Our organization Atheist Freethinkers has submitted a brief for the Consultations on the Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program of study. On this page we present an English translation of a few excerpts of the brief. You may consult the complete brief (in French) Une formation à l’esprit critique dans une école à valeurs citoyennes (Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in Schools with Civic Values), a PDF document, 16 pages in length.
Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in Schools with Civic Values
A Few Excerpts
Presentation of the Organization Atheist Freethinkers
Who We Are
Libres penseurs athées – Atheist Freethinkers (LPA-AFT) is an organization which defends the rights of atheists and which promotes philosophical materialism, critical thought and secularism. […]
We reject in particular the claims of religions which consider themselves to be the only competent authority in moral matters.
The need to separate morality from religion was recognized two and a half millennia ago, at the time of Plato who, in his dialogue Euthyphro, uses the voice of Socrates to express the futility of basing morals on the will of the gods.
In the 17th century, French philosopher and writer Pierre Bayle refused to conform to the conventional wisdom of his time, even risking his life, by courageously declaring that “Atheism does not necessarily lead to the corruption of morals.” A few decades later, an unknown country vicar Jean Meslier died, but he left behind him a major work which made him posthumously famous, in which he affirmed his atheism and denounced religion as a fraud, noting above all that religion itself is fundamentally immoral.
Morality and ethics are eminently human and have their origins in biological and cultural evolution. The “moral” systems promoted by various theisms, especially monotheisms, are simply corrupted versions of humanity’s evolutionary heritage. Indeed, monotheism, such as the three Abrahamic religions, is the very model of totalitarianism. Furthermore, the so-called “sacred” texts of the Abrahamic monotheisms endorse rape, torture, slavery, murder and violence of all kinds, and therefore do not constitute good models of morality or ethics.
Our View of Religion
We do not respect religious beliefs. However, we do respect believers, that is, we respect their freedom to practice the religion of their choice. We also respect the freedom of each and every religious believer to apostatize, that is, to leave his or her religion in order to choose a different religion or no religion at all. The right of apostasy is a human right which is violated in many countries around the world. Thus, it is human beings who deserve our respect by respecting their rights. But beliefs in and of themselves, like all other ideas and ideologies, do not deserve respect. On the contrary, every belief, every idea and every ideology must be evaluated, examined, subjected to doubt and criticism in order to determine its value and whether it is true or false.
Against Religious Accommodations
We oppose the habit, currently very fashionable in Quebec and Canada, of granting overwhelming priority to freedom of religion by making religious accommodations. We oppose any accommodation which is not justified by real, objective considerations—such as physical handicap, gender, hygiene, health, etc.—whereas purely religious motives are never reality-based. […]
We consider that religion is a private affair. Ostentatious manifestations of religious affiliation may be tolerated in public, but only outside of civic institutions. We therefore oppose the display of religious symbols in the civil service, whether those symbols are displayed on physical installations such as walls, or worn by civils servants while on duty.
Religion is for Adults
[…] to impose a religion on a child, to indoctrinate that child in a religion, is unacceptable, a form of abuse. Children must be free of all religious symbols while at school. Making children wear religious symbols should be viewed as abusive.
Why We Promote Secularism
Thus, we understand the danger which religions represent when they gain political power. We want to protect freedom of conscience—our own of course, but also that of believers. It is for these reasons that we support secularism. Secularism is much more than mere religious neutrality. We insist that the State be independent and autonomous with respect to religions. The secular State must of course remain neutral with regard to the different religions so as not to privilege any one religion. However, when faced with the choice between religion and irreligion, the secular State must reject any religious interference in its institutions.
Atheists and Atheophobia
Atheists in particular are the targets of atheophobia, an old religious prejudice which claims that atheists are devoid of morals. This bigotted attitude is based on old theistic mythologies which hold that all morality flows from gods and that, consequently, anyone who does not believe in “God” must necessarily be immoral or amoral. Such superstitions are unacceptable, but they persist, nourished by self-serving religious authorities who have a stake in promoting them. […]
If we respect the noble, modern and recent requirement that children, who are after all our future compatriots, be well protected, then the violation of their freedom of conscience by means of religious indoctrination is a manifestation of child abuse. Thus, the freedom of parents to indoctrinate their children into a religion must be circumscribed, if not forbidden. The wisdom of moderation in this matter suggests that we should insist that parents not inculcate in their children any religious values which might be incompatible with those of our modern society of which their children are already a part, whether at school or elsewhere.
The Need to Overhaul the ERC Program
The Quebec Ministry of Education recently announced that it will proceed with a revision of the Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program over the course of the coming years. […]
We of Atheist Freethinkers welcome this announcement with enthusiasm and optimism. The ERC program, or at least its “religious culture” component, was badly conceived from the very beginning. Even before its implementation in Quebec schools in 2008, and before our organization LPA-AFT was founded, serious criticisms of the ERC program were expressed publicly, coming mainly from supporters of secularism.
