A skeptic’s take on Muslim prayers in a Toronto public school

Much Sturm und Drang last week over the revelation that Valley Park Middle School is allowing an imam to hold Friday prayer services in the school cafeteria. It’s one of those interesting stories that makes for strange bedfellows, with the Centre for Inquiry and Canadian Secular Alliance standing alongside the Canadian Hindu Advocacy, the Muslim Canadian Congress, and the Jewish Defense League to denounce the practice. With them is the populist Toronto Sun and the centrist Globe and Mail, against more supportive voices from both the left-ish Toronto Star and the right-ish National Post.

But what position for the skeptic to take? Where should we, who aim for reason over emotion; whose method is to question; and who are, frankly, a little suspicious of supernatural beliefs to begin with – where should we stand on such an issue? I started where I always do: by setting aside my personal inclinations on the issue in order to take a careful look at the arguments being made, their substance, and the motivations behind them.

I’m glad I did, because what I found surprised me: none of the major arguments being made against Valley Park’s decisions withstood closer scrutiny. I’ll go into detail – possibly too much – on why that is, but in a nutshell:

1). The faith groups that have come out on this issue are using the language of equality and secularism, but this is misleading. Scratching the surface reveals motives that are merely clannish. This is no reason for a skeptic to accept.

2). The argument from equality / fairness seems initially persuasive, however on closer look reveals an emotional core. That it doesn’t seem so is by design: there is significant research to show that humans, and other primates, have evolved a fairness instinct that overtakes reason in situations like this. Often, it’s the best response to the situation, but like all cognitive heuristics, it can fail us. For reasons I outline below, it seems to have done so here.

3). The argument from secularism, while certainly resonant for me personally, is not a categorical imperative. Ontario has a well-functioning school system today that includes a publicly-funded Catholic school district, yet miraculously we have not devolved into a theocracy. While important, there are times when we can maximize utility and serve the greater good by setting aside secularism, and this seems to be one of those times.

As I said, I was surprised to find myself arguing in favour of prayer in school – and to be clear, I’m not suggesting this as a blanket position on the subject. I’m talking specifically about Valley Park. Even so, I expect many of you are reading this with a jaundiced eye, so let’s dive in and look more closely at the evidence.

Hidden Agendas

I’ll start with the argument that kicked this off, which was a complaint by Canadian Hindu Advocacy that seemed, from the coverage I read, to focus on the issue of equality. They weren’t asking for similar accommodation of Hindu belief, simply for the restoration of the secular norm. So I was surprised to find that the letter they sent to the TDSB started as follows:

The CANADIAN HINDU ADVOCACY, after successfully repelling Khalistani Sikh attempts to infiltrate the Conservative Party in BC, is launching a campaign to repel brazen attempts to Islamize the Toronto District School Board.

Well. Glad to see their sense of proportion is so finely calibrated. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that one imam holding a half-hour weekly service with no active participation or financial support from the school is hardly the Islamization of the TDSB.

Unfortunately, we don’t get much better from the Jewish Defense League, which claims to be:

…very concerned about The Islamic Society of Toronto [which provided the imam] because of there (sic) associations with other radical Islamic groups. Consider the following Press Release signed by the Islamic Society of Toronto together with other radical Islamic groups on the issue of Terrorism trials in Canada:

http://www.macnet.ca/press-releases/2008/press_release_-_2008-04-22.php?phrase_id=15892

I guess they were hoping that their readers would just trust them on that point and not actually click the link, which is a three year old letter calling for bail to be granted for the remaining accused in the “Toronto 18” trials, given that they had already been in jail nearly two years, during which the Crown had whittled the case down to a mere “Toronto 11″ . The letter includes such incendiary language as this:

Balancing the pursuit of law, order, peace and security with the protection of individual human rights and civil liberties is a difficult task, especially when the balancing process involves individuals who may be unpopular. Are we, as a society, prepared to suspend basic rights, such as freedom of association and the presumption of innocence, in the name of anti-terrorism?

