Even the biggest tents have outsides

Events this past week conspired to get me thinking about the topic of building a unified progressive community in Canada.

The inspiration was a pair of blog posts published by Doug Thomas, president of Secular Connexion Séculière. Individually the two posts make roughly the same point, but it’s particularly telling to consider them as a pair. You’ll see why shortly.

Let’s start with the second post: “Secular Humanism: A Movement in Canada? I Wish.”. The title pretty much sums up the conclusion, but it’s not the conclusion that’s the problem.

In the post, Thomas gripes about the fairly poor outcome from petition e-1264, which he started. It barely got the minimum 500 signatures required, clocking in at 531. The official government response only added insult to injury.

Thomas has every right to be upset over the way e-1264 shook out. It was a disappointment for all secularists, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers in Canada. It was a harsh reminder of where we really stand in Canadian society, and of how little our government thinks of us. I’m fully with him in his disappointment. The problem with Thomas’s take is where he goes with it.

After correctly observing that there’s not really much of a humanist movement in Canada, Thomas proceeds to try to diagnose the reason. The first thing he addresses is a criticism that there are no secular humanist leaders in Canada. Thomas doesn’t take the criticism seriously – “rebutting” it by pointing to the existence of presidents and executive directors of humanist groups across Canada – and goes on to blame the lack of information sharing between humanist organizations, and disputes about definitions.

Let’s put a pin in that. We’ll get back to it. But first, what, exactly, is Thomas referring to when he talks about definitional disputes?

In fact, that’s what the first blog post from the pair was about. This one was titled: “Humanism at a Crossroads? Which Crossroads?

What happened was that the group Atheist Freethinkers published a typically rambling, paranoid, and incoherent essay about… well, that’s the thing: it’s not exactly coherent enough to be “about” anything. It starts off ranting about the M-103 committee’s report… which was published . Topical! Then it goes on to ranting about “islamophobia”… as in, complaining about the recognition of islamophobia, while of course never once acknowledging its existence or widespread occurrence in Canada. Then it goes on to rant about Zunera Ishaq, the woman who won the right to wear a niqab at her citizenship ceremony back in (there’s no expiry date on intolerance!). Then it goes on to accuse basically every humanist and secular organization in Canada – except Atheist Freethinkers of course – of being anti-secular for not taking Atheist Freethinkers’s incoherent, hard-line, anti-religious, laïcité as the definition of “secular”.

And for everything else objectionable or ridiculous in the essay, it is that final point that Doug Thomas objected to.

Thomas commented on the essay, trying to be the voice of reason, and explained diplomatically that not everyone defines “secular” the way Atheist Freethinkers does. (In fact, diplomacy aside, virtually nobody defines “secular” the way Atheist Freethinkers does, and the position Atheist Freethinkers takes has been repudiated by just about every major secularist, humanist, atheist, and freethinker organization in the world – as just one example: the International Humanist and Ethical Union.)

And how was Thomas’s attempt at diplomacy and bridging the gap received? With an angry response telling Thomas that Secular Connexion Séculière rejects secularism. That really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Bigots, haters, and nutters are not exactly known for being reasonable or open-minded about the positions they hold.

Anyway, the day after that exchange, Thomas wrote the two articles.

If you just read the second article on its own – without the first article and its background to clarify the context – you would be forgiven for thinking Thomas has a cogent point to make. Here is what Thomas says about building a movement:

Diversity is supposed to be a Canadian strength, but it only works when a community actively shares its common purpose. In general terms, this means that Canadian secular humanists must stop shouting into each other’s navels about definition of terms, and other differences and begin serious discussion about their common goals. The idea is that if enough people with differing perspective agree on one thing, there is considerable power in that agreement, especially if it is presented publically and with some dedication.

Sure, yeah, not a lot to disagree with in there, right? A group of diverse people coming together to cooperate on a shared goal without surrendering their distinctiveness or uniqueness is as Canadian as it gets! Where’s the problem?

The problem is hidden in Thomas’s euphemistic term: “differing perspectives”. And to understand what’s so problematic about it, here’s a quote from his other post – the one about his disagreement with Atheist Freethinkers:

However, that is not the core of my disagreement with David’s argument. It centres on his definition of secularism. I find that the claim that one cannot be secular without being anti-religious is unacceptable. There is no requirement in the English word, secular, for an anti-religious component. Certainly, the range of ideas of functional secularism may contain the idea that being anti-religious is a part of secularism, but that does not make it mandatory.

