The Middle East has never been far from the headlines.
The last 100 or so years has seen the Middle East to be the center of continuous struggles starting with the end of the first world war, the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire and over the next forty or so years the withdrawal of the western powers from the region.
Many of these struggles led to bloody conflicts, some between Arab countries and Israel, and others between allegedly secular or progressive republics and conservative monarchies.
Starting in the mid 1970’s the Middle East has been the scene of the resurgence of Islamic revivalist forces attempting to replace both republics and monarchies, and to overthrow all aspects of modernity. This in turn led to resistance by secular groups; some uneasily allied with the existing regimes, while others doing so enthusiastically while ignoring or justifying corruption and repression.
This sad state of affairs has obscured a lively fermentation of enlightened intellectual thought asserting the necessity of secularism for progress and modernity to take hold, and triggered strong reactions from forces seeking to reinforce religious privileges and blunt any progress.
Professor Hamed Abdel-Samad will describe for us these countervailing forces and the prospects for the future.
About Hamed Abdel-Samad Hamed Abdel-Samad is a German-Egyptian writer and political scientist.
Hamed was born in Egypt and grew up in a devout Muslim family, his father being an Imam. He studied French and English at Ain Shams University in Cairo during which time he joined the Muslim Brotherhood. That close association triggered within him a skepticism of Islam, and led to him eventually abandoning it.
He moved to Germany at age 23 to study political science at Augsburg University, subsequently taught Islamic studies at Erfurt, conducted research at Munich University and worked as an educational expert for UNESCO.
He has authored several books in German and Arabic with titles translating to “Muhammad– A final reckoning”, “The downfall of the Islamic world”, “My farewell to heaven”, “War or peace – The Arab revolution and the future of the West”, and most recently “What the commoners don’t know about Islam: A brief history from Mohammed to the present”. One book, “Islamic Fascism”, has been translated into English and released by Prometheus Press in 2016.
Hamed appears frequently on German television, and is very active on his YouTube channel Hamed.TV (also the name of his website). There he released series of talks called “Box of Humanity” and “Box of Islam” that deal with life, with history and with Islam. He is a sought after guest on many other YouTube channels.
Unfortunately Hamed’s has rarely appeared on English language media.
In August of 2021, the Board of Directors of the former Ryerson University voted to change the name of the institution due to (as one CBC story phrases it) concerns about the man the institution is named for and his links to Canada’s residential schools.
According to www.ryerson.ca, “Names matter. They tell the world who we are and what we stand for. They communicate ideas, values and aspirations. They speak to the future even as they acknowledge the past. A new name offers an invitation to be more inclusive, to imagine novel ways of thinking and creating — to open ourselves to new possibilities. This is a new chapter for our university, informed by the pages that come before but open to the opportunities that lie ahead. Now is a time to recommit to the values that define us, to invite our community to gather around our shared mission and to shape a future in which everyone belongs.” So Ryerson University is now the Toronto Metropolitan University where “It’s the many collisions between peoples and perspectives that take place in a metropolitan setting that drive innovation. As such, our name is as much a marker of location as it is a statement of identity, one that’s befitting of a thoroughly urban university.” Collisions? OK. We can take that as food for thought.
Since questions of a dead legislator’s legacy is not only fair game for consideration (Ryerson/TMU has a 131-page document examining the life and legacy of their former namesake), it is the inspiration for baseball bats and crowbars to be taken to statuary (per featured image), perhaps it is reasonable and even to-be-encouraged that all areas of that legislator’s legacy be examined.
Consider, for example the Common School Act of 1850. As spacing.ca explains it: “The Common School Act of 1850 set into law what was already being practised (sic) by local communities throughout Ontario. The act permitted any group of five Black families to ask local school trustees to establish a separate school. The law also permitted the creation of separate schools for Roman Catholic and Protestant families.”
