PRESS RELEASE, 2013-02-22

Atheist FreethinkersFor immediate release
Office of Religious Freedom:
A contrivance which will protect neither non-believers nor apostates

Montreal, 22 February 2013 — Atheist Freethinkers (LPA-AFT), an association which promotes secularism and supports the rights of atheists, denounces the creation of the new Office of Religious Freedom, recently announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This Office presents several serious problems.

Firstly, the mandate of the new Office does not explicitly include protection of apostates and atheists against persecution, and there is little hope that it will address the ill-treatment of non-believers as well as believers. In the words of David Rand, president of LPA-AFT, “Freedom of religion is not a fundamental freedom in the same way as freedom of conscience, but rather derives from it. Similarly, the freedom to have no religion and the freedom to criticize religious belief also derive from freedom of conscience. Indeed, without the right to leave one’s religion or to have none, freedom of religion is meaningless.”

The Harper government already displays a strong pro-religious bias and appears to us to care very little about human rights based on its recent actions: reduced funding to groups supporting maternal health including choice on abortion; grants to a homophobic Christian group working in Uganda; the naming of a creationist to the post of Minister of Sciences and Technology; elimination of several offices of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and of the organization Rights and Democracy; and so on. There is every indication that this new Office constitutes yet another measure increasing the influence of the Christian right, while being presented to the citizenry deceptively in the guise of protection of rights.

The best way to promote freedom of conscience is not to promote religion, but rather to advocate secularism which protects this right while assuring that states are independent and autonomous with respect to religions. But the mandate of the Office does not mention this principle and, worse still, the “ambassador” Andrew Bennett named to lead the agency is clearly anti-secular. Bennett is dean of a small Christian college in Ottawa and promotes an increased role for religious faith in government. According to Bennett, secularism in France is “fundamentalist” and our modern rights and freedoms are rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, completely ignoring the centuries-long history of the struggle to be free from the burden of religious domination.

This new Office is under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Minister John Baird, in a speech in Washington in May of 2012, baldly declared, “We know that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.” More recently in September of 2012, in a meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly, the same Baird admitted that “We don’t see agnosticism or atheism as being in need of defense in the same way persecuted religious minorities are.” But the International Humanist and Ethical Union, in a report published in December 2012, described numerous cases of persecution of non-believers around the world. In some countries, atheists and apostates even face the death penalty.

This new Office of Religious Freedom must be denounced as a stratagem to mislead Canadian citizens.

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