The Humanism of Star Trek
Saturday, November 19th, Canad Inns Polo Park, 1405 St Matthews Avenue, 5:30 – 8:30 PM
Secular Parents’ Book Club Meeting
Thursday, November 24th, 7 – 9 PM, location TBA
Winter Solstice Party
Saturday December 17th, Heritage-Victoria Community Club, 950 Sturgeon Road, 5:30 PM
For more information on these events, check out our Events page or click on the event name in the right sidebar.
You can find past events by using the ‘Search this Site’ tool, also in the right sidebar.
Prayer at City Hall Update
Tony Governo has filed a formal complaint about the prayers at city council meetings with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. He recently learned that his complaint has been registered. This means that it will be served on the Respondent (the City). They will be asked to provide a reply within 30 days. Then the complaint will be investigated, which could take 8-10 months from the time it is assigned. The investigator then makes a recommendation to the Board. The Board then decides to dismiss or take to next stage.
Tony was recently interviewed by CTV News about the threats he received on social media after his complaint. And also in October, Edmonton’s city council decided to comply with the Supreme Court ruling and ended the practice of opening their meetings with prayer. After contemplating a ‘moment of reflection’ instead, they ultimately decided that it made more sense to just skip the whole thing and just get down to business. Wouldn’t it be nice if Winnipeg could do the same?
If you have not previously read about this issue, you can catch up here.
Openly Secular Day is Tuesday, November 15th
Are you openly secular? Not everyone is – and not everyone can be. Too many people cannot reveal that they no longer believe, for fear of negative repercussions from their family, business/employment, friends, or community. But if we’re ever going to reduce the stigma of being a non-believer, and dispel the notion that atheists believe in ‘nothing’, more people have to come out of the closet.
The mission of the Openly Secular Campaign is to decrease discrimination and increase acceptance of atheists and Humanists by encouraging as many people as possible to let others know that they are non-religious. November 15th is Openly Secular Day, and it’s no accident that the date is just around the beginning of the holiday season – a time when so many people get together with family and friends. The goal on that day is to have as many people as possible ‘come out’ to just one other person. If you can do this, check out their website for more information and resources, and to take the ‘One Person Pledge’.
October event recap
October was a busy month! Our evening showing of the film A Better Life: An Exploration of Joy and Meaning in a World Without God was truly inspirational. President Donna Harris opened with a brief presentation about what Humanism is and how it differs from atheism. A big thank-you goes to Kumaran Reddy for recording it for us.
For a number of people, it was their first HAAM event, and one of those new people won our door prize – a copy of the book version of A Better Life. If you were unable to attend that evening, it is possible to view the film at home for a small fee. Check it out here.
If you couldn’t make it to our meeting to learn about the Humanist Outreach program in Uganda, and HAAM’s support of a secular school there, you missed a great evening. You can read news coverage of the meeting here.
Watch this short (2 minute) video message from Robert Bwambale of Kasese Humanist School.
Here is our sponsored student, John Bogere, saying hello to us.
Religious Exercises in Schools?
Just a reminder – Section 84(8) of the Manitoba Public Schools Act reads “If a petition asking for religious exercises, signed by the parents or guardians of 75% of the pupils in the case of a school having fewer than 80 pupils or by the parents or guardians of at least 60 pupils in the case of a school having an enrolment of 80 or more pupils, is presented to the school board, religious exercises shall be conducted for the children of those parents or guardians in that school year.”
This petition must come from the parents/community, NOT the school. The Minister of Education has ruled that public schools must be non-sectarian and that staff at the school cannot participate in recruiting students for prayer groups by contacting parents or sending home permission slips to be signed. It has come to our attention that some schools are still doing this, and one school division recently ended the practice simply because a parent brought it to the attention of the superintendent.
If this is still happening at your child’s school, we would like to know about it. Please contact us.
Call to Action – Speak up about Operation Christmas Child
If you’re involved in a school or other organization that collects for Operation Christmas Child, there are some very good reasons NOT to participate – even if you’re Christian (and especially if you’re not).
Spread the word!
Book of the Month – Pale Blue Dot
With Star Trek as our meeting topic, this seems like a good month to feature a book about our place in the universe. We have a copy of Carl Sagan’s 1994 classic Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. The title is, of course, based on the famous photograph of the same name – a picture of the Earth from 4 billion miles away, taken by Voyager 1 in 1991 as it approached the outer limits of our solar system.
The book begins by examining the idea that humans think they are uniquely important in this vast universe. Sagan continues by exploring our solar system in detail, and discussing the possibility of life on other planets, suggesting that our very survival may depend on the wise use of other worlds. He argues that in order to save the human race, space colonization and terraforming (the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying the atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology of another planet or moon to make it habitable by Earth-like life) should be considered.
Watch this very moving tribute to Sagan and the Pale Blue Dot, produced by Seth Andrews (The Thinking Atheist). It’s only 5 minutes long.
Charity of the Month – The North Point Douglas Women’s Centre
The North Point Douglas Women’s Centre is just east of Main Street, near Dufferin Avenue. The address alone provides a wealth of information about the clients it serves. Its mission is to promote a safe, healthy, vibrant community for women and families, by offering programs designed to provide support, training, resources, and opportunities to women in the area. The centre arose out of a project sponsored by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg in 2000, to address problems caused by poverty and a lack of resources. Today it is a community hub where women and their families gather.
- A drop-in safe space with snacks, activities, computer and phone access, laundry facilities, and a clothing and household items collection
- Counselling and domestic violence recovery support
- A neighborhood oven for community baking and events
- Community safety programs
- Health, fitness, and nutrition programs
- Support and referrals for women dealing with stressors such as shelter, employment, emergency food and clothing, school, Child and Family Services involvement, legal help, Employment and Income Assistance disputes, daycare, etc.
What to Donate
Currently, the centre has a particular need for the following items that they go through very quickly
- Feminine hygiene products
- Baby formula
Please bring these items to the monthly meeting and we will deliver them to the centre. Of course, money likely wouldn’t be turned down, either. Tax receipts are available for donations over $10. If you would like to donate but cannot attend the meeting, you can do so via the PayPal link on the right sidebar. Just include a message letting us know that the money is for the charity.
Partners for Life Update
Yay! HAAM members are now up to 15 donations for 2016! We have 11 members registered in the program, 7 of whom have donated at least once this year. We’re still just ahead of Steinbach Bible College, (with 13 donations), and there are almost 2 months to go! Let’s get a few more units in by New Year.
There’s no prize for donating blood – just bragging rights and the satisfaction that comes from knowing that Humanists are helping their fellow humans. So get out there and do it!
You can donate at the main clinic on William Ave (across from HSC) during their regular hours (Mon 10-2 and 3:30-7:30; Tues 1:30-7; and Wed-Sat 8-2), or attend one of these mobile clinics in the Winnipeg area.
Here are two new points worth noting (thanks Janine Guinn):
- The recommended time between donations for women is being increased to 84 days, because of the ongoing risk of low hemoglobin. (The interval for men remains at 56 days.)
- If you book an appointment at least 48 hours ahead, you can now have your pre-donation health questions sent by email and complete them online before you go, saving a bunch of time.
Note that you must register with the Partners for Life program in order for your donation to be credited to HAAM. Click here for more information and instructions on how to sign up.
We Need You!
It’s time to start looking ahead again to the upcoming year. Please consider volunteering to serve on our executive! We need people who are enthusiastic about building a supportive community, promoting a secular society with fairness for all, and advocating for critical thinking in the larger world. If you can contribute ideas, energy, time, and/or effort, you’re welcome to join us! The more committed people we have, the more we can accomplish.
Meetings are usually held monthly, (dates and times determined by mutual availability), with online contact in between. Please consider volunteering, or accepting the offer to join if you are approached. Many hands make light work, and enable HAAM to offer more events and programs, and make a bigger difference to our members and community.
Elections will be held at our AGM on January 14th – so you have some time to think about it or talk to members of our current executive if you have questions.
Outreach has been very busy since our last newsletter. Tony Governo and Tammy Blanchette have been out to speak to another high school class in southern Manitoba. I enjoyed meeting with a local hospital chaplain who is taking a class on world religions in an effort to become better at his job in spiritual care. His overall goal was to learn how to best to approach a “Humanist/atheist person” (his words) with regards to their spiritual care. It was a helluva starting point, but the ensuing discussion was interesting for two people who are, metaphorically speaking, from different planets.