Seriously, read it – that’s the tone of the entire thing. It’s actually a lot less fiery than the Toronto Star’s coverage at the time. No surprise then that it wasn’t the letter itself that bothered the JDL, it was the “associations with other radical Islamic groups” that were, we’re to believe, created when they all signed the same letter. Weak, weak, weak.

It’s pretty clear that the real issue for both Canadian Hindu Advocacy and the Jewish Defense League has little to with promoting secularism or equality – it’s simply an anti-Islam stance. But surely that can’t be the case with the Muslim Canadian Congress, right? Well, kinda:

“This is a very big concern for us,” Congress president Farzana Hassan said. “We are concerned that there are some Muslim groups that are not seen as Muslims and may not be invited to pray.”

Hassan cited the Ismailis and Ahmadiyyas as not being recognized as Muslims by mainstream groups.

<sigh>

So there you have it, the same tribal bun fight among major religions playing itself out in Toronto as it does in the rest of the world. None of this should be persuasive to the skeptic.

Equality / Fairness

Still, despite the fact that its alleged champions are nothing of the sort, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about equality, and it’s the basis of the Toronto Sun’s position. Well, “position” may not be the right word. Let’s say “fulmination”, as these quotes from Joe Warmington illustrate:

Who knows which religious community is next. Why wouldn’t they complain? Why is one group special over another? What is good for one should be good enough for the rest.

.     .     .

Remember the case of the Gideons no longer being able to pass out free bibles to schools? If Christian bibles are off limits, so should religious teachings of any kind.

.     .     .

What if students wanted to have a nativity scene at Christmas in that same cafeteria or run a Christ passion play? Or how about readings from the Torah or to celebrate Hanukkah or Diwali?

You already know the answer.

Chilling stuff. Now let’s set aside (for the moment) the inconvenient fact that Ontario has a publicly-funded Catholic school system, which would seem to neatly deflate the above arguments entirely, because I think there’s something even more interesting at play here that needs exploring. But before we get there, we need to define some terms and acknowledge that there are (at least) two kinds of equality or fairness:

1) Level Playing Field Equality: Everyone is treated identically with no regard to their particulars. This is an equality of opportunity – we try to normalize the inputs to the equation.

2) Tilted Playing Field Equality: People (usually groups) are treated differently precisely because of their particulars. This is an equality of results – we try to normalize the outputs of the equation.

When it comes to social policy, the first of these underlies the populist sentiment – it’s what Warmington is advocating in the pages of the Sun. In fact, if anything defines populism, it’s the level playing field definition of equality – what’s good enough for me is good enough for them, and those that take more than their share are to be punished.

There’s a good reason for this – Level Playing Field Equality is probably hard-wired into our mind-design and functions as a cognitive heuristic. Cognitive heuristics are essentially short cuts that bypass our considered reasoning circuitry in order to allow us to make quicker decisions. We have them because the decisions and behaviours they engender have, on balance, served us well evolutionarily-speaking. Since humans are a relatively young species, such heuristics are often inherited from our evolutionary ancestors, and thus we can often see the same patterns in other modern primates that share those ancestors.

Take, for example, the well-known paper “Monkeys reject unequal pay” published in Nature a few years back. Two Emory University primatologists found that monkeys that had been trained to do a certain task in exchange for a certain pay (cucumber slices) effectively went on strike when they witnessed other monkeys being rewarded a higher pay (GRAPES!) for the same task.

Humans show the same tendency to see reward in relative terms – what behavioral economists refer to as “inequity aversion.” This shows up repeatedly in the classic Ultimatum Game, in which one participant has to decide how to split a fixed sum between themselves and a second participant, who is given a single chance to take the offer or leave it on the table. Traditional “rational maximizer” economic models predicted that the second participant would take any offer greater than zero, but in practice, anything too far off 50/50 tends to be rejected. In fact, the first participant rarely proposes anything too “unfair”, probably because they know it will be rejected.

