Recommended Reading

by | July 8, 2015


Two articles published this month deal with topics recently discussed on Canadian Atheist. The first article, “The Myth of Religious Obligations,” addresses secularism and state neutrality, topics that were debated in the comments to “’Secularism Betrayed: A Summary.’” The thesis of “The Myth of Religious Obligations” is

There is no such thing as a religious “obligation” because religious belief is not an innate characteristic.

and addresses religious accommodation, dispels the myth that religion is innate and characterizes the wearing of religious symbols as “Bad Fashion Choices”:

the Islamist veil is a symbol of misogyny and fascism. The Christian crucifix is also a symbol of fascism; after all, the Roman Catholic Church has generally been a faithful ally of fascist regimes in Europe and Latin America. That is why the crucifix must be removed from the wall of the National Assembly in Quebec City.

Thus I repeat: We must not fall into the trap of accepting the myth that wearing a crucifix, veil or turban, etc., is somehow “obligatory” because it is supposedly the reflection of some innate characteristic of the bearer. On the contrary, it deserves no more deference than any other fashion choice. It can be removed.

The second article, “Polite Self-Censorship No Environment for Free Speech” addresses the “implication . . . that we must all endeavor to be polite about religion.”

Multiculturalism’s proponents have garnered popular support for the illiberal notion that all citizens in liberal democracies must demonstrate respect for religion or religious believers. Yet this respect is not to be earned by valid arguments or by exemplary behavior; it is to be coerced by violence, or else by means of the law. Those who would limit speech on the grounds of ‘religious offense’ are content to allow the public marketplace of ideas to be governed by the taboos of a religious segment of society.

and “gives several reasons to reject this form of cultural imperialism,” reasons that complement the thesis of “The Myth of Religious Obligations”:

Religious minority groups are by no means homogeneous in religious belief, practice or sentiment.

Westerners need to ask which Muslims they intend to protect by means of new censorship laws or informal policies of self-censorship.

Political liberalism, secularism, atheism and feminism are as much a part of many peoples’ identities as religion is a part of the identity of the committed Muslim.

Imagine a context in which the same right not to be offended or defamed could be claimed by other political ideologies, other social groups and other communities. Public debate would quickly be replaced by courteous silence.

During the roundtable discussion of “Is Christianity in Decline?,” Majed El Shafie declared to great applause,

politically correctness is the cancer in our Canadian fabric. (16:00)

If Shafie is correct, “Polite Self-Censorship No Environment for Free Speech” shows the cancer has spread.

11 thoughts on “Recommended Reading

  1. Indi

    > There is no such thing as a religious “obligation” because religious belief is not an innate characteristic.

    … what? That doesn’t even make any sense.

    Parking tickets aren’t innate characteristics either, but if you think you don’t have an obligation to pay them, you’re in for a very nasty surprise. Parole isn’t an innate characteristic… I *dare* you to see if that means you don’t have an obligation to report in.

    Marital status is also not an innate characteristic. Does that mean you don’t have an obligation to be honest with your partner?

    > We must not fall into the trap of accepting the myth that wearing a crucifix, veil or turban, etc., is somehow “obligatory” because it is supposedly the reflection of some innate characteristic of the bearer.

    Who even believes that religion is an “innate characteristic”? I can’t recall ever hearing anyone argue that. Who is this essay supposedly rebutting?

    1. Veronica Abbass Post author

      WTF Indi! Your analogies don’t make sense.

      * How can you compare parking tickets to religious belief. A parking ticket is a concrete noun; religious belief is an abstract noun. The obligation to pay parking tickets may very well be innate: people pay fines and obey laws in order to survive and thrive in society.

      * Marital status is a legal classification that can be broken down into categories: married, separated, widowed, divorced, single or common law. As for the “obligation to be honest with your partner,” please define what you mean by “honest.”

      As for your question, “Who is this essay supposedly rebutting?” the answer is it’s rebutting you.

      1. Indi

        > As for your question, “Who is this essay supposedly rebutting?” the answer is it’s rebutting you.

        How can it be rebutting me when it’s rebutting a point I never made?

        I never claimed religion was an innate characteristic. That’s preposterous.

        Obviously wearing a religious accessory is ultimately a choice, if you want to get pedantic and ignore reality. Hell, even being religious at all is a choice. But there are choices and there are choices. There are “choices” we make that we are *obligated* – for ethical or ideological reasons – to make, and we can’t “choose” otherwise without violating beliefs that are very important to us. Rand is trying to play a game where *ANYTHING* that’s a choice is at the same level of “should I wear the blue shirt today or the green one”? But that’s obvious nonsense. Due to our personal beliefs and ideologies, there are many “choices” we have to make that aren’t really choices at all, but obligations. The “choice” to wear a religious accessory *is* a choice in the most technical sense, but it is not a choice in the practical sense; the believer can’t simply say “today I don’t feel like wearing the dastar”.