A little later in October, Donna Harris and I (with Todd De Ryck along as an observer) spoke to a U of W class called “Crises in Faith” – an exploration of five major contemporary critiques of religion. We explained the usual atheism and Humanistic philosophy. The students’ questions were sometimes challenging, and as often happens when discussing philosophy, the conversation goes off in the strangest directions. We found ourselves having to explain why, when making societal decisions, both religious and non-religious people are welcome at the table of ideas, but religion itself shouldn’t and can’t be granted special privileges. I also found myself in the really odd position of explaining why the national socialism of the Nazis in the middle of the twentieth century was not a secular government. This is why we love outreach and especially visiting school classes; you really don’t know what someone will say next.
We’re looking forward to November and our visit to the newly formed Steinbach Humanist group; that should be fun. – Pat Morrow
When Good Intentions Cross Ethical Lines
Film Screening: A Better Life
Wednesday, October 12th, Millenium Library, 6-9 PM
International Outreach: Humanist ‘Missionaries’ in Uganda
Saturday, October 15th, Canad Inns Polo Park, 5:30 PM
Book Club Meeting – Secular Parenting
Wednesday, November 24th, 7 PM, location TBA
For more information on these events, check out our Events page or click on the event name in the right sidebar. You can find past events by using the ‘Search this Site’ tool, also in the right sidebar.
Humanists Celebrate Thanksgiving, Too!
Do you celebrate Thanksgiving without thinking too much about who you’re thanking, now that you have left religion? Do you struggle to explain the holiday to children?
The very name of the holiday implies giving thanks, but if you no longer believe in a god – or never did – you might need to pause for a moment to think about who the recipient(s) of your thanks might be.
Humanists have just a much reason to be thankful as anyone else – and real people to thank. We can be thankful to each other for family and friendship, thankful to the people who grew and prepared the feast, and thankful to nature for all that it has provided.
If your family gathering includes a traditional Grace and you’d like to switch it out for something a little more inclusive without disrupting the peace, there are lots of options. Here’s one example:
We are grateful to the men and women who planted the crops, cultivated the fields and who gathered in the harvest.
We thank those who prepared this fine meal and also those who will serve it to us.
Yet amid this plenty may we not forget the many of our brothers and sisters, and especially their children, in our own country and elsewhere, who do not share in our good fortune, who are hungry, cold, sick and troubled by the bitter burden of poverty, the curse of war, and the despair of hopelessness.
So may our enjoyment be graced by understanding and tempered by humility.
Let us be kind to one another and to all those with whom we share this brief existence.
Privacy Issues in Spiritual Care
Who gets access to patient information?
It has come to our attention that some hospital patients are still being subjected to prayer and proselytization without their consent. Much of this is informal, mainly in the form of well-intentioned but misguided remarks made by visitors and staff; but some of it falls under the guise of ‘spiritual care’. We wrote about this before in our November 2015 newsletter – and now need to correct/clarify that article. Strictly speaking, it’s not hospital chaplains who are no longer allowed to visit patients without their consent – it’s community clergy who are restricted.
Traditionally, community clergy have considered hospital visits a part of their ministry to the sick, and many churches hold weekly services for patients in their local hospital’s chapel. Up until a few years ago, a priest could just stop at the hospital’s information desk and get a printed list of all the patients who identify with his denomination, so that he could ‘pop in’ for a visit or invite them to the service. And that is what’s no longer allowed. Visiting clergy no longer get access to patient names unless the patients consent to have their names released – and so they are asked about this on admission. (The WRHA policy on this is here.) But this restriction applies only to community clergy – not ‘spiritual care’ employees (hospital chaplains). In practice, if patients don’t state a religion on admission, or say that they don’t want their name on the clergy list, spiritual care staff don’t usually visit. But because spiritual care workers are employees of the hospital, they are considered part of the health care team, so they can be consulted or gain access to patient charts in the same way as members of any other discipline (e.g. social workers or physiotherapists).
What’s a ‘Spiritual Care Provider’?
‘Spiritual Care Provider’, or ‘Spiritual Health Care Practitioner’, is the new name for ‘hospital chaplain’. The term is more inclusive than ‘chaplain’, because it encompasses multiple faith/belief systems, in some cases even Humanism and atheism. But let’s face it – ‘spiritual care providers’ in Manitoba – and across North America – are overwhelmingly Christian clergy. In cosmopolitan cities, it’s quite likely that there are staff who will serve people of various faiths and beliefs, including Humanism, but in a small rural community, or anywhere in a Bible Belt area – good luck with that.
The Role of PHIA in Spiritual Care
When Manitoba passed the Personal Health Information Act in 1997 (current version is here), the privileges of all these religious practitioners (both hospital chaplains and community clergy) became restricted. Community clergy were no longer allowed access to patient information without consent, but the role of hospital chaplains was a little less clear. Initially they were technically out of the loop, too – but a 2004 amendment added them back in. According to a letter of explanation regarding that amendment, the term ‘health’ was redefined as being sound in ‘mind, body, and spirit’ – so spiritual care providers are back on the health care team, and health care ‘expressly includes spiritual care’. The letter goes on to state that since PHIA restricts the collection of personal health information to only that which is required to carry out care, patient information should be released to spiritual care providers only if the patient requests the service, or if a referral is made (emphasis ours).
What does this mean for Humanists?
It’s that last part (about referrals) that has some HAAM members concerned. The intent of the amendment to PHIA is that as with any other health care service offered by a health care facility, spiritual care will be provided pursuant to a referral or request. But often, referrals are made without asking or notifying the patient. Usually this is just routine. Most patients with fractures, for example, get a referral to physiotherapy, and the doctor may not even think to mention it. When the therapist shows up, the patient doesn’t question it, either – it’s an expected part of care. Likewise, a nurse who hears a patient expressing concerns over family, finances, or employment while in hospital may call the social worker to assist – again, perhaps forgetting or not even thinking to inform the patient ahead of time. But what happens when a patient expresses sadness, loss of hope for the future, or grief over a poor prognosis? Oftentimes, staff ask a spiritual care provider to come and offer support. That’s where, as stated in last November’s newsletter article, a certified mental health professional or counselor might be a better choice than a chaplain – but there are usually none available, because hospitals employ chaplains instead of counselors. So a well-meaning staff member refers the patient to the spiritual care department – again, sometimes without their knowledge or consent. Staff in a predominantly religious community, or who are religious themselves, may not even think of this as controversial – they believe that the referral is appropriate and that they are helping. And so a chaplain appears at the beside.
You may find the spiritual care provider helpful, or not, depending on his or her beliefs, preparation, and skills, and your needs and personal preferences. Most of these ‘chaplains’ are genuinely caring people, used to conversing with all kinds of different folks, and their mandate is to provide support to all patients who need or want their services, regardless of belief system. You can read a description of the ‘competencies’ required to be a spiritual care provider in Manitoba here. It’s a pretty broad field, and the document implies that almost any ‘spiritual practice’, including reiki, therapeutic touch, and other forms of woo, is legitimate.
What can I do?
The bottom line, of course, is that just like any other treatment or test, patients can refuse spiritual care – but they would have to know to do so, and in particular, they would have to know to tell staff that they don’t want chaplains to have access to their personal information. Or, alternatively, they would have to know enough to ask (or demand) a Humanist – or at least a person who is flexible enough to include Humanism as part of their repertoire of worldviews – as their spiritual care provider.
As with any other aspect of health care, it’s not always easy to request or decline a treatment when you’re ill – that’s what Advance Care Plans are for. So the same guidelines apply to spiritual care requests that apply to ACP’s. Put your requests in writing ahead of time, and the written document will speak for you if and when you can’t. Patients who are admitted acutely ill or unconscious are not asked on admission about their religion, so their family might answer for them, or the spiritual care worker may pop in at some point just to see if he can be of service. If you want to avoid this, here are some suggestions:
- Make sure your family knows your wishes about spiritual care (if they are willing to honor them).
- Make your health care proxy aware of your wishes about spiritual care as well as health care.
- Write your requests on a card and put it in your wallet along with your Manitoba Health card, Advance Care Plan, and Organ Donor cards (you do have those, right?). ID is one of the first things that emergency responders look for when they are called to a scene.
- Add a note about your spiritual care preferences to your Advance Care Plan and ERIK kit and have those readily available, stuck on your fridge with a magnet.
Charity of the Month
In October we’ll be raising funds for John Bogere’s annual tuition and the Kasese Humanist Primary School.
Book of the Month: One Heartbeat Away
This month’s featured book is a little different. For starters, it was a gift – from a very earnest, soft-spoken young woman who pressed it upon our volunteers at the Outreach table in Morden last month. No small gift from a total stranger; it sells for $15 on Amazon.ca. But she was very insistent, and so we accepted it to add to our library.
