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A year ago, almost to the day, Quebec passed its controversial Bill 21, barring state workers from wearing certain religious symbols on the job, into law.

In the wake of weekend protests, continuing to oppose the legislation in the name of fairness and the fight against systemic discrimination, one French Canadian atheist organization has petitioned for intervenor status in a pending challenge before the Quebec Court of Appeal.

The group Libres penseurs athées (Atheist Freethinkers) seeks to defend Bill 21 as “a historic advance for secularism” and a vindication for the non-religious. Group president David Rand sees it like this:

We must do all we can to ensure that this law is not rescinded or weakened by the opponents of fundamental freedoms and secularism… As atheists, we salute the will, expressed through Bill 21, to end certain religious privileges that constitute discrimination against atheists and other non-believers.

At the time of the bill’s original passage, Rand wrote that the bill would “help to protect the freedom of conscience of each and every person… regardless of their religious convictions.” But that’s not true, and it takes either genuine ignorance or willful prejudice to make that argument about a law that requires people to discard central items of religious garb in order to secure gainful employment.

In the same piece, Rand directs that ignorance and prejudice at hijab-wearing women specifically:

There are of course a certain number of Muslim women who noisily declare their determination to continue wearing the veil at all costs, their opposition to Bill 21, and their hatred for the government and the nation that adopted it, but they are far from being in the majority. These veiled women, in collaboration with anti-secularists (who hide behind the euphemism ‘multiculturalism’), constitute objective allies of the fundamentalist Islamist extreme right.

Setting aside the disparaging and dismissive tone Rand uses to go after noisy and insubordinate women, the leaps in logic here are astounding. It is possible to object to the dictates of an ostensibly secular law without being broadly anti-secular. It is possible to object to a government policy — even to find it discriminatory — while harboring no hatred for the government, nation, or society that enacted it.

And the idea that anybody who disagrees is objectively an ally of the extreme right? That’s a stretch. It’s also fundamentalist rhetoric — the very kind of all-or-nothing, with-us-or-with-the-terrorists thinking — that atheists often stand against when objecting to hard-line religious intrusions into the public sphere.

To see it deployed in atheism’s name should be chilling to any atheist who considers fairness and justice more important than the wholesale eradication of religion.

The argument that individual government workers with religious headgear implies any broader government endorsement of their beliefs insults the intelligence of the people of Quebec, who can surely distinguish between an individual worker’s personal faith expression and a government body’s stamp of approval. Nor are atheists themselves being forced to adopt or endorse religious symbols.

And as Canadian atheist Fred Maroun has pointed out, the weight of religious symbols on individual consciences varies widely across and even within religions:

Muslim men, Sikh women, Christians, and most Jews are not required by their religions to display any religious symbols. Therefore, the lack of religious symbols does not guarantee that the person is not a religious fanatic. What the law does is discriminate against sub-groups such as Muslim women and Sikh men without regard to whether they are in fact fanatics or otherwise unable to serve without undue religious bias.

Religious extremism is a state of mind, not a function of what you wear on your head. The ability to follow the dictates of one’s own religious tradition — yes, even the ones many atheists think are silly — is not a privilege: it is a fundamental freedom of the very sort Libres penseurs athées claims to protect. One hopes they would still care about the fundamental freedoms of people who aren’t currently atheists.

Above all, atheists should remember that the mere presence of religion visible in the public sphere isn’t enough to constitute discrimination against atheists. Otherwise, we become no better than the religious bigots we claim to oppose.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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