What is wrong with Canadian atheists’ priorities?

On Saturday, sometime before 11 PM, someone set fire to the only mosque in Peterborough.

A picture of the front of Masji al-Salaam with police tape in front.

Masjid al-Salaam. There is little visible exterior damage, but heavy smoke damage inside.

No one was hurt, thankfully, and while the damage was considerable inside, the Masjid Al-Salaam building itself survived. A neighbour noticed the flames and alerted fire services, who managed to quickly confine the flames to the main floor. In the end, the damage done was estimated at $80,000.

Kenzu Abella, president of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association, noted that only a half-hour before the fire was set, nearly 70 people were inside celebrating the birth of a young couple’s baby, including many with very young children. The mosque has 200 members, many of whom come for the five-times daily prayers and a congregational prayer every Friday, and during the day runs a school. That the fire was set when the mosque was empty was lucky; had it been set during the earlier gathering, or during school hours, there could have been serious injuries.

The police have confirmed that the fire was deliberately set, and are investigating it as a hate crime.

Until the damage is repaired, the school and daily prayers have been cancelled. Members are apparently quite understandably upset by the attack. According to Abella, the mosque had never been threatened, and had always had a good relationship with the community. He did make the obvious connection that the attack may be some kind of demented “retaliation” inspired by the Paris attacks, but his primary concern is for the safety of the mosque’s members: It’s horrible, it’s very upsetting. It’s a big concern. You are safe one moment and then all of a sudden you have to worry about what’s going to happen.

At this point, I would love to be able to say that Peterborough’s atheist and freethinker community quickly stepped up to denounce the attacks, offered support, and started a collection to help pay for the damages. Unfortunately, I can say none of those things.

It seems they decided their efforts were better spent translating a nonsensical tirade about niqabs.

Instead, it was the St. John’s Anglican Church who stepped up, and organized a collection to help the KMRA pay for repairs. A Facebook group has been set up, and a crowdfunding campaign raised over $110,000 in less than 2 days before being asked to stop, because the mosque did not want any more raised than was necessary to pay for damages.

There have been suggestions, though, that fund-raising should continue, and the extra funds used to pay for another act of vandalism against another gathering place of an entirely different religion.

A photo of Mohan Kendall of the Ram Dham Hindu temple showing one of the stones used in the vandalism - the stone is about the size of two grapefruits side-by-side.

Mohan Kendall of the Ram Dham Hindu temple, showing one of the stones used in the vandalism.

At around the same time fire fighters in Peterborough were getting the call about the Masjid Al-Salaam fire, someone threw 5 large stones through the windows of the Ram Dham Hindu temple in Kitchener.

Waterloo Regional Police are not yet ready to call this a hate crime, or retaliation for the Paris attacks. But that’s probably only because they can’t believe that anyone would be stupid enough to mix up Hindu and Islam. That may be giving the culprits too much credit. Interestingly, the attack was carried out while the temple’s spiritual leader, Swami Chaitanya Jyoti, was out. Where was he? At a vigil at Kitchener City Hall, for the victims of the Paris attacks.

You may be wondering why it is that I – a resident of Burlington, who has no connection to either of these incidents or the cities they occurred in – am the one bringing up the stories. The simple answer is: Because it appears that pretty much no one else in the Canadian atheist, secular, humanist, or freethinker will. As with the mosque attack, I have not seen a single mention of this incident from any major Canadian atheist, secular, humanist, or freethinker organization. CFI Canada commented on the Paris attacks, of course, but since then the only comments they’ve made have been a tweet about “vaccine alternatives”, the Hippocrates Health Institute, a presentation about honour killings, and a “joint statement” issued to Trudeau about the attack on Tareq Rahim in Bangladesh; not a peep about any retaliatory attacks (or “potential” retaliatory acts) of religious intolerance following the Paris attacks. As for Humanist Canada, they also mentioned the Paris attacks, but nothing since. And here the only things discussed have been the etymology of “evolution”, “whiny” students (from Canada’s whiner-in-chief himself, Rex Murphy), Sam Harris reiterating that we’ve got to do something about those pesky brown people people who “look Muslim”, and of course why it’s vitally important that we make laws banning certain head dresses. If it wasn’t for Secular Lynx, I might not have heard about these incidents at all.