The book is One Heartbeat Away – Your Journey Into Eternity, by Mark Cahill. And why was our visitor so insistent that we accept it? Because to her, it’s a very special book. It’s the book that will guide us to the Truth. She agrees with the author’s assertion that “once you know the truth about the Bible, creation vs. evolution, heaven and hell, sin, and the cross, there is only one logical decision to make”. Cahill claims that he has evidence for biblical truth and that it will compel the lost to come to Jesus Christ for salvation.
This book answers the question “What do you think will happen to you when you die?” by describing the most often cited ‘evidence’ in favor of the Christian answer to that question. Cahill describes experiences recalled by people who have been resuscitated while dying, as well as those who experienced hell while dying, and he mourns the terrible loss that occurs every time that a soul is lost to God.
What qualifies Cahill to make such a claims? Is he a biblical scholar like Hector Avalos? A psychologist like Michael Shermer? A neuroscientist like Sam Harris? None of the above… Here’s an excerpt from the author’s biography on amazon.com: “Mark Cahill has a business degree from Auburn University, where he was an honorable mention Academic All-American in basketball. He has worked in the business world at IBM and in various management positions, and he taught high school for four years.”
If you have escaped a fundamentalist form of Christianity, you probably won’t want to read this book – and don’t need to. You already have a pretty good idea of what it says. But if you grew up secular, or in a liberal Christian denomination, and you’re looking for some insight into the fundamentalism, this book will be enlightening. Or hey – if you’re open-minded and willing to see if it convinces you, check it out! And if you find Jesus and convert, be sure to let us know.
You can borrow this book, or any of the others in our library, at the October meeting. Check here to see a complete list of the books in our library. If you find one you’d like to read, you can reserve it online and we’ll have it for you at our next meeting.
Harmonizing Humanists are Recruiting!
Who’s interested in singing for fun? HAAM has a small group of singers who perform at events when we can get enough people together and prepare something suitable. Repertoire varies – almost any genre goes, and may include traditional religious music with parody lyrics, or anything that might be entertaining or inspirational to a secular audience.
Our next gig will be (hopefully) at the Winter Solstice Party. Because we only get together sporadically to rehearse, we are hoping to get some people who read music and can learn most of it on their own. But we need people to support the melody line, too. If you like to sing and can stay on the notes, we’ll find a part for you!
Here’s a great opportunity for anyone who misses singing in their old church choir! If you are interested, contact HAAM.
City Hall Prayers Violate Rights
You’ve probably seen in the news that Tony Governo has taken the next step in his fight to end religious prayers at Winnipeg City Council meetings. (If you haven’t followed this story from the beginning, see City Flouts Supreme Court Ruling on Prayer.)
In September, Tony received the following response to his letter to Winnipeg’s mayor and City Council:
Dear Mr. Governo:
Thank you for taking the time to contact me about your concerns regarding the invocation undertaken by City Council and your interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling.
Council has examined this issue in early 2015. Our Legal Services Department assisted in the interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling and its impact on our Council practice. All Members of Council were consulted on the matter.
It was determined that the prayer and practice be amended to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. At meetings of Council, each Councillor, in a monthly rotation, would be given the opportunity to recite a new non-denominational invocation, or an invocation of their choosing, including a meditation or moment of silence.
Notably, the non-denominational invocation does not reference the words “God” or “The Lord”. The invocation is:
As we gather here today as members of City Council;
We seek to be ever mindful of opportunities to render our
service to fellow citizens and to our community;
Keeping in mind always, the enduring values of life and
exerting our efforts in those areas and on those things
upon which future generations can build with confidence;
We recognize that we are meeting on Treaty One land,
The traditional homeland of the Metis nation;
Let us continue to strive to make a better world.
Councillors are free to say what they feel is appropriate. Often Councillors read a prayer from different religions, in tribute and recognition of their ward citizens’ many faiths, or recite words of wisdom from philosophical traditions, again often recognizing the ethnic diversity of their wards. By following this open practice, Councillors are honouring the multi-ethnic diversity of our great City and are not bound by any one religion. By ensuring inclusivity; that we recognize all religions and faiths, and maintaining neutrality, Council has ensured that it is in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling.
City Councillor, Old Kildonan
Speaker of Council
You may be wondering what’s so offensive about this nondenominational invocation, and the answer is nothing, as long as it’s not referred to as a prayer. But not all the councillors read this type of secular invocation, as we explained previously. And from Councillor Sharma’s response, it seems that our city government has no plans to change their guidelines and restrict overtly religious prayers anytime soon, so Tony approached the media to express his concerns. The story appeared on the CTV, CBC, and the Winnipeg Free Press websites.
Predictably, Christians claimed persecution, flooding the comments sections of news and social media sites with their assertions that
- Tony is trying to abolish Christianity
- there are bigger issues and he should find something better to do
- opening the meetings with a prayer is tradition
- everyone should respect their religious beliefs
- while atheists are whining about this minor First World problem, Christians are thanklessly doing the hard work of trying to provide love, comfort and supplies to the Third World
- Canada is a predominantly Christian country and our laws are based on biblical values
- if people don’t want to listen to the prayer, they can just don earphones or leave the room.
Some of the commenters were at least civil, although misguided or just plain wrong; some offered a trite “I’ll pray for you”; and others spewed nothing but vitriol and hatred.
These people are completely missing the point. The prayer is unnecessary; city council should simply open their meetings and get down to business. Any councillor or spectator who wants to pray can do so on their own time in private before the meeting – the same as countless employees at other workplaces across Canada. Government meetings are public, and the government must serve everybody, so nobody should have to feel the need to leave the room.
A number of HAAM members who shared and/or supported Tony’s complaint were forced to defend or explain the rationale behind it. Here are a couple who did that very well. First, Bob Russell received his own share of hatred and vitriol, after posting the following on his social media page.
The Supreme Court has already ruled against a municipality in Quebec regarding public prayer. In that case, the prayer was a Roman Catholic prayer. Non-denominational means only that it is not Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc… but it still usually makes reference to “God”, either explicitly or implied. Regardless of how nebulous the reference is, or how seemingly benign the prayers are, it is still a religious practice that should have no place in a secular government that is supposed to represent all the people and not just those who are religious.
An option tried in the US is to have prayers from different religions on a shared and rotating basis. This all sounds good, but in practice, many officials have walked out of meetings rather than listen to prayers said by Muslims, Hindus, and (Gawd help us) Satanists and Wiccans. Christians have packed the public gallery to sing hymns and drown out prayers from these people. So much for respecting one another’s beliefs.
There is a place for prayer but it should not be in government. Comparing prayer at City Council to prayer before a meal in a restaurant fails to clear the first hurdle because a restaurant is not taxpayer funded nor a government agency. You can say your prayers in a restaurant as long as you are not disrupting other patrons. I see it all the time and have yet to see anyone take offence at it – atheist or believer. I would wager that if someone does take offence, it will be another person of faith and not an unbeliever. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, we can always rely on the faithful to burn each other’s churches.
And nothing at all prevents any councillor or employee from praying quietly to themselves at any time of the day they wish to. They can even meet before the start of official business or their shift to pray all they want to.
The secularization of government is a good and necessary thing. By not promoting religion – any religion – the state does, in fact, protect religious belief. Or should we have an official state religion that excludes all other religious and non-religious people? That has been the case in the past here, and still the practice continues today in many parts of the world.
Secular government will eventually become a reality. Religious beliefs have no role in official government business. Many people are informed and influenced by their religious beliefs, and the results can be both good and very bad as we well know. Secular government opens the door to allowing people of all beliefs, or no religious belief, to have a full role in the affairs of the city, province and country without discrimination – overt or implied.
After publishing Tony’s story, the Winnipeg Free Press received several letters to the editor critical of the story. Here is Pat Morrow’s response to them:
I applaud Tony Governo for his efforts and putting himself out there for all who value the benefits of a secular government. Not many have witnessed the comments and the text messages calling him a clown or crybaby and worse. For Tony and others active in the secular movement, this is water off a duck’s back. And it begs the question: where are the rational arguments promoting prayer and city Council meetings?
Amongst the “rebuttals” to Tony’s efforts is a letter making the claim that his mental anguish over religion in government is a “First World problem”. The ignorance and irony is thick with this one, as undoubtedly the individuals who make this claim enjoy the benefits and privilege of living in a secular society. The separation of religion and government can’t be traced directly to those benefits. One doesn’t have to look very far back in history to see the damage done when religion is partnered with government. History is full of examples, such as Indian residential schools and the Magdalene laundries. Even today, separate school boards in Ontario and Alberta are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars in the duplication of services, simply by maintaining the archaic idea of public religious education.
As we look around the world, the evidence is overwhelming – secular, democratic societies score higher on every measure of societal heath, including general happiness, higher life expectancy, lower rates of STI’s, lower infant mortality rates, and the list goes on. No society ever advanced because it became more religious.
