Opinions expressed on the BC Humanist Association's blog do not necessarily reflect those of the BCHA or the Board of Directors.

Sep 26, 2016 Newsletter - End Blasphemy Laws

Yesterday, an atheist writer was gunned down on the courthouse steps in the capital of Jordan.

He was set to stand trial for offending Islam by sharing a comic satirizing Mohammed on his Facebook page. The suspected shooter, a local imam and extremist, was allegedly motivated by anger over the blasphemous cartoon.

Meanwhile, a new film by atheist Louis Theroux critical of Scientology will not be shown in Ireland because publishers are afraid they'll be sued under the country's new libel laws that include "blasphemous matter."

These two cases highlight the continued relevance and importance of events like Banned Books Week (this week) and International Blasphemy Rights Day, which is September 30.

It is also why it was so encouraging to learn last week that the City of Victoria had agreed to proclaim International Blasphemy Rights Day. Although that proclamation only came after some debate, further highlighting how precarious our right to free speech is, even here in Canada.

While we don't have any festivities planned for either event this year, I do strongly encourage you to sign the e-petition calling on the federal government to repeal Canada's blasphemy law and to make sure you share that with as many people as you can.

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Doctors have no right to refuse medical assistance in dying, abortion or contraception

Editor's note: This editorial was originally published in the journal Bioethics under a Creative Commons license. It's a follow up to an article first published by Udo Schuklenk in May 2015 and responded to by Christopher Cowley in December 2015. Unfortunately, both of those articles are behind paywalls.

The debate is over whether doctors should be able to refuse to provide certain legal medical procedures, such as medical assistance in dying or abortions. Schuklenk argues that the rights of patients and a doctors' professional obligations should outweigh any individual moral attitudes. The BC Humanist Association made a similar (albeit significantly more abridged) argument in our submission to the Parliamentary committee that studied medical assistance in dying earlier this year.

By Julian Savulescu and Udo Schuklenk


In an article in this journal, Christopher Cowley argues that we have ‘misunderstood the special nature of medicine, and have misunderstood the motivations of the conscientious objectors’.1 We have not. It is Cowley who has misunderstood the role of personal values in the profession of medicine. We argue that there should be better protections for patients from doctors' personal values and there should be more severe restrictions on the right to conscientious objection, particularly in relation to assisted dying. We argue that eligible patients could be guaranteed access to medical services that are subject to conscientious objections by: (1) removing a right to conscientious objection; (2) selecting candidates into relevant medical specialities or general practice who do not have objections; (3) demonopolizing the provision of these services away from the medical profession.

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Lessons in secularism from a human rights complaint against Bowen Island Montessori

Our education system is tasked with preparing the next generation for life in an increasingly pluralistic country. That system must be accommodating and welcoming to students of all faiths and none, or we risk segmenting our society and allowing extremism to foment.

Bowen Island Montessori School is facing a human rights complaint for demanding a couple sign a letter indicating their full acceptance of the school’s cultural programing before their daughter would be permitted to attend. The couple argues they were the only ones required to sign such a letter in order to register their child after they raised concerns about the school’s focus on Christian celebrations and other aspects of the curriculum that conflicted with their secular, non-materialist and pacifist views. The complaint will be heard in mid-2017.

While human rights law in Canada generally exempts religious organizations (a separate question), this school describes itself as non-denominational or secular. Specifically, it says its approach is to have “no distinction of culture.”

But secularism requires neutrality. A secular organization can no more suppress the views of religious students as it can push a Christian worldview.

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Sep 12, 2016 Newsletter

Last week, we shared our letter to BC's Minister of Education asking if he'd stand up for LGBTQ rights in BC schools.

On Thursday we got our answer: All public and independent schools will be required to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity in their anti-bullying policies.

This is a good first sign but we'll have to see the details to know whether the rights of LGBTQ students will be upheld.

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Does climate change mean we need to have fewer children?

By Travis N. Rieder, Johns Hopkins University

Earlier this summer, I found myself in the middle of a lively debate because of my work on climate change and the ethics of having children.

NPR correspondent Jennifer Ludden profiled some of my work in procreative ethics with an article entitled, “Should we be having kids in the age of climate change?,” which summarized my published views that we ought to consider adopting a “small family ethic” and even pursuing fertility reduction efforts in response to the threat from climate change. Although environmentalists for decades have worried about overpopulation for many good reasons, I suggest the fast-upcoming thresholds in climate change provide uniquely powerful reasons to consider taking real action to slow population growth.

