Reflection — 2020 edition

Well, 2020 is finally over. What a year. This one’s going to echo in our souls for decades to come.

It wasn’t just the biggest global pandemic in over a hundred years… though, of course that’s certainly a big part of it. It’s easy to forget in the wake of the many changes COVID-19 has wrought on our lives that there were several other world-shaking stories this past year.

Black Lives Matter and police reform

The Black Lives Matter movement didn’t start in 2020, but it certainly peaked in 2020. In a year that we were all supposed to be largely locked down due to the pandemic, US cops still managed to murder dozens of people of colour in shady circumstances: George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud ArberyJacob Blake managed to survive his police encounter, for better or worse. It might be tempting to write this off as a US-only thing… but the truth is that the BLM protests echoed worldwide, and triggered long-overdue societal conversations about the nature of policing. Even in Canada we had Regis Korchinski-Paquet, D’Andre Campbell, Ejaz Ahmed Choudry, Stewart Kevin Andrews, Chantel Moore, Sheffield Matthews… not to mention horrifying new revelations about much older cases of police abuse, like the Saskatchewan “starlight tours” and Myles Gray… not to mention numerous stories of police abuse of indigenous people that luckily didn’t end in death, like the cases of Allan Adam and Mona Wang.

The killings and the resultant protests kicked of discussions about comtemporary policing, and especially the hyper-militarization of police, and the nature of police training—which sets up the notion of “wolves” and “sheepdogs”, placing officers in a position where they are not so much helping their communities, but perpetually threatened by them, justifying hair-trigger responses for the sake of self-protection. (The notion of “wolves”, “sheep”, and “sheepdogs” was popularized by a police trainer who describes himself as a “killologist”, natch.) “Defund the police” and “abolish the police” both became slogans in mainstream political discussion, and some jurisdictions have even resulted in punitive reductions in police funding. And their behaviour in 2020 has sure made it hard to feel sorry for the cops. Even what should have been the biggest story of why we need cops was a debacle: Gabriel Wortman went on a killing spree in Nova Scotia that lasted 13 hours, and arguably only succeeded in killing as many as he did because he was disguised as a police officer, and was not caught by any competent police work, but merely because he happened to stop for gas where two actual cops were already stopped for gas, and they only clocked him because he had blood on his face—fine detective work there. On top of that, the cops failed to alert the public to what was going on, and when they finally did, 10 hours into the attack, they “forgot” to mention the civilian casualties in their first press conferences, only discussing the police casualties.

The pandemic shakes up politics and economics

But policing was far from the only area that governments faced unprecedented new challenges. The economic pressures of the pandemic put stresses on our free-market capitalist economies like never before. Oh, sure, nothing really changed; the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, as has been the trend for decades, and the pandemic merely accelerated the inequality. But what did change was public debate about the economy. Discussions about a universal basic income have been building steam for some time now, but there was intense pressure for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to transition the COVID-19-specific Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) from a short-term payment of $2,000 a month into a full-blown UBI. It ultimately didn’t happen, but the idea is still a hot political issue. And naturally, the pandemic added extra pressure on Trudeau to follow through on his promise of universal pharmacare. That didn’t happen either, but even the US looks to the on the cusp of instituting some form of universal healthcare.

Indeed, the pandemic turned out to be remarkably bad for right-wing governments across the globe, and within Canada. Advocates of privatization have been notably silent since the pandemic has turned the private sector into dependants of public funding, and the data suggests that right-wing policies in general have failed to adequately contain the pandemic. The timing of this could almost be divinely-planned; after four years or so of right-wing populism rising in popularity, COVID-19 has shown the whole enterprise to be a sham.

“The world is on fucking fire”

Outside of politics, 2020 was also a landmark year for the environment… and not in a good way. In fact, I’ve heard several environmental reporters admit that back in January, they assumed they were already reporting on what would be the biggest story of the year: the Australian bushfires. Remember those? While they weren’t the biggest bushfires the country has ever experienced, they were close, and they were particularly notable for affecting populated areas. I’ve seen estimates that the fires released as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as Australia normally emits in an entire year, and over a billions of animals were killed, some probably driven extinct. When Bill Nye said the world is on fucking fire back in May, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically.

Because of the pandemic, none of the international goals for mitigating climate change were achieved in 2020. And that’s not a good thing, because time was already running out to do something before the hell year.