Here in 2022, as ideas of how to implement contemporary values of diversity and inclusivity collide with the legacy institutions, it seems odd that those who are concerned with updating our systems to reflect the values of the present and our aspirations for the future haven’t decided that a certain elephant in the room needs to be addressed. The public funding of Catholic school boards in Ontario is the single largest and least supportable example of segregation and systemic faith-based discrimination (faithism) in Canada.
By all means, let us rename, rebrand, renew. A better, more diverse and inclusive future is waiting.
The concept of systemic faithism may not be familiar to HumanistFreedoms.com readers, so as a kind of preamble to the focus of this article, consider this definition of systemic faithism as presented by the Government of Ontario’s own Ontario Human Rights Commission presented in its 2013 Human Rights and Creed Research and Consultation Report.:
Systemic faithism refers to the ways that cultural and societal norms, systems, structures and institutions directly or indirectly, consciously or unwittingly, promote, sustain or entrench differential (dis)advantage for individuals and groups based on their faith (understood broadly to include religious and non-religious belief systems). Systemic faithism can adversely affect both religious and non-religious persons, depending on the context, as discussed in the examples below. Some forms of systemic faithism can be actionable under the Code (e.g. those amounting to “systemic discrimination”), while others may not be (e.g. those taking broader cultural or societal forms). This section looks more closely at two dominant forms of systemic faithism in the current era, flowing from the “residually Christian” structuring of public culture and institutions, and from “closed secular” ideology and practice...Among the most obvious examples of residual Christianity in Ontario…public funding in Ontario of Roman Catholic separate schools, but not other religion-based schools.
How is it that a provincial government is able to simultaneously identify, define and detail a form of systemic discrimination and continuously defend and perpetuate the abuse? It’s a puzzler.
The authors of upsetting.ca have decided to do their best to explore and communicate the lengthy and, well as the website says – upsetting history of ongoing privileging of a particular community within the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan (a bit of rough math reveals that roughly half of all Canadians live in a jurisdiction that continues to ensconce and fund a major form of systemic discrimination).
Upsetting’s authors make their position clear: On the practical side, the Ontario public has never sanctioned the public funding of separate school systems for Roman Catholic citizens, just politicians. The RC school systems (French & English) were foisted upon Ontario through two dictatorial moves by politicians. Skullduggery (trickery, dishonesty) in the highest places has maintained them. Each post in this series will tell a different story in order to reveal all the events and the characters associated with them. Posts will be every Sunday evening, Tuesday evening, and Thursday evening for several weeks.
Perhaps you’re interested to investigate systemic faithism from a distinctly different angle? Have a listen to a podcastfrom York University’s Critical Spirituality in Leadership who say that they recognize that “neutral” or “secular” views often privilege agnostic or atheist traditions and worldviews (Ontario Human Rights Commission, n.d.) and are “residually and normatively Christian” (Seljak et. al, 2008). This leads to systemic faithism.. we consider Seljak et. al’s (2008) analysis of the close connections between religion, ethnicity and race in the Ontario context and caution that Christian privilege can result in anti-religious sentiment, ethno-religious alienation, polarization, and alienation, rooted in the belief that religious practices and identities are incompatible with Canadian identity and citizenship (OHRC, n.d.). This encourages the creation of religious “ghettoes” that may lead to religious radicalization and disengagement from Canadian public life (OHRC, n.d.). We heed Butler’s (2000) warning that spirituality may be commodified in modern schooling, reducing it to individual approaches instead of situating it in larger contexts of social struggle.
In his 1914 poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost made significant use of the old proverb, good fences make good neighbors. In the poem, a narrator explains that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and this something tears down a sturdy stone wall that separates the narrator’s property from the neighbor’s. So each year, the narrator and the neighbor meet on an appointed day to “walk the line and set the line between us one again”, the neighbor often reciting the ancient wisdom. Good fences make good neighbors. Meanwhile, the narrator wants to suggest the mischievous force that is tearing down the wall is “elves” but would prefer for the neighbor to say so.
It’s a lovely poem which aptly reminds the reader how to keep one’s metaphorical apple’s from eating-up someone else’s metaphorical pine cones .