Clearly, this idea struck a nerve: I was overwhelmed by the response in my personal email inbox as well as op-eds in other media outlets and over 70,000 shares on Facebook. I am gratified that so many people took the time to read and reflect on the piece.

Having read and digested that discussion, I want to continue it by responding to some of the most vocal criticisms of my own work, which includes research on “population engineering” – the intentional manipulation of human population size and structure – I’ve done with my colleagues, Jake Earl and Colin Hickey.

In short, the varied arguments against my views – that I’m overreacting, that the economy will tank and others – haven’t changed my conviction that we need to discuss the ethics of having children in this era of climate change.

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Sep 6, 2016 Newsletter

Students across BC go back to school today. But unfortunately for too many LGBTQ students that means returning to face bullying and harassment.

The good news is that a growing number of public school districts have introduced policies to combat homophobia and transphobia in the classroom. However, there is no province-wide requirement to introduce such a policy and in many of the province's religious independent schools there are no such protections. This is despite the fact the majority of those schools receive significant public funding.

It could be better.

The Government of Alberta is currently reviewing policies by every school in the province to ensure LGBTQ students are protected. This has lead to the Minister threatening to cut funding to two private religious schools that refuse to comply with the law.

Last week we wrote to BC's Minister of Education to ask whether he will similarly act to defend queer students across BC. And we will continue to oppose public funds going to support religious based bigotry.

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Climate change is threatening national parks

By Patrick GonzalezNational Park Service

Trees are dying across Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks. Glaciers are melting in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Corals are bleaching in Virgin Islands National Park. Published field research conducted in US national parks has detected these changes and shown that human climate change – carbon pollution from our power plants, cars and other human activities – is the cause.

As principal climate change scientist of the US National Park Service, I conduct research on how climate change has already altered the national parks and could further change them in the future. I also analyze how ecosystems in the national parks can naturally reduce climate change by storing carbon. I then help national park staff to use the scientific results to adjust management actions for potential future conditions.

Research in US national parks contributes in important ways to global scientific understanding of climate change. National parks are unique places where it is easier to tell if human climate change is the main cause of changes that we observe in the field, because many parks have been protected from urbanization, timber harvesting, grazing and other non-climate factors. The results of this research highlight how urgently we need to reduce carbon pollution to protect the future of the national parks.

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Questioning the 'miracles' of Saint Teresa

By Philip AlmondThe University of Queensland

In 2002, the Vatican officially recognized as a miracle the healing of an Indian woman’s cancer of the abdomen. This occurred as the result of the application of a locket containing Mother Teresa’s picture. The woman, Monica Besra, said a beam of light had emanated from the picture, curing her cancerous tumour.

This one miracle was sufficient for Mother Teresa to be beatified in 2003. This meant that she had the title “Blessed” bestowed on her and that she was, from then on, able to intercede with God on behalf of individuals who prayed in her name. The late Christopher Hitchens (who had written a pretty scathing book about her) had been called upon by the Vatican to act as “the Devil’s advocate” and to give evidence against her character. Hitchen’s criticisms made no difference (which was not really a surprise to anyone).

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August 22, 2016 Newsletter

At yesterday's Vancouver meeting, we ran through most of the results of the poll we commissioned in June on the religious and secular attitudes of BC.

While it will be a few weeks before we get the podcast and slides from that talk online, you can now find the full data tables from our poll on our website. Feel free to dig into the data and see if you can spot something interesting that we might have missed.

Also new on the website is our Publications page. There you can find books, stories, reports and more that the BCHA has published, including the autobiography of our member Khushi Ram, whose 95th birthday we'll be celebrating this weekend.

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Origins of life: Beyond the primordial soup

By Arunas L Radzvilavicius, UCL

For nearly nine decades, science’s favourite explanation for the origin of life has been the “primordial soup”. This is the idea that life began from a series of chemical reactions in a warm pond on Earth’s surface, triggered by an external energy source such as lightning strike or ultraviolet (UV) light. But recent research adds weight to an alternative idea, that life arose deep in the ocean within warm, rocky structures called hydrothermal vents.

A study published last month in Nature Microbiology suggests the last common ancestor of all living cells fed on hydrogen gas in a hot iron-rich environment, much like that within the vents. Advocates of the conventional theory have been skeptical that these findings should change our view of the origins of life. But the hydrothermal vent hypothesis, which is often described as exotic and controversial, explains how living cells evolved the ability to obtain energy, in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible in a primordial soup.

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