I hope you find this as troubling as I do. We demand that religions take responsibility for violence carried out for their sake. We demand that – for example – Muslims clearly and roundly denounce any violence carried out for the “benefit” of Islam. Do we not also have the same responsibility to clearly and roundly denounce violence carried out against religion? It is not inconceivable that these attacks were carried out by atheists or humanists, after all – or at the very least, people sympathetic to secularism or freethought. Whether or not that turns out to be true, it seems reasonable to expect that we should stand up and make it clear that such actions are not in accordance with what we stand for. For all the talk we throw around about being more moral, and more empathetic, than religious people, shouldn’t we be banding together as a community to help the victims of these attacks?

Look at us. Stop and take a look at ourselves. What are we doing? Fuck all, that’s what we’re doing. While churches and religious groups are coming together to show support, solidarity, and community, and actively and literally (not just offering “thoughts and prayers”) helping victims of religious intolerance, where are Canadian atheists? Is agitating for government control over women’s attire more important than making a clear statement against intolerance and vandalism? Doesn’t something seem wrong when the warden of St. John’s Anglican Church is a better model of humanism than the leadership of Humanist Canada? Or is it that these victims are not worthy of our attention because they’re religious?

Where is our attention? Where is our focus? What are the things we – Canadian atheists – really care about? These are questions I think we all need to seriously ask ourselves. Because from the general tone on this blog, and the behaviour of most Canadian atheist, humanist, secular, and freethinker groups, the answer seems to be that we care more about sticking it to religion, pseudoscience, and superstition than we do about actual people. We seem to care more about stripping clothes off of Muslim women, than we do about the fact that our fellow Canadians are burning the places they feel safe, and terrorizing them.

The question I want to leave all Canadian atheists today is: What should be more important to us? Just pissing on dumb ideas? Or helping real, living people – especially those who are victims of those dumb ideas? Is it more important to stick it to Islam, or to help Muslims who have been the victims of a hate crime?

UPDATE 2015-11-18 16:50 EST: CFI Canada has spoken up about the incidents. I just missed it because it was on a page dedicated to reports of religiously-motivated violence. (See also the comment below by Eric Adriaans.) Excellent work, CFIC!

15 thoughts on “What is wrong with Canadian atheists’ priorities?

  1. That the fire was set when the mosque was empty was lucky…

    Or perhaps deliberate, no?

    I hope you find this as troubling as I do.

    Probably not, from the sound of things. But you’re setting the bar fairly high. Your capacity for being troubled often leaves me vaguely awestruck.

    We demand that – for example – Muslims clearly and roundly denounce any violence carried out for the “benefit” of Islam. Do we not also have the same responsibility to clearly and roundly denounce violence carried out against religion?

    No, not really. There’s a difference between “violence for” (which comes from a single source, albeit perhaps a broadly defined one like “Islam”) and “violence against” (which may come from any source). I don’t personally go around demanding that Muslims denounce violence carried out for the benefit of Islam anyway.

    Is it more important to stick it to Islam, or to help Muslims who have been the victims of a hate crime?

    The former, in the grand scheme of things. Especially when the hate crime in question is, er, a fire in an empty mosque. I think the concept of a hate crime is stupid anyway – arson should be arson.

    He did make the obvious connection that the attack may be some kind of demented “retaliation” inspired by the Paris attacks…

    I wouldn’t go as far as “demented”. Misguided and misdirected, sure.

    Where is our attention? Where is our focus?

    Look, we’re talking about a minor act of arson in which no one was hurt. Sure, it was a little ugly, but it wasn’t fucking Kristallnacht. The incident was widely reported, and Veronica and I were actually chatting about it (though in less histrionic terms than you seem to have settled on) just a couple of days ago. I’d prefer that people didn’t go around setting fire to buildings, on the whole, but I don’t feel any particular responsibility to get up in arms over this specific crime just because it’s “not inconceivable” that it was carried out by “atheists or humanists… or at the very least, people sympathetic to secularism or freethought”. That’s the least ringing call to action I’ve heard in a while.

