can be a blurry area between calling into question a person's ideas and ideology, and attacking their character and demonizing that individual?

Mr. Greg Oliver:
    Would you like to comment on that specifically?

Mr. Leslie Rosenblood:
    I think there is a world of difference between attacking an idea and attacking a person. One can attack Christianity without demonizing Christians. Similarly, you could insert Judaism and Jews or Islam and Muslims.
    One can take a look at the sacred scroll of your choice and say, "This is why I believe this to be holy" or "This is why I believe this text to be vile”. This does not mean that people who follow the words of that text are necessarily more noble or inherently evil for having genuine beliefs about that scroll.

Mr. Colin Fraser:
    On demonizing individuals, do you believe there's a role for government to play in combatting that type of demonization?

Mr. Leslie Rosenblood:
    The government already does have laws against the demonization of individuals, whether through slander, libel, defamation and so on. These are existing laws on the books, and we, as a secular alliance, do not object to the existence of these sections of the Criminal Code.

Mr. Colin Fraser:
    Demonizing an individual because of their beliefs, would you think that's a problem?

Mr. Leslie Rosenblood:
    It becomes a personal attack and not one on the ideas of the faith, if it's about the individual, and then you have to take a look at the specific context of what is being is said. Saying, "I do not like you, sir” is not hate speech, but calling for violence against someone would be.

Mr. Colin Fraser:
    Do you think that these sorts of attacks that can happen online to individuals based on their beliefs can lead some to perhaps see them as less than equal humans?

Mr. Leslie Rosenblood:
     There are a lot of hypotheticals in there. I find it hard to draw a connection with an attack on a belief leading directly to demonization of an individual. If you are already directly attacking an individual and it happens to be because of their faith, then it's the attack on the individual that matters and not the criticism of the underlying faith.

Mr. Randall Garrison:
I want to go back to Mr. Rosenblood. He was very careful to say that when ideas relate to individuals, he accepts that there has to be a limit.
    In my community just last week, we had the rental of a public facility to a group and to a speaker who attack transgender people as threats to all women and threats to children. While in that speech that takes place, there's no identifying of individuals, it does promote hatred against a group. Since you focused on individuals last time, I'd like to ask whether you accept that there is a limit and that there should be criminal sanctions against promotion of hatred against a group and not just individuals.

Mr. Leslie Rosenblood:
    Yes, criminal sanctions should not simply be against identified, named individuals. Saying that Leslie Rosenblood should be attacked because he's Leslie would be, or should be in our opinion, equally an offence under the law as saying that all members of the Canadian Secular Alliance, of which I happen to be one, should be attacked. Whether the group in question is one of voluntary membership as in the Canadian Secular Alliance, one of religious affiliation of any sort, or a member of, for example, the LGBT community, calling for attacks or violence against unspecified members of an identifiable group should be subject to criminal sanction to an equal extent as a named individual.

Mr. Randall Garrison:
    It's not a federal jurisdictional question, but it's about the use of public facilities for promotion of hatred against groups. Do you believe public entities, whether it's a municipality or even, say, the House of Commons, should have policies in place that would prevent the use of public facilities for the promotion of hatred?

Mr. Leslie Rosenblood:
     There are a number of complexities in there. Whether the public facility is open to the public or whether it's reserved for certain specific purposes would have a bearing. Assuming, for the sake of this discussion, it's open to the public, there is no implied approval or endorsement by a municipal, provincial or federal government of the ideology or background of whoever is renting the facility, simply because they're using the facility.
    If illegal acts are being conducted as a result of that, they must be prosecuted accordingly. However, should you fall short of that and they simply have highly distasteful or objectionable goals, the government should neither endorse nor condemn speech from people who rent those facilities. The government must remain neutral, again assuming that the facility is open to the public and that no criminal incitement is happening as a result of that transaction.

