Friday, November 29, 2013


The worst thing is when people try to talk me out of it, as if it’s just something soft I’ve gotten stuck in. "Stalin was an atheist," they say. Okay. And? What do they expect to me say? "Stalin was an atheist? I had no idea. In that case, I do believe in God." And yes, I’ve heard of Pascal's Wager, and Paley’s pocket watch on the heath, and every other variation of the argument from design. These things do tend to enter your consciousness after three decades of daily study and reflection.

And yet my personal progress towards disbelief involved no turning points, revelations, or eureka moments. It simply began with a gradual realization, in boyhood, that my school’s daily prayers and Bible readings were just white noise to me. I stopped believing in God by the time I was about twelve and this early, intuitive disbelief has been buttressed by three subsequent decades of study, all of which has deepened my conviction that there isn’t enough evidence to support the God hypothesis.

There’s no reason to get all uppity about it, but people tend to. This was the second or third column I wrote for Measure of Doubt, nearly five years ago, but it’s the 109th that I’ve actually posted. I keep hesitating for a simple reason. I've found it’s best to keep quiet about my disbelief because it’s a stigma. I'll say that again: disbelief is a stigma. I almost never discuss it with family or friends. This is the first time I’ve unequivocally professed my atheism in public, and I raise the issue now with serious trepidation. 

Oh, I know that some believers think of themselves as the persecuted minority, huddled around the flickering candle of faith in the encroaching darkness.  Well, maybe. But it must be crowded around that candle, what with ninety percent of the population elbowing for room. The assertion, made by some conservative believers, that atheists aggressively dominate the public discourse on religion is based on the worst sort of hyperbolic selection bias. 

And I really don’t see what the problem is. Why would anyone be bothered by my skepticism, let alone offended by it? I don’t think believers are delusional, I think they’re wrong. Why would anyone be offended by this? It's precisely what they think about me.  Moreover, I assume that most Christians reject most non-Christian beliefs. Presumably they don’t believe that God has taken human form on many occasions, that First Nations have occupied the Great Plains since the beginning of time, that we’re bound to an endless cycle of reincarnation unless we follow the Eightfold Noble Path, or that the Qu'ran is the final and perfect revelation of God. That being the case, they too are atheists – about other peoples' religions. Again, I fail to see what the problem is.

Admittedly some people are faithful in a more amorphous way, arguing that all religions are just different versions of the same truth. When they consider such things at all, they say that they believe in some sort of "divine spirit" a warm and fuzzy though sometimes disapproving God: a celestial Oprah. Confess your sins. Jump on the living room set sofa forever and ever.

 "Maybe God is just the word we give to love," I heard a liberal theologian say on TV one time.  "Oh, please!" I shouted. I nearly dropped my copy of The Satanic Verses. And yet the amazing thing was that this purveyor superficially conceived, cloyingly sophomoric ooze got a free pass from the fundamentalist on the same show. "At least she believes in something," he said. By contrast, the atheist on the panel, who professed a thoroughly considered, rigorously examined, and continuously re-evaluated disbelief was told he was going to Hell. The fundamentalist described how he himself had always suffered persecution for his faith. Incredible: he goes around telling people they’re going to be tortured for eternity but says he’s being persecuted when they defend themselves. Incredible.

Well, I don’t think anybody’s going to Hell. In fact, nothing follows automatically from my atheism, and certainly not any conclusions about religion as a social institution. I don’t believe that it "poisons everything" as the title of a recent book put it. Personally, as I’ve grown older, I’ve taken far more interest in religious studies and my respect for certain aspects of religious institutions has grown, even as my atheistic convictions have solidified. I was very irritated not long ago to hear someone remark with pride, "I’m an atheist and I’ve never been in a church in my life." That’s a shame: he’s missed out on some great architecture and a pile of history. Comparative religion is one of the cornerstones of a good liberal education and I insist that my students know something about it. But people often mistake the meaning of all this.  A few years ago, on a teaching evaluation, one student wrote, "Prof. Broad seems very religious." I should have framed it.

