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.