Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Restricting Rights

There is a basic difference between the USA and Canadian approaches to Human Rights. In Canada they are not absolute. Article 1 of the Charter stipulates that the Rights in the Charter are guaranteed subject:

Only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

This makes two things clear. The first is that human rights in Canada are not absolute. The second is that even though the rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not absolute, they cannot be removed in their entirety and cannot easily be limited in their application. Only “reasonable” limits may be placed on those rights, and only then if it can be definitively shown that the limit imposed is justifiable in a free democracy.

Within the context of spiritual atheism, the significance of Canada being a free society is that if the expression of an atheist’s rights conflicts with another person's religious beliefs, that is not sufficient reason to restrict the right involved. Removing or inhibiting a right because someone who is neither involved nor affected by it disapproves of it is not even remotely reasonable. It is quite the contrary. It is completely unreasonable to restrict your right to do something because I don't like it, particularly if your doing what you want has no affect on me. This is a two way street, of course.

This restriction can be important in some situations. The most obvious application is on the limits placed on free speech. Contrary to what some assume, there always have been limits on the right to free speech. Having the right to express opinions on any subject does not mean that defamation of other people is permitted. It is also used to restrict hate speech. Calling for action against specific racial, religious or other identifiable groups when the intent is to eradicate them from society or severely restrict their activities in society is strictly forbidden. In these contexts, the ability to place “reasonable” limits on a freedom or right is an important aspect of preserving the freedom of Canadian society.

Religious freedom is one of the fundamental freedoms enjoyed by all Canadians and is one of the rights specifically mentioned in order to emphasise its importance. It is protected to the same degree as other Rights in our Charter, which means that it may be restricted only if it is reasonable to do so and if the restriction can be justified. Like all Canadian charter rights it is not an absolute.

Religious freedom is actually described in the Charter as the “freedom of conscience and religion”. It is not just the freedom of religion but of conscience also, which may have no religious component at all. In fact, this part of the Charter includes the right to reject religion absolutely. It includes the right to accept religion in any degree from ignoring it completely to full belief and absolute reliance. Note, however, that the freedom of conscience gives atheists exactly the same rights as religionists and to the exact same degree. Religious freedom is not absolute and does not take precedence over freedom of conscience. Likewise, the freedom of conscience is not absolute and may be reasonably restricted if it can be justified. The freedom of conscience and the freedom of religion are of equal force in Canada since they are one and the same, just two sides of a coin. The right to freedom of religion also includes the right to freedom from religion, for instance, and the right to freedom of conscience gives the right to act even when another person’s conscience would find the particular behaviour objectionable. That is, individuals have freedom from conscience as well as freedom of conscience.

It needs to be emphasised that forbidding a Canadian from doing something their conscience permits them to do may be a violation of this provision in the Charter. Rights are almost always viewed in the context of permitting something, but they may also be viewed in the context of not forbidding something. The exception to this is if laws are passed which are justified as reasonable in our society. In that case restrictions on behaviour may be made. Restrictions on pedophiles would be an example of a justifiable restriction. In cases such as that the terms “reasonable” and “justified” are self evident, since the victim cannot give consent.

The difficulty arises when we try to determine what reasonable and justifiable mean within the context of ordinary living when competing rights and freedoms have to be balanced. There have been cases when employers have been penalised for attempting to compel their employees to do things their religious convictions prohibit (setting up Christmas displays). There have also been cases when employees have been required to do things they would prefer not to do for religious reasons (nurses caring for women having an abortion). The issue is not clear cut and straightforward by any means and, to a large degree, depends on the specifics of individual cases. In the two examples above, for instance, one depends on the balance between an employee’s religious convictions and the store manager’s desire to get a display finished so customers can be influenced to buy more and the store can make more profit, and the other depends on the balance between a nurse’s religious convictions, a patient’s right to control her own body and a hospital’s obligation to provide health care. They are not always that clear cut.