Moreover, I teach at an institution with a religious affiliation.  Why?  Well, for many reasons, not the least of which is because it is an excellent liberal arts college with a superb faculty.  But it is also because that institution is actually far more amendable to the serious discussion of religion than the secular university I graduated from, where legions of the self-righteously politically correct maintain that the critical discussion of religion is the exact equivalent of racism. Their position – that ideas have rights – is both insipid and insidious, and is one that, moreover, they do not themselves believe, as they are perfectly willing to hurl stones in the direction of the Catholic Church, for example, when its precepts on matters concerning abortion, the ordination of women, and same sex marriage differ from their own.  Let us be very clear about this: you hear that academe is dominated by atheists. It isn’t. I can count on my fingers the number of real ones I’ve met. It’s dominated by moderately secular liberals, most of them positively popping with New Age spiritual beliefs. They're just mad about organized Christianity. Criticize other religions and they’ll haul you before a human rights tribunal. I tremble slightly to type those words.

Friends among the faithful, it's not the nonbelievers you should worry about. They just think you’re wrong. It's the devout of certain other religions and denominations that should concern you. They think you're wrong and that you're going to Hell for it. Some of them even believe that they are retribution's earthly instruments.  And since even the largest single denomination can claim no more than a fifth of the world's population as even nominal adherents, it is undeniably the case that, regardless of what faith you profess, the majority of the world's population thinks you’re wrong, that you’re guilty of some degree of theological or liturgical malpractice, and indeed from countless thousands of temples, mosques, and churches there emerges an even stronger claim from millions of truly devout believers.  They know in their hearts that you are not just wrong, but are wicked, sinful, and destined to spend eternity in damnation.

 So I'll see you there

Sunday, November 10, 2013


The brouhaha about white poppies is back and boring again, this year exacerbated by a seething campaign of fake indignation mounted by the herd of hacks at Canada’s worst newspaper. Well, it gives them something to do in the brief period before they begin to seethe with fake indignation about retailers who say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” and all that portends for the imminent collapse of civilization. This year, Ottawa’s Rideau Institute produced something like 2,500 white poppies versus the Legion’s 18 million red ones and yet to read the populist piffle in the Toronto Sun (and its various unwilling progeny) is to get the impression that this insidious commie plot, well, portends the imminent collapse of civilization. Can’t make a living as an ideologue if you don’t have a crisis.

More and more each year I find myself discomforted by Remembrance Day, and especially by the efforts of some organizations to impose a singular interpretation on the memory of the wars and how we should feel about them.  As an historian of the home front, I find the most remarkable thing about Canadian society in wartime to be the disjuncture between propaganda that stressed unanimity and common purpose and the actuality of what went on. Political, social, and economic debates were not set aside for the common good in wartime: they intensified as virtually every group with an axe to grind surged forth to argue that their cause had greater urgency than ever before. Propaganda, persecution, and misty-eyed patriotism tended to to paper over the unpleasantness (and this time of year it still does), but the fact is that some of the most divisive social and political debates in this country’s history occurred during the world wars. The generation of Canadians that fought them did not agree about why they were fighting, how they should fight, and what they wanted when peace resumed. And so it is positively incredible that some groups seem desperate to fix the meaning of remembrance after the fact, as if we could find consensus where wartime generations could not.

On Monday, though, we will hear about how the generation that fought the world wars fought “for us” and “for our freedoms.” But did they? Fight for us? Fight for our freedoms?  Surely they fought for their world, and if they fought for freedom at all it was almost certainly not for our conception of freedom. We may grow misty eyed over the grave of a young man, cut down in his prime in 1918, but reflect that, were he typical of his generation, he would hold attitudes on matters of (for starters) gender, race, and sexuality that many of us would consider positively repugnant and indeed totalitarian today. What would a typical soldier, killed at Amiens, having died without ever having heard the radio or seen a colour photograph, think of the world a century a later? Think of our secular, smoke-free, multicultural, Canada? Think of women in Parliament, a black man as President of the United States, of same-sex and interracial couples, Breaking Bad, Twilight, and hip hop?  Even the idea of a fully independent Canada might very well repulse him.

An eminent colleague of mine believes that, on November 11th itself, such questions of politics and history should go by the wayside and instead the day should be dedicated to the simple act of remembrance of those who fell. But what does this mean? Remember who? Remember what? And how? The act of “remembrance” – and in the context of Remembrance Day that almost always means "veneration" – is not simple. Consider even the question of "who": am I just remembering Canadians? And what does that even mean, prior to 1947? A great many of the 65,000 “Canadians” killed in the First World War weren’t born here, and probably didn’t think of themselves as Canadians at all. What about those who fought badly, were cowardly, or who even betrayed their comrades? And am I remembering our allies, too? The French? The British? The Americans? All their wars? Even the cruel and stupid ones? Even the Red Army, which brutalized its way across Eastern Europe, the spearhead of a totalitarian state whose cumulative death toll exceeded Hitler’s?  And am I remembering the enemy fallen, too – remembering those who fought against  “our freedoms”? Tread carefully here.

