Open Letter to Matthew-Anthony G. Hysell

Dear Matthew-Anthony G. Hysell

Your position on transgender issues in “A More Catholic Understanding of Transgender Issues: Opinion,” published in the Edmonton Journal on October 6, 2015, is contemptible.

You maintain, “the Church believes each human person is of infinite worth, from conception to natural death.” Tell that to the children abused in Catholic run residential schools and to the countless children abused by Catholic priests. Furthermore, there is little I can say to your contention, “‘Disorder, in both moral theology and in psychology, is intended to be descriptive, not evaluative. It does not conceptually translate into ‘moral evil,’” except to ask is there a difference between moral theology and theology or are they both studies of the imaginary?

You go on to claim, “By self-identification as transgender, or even having gender reassignment surgery, one already admits of this “mental disorder” by implication because she or he wishes to “reorder” her or his biological sex to her or his gender identity, arguably a mental state.” How do you know this? Are you a medical doctor, a psychiatrist or a psychologist?

Your use of the phrase “Catholic moral theology” is oxymoronic, and your statement “sentimentalism and emotivism in the conversation about transgenderism only serves to muddy the waters of discourse . . .” is appalling. It is you and your Church that have muddied the waters by using the emotive word disorder.

Finally, the people on the other side of the debate are not your “brothers and sisters” and they certainly don’t accept your “gesture of peace and goodwill.”

Alberta Parents Vote to Keep Prayer in School

School-PrayerThere has been an on-going debate in Alberta about the Lord’s Prayer and I wrote about it some time ago. Recently, parents in Busby, Alberta voted to keep the Christian prayer in the public classroom. To me this is preposterous – not because I’m an atheist and secularist, but because one cannot simply vote away one’s rights. In other words, everyone has freedom of conscience and religion so it would follow that the state cannot favour one religion over others or force religion on unbelievers. It is not possible to remove this right so the vote has no meaning.

In this CTV discussion with Luke Fevin, founder of A PUPIL – Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning and David Garbutt, Assistant Superintendent of Pembina School Division, Luke Fevin points out that keeping the Lord’s Prayer in the public classroom denies the fundamental Canadian right of freedom of/from religion and likens voting on such a thing to voting on whether some students can use a school water fountain or not. He also points out that people with minority beliefs (or unbeliefs) feel coerced and stigmatized, which means a vote is never really representative of how people feel. Not really getting his point, Mr. Garbutt suggested that those who felt threatened should call the RCMP (kind of the opposite of what a coerced person would want to do). Mr Garbutt also suggested that there could be a special room for the students to go to if they wanted to be led in prayer – clearly he doesn’t understand that the kids who don’t go into this special room will be stigmatized and coerced to conform to the majority; this is no solution.

I can appreciate the Assistant Superintendent’s position: he needs to address the concerns of everyone and he is bound by old legislation (Alberta’s School Act) that specifically permits the Lord’s Prayer in Alberta Classrooms) but why not make things simple and allow a moment of silence in which one can say the Lord’s Prayer, another prayer, or sit in quiet contemplation? After all, as Luke Fevin pointed out, these acts are from a century ago. A century ago, women weren’t considered people (in the legal sense) and you had to be a property owner to vote. Canada has changed, and for the better so it’s time to get with the 21st Century in Alberta and accept what the Human Rights tribunal in Saskatchewan found – forcing the Lord’s Prayer is constitutionally unsound.

The Meaning Of Atheism, Part 3: The Meaning Of Agnosticism

In both Part I and Part II of this very intermittent series, I argued that the terms “agnosticism” and “atheism” were best used to describe distinct and mutually exclusive, though vaguely delineated, positions regarding the existence of deities. An atheist would tick the “no” box when asked whether at least one god existed, whereas an agnostic would tick “don’t know”. However, thinking clearly about the boundary between those two viewpoints requires thinking clearly about the viewpoints themselves, so in what I expect will be the final two posts in the series – this one and the next one – I’ll focus on each of them in turn. I think it will work out better if I start with agnosticism.

Thomas Huxley as drawn in Vanity Fair, 1871

Thomas Huxley as drawn in Vanity Fair, 1871

Unlike the word “atheist”, whose precise roots are lost in the mists of ancient Greek notions of impiety, the word “agnostic” has a reasonably well-documented origin: it was coined by Charles Darwin’s friend Thomas Huxley in 1869. Two decades later, he got around to explaining his reasons, in an essay called simply “Agnosticism”. The core of the explanation began with a statement about his general perspective:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

Thinking in terms of “gnosis”, the Greek word for knowledge, must have led quite naturally to the next step:

This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place among the members of that remarkable confraternity of antagonists, long since deceased, but of green and pious memory, the Metaphysical Society. Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness; most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and, however kind and friendly they might be, I, the man without a rag of a label to cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated companions. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes.

Huxley’s tail, however, was a protean one. He considered agnosticism to be an intellectual attitude, rather than a set of fixed beliefs:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, “Try all things, hold fast by that which is good” it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.


The results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary according to individual knowledge and capacity, and according to the general condition of science. That which is unproven today may be proven by the help of new discoveries to-morrow. The only negative fixed points will be those negations which flow from the demonstrable limitation of our faculties. And the only obligation accepted is to have the mind always open to conviction. Agnostics who never fail in carrying out their principles are, I am afraid, as rare as other people of whom the same consistency can be truthfully predicated. But, if you were to meet with such a phœnix and to tell him that you had discovered that two and two make five, he would patiently ask you to state your reasons for that conviction, and express his readiness to agree with you if he found them satisfactory. The apostolic injunction to “suffer fools gladly” should be the rule of life of a true agnostic. I am deeply conscious how far I myself fall short of this ideal, but it is my personal conception of what agnostics ought to be.

The language of non-belief, of course, has evolved since Huxley’s day, a development Huxley himself probably would have welcomed at least in principle. His conception of general methodological “agnosticism” is very similar to what is now usually described as “skepticism”, and being an “agnostic” has come to mean professing uncertainty about the specific matter of whether gods exist. Such uncertainty can be divided into the “strong agnosticism” of believing that the question of the existence of gods is unanswerable in principle and the “weak agnosticism” of believing that an answer is presently unavailable but might eventually emerge. Huxley’s statement about being convinced “that the problem was insoluble” rather suggests strong agnosticism, whereas his optimistic assertion that new discoveries can reduce the domain of the unproven perhaps opens the door to weak agnosticism.

My own view is that strong agnosticism has already been falsified to a degree (and in the real world, falsification of complex ideas is rarely if ever an all-or-nothing affair) by scientific and philosophical progress over the last few millennia. London mayor Boris Johnson, who is a bit like an articulate and erudite version of our own Rob Ford, said in 2004 that his faith was “a bit like Magic FM in the Chilterns [“a chalk escarpment in South East England”, according to Wikipedia], in that the signal comes and goes”. That’s at least a weak agnostic position, if not a terribly reflective one, but I’ll bet Johnson would agree that our advancing knowledge of the universe has both constrained the kinds of deity that might plausibly exist and weakened the traditional justifications for believing in deities at all. We (as a species) know that Zeus and Hera aren’t hanging around at the top of Mt. Olympus, because we’ve been up there, and we know that any divine intervention in human affairs must be so subtle as to have escaped convincing documentation even in an age when some people can’t seem to eat breakfast without snapping a photo for social media. We also no longer need religious explanations for thunderstorms, comets, epileptic fits, and biodiversity, because science has provided much better ones. Even if your faith is currently like Magic FM in the Chilterns, rather than Magic FM at the top of K2, why try to set boundaries on how far that process of pushing the gods to the margins might eventually go? If we can push them at all, they have a presence in the realm of the knowable and testable, and we might as well keep pushing and see how far we can get. Embracing strong agnosticism amounts to giving up on that process before it has run its course.

Admittedly, there’s no objective answer to the question of how far we need to get before it makes sense to tick the atheist box rather than the agnostic one. Agnostics, in fact, are like bisexuals in that they face definitional boundary problems in both directions. If you’re mostly attracted to people of the opposite sex, but find yourself drawn to people of the same sex just occasionally and in highly specific ways, are you heterosexual or bisexual? If your faith comes through clearly once in a blue moon before fading again to meaningless static, should you really call yourself an atheist? Or are you a mere agnostic, like that notoriously squishy Richard Dawkins?

William Hincks of the University of Toronto

William Hincks of the University of Toronto

There’s no objectively correct answer to the question of where to draw the line between agnosticism and atheism, and ultimately it’s not that important. Labels are only what they are, handy heuristic descriptors, and if you can explain your views cogently then it doesn’t much matter which label you choose to hang on them. However, some labelling schemes are still more useful and practical than others, and in my opinion people who are pretty sure that no gods exist should grasp the nettle, bite the bullet, cross the Rubicon and just declare themselves to be atheists. Huxley was never prepared to take that step, but even Huxley didn’t know everything. However, I must hasten to point out that I mean no disrespect to the man by urging that we should all move beyond his cautious views. Huxley was a brilliant scientist and thinker, and it’s well-known that he was so outspoken and effective as an early advocate of evolutionary theory that he acquired the nickname of “Darwin’s bulldog”. Less well-known is that he applied for a job at the University of Toronto as a young man in the early 1850s, only to see the position go to a locally well-connected botanist and former Unitarian minister called William Hincks. Huxley did all right for himself, and so did the University of Toronto, but it’s a shame they passed one another like ships in the night.

A Christian Response to Religious Freedom

PrayingA Christian sent an email to the Canadian Atheist’s mailbox in response to my post Human Rights Tribunal Fines Alberta Private School for Preventing Students from PrayingThe reader was encouraged to post this remark in the comments section of the post so that other readers could respond, but for whatever reason he/she declined to do so. However, I think this email is worth discussing in more detail, so I’ve decided to devote a post to it.

Here is the email:

Regarding your comments on the muslim students having a right to practice their beliefs and religion on campus at a private school in Alberta. Quote: “The point is that this is not the same as saying the Lord’s Prayer, a religious activity academic institutions once inflicted on students en masse, giving them no choice but to comply. Instead, this is the private practice of students who have a right to their beliefs and a right to freedom of religion.” You contradict yourself. If they have the right, then my daughter does too…and we happen to be Christian who recite “the Lord’s prayer”. If we make “exceptions” for two students, then we should make exceptions for “all” walks of faith, whether it be in private or public schools. I was raised with the Lord’s prayer and reading of the Bible in public school.You make it sound like some horrific ordeal. Never scarred me any, and in fact, taught me to embrace all people and to treat others as I want to be. I’ve been reading and studying the Bible for over 30 years now. I can confidently say, there is no other book in this world that even comes close to teaching people how to live a good, decent, and righteous life. Our school system went straight to hell when these were removed, and crime is at an all time high among young people. Hmph..unfortunately, I don’t think an atheist will understand what I’m saying. You’d have to read the Book.

The first remark, You contradict yourself. If they have the right, then my daughter does too…and we happen to be Christian who recite “the Lord’s prayer”, is typical of those who misunderstand what religious freedoms and “rights” actually are. Everyone has a right to religious freedom, that means that a Christian is allowed to recite The Lord’s Prayer anywhere he or she wants, just as a Muslim is allowed to pray. I never suggest otherwise in my article. If a Christian student was being prevented from praying, I would support a human right’s tribunal ruling to pay damages to that student as well.

Which brings me to the root of the issue highlighted in this statement: I was raised with the Lord’s prayer and reading of the Bible in public school. You make it sound like some horrific ordeal. Never scarred me any, and in fact, taught me to embrace all people and to treat others as I want to be. Great! It didn’t bother you because you are a Christian who has “been reading and studying the bible for over 30 years now.” Good for you! But, how would you like it if every day, you were forced to pray to Allah in your public school? Every morning you needed to get out your prayer mat and do your prayers! That would be unfair because you are a Christian being forced to worship as a Muslim and it would make you feel unhappy that you couldn’t express how you felt and were punished if you tried to do so. So, why would you force non-Christians to pray to your god? Do you see my point? I’m not a Christian and I was forced to practice as one. It was terrible and I never forgot it because it was a violation of my freedom of conscience. You may think that Christianity is the bees knees but you don’t get to force everyone else to think as you.

This is my favourite part: Our school system went straight to hell when these were removed, and crime is at an all time high among young people. Evidence please! When you provide it, please keep in mind that anecdote is not the singular of data and correlation does not equal causation. Also, can you provide evidence that believing in a god or two makes you a moral person? Here is my evidence that you can be good without god: Scandinavia. Denmark and Sweden are the least religious countries in the world, yet they consistently rank high on the International Human Development Index as does more atheistic countries like Australia and New Zealand. You can read more about Scandinavia and belief here. My additional evidence is backed by science. Evolution has produced brains that have empathy (well healthy ones anyway) and that means that I don’t need to be religious to know it’s wrong to kill someone or kick a cat. See my post about how atheists are not automatically sociopaths for more details on that.

And one last thing – most atheists have read the bible. Indeed, many of us think that the best way to become an atheist is to read the bible cover to cover.

I encourage readers to weigh in below with their own thoughts on the email.

Let’s Leave “Jesus” Out of It

On September 18, Mike Lacey from Peterborough This Week posted the article “It’s Time to Accept People for Who They Are, Not Who You Want Them to Be.” Lacey points out,

while over the past 13 years we have seen huge positive steps taken for Canada’s gay community, the one area that we still seem to fall short is the recognition of our transgender citizens.

Lacey goes on to say

this entire . . . conversation revolves around adults


there are children in Peterborough today who are transgender, yet cannot quite explain it or are even aware that they are. Yet they will struggle with their identity and their gender, mainly because of us.

Lacey’s argument is rational and persuasive; however, Benjamin Inglis (Peterborough) doesn’t think so. At first it was easy to sympathize but not agree with Inglis’ objection:

What about those of us who want to respectfully disagree, but aren’t placard waving trans-haters? What if the reason I warn someone I care about against a certain decision is not because I’m afraid or that I’m just ignorant, but because I believe that what someone “feels” or “needs” concerning themselves, may not actually be the best thing for them?

Then Inglis mentions “Jesus”:

There is hope for us; but it will not be found in a parade, a sexual identity, or the impassioned tremolo of a news article. If you have ears to hear, listen – the still small voice of Jesus still rises over the din, “come to me all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

There is no hope for us, and most especially for children, if we and they depend on Inglis’ Jesus. When has Jesus ever given rest to children “who are weary” hungry, physically or mentally abused or coming to a realization of their sexuality.

Inglis’ Jesus is famous for the phrase “I say unto you,” but all Jesus does is say, not act. As Lacey says,

Others can choose to not listen, to deny what individuals are telling them. That won’t remove the reality.

The reality is children are looking to us, adults, for help.

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