The digits on the date are rolling over once again, which means it’s time for my annual year-end reflection. This year’s reflection is special, in that it’s not just a reflection on the past year, but also the past decade: the first decade of Canadian Atheist.
I wonder if anyone thought back in 2010 that Canadian Atheist would actually survive into the year 2020. I wonder what the contributors back then thought it might look like a decade later. None of the contributors from those days are still around except Ian, and he left for over half a decade before returning in 2018. I wasn’t around; I wasn’t even a reader until a couple years later, and wouldn’t become a contributor until 2013 (though I was contributing to several other atheist blogs and discussion forums at the time, like ARISE (“Against Religious Intolerance of Speech and Expression”)).
It was a different world in those early days. New Atheism was still a major thing, and Elevatorgate was still a year away, so we could all still believe the story that we were all one, united movement based on reason and progressive values. CA’s survived through a lot of upheaval in atheism, and the world at large.
We saw the birth, and death (?), of Atheism+. We also saw the creation of The Slymepit, and even 8chan. We were even there when Freethought Blogs (sadly, that post was lost in the 2014 hack attack) and The Orbit were created (hello, little sibling blogs! 👋 you just stick with it, and you’ll make 10 years someday too!). (Patheos is technically older than CA by about a year or so… but it didn’t have its “atheist channel” until 2011, so I’m going to claim that we’re older than them, too.)
Rather than merely reflecting on the past year, I’d like to reflect on the past decade, and how atheism has changed – and how Canadian Atheist has changed with it.
An age of atheism
Of course, atheism has been around since the beginning of history. I am only interested in the modern era of atheism, which really began with the rise of New Atheism in the mid-2000s, and continues to this day. There was plenty of atheist activism before then – Madalyn Murray O’Hair and American Atheists were blazing trails back in the 1960s – but atheism was always a fringe thing prior to the mid-2000s. You’ll even find that many people hadn’t even heard the word “atheist” before then. After the mid-2000s, atheism not only became part of the common cultural awareness, it actually started to grow political muscle.
There were rumblings of what was to come even as far back as the mid-1990s. The Internet, even in its infancy, provided a way for doubters to connect with nonbelievers, and share their observations of all that was wrong with their faiths. Usenet groups like
talk.origins were where the talking points and communities that would later erupt into the mainstream were forged. (To my amazement, they all still exist, though they’ve turned into spam-riddled wastelands today.)
The first age: “New Atheism”
The trigger for the birth of the modern atheist movement was 9/11. The true cause of the attacks is a complex mess of geopolitical bullshit going back decades, if not generations; Al-Qaeda, for example, was founded in 1988 during the Soviet–Afghan War. But the attackers made a point of framing their motivations in religious terms – and using religious arguments to justify their methods, including killing civilians – so of course religion became the primary scapegoat for the attacks.
That would have been bad enough, but at the same time, the President of the United States was George W. Bush. Before 9/11, Dubya’s approval ratings were skating rapidly downwards, and he was already known as a gibbering, god-bothered idiot. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he became, temporarily, one of the most popular presidents ever… but rapidly squandered all of that goodwill, and left office as one of the most unpopular presidents ever (but this was before Trump, of course). He was one of the worst presidents we could have hoped for to be in charge for something like 9/11. His solution to the religiously-motivated attacks? More religion! Only, of course, “better” religion, meaning Christianity, and not Islam. He literally described the response to 9/11 as a
crusade, and indeed, the “war on terror” generally has been called “The Tenth Crusade”.
And things only got worse from there. In early 2002, the Boston Globe published a series of investigations on Catholic sex abuse cases in Boston, leading to several convictions, and ultimately setting off the entire, global, Catholic sex abuse scandal that’s still unfolding today. (The Globe investigation was famously depicted in the 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight.)
So there we were, in the early days of the 21st century, looking at the smoking aftermath of the deadliest attack on civilians in modern history, with the credit for the bloodbath going to religion, and we were being told that the solution was… religion… at the same time we were discovering that the religion we’d always been told was everything good and moral was systematically raping children. It was absolutely infuriating to anyone who believed in reason and rationality, and people rose up in outrage, saying that enough was enough.
What followed was a wave of publications that pulled no punches when it came to laying the blame for 9/11 – and many more of the world’s problems – squarely at the feet of religion, and calling for a rationalist revolution. The first major book was Sam Harris’s The End of Faith in 2004. 2006 saw the release of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which has arguably become the principle New Atheist text. Dawkins and Harris, along with Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, were crowned as the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism in late 2007.