In Canada, there is a new Facebook chat group named Secular Wall with an interest to walk the line and mend the wall. The group states that it wishes to “connect all Canadians opposed to the discriminatory and wasteful public funding of religious schools (especially in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario) plus healthcare institutions. Secular Wall members support every citizen’s undisputed RIGHT to worship however they please … with the corresponding RESPONSIBILITY to fully fund their own beliefs.“
The organizers of Secular Wall seem to have staked-out familiar, but necessary, territory. Just as there are many individuals who would prefer not to have all their pine cones eaten-up by the neighbor’s apples – there are also plenty of apple-growers who would like to keep their apples from tasting of pine. A bit of annual wall mending is indeed a good thing.
After all, the really does seem to be a great deal of elf-activity from year to year and the walls won’t mend themselves.
The group has a stated zero tolerance for hate speech or profanity, which suggests that dialogue may maintain a level of dignity and respect despite a topic likely to bring out deep-seated values, perspectives and opinions.
If you have an interest in the integrity of your own domain, you may want to join the conversation.
Thomas Jefferson, writing to worried Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut in 1802, pledged that his administration would adhere to the “supreme will of the nation” on behalf of the rights of conscience and the free exercise of religion. The First Amendment, he said, had built “a wall of separation between Church & State.” America would have an impenetrable barrier to religious involvement in affairs of state.
One hundred and eighty years later, on April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth II gave royal assent to a new Canadian Constitution at a rainy outdoor ceremony in Ottawa. It contained a much heralded Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteeing “freedom of conscience and religion” while asserting that Canada was founded on “principles that recognize the supremacy of God.”
Both countries had set out to build secular and humanist societies. The United States, to all appearances, rejected any role for religion in its founding documents. Canada, in contrast, subjected itself – at least titularly – to God’s will. It guaranteed public funding of Roman Catholic schools and accepted the Queen’s role as head of state and “defender of the faith,” as symbolized by the Anglican Church.
Move forward to 2021 and a world slowly emerging from a global pandemic. What do we find? In the United States, relentless Christian evangelical attacks on secularism; in Canada, almost universal public acceptance for secular social policies. Arrived at free of religious interference, Canada guarantees, among other secular rights, freedom of choice (abortion rights), the right to medically assisted dying, medical and recreational use of marijuana, and a long-standing ban on capital punishment.
Ironically, the most contentious secular issue in Canada is not the defence of secularism, but whether the Province of Quebec has adopted too rigid a form of secularism through its ban on the wearing of religious symbols (i.e., the hijab) by public service workers in positions of authority. Civil libertarians see Quebec’s “Act Respecting the Laicity of the State” as an unreasonable curtailment of individual rights.
Around the world, secularism is under siege from religious forces ranging from populist Christian movements in Europe to extremist Islamic elements engaged in terrorist acts. Hindu nationalism in India has fractured a century of secular tolerance of Muslims and Hindus and China – ignoring its own secular constitution – is brutally suppressing its Uighur Muslim minority.
I gained a fuller appreciation of the ferocity of these attacks while researching Inventing Secularism, my biography of secularism’s founder, George Jacob Holyoake. The dangers I saw impelled me to add an epilogue identifying the actors and their strategies behind the assault on secularism which are now mounting around the world.
Thomas Jefferson’s proscription of religious involvement in affairs of state lasted until the mid -20th century. Then, Congress ordered the phrase “In God We Trust” to appear on U.S. currency and inserted “Under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. The third Thursday in May was designated as a National Day of Prayer. A secularist organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sees this contrivance for what it is: “… a vehicle for spreading religious misinformation and fundamentalist Christian doctrine under the aegis of the government – precisely what the framers [of the Constitution] were seeking to prohibit.”
These largely symbolic acts, while contrary to the principle that religion should have no place in lawmaking, stand today as minor irritants compared to the systematic attack on secularism that has been unfolding in U.S. courts and legislative bodies, and in countries around the world. The flow of public funds to U.S churches and faith groups through executive orders and court decisions, including an undetermined billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief intended for states and communities, is unprecedented in American history.