So when someone calls this a First World problem, they are mistaken. Separation of church and state is a benefit and privilege that should be zealously guarded world-wide. It guarantees protection for all religions and beliefs systems and has no affect on people’s individual rights to practice their own religion.
As for the non sequitur claim that Christians have been doing the “thankless” charitable heavy lifting in the Third World for the last several decades, I say “get down off the cross.” Would the writer like a list of the many thousands of NGOs, secular, non-Christian religious, and Humanist organizations that are doing charitable work in the Third World?
City politicians have homes, offices, hallways, and churches to pray in. Council Chamber is designated for running the business of the City of Winnipeg – not a place to feature one’s personal religion, beliefs, or new age woo woo. My personal beliefs are not a part of my employment; I just get to work. I’m asking the city to do the same.
Tony plans to proceed with a complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. Stay tuned for further updates.
In this issue:
- Report on another successful Outreach
- Secular group forming in Steinbach
- Blood drive update
- Back to school – beware of proselytization
- and more…
In April 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Christian prayers at city council meetings in Saguenay, Quebec were unconstitutional. The ruling makes it clear that, in order to promote and respect the rights of all citizens, governments must maintain neutrality with regard to religion.
The following excerpts from the ruling illustrate the concept of neutrality very well (you can read the full ruling here).
-  “… State neutrality means … that the state must neither encourage nor discourage any form of religious conviction whatsoever. If the state adheres to a form of religious expression under the guise of cultural or historical reality or heritage, it breaches its duty of neutrality… “
-  “… state neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures towards religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever, while taking into account the competing constitutional rights of the individuals affected.”
-  “… abstaining does not amount to taking a stand in favour of atheism or agnosticism. The difference, which, although subtle, is important, can be illustrated easily. A practice according to which a municipality’s officials, rather than reciting a prayer, solemnly declared that the council’s deliberations were based on a denial of God would be just as unacceptable. The state’s duty of neutrality would preclude such a position, the effect of which would be to exclude all those who believe in the existence of a deity.”
-  “… there is a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality. True neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another. No such inference can be drawn from the state’s silence. In this regard, I will say that the benevolent neutrality to which the Court of Appeal referred is not really compatible with the concept of true neutrality…”
-  “…The purpose of neutrality is instead to ensure that the state is, and appears to be, open to all points of view regardless of their spiritual basis. Far from requiring separation, true neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any religion, and that it abstain from taking any position on this subject. Even if a religious practice engaged in by the state is “inclusive”, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers…”
As a result of this decision, cities across Canada, including Winnipeg, reviewed their practices of opening meetings with prayers. While some of those cities subsequently terminated the practice after the review, Winnipeg did not.
After seeking advice from the city’s legal department, Mayor Brian Bowman stated “[t]he preliminary analysis is that what we are doing is likely permissible.” Bowman noted that local City Hall prayers tend to be non-denominational and not overtly religious. And so, amid some controversy, the councillors continue to recite a prayer of their choosing.
One Person’s Action
A year later, in the summer of 2016, HAAM executive member Tony Governo took a look at what’s currently happening at City Hall in Winnipeg and wrote to his councillor asking the following questions:
- Are prayers still being recited at city hall?
- If so, do you take your turn at reciting a prayer?
- Do you always recite the same prayer?
- What kind of prayer do you recite?
- Can you provide a copy of the prayer(s) you have recited?
- Has there been discussion about ending this practice at city hall?
- Would you recite a “prayer” provided by one of your constituents?
As it turns out, Tony’s Councillor, Cindy Gilroy (Daniel McIntyre) is on record as having read a ‘prayer’ that could not really be termed a prayer at all, but would more appropriately be called a Humanist invocation, and he commended her for that. But other councillors have recited quite a variety of prayers, some of them still overtly religious.
About half of the councillors recite the following ‘generic prayer’ (a previous version of it, before the Supreme Court ruling, contained the words ‘pray’ and ‘amen’):
“As we gather here today as members of city council, we seek to be ever mindful of opportunities to render our service to fellow citizens and to our community, keeping in mind always, the enduring values of life and exerting our efforts in those areas and on those things upon which future generations can build with confidence. Let us continue to strive to make a better world.”
So far, so good. But a little research turned up several councillors who mentioned a ‘god’ or ‘spirit’, with varying levels of religiosity. Some examples:
- Councillor Gillingham (St James) opened a prayer with “Lord…”
- Councillor Eadie (Mynarski) referred to a “Spiritual guide…”
- Councillor Pagtakhan (Point Douglas) called upon an “All-inclusive God…”
- Councillor Mayes (St Vital) has read prayers from various religions
- Councillor Schreyer (Elmwood) sang a Nigerian prayer
- Councillor Dobson (St Charles) began with “We pray” and ended with “Amen”
- Councillor Lukes (South Winnipeg) prayed for guidance from an unnamed guide
- Councillor Wyatt (Transcona) recited the Lord’s Prayer, and
- Councillor Browaty (North Kildonan) opened a meeting with “O eternal almighty God, from whom all power and wisdom come. We are assembled here before thee to frame such laws as may tend to the welfare and prosperity of our city. Grant, o merciful God, we pray thee, that we may desire only that which is in accordance with thy will, that we may seek it with wisdom, know it with certainty and accomplish it perfectly, for the glory and honour of thy name and for the welfare of all thy people. Amen.”
While the first few examples above skirt the intent of the Supreme Court ruling to varying degrees, the last two prayers blatantly violate it.
What Can You Do?
If the continuing practice of allowing overtly religious prayers at Winnipeg’s City Hall concerns you, please write to the mayor and your city councillor to call for an end to invocation prayers at meetings. Or, as an alternative to ending the practice altogether, ask your councillor to recite a prayer of your choosing, and submit a suggestion that is compatible with Humanism. (There are some great examples here.)
Below is a sample letter that you can use as a starting point to write to your councillor if you’re not exactly sure what to say. Just copy and paste it; then adapt the wording to fit your own opinion or circumstances as desired.
Dear Mayor Bowman, Ms. Sharma (Chairperson – Governance Committee of Council), and members of City Council:
As a constituent of the City of Winnipeg, I am writing to call for an end to invocation prayers at the City of Winnipeg council meetings in accordance with last year’s Supreme Court ruling, posted here: https://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/2015/2015scc16/2015scc16.html.
I commend the councillors who have recited invocations from varied religions, as well as Humanism. I would only hope that they continue to recite these types of invocations, if the City continues with the practice.
While it is true that some councillors do read a generic prayer without the mention of a deity (a prayer nonetheless), others do not. A number of councillors cite “God” or “Lord”, which I can only assume is the Christian god; other councillors have mentioned a spiritual guide, alternated among prayers from religious, or asked for guidance, although it is uncertain from whom.
After a review of the Supreme Court ruling by its legal department, Winnipeg City Council decided that it would continue reciting prayers. In reviewing those recited since the ruling, it would appear that the City is trying to be benevolently neutral. However, the Court stated that benevolent neutrality is not compatible with true neutrality, which is what governments should be practicing.
I submit to you the following excerpts from the Supreme Court ruling to support my call for the end of invocation prayers at the City of Winnipeg council meetings:
 “… State neutrality means … that the state must neither encourage nor discourage any form of religious conviction whatsoever. If the state adheres to a form of religious expression under the guise of cultural or historical reality or heritage, it breaches its duty of neutrality… “
 “… state neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures towards religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever, while taking into account the competing constitutional rights of the individuals affected.”
 “… abstaining does not amount to taking a stand in favour of atheism or agnosticism. The difference, which, although subtle, is important, can be illustrated easily. A practice according to which a municipality’s officials, rather than reciting a prayer, solemnly declared that the council’s deliberations were based on a denial of God would be just as unacceptable. The state’s duty of neutrality would preclude such a position, the effect of which would be to exclude all those who believe in the existence of a deity.”
 “… there is a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality. True neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another. No such inference can be drawn from the state’s silence. In this regard, I will say that the benevolent neutrality to which the Court of Appeal referred is not really compatible with the concept of true neutrality…”
 “…The purpose of neutrality is instead to ensure that the state is, and appears to be, open to all points of view regardless of their spiritual basis. Far from requiring separation, true neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any religion, and that it abstain from taking any position on this subject. Even if a religious practice engaged in by the state is “inclusive”, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers…”
Optional: If you are still in favour of using some kind of invocation at the beginning of Council meetings, would you consider reciting one of my choosing, that would reflect my Humanist values and beliefs. I would be happy to suggest one.
I will continue to follow this issue and await your response.
If you are not sure who your city councillor is, you can find out here.
With your help perhaps we can persuade the City to abide by the Supreme Court ruling.
Update: Click here for the next installment in this story.
