'This is our 21st century dilemma': how do you recognize both atheism and faith in the classroom?

Atheism and faith can coexist in schools but it takes more tolerance from both sides, according to diversity and inclusion expert Alden Habacon.

Debate ignited after atheist family wins Human Rights case

The family in a recent B.C. Human Rights Tribunal didn’t want their young child exposed to religious celebrations like Christmas and Hanukkah at the Bowen Island Montessori School. (CBC)

Atheism and faith can coexist in schools but it takes more tolerance from both sides, according to diversity and inclusion expert Alden Habacon.

Habacon's warning comes after the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal recently ruled in favour of an atheist family who didn't want their young child exposed to religious celebrations like Christmas and Hanukkah at the Bowen Island Montessori School.

The parents were asked by the school to sign a letter saying they accept the school's cultural programs before their child could re-enrol, which was found to violate their human rights. The school was ordered to pay them $12,000.

"This just paints a very simple picture of atheists living in our communities as having these kinds of feelings toward Christmas," Habacon said.

"But there is as much nuance and diversity amongst atheists as there is diversity across Christians and Muslims and our Jewish community."

The school doesn't teach religion as such; its stated goal is to expose students to a range of cultural beliefs and religious celebrations. It's attended by children aged two-and-a-half to six.

Atheism doesn't have the same symbols or holidays as other religions but that doesn't mean they can't be a part of the conversation about interfaith relationships, says Alden Habacon. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

'Legitimate faith identity'

The challenge comes from trying to include two different sides of the spectrum — faith and no faith — into one conversation.

"This our 21st century dilemma," Habacon told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"One of the things that this ruling actually affirms for me is that atheism is as legitimate a faith identity as all the other faith identities."

That means atheists have to be included in the conversation about interfaith relationships, he said, which can be a little tricky sometimes given there are no overt symbols or holidays celebrating atheism.

"With any group that's different than yourself, you can't assume to know what they need in order to feel included," Habacon said.

"Ask the hard questions: How will your uniqueness be valued and appreciated while still maintaining a sense of belonging? What will it take for us to be able to do that?"

It's not easy but it takes tolerance and inclusion from both sides of the spectrum, he said.

"That's a more nuanced and complicated and difficult conversation but maybe that would have saved the school and this family from having had to go through the hurt of this court ruling," he said.

With files from The Early Edition

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