2019-08-31 — Updated 2019-09-03
My response to a particularly inept, obnoxious and anti-secular blog by a well known American atheist blogger who opposes Quebec Bill 21.
Sommaire en français Ma réponse à un billet de blogue particulièrement inepte, infect et anti-laïque publié sur le site d’un blogueur américain athée bien connu qui s’oppose à la Loi 21 au Québec.
Hemant Mehta is an American blogger who uses the nickname Friendly Atheist and who claims to support secularism. And yet, in a blog entitled Quebec’s Bill 21, Now a Law, Foolishly Bans Religious Symbols for State Workers, published the day after the adoption of the bill which institutes State secularism in the Canadian province of Quebec, Mehta attacks the legislation for its removal of some religious privileges (which Mehta, like religious bigots who oppose secularism, mislabels as “rights”).
We all know, or should know, that human rights cannot, in general, be absolute. There are always reasonable limits. The rights of one person may conflict with the rights of another. Freedom of expression cannot be infinite because, for example, defamation is unacceptable. Most reasonable people would agree that the rights of a pregnant women—i.e. to health, well-being and survival—have priority over any supposed “right to life” of the foetus she is carrying. The rights of children are limited because they lack the maturity to exercise those rights fully. Furthermore, one right of a person may even conflict with another right of the same person. If a child refuses a life-saving blood transfusion for religious reasons, then the child’s life must take precedence over the child’s freedom of religion, because a dead child has no freedom. Freedom of religion must not be absolute for adults either. If an airline pilot were to leave his or her post during take-off or landing, claiming that it was time for prayer, he or she would be guilty of criminal negligence.
Now consider the case of a classroom in an elementary or secondary school, with one teacher and, say, twenty pupils. Suppose that the teacher wants to wear an ostentatious religious symbol, even while teaching. Here we have yet another case of a conflict between rights, between the freedom of religious expression of the teacher and the freedom of conscience of the pupils, i.e. their right to an educational environment free from religious proselytism, including passive proselytizing using symbols. Which should take precedence? The answer is obvious:
- Schools exist in order to educate students, not to employ teachers. Students are the reasons schools exist, so their rights should have precedence.
- The students are for more numerous than the teacher. Thus, again, their rights should have precedence.
- The students are children or adolescents and are thus highly susceptible to influence. They should not be subjected to unnecessary advertising (which is what religious symbols are).
- The teacher’s duty is to impart knowledge, teach skills and serve as a role model. The teacher should remain neutral when dealing with sensitive subjects such as religion.
The obvious solution to the conflict between the teacher’s desire to express their religion even while teaching and the student’s right to a quality educational environment free from propaganda is for the teacher to maintain religious neutrality, including visual neutrality by refraining from wearing obvious religious symbols on the job. To do otherwise would be to grant the teacher a religious privilege incompatible with the rights of students. The teacher regains full rights when off the job.
Quebec’s Bill 21 wisely takes this approach by banning teachers from wearing religious symbols. Unfortunately there are exceptions: there is a grandfather clause for teachers already employed before the Draft Bill was first published. Also, it does not apply to private schools, which nevertheless receive considerable public funding in Quebec. Nevertheless, Bill 21 is a very good step in the right direction. The law also bans religious symbols worn by police, prison guards, prosecutors and judges, and this is also a progressive measure because all of these positions exercise coercive authority, and hence their neutrality, both in deed and in appearance, is very important.
So what does Hemant Mehta have to say about Bill 21 in his June 17th blog?
- In the very title, Mehta says that the ban is “Foolish” when in fact it is eminently reasonable as explained above.
- Mehta writes that religious symbols are banned for some users of public services too. This is patently false. For users, only face-coverings are banned.
- Mehta writes that some religious believers are “required by their faith to wear certain symbols.” This is nonsense. Unless the individual is forced by their family or community to wear such a symbol (in which case banning symbols will help that person to resist unacceptable coercion), then they are not obligated by anything other than their personal choice. Even religious activists who vehemently oppose Bill 21 claim that they wear their symbol by choice. Well then, they can choose to remove it if required to do so for their job.
- Mehta complains about the law’s invocation of the so-called “notwithstanding clause” to make the legislation less vulnerable to court challenges. That clause is part of the Canadian constitution. It is perfectly legitimate to use it, especially when, despite strong popular support for the legislation, a small but extremely noisy and irrational opposition (whose ideas Mehta himself echoes) threatens to delay or disrupt adoption of the law.
