A Long Time Ago, In A Scientific Field Far, Far Away . . .

Guest post by Sebastian Thaci

Somebody recently pointed me to this “comprehensive and in-depth new public opinion poll” on religion in Canada conducted by the Angus Reid Institute:


I have read all the study carefully, and I have to reject its results based on the selection bias and conceptual ambiguity.

The study was conducted “among a representative randomized sample of 3041 Canadian adults who are members of the Angus Reid Forum.” This means that the results of this study apply to the members of this online forum, which are not representative of the whole Canadian society. Only computer-literate people, with computers, Internet access, free time and interest in the subjects of the forum are members of the forum. Out of these, only some responded to the survey. Out of those, apparently, only some were considered “representative” (why?).

This is a huge selection bias. How did they go from this select group to “Religion and Faith in Canada”? A randomized phone survey would have had more statistical power.

For example, how many 55+ year old first generation immigrants are members of this forum, and how many of them responded to the survey? How many fundamentalist/conservative religious people do you think are on this forum and also took the survey?

There are also multiple conceptual problems or problems with the questions posed. Just a few examples

  1. The categories of embracing and rejecting religion do not make sense. Some deeply religious people could reject the present religious institutions because of perceived corruption or other reasons. Are they embracing or rejecting religion? Also, an atheist might go through the moves of a religion just to keep his minority community and culture alive, like many atheist Jewish people are indeed doing.


  1. The congregation attendance evaluation is subjective, and people can be wrong about this, or they can lie.


  1. The question “What’s right or wrong is a matter of personal opinion” – many atheists and irreligious persons will say no to this, but there is no alternative except the Ten Commandments. Very wrong. How about the third option of an innate human sense of morality developed during our evolution? Even some religious people who believe in evolution will choose this last option.


  1. Spiritual or religious – two dictionary definitions do not explain the meaning of these words. What do people really understand by ‘being spiritual’? Asked this question, I myself do not know what to answer. Am I spiritual if I light scented sticks and do Yoga meditation in the morning? Or am I spiritual because I read my horoscope every day?


  1. There is no ‘conversion’ question – I myself came to Canada an evangelical Christian, now I am an atheist. Interestingly, I rejected institutionalized religion in both cases. When I was a Christian, I thought that the institutionalized corruption of the Church can only be demolished by grass roots, small groups Christianity. Now, I reject any form of religion. According to this poll, I was not embracing religion back then as a Christian, and I am not embracing it now as an atheist. But my mind has completely changed. I take different decisions and vote vastly different now. Also, there are no questions in the study about how people come to be in any category: converted, born into a religion, etc. No question on how free they think they are to move into another category or how likely. We keep ignoring the fluidity of religious social reality. And we also ignore that people are sometimes harassed or even die for leaving a religion or other.


  1. The immigration factor is not studied enough. There are many variables there, and Canada receives a LOT of religious immigrants, some refugees, some voluntary. Some of them come here to lose their religion, though, or at least to loosen its grip a little. Also: “With greater immigration from Asian countries in particular, the greatest increases have been among Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and other major world faith groups.” Really? I doubt that we receive mostly Roman Catholics and evangelicals from Asia. I may be wrong, but I suspect something is off here.

What is interesting about this study is our reaction to it – the results are already familiar to us. We consider the numbers close to what we knew about religion/irreligion in Canada from previous polls and the last Census of Canada. We can go straight to assuming that the study is well done, and that we can cogently comment on the results. The numbers can be intelligently discussed, as if they are right, just because they sound right, but that does not make the numbers right, unfortunately. Not for the whole of Canada.

How did the science of public opinion survey and statistics become so weak, subjective and muddy?

Will anybody in the Canadian public at large be aware of the shortcomings of this poll? And does the public even care about such details anymore?

Maybe we should do another Angus Reid forum poll to find out. That’s what Angus Reid would do!

Avijit Roy

Guest post by Pat O’Brien

In a scene from the long running television series, The West Wing, fictional US president Josiah Bartlet asks one of his advisors: “Why do we value the life of an American over another?” The response: “I don’t know why, but we do.” That is a bit how I felt after hearing of the brutal assassination of atheist blogger Avijit Roy. Roy was Bangladeshi by birth but was a US citizen by choice living in Atlanta Georgia when, despite threats on his life, he visited his home country only to met by the type of religious violence he spoke so strongly in opposition to.

