In a recent address to a scientific convention in Ottawa, the Governor General of Canada, Ms. Julie Payette, expressed her opposition to pseudosciences such as astrology and her rejection of false beliefs. She mocked not only those who continue to deny a human role in climate change, but also those who persist in attributing the origins of life to divine intervention, thus refusing to accept a natural explanation.
By making such comments, Ms. Payette places herself in a sort of conflict of interest, because she is the official representative of Queen Elizabeth II, head of state of Canada (and of the UK of course) “by the grace of God” no less! Her role is intimately tied to the theism on which the monarchy is based. But for me, atheist, anti-theist and anti-monarchist that I am, this contradiction only makes her unexpected behaviour all the more delightful!
It is indeed refreshing when an important public figure dares to break a taboo set by conformist decorum and says finally and openly that which many of us have known for a very long time: that religions contribute nothing whatsoever to our knowledge of the world in which we live and that, when they conflict with science, only science can provide valid explanations. But not everyone would agree with us on this score, and criticism of the GG was not long in coming.
The premier of Saskatchewan, Brad Wall, is disgruntled because, in his opinion, Ms. Payette denigrated those who believe in a creator (Premier Brad Wall criticizes Governor General’s ‘divine intervention’ speech).
Federal Conservative Party leader and head of the official opposition Andrew Scheer criticized Prime Minister Trudeau for supporting the Governor General. Using the apparently sacred concept of “diversity,” Scheer said that Payette’s comments showed a lack of respect for millions of Canadians, including “Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians and other faith groups who believe there is truth in their religion.” Thus Scheer exposed, to no-one’s surprise, the essentially pro-religious stance of his party. Obviously, the Conservatives’ opposition to the niqab at citizenship ceremonies was not based on any concern for secularism, but rather on a Christian prejudice motivating them to oppose other religions. (This observation does not in any way change the fact that the Liberal Party and NDP took an even worse position, to the right of the Conservatives, by lending their support to the Islamist fanatic Zunera Ishaq.)
Here in Quebec, the theologian Solange Lefebvre was even harsher. In an article published in La Presse of November 9th 2017—Neutralité religieuse et incroyance (Religious Neutrality and Nonbelief)—she even evokes religious neutrality in order to reprimand Ms. Payette, accusing her of exceeding not only the bounds of her “impartial” role as Governor General but even the limits of her scientific expertise. The theologian goes on to say:
Several commentators have interpreted her remarks as criticism of creationism, but that is not the case. Creationism in the strict sense of the word is a belief in the literal truth of biblical scripture, according to which our universe was created in six days. But Ms. Payette’s comments were more general, attacking theistic philosophy and most of the world’s conceptions based on a belief in a divine creation or origin of life (faith in creation does not in any way imply the negation of the theory of evolution or of the complexity of the development of life). She attacked the beliefs of a majority of Canadians,…
Now, it is true that the term “creationism” is normally used in the strict sense, indicating only believers who deny evolution and imagine the earth to be very young, say a few thousand years, and created very recently by their god. But this usage of the word is a bad habit imposed—let’s be honest—by those with a vested interest, like Ms. Lefebvre, in exonerating all other religious beliefs from criticism. It is a deliberate error which we must correct: indeed, if you belief that “God” created the world, then you are evidently a creationist, because you belief in the existence of a creator-god. No matter how old you believe the universe to be—thousands, millions or billions of years—you believe nonetheless in divine creation.
Furthermore, Ms. Lefebvre is completely wrong in asserting that “faith in creation does not in any way imply the negation of the theory of evolution” because that faith implies some kind of divine intervention, at one time or another, whereas evolution is a purely natural process. Even a deist who posits a universe which developed with zero divine intervention since its creation nevertheless believes that it was created at the very beginning. The credo of the Catholic Church is even more problematic because it posits the divine insertion of a “soul” into each human being since the beginning of our species. Even if we set aside the insurmountable problem of determining when the “first” human being was born, what we have here, according to Catholic dogma, is a major divine intervention in the life of each and every individual human. Ms. Lefebvre goes on to add that:
[…] neutrality must also be expected of atheists and nonbelievers. All too often, nonbelief is interpreted as a supposedly objective, rational approach to things, an approach which empties life of any and all symbolic or spiritual content.
Clearly, in Ms. Lefebvre’s worldview, religious neutrality applies only to atheists, while the religious can continue to impose their beliefs and practices wherever they want.
Our dear theologian would have atheists remain completely silent, never openly criticizing outlandish religious beliefs. In fact, that is exactly how most atheists behave: reduced to silence by bullying from religious spokespersons such as Ms. Lefebvre. This situation must change, and indeed change is beginning to occur; atheists do sometimes dare, more and more often, to express themselves openly, and that is a very good thing. For far too long religions have benefited from the privilege of being treated with a level of deference which they certainly do not deserve. We atheists must increase the level of our criticism of the ridiculous and harmful religious beliefs which poison our societies.
The theologian Solange Lefebvre is an atheophobic reactionary who tolerates the existence of atheists such as ourselves only on the condition that we be completely invisible. She ends her diatribe with the assertion that “The Governor General’s blunder thus reminds us that […] many people lack a solid basis in religious culture.” Madame is preaching to the converted, making an oblique reference to the Ethics and Religious Culture program in Quebec schools, a curriculum whose many faults include its almost complete failure to deal with nonbelief.
Freedom of conscience includes both freedom of belief and of nonbelief, i.e. both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Just as religious believers have the right to practice their religion, we atheists have the right to express our atheism by criticizing the beliefs which we reject. It’s called religious diversity. To silence us, as Solange Lefebvre would do, is an attack on our freedom of conscience.