Under the guise of strengthening individual freedom, recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have enabled local governments to fund and maintain public religious displays, provide access to public funding for certain religious schools, and allow service providers to discriminate among those whose lifestyles or religious principles they find disagreeable. From a humanist perspective, these actions amount to a reinterpretation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment – one prohibiting the “establishment” of a state religion and the other guaranteeing the “free exercise of faiths.”
As an example of anti-secular legislation by various U.S. states, a new Arkansas law would allow doctors, insurance companies, and employers to deny patients necessary healthcare on the basis of religious beliefs. “A person’s doctor or boss should not be able to use personal religious beliefs to dictate the healthcare their families can or cannot receive,” the watchdog group American Atheists said in a statement.
An air of optimism surrounded the first inter-faith meeting held by Pope Francis when he spent five days with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana in February, 2013. It was the first such meeting in the nearly thousand years since the Great Schism of 1054 split Christianity between Greek East and Roman West. The newly ordained Pontiff had brought a breath of liberalism to the Vatican and his ability to communicate church doctrine in simple, homespun ways was impressing Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Any expectation that Francis, as head of the oldest and arguably most influential Christian church would lead his 1.2 billion adherents to a new reality of modern life was quickly dashed. A thirty-point declaration out of Havana confirmed traditional teachings of both the Russian Orthodox and Roman churches. Most notably, the statement marked the Pontiff’s endorsement of a fresh crusade against secularism.
“The transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all references to God and his truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom,” the statement declared. It attacked the “very aggressive secularist ideology” that seeks to relegate religion “to the margins of public life.” It also declared that “Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots.”
Aside from alarming humanists, the declaration troubled some Catholics. Jon O’Brien, president of the Washington-based Catholics for Choice, said it misrepresented the true meaning of secularism. “A secular society is not one in which one religion or religious belief is in any way opposed, but one in which all citizens can practice as they see fit. In a secular society, we can have freedom of religion and freedom from religion.”
Since Havana, Pope Francis has stepped up his assaults on secularism. In 2017 he traveled to Egypt to meet President al-Sisi and defend a “vision of healthy secularism” that he would like to see accepted by Muslim countries. The Pontiff’s remarks made it evident that the trade-off for acceptance of his version of a neutered secularism would allow religion to dictate public policies on issues the Church regards itself and the Bible as sole arbiters. He pressed his attack in celebrating World Mission Day in 2019. “Rampant secularism”, he said, “when it becomes an aggressive cultural rejection of God’s active fatherhood in our history, is an obstacle to authentic human fraternity.”
During Pope Francis’s reign, virulent attacks on secularism have emerged in the American Catholic press. The National Catholic Register, which describes itself as the most faithful Catholic news source in the United States, has blamed secularism for the crimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, declaring “Secularism in any of its guises is deadly.” Its article was headed ‘Beware the Stormtroopers of Secularism’ and was illustrated with a picture of Nazi troops in Poland taking a Catholic priest to his execution. Such hyperbole overlooks the fact that the Nazis defied secularist principles by persecuting a people based on their religious identity, while the Soviet campaign of atheism invaded the secularist right to freedom of religion.
This preoccupation with secularism is consistent with Pope Francis’s staunchly conservative theology, despite occasional flashes of liberality. Having cheerfully asserted that atheists should follow their conscience and can still go to heaven if they approach God “with a sincere and contrite heart,” Pope Francis also spoke tolerantly of same-sex relationships. “Who am I to judge?” he replied off-handedly in answer to a question about a gay priest. More recently, he has warned that priestly celibacy must be strictly adhered to and on other issues has reflected traditional Catholic views: opposition to abortion, birth control and gay marriage, denial of the right to assisted death, and restrictions on the role of women in the Church. Pope Francis has dealt with child sex abuse, a phenomenon endemic within the Catholic priesthood, by ending the edict imposing secrecy on anyone reporting sexual abuse, and has ordered church leaders to report sex abuse cases and sex abuse cover-ups.
