What’s it all about, Alfie?


Facebook image“What’s it all about, Alfie?” sings Cilla Black in the title song for the eponymous 1966 movie. But it could be the anthem for the human race, or at least those with a philosophical bent. “What’s it all about?” is certainly a question that springs to my mind daily as I listen to the news, read a paper or surf the internet.*

What “it” is all about was raised this week when the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal granted that atheism is a “creed” that deserves the same protections in law and public policy as any faith, equal under the Human Rights Code.

David A. Wright, associate chairman of the tribunal, made the statement that,“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity.”

A delightful victory for secular humanists and freethinkers. Atheists of all stripes should have the same right to spread their beliefs or proselytize like any other person who does it in the name of faith. Rights of expression should not be constrained by having no faith. By the same token, they have to obey he same rules as to where and when it is appropriate to do so.

Fair enough. But don’t expect to see atheists showing up at your front door wanting to give you a copy of Skeptic magazine, hoping to be invited into your living room for a chat about your salvation.

The decision also sparked a lot of lively debate about just what atheism is. What is “it” that deserves protection and is there anything definite, some commonality that clearly defines just what an atheist is? Spoiler: the answer is no.

It has also brought to the surface many misunderstandings about atheism – as well as general misunderstanding about what the words “religion” and “creed” mean. As reporter in the St. Catherine Standard, “Commission lawyer Cathy Pike argued in part the tribunal didn’t need to determine if atheism or secular humanism is a creed.” Quite right. But they did anyway.

The decision was a topic on the recent CBC radio show, Day Six, which asked “Is atheism a religion?” – a question not unlike asking “is a fish a bicycle?” Or as one poster on the CBC site wryly commented, “It has been variously said that atheism is a religion as: bald is a hair colour; “Off” is a TV channel, and; abstinence is a sex position.”

Many writers commenting on this decision share similar confusions over the idea of atheism, and mistake atheism for religion (a bit like mistaking a bicycle for a bus because they both have wheels). Perhaps most comments I’ve read come from writers who have a religion they want to defend and have a difficult time understanding a life without faith, so they need to put non-belief into a context they can comprehend.

For example, Licia Corbella, columnist in the Calgary Herald, wrote:

This may be a leap of faith, but here’s hoping that maybe now, atheists — many of whom have proven themselves to be a highly motivated evangelistic group accustomed to ramming their minority religion down the throats of the majority — will face the same scrutiny of their beliefs as traditional faiths have been undergoing for decades in Canada at their behest.

Corbella’s desire to punish atheists for their presumption notwithstanding, that atheism isn’t a religion can be proven by the semantics. While there are many variant definitions of what a religion is, Wikipedia’s is fairly good (emphasis added):

Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, they tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Dictionary.com adds this (emphasis added):

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

Austin Cline quotes an “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (undefined as to which publisher, since there are numerous such works) for this rather exhaustive definition:

  • Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

Almost all definitions state that a religion is a collection of formal beliefs that include a supernatural or superhuman agency. But what agency or organization determines or collates this collection for atheists? None.

Corbella fatuously declares:

Atheism is indeed a belief system that holds mighty power. Let me explain. Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, are fond of claiming that religion “ruins everything” and is to blame for promoting conflict and violence. However, they rarely study the role atheism has played in creating wars and killing.***

Clearly she has her own agenda to promote, but she is dead wrong on definitions. And I think she is referring to the late Christopher Hitchens, not Richard Dawkins. Hitchens coined the phrase, “religion poisons everything” in his book, God is not Great. But I suppose she thinks all atheists sound alike.

Is the absence of belief itself a creed? The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal defines it this way:

Creed[1] is not a defined term in the Code. The OHRC has adopted the following definition of creed:

Creed is interpreted to mean “religious creed” or “religion.” It is defined as a professed system and confession of faith, including both beliefs and observances or worship. A belief in a God or gods, or a single supreme being or deity is not a requisite.

Religion is broadly accepted by the OHRC to include, for example, non-deistic bodies of faith, such as the spiritual faiths/practices of aboriginal cultures, as well as bona fide newer religions (assessed on a case by case basis).

The existence of religious beliefs and practices are both necessary and sufficient to the meaning of creed, if the beliefs and practices are sincerely held and/or observed.

