Jackson Doughart
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Are atheists a Canadian ethnic group?

The National Post, 25 October 2013


Like other surveys of its kind, the decennial Canadian census measures religious affiliation. In doing so, it instructs participants to enter the denomination of their family, even when they are not actually communicant. As a result, many people select a religion when they are in fact non-believers. The Canadian Secular Alliance, an organization promoting church/state separation, has suggested that the instructions be amended so that participants would select their actual beliefs instead of those inherited from previous generations. If this were done, they predict, it would reflect a much lower rate of religiosity than presently shown. (The 2011 census places non-believers at 24% of the population.)

Though valid, this argument seems to misunderstand the intent behind the present instructions, which principally attempt to identify religion as a marker of ethnicity — something which does relate to inter-generational tradition. Many people are justifiably attached to a particular faith regardless of the non-belief in their “heart of hearts”. For others, however, non-belief represents a mark of group identity that could be described ethnic in character.

The term “ethnic” might cause some confusion here, but only because of the misconception that ethnicity refers exclusively to racial lineage. Though some groups are bound exclusively in this way, there are too many counterexamples for this narrow definition to hold. Language and, in some cases, religion are often equally-reliable indicators. One instance is that of Jews, whose ethnicity and nationalist movement (Zionism) includes numerous “races”, tied by Judaism and its cultural practices. In the Balkans, Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs are all of the same “stock”, so to speak, and also share a spoken language. Their distinction is religious — more in terms of basic affiliation than substantive theology. As one Serbian immigrant humorously remarked to me, “The difference between us is only religion: there are Catholic Serbs, Muslim Serbs, and Orthodox Serbs!”

Ditto for Protestant and Catholic divisions in Northern Ireland, which provide another germane example. What matters for ethnicity is not the content of one’s belief, but the religious group into which one was born. Hence the old joke about a visitor to Derry being asked if he is “a Protestant Atheist or a Catholic Atheist.” Again, the relevant factor is the way that religion functions as a matter of identity, rather than a precise and complete dogma. All religious groups contain internecine disagreements, as well as varied levels of adherence to the faith’s prescriptions. But ethnicity is about the expression of a cross-generational identity for political purposes — a project that does not require purity of practice, as religious observance on its own may demand.

All of this supports an interesting hypothesis: if atheists constitute a quarter of the Canadian population, and if they marry one another and pass along their beliefs to the next generation, it follows that they may actually constitute a major emerging ethnic group, comparable to well-known religion-based ethnicities.

Some may object that atheism is not itself a religion, so it cannot therefore be a religious ethnic affiliation. In purely philosophical terms this is correct, since atheism in theory has no actual content; it is merely the rejection of religion. But in practice this is far from the case. A person who has been raised in a secular household will unfailingly absorb certain beliefs that relate to their parents’ atheism — especially attitudes imparting falsity and superfluity to faith and worship.

This is an inclination developed through a kind of osmosis, akin to similar intuitions that exist among even the non-observant members of religious groups: Protestants think the papacy is silly, Catholics think that Protestantism is incoherent and deviating from the “one true church”, Jews are mystified by idea of Jesus the “God-Man”, and so on. These little incredulities are more like learned prejudices than reasoned deliberations. The phenomenon of atheists reproducing themselves has doubtless a similar effect, which explains why most atheists “just know” that religious belief is wrong.

Consequently, viewing atheists as an ethnic group would bring some much-needed perspective to the question of religion in public life. People often affiliate themselves with belief and non-belief not because of careful consideration, but because of inheritance. This has political implications that extend beyond the rightness or wrongness of the ideas themselves. The mere fact that they are held by groups of some size means that their followers are owed a place in the democratic space. And given the size of Canada’s growing atheist community, there is reason to consider non-belief an ethnic identity alongside many others.





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Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com