The 2014 Freedom of Thought report

Cover of the 2014 Freedom of Thought report.

2014 Freedom of Thought report.

Today (10 December, 2014) is Human Rights Day. It’s starting to become a tradition every year that on this day the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU releases their Freedom of Thought report – which is becoming one of the most comprehensive reports about discrimination against nonbelievers. In the coming weeks I will be diving deeply into the report (as I have done in the past), but for now I’m just going to answer the question that I imagine is the most pressing for readers of this blog: How did Canada do?

The first Freedom of Thought report was published in 2012. It was an expanded version of a report requested by the Office of International Religious Freedom in the US State Department. The original report was a joint effort between numerous freethought organizations – including the American Humanist Association (AHA), the Center for Inquiry (CfI), the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDF), the Secular Coalition for America, and the IHEU – that covered 40 countries, and was submitted August 2012. The IHEU independently decided to expand the report to cover 60 countries, and released it as the first Freedom of Thought report in 2012.

The original report merely offered a brief list of the discriminatory laws and most prominent cases of discrimination for each of the 60 countries. The primary concern then was the recent flurry of nonbelievers being arrested for comments or activism on social media – the cover features a photo of Alber Speer in handcuffs. It was exceedingly well received, so the IHEU decided to make the report an annual thing, and to expand it even further.

The 2013 Freedom of Thought report was enormously expanded to over three times the size of the 2012 report. It now covered every single country in the world, with much more detail. It also offered a simple 5-level, colour-coded rating system, with countries being scored as one of: “Free and Equal”, “Mostly Satisfactory”, “Systemic Discrimination”, “Severe Discrimination”, and “Grave Violations”. Scoring for a country was done by matching a list of criteria required for each category – the worst category that the country satisfied one or more criteria in became that country’s result.

In the 2012 report, Canada got a two paragraph blurb that focused entirely on public funding of religious schools. The entire second paragraph was just about Ontario.

But it was Canada’s entry in the 2013 report that upset a lot of people. Canada scored “Systemic Discrimination”, on the basis two criteria:

  • Religious schools have powers to discriminate in admissions or employment.
  • Religious instruction is mandatory in at least some public schools without secular alternatives.

Yup: once again, it was publicly funded religious school systems that did it. (A third criteria point was listed: State-funding of religious schools. However, if that had been the only criteria Canada matched, it would have still scored “Mostly Satisfactory”.) The accompanying text explains that the fact that religious schools are allowed to discriminate in hiring and admissions, and that they are the only option in several places, was the reason for the poor score. Once again, Ontario got special mention for the fact that it only funds Catholic schools, and not any other religious schools.

The real sore point for most Canadians was that the US actually scored better than we did: they got “Mostly Satisfactory”. People objected because the US is way more God-besotted than Canada – an atheist can’t even manage to get elected to any major office there, while here we’ve even had an openly-atheist Leader of the Opposition (albeit briefly). But that is based on a misunderstanding of what the report is looking it.

The report is actually not particularly concerned with cultural discrimination, but rather with systemic discrimination: discrimination in and by the systemie, the government, the laws, the judicial system, and the representatives thereof. It might help to look at how two opposing extremes might score:

  • Imagine a country that is an official theocracy, with all laws explicitly and mandatorily based on religious law, and every person holding office required to be clerics in that religion. The books are full of laws against blasphemy and any criticism of the religion, and even self-identifying as a nonbeliever is illegal. (Sadly, it’s not hard to imagine a country like this; we have plenty of representative examples.) However…. Despite all of these laws, and the theocratic structure of the government, the actual people are pretty laid back. None of the brutal, repressive laws are actually enforced – atheists actually walk around quite freely, and almost never find themselves practically repressed in any way. In fact, other than the fact that they have no say over their country’s laws and no opportunity to run for office or have any influence, their lives are pretty comfortable and free. This country would score “Grave Violations”, even though nonbelievers don’t face any cultural or practical discrimination outside of the system, because the system itself is horribly discriminatory.
  • Imagine a country whose laws are a nonbeliever’s dream: based entirely on rationalism, with strong protections for freedom of expression and belief, and rigid laws against any entanglement between state affairs and religion. Religion gets absolutely no special privileges of any kind under the law, and is simply treated like any other ideology or philosophy. (Sadly, it’s really hard to imagine this society, because we have no real examples.) However…. Even though there is no official discrimination against nonbelievers, atheists are treated like human trash – hated more even than rapists and child molesters. Regardless of how secular the system is, being an out atheist is a living hell, socially and culturally – you face daily harassment and abuse, and finding opportunities or jobs is almost impossible. This country would score “Free and Equal”, because even though there is rampant cultural discrimination against nonbelievers, there is no systemic discrimination – the system doesn’t discriminate, just the actual (non-government) people.