Why might such behavior be selected by evolutionary forces? University of Washington psychology professor David Barash suggests — based on the above research, and that of biologist Lixing Sun (the “fairness maven”) — that because evolution operates by relative means, how one stacks up against the competition is more important than absolute fitness. Thus, bringing one’s competitor down a peg can be as effective a strategy as climbing up a peg oneself:

In the arcane mathematics of game theory, people occupy a “Pareto equilibrium,” whereby all parties are capable of improving their situations, but any improvement necessarily comes at the expense of others. As a result, such an equilibrium is bound to be a nervous one, whereby everyone is selected to be finely attuned to any departures from fairness; hence, the widespread concern for a “fair coin,” “fair match,” “fair play,” “fair exchange,” a level—which is to say a “fair”—playing field.

Which brings us back to Valley Park, with a reminder to be very skeptical of populist notions of fairness – especially one’s own instinctive belief in a Level Playing Field Equality. While appropriate in many situations, it also systematically inappropriate in others. It can be difficult to parse this out of one’s own positions – but thinking clearly demands that you both watch for it (aka metacognitive monitoring) and correct for it when you see it (aka metacognitive control).

Doing so required me to admit, against my natural inclinations, that the Level Playing Field sometimes needs to be sacrificed in order to maximize overall utility; that we often get a more “fair” macro outcome when we accept a less “fair” micro outcome; and that this was probably the case in Valley Park.

Why? Well first, no one is made worse off by the fact that Muslim students are better off – any more than I’m made worse off when someone wins the lottery. This is not a zero sum game. Second, 80% of this school is Muslim, and nearly half of those are availing themselves of the services — in other words, it’s adding value to the equation. And third, they’d be praying anyway – previously, they had been signing themselves out of school on Friday to do so, whereas now they’re remaining under the eye of the school administration.

There is literally no downside except to our faulty sense of relative deprivation — and that’s hardly a reason to oppose something that’s providing such a great value to a majority of students and harms no one.

Secularism

The CFI and Canadian Secular Alliance may beg to differ, as they’ve taken the position that secularism is a valuable policy aim in its own right. From the CSA press release:

“The two fundamental problems in Ontario are the way we view religious accommodations and the continued public funding of the Roman Catholic School System,” said [CSA President, Greg] Oliver. “Both provide pretexts that encourage these sorts of outrageous demands by faith groups.”

Now I, and I suspect many of our readers, share that disposition. Our Catholic school system makes me bristle, and I had the same feeling when I heard about Valley Park. But set personal feeling aside, and the comparison with the Catholic school system is actually part of the reason why this argument doesn’t hold water.

For those outside of Ontario, I should explain that the public school system in this province includes both secular and Catholic options. The instruction is largely the same, with the exception of a religious component permitted in the Catholic system. In Toronto, these two are administered by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), respectively, and Valley Park falls under the jurisdiction of the former.

It isn’t a perfect system, and there are certainly times when the TCDSB is at odds with the values of the broader population, but mostly these issues are small. A recent flare-up focused on whether a gay student support group could sell rainbow cupcakes at a fundraiser, for example. This isn’t to trivialize these issues – they’re important and should continue to be raised – just to say that in broad strokes, the system works and we haven’t descended into theocracy just because we provide preferential accommodation to Catholics.

Clearly secularism is not a categorical imperative in Ontario, much as the CFI and the Canadian Secular Alliance would like it to be, and therefore not a sufficient argument against the prayers at Valley Park. To make such an argument complete, the CFI and CSA would need to show that the utility provided by the secular ideal is greater than that created serving the needs of the student body. So far, they have not done so.

A Skeptic’s Position

Despite my natural inclination against religion in the public sphere, the arguments that are being made against Valley Park’s decision to facilitate weekly prayer services haven’t stood up to greater scrutiny. Whether based in tribalism, emotion, or ideology, they’re at worst dishonest and at best incomplete. Set this against the benefits provided to such a large subset of students — as well as the fact that this has been going on for three years already without significant incident — and I find myself compelled to reserve judgment.

And — possibly — to do even more than that. After all, I’ve argued before that skeptics should approach religion from the perspective of harm mitigation by encouraging religious moderation rather than crusading against it entirely. This position was based in cognitive science, viz. the fact that the magical thinking that underlies religion – essentialism, dualism, etc. – was too tightly woven into what makes us human ever to be fully overcome. And indeed, it would be undesirable to do so, considering that social interaction, love, and probably even our perception of free will rest on the same cognitive templates.

