Using the Freedom of Thought Report

I have been covering the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Freedom of Thought Report since its first edition in

[Cover of the 2016 Freedom of Thought report.]

The 2016 Freedom of Thought.

It can be jarring as Canadians to see that Canada scores so much worse in the Freedom of Thought Report’s ranking than the US. Comparing ourselves to the Americans is a national pastime, and we know quite well that when it comes to the broad acceptance of secularist, humanist, atheist, and freethinking (SHAFT) principles, we beat the pants of the Yanks. So what gives?

The answer, both simple and profound, is that the report specifically focuses on systemic issues… not cultural issues. The report is about discrimination by states and their agents, mostly via legal or official mechanisms. Here’s how the report describes itself:

Specifically, this report looks at how non-religious individuals—whether they call themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, or are otherwise just simply not religious—are treated because of their lack of religion or absence of belief in a god. We focus on discrimination by state authorities; that is systemic, legal or official forms of discrimination and restrictions on freedom of thought, belief and expression, though we do also try to include some consideration of extra-legal persecution or persecution by non-state actors, social discrimination, and personal experience where possible.

In setting the parameters of this survey we focus on the global human rights agreements that most affect the non-religious: the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; the right to freedom of expression; and, to some extent, the rights to freedom of assembly and association. We consider national laws that compromise or violate these rights, or which otherwise enshrine discrimination against the non-religious. Of course, laws and practices affecting the non-religious often impact on religious groups, usually religious minorities in a national context, so we also consider corresponding impact from discriminatory laws on other groups. And sometimes we also consider wider social and ethical issues indicative of the marginalization of humanist values.

See? While they don’t completely ignore what they call social discrimination, it’s not what the report is actually about. The report is about laws and practices of the state and its officials.

Once that’s made clear, the next thing I hear complaints about is that this focus is “wrong”; that they’re doing something incorrect by not focusing on cultural issues. This is a bit of a subjective opinion, of course, but I can muster a rebuttal.

By singling out and shining a light specifically on state discrimination, the report brings issues that can be practically dealt with to the forefront. If the report also made a fuss about cultural problems, that dilutes its impact. Governments’ sins don’t look quite so bad when they’re mushed together with the sins of broad populations. By identifying the issues that governments can be directly blamed for and making them the focus, it’s harder for governments to worm away from their responsibility to fix them. It’s harder for governments to say, “hey, it’s not us, look how bigoted the people are”. We can point to specific issues and say to governments, “that is not beyond your control… you can fix that.”

And I intend to illustrate that principle, right here, right now.

The method is to simply look at the report’s scores for Canada, and plot a path that will take us toward a perfect score, going for the biggest bang for the buck at each step of the way. I will be pretending that I am drafting “the Canadian SHAFT activist’s plan for 2017”, which all Canadian SHAFT organizations would work together to follow, combining our efforts to focus on each item in turn (while obvious not completely ignoring other issues).

Let me make it absolutely clear that this is not an actual proposal for action. First of all, I’m hardly in the position to dictate policy to any Canadian SHAFT organizations, let alone all. Second, the report’s data on Canada appears to be about two years out of date – I’ll just be ignoring that fact, and pretending its entirely current. And finally, if this were being done for real, it wouldn’t be done with such a narrow focus; it wouldn’t use the Freedom of Thought Report only, it would take other things into account.

So with those caveats in mind, let’s get started.

The starting point

The Freedom of Thought Report in 2016 scores countries by using a number of “boundary conditions” organized into four “strands”. The strands are:

  • Constitution and government
  • Education and children’s rights
  • Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals
  • Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values

There are 56 boundary conditions (plus “insufficient information” and “nothing applies” for each strand); I’m not going to list them all because the majority don’t apply to Canada, and thus serve no purpose for what we’re doing here.

Each boundary condition is assigned a severity level:

  • Grave violations
  • Severe discrimination
  • Systemic discrimination
  • Mostly satisfactory
  • Free and equal

(A sixth level exists for “insufficient information” and “nothing applies”.)