- HAAM shows our Pride as we support the LGBTTQ community and stand up to bullying in Manitoba schools
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- We’re gearing up for summer Outreach
- HAAM opposes attempts to reintroduce legislation that could affect access to abortion
and more… May Newsletter
You may have heard the story of a young mother in southern Manitoba who spoke at a Hanover School Division board meeting after her child was bullied for having two Moms. She asked for the school board to actively address its policies around diversity and allow discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms.
In response to this story, HAAM has released the following official statement. However, because this story also resonates with us on a personal level, we are adding personal statements from two of our executive.
We at the Humanists, Atheists, & Agnostics of Manitoba stand in support of Michelle McHale’s efforts to have family diversity – including LGBTTQ parents – included in discussions regarding human rights at her child’s school.
We believe that diversity in individuals and in families is to be appreciated and celebrated, not to be ignored or treated like something shameful. It doesn’t really matter whether that diversity reflects our nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or our religion (or lack thereof). These are just some of the protected characteristics under the Manitoba Human Rights Code. It is important that children learn to understand and appreciate the fact that we are all unique.
This statement summarizes our stance as an organization. However, this issue has also resonated with us on a personal level, and our President and Vice President have also prepared personal statements regarding the situation in Hanover School Division.
Statement from Donna Harris, President
Ms. McHale’s original complaint was that her 12-year-old child was being bullied by other students. In my opinion, the Hanover School Division’s first priority SHOULD have been to stop the bullying, and prevent it from re-occurring. It’s obvious that family diversity is a topic that needs to be addressed, if other kids are using it as a weapon against their classmates. And where did they get the idea in the first place? It must have come from somewhere close to home. This situation did not require a “sensitive” in-depth discussion about being homosexual. It required a lesson in tolerance, kindness, and respect.
It is interesting that the Manitoba school curriculum includes “family diversity” as a topic in the elementary grades, but not in middle school. A quick internet search turned up a number of books about different types of families that appear to be meant for children in grades 1 to 3. Family diversity doesn’t just mean two Moms or two Dads. What about families with adopted children from a different ethnic group? Mixed race families? Single parents? Children being raised by grandparents?
Surely there must be some of these families in the Hanover School District. I don’t believe Ms. McHale wanted to introduce sex education. She just wanted her child’s school to be a welcoming environment, where learning can take place in a positive, supportive atmosphere.
Statement from Pat Morrow, Vice-President
Print media and television give us the nuts and bolts of the story but don’t touch the underlying cause of the controversy. That underlying cause in southern Manitoba is Fundamentalist / Evangelical Christian beliefs. For Humanists, being gay or having two Moms is no more noteworthy than being black or left-handed. We’re all just people. Marriage between members of the same sex isn’t gay marriage, it’s just marriage. Using reason, science, and our natural human empathy, we came to this conclusion so long ago that it astounds us to find a group of educators and parents who don’t even want to talk about it.
Since this story broke it has exploded on the local social media, with a lot of anger and emotion on both sides. What’s really interesting for me to see are the religious folks who would for the most part like to stuff this subject back in the closet, and yet have so much to say about it. And for many of them, what they have to say is truly disgusting. For example, that homosexuality is a slippery slope leading to bestiality and pedophilia, or that homosexuality is a violation of God’s law and natural law. I asked several of these evangelical social media commenters if they agreed with the penalty for homosexuality written in Gods law (which of course is death). I also pressed several of them to confirm their support of statements made by other fundamentalist Christians whom they quote in their various posts, such as “Should we be removing children from the homes of gay parents?” and “Do you believe gay people spread diseases?“… The silence was deafening. Those of us who have heard the above claims before usually associate them with the wingnut fundamentalist Christianity of places such as Mississippi or Arkansas. What’s really disturbing is that these are fellow Manitobans in 2016. Their inability to answer these basic moral questions speaks volumes about what they truly believe about good, decent, moral people who just happen to be gay. On the other hand, I suppose it could be that religion has damaged their moral compass to the point that they cannot articulate a coherent answer due to acute cognitive dissonance.
I was looking through this social media quagmire of faith-based hyperbolic misinformation and general bigotry for that most elusive snippet of information – an actual reasonable argument against the subject at hand, which is that the Hanover School board is being asked to allow discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms. Like looking for the proverbial diamond in a dung heap, I didn’t find any. The closest I was able to come were statements that parents have a right to teach children their beliefs, and multiple claims of “it’s our freedom of religion” (and no, I didn’t miss the irony that neither of these claims are “Gods Laws”). These are rights that Humanists fully support and are guaranteed in our Constitution. I think the question to ask is: At what point do we as a society tell parents and school boards that what they’re teaching their children is harmful and that what they’re not teaching is shortchanging them? I think that time is now, because what is good, what is right, and what is noble is on our side.
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Former police officer Bob Russell served with the Winnipeg Police Service for 35 years, from 1976 to 2012. He served in uniform patrol divisions, the detective branch, and forensic identification section, retiring at the rank of Sergeant. Since retirement, he continues to follow current issues within the department. He is dead against the creep of evangelical Christianity into the Winnipeg police service, and he is passionate and vocal about it. Here are his thoughts about the chapel in the new police headquarters.
Recently the Winnipeg Free Press reported that the Winnipeg Police Service announced plans for a “chapel” within the new headquarters building. I submit that including a chapel is a bad idea. My thoughts on the chapel also extend to the existence of police chaplains. I speak both as a concerned private citizen and as a retired member of the service for which I retain considerable pride and loyalty.
The Winnipeg Police Service is publicly funded to enforce the law, maintain the peace, detect and apprehend offenders, and prevent crime in a multi-cultural, multi-faith city. It must serve everyone without bias or the perception of bias, including those people who do not believe. We know that not everyone, including the religiously faithful, agrees on the numerous and contradictory truth claims of the myriad of world religions, the nature of “spirituality”, or even on the actual existence of supernatural beings.
A chapel is traditionally a place of Christian worship. Here it is advertised as a “space for quiet reflection.” As you may know, quiet rooms already exist in all new police facilities, where space is made available for reflection, prayer, or just peace and quiet. Chaplaincy program coordinator Sgt. George Labossiere claims that chaplaincy promotes the “holistic health of officers regardless of their beliefs”, and sells the chapel as “more based on ensuring that our members have a place to go, can connect with people, can make sure that we don’t just ignore the fact that many people have spiritual needs that need to be addressed.” This is double-speak. What he is actually saying is that the service should promote religious or spiritual ideas even though some people don’t hold them. An excellent employee assistance program already exists, with access to professional counsellors who treat a wide range of physical, mental, and spiritual health issues.
The Police Service should not be in the business of promoting religious or spiritual notions, regardless of how many or few people believe or disbelieve them. Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, covens, etc. currently exist in large numbers to look after the needs of those who believe. Police employees have plenty of off-duty time to visit them – frequently if desired. If religion and spirituality is the business of the police service, then chaplains should be employed full time and in far greater numbers, services and prayer should be compulsory and numerous, and there should be spiritual mediums on staff. But the police service doesn’t have full time chaplains, mandatory prayer services, or spiritualists on staff. If not, then why not?
Will the chapel be made available for fringe religions? Satanists? Scientologists? Neo-Pagans? If not, then why not? What sort of imagery and icons will the chapel contain? All? None? Or will this be an absurd attempt at being “non-denominational”, like the Calgary Police Chapel, which contains only the icon of the Archangel St. Michael, the supposed patron saint of police officers. Is it not odd that some people consider a Roman Catholic saint non-denominational? Many police vehicles in the United States now display Christian crosses. Shall the WPS do the same? If not, then why not? Will the service fly a Christian Flag? Any other religious flag? If not, then why not?
A chapel and chaplains encourage unprofessional, unwanted, and unethical proselytization. This has and still does occur. Church Parades were held in the past. Gideon New Testaments have been supplied by the WPS to new recruits, off and on for years, most recently in 2014. A leadership training course, produced and marketed by Christian evangelist John C. Maxwell, was, until recently, taught to newly promoted supervisors. This material contains blatant religiously-themed material suggesting that future leaders should be growing closer to God. It also recommends that future leaders be without personal problems – which are undefined. To many believers, non-belief in the supernatural is a personal problem. Will they be given a fair shake by a supervisor who is assessing a non-believing employee? Maxwell’s goal is clearly stated on his websites. It is to ensure that more Christian leaders are in place throughout the world. Both of these issues were addressed by HAAM, and Chief of Police Clunis assured us that bible distribution would cease, and the inappropriate course would be dropped. He followed through with his commitment on those two issues. However, the planned chapel is another insertion of a faith-based worldview in what should be secular organization.