Mr. Ali Ehsassi (Willowdale, Lib.):
    Thank you, Mr. Chair.
    To all the witnesses, thank you for your testimony.
    My first question is for Mr. Rosenblood and Mr. Oliver.
    Having heard your testimony, I understand you're saying we should be amending existing legislation. I also understand you're very much concerned about the overreach of the law. That said, you delved into paragraph 319(3)(b). I understand you're in favour of repealing it. Do you think any such action would restrict freedom of religion?

Mr. Greg Oliver:
    Essentially, we don't. We strongly believe in freedom of religion, and of course, the freedom to hold no religion. We think all citizens ought to be treated equally under the law, and that should also include criminal proceedings. If one commits a hate crime, just simply being able to be exempted from prosecution due to the citing of a religious text is inappropriate.
    It is not really going to have any impact on religious belief, but it would strengthen equality rights under section 15 of the charter. We think it would be beneficial.
    I'll give you a tangible example, since we've been talking a bit about LGBT issues here. Let's say person A calls for violence against male homosexuals, and person B does the same but invokes Leviticus or passages from Hadith. In our eyes, both ought to be prosecuted equally. We think this is a moral principle that ought to be reflected in the Criminal Code.

Mr. Ali Ehsassi:
    Speaking of hate speech, which is exempt from prosecution if it's derived from a religious text, do you think this constitutes a violation of equality rights?

Mr. Greg Oliver:
    Do you mean as the law currently stands?

Mr. Ali Ehsassi:
    Correct.

Mr. Greg Oliver:
    Yes, we do.

Mr. Arif Virani:
    Thank you, Mr. Ehsassi.
    Let's continue on this theme.
    I'll confess to you that I found a bit puzzling, Mr. Rosenblood, your opening submissions about paragraph 319(3)(b), first because the preamble of the Constitution talks about the supremacy of God and the rule of law, and second because it's well known in law that we carve out accommodation or exemptions for religious or conscience beliefs, most recently in the one issue that I think all of us will remember for our entire parliamentary careers—medical assistance in dying—wherein you had a direct conflict within people who felt, pursuant to their conscience, that they didn't want to be compelled to perform a certain type of medical procedure. That was enunciated in the penultimate paragraph of the Carter decision, since you're citing Supreme Court case law. It's also entrenched in Bill C-14.
    I just put that forth as a talking point.
    You also mentioned, Mr. Rosenblood, that you're cautioning us not to act quickly. I would actually say to you, if you were listening to the people earlier, that there's a real need to act quickly. I think the need to act quickly is that people are being radicalized towards violence online in Canada—that's part of the court record in the Bissonnette sentencing hearing—and around the planet. I think it is incumbent upon us to act quickly.
    I was also a bit puzzled by your citation of a dissenting decision in Keegstra, rather than the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court in more recent jurisprudence, which is Whatcott, in which Rothstein, writing for the entire court, upheld section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act as striking the appropriate balance.
    There's no doubt that balance needs to be struck. The question I have for you, then, is this: Is section 13 of the CHRA, whose analogue was upheld in Whatcott in a unanimous 6-0 decision by the Supreme Court, the right balance? If it isn't, what's needed? Is what is needed what would effectively be a redundant but perhaps necessary political paragraph that simply says, “Nothing in the aforementioned passages derogates from the constitutionally held right to freedom of expression held by all individuals within Canada under section 2(b)”?

Mr. Leslie Rosenblood:
    It is because we feel that this issue is important that the Canadian Secular Alliance feels it is more important the government act correctly, over quickly.
    Acting quickly may not achieve the goals we are trying to reach. That's why we believe that, because it's new and is unfamiliar territory for the vast majority of Canadians and parliamentarians, we need to consider what needs to be done properly and not simply do something for the sake of doing something.
    As for your direct question on the repealed section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, we feel that the current law strikes a reasonable balance in terms of restrictions on free speech. We feel that existing provisions can be enforced more rigorously and more consistently across Canada and that the larger problem we face is not a lack of legislation addressing hatred in all of its forms but a lack of enforcement of existing provisions.