Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The National Post Responds

I have been having some of the strangest interactions I have ever had, with both Charles Lewis, religion columnist of the National Post, and Stephen Meurice, the Post's editor-in-chief. They resulted from my blog post reacting to Lewis's column, entitled Dear atheists: most of us don't care what you think.

First, Meurice. I asked him why it was acceptable to have Lewis's headline, but not acceptable to have the analogous headline with (say) "Jews" replacing "atheists".

I found his reply rather surprising. He thinks the distinction is that most Jews are born into their faith, while atheism is just "an opinion".

One great feature of both American and Canadian democracies is that we find discrimination against people for irrelevant attributes to be unacceptable. This principle is behind laws against employment discrimination, and the recent repeal of DADT. (Canada, I'm glad to say, ended discrimination against gays in the military long ago.)

But it is quite strange to suggest that discrimination against irrelevant attributes becomes unacceptable only when those attributes arise from the circumstances of one's birth.

If Meurice's view is correct, then we should be free to discriminate against adult converts to any religion. After all, the Jew who converts to Christianity was not born into his faith; he chose it, presumably after some intellectual struggle, and therefore, pace Meurice, it is just "an opinion". Similarly, we should be free to discriminate against adherents of new religions, such as Scientology or Branch Davidianism, since many adherents were not born into those faiths. This is clearly ridiculous.

Meurice's view also implies that if atheism becomes more mainstream - to the point, let's say, where most adherents are born atheists - then suddenly it would become unacceptable to discriminate against it. But isn't this the opposite of what should be the case? Established viewpoints don't need much protection; it's the more unfamiliar that routinely gets discriminated against.

So I don't think Meurice's distinction makes much sense.

Charles Lewis has also been corresponding with me - but in the oddest, passive-aggressive sort of way. At one point he wrote "I will never think of you again", but a few days later he was badgering me to publish this response on my blog. At another point he said he would call me to discuss a misunderstanding; when he finally did, he wouldn't let me speak, called me "weak-minded", and hung up in a huff.

The misunderstanding came about when I wrote a long response to some of his points, and even offered to buy him a coffee if he were ever in town. But he apparently didn't see that response, because he wrote back "you could have answered and created a dialogue". I've tried to resolve that, but he doesn't seem to want to listen.

If this is representative of the state of journalism in Canada, we're in deep trouble.


Anonymous said...

Given both the disjointed character of Mr Lewis's original column and the strange revisionism of his own subsequent description of it in his follow-up column, I am not surprised by his dubious point-following abilities.

The NP itself is simply what it has long been: Canada's largest free newspaper. A venue whose editorial pages so often laud the free market, its ed-in-chief should appreciate this particularly well: it is given away for free everywhere one looks, because they cannot sell it.

blueollie said...

Hmmm, if they don't "care what atheists think" why do they whine so darn much about atheists books, bill boards, signs on buses and the like?

Brian said...

Redheads are a group not organized around an idea. Saying that you don't care what redheads think means that you advocate bigotry by not caring what they think about any subject.

Vegetarians are a group organized around an idea. Saying that you don't care what vegetarians think could be interpreted as above, but is more plausibly interpreted as being a simple rejection of those peoples' ideas about one subject, eating. It's not strongly implied that were you a juror, you would discard all testimony by a vegetarian, as the first statement implies about redheads.

Religion has an intermediate role in our society. Atheism is more clearly an idea.

Not: "But it is quite strange to suggest that discrimination against irrelevant attributes becomes unacceptable only when those attributes arise from the circumstances of one's birth."

Rather, some statements about a group are best interpreted as a rejection of an idea and not calls for discrimination, while an almost identically worded statement with a different group's name replacing the other group's name is a call for discrimination.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


You didn't address my point about recent converts to a religion at all.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

National Post published a column by John Moore yesterday:
John Moore: The errors of Charles Lewis; let me count the ways

Brian said...

I disagree. My view is that the statements in question differ in whether they are best interpreted as calls for discrimination, your criticism assumes they are all equally discriminatory statements and infers that treatment of the statements as different comes from differing views about who should be discriminated against. Your point was merely that 1) converts shouldn't be discriminated against, and 2) the argument that some of these statements are worse than the others implies converts should be. 2) is false.

I deny that saying the statement about atheists is as bad as saying it about Jews and saying it about Jews is as bad as saying it about redheads precisely because a statement is bad only to the extent it implies one should discriminate, with all bigotry being equally wrong.

Saying "I do not care what converts to Judaism think," if said by a Jew, implies that the problem is genetic and so is a call for discrimination. If said by a gentile, it implies only a disagreement with the thought system of Judaism.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


I think Meurice's argument is quite clear, and it has the unfortunate consequence I pointed out.

Brian said...

His argument is not clear to me since I have not read it. Only you have. However, your original post equating the statement actually made to one about Jews missed the point that I am making and that it is possible Meurice is making.

I'm not defending any argument I haven't read that differentiates between the statement made and your hypothetical one about Jews, just pointing out that your argument equating them is flawed for reasons that may or may not be those made by Meurice.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


I haven't the foggiest notion what you are trying to say.

Anonymous said...

I would say that I was born an atheist as my parents never took us to church or talked about religion. I find it odd that people think that the default is belief in God rather than not believing. For me, it is the opposite. From my point of view, theism is an opinion and atheism is the null hypothesis.

PS, love the bafflegab Brian

Alex said...

Everyone was born an atheist. I think you'd be hard pressed to find even the stupidest Christian who would argue that their 5-minute-old baby believes in a Christian god. What they mean when they say "born into" is "brainwashed with", with makes the whole argument seem completely ridiculous. By that standard, you couldn't object to the North Korean deification of Kim Il Sung without being accused of bigotry.

Anonymous said...

Did it cross your head that the article was titled "Dear Atheists:..." because it was addressed to Atheists?

If the article would have been addressed to Jews it would have been titled "Dear Jews:..."

Happy New Year!

Nygdan said...

In a way, excluding Jewish people, or any other religion, from the criticism that Atheists get in the article in question is actuall pretty insulting.
It sounds like the editor is saying that because atheism is an intellectual position, then it can be criticized harshly, just like if a person was in favour of homeopathy or the START treaties; they're intellectual positions, so they're open to attack. Because religion is irrational gibberish, its free from attack, even if you're a convert.
So a Jewish person who has great respect for their traditions and theology and considers themselves to be not merely a Jew by Faith but a Jew by Reason, or who believes that there is rational support for Judaism and rationality within Judaism, is, according to the editor, too stupid to criticize. Its actually more insulting to not criticize it.