To summarize, the ERC program does not develop pupils’ critical thinking skills and does not teach them, especially the youngest, how to make the crucial distinction between a fact and a belief, between an historical event and a myth. It almost completely neglects atheism and other varieties of non-belief, while glorifying religious thought, as if religion were a necessity. By pairing “religious culture” with “ethics,” as if ethics were necessarily dependent on religion, the ERC program unacceptably lumps together two distinct concerns. As the program is compulsory at almost all primary and secondary levels, it takes up too much time in the school schedule. Ultimately, the ERC program serves to maintain religious teaching in schools, the principal difference being that, while the old program was sectarian, the new one is multisectarian.
The Supreme Court of Canada Decision of 2015-04-15
On April 15th 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its decision in the case MLQ versus Ville de Saguenay, banning the practice of prayers at municipal council meetings of that city, thus ruling in favour of the complainant, the MLQ. That decision had major implications for secularism in Canada, consequences which go beyond the issue of municipal meetings. […]
[…] ERC is incompatible with the principle of religious neutrality of the State, as stipulated by that decision of the Supreme Court of Canada
Ethics is Independent of Religion
We emphasize the incompatibility between ethics and religion, in particular the monotheistic religions such as the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam (to name them in historical order). Every religion has the flaw of promoting baseless beliefs in hypothetical supernatural phenomena, beliefs which are incompatible with our scientific knowledge and which distance the believer from the real world in which he or she lives. Furthermore, if we consider ethics from the point of view of social responsibility, equity and transparency, religions are in the worst possible position, given their writings and history, to promote such ethics.
Each monotheistic religion claims to possess exclusive expertise in matters of morality, but that claim is completely unfounded. Instead of expertise, the religion displays utter incompetence.
Religion’s claims to possess particular expertise in ethical matters is totally baseless. The domain of morality and ethics belongs more to science than to religion, as with health and psychology. Although questions of morality may go behond the scientific domain, they must be founded in the real world and remain compatible with our scientific knowledge. Religions, on the contrary, lead us away from that reality.
The ERC Program: Errors Which Must Not Be Repeated
One of the principal flaws of the ERC program is that it favours religions while almost completely ignoring non-belief such as atheism. The new program must not repeat that error. We are not asking that public schools teach atheism but, if they do go in the direction of religious education—an orientation which we oppose—then they would have to teach atheism too.
However, the appropriate solution is to avoid religious instruction entirely, except for factual aspects such as the historical development of religions. But the ERC program is not the proper place to do that. The study of religion, if any, should be done mainly in history courses. Furthermore, such study must not neglect the various misdeeds that have very often been part of the history of religion. An introductory history of religions course would only be appropriate at the secondary level in the context of a general history of civilization.
We propose that the new program to replace ERC have an “introduction to secularism” component in order to familiarize students with this important aspect of Quebec society. This component would explain the four essential principles of secularism (equality, freedom of conscience, religious neutrality and religion-State separation). It would also explain that separation is necessary in order to protect citizens, both women and men, from the political aspirations of religions. In fact, the greatest threat to freedom of conscience (which includes freedom of religion) comes from religions themselves.
Here are a few points which the secularism component should cover:
- The formal definition of secularism, with its four principles: (1) equality of persons, including between women and men; (2) freedom of conscience; (3) religious neutrality of the State and (4) separation between the State and religions.
- The importance of freedom from religion, including the right to apostatize, which must be included whenever freedom of religion is invoked. These two freedoms—of and from religions—are both included in point (2) freedom of conscience.
- The religious neutrality of the secular State, point (3), must include neutrality between believers and non-believers, not just neutrality between the various religions.
- The crucial importance of keeping the State free (i.e. point (4) separation) from any religious rule or practice, without of course excluding believers.
- The three spaces: private, public and civic. Secularism applies especially to civic space.
- The secular State is not responsible for religious beliefs and practices. Rather, believers are themselves totally responsible for their own beliefs and practices. […]
- If any religious “laws” or “obligations” turn out to be incompatible with the democratically adopted laws of the secular State, then the State’s laws much always have priority.
- Rights and freedoms are not in general absolute. One person’s freedoms end, or are limited, when they bump up against the freedoms of other persons. […]
Here we summarize our principal recommendations for the program which should replace the existing ERC program:
- The “religious culture” component of the program should be completely removed. The new program should have no religious content, except indirectly in the new “secularism” component.
- A philosophy for children syllabus should be integrated into the “ethics” component of the program.
- A new “secularism” component should be added to the program.
- A new “civics and citizenship” component should be added to the program or, alternatively, these subjects should be integrated into the “ethics” component.
- The “ethics” component of the new program should include acknowledgement of the fact that humanity belongs to the animal world, thus recognizing the evolution of ethical behaviour among other animal species.
We also make the following recommendation which is not directly related to the ERC program but which is nevertheless motivated by the same considerations which underlie the above recommendations:
- The wearing of religious symbols should be banned in public schools for all school personnel as well as for all pupils, for the duration of the school day. This ban extends the rule which already applies to schoolteachers and principals by virtue of Bill 21, An Act respecting the laicity of the State, adopted on June 16th 2019.