The distinguishing characteristic of the first age of modern atheism is simplicity. The primary activity of atheist activists in that age was pointing out the obvious contradictions and absurdities in religious texts, and in the beliefs of adherents, and calling out the hypocrisies between the behaviour of believers and their purported faith. Criticism of religion was reductionist, to put it mildly: the entire phenomenon of religion, and all the complexities and nuance of religious belief, were routinely reduced to their most basic ideas, which were then viciously mocked. Even the idea that religious ideas might have any sophistication at all was scorned.
It was easy for anyone to join the club, in those days. Pick a religion, look for absurdities or contradictions – there are always many, and there are plenty of sites that will even point them out for you – find anyone who will listen, and then sneer at the faith of others… or at the believers themselves. Boom, you’re a New Atheist activist. That’s all there was to it.
But it couldn’t last.
The primary driving force of atheist activism in those days was anger. Often very much justified anger, to be sure, but anger nonetheless. Anger is great as a motivator to action in the short term, but anger doesn’t sustain. You can’t stay angry forever; it just gets tiring eventually, and you burn out.
So what happens when the limits of anger-as-motivation are reached? Well, there are two possibilities.
The atheist movement went both ways.
The great rift
When anger seethes for too long, it metastasizes. It becomes hate.
It’s difficult to admit it, but hate was always present in modern atheism. The instigating trigger, 9/11 and what followed, generated a lot of very healthy, righteous outrage… but it also stirred up plenty of hatred for Muslims (for 9/11 itself), Christians (for the god-bothered “crusade” response, the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and more), and religious people in general. The very first New Atheist book – Sam Harris’s End of Faith – stated that we were now at
Islam. That’s it, just
Islam, with absolutely no distinguishing between the many different sects of Islam, or between extremist beliefs versus moderate faith. Indeed, Harris made a point of saying that moderates were just as much enemies in this
war as the fundies. Even Shia Islam is apparently the enemy, despite the fact that the perpetrators of 9/11 hated Shia Islam, too. Harris even went so far as to argue that
collateral damage during this
war was justified, so apparently murdering innocents is cool so long as it’s in the process of killing Muslims. Harris even doubled down on this bullshit in later years, with defences of preemptive strikes on Muslim countries, and even defending torture.
And Harris wasn’t alone in his irrational hatred for Islam. Pretty much all the Horsemen (with the possible exception of Dennett) have said crazy shit about Islam over the years. And it’s not just the Horsemen, or even atheist “leadership” generally. It was the norm back then – and it still persists to this day – to call all religious people “idiots”, or “deluded”, or just about any nasty thing that pops into the head of the speaker. It was even common to hear people say that all religious people should be eradicated, or at least stripped of their rights and freedoms. You can still hear that shit today, in any atheist community; just post something about religion, then sit back and wait… won’t be long before some shitnugget pops in to say something pithy, ignorant, and hateful about religious people.
But hate is not the only thing that anger can evolve into. There is another option.
For some people, as the initial inferno of anger cools, rather than allowing it to metastasize into hatred and resentment, they instead focus their energy toward what positive actions they can take to fix the problem that caused the anger in the first place. Atheists like this took the surge of anger that came from 9/11, and said: “Okay, religion has done and continues to do terrible things. The ones who suffer worst at the hands of religion tend to be women… gay and trans people… the poor… <and so on>. So the best way to fix the problems of religion is to focus on helping those people.” Frustration with religion turned into activism for secularism… or humanism… or more other forms of activism, such as LGBTQ activism, feminist activism, environmental activism, or activism against economic inequality. Their anger did not become hate; it became fuel.
Antagonism between the two groups was inevitable. But at the time, it shocked the hell out of everyone.
Those who had decided to expand their atheist activism to include other forms of activism were shocked and horrified to find that they most vocal opponents of their progressive work were other atheists. Although it seemed obvious to stand with women (for example), given how widely religion persecutes women, those atheists who decided to expand their atheist activism to include feminist activism were criticized by other atheists for “watering down” the brand, for “taking focus away” from the primary mission, and other such nonsense.
Later, that opposition got less vague, and became openly hostile to feminism. Eventually we had atheist celebrities who had formerly spoken only about the evils of religion posting screeds about feminism being “poison” or “cancer”.