Canada does not meet any “grave violations” or “severe discrimination” conditions, so we’ll just ignore those. “Systemic discrimination” is the basic standard of “bad” in this report, without being so bad that people’s lives are in danger. “Mostly satisfactory” is “good”, with the caveat that there are still some small problems that need to be dealt with. “Free and equal” is just plain “good”. (Though, of course, bear in mind that scoring “free and equal” doesn’t mean that a country is perfect. It just means that there are no systemic problems worth being seriously concerned about.)

The country is scored by looking for the most severe boundary condition(s) in each strand, and assigning that score to the strand as a whole. So in Canada’s case, the most severe boundary conditions met in every strand are all “systemic discrimination”, meaning Canada scores “systemic discrimination” across the board.

There is also another scoring system introduced in this year’s report. In this system, the report looks at the punishment, if any, for blasphemy and apostasy, and assigns a “thought crimes status” as the worst of the two. The punishments recognized, from least to most severe, are:

  • Restrictions
  • Prison
  • Death

Canada has a blasphemy law that technically calls for two years in prison, but the law is completely unenforceable in light of the Charter. Presumably for that reason, the report has simply described Canada as having “restrictions” on blasphemy (and nothing on apostasy, of course). Thus, Canada’s thought crimes status is: restrictions.

So this is our starting point: “systemic discrimination” in all four strands, and “restrictions” for the thought crimes status.

Our strategy

If there were any one strand that was worse than the others, that would be the logical point to attack.

If multiple strands are equally bad – as all four are at our starting point – then we should target the strand with the fewest number of boundary conditions.

Finally, if multiple strands are equally bad and they have the same number of boundary conditions, we should look at the conditions and see if there is any way to eliminate multiple conditions in any strand by taking a single action.

If not, well, we can just pick a random condition out of the worst scoring strands with the highest number of boundary conditions.

Opening gambit

Since all four strands are “systemic discrimination”, we should target the strand with the least about of boundary conditions. That would be the “freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values”, with a single boundary condition: “Criticism of religion is restricted in law or a de facto ‘blasphemy’ law is in effect”.

Thus we have our first target: the blasphemy law.

If Canada’s SHAFT organizations were all collaborating with a single, unified strategy, and if that strategy were based on the Freedom of Thought Report, then mission #1 in 2017 would be the repeal of Criminal Code section 296.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that Canadian SHAFT organizations actually did band together and make repealing s. 296 the priority in 2017. And let’s say that the Trudeau government actually decided to do something for the people of Canada – not just for business or corporate interests – and really did go ahead and repeal 296.

If that actually happened, our report score would now look like this:

We would have successfully taken the “freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values” from “systemic discrimination” to “mostly satisfactory”, taking Canada’s numeric score from 3 to 2.7 (where 3 is the numeric equivalent of “systemic discrimination” and 2 is “mostly satisfactory” – any score greater than 2 should be considered a fail).

We would also have succeeded in removing the “restrictions” from blasphemy, leaving us completely clear in the thought crimes status.

That’s pretty cool actually, and all of that came from a relatively small change to Canadian law and society: the repeal of a single law (that no one really wants, and that isn’t even valid anyway). That’s something that we could actually accomplish in 2017 (assuming we could actually get the Trudeau government to do something). A small change, with a big impact to our status as a truly free country, at least insofar as appearance goes.

So what next?

There’s no point in stopping after a single victory, so assuming we do succeed in getting 296 repealed… what next?

Well, let’s consider our strategy again. Now we have only 3 strands with “systemic discrimination”. Two have 2 boundary conditions, the third has 1. So lets look at the two strands with two boundary conditions:

Education and children’s rights
There is state funding of at least some religious schools
Religious schools have powers to discriminate in admissions or employment
Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals
Discriminatory prominence is given to religious bodies, traditions or leaders
Religious groups control some public or social services

Now, the two conditions in the education strand are there for obvious reasons: the separate school systems in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and especially Ontario (also the territories). But the two conditions in the society strand… I don’t really understand what they’re there for. In the descriptive text, two justifications are mentioned. One is that only ministers of recognized religions can officiate weddings in Québec. Okay, fine. That could certainly get us the “discriminatory prominence” condition, I suppose. But it’s a bit of a stretch to say that religious groups “control” marriage in Québec because of that – if you don’t want a religious marriage, they do have civil officiants. It’s discriminatory, sure, but control? Seems hyperbolic.

