David Rand, president
Atheist Freethinkers (AFT) is an atheist organization based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, founded in 2011. We operate in both French and English, so the organization’s full name is Libres penseurs athées — Atheist Freethinkers (LPA-AFT) and we have two principal web sites:
www.atheologie.ca (in French) and
www.atheology.ca (in English).
Atheism & Antitheism
As atheists, we consider all supernatural beliefs—not just belief in gods—to be baseless and potentially harmful. Our Atheist Manifesto explains our point of view in some detail. The following is a brief summary of that Manifesto:
We are atheists. Critical thought and science lead us to the conclusion that gods, demons, reincarnation, the immortal soul and other supernatural beliefs are childish fictions. We value reason, knowledge and the material, intellectual and moral advancement of humanity. Our philosophy is materialist: there is no soul associated with the body, and as for the mind or intellect it too is material because based on neuronal processes. We are moral beings, constantly evolving and responsible for ourselves, as is the humanity to which we belong. We promote secularism and reject any religious involvement in civil institutions.
Because we consider god-belief and similar baseless beliefs to be harmful, we are antitheists. This is entirely compatible with our support for secularism. A clear separation between religion and state, keeping religious institutions and practices out of civil institutions, is necessary in order to protect the freedom of conscience of the citizenry.
Our approach to secularism is based on what we would call, for lack of better term, republican secularism, i.e. laïcité, for which no equivalent word exists in English. Although it grew out of the struggle against the obscurantism and stifling power of the Roman Catholic Church in France, and similar struggles in Quebec, the concept of laïcité is universalist, transcending conditions in any one country.
In contrast to republican secularism, the secularist tradition in the English-speaking world is rather weak because it is largely inspired by the approach proposed by John Locke in his 1689 essay A Letter Concerning Toleration. Locke proposed a society and a government which tolerated all religions, including “Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers” and indeed “neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.” Nevertheless, he excluded those religions which failed to tolerate others, which effectively excluded Catholics as they could be expected to hold allegiance to a foreign prince.
Locke was also resolutely atheophobic, asserting that “those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God.” In fact, what Locke proposes is not even secularism—rather it should be called pseudo-secularism—because of his assumption that everyone with any concept of ethics, any right to live in society with others, has a religion, and indeed a theistic religion. Locke’s approach is no more than limited religious neutrality, i.e. neutrality among competing religions, with no place for the non-religious and no separation between religion and state.
There is a strong parallel between Lockean pseudo-secularism and Canadian multiculturalism. Although the term multiculturalism is often used as a synonym of cultural diversity, in practice it amounts to cultural relativism, communitarianism and multiconfessionalism as proposed by Locke, where the individual’s religious affiliation is given priority over other aspects of their identity, in particular over citizenship itself, and atheism is at best invisible. Thus, we at LPA-AFT oppose this ideology because it is incompatible with the universalist ethos of secularism.
Authentic secularism requires more than mere neutrality between different religions. It requires neutrality between religion and irreligion, thus putting the rights of believers and atheists on a par, protecting the freedom of conscience (which includes both freedom of religion and freedom from religion) of everyone. Republican secularism, which involves clearly separating religion from the state, meets this requirement whereas the Lockean tradition falls far short of it. Even in the republican tradition there remains a certain trace of atheophobia, a mentality that open expression of atheism is somehow a threat to freedom, but that prejudice is far worse in the Lockean approach which gives freedom of religion precedence over freedom from religion, thus discriminating against non-believers. (For further discussion, see Secularism: Lockean and Republican.)
Recent Quebec Legislation
We support banning all religious symbols from state institutions, including those worn by public servants while on duty. We consider it especially important to ban face-coverings, whether worn by employees or by users of public services. Islamic full veils (niqab and burqa) are extreme examples of this and represent propaganda tools used by political Islam to promote its extreme right-wing ideology. However, all face-coverings are unacceptable when providing or receiving public services because of the problems they cause for communication, identification and security.
LPA-AFT supported the Charter of Secularism proposed in 2013-2014 by the Quebec government of the time. That Charter would have been a major step forward towards an officially secular Quebec and its provisions went far beyond the issue of religious symbols, although it failed to deal with the financial privileges enjoyed by religious institutions. We opposed Quebec’s Bill 62, adopted in 2017, because it is far too weak, i.e. its ban on face-coverings is full of exceptions and loopholes. In each case, representatives of LPA-AFT appeared before a parliamentary committee at the National Assembly in Quebec City to argue our position. During the Charter debate, our organization joined the Rassemblement pour la laïcité (RPL) or Alliance for Secularism, formed to support the Charter, and we continue to participate in that coalition.
Our support for republican secularism is controversial in the Canadian context. One would have hoped that, in this country, where English and French are founding languages and cultures, atheists and secularists would have considered objectively the two traditions, Lockean and republican, and reached the obvious conclusion that the latter is far superior. But most outside Quebec, or at least those who are most vocal, have not. Many remain stubbornly attached to the old Lockean tradition, which is often promoted using various buzzwords such as “diversity” or “inclusiveness” or “open secularism.” This closed-minded attitude is an expression of Anglo-ethnocentrism and belies their claim of being open to other cultures.
What Needs to Change
As atheists and secularists, we of course support the repeal of Canada’s anti-blasphemy law, i.e. article 296 of the Criminal Code, and we call for removal of the reference to the “supremacy of God” from the preamble of the 1982 Constitution. But we also support the following measures (this list is not exhaustive):
- The religious exception in the Hate Propaganda legislation, in Criminal Code article 319, must be repealed. LPA-AFT initiated a petition to that effect on the web site of the Canadian parliament.
- All religious accommodations in public services must be banned. Only accommodations based on real, objective grounds—such as physical handicap or considerations of hygiene or health—should be allowed. In particular, the religious accommodation which the RCMP grants to members of the Sikh religion must be cancelled.
- The Canadian Multiculturalism Act must be repealed, or at least amended so as to disallow any and all religious accommodations, and line 17(1)b) of the Citizenship Regulations (which grants privileges to religion during ceremonies) must be repealed. Both of these were used by Zunera Ishaq to support her drive to allow face-coverings during citizenship ceremonies.
- The tax credit for donations to religious organizations and all other fiscal advantages granted to them must be abolished.
- The House of Commons must withdraw Motion M-103 which condemns so-called “islamophobia.” A similar resolution adopted by the Quebec National Assembly must also be repudiated.
- The “Religious Culture” part of the compulsory Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program in Quebec public schools must be cancelled, because it promotes religious belief among children by presenting religions in a sanitized form, failing to offer any critical view, and it associates morality with religion, thus implicitly promoting atheophobia.
If you live in Canada (or even if you do not) and agree with our approach, please consider becoming a paying member and/or making a donation, either of which can be done on-line via our Membership and Donations page. And if you live in or are visiting the Montreal area, you might be interested in attending one of our meetup events, which are open to all, whether you are an LPA-AFT member or not.