The other side refused to back down. They first derided atheists who refused to expand their concerns to other forms of progressive activism as “dictionary atheists”. Then they tried to create new atheist communities that embraced the expanded progressive missions – most famously Atheism+ – but those were viciously attacked and trolled, as anyone who dared stand up for expanding the mission… but women and minorities were particularly viciously attacked, with many of them driven right out of the movement completely.
This was the “great rift”; the splitting of the formerly united atheist community into the “social justice warriors” (SJWs), and those who oppose expanding the idea of atheist activism to include any other kind of progressive activism.
The latter, of course, is just a polite way to say “regressive assholes”.
The second age: bicameral atheism
Today, there are two very distinct atheist communities coexisting, but not peacefully.
On one side are the people who are atheist, who hate religion passionately – though, very often, they only focus their hate on particular religions, like “foreign” religions, or often just Islam – but who tend to be reactionary, and hostile to progressive politics and ideas. They tend to be older, whiter, and less educated, and tend to stick to only following the “old guard” – established atheist “celebrities” – often with fanatical devotion.
On the other are the people for whom their atheism is only one piece of a progressive mosaic; they see no real distinction between atheist activism, and activism for feminist, LGBTQ, and other progressive causes. They tend to be younger, and far more diverse, and actively request and seek out more diversity in the atheist voices they listen to.
What’s really interesting is that while the latter group vastly outnumbers the former, virtually all “big name” atheists and atheist “celebrities” find themselves and most of their fan base in the former.
The divide between the two groups has grown much wider in recent years. The SJW atheists are leaning further and further left, and even starting to embrace ideas once considered too far-left “fringe” for polite discussion, like anarchy and communism. Meanwhile, the anti-SJW atheists have flirted with misogyny, transphobia, eugenics, and even outright white supremacy.
There are still quite a few atheists who don’t quite fall into either camp… yet. These are people who are either new to the community, or who never quite grew out of its simplistic first age. They usually pop in to comment on atheist articles, videos, or other posts with that old-school atheist smug superiority, asserting that all religious people are dumb, or deluded, or that religion needs to be destroyed, or something equally brainless and trite. Eventually most of them will self-select into one of the two sides of the great rift, but some never grow out of the juvenile phase.
Canadian Atheist and Canadian atheism
So it’s fair to ask: where is Canadian Atheist in all of this history? The answer is: all over the map, really. CA has always had a diverse group of contributors, and a laissez-faire editorial policy, so we’ve straddled the great rift over the years.
Our readership, though, is heavily on the SJW side, as evidenced by which articles get the most views and responses. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, because, as mentioned above, atheists in general fall more on the SJW side of the rift.
So where will we go in the future? Honestly, I have no intention of steering us either way. Qualified contributors are welcome, regardless of their politics, even if I disagree with them. I don’t particularly agree with everything all of our current contributors post, and that’s just fine.
The catch is that it’s not easy to find contributors who sit on the anti-SJW side of the rift, for several reasons, not least being that there’s a fine line between being anti-SJW and being outright racist or homophobic or misogynist, and most people can’t manage to stay on one side of it. Also, because our readers lean heavily toward the SJW side, being a contributor on the other side can be a thankless job – you certainly wouldn’t be one of our more popular contributors.
So, which side of the rift is CA on? Well, kinda both. At least, we try to speak for and to all Canadian atheists. But the reality is that the future of atheism is already more-or-less decided, and, frankly, the SJW crew has won. So it’s only natural that we lean more to that side as time goes on.
The fight for secularism
Secularism has gone hand-in-hand with atheism right from the start, to the point that a lot of people can’t even distinguish between them. But the last decade has seen secularism come under attack in new and nefarious ways that no one could have predicted. No longer is the greatest threat those people trying to claim that secularism is theoretically, philosophically, morally, or practically “wrong”, and insisting that a government without a religion isn’t possible. No, those criticisms have all been silenced by the spectacular success of secularism in practice.
The new threat to secularism comes from those who are trying to distort it to their own ends, particularly to cover their bigotry against religion… or more often, very specific religions.
The grift is alarmingly simple. To begin, all you need to do is point out something offensive about religion (or a particular religion). That’s trivial; religions offer plenty of offensiveness. You could go with something misogynist… or maybe you could draw attention to their terrible takes on homosexuality… or you could scan their holy texts for promotion of violence, of dangerously unscientific nonsense… you have plenty of options.
Once you’ve got something offensive to point to, the next step is to make the claim that a “secular” government couldn’t possibly sit back, be neutral, and say nothing about that offensive thing.
Now, anyone who actually understands secularism will immediately raise an eyebrow and object, because what I just described is literally the exact opposite of what secularism is.
Thing is, not many people actually understand secularism. Most people’s grasp of secularism goes no further than the “separation of church and state” slogan… which is a really poor summary of secularism – it only describes a particularly narrow aspect of secularism, and only when not taken to extremes. So it’s very easy to fool people into thinking that “secularism”, being all about “separating church and state”, can include government prohibitions on religious practices.
And that’s found a particularly insidious form in Canada. The idea of banning Muslim practices because they’re somehow inimical to “contemporary values” goes back to 1980s France, and had spotty success at first. But recently, the bigots have gotten more sophisticated in how they frame their harassment. When the idea was first imported to Québec, it was in 2013 as the “Charter of Québec Values”. Since then, because the “values” phrasing has been widely recognized as a racist dog whistle, successive attempts have increasingly focused on “secular” branding. The most recent incarnation, Bill 21, is actually labelled “An Act respecting the laicity of the State”. The “logic”, such as it is, goes that the state must secular, therefore private citizens who happen to be employed by the state must also be secular. Or at least must appear to be so. Or something like that. Because an individual employee’s hijab somehow makes Québec an Islamic state, or something. I dunno, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you dig into it.
But it’s been remarkably successful at convincing people. Oh, sure, a lot of the support for the ban comes from islamophobic bigots who really don’t care about the whole “secular” thing except as a selling point that useful idiots will lap up. But a depressing number of non-bigots have been swayed by the faux-“secular” sheen.
This hijacking of the definition of secularism has become a serious problem. When the Supreme Court effectively ruled that Canada is a secular country in the 2015 MLQ v Saguenay decision, it avoided using the word “secular”, preferring to talk about a “duty of neutrality” instead. We’ve even come to the point where some confused commentators are actually speaking out against “secularism”! What’s really happening, though, is that what they really have a problem with is the racism hiding behind these fake manifestations of “secularism”. They just don’t realize the “secularism” façade is nothing more than that: just a façade. It’s not real secularism.
There are some signs of hope, though. For starters, after previous attempts at equating bigoted bans as “secularism” were loudly and widely called out by secular groups and activists, the current Coalition Avenir Québec bill has abandoned the ruse, and describes itself using the term “laïcité” rather than “secularism”. The media is slowly wising up, too; more and more reporters are careful to make it clear that bigoted laws like Bill 21 are not “secular”.
But it’s still an active battle. We’ve been standing up for secularism for almost a decade now, and I expect we’ll be spending most of the next decade continuing the fight. It’s just too important to both sides: the racists need the veneer of respectability secularism offers them, and the rest of us just can’t surrender secularism to the racists.
The other stuff
While Québec’s Bill 21 and the struggle for secularism took up most of the airtime in 2019, there were, of course, a lot of other things going on. And for the most part, most of them were good! A lot of neat stuff happened in 2019, with the good outweighing the bad many, many times over.
It was a particularly good year for stomping down pseudoscience. We saw some big name doofuses like Dena Churchill facing the music for peddling bullshit while pretending to be real doctors. It was one of the funniest and most cathartic stories of the year when “DrSexyMom” was fined $100k and forced to admit she was… and I quote, because I love to quote this: “professionally incompetent as a result of incompetence arising out of mental incapacity”. Glorious.
There was also that amazing report published in BC. After a series of scandals, an independent reviewer wrote a report about BC’s medical system, and he has gone on the record as saying, quote, “some” types of “health care professionals” should lose their status as professionals.
And there was that outcry when it was discovered that Global Affairs Canada was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars sending… naturopaths… to pretend to treat an infectious disease in Honduras. GAC tried to cover its ass by claiming that WHO approved of naturopathy… but they were quickly overwhelmed by the cries of “bullshit”. The fact that we were sending freakin’ alchemists cosplaying as doctors to cure actual diseases was embarrassing… but the response by Canadians when we found out that this bullshit was going on was inspiring.
2019 was also a good year for fighting hate. Despite officials dragging their feet at every turn, several members of the armed forces were outed as Nazis. One has actually gone on the run and may have connected with violent, far-right groups in the US, but most of the others are falling over themselves to deny their Nazi connections.