The other justification given is a wildly misrepresentative description of what appears to be the 2004 Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem ruling.* Even if we accept the dishonest framing of the case given in the text as gospel truth, we still only get the “discriminatory prominence” thing. So which public or social services are controlled by religious groups?

(* For the record, the truth about the Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem is not that the religious people magically got their way even though they signed an agreement where they waived their Charter rights. Actually, whether Charter rights can be waived away was never even ruled on. Nor did the ruling have anything to do with religious beliefs having precedence over “freely contracted obligations”, and no, it is not true that you can renege on contracts because of religious beliefs. The truth about the ruling is so much more mundane. The contract the tenants signed said that they could put stuff on their balconies once they had the consent of the co-owners or the directors. The issue was why the consent was not given… and it turned out that the reasons for not consenting were stupid. Thus the owners had no reasonable argument for not giving the consent they had implied they would give in the contract, especially given the very reasonable request made for Constitutionally-protected reasons. To put it in perspective, it was as if a person in a wheelchair had signed a contract for a building that said “you must only use the stairs unless you get permission to use the elevator”, then asked permission to use the elevator (for obvious reasons), and was denied for stupid, illegitimate reasons; if the contract had simply said “no one gets exemptions to use the elevator at all”, they would have no argument – they signed the contract that said so – but since it said that exemptions are given, it is only reasonable to assume they would be given for reasonable requests on Constitutionally-protected grounds. The building contract did allow exemptions (and, in fact, there were no complaints made about Christmas decorations some tenants put up), so the onus was on them to explain why they were denying that exemption in this case, and they failed. The Jewish residents did not “renege” on their contract, their religious beliefs were not “given precedence” over the contract… what really happened was that they complied with the contract in good faith, but the owners did not, and the owners lost. Simple as that. Whoever came up with the text about the case in the report was either ignorant or dishonest.)

So I don’t know how to solve the conditions in the society strand, because I don’t know what triggered them. If I were doing this for real, I would have to track down the organization(s) that suggested them – probably Humanist Canada – and ask them for an explanation. But that’s not worth it for this thought experiment, so I’ll just tackle the other strand.

That would mean the next target to tackle would be separate schools.

Now, this is a much bigger target than the blasphemy law. This is something that has to be dealt with both at the federal level and the provincial level in multiple provinces. The report actually suggests one possible way to trigger change: striking section 29 of the Charter. But that would be a hell of a fight. Generally speaking, this fix would be a hell of a battle.

But it’s also a much more rewarding fix. Obviously it would eliminate the two “severe discrimination” conditions (“there is state funding of at least some religious schools” and “religious schools have powers to discriminate in admissions or employment”), but it would also strike the “mostly satisfactory” condition “state-funded schools offer religious instruction with no secular or humanist alternative, but it is optional”. That would leave the entire “education” strand as “free and equal”!

Not only that, but it would also eliminate the “state-funding of religious institutions or salaries, or discriminatory tax exemptions” condition in the government strand, and probably also the “legal or constitutional provisions exclude non-religious views from freedom of belief” (as far as I can think of, aside from the blasphemy law section 29 is the only thing in Canadian law that specifically gives advantages to some religion or religion in general). I’ll leave the latter in just to be safe. It’s also possible that the “preferential treatment is given to a religion or religion in general” would be dropped, since the elimination of the blasphemy law and all separate schools-related laws would make us basically equivalent to the US, broad speaking – in that we would still have some discriminatory laws on the books, but essentially the same ones they do, and they don’t trigger the condition. However, I’ll leave that there, too.

That would mean that if we were able to fully eliminate the stank of separate schools, this is what our score table would probably look like:

That gives us an overall score of 2.25.

That’s progress.