That comparison is actually quite relevant to the difference between the US and Canada. The US, as we all know, is extremely religious, and life on the street for nonbelievers can be quite miserable… but their laws are actually fantastically secular, generally speaking. They have the Establishment Clause – an explicit rule about keeping state and religion separate… meanwhile our head of state is literally entitled “Defender of the Faith”, and the position is not open to Roman Catholics. While all of our national symbols are steeped in religious references, the only official mentions of religion in US symbols are the “under God” in the Pledge and the “In God we Trust” in their Motto – both of which were only added in the 1950s and both of which are hotly contested by nonbelievers and only protected by the religious fascists on their Supreme Court. (There is also a line about “in God we trust” in their anthem, but it’s in like the third or fourth verse that no-one knows. The bit about being “endowed by their Creator” with rights is not in their Constitution, as many people mistakenly believe, but rather in the Declaration of Independence.) Notwithstanding that their Supreme Court occasionally blatantly ignores their Constitutional rights and offers absurd arguments to defend religion (like that the “in God we trust” is not actually religious), the reality is that the American justice system almost always leans in favour of secular rights and freedoms. Their culture is highly discriminatory toward nonbelievers, but their system is very secular. Thus, they score “Mostly Satisfactory”.

Contrast that to Canada, which has religious fingerprints over everything, including our Constitution, and anthem, at every level of government (such as Newfoundland and Labrador’s motto and anthem). Yes, culturally Canada is a lot less religious than the US, but the actual system itself is explicitly religious – and actually favours specific religions. Even that, though, would still only earn Canada the same score as the US. What pushes us over the edge is that the special privileges given to religious schools include the right to discriminate – against both students and teachers – in ways that are otherwise illegal, and to do so while being financially supported by the state.

So that’s why we scored so badly – “Systemic Discrimination” – in 2013. How did we do this year?

Well, let me start by saying that the 2014 report is hugetwice the size of the 2013 report. The main reason for that is that not only have they completely redone the investigations in each country, they broke the rating system out into 5 threads:

  • General systemic issues
  • Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; Establishment of religion
  • Education
  • Family, community, religious courts and tribunals
  • Expression, advocacy of humanist values

Each country has been looked into in far more detail this time around, which means that a lot of countries that got free passes last year – Niger, Benin, Uruguay, and South Korea in particular – found themselves with a much less flattering score this time around. And because the scoring system is much more open and visible this year, many of the other countries that got “good” scores have had the truth behind those scores exposed – that is: that there really isn’t enough info to justify the score, but on the other hand, due to the lack of info there are no warning flags either. I haven’t gone into the overall results in detail yet, or how they compare to last year, but it doesn’t look good.

Anyway, on to Canada.

In the 2012 report, Canada got two measly paragraphs. In the greatly expanded 2013 report it got… three – plus the 3 bullet points used to determine its category. But in the 2014 report, it gets five pages. I suppose you can already see what’s coming – it’s not likely that they’d waste 5 pages on “no problems here!”

As in 2013, Canada’s overall score was: Systemic discrimination.

Under the “General systemic issues” thread, we racked up 4 L3 (Systemic discrimination) points, and 1 L2 (Mostly satisfactory) point. The 4 L3 points were: preferential treatment of religion (referring obliquely to the government’s recent trend of being more public and outspoken about religion); discriminatory prominence given to religious bodies, traditions, or leaders (think, for example, the cross in the Québec legislature); religious groups control some public or social services (that would not only be a reference to religious schools, but also other social services that rely on religious groups); state funding of religious institutions, or discriminatory tax exemptions. The lone L2 point is: anomalous discrimination by local or provincial authorities (which basically means that there are random outbursts of discrimination at lower levels of government, but they’re not really systemic).

Under the “Freedom of thought/Establishment” thread, we got 1 L3 point and 1 L2 point. The L3 point is: “Legal or constitutional provisions exclude non-religious views from freedom of belief”, which I’m not really sure is deserved, because as the report goes on to point out, the Charter does explicitly guarantee freedoms of “thought”, “belief”, “conscience”, and “expression”, along with religion. On the other hand, the Ontario Human Rights Commission did explicitly say that secular beliefs are not protected the same way as religious beliefs, so maybe that’s what they’re referring to. The L2 point is about “official symbolic deference to religion”, which, yeah, is pretty blatant (as mentioned above).

Under the “Education” thread… you know we got burned here. Sure enough, 2 L3 slams and a L2 slam. All of them relate to public funding of religious schools, and those schools’ rights to discriminate.

Under the “Family law/religious tribunal” thread, we scored our one and only L1 (Free and equal) point: no religious tribunals, and no separate family courts; and secular groups operate openly and freely, and individuals are not persecuted by the state. (Incidentally, the yanks only managed an L2 point here, because of the shoddy community treatment of nonbelievers.)

Finally, under the “Expression/advocacy” thread, we got 2 L2 points – one for freedom of the press (but it notes that this isn’t specific to the nonreligious), and one for secular or religious authorities interfering in religious freedoms – that would be about the Québec “Charter of Values” thing.

So the areas where we scored L3 points were all to do with official (enshrined in law) preference given to certain religions, publicly funded separate schools and the discrimination that comes with them, and no equivalent protections for nonreligious belief as there are for religious belief.

