Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Officials at Halifax transit have refused to allow atheist bus ads on the grounds that they are too "controversial." Controversial. That's a coward's word. It is Halifax transit's way of not dealing with the real issue. Either they are willing to defend free expression or they are not; if they are willing to deny paid, legal advertising that expresses the benign sentiment that "You can be good without God," they should be prepared to explain what's wrong with it. And if they do decide to arbitrarily stomp on free expression, they should not hide behind vague worries about "controversy." First of all, what's wrong with controversy? Isn't this a democracy where we seek to advance ourselves through debate and discussion? Aren't most important ideas controversial at some point? God save us from a world without controversy. Or is there a God? Apparently the Halifax transit authority knows for sure.

What is the effect of only allowing non-controversial opinions to be expressed in public venues? It is to allow free speech for those who hold the most conservative views and to exclude new and radical ideas. Avoiding "controversy" is the spineless administrator's excuse for supporting the status quo.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The ugly truth about tolerance

Recently, atheist groups have been putting ads in buses saying things like, "There's probably no God. Now, stop worrying and get on with your life." Probably no God? What kind of atheists are these?

The ad campaign began in London and is spreading, including to Canada, where religious groups are, to no one's surprise, displeased. Charles McVety, who runs the Canada Family Action Coalition (atheists don't have families?) was quoted recently in the Globe and Mail saying that while "On the surface I'm all for free speech...these are attack ads." He goes on to say that these ads are bigotted because they are "intolerant of someone else's belief system."

Now, setting aside for a moment the observation that everyone seems to be in favour of free speech except when people say anything that makes them upset, McVety has a troubling, and all too common of view of what constitutes intolerance. He seems to feel that tolerance is not merely a matter of allowing others to think and say what they feel, but rather it is accepting quietly anything that others say. To attack the beliefs of others, he says, is intolerant.

Well, that idea is stupid.

Tolerance is only tolerance. Tolerance is tolerating the fact that others may have views that are opposed to yours -- even diametrically opposed. To tolerate is to allow freedom to speak, to not physically harm those who oppose you, or to put them in jail, or deny them jobs for no good reason, and so on. It cannot be expanded to include a requirement that we must accept or agree not to oppose those we disagree with.

Why not? Why shouldn't we accept the views of everyone? Two reasons. First, it can't be done. To suggest any meaningful point of view is to implicitly deny the truth of opposing views. What McVety really wants is not a world in which nobody denies anybody else's views, but a world where no one denies his views and he can go on denying theirs. He wants to be able to say that Christ is Lord without caring that he is opposing the beliefs of Jews, Muslims, atheists and other non-Christians. This, I suspect, is true of all those who say "I believe in freedom of speech but..."; after the but comes "not when it offends my beliefs." Indeed, the CFAC buys ads and issues press releases like this one saying that gay marriage must be overturned because it normalizes homosexuality. And they have the nerve to preach about tolerance?

The other reason we must be free to tolerate but oppose one another is that serious issues come up in the voyage of life and they must be dealt with. Only through real debate, with all the confusion, anger, and hurt feelings that can come with it, can we chart our course with confidence.

But shouldn't religion be off limits? Isn't criticizing someone's religion like criticizing their race? No and no. Religion must be in bounds because it is a set of views about the world and views about the world are not intrinsic to their holders. They can be -- and have been -- changed and reexamined or, as is often the case with history's religions, abandoned altogether. You cannot argue against a person's whiteness or their arab background -- these are biological and historical facts. But you can argue that Christianity contributed to the oppression of women or that Islam must be reclaimed by its moderates, or that there is no God, and so on. These are real issues, and they are serious, and we cannot let religious people attack the freedoms and beliefs of others while claiming they should be immune from such attacks themselves.

That's not tolerance. It's tyranny.