Humanism in Canada is facing a crossroads and which road it takes will determine whether it is really a movement as the “ism” suffix implies or not. The two choices are to take the road to being a unified, although inclusive movement with different views of secularism included, or whether it will take the road to disintegration with humanists in Canada attacking each other because of different persepectives among its members.

For me, the choice must be the inclusive road, the one on which varying approaches to religions can co-exist so that the main principles of humanist philosophy will provide a solid basis to defend humanist rights in Canada.

Once again there’s Thomas with his “different perspectives” euphemism. But now we can see what he really means. He means he wants a secular humanist movement that tolerates anti-religious bigotry in its midst.

Honestly, it’s hard to even know where to begin with this. It’s not just wrong… it’s not just offensive… it’s fucking stupid, and Thomas’s own experience illustrates that.

Okay, first let’s deal with the technical problem. Thomas wants us all – including Atheist Freethinkers – to rally around the main principles of humanist philosophy [that] provide a solid basis to defend humanist rights in Canada. And right in that sentence, he links to the key principles of humanist philosophy. And what do we see in those principles?

2. Respect personal freedoms. Support people’s freedoms when they do not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others. The touchstone standard for rights and freedoms is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms along with Supreme Court of Canada rulings based on it,

Which, of course, directly conflicts with the position of Atheist Freethinkers. (And that’s not even mentioning that sharing a solid basis to defend humanist rights in Canada with Atheist Freethinkers requires ignoring that group’s very selective approach to human rights.)

“We’ll get tons of stuff accomplished! (Just ignore the bigots.)”

So Thomas wants everyone to rally around these key principles… even the groups whose positions and activities violate those principles. Uh huh. And he expects those of us who do take those key principles seriously to simply… ignore the fact that we’re working with and granting legitimacy to groups and people who don’t respect those key principles. And, in fact, even insult us for standing by them. Riiight.

Because that’s exactly the kind of thing that’s going to get activists to flock to your banner: “We’ll get tons of stuff accomplished! (Just ignore the bigots.)”

Look, I am a huge fan of community, and believe me when I say that nothing would make me happier than to see a strong, united, secular humanist movement in Canada. And I’m not politically naïve; I fully understand the practicality of building a big tent. Of course groups should put their differences aside when working together on a common goal.

But what I understand and Thomas apparently does not is that when we talk about “differences”, we’re talking about ancillary disagreements. For example, a secularist group that supports oil pipelines and another group that opposes them should put that issue aside when working together to lobby for an end to separate schools (or any other specifically secular goal). We’re not talking about differences in opinion on the core principles we’re supposed to be working under. You can’t build unity around a set of principles out of groups that don’t agree on them. I mean… duh, right?

(Interestingly, Thomas seems to have the same misunderstanding of Canadian diversity and multiculturalism that so many on the far right have – including Atheist Freethinkers – where they believe that multiculturalism means tolerating anything another culture or religion does, no matter how horrific or inhumane, even if it violates Canada’s core values and principles, and indeed the Charter itself. Of course, multiculturalism has never meant that; it has always meant tolerance for and acceptance of the differences that don’t violate our core principles, but “differences” in our core values have never been tolerated – the Charter wasn’t written by fools clueless enough to void the whole thing with §27.)

And even ignoring that Thomas is talking about “inclusiveness” that includes groups that literally violate and disdain the core principles of the community, there’s also the general “ick” factor of welcoming groups that make a point of advocating for taking away people’s rights and freedoms. For example, a white supremacist group is technically not in opposition with the core principles of secularism… but I wouldn’t want to be in any secular community that welcomed them.

No matter how big the tent, no matter what principles it embodies, there will always be people and ideas that are not welcome. The whole purpose of a tent is to keep the occupants safe and comfortable inside by keeping the elements and other threats out. If your big tent excludes nothing, then it’s not really a tent; it’s just an open field. And given enough time, open fields eventually all become either deserts, or flooded away by changing tides.

There’s also the – I would have thought obvious – tactical blindness in allowing anti-religious bigotry into the community lexicon. I haven’t done a survey, but I’d go out on a limb and say there are far more people and groups who would support secularism and object to anti-religious bigotry than there are anti-religious bigots. If you welcome the small anti-religious contingent, you’re pushing away the comparatively huge contingent who won’t tolerate or support anti-religious sentiment. It ain’t worth it.