    • I’m not actually clear what the thesis of your response actually is. Is it that you sincerely believe that an arson that targeted a minority religious group *because* of their religion – a hate crime, and a literal act of terrorism – is less important than Rex Murphy’s opinion of the behaviour of some American college students? Or is it that you’re just pissed off that there are people who care about people and things that you don’t?

      • Who needs a thesis? I was just responding to a few things you’d said.

        Anyway, the fact that something can be characterised as a “hate crime” (if you insist on using that term) and a “literal act of terrorism” (gasp! where are my smelling salts?) tells us nothing about its magnitude. A fire in an empty building is just a fire in an empty building. And in any case, I don’t operate by ranking possible topics for posts on a scale of theoretical importance and picking the top one. It’s a function of what catches my attention, what I think I might be able to say something interesting about, and what I’m in the mood to address on a given day when I have time for a little blogging. But if I were ranking things on a scale, the Great Fire of Peterborough wouldn’t be much of a contender.

        The world would be a boring place if we all cared about the same things. I’m not “pissed off” by your huffing and puffing about hate crimes and terrorism, just underwhelmed and mildly amused.

        • Ah, so it’s “magnitude” you care about. And since $80,000 in damages appears to be chump change to you, I can only assume that you’re saying that this incident isn’t worth mention because it didn’t have a body count. In other words, if someone had just happened to be sleeping in the community centre that night… or something volatile just happened to be stored in the path of the flames… or that neighbour just happened to not look out the window or just happened to miss the seeing the blaze for another half hour or so, so the fire had time to spread to neighbouring houses, and maybe kill a sleeping family or two… or one of the firefighters just happened to be hurt while battling the flames… all of which are very realistic possibilities that *luckily* didn’t happen, despite your rather bizarre efforts to defend the arsonist for “deliberately” waiting until (they *THOUGHT*) the building was empty… *THEN* you’d care about the incident, right? Even though the crime itself, the criminal, the criminal’s intentions and motive, and the victims are *exactly* the same? Because none of those actually matter, just the “magnitude” of blood spilled?

          Well, that just leaves me with one question: So what exactly was the death toll in that Yale Halloween thing you thought was important enough to comment on?

  2. As far as I know, Peterborough doesn’t have an atheist and freethinker community.

    If you are interested in one Peterborough atheist’s reaction, I’ll share it with you. She tweeted

    “Please don’t burn churches, mosques or synagogues! Turn them into community centres, libraries or homeless shelters.”

    Mayor Bennett’s statement about the Peterborough mosque fire is just empty rhetoric:

    “The faith communities are the cornerstones of our city, contributing to the charitable organization and helping those who are less fortunate,” Bennett stated. “I look forward to the re-opening of Masjid Al-Salaam.”

    Remember that a Peterborough resident took Peterborough City Hall to court for saying the Lord’s Prayer, an explicitly Christian prayer, and the prayer disappeared only after a Supreme Court decision. The resident objected to the Lord’s Prayer because not only did it alienate atheists, it alienated other “faith communities.”

    Last year, that same Peterborough resident collected socks for Peterborough’s homeless and delivered them to the Christian churches that provide support for the homeless. Maybe she should start a crowdfunding campaign to collect money to house and feed the homeless and offer them a clean and safe refuge.

    While at least one Peterborough atheist attacks the niqab, she also attacks publicly funded Catholic and religious schools. She is equally interested in protecting students who identify as sexual or gender minorities and in writing against those (mainly Catholics) who discriminate against LGBTQ students.

    She has been mocked, criticized and hassled for handing out coupons that inform students of their rights in publicly-funded Catholic schools.

    The Peterborough atheist, secular, humanist, or freethinker community you think exists should nominate that resident for a Peterborough Person of the Year Award.