Consider, if you will, the rifleman in the infamous photograph above, about to gun down a woman and her infant child and then, presumably, the others, huddled defenceless, terrified, and weeping, perhaps begging for their lives. Very probably he was killed or maimed in subsequent fighting on the Eastern Front. Should I “remember” him tomorrow, merely because he wore a uniform and fought for a cause he believed in, even though that cause was objectively evil? Even though the success of that cause would have spelled the end of European civilization as we know it? Is his uniform some sort of totem that grants him moral absolution, regardless of his actions or the cause in which he served?  I find the notion that it does positively fascistic – a sign that no small part of his ideological worldview has, in fact, not merely survived eradication, but actually emerged victorious from the war. I know some people reading this will disagree.

But that's my whole point. I object. I object, I object, I object. I object to the idea that there is single, simple meaning to “remembrance” – that there is a correct way to remember the wars that has been passed down to us from the generation that fought them. Above all I object to the idea that the worldview of the dead – even assuming that a unitary worldview belonging to the past generations could be located – must somehow determine our own. We impart meaning on the act of remembrance, we write history for our own purposes and for the benefit of our own society.

So there I will be, tomorrow,  with a red poppy on my lapel and a white one in my heart, unsure about what to think of any of it. And perhaps that’s the real reason why I’m there – because of that uncertainty. Because if the liberal democracies succeeded in accomplishing anything in the world wars, it was in defending at least one part of the world from consensus. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013


The really absorbing spectacle in Toronto news over the last few days has not been the revelations regarding Rob Ford, as anyone who has been paying attention knew that was coming. No, it has been truly epic meltdown of Canada’s worst journalists at Canada’s worst newspaper, the Toronto Sun, where they have in the past seventy-two hours revealed hitherto undiscovered ways of back-pedalling, equivocating, deflecting, denying, and dissembling. What remains is a quivering pile of populist goo, oozing about the ankles of the “sunshine girl” du jour.

I try not to read this stuff for the same reason I try not hit myself on the head with a hammer. But it has the morbid appeal of a car wreck and ambulances by the side of the road – can’t look at it, can’t look away.

Anyway, they had a good run. Apart from elected office, journalism is about the only profession where you can be paid to spew at the mouth once a week on matters about which you have no expertise, so they’ll always have their memories of that, at least. And one or two of them have shown real integrity in the past few days, by which I mean, they’ve at least been consistent in their lack of integrity where Toronto’s absurd mayor is concerned. At least one continues to insist that the whole thing is a “left” conspiracy (how they love to throw that word "left" around), while another,  Anthony Furey – I confess to never having heard of him before – rose to the occasion and condemned not so much the mayor, but his critics.  “The left,”
(there’s that word again), he wrote, "is not outraged that Ford might be using hard, the bottom line is they don’t like that a fat, red-faced football coach with a working-class way about him is mayor. They don’t like that he’s not “people like us.” That’s all it’s ever been about.”

Guilty as charged. Well, sort of. I actually don't want "people like me" as my leaders. I want people who are better than me. I don't want just plain ordinary good-ole aw shucks folks to be Prime Minister, Premier, and Mayor. I want the best and brightest in political office. I want people who are smarter than me. Better informed than me. More articulate than me. More literate and better read than me. I want leaders with vision. I want leaders who are people who set examples in all things – including moral behaviour. I want leaders who are truly exceptional, the kind of people who can inspire us and who we can aspire to emulate. And my question for people who want “joe average” as their leader, who want crude, crass, mean, mendacious, slovenly, stupid, rude, racist, and reactionary boors as their leaders is...why? What happened to our country, to our polity – and this question goes out to Americans, too  – that “elite” became a pejorative term and mediocrity became the measure of a man or woman aspiring to political office? 

As a society, we are faced with real and complex problems. We need serious people with serious answers if those problems are going to be solved. Electing populist hooligans who make you feel good about your own inferiority complex isn't the solution.