Why does the death of this particular atheist resonate with me personally? Roy was a regular contributor to Center For Inquiry’s Free Inquiry magazine. As a board member of CFI Canada many of my colleagues in the US office knew and worked with Roy and that degree of separation brings the reality of religious extremism into stark focus.

Ironically, or, if you will forgive the term, prophetically, his last article  for the magazine is to be published in the April edition of Free Inquiry. In the article he discussed at length the problems of Islam, he especially cites the Koran as a manual for violence. He also reiterates his position on religion which is summed up in his most recent book, Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith). Roy uses Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett’s meme of religion as a virus and quotes extensively from the Koran to make his point. Apparently quoting from the Koran is only available to those who believe it is the word of God, not those who seek to unmask its darker passages.

Roy was the son of a retired professor of physics. Avijit himself had a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. His science pedigree was as well established as his credentials as a fighter for secularism and freedom of speech. He was a tireless defender of atheists, rationalist, skeptics and Humanists mostly focused on people of South Asian and Bengali descent. It was his writings on his web site Mukto-Mona that garnered death threats from Islamists. Those same self-styled defenders of Islam were quoted widely saying they could not carry out their threats against Roy as he lived in America but that if he were to return to Bangladesh he would meet his demise.

Winston Churchill famously said that Russia is “… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”; much the same could be said of Bangladesh. Officially secular in its constitution, it is 86.6% Muslim and 12.1% Hindu. Its history since the country was created in 1971 has been marked by periods of secularism, military rule and religious turmoil. Its leader Sheikh Hasina is a woman, and the country enjoys a position as a member of The Next Eleven Emerging economies. It has enjoyed a period of relative calm since 1991 but with a population dominated by one religion, it seems to have fallen prey to the extremist elements that seek to impose their worldview as the rule of law. As with Islamists in other countries they will not countenance any questioning or criticism of their faith and will murder anyone who challenges them.

And so, on February 26th 2015, Roy, while returning from a book fair in the capital Dahka was attacked by two assailants armed with machetes, they literally hacked Roy to death in front of his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonna, who suffered cuts to her head and a severed finger. The little known group Ansar Bangala 7 has claimed responsibility for what it calls retaliation against America for its attacks on ISIS.

And here we have the crux of the matter: ISIS, ISIL, IS, whatever you call them, the first letter is the clue. It stands for Islam, and while it certainly does not speak nor act for all Muslims, there is without a doubt a percentage of Muslims who believe that the penalty for those who insult Islam should be death. What that percentage is has been widely debated but it is not small. Fortunately, the percentage of those willing to carry out the prescribed death penalty is in fact small, but not inconsequential.

And so I mourn for the loss of a man I never met, but to whom I am removed by one degree of separation. I mourn for the loss of a brave man who fought for the values I hold, and I mourn for the loss of security for writers who are at risk merely for having an opinion or for telling uncomfortable truths. I am not famous like Roy; I am not as good a writer as Roy, but as I hear the words I am writing now I wonder if I am too could be a target. I wonder if you, who may hold similar opinions are safe and I wonder what we, as a society, as a civilization, are willing to do to create a safer environment in which ideas and opinions do not result in our deaths.

Am I being overly dramatic, or is my concern real? In the life of Avijit Roy we have one answer, his concerns were real. In Paris and in London, in Madrid and in Peshwar we have similar answers. Answers are fine, but when we will wake up and start asking the questions?

Pat O’Brien is a member of the Board of Centre For Inquiry Canada. His article was published in the March 2015 edition of Radical Desi.

Avijit Roy’s article, “The Virus of Faith” is available on line.

Response from Rob Nicholson re Raif Badawi

On March 6, I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson, and my MP, Gordon O’Connor.  Today, I received the following response:


Thank you for your email of March 6, 2015, regarding the case of Mr. Raif Badawi in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also forwarded to me your email on this issue.


The promotion and protection of human rights is an integral part of Canada’s foreign policy. As such, Canada takes principled positions on important issues to promote freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Canada strongly upholds the right to freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of association, among other inalienable human rights, as the basis on which a fair and democratic society is established, thrives, and progresses. Canada is greatly concerned by the detention and sentencing of Saudi human rights activist Raif Badawi.


As a country based on pluralism, and comprising a multitude of cultures and faiths, Canada is uniquely positioned to protect and promote freedom of religion, as articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For this reason, the Office of Religious Freedom is an important component of the Government of Canada’s ongoing global effort to advance Canadian values, including freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Canada has also consistently spoken out against egregious violations of freedom of religion, and denounced violence motivated by religious intolerance. On January 8, 2015, Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, strongly denounced the punishment administered to Mr. Badawi.