        For example, I’m an ethical consumer. I refuse to buy any product that I know was produced by exploitation – such as by child labour or sweat shops – and if there’s even a whiff of a possibility that exploitation was involved, I have an ethical obligation (not choice) to do the digging to find out. By that ideology, there are just many things I *can’t* buy, like really cheap clothing. Yes, in the strictest literal sense I am “choosing” to buy the shirt that wasn’t made in a sweatshop – there is no physical law forcing me, and no one’s holding a gun to my head. But in a more realistic, practical sense, I am *not* choosing. If I were to buy the sweatshop shirt, I would be violating a belief I hold quite dear and that is very important to me. I couldn’t do it, not without serious internal turmoil.

        Would you force me to buy the sweatshop shirt? After all, it’s “just a choice”, right? There’s nothing *real* stopping me from doing it – just my deeply cherished beliefs.

        Another example is vegetarianism for non-health-related reasons. That’s “just a choice”, in the most literal sense. But it’s also not in any practical sense. If there are three dishes being offered where only one is vegetarian – steak, chicken, or eggplant – the vegetarian doesn’t really have much of a choice in the matter. Ze is obligated to pick the veggie option, even if it doesn’t look as appealing as the others, and even if it costs more (as it often does).

        You, in this analogy, are a person who has decided vegetarianism is stupid, so you don’t want to give that person a veggie option – not caring in the least how *they* feel about it. You want to *force* them to choose something with meat. And you are arguing there’s nothing wrong with that, because after all, their vegetarianism is a “choice”.

        But okay, I’m sure you or Rand would try to argue that those two cases are somehow “different” because there are sometimes rational ethical motivations behind them (or because they are normalized collective nouns or something). So let’s try something irrational.

        I knew a guy who killed a teenage girl when he was in his 30s. He was an alcoholic, and he had been driving drunk; she was a bright kid who had actually already done humanitarian aid work and shown literary promise or something – she was probably going places, and good places, too. It pretty much destroyed his life, but ultimately he sobered up and started to rebuild. But the guilt of killing the girl never went away.

        For the last 20-25 years of his life, he wore a ring (on a chain, around his neck) that the girl had been wearing the night she died. He wore it every day, and refused to go anywhere without it. To him, I suppose, it was like a badge of shame, or maybe something to force him to remember the debt he had to repay to the girl. I don’t know exactly why he wore it, but I do know it was *very* important to him. (I actually first heard about it via a story that he didn’t want to take it off for *surgery* until the last second, when they were just about to roll him into the operating theatre. He got someone to hold on to it for him, and give it back as soon as he woke. He actually gave the person detailed instructions on what to do with the ring if he didn’t make it through the surgery – he wanted it buried at the site of the accident.)

        Now, of course, in the most literal sense he was just “choosing” to wear that ring. But in a very real sense, it wasn’t a choice to him. It was a penance – self-imposed, maybe, but a penance nonetheless. He couldn’t simply say “meh, I don’t feel like wearing it today”.

        What you and Rand are pretending is that his choice to wear that ring is no more important to him than the choice of what socks he put on that day. You have – in analogy – decided that his reasoning for wearing the ring is stupid. And even though wearing it harms no one, you want to force him to take it off. Because the sight of it offends *YOU*.

        If it looks like you and Rand are not coming off well in these analogies… well, you’re not. My response, in any of these analogous cases and in the original case, is how dare you decide what value another person’s private choices have. That is none of your damn business, and it is *certainly* not the government’s. *YOU* don’t get to decide how important their religious accessories are to them, or whether their decision to wear them is a frivolous “choice”, or a deeply rooted, ideologically or ethically based obligation. That is *THEIR* decision, and we live in a free country – no thanks to people like you – so they get to make it… not you.

        *YOU* don’t get to decide whether my choice to buy ethical is a deeply cherished belief that I feel obligated to adhere to, or just a fad I’m into this week that I can freely shrug off whenever there’s a sale. And how dare you for having the gall to try. And *YOU* don’t get to tell me that I can just as easily – with no emotional, ethical, or psychological turmoil at all – buy a sweatshop shirt, because it’s “just a choice” that ultimately matters nothing. It may matter nothing to you, but it matters deeply to me.

        By the same token, *YOU* don’t get to tell someone who has decided to base their ethical and ideological decisions on the teachings of Muhammad or the 11 gurus that their choice to not eat pork is no more important to them than it is to you. You don’t get to force your values on them – that would be no different from them trying to force their values on you, which I *know* is something you wouldn’t tolerate. Unless and until their values or beliefs are interfering with the freedom of others – which, incidentally, is what you’re trying to do right now – they are free to hold them without interference.