In the United States, the deep strain of religiosity running through American politics has encouraged militant Christian evangelists in their determination to apply religious tests to civil legislation, and to gain public funding through means that violate the First Amendment. A 2020 survey by the respected Pew Institute had half of Americans (49%) saying the Bible should have at least “some influence” on U.S. laws, with more than a quarter (28%) holding the view that the Bible should take priority over the will of the people. Well known examples include denial of LGBTQ rights, restrictions to abortion, withdrawal of funding to organizations like Planned Parenthood, and cancellation of foreign aid to countries permitting family planning (a policy reversed by President Biden).
In such an environment, politicians are generally reluctant to express a commitment to humanist values. There are exceptions. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, declined to attend the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast and just over a dozen Democrats make up the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Its most recent recruit is Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a Muslim. Its perhaps most notable member is Rep. Jared Huffman of California who has declared himself a “non-religious humanist.”
Between 2017 and 2021, President Donald Trump and members of his cabinet came down consistently in favor of evangelical political positions. According to Mat Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a legal advisory organization, about ninety per cent of fundamentalist goals were achieved under the Trump administration. “He’s been the most pro-religious freedom and pro-life president in modern history,” Staver told the Associated Press.
“We will not let anyone push God from the public square,” President Trump declared. American states began to require schools to post the slogan In God We Trust on classroom walls. The State of Mississippi, in design of a new state flag, dictated it bear the same words.
These challenges to secularism were echoed in U.S. Attorney-General William Barr’s claim, made in a speech to the University of Notre Dame law school, that “militant secularists” were behind a “campaign to destroy the traditional moral order”.
Appointments to the Supreme Court by Republican presidents – in power for 24 years between 1981 and 2021 – have securely embedded conservative and pro-religious views on the nation’s highest judicial body. Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch, Brent Kavanagh and Amy Coney Barrett tilted the Court further to the right.
The United States faces anti-secularism on other fronts, including white Christian nationalist groups like the Proud Boys and the instigators of QAnon who participated in the January 6 putative insurrection in Washington, and neo-Nazi groups of the type that gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to defend a Civil War monument and chant “Blood and Soil”, a Nazi rallying cry.
Secularists have welcomed the election of Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, as President. But they look with concern on his repeated invoking of God and prayer and his description of America as a nation “sustained by faith.” Such comments are seen as a contradiction to the separation of church and state and an expression of disrespect to the nearly one-third of Americans – atheists, agnostics and other non-religious – who hold dissenting views.
Blasphemy prosecutions abound across the Muslim world. They provide a convenient legal process that near-theocratic states employ to control dissent and repress humanist expression. The connection with secularism as known in the West may seem remote, but every charge of blasphemy is an offence to secularism and everything secularism stands for – democratic rule, human rights, religious freedom and freedom from religion, the exclusion of religion from public life, and government non-involvement in religious natters.
In Bangladesh, human rights advocate Rafida Bonya Ahmed and her husband were attacked by a machete-wielding gang enraged by his online anti-religious, secularist comments. Police stood by as he was murdered. Appearing before a U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs subcommittee, she identified 83 countries with blasphemy laws carrying penalties of fines, torture, imprisonment, and death.
While blasphemy – showing contempt or lack of reverence for God – is considered a major crime in Muslim countries, apostasy – abandoning the faith – is considered an even greater offence. Ten countries impose the penalty of death for apostasy.
An Asian nation beset by the disintegration of secularism is India, where the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has embarked on policies that repudiate the country’s long secularist tradition. The BJP’s policies are having the effect of turning religions that did not originate on Indian soil – notably Islam and Christianity – into alien essences. The most controversial is a Citizenship Act that provides for refugees who came to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal to be given expedited access to citizenship – providing they are not Muslims. A U.S. government commission on international religious freedom has called for punitive measures against India, citing a “drastic turn downward” in religious freedom.