In the same article I also argued that:

…religions tend to be more moderate in places where freedom of belief is protected, and more extreme in places where it’s not. It’s a simple group dynamic, a bunker mentality – members of a religion that’s persecuted, outlawed, or otherwise insecure will identify more strongly with the religion and become more extreme. Without that pressure, other aspects of one’s personality can balance the magical beliefs.

It may seem counterintuitive, but if the prayers at Valley Park teach the students that their religion is compatible with Canadian society, it may well result in a more moderate Islam, rather than the more extreme one opponents are warning us of. That would be a lot of utility to set against the secular ideal, and would probably cause me to do more than simply reserve judgment. I don’t think we have enough data to support such a proposition yet, but I’ll leave you with the suggestion that maybe we should not only give Valley Park a pass, but also watch them very closely over the coming years. It may well be that this experiment yields lessons on how to successfully moderate religion in our society that we can apply more broadly.

28 Responses to “A skeptic’s take on Muslim prayers in a Toronto public school”

  1. K.B. says:

    “It may seem counterintuitive, but if the prayers at Valley Park teach the students that their religion is compatible with Canadian society, it may well result in a more moderate Islam…”

    Of course, this version of “moderate” still has women at the back of the room, and menstruating women even further back. This is NOT compatible with Canadian society, IMO.

    • Erik Davis says:

      I don’t like it either, but it’s hard to say it isn’t moderate. If we plot Muslim extremism on a scale, say, from OBL to Irshad Manji, where does this fall?

      • K.B. says:

        I’m not talking about where it falls on the scale of Muslim extremism.

        I’m talking about where it falls on the scale of equity and Canadian society. It is NOT moderate when it happens in a public school in Canada, no matter what the religion is, or what the extremes of that religion are.

        If “prayer session” was replaced by “math class”, there would be, and rightly so, a lot more outrage over the segregation of females. Just because it’s cloaked in religious dogma doesn’t make it okay.

  2. blatanville says:

    +1 to K.B.’s comment above.

    This article is interesting food for thought, though I still disagree with the conclusion.

  3. kaymac says:

    The only real issue here IMO – and it is indeed a real issue – is the fact that girls in the prayer group are forced to sit at the back. A school is a place, I would maintain, where we must not compromise on equality of the sexes. I’m all in favour of a place for the members of any religion to pray in school. I am NOT in favour of shrinking the rights to equal participation of any sex.

  4. “Set this against the benefits provided to such a large subset of students — as well as the fact that this has been going on for three years already without significant incident — and I find myself compelled to reserve judgment”

    Help me out here: what are the benefits of an Imam leading prayer in a school? You assert this position (more than once), and you don’t substantiate it anywhere in the article.

    Furthermore, I’d argue that there are significant harms attached to the perpetuation of magical thinking. 50% of the Muslims of the school may attend, but their reasons may not all be “because we want to pray”. Many may attend due to fear of a social stigma of *not* attending. Certainly the other 50% don’t fear this stigma, but they may have other socially-acceptable outlets for this.

    In short, there are a multitude of significant harms attached to this practice (a perpetuation of misogyny, magical thinking, groupism, etc, etc), and zero benefits.

    Your ‘calculation of utility’ seems to be significantly off.

  5. Ethan says:

    I have to take issue with a few points here.

    Firstly, Canada *is* a theocracy. Our head of state is Queen Elizabeth II who is the head of the Anglican Church. Now sure, she has no real power here, except that the her representative does and has occasionally used that power in our political matters.

    Secondly, the claim that having a publicly funded Catholic school board is inconsequential because Canada hasn’t fallen into a Catholic Theocracy is strawmaning the situation. Would it be appropriate for Canada to have a publicly funded fascists organization because Canada hasn’t devolved into a fascist state?

    On your point of equality, I agree that some of the religious groups (and pendents) criticizing this position are doing so out of a spiteful position of “they got something, where’s my treat?” mentality. The problem is that when some religious group goes to court to get creationism taught in schools, they can point to this case as precedent to get their faith installed in a public arena. Secularism is not merely to “keep the playing field level” but to ensure that religious ideology is kept outside the jurisdiction of government and vice versa.

