Canada ranks 124th in the world for freethinkers

by | November 7, 2018

Every year the International Humanist and Ethical Union publishes the Freedom of Thought Report, a comprehensive report on systemic discrimination against the nonreligious around the world.

This year’s Report had a new feature: a ranking system. What they’ve done is taken the violation levels from the previous reports – “Free and Equal”, “Mostly Satisfactory”, “Systemic Discrimination”, “Severe Discrimination”, and “Grave Violations” – and assigned a numeric score for each level, then tallied up the number of violation scores for each country, and ranked them. Canada has 8 “Systemic Discrimination” violations at 9 points each, and 5 at “Mostly Satisfactory” at 2 points each, for a total of (8 × 9 + 5 × 2 =) 82 points, which places it at 124th, tied with Cyprus (more on that in a bit).

This ranking might seem a bit alarming to Canadians, especially when compared to the US ranking – because comparing ourselves to the US is a national pastime. The US is tied for 8th place with Norway, with only 3 “Mostly Satisfactory” violations.

Every year Canadians object to the report’s conclusions on the basis of the obvious and undeniable fact that it’s so much better in Canada than it is in the US for the nonreligious, so something must be wrong with the report’s methods. Every year the report’s authors and I have to explain the same reasoning (see the report’s editorial introduction):

  • The report focuses on systemic discrimination – that is discrimination that is formalized in a country’s governmental or official practices, or their legal code. It does not give much consideration to cultural discrimination – that is discrimination that is not enshrined officially or legally, but just done citizen to citizen.

    That is the primary cause for the disparity between the US and Canada. In Canada that is very little cultural discrimination, but there is significant systemic discrimination (we have a blasphemy law (for now), and in at least three provinces religious schools are funded, and they are allowed to legally discriminate against the nonreligious people both in their student enrolment and in hiring). By contrast, the US has very little systemic discrimination by virtue of being the world’s first officially secular state (in the modern sense of “secular”)… but cultural discrimination is absolutely rampant. Thus, the US comes out looking not-so-bad, while Canada gets dinged.

    You may object that a report that focuses only on systemic discrimination while ignoring cultural discrimination is flawed or unfair, but there are very good reasons for that focus. First, measuring cultural discrimination is difficult, would require deep consideration of cultural contexts, and would rely almost entirely on opinion. Meanwhile, looking for systemic discrimination requires only reading the laws, looking over court cases and police/military behaviour, and observing the actions and practices of state officials. More importantly, cultural attitudes are hard to change, but changing bad laws and official practices is (comparatively) easy, and can have enormous impact. Thus, by focusing on systemic discrimination, the Report doesn’t just give us a picture of the state of affairs, it gives us specific targets that we can realistically focus our efforts on to effect change. (For an illustration of how that might be done using a previous report, see here.)

  • As the editorial mentions, countries with more information will tend to have lower scores. For me this is graphically evident in the case of Barbados, which currently has only 9 points for a single “Systemic Discrimination” violation for its blasphemy law, and it isn’t even ranked due to a lack of information. I can say with great confidence, having lived there most of my life, that if they were able to get as much information about Barbados as they have about Canada, Barbados would almost certainly score much worse than Canada. At least when I went to school, all publicly-funded schools had mandatory prayers and religious instruction, for example.

    But even among the ranked countries there are some fishy scores. I seriously doubt Nauru is as nice a place to be a nonbeliever as Japan. And Malawi somehow didn’t get dinged with the “[s]tate-funding of religious institutions or salaries, or discriminatory tax exemptions” violation, despite funding mandatory religious education, and despite not taxing churches (in fact, up until at least last year, they didn’t even tax church-run businesses comprehensively).

    Once again, though, I don’t see this as a downside. On the contrary, these systemic problems exist whether the report’s authors note them or not, so when they do note them, that shines a light on them, and gives us a clear target to work on.

There are also a few errors – to be expected with a report of this magnitude and scope created by an organization with as few resources as the IHEU. Cyprus, for example: while their score is correct, they should have a red box in the “freedom of expression” strand.

So the method of the report makes sense, broadly speaking, but does Canada really deserve its score?

Well, yes.

[Freedom of Thought Report 2018 data for Canada.]

The main culprit in Canada’s embarrassing score is the separate – that is, Catholic – school systems that still exist in three provinces and the territories. Not only do these burn us for being publicly-funded religious school systems, they are also allowed to discriminate in admissions and hiring. Ending these separate school systems would bump us up at least 10 ranks right away.

Other major culprits include:

  • Other publicly-funded religious schools – mostly private schools that get some public funding.
  • Religious hospitals refusing legal medical treatments – particularly abortion and assisted dying.
  • The blasphemy law.
  • Discriminatory charity laws that allow religious charities but not nonreligious ones (unless they jump through some hoops).
  • “Official symbolic deference”, such as prayer in the legislature, God in the anthem and the Charter, the crucifix in the Assemblée nationale du Québec, and so on.

It does kinda suck to see Canada so low down in the rankings – especially for me personally, considering all the years I’ve put into making Canada better for nonbelievers. But I’m a glass-half-full kinda guy, so I prefer to see this as an opportunity for improvement. It’s almost like the gamification of SHAFT activism!

We’re already close to eliminating the blasphemy law. There are also good reasons to think that ending the separate school systems may be achievable too. (At least in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Ontario is pretty much a write-off until the Ford government ends.) Both the charity laws and the “conscientious objection” options for medical providers are being reviewed, and though we can presume those projects will come to a grinding halt for an election year, there is good cause to hope they might be dealt with after.

So I see this poor showing as a challenge. Improving our score could serve as a road map for improving the lot of nonbelievers in Canada in general, and making Canada an even better secular country.

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