Across Europe, secularism is under siege in many nations. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party has imposed a near-total ban on abortion, criminalized sex education in schools; and equated homosexuality with pedophilia. The German state of Bavaria mandated that government buildings display a crucifix to show the region’s “social and cultural identity.” In Hungary a populist government led by Viktor Orban has cracked down on the press and driven the Central European University, a research-focused institute founded by billionaire George Soros, out of the country.
Turkey, once the most secular of Muslim nations, has almost totally abandoned secularism under a government that has repudiated the policies of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk”, who initiated modernization of the country in the 1920s. After jailing opponents and gaining control of most Turkish media, President Recep Erdogan has openly called for re-establishment of an Islamic state. In a dramatic move toward this goal, the historic Hagia Sophia, a secular museum since 1936, has been restored as a mosque. Within a month the mediaeval Church of the Holy Saviour, one of Istanbul’s most celebrated Byzantine buildings that has been a secular museum for more than 70 years, was also converted into a mosque.
England and France also have been affected by the strains of anti-secularism. The two countries have taken different historic paths to secularism but both have suffered terrorist attacks – notably the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan Concert bombings in Paris and a London subway bombing and an attack on a Manchester concert venue in which 22 people were killed. These events traumatized people in both countries, although the victims were far fewer than the 3,000 who died in New York on September 11, 2001.
Secularists in the United Kingdom accept, reluctantly, the role of the Queen as head of its established church, but wage an unrelenting campaign to remove religious control from state-funded schools. They also oppose the appointment of the 26 Church of England bishops who sit in the House of Lords, pointing out that Iran is the only other state where the clergy are represented as of right.
Attacks on secularism, if not vigorously opposed, will lead inevitably to a world of less freedom and more oppression. A more positive alternative has been articulated by George Jacob Holyoake, the English social reformer who invented the term secularism in 1851. Writing in his groundbreaking Principles of Secularism, he saw it a duty to promote “the immediate and material welfare of humanity … amid whatever diversity of opinion may subsist in a Secular Society.” This is the challenge secularism still must meet, if it is to withstand the attacks of resurgent religious forces throughout the world.
Ray Argyle is author of Inventing Secularism: The Radical Life of George JacobHolyoake, published by McFarland & Co, USA.. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.
In our January 2021 Call for Submissions, we asked for articles in consideration of “Contemporary Humanism’s Biggest Priorities and Challenges for 2021“. In Canada, two leading humanist organizations, Humanist Canada and Ontario Humanist Society appear to have left the gates with clear demonstrations that the separation of church and state in the publicly-funded education system is among their top priorities. Each has upcoming events focused on this ongoing issue.
HumanistFreedoms.ca was founded in support of one Ontario citizen’s attempts to protect his human rights while trying to oppose Ontario’s existing system of public funding of Catholic school systems. Read more about Dr. Richard Thain’s legal battle in our featured article.
The Ontario government currently funds four overlapping school systems: English public, English Catholic, French public, and French Catholic. In Quebec, Manitoba, Newfoundland, and Labrador, religiously segregated school systems have been eliminated. Ontario is now the only province that funds the religious schools of the Catholic faith exclusively.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation have urged the Ontario government to end funding of the province’s Catholic schools and move toward one secular school system for each official language.
Join us for a conversation about the one school system initiative:
How did the Ontario school system come to be the way it is? What are the social, financial, environmental, and educational consequences of the current organization of our school system? How would the transition to a single school system be implemented? How would it impact teachers and parents? What are the financial benefits of merging the public and catholic school boards across Ontario? What is the current political situation with respect to moving towards a single secular school system for each official language?
Alvin Tedjo was a leadership candidate in the 2020 Ontario Liberal Party election to replace Kathleen Wynne. He was the first-ever Liberal candidate to propose merging the public and catholic school boards across Ontario in order to improve the quality of education for all students, regardless of their religion. Alvin’s proposal was supported by two public polls during the leadership election that saw a majority of Ontarians agree with him. He also proposed introducing a basic income and expanding child care.
