Canadians will go to the polls in the 43rd federal general election, and just as in all previous elections, not a single major party has made any real effort to reach out to atheist voters. But is there any reason we should expect them to?
It’s true that there has traditionally been antipathy toward atheists in Canada, especially from sectors steeped in tradition or close to the centres of power… which certainly includes most Members of Parliament, both current and aspirational. No doubt the historical snubbing of atheists was at least partly based on bigotry. However, there was always a realpolitik excuse: atheists were too few and too irrelevant to matter.
That’s changed drastically. Atheists… specifically atheists, not including agnostics or humanists… now outnumber every single religious group in Canada except the big five – Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists – and “Traditional (Aboriginal) Spirituality”. If you include agnostics and humanists, then only the big five outnumber us. (If you lump together all “not affiliated with a religion” people, only Christianity is larger… but never lump all “not affiliated with a religion” people together.)
Atheists have also had a disproportionately large impact on politics and law of late. No other religious grouping can boast of legal victories on the scale of Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), or the one-two-punch of Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University and Law Society of Upper Canada v Trinity Western University. And no other religious grouping can boast of having influenced a change to the Criminal Code as impactful as that of Bill C-51. Oh, sure, C-51 wasn’t directly intended as a response to atheist concerns, and it’s true that we didn’t enjoy an absolute victory. But it is nevertheless true that Canadian law is now at least slightly more atheist-friendly today than it was five years ago, and no other religious demographic in Canada can make the same claim.
And yet, the political parties ignore us.
But the question I want to focus on today is not why Canadian politicians doesn’t bother to pander to atheists. It’s: should they?
My answer is no.
Let’s set aside the numerical concerns, such as that atheists, all combined, are still far fewer than other religious demographics, and that they are not concentrated but rather spread out across the country. (If we didn’t have a broken electoral system, that lack of concentration would matter far less. But alas, we still don’t have proportional representation.) Let’s assume that if atheists had a coherent political focus, it would be worthwhile for politicians to listen to them.
And that brings us directly to the core problem.
Canadian atheists do not have anything even approaching a coherent political focus. They don’t know what they want from our government. They don’t even know what to ask for.
A few weeks back I did a very informal survey across social media of Canadian atheists, asking them what were the biggest issues they – as atheists – would like to see addressed by politicians as part of their election campaigns. Across four social media platforms I got only three responses, and they were all variants of “tax the churches”. That’s troubling for a number of reasons:
First, that’s a pretty paltry response rate – for reference, I usually get ~30–100 responses depending on the question. That suggests that Canadian atheists either really don’t care about politics, or simply can’t think of an issue they care about as atheists. I suspect the primary cause is the latter, because I get at least an order of magnitude more responses for other political questions.
Second, the fact that there is no variation in the responses suggests either a lack of awareness of issues that might be of interest, or that the church tax issue is so pressing that nothing else really warrants consideration. I don’t believe that Canadian atheists in general think taxing churches is that important. I think what we’re seeing here is a sign that they just don’t know what else to ask for.
Third, the answer is nonsensical. This is a federal election, and property taxes is not federal business – it’s the provinces that would decide whether or not to tax churches… and even they generally pass the buck to municipalities. I specifically asked respondents to make requests that were actually practical, and not pie-in-the-sky requests like removing God from the Charter. Despite that, the one thing that Canadian atheists could think to demand of candidates in the next federal election isn’t even something those politicians can deliver.
What I took away from this and several other discussions – both that I was involved in myself, and other public conversations between atheists about Canadian politics – is that Canadian atheists just… don’t really know what they want from our governments.
I found that striking because if you go back, say, five years or so – certainly if you go back to the mid-2000s, and the heyday of New Atheism – Canadian atheists used be very politically savvy, and fairly focused. We had a list of demands that we used to drive campaigns to petition change from the government. What happened?
Well, honestly, a large part of it is that we were too successful.
If you look back a decade or so at the list of things we wanted to accomplish… we’ve pretty much won every battle.
- The blasphemy law was a major concern for many years. We licked that last year.
- Government prayer was always an irritation for Canadian atheists. We got that unequivocally declared unconstitutional in 2015. (Legislatures do continue to pray thanks to parliamentary privilege, but they do so now in open defiance of Canadian values, and the desires of Canadians.)
- We’ve long had concerns about private institutions forcing their religious beliefs on people under their power: for example, religious hospitals denying certain treatments that violate their beliefs. This is a complex and multi-headed problem, but we’ve still made significant progress dealing with it.