    Secularism is “a categorical imperative in Ontario” and elsewhere for that matter, I fail to see why religious dogma trumps Canada’s law and Charter of Rights and Freedoms when it comes to religious discrimination. Gay students are made to feel like outsiders in Ontario’s Catholic schools. Girls are made to made to feel like second class citizens in Islamic prayers…how is this not a pressing concern?

  6. locklin says:

    I reject the notion that secularism is not an imperative in Ontario. It took a lot of work on the part of both religious and non-religious to get prayer out of the old “Protestant” school board (and renaming them to “public” school boards). Student’s have time to silently pray by themselves during “moments of silence” which everyone must obey. Organized, led prayer of any kind, as well as the religious propaganda and rules are simply not acceptable in an Ontario public school for good reason.

  7. locklin says:

    Also, the primary driver of school secularization has not been atheists, but the religious who realize that anything but secularization leads to constant bickering about who gets what kind of access to proselytize the children. The poor arguments you present above by Hindu’s and Christians are exactly the reason secular schools work -they avoid this problem by moving religion outside of the school.

  8. Ray says:

    If the school is rented for this purpose outside of school hours I think it is a non-issue. If the group gets the space free that’s another matter.

  9. Evan Harper says:

    To be sure, the Muslim Canadian Congress is not a sectarian group, and its concerns are not sectarian. MCC is actually a very small fringe group of almost exclusively irreligious people of Muslim background, and it tends to take positions that are difficult to materially distinguish from outright Islamophobia. They actually claimed that the “Ground-Zero Mosque” (their term) was a deliberate provocation, their evidence being — I’m serious — that if it had REALLY been about interfaith understanding, it would have included a synagogue. They are basically crazies and it’s quite beyond me why anyone still quotes them or takes them seriously.

  10. locklin says:

    @Ray: this is a community group that utilizes the cafeteria during school hours for free in order to offer prayer service for students.

  11. locklin says:

    It seems the biggest argument made by the Star and the Post as to why this is okay is that no-one in the school has complained. It takes one heck of a thick skin to stand up to 80% of your peers, and for the teenage students, social ostracism is not just inconvenient, it’s down right scary. Just because a school becoming involved in a religious service doesn’t cause any vocal complaints from students doesn’t mean there are not any students uncomfortable with the situation, or being pressured into participating.

  12. Michael5MacKay says:

    From my reading of the news stories, roughly 1/3 of the students attend the prayer sessions (400 out of 1200) and 80% of the school is Muslim.

    It is an elementary school, so the kids are pretty much all 14 years old or younger. Whether a particular child attends or not is, again according to the news reports, determined by his or her parents. I’m sure that some are reluctant to attend, and those were the ones who dawdled on the way to mosque or didn’t return to school.

    @locklin: secularism is not an imperative in the public school system. There is no wall of separation between church and state in Canada in the way that there is in the United States. The preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes the “supremacy of God” and freedom of religion is one of the grounds specifically enumerated in s. 2 of the Charter. In order to be constitutional, laws must infringe minimally on that right. Ultimately, I think that the legality of this practice would depend on a balancing of the right to freedom of religion under s. 2 and equality under s.15.

    FYI – to see what Americans, who don’t all appreciate that Canada’s rights and freedoms are constitutionally expressed differently, read the comments to the Huffington Posts article on this issue: http://huff.to/nsoNsl

    Between Erik and K.B., the issue is “how tolerant should we be of a practice that is intolerant (ie. disrespects women’s equality rights?”

    • realityinsarnia says:

      Us non-believers do not support that part of the Charter. Unless you mean the Flying Spaghetti Monster. LOL

  13. Jason says:

    “Ontario has a well-functioning school system today that includes a publicly-funded Catholic school district…”

    This for me is a major factor in the story. If this were a private, or home school effort, the concerns would be of less relevance. Though I am not well read upon the public school system of Ontario, incorporating ‘faith’ into the system is one full of strife and potential discrimination, law suits, etc. Upon the topic of faith schools and their ‘harm’ I recommend Richard Dawkins BBC series “Faith School Menace.” Before I continue though, I wish to clarify that I am not against public funds being distributed for parents wishing to enrol their children into schools which incorporate faith … just not public schools.