Alvin has previously served as Vice President of the Ontario Coalition for Better Childcare. He is the founder of Canadians for Paternity Leave, a coalition that successfully pressured the federal government to increase paternity leave for Canadians. Alan was Director of Government Relations at Sheridan College and Senior Policy Advisor to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. He currently works as a senior manager at Ryerson University.
Alvin is the father of three young children. He lives in Mississauga with his wife Rebecca, a registered nurse.
Leonard Baak is President of One School System.
Leonard was born and raised in Nova Scotia. In 1986, he moved to Ontario to attend university and has worked as a software developer in Ottawa since 1991.
Appalled at what he saw as “the discrimination and waste in our school system”, Leonard and two other equally dissatisfied parents, incorporated OneSchoolSystem.org in 2004 to lobby for change.
Leonard is a married father of two university-aged kids.
The mission of the Ontario Humanist Society (OHS) is to practise and to foster humanism at the Provincial level by providing focus, service and a sense of ethical identity to humanists and humanist associations across Ontario in a manner consistent with humanist principles, practice and core values as stated in the Humanist Manifestos, Amsterdam Declaration and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ontario Humanist Society presents the first virtual speaker program in their showcase of 2021 events.
Via: ZOOM Meeting
Date: Tuesday February 23, 2021
Time: 7:30 pm – 8:30 pm
The Ontario provincial government is currently the only province funding religious schools of the Catholic faith exclusively. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation have urged the government to move toward one secular school system for each official language. This discussion will include a short history, major issues, current state, and how we can better serve our children and society as a whole.
Our moderator and speaker, Zain Ghadially, is a passionate Ontario public school educator who focuses a lot of his own time on discussion, debate, and ethics.
When I was a schoolboy in British Columbia we began our day by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I accepted this small duty as a normal ritual of the classroom. Then, two things happened. First, I asked one of my classmates to give me some evidence for the truth of stories in the Bible. He insisted they were true, but could offer no support for their veracity. Second, two members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect arrived at my home one Friday after school. I was home alone. These emissaries had a powerful story and I was willing to hear it.
Over the weekend, I plunged into the literature they had given me. I was caught up in the exhilarating evangelism that Jesus Christ supposedly taught and that his apostles practiced. On Monday, I returned home from school anxious to resume my religious reading. Perhaps five or six hours of secular boyhood, or an instinctive scepticism about most of what my elders told me, brought everything into focus. I came to the jolting decision that all I’d been told or read over the weekend was not believable.
Later, as I examined more closely religious practices around the world I also learned about Secularism, a practical system that fulfills the idea of separation of church and state by removing religious control of public institutions – the schools, courts, government, and all public endeavours.
While growing numbers in Western countries are content to live outside the church, most people of faith also support Secularism for its contribution to social order and its hands off attitude toward religion. But Secularism’s future, like the struggle to achieve it, is subject to the dynamics of public opinion and the pressures of social change. The most relentless opposition to Secularism stems from the polar opposites of Christian evangelism and Islamic extremism, one seeking to restore religious values to the public realm, the other engaged in terrorism to advance its interests. Mix these conflicting ingredients and the result is a contest of which no one can predict the outcome.
George Jacob Holyoake, a radical English social reformer and atheist, invented the word Secularism in 1851, propagandized its message, and struggled to raise the moral standards and material conditions of his countrymen. Yet for some unknowable reason, Holyoake has virtually vanished from history, unheard of by the public. There is no mention of his name in one of the most eminent of books on Secularism, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.
In order to bring Holyoake the recognition he deserves, I have written his first modern biography: INVENTING SECULARISM: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake. It will be published in Spring 2021 by McFarland & Co., USA.
George Jacob Holyoake was born in Birmingham, England in 1817 and died in Brighton, England in 1906. Notwithstanding his origins in the nineteenth century, Holyoake was a man for the modern age. His vision encompassed ideals of social justice that would become universally accepted nearly two hundred years after he first expressed them. Through a long, controversial, and conflict-filled life, marked by as many mistakes as triumphs, he was in the vanguard of almost every struggle to improve the lives of ordinary people – public education, the co-operative movement, freedom of the press, trade unions, women’s rights, and universal suffrage. He was hailed after his death as “one of the men who fought for and won for Englishmen that freedom of speech which we take as a matter of course today.” For a man largely neglected in popular history, he played a transformative role in the evolution of modern life and the rise of democratic rule in Britain and the West.