Note that all of the remaining “systemic discrimination” conditions would now be somewhat difficult to justify. It’s possible that laws or practices remain that might still call for them, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. So it may be the case that I’m being unnecessarily conservative, and if we were to eliminate both the blasphemy law and the laws relating to separate schools, we would be left with nothing worse than “mostly satisfactory”, giving us these results:

And an overall score of 1.5.

Hell yeah.

Always more work to be done

And the process would continue in much the same vein. There’s plenty of other stuff that needs to be cleaned up: discriminatory tax laws (churches and such being tax-free), privilege for religious “charities”, God in the anthem, and so on and so forth. There’s plenty to do, but it is possible to see a path to a future where freethought and reason are fully respected and protected in Canadian law and government.

And that is why the report’s “narrow” focus on systemic discrimination is so useful. While it is certainly a worthwhile goal to want to change Canadian society and culture to be more accepting – and even supportive – of secularism, humanism, atheism, and freethought, it’s not always clear what or who we should target to accomplish that, or what specific actions we should take. But with systemic issues… we know exactly who to aim at, and we know exactly what to ask them for. The report’s focus on those issues easily translates into a practical “to-do” list for SHAFT activism.

The secret to understanding the reason for the Freedom of Thought Report’s focus, in the end, is to view the report’s conclusions not as a judgment, but as a blueprint for action.

5 thoughts on “Using the Freedom of Thought Report

  1. As Canada moves into a post-Christian era, what to do about systemic religious exceptions will become a high volume comic opera. We hear so much about culture when all we are actually hearing is demands for more religious privilege. If ‘culture’ actually only means religion, and we have none of this, maybe we should be advocating for culture to not be recognized in any of our legislation. The future Canada will abstain from all culture (religion).
    Critics might argue that ‘Humanism’ is a culture but this isn’t actually true. Humanism is only a way of criticising existing cultures and existing legislations. It is similar to ethics. Humanism could be either “the most good for the many” or “the most good for the individual”. It could even consider both of these ideas together or others.

    For years we have been chipping away at “culture” and now with an overcrowded world and some foolishly exuberant retailers and realtors, who want to “grow” their low tech enterprises by immigration, we are facing renewed evangelical enthusiasms.

    How can we politely discourage more of this piety and ritual? The existing legislation an albatross. Our Prime Minister, Justin, is an albatross. “Go in the name of God but good God go.”

    OK back to reading your post, maybe I’ll get something out of this.

    • I don’t have any issue with your comment except for your definition of Humanism, which I’ve never actually seen put that way before.

      Specifically: “Humanism is only a way of criticising existing cultures and existing legislations.”
      Since when is Humanism distinctly negative? The definition common among every active Humanist organization in the world is about Humanism as a life stance that affirms human dignity. It’s about developing answers to philosophical and ethical questions using human compassion and reason.

      “Humanism could be either ‘the most good for the many’ [no, that’s utilitarianism] or ‘the most good for the individual’ [no, that’s a form of libertarianism].”

      Words mean things. According to the Amsterdam Declaration of 2002, “Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility.” But it’s not just that, it’s six other points making up a coherent and distinct worldview, not a cynical antithesis of tradition.

      • I suppose in my thought world utilitarianism and libertarianism would be humanistic ideas. I’m certainly not the go-to-guy on these issues.

        I do appreciate your thoughtful illumination.

  2. Thanks for this Indi, lots of good insight and I don’t disagree with your take.

    What I will comment on are two things, first on the report and second your recommendations.

    On the report: Given IHEU’s limited resources, I get the sense this report has been prepared on the advice of a few select people in a few select affiliates. Even then it’s only done every few years (as with hundreds of countries, they can’t update every entry every year). Any errors are more likely of that limitation than of any malicious misinterpretation of Canadian secularism.
    Nevertheless, I think you’re correct to point out the flaws in the interpretation of Amselem.
    The focus on the Quebec marriage issue could be a bit more broad, as most provinces do privilege religious marriages against Humanists. I’m working on my own larger report on that issue, with the key point being that the leader of a recognized religious congregation can perform a marriage while the leader of a (legally equivalent) secular group cannot. Yes, there are civil marriages in most provinces but that’s like saying “religious groups can design their own churches but atheists have to meet in state-designed buildings.”