    A comment regarding the author’s position that equality of outcome should at times be subverted by equality of outcome. I tend to lean to the conclusion that those societies which pursue equality versus freedom/liberty often wind up with little of either versus those societies that pursue freedom/liberty instead of equality often wind up with a great deal of both. (I know, I know … darn libertarian within I suppose) I would suggest public school systems are particularly sensitive targets to this axiom and therefore, see the solution not so much as accommodation from the province but as allowing parents and communities a greater responsibility in exercising their freedom of choice and personal liberty in educational choices of their children. In an effort to weigh harm and negative outcome, the author engages in a cost benefit analysis which is not only very hard to quantify considering all the effects, dynamics, etc. but furthermore seems to raise the value and importance of equality of outcome above that of freedom and liberty.

  14. Composer99 says:

    Unlike Christians (myself included), who have favourable historical privilege in Canada/Ontario (Exhibit A: public Catholic school boards), Muslims are an unfavoured minority group (especially in the 21st century).

    As I believe Erik notes in his concluding remarks, I do not perceive there being a lot of empirical data on these kinds of situations. That being the case, it does strike me as a good idea to let things unfold and see what happens.

  15. Cameron says:

    I agree with Erik. Sometimes we have to step away from the categorical imperatives and look at what’s most pragmatic.

  16. paul says:

    You accuse The Hindu advocacy group and the JDL of having an ‘anti-islam’ agenda as if this somehow nullifies their opinions allowing you to nail the coffin. You neglected to mention what was wrong with an anti-islam agenda? So what if someone isn’t politically incorrect? Or even racist bigots? It doesn’t make the person/group wrong. Most of the article I have read on the NP have suggested that this practice should not be allowed.

    http://www.nationalpost.com/opinion/columnists/Spreading+Islamist+misogyny+with+your+dollars/5086555/story.html

    You mentioned equality (again, remember this isn’t necessarily a good thing because it’s politically correct), but you neglected to mention Islam’s subordination of women, even in Canada. Boys in the front. Girls at the back. Girls that are menstruating at a tiny corner in the back like they have some kind of disease.

    Canadians are going way too far to accomodate cultural minorities, particularly those of muslims whose religion is totally incompatible with western/secular values.

    • Composer99 says:

      Do you have a better cite than an opinion column?

      Unless one can demonstrate that Muslim women in Canada are held back more by being hustled to the back corner during prayer sessions when menstruating than by being Muslim women in a largely non-Muslim country (in which large numbers of people are suspicious of Muslims and in which formal equality of women is a very recent phenomenon), it seems to me that the columnist’s conclusion simply does not follow.

      Some anecdotal evidence here (I know, I know, but it’s on par with an opinion column), when I started as an undergrad, Dr Aboulnasr was the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Ottawa. She seems to have done well for herself despite gettint hustled to the back of the room once a month.

  17. Janice in Toronto says:

    How is abusing children in a school a good thing?

    Pumping childrens heads full of nonsense in -any- setting is reprehensible, and worse in a school setting.

    • realityinsarnia says:

      Totally agree! Public schools should be places of intelligent studies and not medieval BS.

  18. mr. grieves says:

    Disappointing that the segregation of female students is completely neglected in the article as for me, this is the crux of the issue.

    I also find it odd that you use the existence of something you oppose (catholic school board) as justificiation for the existence of the prayer group. I would think this would simply be further evidence that we need to remove religion from the school system.

  19. Alex says:

    So, to sum up, your argument boils down to:

    1. Attacking the motives of the various groups which are protesting against this.
    2. Arguing that our “Catholic School” system means other religions should be able to use school buildings.
    3. Suggesting that this doesn’t hurt anyone.
    4. Stating that we’re not really providing “active participation” or “financial support”.
    5. Arguing that “equality of results” is more important – at least in this case – than “equality of the playing field”.