As mentioned, freedom of speech is one of the rights Canadians have which has had limits placed on it, so defamation and hate speech are not included in it. However, there is a difference between the two. Defamation is a civil issue, while hate speech is a criminal issue. One may cost the perpetrator money, while the other may result in a jail term. Interestingly, since the criminal nature of hate speech and the penalties that can be applied is very well known, it is surprising how many haters still try to justify their hate speech by relying on their right to freedom of speech. I must admit that I do not understand why this is done since it has been made clear at the highest judiciary level that free speech rights do not cover hate speech and that the restriction is justifiable and of the type our Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows. One is tempted to say that the continued claim by haters of protected speech is due to their intellectual level or, more accurately, the lack of it, but that would just reflect my personal disdain for them. More likely is that haters, like so many others, think they are the focus of the universe, that everything revolves around them, and that the political system should adjust itself to them rather than them needing to adjust to it.

Hate speech shows up very frequently on internet conversations, where anonymous and near anonymous conversations using pseudonyms are common. Some people obviously feel that they can ignore any possible legal consequences, believing that the apparent anonymity of the internet is real anonymity. It is not, as many pedophiles have discovered when caught in wide ranging police investigations. There is no reason why haters could not also be caught in similar such operations, collective or individual. Every communication over the internet leaves records which can be used to determine the communication’s origins. Anonymity of the internet is a fallacy, since it requires that several groups, including the Internet Service Provider, work together to retain it.

Most internet hate speech, at least in my personal observation, appears to be targeting First Nations and selected immigrants. The underlying attitude towards First Nations appears to be the same old nonsense applied by descendants of European immigrants against descendants of the original inhabitants whose land they took, whether by trickery, coercion or force.

Hate speech against immigrants is often targeted at Muslims or people from India-Pakistan and China-Indochina. Hate speech against other dark skinned people is less common, but still significant. The likely inference is that haters are most often of European, white ancestry who fundamentally believe that they own the rights to the world. European nations, of course, fostered this attitude for many centuries. Unfortunately, while most European nations now reject this attitude the underlying social consequences of promoting it for so long remain. That underlying social attitude is clearly racist and bigoted with its focus on the rights of whites while requiring that so-called inferior races keep away from white territory, even if it did originally belong to someone else.

Anti-Muslim hate is based on fear, at least partly it would seem, coupled with outdated religious bigotry against Islam. This is surprising since both Christianity and Islam are fundamentally based on the bible. The difference is that Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet but deny he is divine while Christianity rejects Mohammed as a prophet. These differences have led to numerous wars, usually referred to by Christians as crusades and by Muslims as jihads. Of course, Jews also use the bible. It was, after all, written by them, and there is no dispute that Christians have shown gross intolerance to Jews over the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust. I suppose it is not surprising that intolerance has now shifted towards Islam, possibly because of an unconscious degree of guilt for Christian Europeans having been responsible for the murder of 6,000,000 Jews during the second world war. That was certainly a factor in the establishment of the state of Israel, and has led to decades of war between Jews and Muslims, with no end in sight.

Of course, ultra religious Muslims, or those claiming to be so, do not help by taking actions which severely interfere with other peoples’ rights to behave as they wish. This is largely an irritation in secular western societies, but in some Muslim countries it has led to vicious wars as one faction tries to impose their version of Islam on all others in a particular geographic area. Ruling by terror may be successful in the short term but eventually fails as people become more familiar with its weak spots and exploit them.

Unfortunately, the popular and exploitive press, whose main focus sometimes seems to be making a profit at the expense of factual reporting, has caused many to believe that all Muslims are jihadists and working to overthrow the Christian order. This is absolute nonsense, of course, and in the same league as a belief that all Christians are fundamentalist, evangelical fanatics whose sole aim is to dominate the political decision making of Western nations in order to establish a Christian golden age, a New Jerusalem. The fact is that many, perhaps most, Muslims resident in the west do not agree with jihadists any more than most Christians agree with gun toting, evangelical crusaders who murder doctors providing abortions.

There is no room in Canadian society for any of this nonsense. Each person has the liberty to live as they wish, whether that be religious or secular, Muslim, Christian, homosexual, heterosexual, licentious, chaste, married, single, or any other label anyone wishes to apply. Ultimately, we are all just individuals trying to live our lives in a manner that will give us a sense of satisfaction at its close. Leave us alone!

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