    • > As far as I know, Peterborough doesn’t have an atheist and freethinker community.

      Small wonder when they can better rely on help from religious groups than atheists or freethinkers. That seems like a pretty serious problem to me. If you’re serious about wooing people away from religion, shouldn’t you be at least *marginally* concerned about setting up a place and an environment where they feel comfortable, safe, and welcome to come to? Don’t you think that’s something we should prioritize a little higher than outlawing their fashion choices?

      > “Please don’t burn churches, mosques or synagogues! Turn them into community centres, libraries or homeless shelters.”

      That’s… not really helpful. In fact, that’s about as far from helpful as you can get. Just imagine how you’d feel if a major nonbeliever community centre was set ablaze, and the local Muslim community responded by tweeting: “Please don’t burn atheist meeting places! Turn them into mosques or Islamic community centres!”

      To put it in ever simpler terms: You’re not going to win a lot of Muslims away from their religion when your response to an arson attack on their place of worship is to point out how much you’d prefer that it was gone altogether.

      > Mayor Bennett’s statement about the Peterborough mosque fire is just empty rhetoric….

      Then it should be on us, the atheist community, to give an example of a better response. For the record, I don’t think “meh, fuck ’em” is going to cut it.

  3. “The question I want to leave all Canadian atheists today is: What should be more important to us? Just pissing on dumb ideas? Or helping real, living people – especially those who are victims of those dumb ideas? Is it more important to stick it to Islam, or to help Muslims who have been the victims of a hate crime?”

    How very front page empathetic of you. Every year 9 million children die horrible deaths that could be prevented by a small effort of the developed world. At 17 deaths per minute
    while you wrote your post probably 200+ children died horribly.

    What did you do for these “real, living people?” If nothing then I can only say one thing….. hypocrite.

    Or are they far away so out of sight out of mind?

    • You appear to be using an example of the fallacy of relative privation to point out that the author used the same fallacy. Of course you don’t believe that ‘there is something worse going on so you shouldn’t focus on this issue.’ You were just saying that the author is doing precisely that.

      The difference here is that I think the author knows full well that a niqab story could have been delayed, and dealing with religious issues (which is the forte of one Peterborough resident) would have been a great thing to do, and related to the mission. In fact, it would only have delayed the story by about an hour or so, depending on how much should be done.

      I’m very surprised that there doesn’t seem to be an atheist community in the area. I guess it’s not a priority for the atheists there, which is cool. I just didn’t realize that would be the case.

      • Oh, don’t be baited by the troll. His m.o. is to post comments in just about any random topic that comes up, trying to distract from the point by listing whatever other atrocity happens to pop into his brain that day. He doesn’t *really* care about anything he writes, and the evidence of that is plain to see: Despite his pretence at being so concerned about the wrongs done by Western imperialism, how many of them do you think he managed to fix with his own, time-wasting comment? If he’s so upset that we’re talking rather than fixing them, why is he talking rather than fixing them?

        Anywho, troll aside:

        I would have even been happy even if some sign of concern for the incident was only raised *after* the niqab post – I’m not even so picky as to insist it had to come first. The fact that it apparently didn’t matter *at all* is what really concerns me.

        We can’t seriously spend six-and-a-half days out of the week dumping on religion, and then simply ignore any responsibility we might have for fostering or encouraging the kinds of attitudes that lead to hate crimes against marginalized religious groups. That’s just damned irresponsible. I’m all for taking a piss on religious bullshit and privilege, but not without also having the integrity to admit that my criticisms might be abused and distorted by hatemongers, and taking preemptive steps to prevent that.

        I think we all have a responsibility to remember that while we’re tearing abstract beliefs and corrupt organizations apart, that there are real people who do suffer as a consequence. I believe we have a moral duty to avoid harming them unnecessarily, and to help them when and if they do get harmed by what we’re doing, no matter how indirectly.

        • Do not respond to the criticism, call the person a TROLL. Use all caps next time please. You could have responded with a list of your generous gifts and works to help people, but no an armchair moralist talks but does not do.