In the last 20 years or so, WPS Awards Days have been held at Grant Memorial Baptist Church, and training sessions for employees have been held at Springs Church. Springs Church is of particular concern because employees of the WPS have been handed church membership information on entering the building. Did Springs offer their facility, complete with many volunteers, and free coffee, snacks and lunches, at a highly discounted rate? I have heard that this was the case. Even if not, Springs took full advantage of the opportunity to try to recruit WPS staff who only wished to – or were obliged to – attend a work-related seminar. That these seminars were organized by a wellness officer who was also a police chaplain makes it doubly suspicious. Police chaplains are always front and center at awards days and graduation ceremonies, offering prayers and benedictions and assuming that everyone agrees with them. Chaplains have always had a privileged place at these events, and this is unwarranted and undeserved.
Private fundamentalist Christian police organizations exist with the purpose of evangelizing other police employees, the general public, and persons in custody. The Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers – Canada, with 1,200 members across Canada, is one. I have no idea how many, if any, WPS officers are members. There are probably a few, and they have the unquestionable right to belong. However, the FCPO-Canada has produced advertising and recruitment videos which include an FCPO-Canada member in uniform, seated in what appears to be the executive boardroom of the Woodstock (Ontario) Police Service, and an officer in the uniform of the Toronto Police Service standing next to a TPS police car. The apparent intended impression is clear and convincing – that this fundamentalist private club has official recognition and the support of the police agencies involved.
In 2016, FCPO-Canada and the Canadian Bible Society have partnered to distribute evangelical books to police employees across the country. Such groups will no doubt take advantage of a religious chapel wedged in the police service. It will be used for bible studies, prayer meetings, and speakers aimed at recruiting other employees. The service will surely then be in the business of proselytization to a membership who represent all religious persuasions and no religious beliefs at all. Is this an agreeable situation? Will the service allow other faith groups or clubs to come in as guests to pitch their religion to employees? If not, why not? The potential for strife, internal and external, is obvious, high and dangerous.
Will alternate rooms be made available for those faith groups or persons who choose not to share? Some mainstream religious groups are diametrically and violently opposed to each other. All religious faiths are, at their core, convinced that all others are wrong. They are all certainly convinced that non-believers are wrong, many believe that non-believers will be eventually punished, and some would like that to happen sooner rather than later. This is why ecumenicalism and religious pluralism are like a greased pig – very difficult to grasp and more difficult to hold on to.
I have heard the argument that chapels exist in hospitals, airports, and many other institutions outside of traditional religious buildings. These arguments are irrelevant because these institutions do not have the same responsibility as a police service. People who are sick or visiting a sick person in hospital, or who are travelling and desire the facility of a religious room should have easy access to one. This is completely benign. But the police are different in very important ways. Firstly, police represent the front line of authority of the state and its institutions which govern us all. Secondly, police have the ability and duty to lawfully deprive people of their liberty. And lastly and most importantly, police have the ability and duty to lawfully use physical or deadly violence on citizens. The police service must not be seen to be favouring or privileging any group – religious or otherwise. As Sir Robert Peel stated, a civilian police must retain the trust and confidence of its citizens. Simply put, the best stance for the WPS is to be officially neutral with respect to religious belief.
I therefore propose the following changes to ensure that the Winnipeg Police Service becomes a truly secular agency. One that serves the increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-religious people of our city without any actual or perceived religious favouritism or privilege.
- The chapel should be cancelled immediately.
- No religious facilities should be installed in any police building. This does not prohibit any memorial to fallen officers consistent with the values of a completely secular service.
- No WPS facility, uniform, equipment or logos should be used by any religious organisation for any of their activities or advertisements.
- The blatant proselytization of any religious belief, while on duty and/or within a police facility or vehicle, to employees, civilians, or persons in custody, must be prohibited.
- No religious literature of any kind may be offered or supplied, while on duty or within a WPS facility or vehicle, by employees to other WPS employees or to any other persons.
- No religious literature of any kind may be offered or supplied by the WPS to any employees with the exception of approved information used in official cross-cultural training programs.
- All official WPS functions, ceremonies, graduations, etc., must be entirely secular.
- Only facilities that are not of a religious nature or purpose may be rented or used for any functions of the WPS.
- The position of Police Chaplain should be eliminated, and matters of religious faith and spirituality should be left up to the individual.
- The WPS should announce these changes and its secular commitment to the general public.
- The City of Winnipeg Act and the WPS Rules and Regulations should be amended to codify the above changes.
Nothing prevents individual employees from carrying personal copies of religious texts while working, praying in a non-disruptive manner, or forming off-duty groups of like-minded people. Accommodations have been made for changes to the police uniform for practicing Sikhs. This is reasonable, but even these types of religious accommodations have the potential for problems arising out of historic conflicts. No doubt, other challenging and controversial situations will arise that will make future accommodations more problematic. But in these cases it is individual religious rights, not organisational rights, that are considered and addressed. The Winnipeg Police Service itself has no religious rights; it has only duties and responsibilities. Its duty and responsibility regarding religious faith and spirituality is to be neutral. Its duty and responsibility to the health and wellness of its officers is already met by its current employee assistance program. The religious beliefs of employees and the public need only be individually respected. The furtherance or alteration of these beliefs are private matters which are best left to the individual. Nothing suggested here prevents the WPS from meeting with community religious or non-religious groups as part of its overall duties to serve the entire community.
Sergeant Labossiere says the WPS follows the lead of many agencies in North America. Follows? Why not lead? The Winnipeg Police Service should become the leader in establishing and maintaining a completely impartial and secular service organization.
– Bob Russell
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- and more…
UPDATED 17 October 2015 (added rebuttal from Nick Martin and additional statement from HAAM)
You may have seen the following editorial, by Nick Martin, which appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on 9 October, 2015. It refers to a news release that HAAM sent to the Free Press in early September prior to River City Reasonfest. The content of the news release reflected the frustration our members felt at some of the stories we heard from visitors to our Outreach booth at the Morden Corn and Apple Festival in August, as well as from other sources over the past several years. In particular, the number of people who espouse creationism made us wonder how science is being taught in Manitoba schools, what the educational standards for science are, and whether or not those standards are being applied equally in all publicly funded schools.
Here is the editorial in its entirety, followed by the response our executive sent to the Free Press.
How Not to Enhance Your Credibility
I received a news release recently from the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba which made a sweeping and astonishing allegation about what Manitoba schools are teaching.
It was done in the context of promoting the Reasonfest conference that the group held.
Here’s what part of the HAAM news release said:
“Did you know that Manitoba schools are producing graduates who believe that fossils are man-made? Did you know that we have a creationist museum here in Winnipeg? Did you know that many religious groups in Manitoba endorse the (legal) beating of children because they’re ‘sinners’? Are you aware of the plight of LGBT and trans kids in the bible belt, or of business owners too scared to be who they are because their community will END their family’s livelihood if they found out? Is this acceptable to you as a Manitoban? A Canadian? A decent human being?”
It’s that first sentence with which I took issue, and immediately contacted the organization. Yes, I’m aware that some people would take issue with some of the subsequent sentences.
Note that the statement is not clarified or elaborated upon in any way. It does not say some Manitoba schools, it does not limit its allegation to a certain number of schools, or name those schools, which might be private schools, which might be among the dozens of faith-based schools, which might be non-funded independent schools… it declares “Manitoba schools.”
I doubt that you’ll find a lot of public schools teach that to their graduates. I think I would have noticed if my kids had come home telling me that the public school teacher had said evolution is a crock.
And when the person on the HAAM executive who sent the email got back to me, we ended up going back and forth quite a few times. Short version, it is not “Manitoba schools” — HAAM is aware of only one school at which it alleges that graduates are taught to believe that fossils are man-made, and the organization won’t name that school, because of fears of repercussions to anyone suspected of having passed on that information.
In his article “How Not to Enhance Your Credibility”, Nick Martin takes us to task for using imprecise language, and rightly so. Referring to “Manitoba schools” rather than “some Manitoba schools” sounds like hyperbole, when in fact it was a short-sighted shortening of a longer phrase.
What we know is that Manitoba is producing some high school graduates who are science illiterate. From what people tell us, sometimes the misinformation is endorsed by the school, sometimes it’s provided by teachers and probably not endorsed by the school, and sometimes confusing information could be coming from church or from home. When people tell us that bad things are happening and ask “isn’t there something you can do?” it’s not always clear that they mean “something you can do that doesn’t involve me coming forward.” We were admittedly caught off guard when we contacted some of them to say “great news, a reporter is interested in looking into this!” and they begged to be kept out of it for reasons we’ll discuss below. We replied to Nick Martin saying we’re working on coaxing people to come forward with a school name or teacher name, but we didn’t know he had a ticking clock and our time had run out. We’re not paid professionals with a PR team, we’re volunteers with day jobs who are trying to make a positive difference in Manitoba and we were hoping he would be an ally in getting the necessary conversations started.
