Why is Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom Ignoring Atheists?

A couple of weeks ago, Canada opened up an “Office of Religious Freedom” with a three-pronged mandate:

  • protect, and advocate on behalf of, religious minorities under threat;
  • oppose religious hatred and intolerance; and
  • promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.

At the outset, that doesn’t sound too bad. Hell, Sanal Edamaruku and Alexander Aan and Alber Saber could use some help!

So where’s the problem?

Well, check out a speech made last September by John Baird, Canadian Minister of Foreign Relations, whose office is responsible for the new Office of Religious Freedom:

We strongly condemn all attacks on places of worship, whether at temples, synagogues, shrines, mosques, gurdwaras, or churches. It is of utmost importance that every individual is able to practice their faith in safety and security.

Time and time again, Canada has spoken out against discrimination, and violations of freedom, including freedom of religion.

We don’t see agnosticism or atheism as being in need of defense in the same way persecuted religious minorities are.

We speak of the right to worship and practice in peace, not the right to stay away from places of worship.

There’s also the fact that the government made no effort to include non-believers as consultants in forming the new office.

If you look at the news releases regarding religious freedom, the names of persecuted atheists are found nowhere.

And now, the backlash is growing.

The Centre For Inquiry Canada has made this video detailing the problems with this new office and the government’s complete lack of concern for (or even acknowledgment of) atheists who suffer at the hands of the religious:

All they’re looking for is inclusion. You can’t say you’re working for religious freedom and then ignore the plight of many atheists worldwide.

CFI Ottawa has a sample letter for Canadians to send to their officials. It reads in part:

The Office of Religious Freedom mandate does not include mention of the non-religious or those with no religious belief. Yet there are many non-believers around the world who are subject to persecution and serious violations of their human rights, including unjust imprisonment, beatings, and even execution. I would like to see the Office’s mandate extended to include protection and equal treatment for non-religious people and groups in Canada and around the world. The Office should begin by giving a voice to Canadian secular, humanist and atheist groups by inviting them to advise the Government of Canada “on advocacy, analysis, policy development and programming relating to protecting and advocating on behalf of non-religious minorities under threat.”

Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun is arguing for atheists’ inclusion, too:

The Conservative government is following the lead of the U.S. and establishing a $5 million office, run by a Roman Catholic academic, to speak out for religious freedom around the world. There is no doubt religious repression is rising in a number of places.

But will the new office be fair to all, including atheists?

That’s what many are asking, given that the Conservative government consulted mostly conservative Christians before unveiling the office.

Much like the U.S. Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, atheists are treated as if we don’t exist, even when the evidence for real, serious atheist persecution is all around us.

As always, we’re not asking for special treatment. We’re asking for equal treatment. I’m used to this sort of stuff happening in my country, but I thought Canada was supposed to be better.

For more on the subject, Godless Poutine has been writing multiple posts about the Office of Religious Freedom over the past several weeks and is a fantastic source of information.

(Thanks to Sean for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Liam

    Guess it’s time to make first contact with my new MP. I moved between ridings (equivalent of congressional districts) a year ago, and have been hesitant to jump in. My previous MP is a young deputy leader of the official opposition NDP and a rising progressive rockstar. My current MP is an older former cabinet minister from the bygone glory days of the currently-irrelevant Liberal party.

  • http://twitter.com/JJtheTVnewsguy James Jackson

    Somewhat ironic, considering the efforts we nontheists have made to demonstrate that atheism is *not* a religion. :P

  • The Other Weirdo

    Not really. One simply doesn’t want all those religions getting together and deciding that the one thing they all have in common is that they hate atheists. Being the guy that everyone hates more than they hate each other is not that fun. Atheism may not be a religion, but it needs protection nonetheless.

  • vincent findley


  • vincent findley

    “You can’t say you’re working for religious freedom and then ignore the plight of many atheists worldwide” Sounds like someone is saying “Atheism” is a religion? Hmmmmmm.

  • Bdole

    Minority religion is closely associated with minority race/ethnicity. Atheism is probably more prevalent among white Canadians and therefore atheists may be perceived as less vulnerable.