“Creed” is defined subjectively. The Code protects personal religious beliefs, practices or observances, even if they are not essential elements of the creed[2] provided they are sincerely held.

It is the OHRC’s position that every person has the right to be free from discriminatory or harassing behaviour that is based on religion or which arises because the person who is the target of the behaviour does not share the same faith. This principle extends to situations where the person who is the target of such behaviour has no religious beliefs whatsoever, including atheists and agnostics who may, in these circumstances, benefit from the protection set out in the Code.[3]

In either situation, creed must be involved – either because the person who is the subject of the discrimination is seeking to practice his or her own religion, or because the person who is harassing or discriminating is trying to impose their creed on someone else. In both cases, creed must be involved.

Creed does not include secular, moral or ethical beliefs or political convictions.[4] This policy does not extend to religions that incite hatred or violence against other individuals or groups,[5] or to practices and observances that purport to have a religious basis but which contravene international human rights standards or criminal law.[6]

With the footnotes from the decision:

  1. Human rights laws in other Canadian jurisdictions use terms such as “religion” as prohibited grounds of discrimination. For a review of decisions dealing with “creed” and “religion,” see Tarnopolsky, Discrimination and the Law (Toronto: Richard deBoo, 1985) at 6-1 to 6-6.
  2. See Singh v. Workmen’s Compensation Board Hospital & Rehabilitation Centre (1981), 2 C.H.R.R. D/549 (Ontario Board of Inquiry); Bhinder v. Canadian National Railway Co. (1981), 2 C.H.R.R. D/546 (Cdn. Human Rights Tribunal), reversed [1983] 2 F.C. 531, affirmed [1985] 2 S.C.R. 561.
  3. Atheists deny the existence of God; agnostics are of the view that nothing is known or likely to be known about the existence of God.
  4. But see Obdeyn v. Walbar Machine Products of Canada Ltd. (1982), 3 C.H.R.R. D/712 (Ont. Bd. of Inquiry) at D/716 – D/717.
  5. Not only are such groups not protected under the Code, but they may also be subject to provisions of the Criminal Code. Any reports of activities involving such groups should be immediately reported to the police.
  6. For example, female genital mutilation is a violation of women’s human rights and is not protected on the ground of creed. See the Commission’s Policy on Female Genital Mutilation.

Clearly a carefully thought-out position, and I agree with the intent (that all people should have the same level of rights of expression, not just people of faith). But it’s wrong, nonetheless, because it assumes a cohesiveness about atheism that just isn’t there. It’s an imaginary collectivism. You cannot impose a structure on something just by declaring it so.

Start with this: “…a professed system and confession of faith, including both beliefs and observances or worship. ” Okay, that’s pretty much the standard, accepted definition of creed. How can an unorganized, leaderless, unstructured, geographically and culturally disparate group have a “professed system”? What’s the mechanism for profession?

Yes, various regional or local atheist and humanist groups have organized meetings, some even even have “churches” (we’ll save the irony of that description for another time) but none speak for a larger, national or international audience (there is no atheist heirophant or pope to set out the rules and determine policy; not even the much-respected Richard Dawkins speaks for all atheists).

These groups and gatherings speak more to the basic human need for community and association, rather than to any belief set.

Atheists call themselves, or are called by others, by dozens of names: humanist, secular humanist, freethinker, philosopher, secularist, nontheist, nonreligionist, nonbeliever, heretic, pagan, infidel, heathen, naturalist, rationalist, skeptic, materialist, objectivist – this is not a cohesive group! There is no atheist creed!

But this sentence from the tribunal’s decision confounds everything by lumping nonbelievers into the same group as believers, as part of a “creed”: “A belief in a God or gods, or a single supreme being or deity is not a requisite.” That’s like putting bald me into the same group of men who use a hair stylist.

Among the many definitions online, creed is:

  1. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) a concise, formal statement of the essential articles of Christian belief, such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed
  2. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) any statement or system of beliefs or principles[Old English cr?da, from Latin cr?do I believe]

So clearly a creed is related to faith. Not the lack thereof.

Atheist comes from the Greek words for anti or no, and god. Strictly defined, atheists accept no deities or substitutes, do not believe in any form of a “prime mover,” supreme or supernatural being.**

There are, of course, groups that organize around their atheism or non-belief, but few (if any – I’m still looking for examples) receive the benefits of a recognized religion (not least of all tax shelter and charity status, but also the right to perform legally-recognized ceremonies like marriages).