    2. billybob


      How is requiring women to wear specific clothing
      any different, it is derogatory and stifling.

      And saying they have a choice of what to wear is absurd
      given their lower and subservient social status within their immediate social group.

      The obligation to wear the outfits is a matter of survival not desire. Help free these slaves!

      1. Indi

        You know, we just finished wrapping up a very troubling investigation into what happened when Canadians decided that another group of people were just clueless infants who needed heroes to step in and save them from themselves – crushing their silly ways of thinking, and substituting them for more modern and civilized ideas.

        It seems like you learned nothing from it. Are you really sure you want to repeat that history?

        Are you really sure you want to be the person who “frees” people from the slavery of their own choices?

        1. billybob

          If you are talking about residential schools then you are making my point for me. That was religious organizations abusing the children and they would still be doing it if not for secular society.

          Do you think the the catholic church stopped priest molesting children because they cared or because secular society and government stopped them.

          Answer is easy, secular society stopped them. We need government to be completely secular.

          What about the gays, who promotes homophobia?
          Yes, the religious.

          Simply put they are autocratic bastards.

          1. Indi

            > That was religious organizations abusing the children and they would still be doing it if not for secular society.

            Not quite! And that’s my point.

            The residential schools atrocity was a collusion between religious organizations… *and the secular government*. Religious organizations may have been the ones on the front lines, but the existence of the system as a whole is the responsibility of the government.

            The molestations, beatings, and generally horrid living conditions at the schools were terrible, but to focus on them is to miss the forest for the trees. The real atrocity was a government deciding that an entire sub-population was not only incapable of making their own choices but shouldn’t even be allowed to, because those in power knew better, and then setting out to impose their own values on them.

            Naturally, handing the operation of that system over to the churches was a terrible idea – religious leaders never met a disadvantaged population they didn’t want to exploit and terrorize. But even if the churches hadn’t done the usual raping and pillaging they do to everything – even if they had run the system perfectly, with top-quality education and care – (and even if the government had not handed management over to the churches to begin with) the system would *still* be an atrocity. It would still have been a cultural genocide, planned and ordered by the secular government (then carried out by the all-too-willing churches) with the express intention of crushing the aboriginal cultural identity.

            So the question I ask is: why was it wrong for the Canadian government to take away the cultural identity and right of self-determination of aboriginal people due to the fact that they believed Christianity was more civilized than the traditional aboriginal religions… but it’s not wrong for them to take away the cultural identity and right of self-determination of Muslims due to the fact that they believe atheism/secularism is more civilized than Islam?

          2. Tim Underwood

            It is how the supposed inferior cultural identity is displaced or altered. Christianizing was a step sideways at best.

            Imagine if all the colonizers wished to accomplish was making available knowledge of art, technology and civics. This could have been accomplished by emulation and intermarriage.

            In reality, the conquest of any human groupings would require many applications of imperial-like brute force.

            I suppose the imposition of some form of secular republicanism, that included a bill of rights, could be viewed as a good thing, even if it did require the force of law. Setting up working civilizations has been accomplished by many dictators and kings who invoked various versions of the ‘divine right’ idea.

            Possibly something similar to the recent communist conquests, without the Marxism and the supreme leaders, would have been a better process.

            In spite of all the objections we can imagine related to the former Soviet attempted conquest of Afghanistan, it must be obvious to us by now that this would have produced a better future than the current state of affairs that Canada invested so much in.

            I think what we accomplished there affirms the idea that secular society is more valuable than democracy is. Democracy is of some value within secular societies but it can be of very little value within a theocratic society. Religious despots just harness mob-rule.

  2. David Rand

    To be clear, my blog says the following. The wearing of the veil (or other religious symbol) is either:
    — a choice, or
    — the person is externally coerced and thus being abused.
    There is no third situation where the person is “obligated” but not coerced by someone else. One way to minimize the coercion is to provide spaces (such as the public service or public schools, etc.) free of religious symbols.

    1. Tim Underwood

      You’re right. Remember, there is more off-duty time, as a civil servant, then there is on-duty time. If the workplace prohibitions to particular clothing items or to particular body decorations are too much to accept, then the private sector is the place to seek fulfillment. There are probably private sector jobs where you could show up for work stark naked. I don’t want to think about this too much, but most civil servant jobs have a defined dress code.

  3. Shawn the Humanist

    You know, I disagree with people all the time. I disagree with people I agree with, as well. I am an atheist, and I disagree with atheists constantly about things. I am a feminist, and I disagree with some feminists on certain things. Heck, I don’t believe in God, and there are many Christians I agree with on a great number of issues.

    There are some people who see multiculturalism differently than I do. I believe secularism is innately multicultural.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.