  • Prezombie

    Not really. Atheism is not a religion, just like ‘off’ is not a TV channel. But atheism is a relgious position. Just like ‘off’, it’s a valid position to be in, and we don’t deserve to be persecuted for taking the null hypothesis.

  • Prezombie


  • Rain

    We speak of the right to worship and practice in peace, not the right to stay away from places of worship.

    So now all of a sudden the whole thing is narrowed down to “places of worship”. That’s funny, because it isn’t called Canada’s “Office of Places of Worship Freedom”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/HorseOnStilts Aj Wilson

    Edit: wrong post, sorry.

  • Prezombie

    It isn’t a religion, but it is a religious position. It’s also not a proper noun, just like theism. It deserves equal protection under religious freedom and tolerance groups because atheism is the null hypothesis, and it’s rediculous to claim that all beliefs deserve equal treatment, but if you don’t have any you deserve to to persecuted.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    Nope. But religious freedom necessarily includes the freedom to not believe in any religion.

  • Mackinz

    Why doesn’t freedom from discrimination based upon religion cover atheists?

    It should cover them, as the people who are discriminating against atheists are theists, those who have a religion, so a freedom from religion-based discrimination should apply to atheists as well as minority religions being discriminated against by other religions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    A lot of religious people fall flat on their faces when it comes to atheists and religious freedom. Mark Shea in the Catholic channel of patheos recently asked if “evangelical” atheists can make common cause with Christians, while simultaneously mocking and belittling atheists:


  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    And isn’t it pretty basic to have the right to stay away from places of worship?!

  • Rain

    Maybe it should be called Canada’s “Office of Stay Away From Places of Worship”. That way nobody would know what the hell it means or what the hell the Minister of Foreign Relations is talking about.

  • Michael

    “All people of faith and, again, those who choose not to have faith, need to be protected, their rights need to be respected,” he said. “That’s what this office is about.”

    from “http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/02/19/f-religious-freedom-office.html”

    As a Canadian taxpayer, I’m going to hold them to it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    So no change then?

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    Excuse me Minister, but if the right to stay away from places of worship is not something you speak of, is it then not actually a right? Because if so, it would seem that forcing a person to visit a place of worship is fine with you and the Canadian government by proxy and that neither you, and again by proxy, nor the Canadian government recognizes the right not to visit any place of worship, provided that one isn’t otherwise obliged to do so, even though both you and the Canadian government as a whole recognize the right to visit any place of worship that allows one to. I find this strange in many ways. For one, it’s much akin to speaking of a right to wear a seat belt, but not a right to not wear a seat belt. Clearly, if one has a right to wear a seat belt, one should also have a right not to. Otherwise the right to wear a seat belt would not be a right, but an obligation. Similarly, if one has no right not to visit places of worship, one should expect to have an obligation to visit places of worship. Clearly though, Canadian laws do not mandate anyone to visit a place of worship, so I would presume that within Canada one has a right not to visit a place of worship at least for as long as this is not mandated. The only other way a right to visit places of worship can exist without a right not to, is for there to be no prohibition against forcing anyone to visit a place of worship. I must ask, if the right not to visit a place of worship actually does not exist in Canada, then cannot anyone, of any religion or none for that matter, be forced to visit a place of worship? Surely any “Office of Religious Freedom” worthy of the name would reply with a firm “No”, even if such an office had no regard for those who make no use of the right to visit a place of worship.