Now, you may think I’m being unreasonable, and ultimately I just want a community built only around things I like, with none of the things I hate. But that’s simply not true. I will happily build community with groups I don’t agree with, provided we agree on the community’s core principles. For example, I would ally under a secular banner with a group whose primary interest is in promoting Christianity (because there are many religious groups that avidly support secularism), or advocating for fewer (or no) environmental protections. I would certainly object if either of those groups used the secular banner for their own causes – and of course they would have a right to object if I used the banner to push my own ancillary causes. When we’re not working together on the common, secular cause, we’d probably be opposed. And that’s fine.

But I will not ally with groups that violate either the core principles of the community, or the core principles of human rights and freedoms in general.

So, no, Doug. I will not ally with Atheist Freethinkers.

And what really boggles my mind is that you even want to. You’ve experienced first-hand the intolerance and irrationality of the group. They’ve shown you, directly and in clear terms, that they don’t even know what secularism is! And they don’t take your principles seriously. (Do you?) How can you read a comment like that and respond with, “can’t we all just get along?” How can you see something that deplorable and think “we need to be more inclusive so we can let it in” rather than “we need to tighten up our standards to keep shit like that out”?

If your secular humanist community’s principles are so lax that you welcome groups that are openly contemptuous of secularism and humanism… seriously, Doug, what the fuck? What’s the point of it?

I intended for this post to be primarily about the problem of building a big tent while ignoring the principles the tent is founded on, but there’s one other thing I can’t let pass. And that’s the issue of leadership.

Before going on to blame the failure of of Canadian movement secularism on the lack of an centralized directory of Canadian secularists – then going on to call for a movement that includes groups that disdain Canadian secularists – Thomas responds to the charge that there are no secular humanist leaders in Canada by pointing to the existence of presidents and executive directors of humanist groups across Canada.

There is a beautiful comment by Jonathan Jarry on Thomas’s second post. I’m going to quote it in its entirety:

A leader is not just a person currently occupying a position of leadership, like a director or president. A leader is someone with a vision, a dedication, and a plan. We may have leaders of the first type in Canada, but I have yet to meet a leader of the second kind.

Jarry is absolutely spot-on.* There is a difference between a leader and an administrator: an administrator merely keeps an organization functioning and operational; a leader guides it toward a goal.

* (To a point. I agree with his assessment of leadership in general. However, I disagree that there are no real leaders in the Canadian secularist, humanist, atheist, or freethinker communities in Canada. There are a few, but their activities are sorely limited due to lack of resources. Even a good leader can’t accomplish anything without resources.)

Leadership is a lot harder than administration. It requires not just a vision, but also the backbone to make decisions that may sting in the short term, but are important for the long term. Inclusiveness is easy (unless you’re a bigot, I suppose, but let’s assume that someone trying to build a humanist community is generally not). All you have to do is never say “no”; anyone who wants in, gets in. Easy! But building a community requires someone with the vision and strength to say “no” when it matters. It’ll hurt in the short term to turn away potential donors and political allies… but if you have a real vision and the integrity and courage to stand by your principles, it must be done.

You can’t build unity around a set of principles out of groups that don’t agree on them.

Thomas stands at his crossroads and sees only two possibilities: a “unified” movement where we ignore our core principles to welcome people that hate what we stand for; or the complete lack of a movement, where no one ever cooperates on anything. A leader would see the third possibility: that to build a movement, we need more than just blind inclusiveness; we need to have the integrity and the confidence in our values to clearly define what ideas and practices we exclude – those things we will not tolerate – and the courage to say no to groups and resources that would require us to undermine our principles.

I do respect Doug Thomas and what he does – quite a lot, actually – and I think we agree on far more than we disagree. I think we share a common set of core principles that we can build on. But I do not think Atheist Freethinkers shares those principles.

This post is not meant to be a repudiation of Doug Thomas. First of all, it’s not like he reads this blog, or even knows who I am, so what would be the point? What I intend here is the blog equivalent of looking at him with disbelief and asking: “What the shit?” You’re on the right side, your principles (so far as I know them) are sound, you’re doing great work, and there’s so much potential for you to do even more, greater things… but… what the shit? Why are you devaluing everything you work and stand for to build a community with people who don’t respect the rights of others, and who think you’re a schmuck who doesn’t even know what “secular” means?

I would love to be part of building a unified Canadian secular humanist community with Doug Thomas, and would cheerfully volunteer my time, knowledge, and experience to advance secular humanism in Canada. But if this community prioritizes “inclusiveness” so much that it will even include people that openly disdain the principles he and I share… well, it doesn’t please me to say it, but… fuck it; I’ll seek community elsewhere.

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