My annual kind-of-tradition continues this year, to the protests of all our long suffering readers. Thoughts on evidence, disagreement, knowledge and related matters follow, in suitably opaque and allusive style …
On not believing in Canada
I remember clearly when I first started along the road that led me to where I am today – the unfashionable and lonely position of an adult man, educated and well-travelled, who doesn’t believe in the existence of Canada. I was a kid at Sunday School, and the vicar was trying to talk to an awkward class of hard-nuts and smart-asses about the general concept of faith in the absence of empirical evidence.
“What about Canada?”, he asked us all, his thick Welsh accent muffled slightly by an impressive crop of nostril hair. “You’ve never been to Canada! You’ve never seen Canada! You’ve never even met anyone who’s been to Canada! But you believe in Canada, don’t you, Davies?”.
He cast his gaze around the room, having to swivel his neck a bit as something like a dozen of us were called “Davies”. I elected myself as the spokesman and made what seemed to be the obvious response:
“Well, I do believe in Canada, a bit, but I don’t worship Canada! Canada doesn’t bloody ask me to come to the Canadian Embassy every Sunday when the cartoons are on telly, and sit through a two hour sermon about Canada, then fill in colouring books about Canada and the Son of Canada, does it? Nobody makes me sing songs about Canada, or gives me a book of stories about Canada instead of a comic for my birthday! In general, I don’t allow my belief in Canada to affect my life!”
It was, of course, by way of a satiric analogy, intended to cut off his pretty obvious rhetorical next step. Sad to say, the answer did not have its intended effect and I still had to go to Sunday School for the next five years. But later, as a teenager, it struck me that a more correct, and indeed potent, answer to the vicar’s challenge would have been:
“Do I believe in Canada? No, not really. Not in any important sense. No.”
And as time went on, I ended up realizing that I had come to identify myself as a Canadatheist.
I try not to make a big deal out of it – there are, after all, lots of people whose belief in Canada is very important to them and self-image as “Canadians” is a source of great comfort. In many ways, from the Californian sound of Neil Young and to JK Galbraith’s work for the US government, “Canadians” have done a lot more good in the world than Canadatheists. But secretly, I have to say I kind of pity them and sometimes look down on them intellectually a bit because really, how can people fall for such an obvious myth?
As far as I can tell, the concept of “Canada” dates back to the early 1950s. A confident new postwar generation of Americans were beginning to enjoy the privileges of mass market air travel. However, to their dismay, some of them began to discover that they weren’t universally welcome in the damaged postwar states of Europe, particularly in the more bohemian quarters where socialism was beginning to take hold. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth had just happened, pushing the British Crown into the public eye, and so a sort of urban myth was constructed about a part of America that was also ruled part of the Commonwealth.
Over time, all sorts of supporting myths and rationalizations grew up to support the “Canadian” faith. Apparently they fought a war against America in 1812, although not one with any noticeable or measurable political consequences. They don’t have a football team because they play “hockey on ice” (really!), a sport at which they are world champions (naturally, because it is a fictitious sport). They have all the nice characteristics of America, but have a healthcare system rather suspiciously similar to the British one, and so forth, and so on.
As anyone can see, this isn’t a country – it’s far too perfect to be convincing. It’s a fantasy roleplaying character invented by a kid who goes to mock United Nations camps instead of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Occasionally this is recognized in little cultural hints – a “girlfriend in Canada” is American slang for “an imaginary girlfriend”. But in general, people humour them – these days, if you want to make it in Hollywood, you’ve got to be either a Canadian or a Scientologist. Then the concept was discovered by that sizeable contingent of French people who always want to pretend to be Americans, and the Canadian faith had to pick up yet another massive and glaring inconsistency in the shape of a massive linguistic minority who lived in a state of peace and friendship with the rest of the country. Do I have to mention that they struck oil and invented the Blackberry?
I’m sure that by now I will have touched a bunch of raw nerves. Perhaps I should never have brought the subject up – Canadatheism always seems to lead to horrible flamewars and I really do sincerely apologise for offending your beliefs. But I promise – I’ve done my best to look at the strongest arguments possible for Canadaism. I’ve drunk those bottles of Budweiser that they make with the labels saying “Molson Lager”. I’ve talked to Canadianists. I’ve even been to see a pretend game of “hockey on ice” in the ice rink in “Toronto”, an American town to which I have been more than half a dozen times in different seasons. I’ve been to “Montreal” and listened to French people pretending to have an American accent. Right now as I type, I can see at the top of the foreign coins jar on my desk is an American 25 cent piece with the Queen’s head stamped on to it and the word “Canada”. I’m not arguing out of ignorance here – I’m intimately familiar with the arguments for Canada. I respectfully suggest, indeed, that I am more familiar with the arguments for the existence of Canada than most Canadians are familiar with the arguments against. I’m just not convinced.