On January 14, 2015, then Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird also made a statement expressing Canada’s deep concern about the public flogging of Mr. Badawi and calling for clemency. Indeed, Canada remains concerned about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, especially with respect to the issue of religious freedom. The Government of Canada takes every opportunity to make its views on human rights and religious discrimination known to Saudi authorities and the international community. Canada supports a stable and prosperous Middle East, governed by freedom, tolerance and pluralism, where human rights, including minority and religious rights, are respected. Support for freedom of religion is an integral part of our ongoing work in promoting human rights.


Further, former Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird discussed the case of Mr. Badawi with concerned parties, including Ms. Christine St‑Pierre, Quebec’s Minister of International Relations. He also raised Canada’s continuing concerns about this issue during a bilateral meeting with His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al‑Faisal, on January 21, 2015, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.


Canada has made representations to Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador in Ottawa, and Canada’s Ambassador in Riyadh has met with the Chair of the Saudi Human Rights Commission. While Mr. Badawi is not a Canadian citizen, Canada will continue to make its position known, both publicly and through diplomatic channels. Canada will also continue to call for clemency.


Canada has an active partnership and candid relationship with Saudi Arabia, and believes that Saudi Arabia can play a positive role in many of the region’s security challenges. Canada will maintain an ongoing, respectful dialogue with Saudi Arabia on a number of issues, including human rights.


Thank you for writing and sharing your concerns.



The Honourable Rob Nicholson, P.C., Q.C., M.P.

Minister of Foreign Affairs


Raif Badawi has been sentenced to receive 1000 lashes for “insulting Islam”.  He received 50 lashes in public on Friday, January 9th during prayer time in Jeddah.  Mr. Badawi has not been flogged since January 9.  No reasons were given for the cancellation of the most recent flogging on March 27.  Raif Badawi remains at risk of flogging (and potentially execution for apostasy).

You can sign Amnesty International’s petition here

If you are in the Ottawa area, you can join CFI Ottawa and Amnesty International at the weekly protest every Thursday afternoon at the Saudi Embassy.

Raif Badawi with his children

Murder Is the Only Blasphemy



Today, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) announced: “Another Atheist Blogger Murdered in Bangladesh This Morning”:

Washiqur Rahman’s Facebook banner declares “#IamAvijit”, after the leading secular and humanist blogger, Avijit Roy, who was murdered a month ago in Bangladesh.

This morning Washiqur Rahman himself was killed in similar circumstances: a machete attack by assailants on the streets of Dhaka. The brutal attack took place close to Rahman’s home. Police have reportedly taken two men into custody who were detained at the scene.

Bob Churchill, IHEU’s Director of Communications comments:

“We are deeply saddened that yet another rationalist voice has been so brutally silenced in this vile backlash against atheist bloggers. Our thoughts are with Washiqur’s family and we stand in solidarity with the many individual thinkers and writers from Bangladesh who exercise their right to discuss religion — Islam in particular — frankly and critically. This is a human right, freedom of expression, and it should be respected and protected in Bangladesh, as it should be respected and protected everywhere.”

Oxford Dictionaries (UK) online defines blasphemy as

The action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.

It is time to revise that definition so it reflects the real crime: murder – the heinous act of murdering a person or people for speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things or uttering profane talk. In addition, it is crucial that blasphemy laws are removed from the laws and criminal codes in every country where they exist. Let’s not give religious fanatics a excuse for thinking that attacking or murdering a human being is religiously justified or legally sanctioned.

As we mourn Washiqur Rahman, we should reflect on the message in a hashtag Rahman used: #WordsCannotBeKilled and loudly campaign against the injustice that while words cannot be killed, people are brutally attacked and killed for writing words.


Something Special Is Happening in Cape Breton

A Voice Pic


In her introduction to the Atlantic Voice podcast, “Coming Out in Cape Breton,” Pauline Dakin says,

One upon a time, we all knew what the words boy or girl meant, or we thought we did . . .

Listen to reporter Joan Weeks as she tells the “story about shifting genders – young people who feel they were born in the wrong body” and interviews transgender teens and their families in Cape Breton:


As LGBT resource co-ordinator Madonna Doucette at the Ally Centre of Cape Breton says,

 “there’s something special happening . . .  in Cape Breton.”

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