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North Coast Perspective: Love thy atheist as thyself

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Contributed

‘Tis the season to be inclusive.

Last week, I worked on a story about how non-Christian Newfoundlanders spend the Christmas holiday.

As preparation, I looked at the 2011 census, the last for which religious data is available. The numbers confirmed that, as in Canada as a whole, the fastest growing demographic groups in the province are the non-religious and Muslims.

I want to say I was surprised by how difficult it was to find Newfoundland atheists willing to go on the record, but I’m not.

I knew Newfoundland and Labrador was a very Christian place, but I had no idea just how much so. As provinces and territories of this great country go, there are none so Christian as this one. As of 2011, more than 93 per cent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians identified as some denomination of Christian. That’s compared to 67.3 per cent of the country as a whole.

Only 6.2 per cent of the province’s population claimed no religious affiliation compared to 24.3 per cent nationwide. Among the provinces and territories, second place wasn’t even close with Quebec nearly double that at 12.1 per cent.

Not all of the non-religious are atheists, of course. In 2011, 1.9 million of the 4.9 million who professed no religious affiliation specified atheism. That’s about six per cent of the Canadian population. I didn’t find the numbers for Newfoundland and Labrador, but if they follow along those lines, atheists only make up about two per cent of the provincial population.

That is a tiny minority, and leaves little wonder why most are more comfortable remaining in the closet. Like within all minorities, there is fear, rightly or wrongly, that we will be discriminated against.

I find Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are pretty accepting, but the fear is not totally unfounded.

Despite the progress Canadian society has made regarding respect for diversity, despite the fact the fastest growing demographic in the country is non-religious, despite the fact our constitution guarantees both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, despite the fact atheists tend to be highly educated and extremely underrepresented in the prison population, there is still a perceived stigma to non-belief.

A 2015 Angus Reid survey showed only 27 per cent of Canadians had a positive view of atheists. Interestingly, that’s not far off the percentage who are non-religious.

It doesn’t help that there are crackpots such as Chuck Norris going around saying if he were president, he would brand an American flag with the words “In God we trust” on every atheist’s forehead.

It’s often easier, especially among friends and family at Christmas, to just omit the non-belief.

As minorities go, atheists have a huge advantage when it comes to blending in. There are no visible indications of non-belief, no physical attributes, no clothing or iconography, no lifestyle elements, no obligation even to congregate with other atheists, or places designated for that purpose for that matter.

Also, given most of us grew up with some religion or other, we often have more in common with our religious brethren than with other atheists. In fact, getting atheists to agree on anything, even atheism, is like herding cats.

It’s a shame, though, that any person feels the need to deny, or at least avoid, an essential element of who they are.

In most situations it is also unnecessary. Sure, there are intolerant people in the world, but most are not. According to the Angus Reid study, while only 27 per cent of the population viewed atheists positively, only 22 per cent had a negative opinion while the other 51 per cent were neutral on the subject. Atheists are not even the most distrusted group in Canada.

I am not making a value judgment on that. I am not trying to say atheists are better than other people. Some are great, some suck, most are just people like everyone else. It’s just as unfair to individuals in those other distrusted groups to view them monolithically. Morality, immorality and the entire range of human behaviour can be found within atheist ranks, just as it can be within every religious group.

Christmas is a Christian holiday, but it is also a secular one. That is just a matter of history. We are still a majority Christian country, although the size of that majority has been shrinking for some time. It is the primary holiday of the year, a time for family, community and peace. Hence, regardless of whether we are Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu or atheist, it tends to be a time to take stock of our lives.

Are we living up to the essential values of an accepting and inclusive society?

Can we look past identity politics and see people for who they are and not judge them based on their membership in a particular group?

Matthew 22:39.

Merry Christmas.

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