In the (substantial) explanatory text that follows, these three major problems are further elaborated. I don’t think it’s necessary to explain the first major problem. I think we all know that there are special privileges given to certain Christian denominations in our Constitution – the report actually takes a swipe at the cowardly politicians responsible, saying:

These additional rights for Catholics and Protestants would appear to contradict values of equality set out in sections 2 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Proving this point, while at the same time providing an ad hoc solution to it, section 29 states that these privileges cannot be legally challenged on Charter grounds. Political scholar Rand Dyck states in his book Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches (Third edition: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2000, p. 443) that section 29 was inserted because the authors of the Constitution Act, 1982, did not want to be forced to dismantle immediately the privileges built in the old system and did not want to be held responsible for challenging the old system.


I don’t think it’s necessary to explain the second major problem here, either. The subject of separate schools has come up many, many times on this blog, and will likely continue to be a prominent topic in the near future.

As for the third major problem, the text explains that while Canada has hate speech laws, those laws also have loopholes if that hate speech can be backed up with a religious text. In other words, if you advocate murdering gay people in Canada, you’re going to jail… unless you can prove you’re just quoting the Bible or Quran or whatever; then it’s all cool. Note, only religious texts allow this exemption. In essence, so long as they can reasonably back it up with their scriptures, religious people – and only religious people – can advocate hate freely, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them. (And, let’s face it, if you want scriptural backing for hate, it’s not hard to find in most religious.) What’s the point of having hate speech laws if the people most likely to use hate speech get a free pass?

Those three reasons are why Canada scores “Systemic discrimination”. It’s not coincidental that those topics are frequently discussed on this blog. Of course there are a couple other issues, but those three are the big ones.

The entry on Canada is quite thorough and up-to-date. It mentions, among other things:

It closes the Canada entry with a very pointed criticism of our current government’s attempt to push more religiosity into the public sphere by an anonymous source:

“It is also becoming increasingly common under our current conservative government to publicly invoke God or endorse prayer at public gatherings and in speeches. “God bless Canada” did not used to be a thing, but we are hearing it more and more from our prime minister and others.”

The 2014 Freedom of Thought report can be read online or downloaded. I recommend giving it a quick run-through if you have the time – and if you have some extra cash to spare, give a thought to sending off a donation to the IHEU for the amazing work they’ve done the last three years on these reports. I will be writing quite a bit more about the report in the coming weeks, as I delve into it in more detail, so watch out for that, too.

8 thoughts on “The 2014 Freedom of Thought report

  1. I’m glad you wrote about this. I was contemplating doing so in the wee hours of the morning but couldn’t get the report to load and figured in my migraine fog, I wouldn’t write so well anyway.

  2. I have a bit of a problem with the IHEU report in that it regularly classifies NZ “Severe Discrimination”, especially as the USA does so much better. NZ is probably one of the best countries in the world for an atheist to live in – just ask the over 40% of the population that is atheist. A black mark is there’s an old blasphemy law on the books, which has in fact, never been successfully used. The one anecdote is anonymous and if a person was sacked in the circumstances provided, they would have legal redress. We’ve had atheist PMs continuously since 1999. There is stuff that supports religion, which is all historical continuance – none in new. I really think they need to adjust the way they classify countries.

  3. Great. Now, does the report also endeavour in any way to flag or otherwise discern countries/regions that are currently or recently embroiled in the most egregiously violent, vile, scandalous and destructive violence our beloved earth has to serve up for offer, to the exclusion of any better days they might have been a party to before their Abaddonian nightmare descended? Or does it follow what seems to be the fashion in completely “decontextualizing” the whole thing, thereby rather explicitly enjoining the reader to accept wholly the implicit “truth” that the reason for their infernal torment is that maybe they aren’t listening to what the report has to say?

    Either way, it seems like it would be a slight bit of crucial information. Of the crucial type.

    • You really aren’t capable of actually focusing on any particular problem, are you? There’s like a hundred very well financed, very effective environmental activist groups in Canada *alone* – meanwhile you can count the number of noteworthy groups dedicated to atheists’ rights on one hand and still have fingers left over. But no, you can’t let the atheist groups have even one damn moment without belittling their issues and trying to shift attention on to something else.

      • What a very odd reply!?

        It seems like a perfectly reasonable and apropos inquiry, in fact quite to the point, to ask whether the report includes at least a footnote mentioning if there is also a horrible conflict going on there. No?

        And then to reach the logical follow on, “if not, why not?”

        • (Third edition: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2000, p. 443) that section 29 was inserted because the authors of the Constitution Act, 1982, did not want to be forced to dismantle immediately the privileges built in the old system and did not want to be held responsible for challenging the old system.

          I’m not one for the “oh you nutty goofy men are being lazy and meek” insinuations as explanation.

          There are actual historical circumstances (usually conflicts), albeit outdated and half forgotten, underlying that lazy meekness.

          Those are the esplanations I consider rational and elucidatory, even if they are about things that should probably be forgotten, especially given how remote they’ve now become, and even if those lazy meek men themselves have half-forgotten that it’s where their lazy meekness is coming from.

      • You noticed that too eh?

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