    I know that’s a gross simplification, but I think it accurately reflects what you’ve said here, without contradicting any of your finer points. With that said:

    1. is a logical fallacy, and really has no place in a skeptical discussion. I don’t care what their motives are – I care about the actual situation.

    2. while somewhat true from a “fairness” perspective, this argument fails to persuade because it’s a false dichotomy. The option of abandoning the separate system, or simply withdrawing public funding, would also address the issue of equality.

    3. I would argue that religion, in and of itself, is harmful and that, furthermore, segregation of students based on sex and religion is harmful. Prior to this, some students may well have been able to use the excuse that they “need to study” in order to avoid going to prayer. We have now removed that choice from them.

    4. As long as they’re able to use school facilities without paying for them, we are providing financial support. If the boy scouts wanted to use public facilities, we would insist that they not discriminate based on sex, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

    this brings us to …

    5. I’ve never bought into this particular argument, simply because it far too easy to take it to extremes. The obvious outcome of these policies is the “only-white-people-are-racist” “sensitivity training” videos which were all-pervasive in the 90′s, and continue to make the rounds even today. Unequal playing fields which are INTENTIONALLY made unequal only lead to resentment and further divisions between groups, for very good reasons. Such policies are insulting to the targeted groups because they imply an inability on their part to do as well as others without “protection” and “allowances”, and they’re insulting to everyone else because they violate the innate sense of fairness you talked about.

    I think Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Harrison Bergeron” is an excellent take on the idea of “mandated equality of results”. It would be a slippery slope fallacy if I were to suggest that such policies must necessarily lead to such extremes, but that’s not what I’m suggesting; I simply think the novel does a wonderful job of showing just why such policies are WRONG. You should read it, if you get the chance, or at least check out the short-film “2081″ (you can probably find it on youtube), which is based on the novel.

    In conclusion, I don’t find your arguments convincing. I’m still far more concerned about the fact that government funded schools are sponsoring segregation based on sex and religion, not only by allowing it to occur on school grounds but also by allowing it to occur during school hours. Like it or not, we are LEGITIMIZING discrimination by allowing it to happen under government sanction. And while this may fall under your umbrella of “equality of results”, I am definitely not convinced that we should be implementing such flawed social policies. However, I want to congratulate you on a thorough and thought-provoking article; while we clearly disagree on much, you have pushed me into reexamining my own position on this issue and have led me to a clearer understanding of why I personally oppose it. Thank you.

  20. locklin says:

    I would just like to add one more thing. There are ways to accommodate these students besides what is being done. It’s not an all-or-none game. For example, since the school is 80-90% Muslim, why not adjust the hours? add 30 minutes to Monday-Thursday and you have bought enough time to make Fridays half-days. Even the non-Muslim students may be happy with getting out at lunch on Fridays. Another alternative may be moving to a Sunday-Thursday school week. These types of accommodations involve changes to already arbitrary conditions of the school setting, rather than bringing religious indoctrination into the school during school hours.

  21. Composer99 says:

    Dan Gardner at the Ottawa Citizen has an amusing column from late last week on this topic: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Religion+schools+Heaven+forbid/5139947/story.html

    Also, I believe there was a petition on the topic someone put on line which is being ‘Pharyngulated’. I won’t link to PZ Myers’ blog since I don’t want to get caught up in moderation.

  22. Rick says:

    Why is the TDSB allowing this group to trample on the girls charter rights ? Why is the TCSB trampling on the charter rights of Gay/Straight Alliance Kids too ?

  23. invisibleskydadsrule says:

    It’s amazing how a patriarchal monotheistic religion which has a lousy track record regarding human rights and science can play the ‘victim’ card. I don’t care that the tazpayer already foots the bill for Catholic schools; we shouldn’t, and having even more religious nonsense brought into the public school system is at best divisive and at worst discriminatory. I am tired of people with utterly nonsensical beliefs crying ‘racism’ when they try and inject those beliefs into to the public square. Religion is incompatible with free thought and we need to stop lying to ourselves about it because we don’t want to be called bigots.

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  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis