Tarksheel Cultural Society talk to BCHA Sunday Meeting

On October 18, 2015 Gurmail Gill, secretary of the Tarksheel (Rational) Cultural Society, the Punjabi Humanist, Rationalist, Atheist, Freethinker group in Surrey, spoke at the Vancouver Sunday Meeting of the BC Humanist Association. This is the text of his presentation.

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My name is Gurmail Gill, I am the secretary of Tarksheel Cultural Society of Canada. This is a matter of great honour for me to interact with the members of BCHA today. I am originally from province of Punjab in India. I joined student union while pursuing my master’s degree in Physics in University in 1973 and after that remained a member of leading team of trade union of my bank where I worked for about 25 years.

First of all I would like to explain that word ‘Tarksheel’ means rational, ie critical thinking. Although there had always been a struggle between the spiritual and the rational thought, the rational movement in the Indian subcontinent got a kickstart in 1960’s with the exposure of spiritual frauds and paranormal phenomenon by Dr T Abraham Kavoor. Born in 1898 in Sri Lanka to a Catholic family, his father being a priest, Dr Kavoor was a botanist and a professor in the university. He challenged the godmen of Indian subcontinent to come forward to substantiate the extraordinary claims made by them under fool-proof and fraud-proof conditions and win a reward of one hundred thousand IR’s, but nobody dared to accept his challenge. A book named ‘Begone Godemen’ written by Dr. Kavoor exposes the myths, superstitions and spiritual frauds of so called godmen with scientific explanation and proofs. This book became very popular in India and more than 100,000 copies of its Punjabi edition alone has been sold in the province of Punjab.

The first rationalist organization named Tarksheel Society of Punjab was formed in 1984 in Punjab. I joined TSP some 20 years back & participated in its activities very actively. This organization faced a number of challenges from the godmen, fundamentalists and organized religions. Our members were threatened and attacked by their followers but we faced each and every attack or threat with a bold face and tact. The government tried to ban some of our books but the move was resisted and scuttled by us each and every time. With more than 60 local units and more than 1000 members It has become a movement to reckon with now in Punjab. Circulation of its bi-monthly organ is about 15,000 and it has published more than three dozen books and some audio and video DVDs which have been sold in the thousands. It is a member of an umbrella body of about 80 secular, humanist and rational organizations of India called FIRA.

I migrated to Canada in 2010 and since then I am a member of Tarksheel Cultural Society of Canada. TCSC was formed 20 years back by some secular, humanist and rational friends from East Indian community. Most of Indian people who migrated to this part of Canada are the same sort as those of India. They are very superstitious and gullible. They start believing any rumour or spam without any verification. In 1995 a rumour that marble idols of a Hindu god Ganesha drank milk, spread out like wildfire in India and many other countries like Canada wherever Indian people live. People thronged the temples to offer milk to Ganesha. That was rebuffed by Rationalists in India through various means. Thousands of litres of milk went into the gutter which was published in the media. Mr Avtar Gill, who is our incumbent President, challenged this rumour here in Canada on the Radio. He received many phone calls, to which he replied meticulously. He was appreciated by the progressive people and of course cursed by religious people for hurting their sentiments. This incident became the basis of the formation of TCSC.

Superstitious people of our community are falling in the hands of so called fortune tellers, spell casters, gem & stone sellers, spiritual healers, psychic readers and other bullshit whatever their name may be, for the solution of their various type of problems or to get spiritual peace and are being robbed of thousands and thousands of dollars. Tarksheel Society’s main concern is to educate and save them from falling into the clutches of these cons.

We adopt various methods to raise awareness among the people. We hold talk shows when we get opportunities, we participate in some talk shows on radio through phone calls, we hold seminars, and we have one cultural show on Thanksgiving weekend every year, in which we show plays, skits, magic tricks, some music and there is one speaker who motivates the participants to be rational or critical thinkers. We just had this event last weekend. More than 600 people watched this show.

We have challenged these cheats to substantiate the claims made by them to win a reward of $100,000 CAD, promised by our organization. Actually we continue to challenge them through the radio talk shows or other occasions wherever we get an opportunity, to accept any one of our 23 challenges under fool-proof and fraud-proof conditions and get our reward. (These are the same challenges which were thrown out by Dr Kavoor.) Nobody came forward to accept our challenge in last 20 years. Motivated by our propaganda at least three individuals have come forward to throw their individual challenges to these cheats to win their individual rewards of $100,000 CAD to $500,000 CAD. One of these individuals is a radio host of an ethnic radio, who announced this from our stage of our cultural show last week.

We had been successful in initiating a dialogue on the subject superstitions vs rationalism in our community, but we have achieved limited success only and there is still a vast majority of people who are still superstitious and are the victims of spiritual frauds. To educate and raise the awareness of this vast majority is first and paramount concern of our organization. 

To be successful in this cause the illegal, unscientific, unethical and illegitimate ads appearing in ethnic media by the spiritual fraudsters have to be banned. Most common claims made by them are predicting your future, winning the lottery, solving the domestic disputes, harming your enemy or somebody who has betrayed you, winning the court case, solving your immigration problem, to cure chronic & incurable disease, to bear a male child, to settle love affairs with their spiritual powers that too with 100% to 1000% guarantee. 

These claims, made by those are unscientific and unethical, which are apparent from their face itself, are illegal as well. The reasons are: 

 

  1. They challenge the authority of various agencies of government.
  2. They do not have any recognized education or the qualification to make them eligible to render the services they claim.
  3. They are not registered with CRA and city bylaws and do not issue any receipt for the amount receive.
  4. They dictate their clients to throw some stuff or chemicals in the creeks or rivers, for example, flowing water in the name of some spiritual remedy of their problems, hence they violate the environment laws.

 

We have written so many letters to Prime Ministers, Premiers, Mayors, some ministers and the CRTC but nobody cared to respond. We approached Advertising Standard Canada; they did respond and advised us to send some ads with their translations. We did that but the end result they replied that they did write to the newspapers but the newspapers did not respond to them and that theirs is an advisory body, not regulatory, so they are helpless.

So friends this is a question for us that why the governments do not check these unscientific and illegal ads. There must be some reason, of course there is. The only reason there is a grand design by the governments to keep the people religious, superstitious and devoid of all scientific and critical thinking. What is this grand design? I will hold on this for a while and will share our other major concerns with you first. 

Friends our next concern is that our governments, politicians and other people who are on the helm of affairs proclaim and boast that Canada is a secular country. Is it really a secular country or not? What does the term secularism imply in the real sense? A secular person or institution is supposed not to differentiate and discriminate among people on the basis of their beliefs, colour, caste and creed. He should not have any bias or favour either for an atheist or for a believer. Similarly, the secular government is supposed to maintain strict neutrality in the religious sphere and it must not privilege any one religious belief over the others or privilege theism over atheism or use religious doctrine as the basis for public policy. Speaking in these terms the secular government is not supposed to patronize any religion but they have twisted the meaning of the term secularism as per their political convenience. They have started patronizing all the religions, although to each one to different extent. 

The governments are abusing the taxpayers money by giving all type of favours to religious institutions. They are given the tax exemptions, subsidies and funding of billions of dollars. Contrary to this, benefits granted to the secular or humanist organizations is negligible in spite of the fact that one fourth of the population of Canada, 24%, are non-believers as per the 2011 National Household Survey.

To appease the religious leaders, governments give tax exemptions and subsidies to religious institutions under the heading of "advancement of religion.” The Federal Finance Minister explained the Government of Canada’s position in this regard in July 2012 as “providing charitable status for the advancement of religion is based on the presumption that religion provides people with a moral and ethical framework for living and plays an important role in building social capital and social cohesion”. A government proclaiming itself secular is duty bound to take the policy decisions which are evidence based not just on presumptions. 

A number of crooked people have registered fake and non-existent religious institutions to take the advantage of these tax exemptions. I have come to know that there are more than 100 fake Sikh temples registered in various names in Surrey town only. 

Religious institutions promote superstitions and work against scientific advancement, hence they are retarding human progress both socially and economically. Funding these institution is the funding for scientific retardation whereas our scientists are crying loud that the federal government is imposing cuts after cuts on scientific research funding. This is totally unjust, unfair and against the interests of Canadian people at large.

Next comes the funding of religious schools. As education is a provincial responsibility, government policy on public funding of the religious schools differs across Canada. Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan still offer full public funding of Catholic schools - a historical artifact originating from “denominational privileges” enshrined in Section 93 of the Constitution Act 1867. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec offer partial funding (typically 40-60%) to other religious schools of any faith that meet some provincial criteria. Ontario is the only province which provide 100% funding of Catholic schools only and zero funding to any other religious school. Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick offer zero funding to religious schools. Ontario is continuing this practice against the wishes of UN who has censured it twice in 1999 and 2006 for violating article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

The denominational schools' privileges can be removed through legislation. There are two ways: (1) The province can do it unilaterally through legislation. The aggrieved parties can then pursue an appeal to the federal government, which can impose remedial legislation if it so chooses but it has never done so. Manitoba exercised this authority in 1890 and federal government declined to exercise its right to intervene. (2) The province can eliminate this right through a bilateral constitutional agreement. Such an amendment can be as little as 12 words in length and only requires the agreement of the province in question and the federal government. Quebec and Newfoundland each secured such constitutional amendment in the 1990’s in order to adopt a single public school system for each official language.

The most fundamental argument against public funding of religious schools is that the education being offered in these institutions is contrary to the best interests of the children involved. Children should get the opportunity to embrace religious beliefs of their choice, when they are mature enough to do so, not by being indoctrinated in the faith of their parents and hence having their exposure to other religions and worldview limited. Religious indoctrination of children is fundamentally at odds with fostering their intellectual independence, autonomy and religious freedom.

Faith-based education segregates students based on their parents worldview, thus partitioning the children into “silos” where they have little contact with others outside the religious group into which they were born.

A vast body of empirical scientific evidence from sociology and psychology has shown that such segregation increases the frequency of prejudice, intolerance, and inter-group mistrust. The recent study by scientists of University of Rochester found that atheists have higher IQ’s so their intelligence makes them more likely to dismiss religious beliefs as irrational and unscientific. This is a sort of torture and injustice to kids to send them to religious schools.

So these are the forceful logics that such education cannot in good conscience be financially supported by a government of multicultural and pluralistic country like Canada. Not only this, but some religions advocate beliefs and practices that are contrary to Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Government funding of these institutions puts Canada in the dangerous position of financially supporting the indoctrination of future citizens against its liberal-democratic values. For instance, at one private Islamic school profiled in the press in 2007: (i) the call to daily prayer is always carried out by a male student and not by a female, (ii) during prayer, boys assemble at the front of the room and girls at the back, (iii) the girls and boys are seated separately in the classroom because of “religious etiquette”, (iv) the principal does not shake the hand of female visitors because of his religion, (v) although students learn evolution in science classes, they also learn that tiger is black and orange because “that’s how Allah made it”, (vi) when reading to her class, a teacher omits or change parts of a popular children’s book where a girl tries to kiss boys because “such talk is haraam or forbidden by God, (vii) in a second grade classroom, all but 3 girls wear hijab or headscarf.

Public opinion also appears to be turning against the use of tax dollars to finance religious schools. A poll conducted by Angus Reid in April 2009 found that a majority of the Canadian public opposes the funding of religious schools; 51% of respondents opposed funding Christians schools, 75% opposed funding Islamic schools, 73% opposed funding Hindu schools, 75% opposed funding Sikh schools, 70% opposed funding Buddhist schools and 68% opposed funding Jewish schools (Angus Reid Strategies 2009). These figures are quite encouraging but very interesting also as the opinion is divided on the basis of religion so it clearly shows the bias of respondents. But the results of this poll give a lot of consolation to the secular people, that more than half of the respondents endorse our viewpoint. I hope that if the poll is conducted now the figures will further improve in our favour.

Hence funding religious schools by governments is totally illogical, irrational, inappropriate, against the liberal-democratic Canadian values. This practice should be stopped immediately.

Our next concern, which haunts us always, is the constitution of the Office of Religious Freedom, which was constituted on February 19, 2013. The mandate of ORF is to promote "religious belief" Speaking about ORF, Minister John Baird declared: “We don't see agnosticism or atheism as being in need of defence in the same way persecuted religious minorities are. We speak of the right to worship and practice in peace, not the right to stay away from places of worship.” We can put it in other words “religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion”. The Canadian Government has declared in clear terms that it is not ready to recognize one’s right to be non-religious.

This type of comment from government representatives responsible for this office is ill-considered, inappropriate and factually incorrect. The mandate of ORF should explicitly recognize the responsibility to promote the freedom to be an atheist or to be non-religious as non-believers are in a more vulnerable position all over the world as compared to believers. Many atheists face death, prison, or fines for choosing to no longer identify as religious. Atheists can be put to death in 13 countries and imprisoned in many others. They are in need of advocates and defenders. Hence Canada should make clear its commitment to those imprisoned for their beliefs by making its government’s commitment to atheists and the non-religious persecuted internationally explicit in the mandate of the ORF.

Friends let us now discuss the constitution of ORF. It has one ambassador and an External Advisory Committee. Dr Andrew P.W. Bennet is the first ambassador of ORF and heads its foreign affairs, trade and development. He worked as a public servant in various capacities in the government of Canada. He is also a religious leader in his capacity as Sub-deacon and Cantor in St John the Baptist Ukrainian-Catholic Shrine in Ottawa.