Atheists are like dogs, semantically. The noun in both cases is a convenient catch-all for a wide, almost infinitely variable series of difference. Philosophical in the former, genetic and morphological in the latter. The term atheist can no more cover all the variants in human thought and belief than dog can adequately define all the breeds, mongrels, behaviours and temperaments of our canine companions.

Atheism is not an organized tenet. There are groups, of course – generally small but disorganized in terms of strategic or broad cultural activity.

Some of the people who answer to the name atheist are really agnostic – a term coined from the Greek by Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog) in 1889. It essentially means “I don’t know” (a being the prefix for against or anti, and gnosis meaning knowledge). Huxley wrote:

Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle. Positively, the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, follow your reason as far as it can take you without other considerations. And negatively, in matters of the intellect, do not pretend that matters are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

Agnostics are unsure, uncertain; some question whether anyone can actually know cosmic truths. Personally, I think it’s an intellectually weak position to take when used as the answer to “do you believe in god?” if it’s given because the respondent doesn’t want to offend a believer or get into an argument over belief. But like atheism, it’s not a fixed position, because everyone defines it differently. Sometimes it’s a very entertaining epistemological argument.

Others who wear the mantle of atheism are actually spiritualists who pursue all sorts of superstitious ideas that may fall outside traditional religion, but still involve the supernatural. Some, like the neo-Wiccans, have substituted ancient or artificial beliefs for traditional ones, and profess to alternate deities. Others revere, if not worship, pseudo-deities like Gaia.

Then there are the deists, who don’t believe in a personal, intimate or anthropomorphic god (as opposed to the theists), but believe there is some impersonal organizing principle or force. They are often classified as atheists, but that’s an incorrect judgment.

Many people who think of themselves as atheists are really just areligious. They have no particular faith, but they still have a vague belief in a supreme being. You can become a Freemason without having a religion, for example, but you have to profess to believing in a “supreme being.”

There are a lot on nonbelievers in Canada. According to the 2001 census, “no religious affiliation” was the third largest group, more than 16% of the population. The 2011 Census is more comprehensive, and shows 23.89% of all Canadians have “no religious affiliation.” However, only 48,675 identified themselves specifically as “atheist.” Another 3,455 identified themselves as “humanist” and 36,285 as “agnostic.” The rest just answered “no religion” (this chart shows the percentage of unaffiliated respondents in my own town is more than 31%.)

No religion doesn’t mean nonbeliever – believers may worship privately at home or simply have eschewed a particular association with an organized church.****

It points to an increasing secularization of society. There is pressure to allow “atheist chaplains” into the military, belying the old “no atheists in foxholes” notion. But this secularization is piecemeal and not driven by an organization. Small and disparate cultural, social and political groups may be in the forefront of localized changes, but there’s no overarching group, religion or creed that unites any of them. Just a general, vaguely defined sense of unbelief. And expression of that non-belief deserves the same rights and responsibilities as the expression of belief.


* The song, of course doesn’t ask life’s perplexing questions – what are we here, what is the meaning of life, what is consciousness, what happens when we die – because the movie is about an rather limited focus on human sexuality and social behaviour. It’s about love. The song goes:

What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give
Or are we meant to be kind?
And if only fools are kind, Alfie,
Then I guess it’s wise to be cruel.
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie,
What will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie.
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.

Personally, for musical pieces that ask the big questions, I like the theme song for Monty Python’s Meaning of Life:

Why are we here, what’s life all about?
Is God really real, or is there some doubt?
Well tonight we’re going to sort it all out
For tonight it’s the meaning of life

What’s the point of all this hoax?
Is it the chicken and the egg time, are we just yolks?
Or perhaps we’re just one of God’s little jokes
Well ca c’est the meaning of life

Is life just a game where we make up the rules
While we’re searching for something to say
Or are we just simply spiralling coils
Of self-replicating DNA?

In this life, what is our fate?
Is there Heaven and Hell? Do we reincarnate?
Is mankind evolving or is it too late?
Well tonight here’s the meaning of life

For millions this life is a sad vale of tears
Sitting round with real nothing to say
While scientists say, “We’re just simply spiralling coils
Of self-replicating DNA”

So just why, why are we here?
And just what, what, what, what do we fear?
Well ce soir, for a change, it will all be made clear
For this is the meaning of life

C’est le sens de la vie
This is the meaning of life

But is it? Philosopher Julian Baggini argues that “You can’t expect to get a sensible answer unless you ask a sensible question. But what the hell is “What’s the meaning of life?” or “What’s it all about?” supposed to mean? They may be grammatical, but so are “What’s the meaning of cheese?” and “What’s grass all about?” – and I defy anyone to give a serious answer to either. We think of the quest for life’s meaning as like a journey along a yellow brick road which will lead us to an awesome, mysterious source of all the answers. The truth is that, like the Wizard of Oz, the grandeur and remoteness of the meaning of life is all front. Pull back the curtain and the mystery vanishes.”

** An atheist is, by broad definition, someone who does not believe in the existence of deities. By that sense, as Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion, we are all atheists. Christians don’t believe in Ahura Mazda or Shiva, Jews don’t believe in Moloch or Baal, Hindus don’t believe in Jehovah or Allah, Buddhists don’t believe in Jesus, Santa Claus or Odin…. most believers do not believe in the reality of the gods of other faiths or mythology. Just their own. As Dawkins points out, atheists just believe in one god less than the believers.

*** Corbella angrily flounders into non-sequitor and with this zinger:

As Dinesh D’Souza writes in his New York Times bestselling book, What’s so Great About Christianity, “five hundred years after the Inquisition, we are still talking about it, but less than two decades after the collapse of ‘godless Communism,’ there is an eerie silence about the mass graves of the Soviet Gulag. Why the absence of accountability? Does atheism mean never having to say you are sorry?”

Typical right-wing claptrap, as is the rest of her column. Clearly Corbella doesn’t read much about things that don’t interest her. Like history. I have Applebaum’s 2004 Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, The Gulag, on my shelf. Very comprehensive, and much easier to read than Solzhenitsyn. A browse through Amazon’s titles shows many similar titles about the Soviet penal system, and many about Stalin (I’ve read Monefiore’s two recent ones). Soviet archives were only opened to western scholars by Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s. But later rulers decreased access to the “Iron Archives” as the New York Times calls them, and slowed declassification. It’s slow, tedious business punctuated by long wait times. There is no “eerie silence” just painfully slow waiting for access, but when it does become available, books get published.
She is also historically incorrect. The Inquisition didn’t end until the early 19th century. While the term usually refers to the “Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834, a 350-year run ), the Catholic church launched inquisitions as early as 1184. The Inquisition never formally ended, by the way. As Wikipedia tells us, “The institution survives as part of the Roman Curia, but it was renamed to Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office in 1904.”
Corbella also quotes Dinesh D’Souza writing, “In the past hundred years or so, the most powerful atheist regimes — Communist Russia, Communist China and Nazi Germany — have wiped out people in astronomical numbers.” Both are clearly wrong about the religion of Hitler and the Nazis. As noted in the link, “Adolf Hitler was baptized in a Catholic Church in 1889 and was never be excommunicated or in any other way officially censured by the Catholic Church. Hitler frequently referred to God and Christianity in his various speeches and writings.”

**** Cults and fringe groups get some attention. The census lists 1,745 Scientologists in all of Canada, fewer than believers in Eckankar (2,225), New Age (2,230), Wiccan (10,225), pagan (15,265) and New Thought-Unity-Religious Science (2,565). Unfortunately, the census does not seem to list any Pastafarians, so I suspect they got confused with Rastafarians (1,055). Declared atheists are larger in number than all these groups combined, by 50%.

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One comment

  1. A good commentary on the decision is here. It notes that this is part of the decision:

    The respondent submits that atheism is a not a creed, and that the Application should be dismissed on the basis that the Code does not protect against discrimination because a person is atheist. The applicant and the CCLA take the position that atheism is a creed. The Commission takes the position that the issue need not be decided, because even if atheism is not a creed, discrimination against a person who does not have a creed is included in the protection against discrimination because of creed. The Commission notes that it is revising its policy on creed and does not ask that the Tribunal adopt the definition of creed in its 1996 Policy on creed and the accommodation of religious observances

    There are also some 40 atheist “churches” planned for the USA, according to this article. It also references the atheist bus.

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