    As for your recommendation, my comments are specifically with regard to the need of SHAFT orgs to work together to repeal Section 296.
    Well, good news: That’s already happened! The Canadian Secular Alliance, CFI Canada and Humanist Canada came together this past year to put forward an e-petition calling for the repeal. That effort was supported by the BC Humanist Association and most other freethought groups across Canada. The petition ended up getting 7400 signatures and has been tabled in the House of Commons. We expect a reply from the Government in January, at which point the pressure will be on for the Government to table a bill to repeal the section. This coordinated effort will have to continue through 2017, obviously, but I think we’re on a good track to achieve this.
    Here’s the BCHA announcement back in June when it launched:

    • > On the report: Given IHEU’s limited resources, I get the sense this report has been prepared on the advice of a few select people in a few select affiliates. Even then it’s only done every few years (as with hundreds of countries, they can’t update every entry every year). Any errors are more likely of that limitation than of any malicious misinterpretation of Canadian secularism.

      Yes, that was my understanding as well, and I didn’t mean for my comments about the Canada data being out-of-date to be a condemnation on anyone – either the IHEU or whoever collected the Canada data for them (probably Humanist Canada). It was just an observation one has to make when trying to practically apply the report.

      … except for the aside about the Amselem case, of course. That was the only place in the post where I was out for blood. Because that’s just one of my pet peeves: people misrepresenting Canadian laws on things like reasonable accommodation, hate speech, and so on to give the false impression that freethought is somehow unfairly disadvantaged in Canadian law. Seriously, if you’re going to offer a legal case to the IHEU or anyone as evidence of some mythical legal bias against atheism, at least take the obvious step of checking with an actual legal expert that the case is what you think it is, rather than just relying on right-wing bloggers. Or you know, maybe even just actually reading the fucking case would be a good start.

      > The focus on the Quebec marriage issue could be a bit more broad, as most provinces do privilege religious marriages against Humanists.

      Yeah, I admit to being clueless about that issue; that’s off my beat. I don’t really have any interest in marriage law at all. (In fact, in *my* opinion, there shouldn’t be any marriage law *at all*. At most there should be recognition of contracts between individuals with regards to estate, power of attorney, visitation rights, etc.. But any official government recognition of *marriage* is just an argument waiting to happen. It’s just a religious privilege holdover that should be abandoned.)

      > As for your recommendation, my comments are specifically with regard to the need of SHAFT orgs to work together to repeal Section 296.
      > Well, good news: That’s already happened!

      Yes, I’ve actually signed the petition (and pushed the issue on CA, too)!

      This post was really laser-focused on the usefulness of reports like the FTR – *how* they’re useful and *why* they’re useful. I think it’s important that (would-be) SHAFT activists understand how evidence-based activism can be done, and how reports like this *are* the evidence in evidence-based activism. I was deliberately working in a theoretical vacuum of sorts, totally ignoring the reality of what’s actually happening with regards to SHAFT activism in Canada. Basically: “Let’s pretend that there is no SHAFT activism in Canada, and this report has dropped in our laps… how would we use this report to get started?” I *really* didn’t mean for the post to come off sounding like: “This is what I think SHAFT organizations should be doing”, not least because I’m hardly in a position to be dictating their policy.

      I’m glad you brought up the fact that we’ve made the repeal a focus though, because I intend to *really* push that issue in 2017. Early in January I intend to make a “let’s set some targets for 2017” post, where I’ll ask the readers for suggested goals for 2017 – for CA, for SHAFT in general (at the federal and provincial levels), and so on. Like, “let’s make a plan for what we’ll accomplish 2017”. My own recommendation – referencing *this* post – will be the repeal of 296. Assuming that suggestion gets some traction, I intend to start a regular series aimed at that goal – I’d like to collect the best arguments for repealing the law in a post, for example, that people can pick and choose from when putting into letters to their MPs; I’d like to write about Eugene Sterry, and I’ll probably do another piece about de la Barre; I’d like to set up a collection of skeleton letters you can download and fill in to mail (yes, paper mail) off to MPs; and so on.

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