As I grow older, I must admit that the prospect of Canada seems more comforting and spiritually enriching rather than irritating. My wife is a firm believer in Canada and insisted on bringing up the children as believers, and every now and then she says things like “Some of our best friends have emigrated to Canada and it’s lovely there. Maybe we should all go to Canada for a skiing holiday”, and I must admit, the way of life has all sorts of attractions. Some days I find myself flirting with Canadagnosticism.
And I must hasten to add that, unlike some outspoken Canadatheists (a bunch I have very little time for – I mean, what kind of a hobby is it to be constantly picking arguments with otherwise harmless Canadians?), I’m not dogmatic about it. Due to the necessity of ensuring more-than-proportionate representation of the USA on bodies like the G”7” and the WTO, the concept of Canada has gained some sort of legal and diplomatic validity over the years. I would even be prepared to admit that there are a few dozen people alive today (mainly the staff of multilateral and Bretton Woods institutions; certainly no more than a hundred) who would reasonably be described as “Canadian citizens”.
But really, why should I be the one to keep quiet? Why is society so prejudiced against Canadatheists, and so determined to force the “Canadian” iconography down all of our throats? I have considered all the evidence (or at least, all the evidence that has any independent validity, as opposed to the heaps of rationalizations constructed by Canadians). In general, most of it supports my point of view and the small number of opposing data points can easily be explained away as anomalies or the products of systematic human irrationality. In any case, why should anyone else care what I believe about whether Canada exists or not?
Calm down, it’s a joke, it’s a joke you humourless bastards. I’ve been doing that comedy bit for a few years now, mainly when in the presence of Canadians I wanted to wind up. It never fails. Depending on how philosophical I’m feeling and how much drink has been taken, I will typically warn someone, five minutes in, that if you’re a Canadian and you are marshalling the empirical evidence in order to try to make a convincing case for the existence of Canada, there is a sense in which you have clearly already lost by implicitly admitting that there is a debatable question here. But it rarely stops people. There is something about the “I don’t believe in Canada” bit which somehow short-circuits the part of people’s brains responsible for making the decision “Welsh bum talking crap again, ignore him and he’ll shut up”.
It’s more than the general “someone is wrong on the internet” phenomenon and (as I hope even the densest reader might have got), it’s entirely relevant to why a) the whole atheist/believer thing gets so ratty all the time and b) why there is a substantial current of modern atheism which actually believe that it’s a good thing to be constantly annoyed at the fact that there are people out there who are wrong about God. The problem with my Canadatheism isn’t so much the fact that I don’t believe in Canada – that’s simply a factual proposition which might be true or false, and reasonable people can agree to differ on such things.
The problem is (and the thing which makes Canadatheism so infuriating to believers) that the factual belief is backed up with and supported by an approach to weighting evidence which ensures that the conclusion can never be shaken. Infallibly, the stage which drives the mild-mannered Canadians to the point of murder is when I idly drop into conversation that I’ve been to Toronto and “wasn’t convinced”. If you’re going to dismiss any and all religious experience as the probable result of mental illness, or if you’re going to claim that any failure of science to explain absolutely everything in the world proves the existence of God, you’re bound to create the same effect. Everyone knows that human beings are narrative-creating beasts and the existence of something that can’t be fitted into the story is intolerable.
My holiday reading is going to be “Antifragility” by Nassim Taleb, another author who regularly causes one to fling the book across the room going “he can’t possibly mean that!”. In most cases, as with Canadatheism, it might be the case that a good author doesn’t exactly mean “that”, but does mean something by what they’ve written and was rather hoping that you’d work it out for yourself. If anyone thinks that the real point of the Canadatheism bit was that rather sappy lecture about standards of evidence, they’ve missed it. Anyway, Happy Christmas, Hannukah, Yuul, Lugnasa, Kwanzaa, Eid or whatever other seasonal festival, of whatever degree of obvious made-upness, you choose to celebrate. And hopes for a New Year in which people learn, maybe a little bit, that it’s possible to hold an idea in your head without necessarily asserting it.