We saw a couple high-profile convictions of hatemongers in the courts. Alexandre Bissonnette, the perpetrator of the Québec City mosque attack, was sentenced to 40 years without parole. The editors of the odious Your Ward News got some jail time. And good ol’ Kevin “Freedom Report” Johnston was ordered to pay $2.5 million for his islamophobic attacks on restaurant owner Mohamad Fakih (his partner-in-crime, Ron Banerjee, had previously caved and released an apology video as part of a settlement).
But the best anti-hate story of 2019 may well be the funniest of the decade. Dig this: A dude named Travis Patron wanted to create a Canadian Nazi political party: the Canadian Nationalist Party. What’s more, he wanted the CNP to be an officially-recognized political party by Elections Canada, which would entitle it to public funds (contribution reimbursements, cover for some expenses, and so on). As squicky as that feels, this is a free country, so there’s no reason to deny the CNP official party status so long as it meets the requirements and doesn’t actually break any laws. So far none of this is funny, or pleasant in any way… but just bear with me for a bit more.
You see, to become an officially recognized party, one has to fill out a bunch of forms, pay some fees… you know, the usual bureaucratic bullshit. One also has to submit a list of 250 eligible voters who are willing to declare that they are members of that party, and support the party’s application to become officially registered. Here is where the magic begins.
Patron, clearly not having read the rules closely enough, assumed that since Elections Canada jealously protects the privacy of voters, that meant they would also keep the list of party members private, too. And he told his supporters so. Problem is… Elections Canada does indeed protect the privacy of voters… but the people who sign declarations are not voters, they’re members. They’re not voting for anything when they put their names on the list; they’re declaring, publicly, that they are members of the party, and willing to be counted as such in order to grant legitimacy to the party. In fact, Elections Canada explicitly says:
The entire application, including the names of the members, is a public document. Oops.
In case it’s not clear what just happened, let me rephrase it. Travis Patron, founder of the Nazi party, convinced 250 Canadian Nazis to sign their names to a list, with the promise that they would remain anonymous. He was wrong. Which meant that 250 Canadian Nazis had just outed themselves. Publicly. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network put in a request for the list. And got it. And published it.
And there were a whole lot of other awesome stories in 2019, too many to recap. Like the hilarious saga of the anti-abortion film Unplanned, which promoters talked up as having a massive, widespread release in Canada… before they’d bothered to actually check with the theatres, who were not the least bit interested in it… and eventually ended up getting only a very limited release in only 24 theatres across the country, for a week.
Oh, I could go on and on. All-in-all, it was actually a really good year! Oh, sure, there were some hiccups, and some nasty patches. But I think we came out of the 2010s with more good than bad.
Top posts of 2019
It’s the end of a year, but also the end of a decade – the first decade of Canadian Atheist.
We saw a lot of history unfold over those ten years. We saw the very nature of the atheist community change. We live in the era of the great rift now, and the conflict between the two sides is far from over.
We lived through the dark ages of the Harper era, and into the grey ages of the Trudeau era. We saw scientists muzzled and environmental groups oppressed. Then we saw historic apologies for past wrongs against LGBTQ and indigenous people.
We saw Canada legally defined by the Supreme Court as a secular country. But we also saw the abuse of the word “secularism” by bigots forcing the Supreme Court to avoid using that word, choosing instead to describe Canadian secularism as a “duty of neutrality”.
We saw the birth of the alt-right, and the rise of right-wing hate all across the world. We have been lucky in Canada; the efforts of far-right bigots to gain a foothold here have been thwarted again and again, and the few victories they managed to win have been flukes they are largely unlikely to pull off again.
It hasn’t always been forward progress. There have been stumbles, and regressions. And sometimes those regressions were so disheartening, it was hard to believe that things are getting better. But they are. They really. Slowly but surely, every backslide eventually being rendered moot by a surge forward, we’re doing it. We’re winning. The future really is bright. The kids, they’re going to blow us all away.
The 2010s were wild. There were some rough spots. But we came through. And not only that, we won the decade. Yes, the bigots, the assholes, the reactionaries, the regressives, the religious nutters… all of those are still around, and they’re still desperately fighting to ruin everything we’ve won. Just because we’ve been winning so far doesn’t mean we can quit the fight. We need to keep doing what we’re doing if we’re going to win the next decade, too.
But we are going to win the next decade. And the next one after that.
So thank you to everyone who has helped in the struggle over the last ten years. Thank you to everyone who has supported this little corner of the atheist universe. Thank you to our readers. Thank you to our contributors. We couldn’t have made it to our second decade without you. And we look forward to bringing you even more in the decade to come.
As always, friends and readers… I’ll see you on the flip side.