    If we broaden our range from simply attending places of worship to all sorts of religious activities, it’s clear that you acknowledge the freedom of religion, that is, the freedom to be as religious as one might want, to belong to any religions one might want, to express one’s religion any way one might want and to participate in any religious ritual one might want, within reasonable bounds (I would presume that we can come to the agreement that the ancient Carthaginian ritual of sacrificing children is not protected by freedom of religion, as would various much less troubling ways of expressing one’s religion or much less troubling religious rituals) and I certainly do similarly, as do practically all atheists I know of. In fact, all people I know of as not acknowledging this right, or at least denying that it should be a right, are fanatically religious of some bent or another. I must admit though that this is at best anecdotal evidence and at worst irrelevant. There is however a freedom most people at least implicitly acknowledge, you yourself included, that relatively many people deny with the slightest of hesitation, again, you included. This freedom is the freedom from religion, that is, the freedom not to be religious as one might want, not to belong to any religions one might want not to belong to, to express one’s lack of any religion or all religions any way one might want and not to participate in any religious ritual one might want not to participate in. All these individual freedoms composing the freedom from religion should apply in any country where the previously mentioned freedoms composing the freedom of religion apply for the simple reason that any freedom not accompanied by the freedom to do anything else, or not to do so, simply is not a freedom, but rather an obligation. Strangely though you acknowledge no such freedom. Yet this is not a freedom exclusively used by those not using the freedom of religion, but also by all those using that freedom, because all religious people do not want to belong to another religion (if they did, they would) and because in expressing their religion, all religious people express their lack of all other religions. However, if there were no freedom from religion, anyone, those using the freedom of religion included, should in principle not be prohibited from being forced to belong to any religion one might not want to, express any religion one might not want to or participate in any religious ritual one might not want to participate in. Should this be allowed? Surely any “Office of Religious Freedom” worthy of the name would reply with a firm “No”, even if such an office had no regard for those who make no use of the freedom of religion.

    Because freedom of religion and freedom from religion might not be the same thing, they surely cannot actually exist without each other and are indeed both religious freedoms.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Not to derail the thread, but since people here might be interested, Alber left Egypt and has been posting happy pics from Europe, exact location not disclosed. From what I can tell from Bing translations he’s doing well, but misses friends and family. And it’s cold.

  • Tim

    I’d be surprised if Andrew Bennett isn’t aware of athiests either in Canada or elesewhere. He shared a student house with two godless Canadians and a godless Englishman (me). Despite our religious differences he was and is a thoroughly decent, normal person and someone I count as a friend. If Canada is going to have this office then it could do a lot worse than have Andrew in charge of it.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    Religious freedoms are not limited to the freedom to be religious, but must extend also to the freedom not to be religious, lest religious freedoms become a meaningless term. Any “Office of Religious Freedom” worth the name would protect all religious freedoms, not just those used by the religious.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    This office is a part of the ministry of foreign affairs, so the norm in Canada doesn’t matter, it’s the norm everywhere that matters, and as readers of this blog will know, atheists are quite often the victims of many religions this office would protect.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    We don’t see agnosticism or atheism as being in need of defense in the same way persecuted religious minorities are. We speak of the right to worship and practice in peace, not the right to stay away from places of worship.

    For Baird to specifically mention agnosticism and atheism in his statement shows that this is much worse than a thoughtless oversight, this is a conscious, deliberate dismissal and discounting of the human rights of agnostics and atheists that are violated around the world every day. I hope that CFI’s efforts succeed in educating him.

    Our “right to stay away from places of worship” is not an option in some places in the world where observance is mandatory on pain of shunning, imprisonment or death. Also, religionists don’t always stay in their places of worship minding their own business, and they don’t only attack each others’ places of worship. Sometimes they seek out the irreligious to harrass, attack, and even murder them.

    Two questions on a related issue: what can, and what will a Canadian bureau actually do to effectively protect anyone around the world from religious persecution in any of its combinations, whether religious on religious, or religious on irreligious?

    “We strongly condemn” That’s it? So the hell what? As if religious zenophobes in faraway lands give a righteous rodent’s rectum about what a Canadian bureaucrat thinks. I hope there’s more to it than impotent rhetoric.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    That’s good to hear.

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

  • AxeGrrl

    Alexander Aan is an atheist in Indonesia who was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for merely expressing his lack of belief in God on his Facebook page.

    There you go, Mr Bennett! there’s a perfectly worthwhile example of ‘religious persecution’ that you can tackle as your first case!

    They have the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to the Canadian people that they/this office IS committed to being “inclusive” (which Bennett claims, despite the fact that’s in direct contradiction to the dismissive comment from Baird at the UN last fall)

    let’s see if they do anything.

  • AxeGrrl

    Here’s another point of interest: Harper and Baird closed down the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development last year.

    What, exactly, was the point of closing down that department and opening a new one that has a much narrower focus?