- The Trinity Western University law school case established that religious institutions can’t use religious freedom to justify forcing people to comply with their beliefs.
- The courts also backed up Ontario’s requirement that doctors must either provide legal medical services like abortion or medical assistance in dying, or provide an effective referral to another doctor who will.
- … and more.
Yes, obviously we haven’t won everything we’ve ever asked for as atheists – the CRA still considers religious proselytizing a legitimate excuse for getting charitable status. But we’ve really won a lot.
And it’s all been in the last few years. For a few years we had left-ish leaning governments not only federally but in a majority of provinces, and they did damn good. Arguably the recent rise of the far right has been a response to the incredible success we’ve been enjoying.
But that’s the problem. We won so much so quickly, that we haven’t been able to properly refocus the community to new challenges. We’ve been clearing our atheist checklist so quickly, we haven’t had time to add new items to the list, or to properly inform and educate the community about those new challenges.
The blame for that falls on Canadian secularist, humanist, atheist, and freethought organizations, including… admittedly… Canadian Atheist. We organized so well, and cooperated so well, for past campaigns, like the blasphemy law repeal campaign, but we have failed to do so of late. We have also failed to find new shared goals, or to properly communicate them to Canadian atheists at large.
There’s probably another factor, too, and that is actually the rise of the far right and their efforts to co-opt Canadian atheism for their purposes. Islamophobic bigots have not been successful in tricking Canadian atheists into going along with their efforts to harass Muslims in the name of faux “secularism”… but their efforts have driven Canadian atheists away from doing activism explicitly under the atheist banner. Even though it’s only a tiny group, the bigots have been so loud and so persistent, that Canadian atheists have been driven away. Canadian atheists are still as progressive as they’ve always been, and are doing all the same things they’ve always done… it’s just these days they prefer to do them under other banners, like humanism, or just general “progressivism” or “leftism”.
Thus, Canadian atheists have lost the political focus and energy they once had. They are directionless, and drifting away from the “atheist” label as a rallying cry for political activism.
Given that, it’s easy to understand why politicians have no interest in catering to atheists. Why should they? We don’t know what we want. We don’t know what we can ask for. We don’t collaborate or apply pressure as a group. We’re just a bunch of cats without a shepherd.
It’s obviously too late to change things in time for the upcoming election. But supposing we do want our governments to acknowledge Canadian atheists, and put policies that we desire on the table, what could we do?
Well, what Canadian secularist, humanist, atheist, and freethought organizations really need is more and better communication, not only with the general public but – and perhaps more importantly – with each other. We need to talk more, figure out our common goals and prioritize them, and find the levers that we might have the power to pull. And then we need to tell the general public what needs to be fixed, what we’re working on, and how they can help.
Our organizations are excellent, and most of them are already doing these things. What’s really lacking is coordination. It’s not necessary for everyone to be doing the same things or moving in lockstep – different organizations have different goals and focuses – but if the major organizations got together once a year or so to share ideas, concerns, and goals, we could probably find ways to leverage our power far more effectively. We could also come up with better ways of communicating to the rest of the community what can be done, what needs to be done, what is being worked on, and what they can do to help.
The other thing we need to do is get more proactive about pushing back against the bigotry and hate that you run into any time you want to have a discussion about atheist issues. This is not a great time to be a Canadian atheist, because any time you go online to talk with other atheists, some asshole shows up to rant about how evil Islam is. Maybe it was cool once upon a time to be a belligerent jerk and bellow slogans like “I’m not just an atheist, I’m an anti-theist!”, but that crap just drives the average atheist away. We need to reshape Canadian atheist culture, to make it clear that while criticizing religion is welcome and healthy, mindlessly repeating brain-dead slogans and jabbering about wiping religion off the face of the Earth is not criticism.
We need to make our communities less hostile and more tolerant, because the average Canadian atheist is being driven away from them by the poisonous rhetoric. We can’t expect people to rally together as atheists if a small group of loudmouth jerks are making the room unpleasant and exclusive due to their intolerance.
I don’t write this article to condemn the current state of Canadian atheism, but to call for change. I want atheist activism in Canada to be focused, energized, and effective, and I can’t see that happening unless we make some changes. We need our organizations to get better at working together, and we need to make our community spaces more welcoming and tolerant. If we can do those things, then we will be able to leverage our growing numbers more effectively, and continue the winning streak we’ve enjoyed.