There was one recent graduate not afraid to come forward. Our focus had been in trying to get public school issues brought to light since the parents there would be the most likely to be upset at their kids learning pseudoscience, but this graduate is from Calvin Christian Collegiate. She wrote, “Every science class was prefaced by the fact that we are all created by god and all the wonderful things that we discover through science are because god is awesome. We were taught creationism, and evolution was never brought up. I remember one time we talked about the Big Bang and everyone just laughed and mocked the idea without even a basic understanding of what it meant” and “my whole life I was told a lie… a lie that took away science and sex education.”
A recent graduate of a different Christian school who is not willing to come forward or name her school said that the science teacher would teach his lesson, immediately followed by another teacher who would contradict everything they were just told by saying “that was just one ‘opinion’ but we know X exists in the world because god” (X meaning evolution or the Big Bang, or whatever the case may be). The school is technically fulfilling its educational requirements but also endorsing conflicting messages that understandably leave the students confused. We have other anecdotal evidence involving Winnipeg public schools but the parents are not willing to be quoted; where do we go from here as concerned Manitobans?
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit, no religious pun intended. Most of Manitoba’s independent private religious schools are publicly funded*, which means we’re all paying to produce ignorant graduates from SOME OF these schools (we’ve also heard that some Christian schools have wonderful science programs). One example, from The King’s School’s website, mentions Adam and Eve in the same paragraph (#13) as it mentions science; page 6 of the Springs Academy student handbook says outright that they teach creationism. According to Manitoba’s education curriculum, a student could go all the way through school and never be taught Darwinian evolution. The foundational theory of biology is not touched on until grade twelve.
When HAAM does outreach work at the U of M each January we meet students (usually from St. John’s and St. Paul’s colleges) who want to argue that fossils are man-made or the devil planted them, or they landed there in the flood that “Noah” survived… when we ask these young adults where they went to high school we’ve heard Winnipeg, Altona, Grunthal, Winkler, and more. Why do so many Manitobans give religious schools a free pass? Isn’t education a right for all Canadians? Don’t the children of religious people have that same right? Is it ok that we’re producing some graduates who are science illiterate? How are Manitobans supposed to compete on the world stage if they’re ignorant?
The British Humanist Association proposes the following goal, which sounds like a good starting point for Manitoba:
“Creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly funded schools. We work for enforceable statutory rules that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly funded school of whatever type. Such rules must also be comprehensive, so that it is clear that any portrayal of creationism and ‘intelligent design’ as science (whether it takes place in science lessons or not) is unacceptable.”
Great Britain agreed and banned the teaching of creationism as science in publicly funded schools in 2014. Such a proposal leaves out home-schooled kids and those in privately funded schools.
The reasons given to us for parents not wanting to come forward or afraid to be identified by deduction are varied and disturbing. The most common reason is that their kids are in school now, and the parents don’t want them ostracized or bullied by the kids of religious people who already have an ‘us vs. them’ mentality toward non-believers. For those who are non-white and come from cultural communities rooted in religion (e.g., we’ve spoken with Filipinos, First Nations people, and Somalis recently), being exposed as a non-believer means the community withdraws its social, financial, and emotional supports, forbidding their children to play with yours, excluding you from family and community events, removing most of your accessible support systems. And of course the rhythm of your life moves to the calendar of religious events, so to be excluded is disorienting to say the least. For those living south of Winnipeg we’ve been told that if you’re found out as a non-believer, entire communities will similarly shun you and your children, spreading the word not to patronize your business (this statement is backed by current HAAM members who are former members of groups that act this way). In our yearly outreach work at the Morden Corn and Apple festival we meet many of these secret non-believers who are relieved to be able to speak freely. What we hear from these encounters forms the basis of the other questions that Nick Martin thought might be objectionable. Here they are, one by one:
- “Did you know that we have a creationist museum here in Winnipeg?” For a comprehensive view of the pseudoscientific garbage that we hear on a regular basis in our outreach work, check out their website.
- “Did you know that many religious groups in Manitoba endorse the (legal) beating of children because they’re ‘sinners’?” The Twelve Tribes group, very active in Manitoba, is quite open about beating (sorry, “spanking”) their children with 5-foot sticks. We’ve heard about parents in a different cult who use corporal punishment that includes a scaled number of spanks in accordance with the “sin,” a single session going well over 100 spanks for a child under age 8 for asking a question. There are other forms of physical punishments from other groups we’ve heard about but we won’t get into it here.
- “Are you aware of the plight of LGBT and trans kids in the bible belt, or of business owners too scared to be who they are because their community will END their family’s livelihood if they found out?” We’ve already discussed the shunning part above. The LGBT and trans kids and young adults who come to us are truly heartbreaking because of their abysmal treatment. We point them to the Rainbow Resource Centre and we’ve started a collection of secular support links on our website so they know where to go if they suddenly find themselves kicked out or disowned.
The passage from our news release that Nick Martin quoted was the intro to our announcement about a secular conference we held in Winnipeg in September. The reason we think it’s important to bring together non-believers from across Canada and the USA is so that we can share ideas and strategies for addressing some of these common and disturbing issues.
Getting back to the problem of SOME Manitoba schools producing science-illiterate graduates, where do we go from here? If concerned parents with relevant information and recent graduates are willing, we suggest they send a letter to the Minister of Education and send us a copy too. We can’t do much unless people are willing to start talking.
Our last question from the news release stands: “Is [any of] this acceptable to you as a Manitoban? A Canadian? A decent human being?”
*From Manitoba Education, on Funding:
“The Department provides funding to funded independent schools for expenditures related to operations (e.g., salaries, learning resources), but not for capital expenditures (e.g., building new facilities, upkeep of existing facilities). The amount that each funded independent school receives is based on the number of eligible pupils enrolled at the school. Funding is set at 50% of public school net operating expenditures from two years previous to the current funding year. Funded independent schools also receive curricular materials support which is set at $60 per eligible pupil, $30 of which must be expended through the Manitoba Text Book Bureau.”
Rebuttal from Nick Martin
On 15 October 2015, Nick Martin posted this rebuttal in the Free Press.
That’s the longest diatribe I’ve undergone in a very long time.
I wrote recently about sweeping statements made by the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba (HAAM) in a news release a little over a month ago, most specifically a broad generalization that Manitoba schools are producing graduates who believe that fossils are man-made. The last I’d heard back from HAAM, as we went back and forth on that rather startling statement, it was aware of only one school, that the organization would not identify for fear of repercussions for the source of the information.
Last night we received an enormous letter to the editor from HAAM, a link to which you’ll find down below. It’s not running, not because it lambastes me, but because this letter would not only eat up the entire letters section and still barely be into the topic, and because the only thing we run that’s this long is the main story in 49.8 each week.
Yes, atheists attacked me. We’ll pause here while the anonymous on-line trolls, the religious right, the homophobes, all those members of my fan club roll around on the floor laughing.
Which reminds me, I saw a statement recently — with which I heartily agree, anecdotally — in one of the atheist Twitter accounts I follow, that the writer had never met an atheist who is a homophobe. But I digress.
Full disclosure: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of HAAM, and given how %^^%$# the organization is with me, it’s pretty safe to rule out my ever joining after I retire.
It could get uncomfortable if we ever encounter any HAAM members socially, which certainly isn’t out of the question. I’ve found during my decades in Winnipeg that the most adverse reaction I receive in social settings tends to be from those with whom I share at least some values, who despise me for where I work and what I do for a living, and for my crime of thinking there may be more than one perspective…but I digress again.
I’ve written many pieces over the years about school prayer and encroachments on a secular public school system, which aren’t all necessarily connected, but which tend to bring out the same crowd. I once wrote a very lengthy blog about my experiences in Ontario public schools in the 1950s and 1960s when the state imposed the mainstream Protestant churches on the education system, to the point of students receiving corporal punishment and even facing suspension for not embracing that forced faith. It’s pretty clear if you read anything I’ve written, that I believe it is not appropriate for adults to use public schools to attempt to inculcate other people’s children with their beliefs.
And despite all that, I’ve never been met with anything but politeness and welcome when I’ve gone to public schools in Steinbach and Winkler and Altona, and to the handful of faith-based schools which invite media attention.
I’ll talk about just one teeny point before I let you get on with reading HAAM’s diatribe. I did not say in my blog that I found statements made by HAAM to be objectionable — what I said was, that I recognize there are people in Manitoba who might object, which is pretty obvious — if there weren’t, why would HAAM feel the need to exist?
You can read the letter to the editor on HAAM’s website.