EAC comprises of 23 prominent leaders from a wide variety of Canadian faith and belief communities representative of Canada’s diversity. It will advise the Office of Religious Freedom on the exercise of its mandate to promote and defend religious freedom internationally as a central element of Canada’s principled foreign policy. It is chaired by Father Raymond J. de’Souza, a Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston and Chaplain at the Newman Centre, Queen’s University, Corinne Box of the Bahá’í Community of Canada and Malik Talib, President of the Aga Khan Council for Canada, serve as vice-chairs of the EAC. Out of these 23 members of EAC there is only one person representing more than one fourth of Canadian secular and humanist population. He is CFI National Executive Director Mr. Eric Adriaans.

Somebody may put a question to us, "Isn’t it important to defend freedom of religion?" Religious minorities facing persecution definitely deserve our support. But freedom of religion is one of several fundamental freedoms that must be protected, alongside freedom of conscience, thought, belief, opinion, expression, assembly, and association. Moreover, religious individuals and groups are not entitled to more protection than the non-religious. All fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are important and all must be defended and promoted alike abroad if Canada is to be a leader in democracy and human rights.

The violation of freedom of religion is the violation of human rights. For that, there is a body named Canadian Human Rights Commission which takes care of human rights at national level. However if a body is required to defend the human rights at international level it should be for all freedoms like belief, conscience, expression, thought, opinion, assembly and association. Why particularly for religious freedom only? Friends, there is something suspicious. Moreover the body to defend the human rights internationally should comprise the persons who are champions of defending the human rights, secular and neutral towards all the believers and non-believers. A body with such a composition could be more effective. Religious leaders are always charged with a bias. Can we expect from a religious leader that he will raise his voice against the persecution of non-believers? Sorry friends my answer is big NO. Their track record is very bad. When we go through the history of human race we come to know that they have killed hundreds of thousands of people having different beliefs than theirs, non-believers, intellectuals and scientists. More than 363,000 intellectuals and scientists were killed by Catholic Church in Spain alone during the period of about 350 years from the 15th to the 18th century. The religions used all means legitimate and illegitimate, ethical and unethical to stop rationalism, atheism, secularism and scientific advancement. We all know how furious they were when Darwin’s principle of evolution was published in 1859, as this principle gave a big blow to the basis of religions. They played havoc with the human civilization for hundreds of years. To not go very far away, let us have a glimpse on the recent past say about 50 years. The USA has committed and continues to commit blatant violation of human rights in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and a number of other countries. I do not think that any religious leader had ever raised any meaningful voice against these violations or other human rights violations all over the world, or at least maybe very rarely. They are up in arms only when their belief is under attack. 

When the Canadian Government has made its intentions clear that religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion, this clearly shows their prejudice against atheism. After all this discussion, is there any iota of doubt that our government is not secular? If we have still some, then the reference of God in national anthem read as “God keep our land glorious and free” and name of God in Canadian Charter of Rights read as “ Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”, make clear that the character of our government is pseudo-secular not secular. They pretend to be secular but their actions and practice speak out exactly the opposite. 

Friends, I will discuss now what is the grand design of government to promote religion. All of us know unlimited greed is the nature of capitalist system which is now prevalent all over the world. The governments pose themselves as democratic but they are not, they watch and safeguard the interests of their masters, ie the corporations only. The globalization and liberalization policy followed by the governments over the last 30-35 years is designed to increase their profits many many fold. This policy has adversely affected the financial condition of the working class. As per a paper published by UBC in June 2012, the gap between the average income of the upper 1% population of Canada and rest 99% has increased from 1:9 to 1:15 from 1982 to 2010. The average gross income of the upper 1% has increased from $275,000 to $450,000 or an increase of $175,000 during this period. When we talk of BC, this increase is $189,000 and on the contrary the average gross income of the other 99% of the population has decreased by $4,300. The increase in minimum wages in BC has been 19.5% since the year 2001, whereas CPI has increased by more than 30% during this period, whereas the goods outside the ambit of CPI - like housing - has increased many fold. The common man is being burdened day by day through inflation and austerity measures adopted by the governments. The money is being diverted towards corporations through inflation and tax rebates to them. In a nutshell, the pockets of the lower-middle class are being squeezed, the debt burden is increasing and it is becoming hard for them to pull on day after day. They are under financial stress. This is becoming the root cause of so many social problems like prostitution, domestic violence, mental health, drugs and gap between parents and kids. Hence a larger section of our society is mentally perturbed and frustrated. What is responsible for this state of affairs? Our political economic system, not anything else.