- Mehta hypocritically claims that he “actively supports the separation of religion and politics.” That is false. Mehta wants to have his cake and eat it too, to call himself secular while allowing religious interference in the State. If he would allow a policeman or policewoman, for example, to wear an obvious crucifix or hijab or other religious symbol while on duty, then he is not separating religion from the State. On the contrary, he is allowing the State to endorse the religion being displayed.
- Mehta claims that the wearing of religious symbols in this context is “harmless.” Bullshit. Apparently he has never heard of advertising. Companies spend millions of dollars on it—because it works. Whether to sell a product or simply to normalize a brand (such as the Islamist veil) so that everyone gets lulled into thinking it is perfectly normal, advertising, whether commercial or religious, is not benign, especially where children are targetted.
- Mehta uses the familiar “religious minorities [are] persecuted” excuse in order to grant impunity to minority religions. This is a standard strategy of the regressive pseudo-left. By doing so, he stigmatizes criticism of these religions and he lumps all adherents of a religion into the same category, which invariably benefits the most pious, fundamentalist and even radical coreligionists. For example, failure to criticize the Islamist program of imposing the veil anywhere and everywhere empowers Islamists, while betraying more moderate, secular Muslims and ex-Muslims. Allowing the hijab to proliferate unabated—or worse, to celebrate it!—sends the message that women who do not wear it, especially Muslim women, are impure and unworthy of respect.
- Mehta complains that Bill 21 contains provisions which monitor its application, for enforcement purposes. Well of course it does! What good is a law which is left unenforced? What good is a law which may be violated with total impunity?
Mehta wants to have his cake and eat it too, to call himself secular while allowing religious interference in the State.
[…]advertising, whether commercial or religious, is not benign, especially where children are targetted.
Basically, what Mehta is saying is that the freedom of religious expression of public servants and teachers is absolute and that the freedom of conscience of users and students is worth shit. He would allow unrestricted religious advertising by public servants and teachers while on the job. He gives total priority to those religious believers who are so fanatical that they insist on wearing their symbol absolutely everywhere, as if it were as essential to them as an internal organ. By doing so, he betrays the vast majority of citizens who have a right to public services and schools without religious interference.
Mehta displays gross ignorance of secularism and a total disregard for the importance of secularism in the French-speaking world. In comparison, the English-speaking world displays a disturbing ineptness with regard to the key concept of separation between religion and State, without which secularism degenerates into a pale caricature of itself.
Mehta is apparently completely oblivious to the role played by the regressive or identitarian pseudo-left in opposing secularism[…]
But perhaps most disturbing at all, Mehta is apparently completely oblivious to the role played by the regressive or identitarian pseudo-left in opposing secularism and in poisoning debates about religion and secularism. That toxic movement affects many countries but is particularly strong in the U.S.A. and Canada. It has been weaponized by political Islam in order to demonize secularism with the goal of destroying it. France is currently a major target. Hemant Mehta falls right into step by repeating that movement’s propaganda against Quebec Bill 21. Mehta’s blog is a typical example of regressive pseudo-leftist discourse.
In conclusion, I have this to say to Hemant Mehta:
My name is David Rand. I am president of an organization named Atheist Freethinkers (AFT) based in Montreal and spokesperson for the Rassemblement pour la laïcité (RPL) which is a coalition of several groups (including feminists, North Africans, AFT and other secularists) working for secularism in Quebec. We supported and continue to support Bill 21, while criticizing its weaknesses (for example, it should apply to the entire public service, not just parts.) I am proud to be part of that coalition. The Québécois people are in the vanguard on the issue of secularism, just as they have been trailblazers for several other social issues.
As for you, Mr. Mehta, you have no excuse for your ignorance. An ordinary person with no particular involvement with these issues may be easily confused by biased media reports. But you are a well known blogger in the atheist and freethinking communities of your country. You have a duty to be better informed. You claim to be a secularist. Yet you throw Quebec secularists, such as us, under the bus. Indeed you throw the Québécois in general under that bus. You also abandon secular Muslims to the Islamist wolves. You side with the fundamentalists and obscurantists who cling to their religious privileges, some of which you are all too happy to let them keep. You have no excuse for your unscrupulous betrayal of secularism in the one place in North America—Quebec—where it has made the most significant progress in recent decades.
At least we know who are friends are not.
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