Holyoake came to the idea of Secularism after enduring hardship, persecution, and imprisonment as a social missionary for capitalist turned reformer Robert Owen and his Socialist utopian movement, the Society of Rational Religionists. After a Christian upbringing, George Holyoake fell into atheism with the imprisonment of a friend for blasphemy and his own arrest for a speech in which he declared he no longer believed in such a thing as a God. Convicted of blasphemy, Holyoake reflected on the conditions of English life during his six months in the Gloucester County Gaol. He came out convinced of the need for a new social order that would release the individual from the grasp of enforced religious doctrine.
Upwards of one hundred countries now affirm support for Secularism. The United States has functioned as a largely secular state despite a continuing presence of religiosity in its public life; the United Kingdom, secular in many respects, retains an established church with appointed bishops in its House of Lords, religious schools, and a monarch who is head of both the church and the state.
Canada, nominally secular, recognizes “the supremacy of God” in its constitution and provides public funding for Roman Catholic schools. Quebec’s bans on the wearing of hijabs by public sector workers in positions of authority may go too far, in the opinion of many. British-controlled India adopted Secularism for its promise of harmony between Hindus and Muslims, a hope that has receded under the long-reigning Modi government.
Religious belief is in free fall everywhere in the West. People of no religion (the ‘nones’) account for 52 per cent of the population of England and Wales, and one-quarter of the population of the United States and Canada. Only 12 per cent of Britons are affiliated with the Church of England, down from 40 per cent in 1983. France is on the verge of becoming majority secularist, along with the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia. China pays lip service to Secularism but uses its atheist ethos to oversee its Christian citizenry and oppress its Muslim minority.
In contrast to these trends, Secularism finds itself in a state of siege in many countries. Christian evangelists in the United States are pushing to have their religious ideas enacted into public policy in fields as diverse as health, education, foreign aid, and law. President Trump‘s attorney general has openly declared war on Secularism and hundreds of millions of dollars of COVID aid have been transferred to churches, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. In Turkey, long the most secular Muslim country, the famed Hagia Sophia, a museum since 1935, was recently reestablished as a mosque. Three states that were once secular – Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan – have enshrined Islam as their official religion.
Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalism uses the blunt force of terrorism to attack rival faiths and the infidel idea of Secularism. Secular states must respond to the pressures of twenty-first century migrations and the accommodation of non-secular traditions.
George Holyoake looked beyond his own time, confident that “Secularist principles involve for mankind a future.” It would be a future of moral as well as material good, offering an infinite diversity of intellect with equality among humanity, and “all things – noble society, the treasures of art, and the riches of the world – to be had in common.” His was a vision of a Secularism that rises above sectarian differences or economic rivalries, and places universal opportunity, and individual freedom, in the hands of all who inhabit our rich and beautiful – but endangered – planet Earth. It is not too late for us to fulfill his vision.
Journalist, consultant, author and inveterate traveler — that sums up the busy life of Ray Argyle. He shows no signs of slowing down. Ray has worked as a journalist, publishing executive, and communications consultant. He’s the author of five biographies, two political histories, a memoir, and a novel of Victorian Canada.
Ray was born in Manitoba and educated in British Columbia. He pursued a career in journalism, working for newspapers, a wire service, and a radio station. He founded Argyle Communications Inc., a communications consulting firm, now merged with the Environics Group. Ray has served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ont., and the Scarborough (Toronto) Board of Education. He is the only Canadian to have been elected a Fellow of the International Public Relations Association. He received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of his “contributions to Canadian life.” More at www.rayargyle.com
The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Ray Argyle: Portrait of George Holyoake by Sarah Watson.