          If this wasn’t on the front page you and few others would care.

          I do not claim to be and am not concerned about the children (nor do you care or you would be doing something to help them), you mounted the front page moral horse not I. I do not think any morality as commonly used exists, you seem to think there is some kind of absolute right or wrong and you apparently know what it is.

          My definition of morality would be;

          – acceptable behaviour within a cohesive social group

          No absolute right or wrong, do you believe in some some external morality dictating fairy?

  4. It seems to me unlikely that what appears to be anti-Muslim arson is committed by atheists in the name of atheism.

    I don’t think Canadian atheists need say anything on this matter until more is known about it, nor should we put up with being shamed for waiting.

    • I understand what you are saying. However, these organizes did come out against the Paris attacks, as stated. Despite the fact that it wasn’t committed by atheists or in the name of atheism.

  5. Early in 2015, CFIC started a page where we post condemnations of faith-based and superstition-based violence. Unfortunately it is not possible to respond to every incident in a timely manner. There are simply too many victims around the world who all deserve recognition….a fact that has been a noted on our page since the original draft:

    http://centreforinquiry.ca/cfi-canada-rejects-all-faith-based-violence/

    However, when anybody advises me of an incident they view as important to include or when I learn of one myself that deserves recognition, I update the post. That page is not re-announced every time an update/addition is made.

    All faith-based violence should be condemned and rejected, whoever the victims or perpetrators are. The events of Toronto and Peterborough are on that page because we agree that they deserve to be recognized and condemned.

    Anybody who is earnestly concerned about these issues and is willing to participate in a cooperative, supportive and engaged team is welcome to join CFIC as a volunteer. We are a community that works on issues of science and secularism – we value your criticism, but we value constructive participation more.

    • That’s a fine response. I do understand that organizations, and people, can be so swamped trying to cover everything, that some things just slip through the cracks. It would be absurd to expect every single individual incident to get a mention.

      My concern is not about organizations or people who actually do think these incidents are concern-worthy, but simply missed them, don’t have the resources to respond, or didn’t manage to respond quickly enough. The fact that CFIC *does* have an entire page dedicated to the problem, and that you even included the Peterborough incident, is very reassuring.

      My concern is about organizations or people who just don’t care. And they do exist; you can see two examples in the comments above, right here. And there are far too many such organizations and people who care far more about warring with religion than they do about the people who suffer as mere collateral damage. I’m all for vigorously taking on religions and their proponents; I just don’t want anyone to lose sight of the fact that we’re doing this to *HELP* people – even religious ones. And if anyone is *not* doing this to help people, well, then we’re not really on the same side.

      Thank you for speaking up for CFIC, and thank you and CFIC both for caring about *all* victims of faith-based violence.

  6. “We demand that religions take responsibility for violence carried out for their sake. We demand that – for example – Muslims clearly and roundly denounce any violence carried out for the “benefit” of Islam. Do we not also have the same responsibility to clearly and roundly denounce violence carried out against religion?”

    We… do no such thing. I would never demand that you take responsibility for what Veronica or Corwin or I post to this site, for example… I do expect… You will voice your agreement and disagreement when you have both the time and inclination to do so. Individual Muslims are not responsible, nor should we demand they take responsibility for every literalist interpretation of their scripture, or for every act of violence perpetrated by those who would do so in the name of Islam.

    There are as many islams as there are Muslims. We should ask… For the help of those who have shaken off the more extremist nastiness to publicly disavow their former beliefs. But Muslims speaking out against extremism should be congratulated for their bravery, when they put themselves at risk. Many do. No one should be shamed into it.

    Many people, on all sorts of issues, have jumped on bandwagons or speak out merely for cynical PR value, as part of boosting their identity group. Criticizing religion however, costs me nothing. It’s easy. I am glad you made this post however, because it saved me the trouble, and I do think it has value when atheists put aside their distaste for religion to support Muslims as people. I don’t demand it. It just speaks well of you, that you are willing to go beyond narrow atheist interests. We all get myopic on occasion. It’s human nature.

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