I considered reproducing it all below, but decided against it for the same reason I originally asked HAAM to back up its sweeping statement about what ‘Manitoba schools’ teach about evolution.
If you read the HAAM statement on its website, you’ll see that it makes allegations about two public postsecondary institutions and about several faith-based schools, and most remarkably there are statements about three ethnocultural groups which HAAM names and identifies as “non-white…cultural communities rooted in religion” which allegedly openly discriminate against and outright shun non-believers.
Am I saying that HAAM’s statements are false? No. But we don’t publish without proof and substantiation of such alarming and incendiary charges.
If you want to read the names of the ethnocultural groups and schools, they’re all on the HAAM website.
Statement from the HAAM executive
It’s unfortunate that Nick Martin took offense to our reply. That was not our intention, nor was our article written about him. Many Manitobans care about how faith-based beliefs affect our children, especially when it comes to publicly funded education.
The comprehensive, well balanced education of its children is the cornerstone of every modern society. There should always be room to talk about human myths, fables, and stories in our schools, but not to sell them as reality. The truth is that the modern world has real non-mythical problems to overcome, and those that cannot be solved by us will have to be solved by our children.
Teaching myths or demonstrably false ideas such as young earth creationism as truth will make our children less knowledgeable and less prepared to solve the very real problems we face today and in the future. And therein lies the problem.
No society has ever advanced by becoming more religious.
- Updates on the stories we’ve been following on religion in our public institutions,
- Details about all our upcoming events (including speakers who will be appearing at our River City Reasonfest conference in September), and
- A link to view the presentation on the Ethics of Religion if you missed it at our May meeting.
1976 was my last year at Principal Sparling, a little elementary school in the West End of Winnipeg. It was also the first year that Winnipeg #1 School Division did not open the morning exercises with the Lord’s Prayer or Christian Bible readings. There would be no more kids with the name Goldberg, Mahmoud, or Singh standing in the hall while Christian storytelling was going on inside class. It was a big step to a more secular school system – and we may be on the verge of another one.
At the present time Manitoba’s Public Schools Act states in section 80(2): “the school board SHALL pass a by-law authorizing instruction in religion in compliance with the (parents’) petition.” In effect, all that’s needed to have your religion (or any other religion for that matter) taught in public schools at lunchtime or after class is the signatures of a few of the schools’ parents, and your religion is in. No debate, no discussion.
A motion brought forward in April by trustee Lisa Naylor asks the provincial government to alter a single word – change “SHALL pass a bylaw authorizing instruction in religion” to “MAY pass a bylaw “. This tiny change in the act would give school divisions the necessary leeway to accept or reject a petition for religious instruction. This motion was much discussed at a very, very long school board meeting attended by several HAAM members just recently.
Speaking in favour of the motion (our side) was HAAM’s Tony Governo. His presentation was well researched and to the point, but unfortunately there’s only so much you can pack into 10 minutes. Tony pointed out that the way the act reads now could possibly be unconstitutional, as it leaves no recourse for minority religions, ones that cannot garner the required number of signatures. He pointed out that some provinces, such as British Columbia, have legislated a completely secular public school system. A great deal of his presentation and this meeting was spent commenting on the only religious group on record that as ever taken advantage of the religious petition system – the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF).
The CEF is an international organization that teaches an inerrant fundamentalist version of Christianity. A quick stroll on the internet will show that their primary goal is the religious conversion of children to their form of Christianity. They brought four people to speak against the motion – a husband and wife, a former volunteer, and the director of CEF Manitoba. The four presentations are far too much to cover in this article but their arguments are similar and seem to share the same central point: They believe that the wording change seeks to undermine religious freedom and restrict parents’ freedom to teach their own children their beliefs. It doesn’t, as trustee Naylor explained – the motion simply would give school boards the autonomy to evaluate religious programming being taught in public schools. At home, parents are free to teach their children whatever they choose.
It’s noteworthy that all four presenters against the motion were connected to the CEF either as present or former workers, or parent supporters. After each presentation I found another common theme among the CEF speakers – their ability to punch gaping holes in their own arguments. When the first presenter, a parent, was asked if there was any active recruiting going on by children in the CEF program, she replied “no”; then continued “but they (her children) would ask other children to go”. She also stated that her children “are very vocal about their Christian background and they have a right to continue that”. She later felt the need to add that her children were “vocal but never forceful”. I guess for Christians, recruitment has a different meaning?
The second presenter used his full 10 minutes to talk about constitutional and parental rights and how he feels this will limit them. He made the statement “if you’re going to refuse one religion you have to refuse them all”. I would agree, but this is not what the bill was about. When asked if the school board should have the right to screen out groups, either political or religious, that might be harmful to the kids, he wholeheartedly agreed. With that admission I don’t think he realized he threw his full support behind Ms. Naylor’s motion, which seeks to do exactly that – protect the kids from harmful beliefs.
The third presenter, David Hudson, has been director of CEF Manitoba for the last 26 years. He spoke about rights, freedoms and what he believes the CEF is primarily about – teaching children the difference between right and wrong. Unfortunately, almost every question that was asked of him in during the lengthy Q & A was met with sidestepping, obfuscation or just refusing to answer.
Some time was spent actually discussing what the CEF would teach in their classes. When asked to name an issue CEF is concerned with, Mr. Hudson brought up bullying, stating that bulling was very important. He was asked “if a child who was being bullied came to a CEF classroom what would be the take-home message for that 6-7 year old child?” Mr. Hudson’s answer was not that he would tell the child to report it to authorities, or to tell their parents, or even to find a teacher. According to CEF teaching, it is the child’s responsibility to love the bully, because, as Mr. Hudson stated, if you love the bully they can’t bully you back. Moreover, if the child is being bullied because they have two moms, this is a “non-issue” for CEF. The child should love the bully because, as he said “if people abuse you and you love them back it’s very hard for that abuse to continue”… No, I’m not making this up. I give Mr. Hudson credit as this is one of the few questions he answered directly.
Hudson repeatedly made the point that “the gays and lesbians” are a non-issue for the CEF, even though this organization has, from 2001-20012, donated $3,056,704 to anti LGBT organizations in the U.S. Yet he still insists it is a non-issue? When this was pointed out, the director simply dismissed it as inaccurate, even though it is a matter of public record and easily researched. The subject of the LGBT community was dodged so much that one trustee was prompted to ask “Mr. Hudson, you do realize evasion is a form of lying, don’t you?”
Hudson was also asked what are children told happens to unsaved people after they die; where do they go? Would they be cast into the lake of fire, eternal torment? No – according to the director, it’s just a “separation from God”. Of course, this puts him at direct odds with Section N (the statement of faith) on his organization’s own webpage; not to mention most of the course material that he actually sends out. So much for courage of conviction.
When asked about creationism he replied “The beauty of an education system is to teach both theories”. When asked about sex, specifically premarital sex, the director lamented “it’s a non-issue for us.” Sex is a non-issue? I think this is a first for any Christian group supposedly teaching right from wrong.
The final speaker, a former CEF volunteer who currently teaches at a private Christian school, spoke passionately on the importance of religious rights and parents’ rights. She believes that the Public Schools Act should remain the way it is, and that the motion to change it would restrict parents’ rights to teach their children as they see fit. Trustee Freedman picked up on a point Tony Governo made in his opening presentation: as the act is written it may be unconstitutional since it restricts smaller religions from the same access to schools as larger ones. Freedman, in a short exchange, was able to show this as inequality. The speaker agreed, and when pressed further, she agreed to gladly send a letter to the Minister of Education asking to change Section 80 of the act. The very section she came in to support!
It’s unfortunate that all the highly religious presenters that night couldn’t see the real issue; they are all victims of their own ignorance and religious indoctrination. They can’t see the difference between cultural study and promoting a religion as truth. They believe that promoting diversity and pluralism, and protecting children from harm, equals taking away their rights to teach their religious beliefs to their children. They equate a loss of privilege with a loss of rights. For some it forces them to lie about their faith. The cognitive dissonance must be painful.
I’m confident this motion will pass. Then it will be up to us, the people of Manitoba, to change our education act….. We’ll keep you posted.
– Pat Morrow
Get up to date with all the HAAM comings and goings…
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Upcoming this month: our Annual General Meeting, a book club, a multi-faith panel discussion… and more!
Our own Diana Goods (pic on right) will be participating in a public Panel Discussion. You can show your support by attending!
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The April Newsletter! No regular meeting this month! Instead, we’re hosting a Public Discussion on Manitoba Bill 18, the Anti-Bullying legislation. Also in this month’s issue: Why Sage House is a valuable resource. Pat Morrow tells us to be “out” as an atheist. And more! (picture is from the March 28th Bill 18 rally).