Weekly Update: 18-Dec-2021 to 7-Jan-2022

by | January 8, 2022

This week’s Update is extra large, because I took the last two weeks off (where the Updates would have fallen on Christmas day, and New Year’s day).

The Update will now return to its regular, weekly schedule, mostly because I can’t be bothered to think up a new name that doesn’t promise that schedule.

Here’s your Canadian Atheist Weekly Update for to .

This week’s items

[] Legal opinion supports Halton Catholic Board’s policy requiring Catholic-only student trustees

This was disappointing. It’s technically not a ruling, but it’s a pretty good indication of how a ruling would go.

This is not about the Catholic board members themselves. This is about the student trustees. The quite sensible argument goes that any student in good standing should be eligible to become a student trustee. The counterargument from the Halton Catholic District School Board is, essentially: fuck non-Catholics.

This is particularly unjust because Catholic schools allow non-Catholic students, and accept the money that comes with those non-Catholic students—which is already pretty shady—but then turns around and says those students have no right to have a say in how their own schools are run. But this is more than simply a question of rights or representation; there are concrete benefits to being a student trustee. Student trustees get a $2500 scholarship, among other benefits.

I am neither particularly surprised nor concerned by this ruling. Yes, it is clearly discriminatory and unjust; there’s simply no argument otherwise. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As I’ve explained before, the problem isn’t this particular ruling. It’s not a shitty ruling, it’s a shitty system. An entire, separate, constitutionally-enabled, Catholic school system should not exist… but it does. And because it does, then within that context this ruling is sound.

You follow? When you have a fucked-up system, then you should expect fucked-up situations within that system. Complaining about, or trying to fix, those fucked up situations is missing the point.

I do feel bad for those students who are being screwed… but their parents put them in a discriminatory Catholic system. While the separate, Catholic system can and should ultimately be blamed for the injustice, and abolished, the immediate guilt here falls on the parents. If you are a parent of a non-Catholic child, and you put that child in a discriminatory Catholic school system—regardless of whether that discriminatory Catholic school system is constitutionally-enshrined or not—then you are responsible for the discrimination your child experiences.

The moral here is: don’t put your kids in Catholic schools. (Yes, yes, I’m aware that there are situations where there is no choice. That, however, is another discussion altogether.)

[] The Pandora’s Box Objection to Skeptical Theism

This is not an article; rather it is a pre-publication draft of a paper that was published in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion back in 2015. Really cool of Prof. Law to share it with us.

I always to read these deep philosophical analyses of religion and religious belief, because they not only challenge religion, they challenge my own beliefs as well. What we have here is an interesting inversion of the old “god of the gaps” fallacy… turned back on atheists.

So, we’re all familiar, I think, with the classic “problem of evil”. The form relevant here is the “evidential problem of evil” which differs from the “logical problem of evil” in that it is not arguing that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of God (as usually defined: omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent), but merely pointing out that it sure does make God unlikely.

An important part of the way it works is that it breaks up the “evil” into two kinds:

inscrutable evil
Evil that doesn’t seem to have any justification.
gratuitous evil
Evil that clearly doesn’t have any possible justification.

So an atheist using the evidential problem of evil argument would say something like:

  1. Evil exists.
  2. An omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being—God—would not allow evil to exist.
  3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

Seems legit… but there’s a gap in there.

The gap lies in the fact that the first premise is implicitly referring to inscrutable evil. That evil happens is not debatable… what’s not immediately and obvious true is that that evil is gratuitous. In other words, we know bad shit happens, and it sure seems that there can’t be any justification for that bad shit… but do we know for sure that there isn’t a justification?

So the argument above, more correctly stated, is actually:

  1. Evil exists that doesn’t seem to have a justification. (That is, inscrutable evil exists.)
  2. An omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being—God—would not allow evil to exist without a justification. (That is, God would not allow gratuitous evil.)
  3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

See the gap now? We leap from asserting that evil that doesn’t seem justified exists, to assuming that just because we can’t think of a justification, there isn’t one.

If we include that leap in the argument, as Law does, it becomes:

  1. Evil exists that doesn’t seem to have a justification. (That is, inscrutable evil exists.)
  2. At least for some evil that we can’t think of a justification, there isn’t a justification at all. (That is, some inscrutable evil is gratuitous.)
  3. An omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being—God—would not allow evil to exist without a justification. (That is, God would not allow gratuitous evil.)
  4. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

But that second premise—that some inscrutable evil is gratuitous—is basically an atheist “god of the gaps” argument. Instead of “I can’t think of a reason why this could be, therefore God”, it’s “I can’t think of a reason why this evil would be justified, therefore there is none”. It’s an argument from ignorance.

And that, basically, is the whole idea of “skeptical theism”: we must assume that even if we can’t think of a good reason for some evil, there might still be one. Our perceptual and cognitive limitations—along with our limited ability to reason morally—at least in comparison with an omniscient and omnibenevolent being, mean we must always assume we just can’t see the big picture.

The Pandora’s Box objection to skeptical theism is sorta like a slippery slope argument, pointing out that:

  1. If a justification for some evil exists…
  2. … but God is making us think there is none (because, being omnipotent, God could certainly find some way to make us understand that at least a justification exists, if not what that justification actually is)…
  3. … then God must have a good reason for tricking us like that…
  4. … which means you’ve opened the door to God:
    1. … being deceitful (or at least, willing to deceive us); and…
    2. … having a good reason for it that we can never understand…
  5. … which means you could assert anything, and then when reality contradicts your claim, shrug and say it’s true anyway, but God it deceiving us about it, and has a good reason for doing so that we can never understand.

In other words, if you accept the skeptical theism argument for why the evidential problem of evil doesn’t hold up despite the evidence, you can’t really rule out why anything doesn’t hold up despite the evidence. You’re basically condemned to respond, “hey, you don’t know, it could be true, and God might have a good reason for making it look otherwise” for any bullshit.

Law’s article is a response to a response to the Pandora’s Box objection, which makes it all the more fascinating. I’m not sure how well it holds up, or whether other responses have superseded it in the years since it was published, but it provides a wonderful view into what kinds of things are really being debated in the philosophy of religion… far beyond the repetitive droning you normally see in typical atheist/theist “debates” on social media, blogs, and podcasts.

[] Alberta Human Rights Tribunal Rejects Religious Mask Exemption

Yet another court reject claims of religious “exemptions” to mask mandates. This time… in Alberta!

I’m a little fuzzy on exactly what went on here, for a number of reasons. First, the site doesn’t actually give the name of the decision, or any reference to it. Second, as far as I am aware, there is no Human Rights Tribunal of Alberta. There is an Alberta Human Rights Commission, and it does have a Tribunal. However, I can’t find any decisions made by the Tribunal that match. The case I found that I think is being referred to here never went to the Tribunal.

I think that the case in question is Pelletier v 1226309 Alberta Ltd. o/a Community Natural Foods, 2021 AHRC 192. If so, then it’s hardly a surprise the complaint was dismissed, because the complainant was just a complete fucking idiot.

Firstly, the guy claimed he had a “medical exemption” to wearing masks. His evidence? A note from a doctor that said, in its entirety, and I quote:

The above named patient, David Pelletier is medically exempt from wearing a mask due to a medical condition.

That’s literally it.

Now, technically, even that little should be enough… for the store. Indeed, you don’t even need a note! All you need to do is just… say… “I can’t wear a mask; I have a medical condition”, and that’s it; the store now knows you have a disability, and is obligated to reasonably accommodate, by law.

But here’s key thing: the store never disputed the medical condition. The store simply said: “okay, cool, you have a medical condition and can’t wear a mask… so here are, like, a dozen other options you can use.” It’s just that the guy refused all the other options, and threw a fit.

You may be wondering how religion comes into it. Well, here’s where it gets even stupider.

You see, what actually happened was that Pelletier filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, on the grounds of both physical disability and religion. The Commission basically took one look at it, shook their heads in frustration, and dumped the “religion” bit, considering it only on the basis of physical disability, and forwarded that on to the store to respond to. Long story short, the store responded, the Commission looked over both sides, and then shrugged and dumped the case into the trashcan, because it was so obviously stupid.

Pelletier went apoplectic. He demanded that his case be reviewed for numerous reasons, but particularly noted that he wanted his religious positions noted as well. The Commission was actually doing him a favour, stripping out the really stupid shit (the religious arguments), and paring Pelletier’s case down to only the bits that might even slightly conceivably have a chance (but of course, even then it didn’t). Pelletier didn’t care; he wanted his religious arguments heard. And so, the whole case was sent to Chief of the Commission and Tribunals for review.

Aaaand, the complaint was dismissed right away anyway. In addition to noting that Pelletier’s claims of having a medical condition stank of bullshit—Pelletier claimed that if he wears a mask even for a second or a minute, he will become immediately and violently ill… but provided no evidence beyond that doctor’s note—in addition to noting that his arguments for why he couldn’t accept any of the accommodations were ridiculous—at one point, noting Pelletier’s claim that being unable to personally look at the items on the shelves, rather than letting a personal shopper choose for him, constituted an “undue hardship”, Gottheil writes: [t]he fact that an accommodation that limits an individual’s ability to peruse grocery products, as a trade-off to limiting the spread of a disease that has reportedly caused the death of 5 million people worldwide, does not mean that it is unreasonable—in addition to all that, Gottheil points out that Pelletier’s religious argument for why he can’t wear a mask is utterly incoherent.

And it gets even worse! Because in addition to all the other bullshit in his complaint, Pelletier couldn’t help but sprinkle in a bit of racism! Gottheil actually felt compelled to point out how fucking stupid Pelletier’s racist argument was.

[] Canadian Medical Association Journal retracts controversial hijab letter

One of the downsides of taking a couple weeks off is that controversies can flare up and be resolved during the break, making reporting on them seem gratuitous after the fact. But, of course, there are always lessons to be learned, even from “finished” stories.

The controversy at issue started with a letter published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by Dr. Sherif Emil titled “Don’t use an instrument of oppression as a symbol of diversity and inclusion”. The letter has since been retracted by all parties, but you can still read it at The Internet Archive.

The letter was triggered—pun intended—by an innocuous image on the cover of volume 193, issue 44, from 8 November, showing two little girls seated side-by-side reading together. That’s it. Oh, but one of the girls is wearing a headscarf, so… fuh-reak-out!

The letter itself is the archetypical example of “I’m not a racist but… RACISM!!!”. Emil drones on about how he works with women who wear the hijab and totes respects them, totes mcGotes! Buuuuuut… girls who wear the hijab like the one in the picture are being sold off as brides, and raped. So, yeah, if you’re a Muslim parent, and your little daughter wants to wear a headscarf just like Mommy, if you let them, you’re basically selling your kid into sexual slavery.

It’s pretty much islamophobia 101. He even quotes Yasmine Mohammed! (From a tweet!) Emil himself has made a name as a public figure opposing anything potentially positive for Muslims; for example, he opposed to Motion-103.

After the outrage, CMAJ retracted the letter. Emil, at first, doubled down… but has since also apologized (or so I’ve heard; I haven’t actually seen his apology). But questions remain. Like, how the fuck this letter made it through the entire editorial process to actually get published, with no-one in the line raising the “we have a racist here” alarm. Note, too, that the title of the letter was not written by Emil; someone at CMAJ actually wrote that.

[] While church attendance among Canadians plunges, belief in God stays nearly the same: poll

There’s not really anything new or surprising brought up in this article. If you’re a regular reader of Canadian Atheist, I review surveys of Canadians all the time, and the findings mentioned in this article are remarkably consistent across survey, and over time.

But what the article does that I rarely see done, is distinguish between religiosity and the things used to estimate religiosity, like church attendance, or religious affiliation. They don’t get too deep into it—it’s a short article—and, let’s be honest, the reason they even think about it at all is because they’re doing the usual “religion is declining, but don’t panic” bullshit that major news outlets always seem to do. But they do notice that while people are walking away from churches in droves, a lot of them still say religion is important to them.

[] Religion and politics are still a potent brew in Alberta

Canadian media is usually too “polite” to point out the rabid Christian fanaticism underlying so much of its politics, political parties, and politicians, much it far out of step with general Canadian attitudes. But occasionally, a journalist will slip their reins just long enough to point out the fundamentalists in our midst.

This article’s chief value lies not in “outing” Jason Kenney as a secret Christian nationalist. There was no outing; we all knew already exactly what Kenney is. No, this article’s real value is as a history lesson; a review of just how deep the dominionist current runs in Alberta politics.

[] What happened to the nonbelief channel at Patheos?

The short answer to the question that is the item’s title is: exactly what everyone said was going to happen. The longer answer is… well… here we go….

So, several years ago, as blogging began to lose its faddish lustre, while simultaneously becoming commercialized—the two phenomena are not contradictory, and in fact, it is quite normal for something cool to become commercialized and so-much-less-cool all at once—a number of atheist bloggers were seduced to join Patheos, a blogging collective owned by a company that owns several religion and spirituality sites, like Beliefnet. The promise of Patheos was that it would be a one-stop shop for religious and non-religious perspectives: both a peer-reviewed reference library, and a collection of hundreds of blogs, organized by religion (or lack thereof). Even at the time, people pointed out that there was no way corporate support for atheist bloggers could last; the mere existence of atheists is too controversial for corporate tolerance. Nevertheless, several high-profile atheist bloggers joined them, most famously the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta. They made the “nonreligious” section one of the most popular areas of Patheos, and indeed, the Patheos nonreligious section was the most popular atheist “site” on the web.

So what happened? Well, the absolutely predictable happened.

We’ll never know exactly which straw it was that finally broke the corporate camel’s back. Probably the best candidate was a post from titled… I shit you not… “Iceland Declares All Religions Are Weapons Of Mass Destruction”, from Laughing in Disbelief. This triggered a firestorm of outrage from, well, idiots who can’t tell an obvious satirical joke from reality. Or, yanno, maybe the final straw was the very similar post from : “Iceland Declares All Religions Are Mental Disorders”, which also triggered howls of moronic outrage. Fucking Iceland, eh? Always stirring up shit.

Or maybe it was just the general fact that truth—and atheism—really isn’t profit-friendly.

Whatever it was that annoyed them, the Patheos corporate overlords decided to quote-unquote “change its editorial direction”. They basically told bloggers: no more downer posts, no more political criticism, and no more posts that are critical of other religions (or non-religion). From now on, Patheos content must be light, fluffy, positive, and, most importantly, investor-friendly.

It bears noting here that blogs like Friendly Atheist were never particularly harsh in their criticisms of religion. That’s why they were invited to Patheos in the first place (many other wildly popular atheist blogs of the time were not invited). Indeed, what Friendly Atheist does, most of the time, is simply quote religious leaders and religious politicians, and then—sometimes—point out objectively verifiable facts that undermine those quotes.

So the new “editorial direction” is so vapid, and so pointless, that even the fucking Friendly Atheist said it was too conciliatory. As a result, basically the entire nonreligious category of Patheos cleared out. (Including Laughing in Disbelief.)

Where did they go?

Well, Dale McGowan is working on a brand new site called OnlySky (from John Lennon’s “Imagine”: … ♫ above us, only sky ♪ …). It’s not up yet, unfortunately, but it should be ready soon.

Now, Mehta talks up OnlySky by dumping on every other, extant Internet atheist community—like Freethoughtblogs and The Orbit—implying that they’re unprofessional and lacking in digital expertise. Not sure his trash-talk is great for community building, but we’ll see in a few weeks what OnlySky brings to the game.

[] Ottawa’s antisemitism envoy Irwin Cotler calls Quebec’s Bill 21 discriminatory

The pressure is really building on the federal government to take a stand on Québec’s Bill 21.

Cotler’s statements are particularly weighty. This guy specializes in recognizing and combating discrimination… so much so that Justin Trudeau himself made Cotler the guy responsible for recognizing and combating discrimination (at least against Jews; but if you can spot antisemitism, it’s not hard to spot islamophobia too).

Not only that, Cotler knows the law; Cotler used to write the fucking law. He was the Minister of Justice under Paul Martin. So if he says Bill 21 violates the Charter, you really should listen to him rather than some radio poubelle wanker.

Oh, and also, Cotler is Québécois. So all you “this is a Québec thing, others shouldn’t comment” people can go fuck yourselves right off the bat.

Mind you, Cotler isn’t saying anything novel or controversial. In typical Liberal tradition, he’s only standing up for a just cause after it’s already become so obvious and so popular it would be weird not to stand up for it. And what’s saying, that the law violates the Charter all over the place, that it violates the principle of secularism, that it unjustly discriminates… all of that has already been confirmed in court… in Québec court.

[] Victoria pledges $9,500 to legal challenge against Quebec’s religious symbols bill

I’ve actually lost track of the number of cities across Canada that have pledged real cash money toward the fight against Québec’s discriminatory Bill 21. Brampton, Toronto, Winnipeg… the list keeps growing. Now, add Victoria.

The most interesting thing about Victoria’s case is the vigorous debate that accompanied the decision. What’s amusing about it is that the debate was never in any sense about whether to contribute to the fight… it was about how much to contribute. And the discussion, in true city politics fashion, really got pedantic to an almost asinine level, with Mayor Lisa Helps suggesting $7,650 based on a rough per capita calculation of the contribution made by a couple of cities. The final amount was suggested by Councillor Ben Isitt to represent roughly 10 cents per resident, with some councillors so heated by the debate they even withheld support just out of frustration with the number.

Ah, well. 🤷🏼 Some people are small-minded enough that minor money arguments matter more to them than human rights principles, and unfortunately, that kind of person is way over-represented in lower levels of government, such as in city councils. But at least things worked out regardless, this time.

[] After Jan. 6, secularism is the crucial “guardrail” — and it’s fatally weak in America

Primarily American content, obvs, but interesting nonetheless. I don’t think any CA readers will argue that secularism is good for democracy, or that the US is woefully bad at both. But it’s interesting to see that even Americans are starting to consider taking secularism a bit more seriously.

Berlinerblau argues that James Madison fucked up when he wrote the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the relevant part of which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….

Even at the time, the freedom of religion was already well understood to be limited. But for whatever reason, there is no language in the US Constitution that acknowledges the limits of on freedom of religion.

Contrast that with the Canadian Constitution, which starts with the caveat that fundamental freedoms sometimes need to be limited… and then enshrines those freedoms:

  1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

  2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

    1. freedom of conscience and religion;
    2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
    3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
    4. freedom of association.

And, of course, Canadian jurisprudence reflects that quite well. Canadian courts have always been very likely to limit religious freedoms when they interfere with the rights of other individuals, or the rights of the social collective. Indeed, many US court rulings about religious freedom sound absolutely absurd by Canadian standards.

Canadian Atheist’s Weekly Update depends on the submissions of readers like you. If you see anything on the Internet that you think might be of interest to CA readers, please take a minute to make a submission.

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