The governments exert all efforts to keep people in illusion so that they do not come to know the real root cause of their hardships. They want to divert the attention of people from the real cause towards some imaginary cause. Religion is the proper tool to be used by the governments for this very purpose. Religion had always been used as a shield between exploiters and exploited between ruling class and working class to continue this exploitation. We know that no religion has ever pointed out its finger to make the system responsible for the worries of people rather they make all efforts to make the people believe that this is their destiny, sins or bad deeds done in the previous birth that are responsible for their sufferings. They motivate people to pray to God for the end of their worries. Of course, their followers believe this holy contention without any question. Friends, this is the hard fact that about 200 million people in India go to bed with empty stomachs every day, but they do not revolt since they do not curse the system for their worries rather curse their destiny. The politicians make every effort to maintain the status quo. This is the main motive of governments to patronize the religions. The politicians have another motive also, that is to consolidate their voter base. They make their permutations and combinations to divide the people on religious lines to win the elections. Bill C-51 passed by Harper government is a step in this direction.

Dear friends, is there any need of religion in today’s civilized world of the twenty-first century when there has been a remarkable progress in scientific development? The “doctrine of existence of God” is the basis of all religions. As a father is a shield and shelter against all type of odds and a well learned person for a kid to answer all of his curious questions, similarly the imagination of an Almighty God was like a guarantee against all the odds of nature for a man in his early years of civilization. But can we remain kids forever? No, as we grow up we need the security cover of our father less and less day by day and ultimately we are able to stand on our own feet completely one day. Similarly, when our civilization has now grown up after passing through its early phase of childhood we will have to shed the crutches of our early imaginations and have to face the nature of reality. As the man stood up on its rear legs one day and started walking on his two feet and started using his front legs as tools to fight with the odds of nature, similarly he will have to shed these crutches of imagination of the existence of God. The sooner he will do so, the better it will be for him. The evolution of civilization of mankind is a continuous process. Change is the law of nature. Religion came into existence to give a feeling of security to man against his helplessness. Today’s man is not helpless. Scientific development has made him the master of his destiny. So the religion has become irrelevant in today’s era of scientific advancement. The person who still sticks to this obsolete doctrine will lag behind in the social progress. The time has come to give religion a complete burial.

The irrelevance of religions becomes more evident when we compare the rate of crime in the most religious countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia etc to the most non-religious countries like Japan, Norway, Denmark, Sweden etc. The crime rate in most religious countries is many times more than that in most non-religious countries. I should not be misunderstood. I do not mean that just turning a country from religious to non-religious that the crime rate will come down. There are so many other factors of becoming a nation without crime but one thing is crystal clear: religion does not play any role to make the people moral or ethical. I have made this point to contradict the Federal Minister of Finance statement, which I repeat, “providing charitable status for the advancement of religion is based on the presumption that religion provides people with a moral and ethical framework for living and plays an important role in building social capital and social cohesion.”

After all this discussion we can conclude that the governments who still patronize the religions are not honest and sincere with their people and their country. They have some ulterior motive in continuing this practice, they try to stop the wheel of social progress and they are committing a crime against the humanity. This is the task of secular, humanist and progressive forces of the world to expose such governments.

On the behalf of my organization, I call upon all the secular, humanists, atheists, skeptics, progressive and rationalist organizations of the country to join hands to force the Canadian government:

  1. To stop all type of subsidies and tax exemptions to religious institutions.
  2. To stop funding private schools and to adopt a single, secular, publicly funded school system that brings students of all religious and ethnic backgrounds together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and equality.
  3. The mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom should explicitly recognize the responsibility to promote the freedom to be an atheist or to be non-religious and it should be represented by the people who are secular, humanist and defenders of human rights.
  4. Remove the reference of God from national anthem and Charter of Rights as it invokes the blessings of a deity who is dismissed as non-existent by one in four Canadians.
  5. Ban all unscientific and superstitious advertisements and practices.

In the end I thank all of you for giving me a patient hearing. I convey my sincere thanks to Mr Ullrich, Mr Gord, other office bearers of the BCHA and organizers of this event for providing me this opportunity to enjoy your company on this wonderful day.

Gurmail Gill
Tarksheel Cultural Society of Canada
12581 66 Avenue, Surrey, BC, Canada V3W 1V6

Note: Parts of this speech come from the Canadian Secular Alliance's policy paper on Public Financing of Religious Schools, its statement on the Office of Religious Freedom,

 

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