Free speech is something that I think ought to matter to atheists, even more than to most other people. After all, atheism is an idea that relatively few people (either in Canada, or worldwide) agree with, and that many people find disturbing and offensive. Unless and until that changes, atheists have a clear self-interested reason to support pluralism and freedom of expression as basic principles of civil society. We need to be able to say that we don’t accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour without worrying that we’re going to be burned at the stake. We also need to be able to criticise aspects of various religions that strike us as foolish, misguided or vile without worrying that we’re going to be hauled in front of a human rights tribunal.
Of course, religion is not the only topic that atheists ever want to speak freely about. I actually am a “dictionary atheist“, to the extent that I don’t think being an atheist necessarily implies any other scientific, philosophical or political beliefs. One can even be an atheist and believe in ghosts and ESP. However, my intuitive guess is that most atheists do see their disbelief in gods as part of some larger complex of ideas and commitments. There is generally some kind of “plus“, if you like, that situates a person’s atheism within a wider context. Many of us probably have several plusses. For me, the biggest one is a reverence for intellectual honesty, which I think of as a willingness to stare hard at the available facts and then accept, and eventually articulate, the conclusion that appears to be most amply justified by the evidence – even if it seems strange, perverse, or downright horrific. Being intellectually honest about the question “do any gods exist?” is what led me to atheism.
This attitude makes me congenitally allergic to suggestions that any idea should be dismissed before being given at least one fair hearing, and deeply suspicious of euphemisms, platitudes, “talking points”, buzzwords, emotive rhetoric, sacred cows, and the pinched, moralistic sensibility that goes by the name of political correctness. Some level of civility is almost always valuable, and there are times when discretion is the better part of valour, but in general I think people should err on the side of damning the torpedoes and expressing their genuine beliefs and opinions. Conversely, I think society should generally be ready to evaluate even dangerous-sounding ideas on their merits, and shouldn’t penalise individuals for merely holding or expressing such views as opposed to acting on them.
This brings me, as you might have guessed, to the recent Whatcott decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court chose, in its supposed wisdom and very much to the dismay of Ezra Levant, Andrew Coyne and many others, to uphold the core of Saskatchewan’s laws against “hate speech”. Levant and Coyne both point out specific problems with the decision, and I largely agree with these criticisms. Ultimately, however, I simply don’t think human rights commissions should have any role in policing speech at all. Courts need to have some role, but I would like it to be a very narrow one.
However, I’m not really too bothered by the Supreme Court’s decision, for two reasons. First, I’m never entirely unhappy when the Court chooses not to change our laws, effectively deferring to whichever provincial or federal parliament made the law in the first place. I’m instinctively skeptical of the value of allowing elected politicians to be second-guessed by a gaggle of glorified lawyers on the basis of whether (to quote the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) laws that limit what are considered to be basic rights “can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. It’s an awfully vague and subjective criterion, at least when taken at face value, and it’s also bizarrely generic in that it seems to assume that any “free and democratic society” ought to balance basic rights against other considerations in similar ways. This whole aspect of our system of governance is hardly an improvement, in my opinion, on the Westminster tradition of parliamentary supremacy.
My second reason for being relatively unbothered is that hate speech laws are only a secondary threat to free expression in Canada. The primary threat is imposed by corporations and private citizens, as opposed to governments. Pick the “wrong” name for your basketball team, and outraged Twitter users descend like the wrath of some dyspeptic pearl-clutching god. Say something that challenges the current orthodoxy of moral panic around the subject of child pornography, and the knives come out like it’s the fucking Ides of March. We hardly need Big Brother to watch us when so many of our fellow Canadians seem determined to form an army of little brothers and little sisters in order to prevent public discourse around certain sensitive subjects from straying outside limits that are far narrower than the ones imposed by law. Fostering the will to ignore their censorious (in the proper sense of the word) chatter is a more pressing challenge than pursuing legal reforms.
With that said, it would awfully nice to see the back of the laws that keep the Human Rights Commissions of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan in the censorship business. Those laws are noxious strangler figs in the orchard of civil society, and they ought to be torn up by the roots. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has a petition for Canadian citizens that aims to do this the right way – through action by the legislative assemblies of the provinces in question.