Religion and super-spreading

Okay, that’s all bad news, but nobody is going to be surprised to hear that 2020 was a shitty year. The relevant question for Canadian Atheist is: how bad was it for Canadian atheists.

Well, it really wasn’t much of a year for atheist news. We all had much bigger issues to be concerned with.

One issue that did come up on a lot of atheist radars, repeatedly, was that the worst violators of pandemic health measures were often religious. In Canada, multiple churches have racked up fines of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for holding services in defiance of bylaws limiting public gatherings (for example). And these bylaws are not without solid justification, because religious gatherings are the second biggest causes of COVID-19 spread clusters, after restaurants (and restaurants only come out on top because they’re open all-day, all-week—not just once a week for a couple hours). Hell, there was a case of a Canadian pastor who held events in Myanmar which may have been responsible for virtually all cases in the country since.

Let’s face it, it was a rough year for religions in general, because they’re not really well-equipped to handle viral pandemics. Some handled it tragically badly, as mentioned above. Others… didn’t do so bad. A lot of religious groups did manage to transition to “virtual services”—that is, religious gatherings on Zoom or the like. And, to their credit, most religious people did forgo their most cherished traditions. For me, one of the most startling images of 2020 was of the Great Mosque of Mecca, showing the difference in the number of pilgrims doing the hajj around the Kaaba; in previous years, pilgrims were packed shoulder-to-shoulder… in 2020 the area was nearly empty. It was haunting.

[A side-by-side comparison showing the area around the Kaaba in Mecca. The first photo, taken before 2020, shows the area absolutely packed with people. The second, taken in 2020, shows the area almost completely empty, with only a small number of pilgrims circling the Kaaba.]
On the left, a photo of the Kaaba taken before 2020. On the right, the same scene in 2020, showing how few pilgrims were allowed in.

But this brings us to the other big religious story of 2020 that got a lot of atheist attention. Due to the fact that religious festivities were effectively cancelled in most cities, some decided to offer small tokens of acknowledgement for what believers were sacrificing in the name of public health and safety. In particular, a number of cities eased noise regulation bylaws to allow mosques to broadcast the adhan—the Muslim call to prayer—once a day or so during the month of Ramadan. It was a kind gesture—a small way to let Muslims staying home to still feel like part of a tradition… but of course it riled up the bigots. From what I’ve heard from multiple cities, there wasn’t even a single credible noise complaint about the broadcasts (“credible” meaning that it came from someone who could plausibly have heard them, rather than a resident kilometres away), but city councils were nevertheless flooded with rage from people making bullshit “secularism” arguments to disguise their hate.

Canadian Atheist in 2020

Yeah, it wasn’t a great year for CA.

There was a period since I took over as managing editor—going back several years—where every month we were breaking readership records. That… didn’t continue in 2020. In fact, we saw a precipitous drop in readership.

That’s hardly surprising, because we all had much more pressing things on our mind in 2020. Let’s face it, taken overall, there just wasn’t that much news that was either Canadian or atheist—let alone both—compared to what were really the big stories of the year. The US election took most of the oxygen that the pandemic didn’t, and even after those were accounted for, there was much more interest in things like the BLM protests, and the economic recession. Atheism and its related issues just weren’t a priority in 2020.

And while I suppose I could have taken steps to get us more attention, my own focus throughout the year was on a series of serious technical issues. (These issues are actually ongoing; I’m still working to fix them.) All my time was spent putting out fires, rather than creating new content. The stress of the pandemic wasn’t helping matters either.

But we survived! 10 years and going! We’re not dead yet!

And while it wasn’t a great year, we still did well enough. These were the top posts of 2020 (ignoring special posts like the Canadian Atheist awards, and features like Weekly Update). with 2020 posts highlighted:

1Mubarak Bala Arrested for Blasphemy in KadunaScott Douglas Jacobsen
Interview with Harris Sultan – Author & Founder, “Ex Muslim Atheist”Scott Douglas Jacobsen
2Interview with Professor Steven Pinker – Johnstone Family Professor, Psychology, Harvard UniversityScott Douglas Jacobsen
3Interview with Professor Alice Roberts – President, Humanists UK & President, British Science AssociationScott Douglas Jacobsen
Interview with Md. Sazzadul Hoque – Founder, Council of Ex-Muslims of BangladeshScott Douglas Jacobsen
Separation of Church & State in CanadaDiana MacPherson
Interview with Mubarak Bala – Executive Director, Humanist Association of NigeriaScott Douglas Jacobsen
Shaykh Uthman Khan on Bias, Prejudice, and Xenophobia Against MuslimsScott Douglas Jacobsen
4The hate is coming from inside the houseIndi
5Interview with Sigurður Rúnarsson on Icelandic and Norwegian HumanismScott Douglas Jacobsen
6Ask Mubarak 7 – Et Tu? Two: How Bad Could Things Get?Scott Douglas Jacobsen
7Extensive Interview with Andrew James William Copson – President, Humanists International & Chief Executive, Humanists UKScott Douglas Jacobsen
Doonesbury Cartoon Wittily Addresses CreationismDiana MacPherson
Extensive Interview with Onur Romano – Branch Manager, Centre for Inquiry Canada – Virtual Branch & Co-Branch Manager of Centre for Inquiry Canada – Victoria BCScott Douglas Jacobsen
Interview with George Martin – Spokesperson, Anonymous for the VoicelessScott Douglas Jacobsen
8Interview with Arantxa León on Central American Religious Experiences – Master’s Student, Socioreligion, Genders and DiversitiesScott Douglas Jacobsen
Interview with Dr. Norman Finkelstein on Gaza NowScott Douglas Jacobsen
Interview with Administrator of “Ex-Muslims India”Scott Douglas Jacobsen
The Role of Religion in Gender InequalityScott Douglas Jacobsen
9Interview with Rebekah Woods – Former Message BelieverScott Douglas Jacobsen
The Salvation Army throws family out into freezing night, due to fear of imaginary gay paedophilesIndi
Shaykh Uthman Khan on Ayesha and FatimaScott Douglas Jacobsen
10Extensive Interview with Dr. Jon Cleland Host – Managing Editor, Humanistic PaganismScott Douglas Jacobsen

Summary

I know I’ve said this several times, but, oof, what a year.

Every year recently has felt like the worst year ever, but 2020 has the most legitimate claim to it by far. 2020 has changed everything; we can’t even watch movies anymore without mentally dating them “pre-2020” and “post-2020” (usually by whether or not people are wearing masks). We all want things to go back to “normal”, but while it’s certainly true the worst aspects of 2020 will eventually pass… some things are changed forever.

But I think it’s important to remember that what caused 2020 to be “bad” was neither random nor inevitable. Instead, 2020 showed the traditional institutions of power to be woefully unprepared and inadequate to deal with real crises. We knew this, more or less, due to their long-term failure to deal with the climate change emergency… but the acuteness of the pandemic emergency really drove the point home.

I truly hope that people don’t fall into the pattern of thinking that 2020 is over, so things should go back to “normal”. I hope that we learn the lessons 2020 has taught us, and start working toward real change in our societal institutions: political and economic. We’ve needed change for a long time. Now we’ve seen just how badly we needed it. So let’s make change.

The tribulations of 2020 pretty much swamped atheism—nothing much happened either within the community, nor in areas of interest to the community. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s good that we have enough perspective as atheists to realize when our problems aren’t that important, in the grand scheme of things. It’s good that we can step aside and let the focus fall on people who need help more than we do. And it’s good that we can redirect our energies to helping others when their crises are more severe than our own.

So what will 2021 bring? Oh, it’s so hard to tell right now. I hope that we can bring this pandemic finally under control, and then use its lessons to institute real changes. I hope that things will get, not necessarily back to “normal”, but to a point where we can return our focus onto atheist issues.

But at this point, the thing I hope for most in 2021 is that we live through it to see 2022. I think that most of all sums up just what a year 2020 was.

To all my fellow atheists, Canadians, and everyone out there standing up for progressive issues, I raise my beer to you. We survived 2020. We can survive 2021. Hell, we can survive anything. Let’s take a moment to catch our breath, then let’s get back to work making our world a better place.

Thank you everyone who has continued to fight the good fight in the worst year in most of our lifetimes.

Thank you everyone who has given strength to comrades this past year.

Thank you to our readers and supporters, who have kept us afloat for over a decade now, including through the worst year we’ve ever known.

You’re all heroes, and I love you all.

Here’s to making 2021 the year everything changed for the better.

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