  • AxeGrrl

    Something that’s reassuring……if all of the comments from the public (online comments sections, letters to the editor in newspapers) gives an accurate glimpse of the population’s opinion, the vast majority of Canadians (non-believers and believers alike, I might add) are NOT happy about this new office.

    Money has been cut from things like environmental protection, food inspection safety, etc, but they have $5 million a year for this?

    Shows you where this government’s priorities are.

  • AxeGrrl

    what can, and what will a Canadian bureau actually do to effectively protect anyone around the world from religious persecution in any of its combinations, whether religious on religious, or religious on irreligious?

    “We strongly condemn” That’s it? So the hell what? As if religious zenophobes in faraway lands give a righteous rodent’s rectum about what a Canadian bureaucrat thinks.

    Harper sure didn’t take China to task over its human rights violation when he was shaking their collective hand making trade deals. What’s this office going to do?

  • AxeGrrl

    When religious people effect persecution/punishment on others, it shouldn’t matter what worldview the victim holds.

    The fact that the persecution was religiously-motivated is the issue.

  • AxeGrrl

    Re: Baird’s comment in his speech from last September……

    So, when believers are persecuted by other believers, they’re deserving of protection, but when a non-believer is persecuted by believers, it’s not as important?

    It’s nice to see his prejudice voiced so transparently, I guess.

  • dorothy30

    the answer to this question is political. Harper and his right-wing cronies (Canadian version of Republican party) are looking to ally with conservatives from other religious communities. For example, they want to restrict choice on abortion, most Canadians don’t support that. But they can get support from other religious communities, such as immigrant Muslims, for that political agenda. Harper is really crafty…. not in a good way. He needs to go.

  • Mitchell

    So is Atheism a religion? or do you just want to be treated like one?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Hi Mitchell. See Prezombie’s replies to James Jackson and vincent findley on this same question earlier in the comments here.

  • Randay

    Why make “hatred” of anything or anyone a crime. There is a difference between hatred, an emotionally charged opinion, and persecution, an act. I hate religion, but I don’t persecute faith-heads. I should have the right to say as Christopher Hitchens said, how religion poisons everything. Believers however are victims. I should also have the right to say that religion promotes hatred. Hitchens gave a speech about it in Toronto. A brilliant defense of free speech.


  • Bdole

    How about this alternate phrasing:

    “the freedom to make up one’s own mind about their personal beliefs.”

    Does that sound universal enough? Because that’s the actual issue even when one religionist persecutes another.

  • http://twitter.com/PirateFroglet Cathy McGrath

    (> ‘ ‘ )>

  • SeekerLancer

    Who cares about atheists? The Pastafarians are being criminally unrepresented in that wheel of morality they put together there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kenneth-Duncan/1199441130 Kenneth Duncan

    I don’t think atheists face overwhelming persecution to the point of loss of jobs, throwing people to jails, eradication of an entire community as with the case of minority religions in rogue countries. The examples this guy stated are isolated incidents and might have to do with them attacking or defaming another religious community.

  • http://twitter.com/xtomeorg xtome.org

    Baird said, “We don’t see agnosticism or atheism as being in need of defense in the same way persecuted religious minorities are.” That’s very likely because the vast majority of those persecuted for their beliefs are not agnostics or atheists. For example, much of the persecution takes places like China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba, and they leave atheists alone there. Moreover, the vast majority of known (avowed) atheists are in the West–in precisely the countries where atheists are least likely to be persecuted.

    You mention the cases of three atheists. I’m not able to follow and remember the cases of even all the Christians who are persecuted, but I remember Alexander Aan. When the first petition failed, I started a second, which also failed. I mentioned it in a variety of places and did not distinguish it from other persecution.

    But to suggest that the numbers of persecuted atheists and agnostics are in any way comparable to those persecuted for religious belief (and specifically Christian belief), and therefore require the same emphasis and action, is not in keeping with reality.

    So let me make a suggestion. If you want to ensure that the rights of persecuted unbelievers are upheld with those of believers, support and engage with the organizations that support the freedom of the persecuted.

    Also, be sure that you familiarize yourself with the conditions of believers outside the West. You will find that their circumstances are not at all those of Western Christians. If they were dogs, you would have pity for them. You might at least have as much feeling for them as I did for Alexander Aan.