The Air Up There–Atheist Communities in Canada

Ian Cromwell (host), Ian Bushfield, Jessie Brydle, Veronica Abbass, Donna Harris

A lot of the discourse in the atheist community comes from the American perspective. Wants to explore positive and negatives of this from Canadian perspective.

Similar cultures but different histories, different issues.

Pan-Canadian group of panelists.


IC: First question: In terms of where you live now, what does your atheism mean to you? Are you involved locally? What is the local perception of atheists? Are there consequences to your atheism where you are now?

IB: Grew up in Alberta, lots of evangelicals, creationism, evolution denial, etc. But strong nonreligious component. Only tw-thirds religious. I grew up in secular family. Only later realized it was part of Alberta perspective.

Undergrad at Edmonton, going through Club Spare (?), saw the many religious clubs. Thought something wrong, missing voice. So started atheist/agnostic club. Had 300 sign up in first year.

After moved to BC, especially in Vancouver, least religious place in Canada. Almost no one goes to church. Joined various groups. Community without as much fighting of religious.

JB: From Vancouver originally. Nova Scotia more religious than Vancouver, but Halifax more like Vancouver. City thing? Coastal thing? I seek out religion. Go to Bible study groups, etc. Halifax religion is fairly out of people’s lives, not obtrusive.

People at freethought events in NS tend to have more fear about coming out, joining a group on FB, etc. I think that perception may be lagging behind the reality. You can find pockets of extreme religion, and I’ve found creationists, which I couldn’t find in BC.

VA: Belief in Peterborough that it’s a religious city. Lots of churches. In process of suing city hall for starting meetings with a prayer. Anyone I talk to about it think, that’s the way it always was, so what’s the problem.

Ontario law that not allowed to say Lord’s Prayer at municipal meeting. Suit delayed when VA’s lawyer had heart attack.

IC: Divine intervention!

VA: That’s probably what a lot of people think. I grew up in Cape Brighton, not even the mainland, where there’s the Cape Brighton Post. I started sending my articles and letters to one of the editors, and he’s been publishing them. Predominantly criticizing the Catholic Church.

I belong to CFI Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance (the advocacy coordinator, but call myself agitation coordinator). I write for the Canadian Atheist, editor in chief, and would love to have more contributors.

Can’t even remember what it was like to live in Toronto. Of course, it’s much more secular, so multicultural. But also there’s a big ethnic religious population.

Canadian parliament has passed a bill to declare April 2 Pope John Paul II Day. We should call it misogynist day or homophobia day. We have a petition I could share asking government, the senate (where bill is), to refuse to pass bill.

IC: I’ll put info up on event page. Moving to next question. To what extent to you see issues that are relevant to Canadian atheists coming up in broader atheist community?

IB: We have to be our own advocates in CA. Humanists Canada goes back to fifties/sixties. CFI Canada goes back to 2004 or so. Lots of internal politics, so we haven’t been as effective at pushing our issues. We have freedom of religion and conscience, but preamble has Canada recognizing supremacy of God. Getting stronger voice.

JB: A lot of discourse is relevant, but for nationwide stuff, we have to be our own advocates. I think we do a pretty good job of it. I do see a decent amount of attention from places like Pharyngula and Hemant Mehta. Add to that British, Indian, Australian. We do a fairly good job of getting attention.

[Joined by Donna Harris.]

DH: Here late from Winnipeg.

IC asks VA to respond to previous question.

VA: We have a lot more work to do. I think we’re very different from Americans. Except for a few nutcases, no one really comes out to say that this country was founded by God or religious principles. Unfortunate we have God in preamble of constitution, anthem, Grace of God on money and Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth stops being queen, we’ll deal with someone else and this issue.

IC: Couple of words in preamble has been specifically cited in cases as part of the reason the decision was made.

DH: We’re definitely underrepresented. Statistics and reports are often from US perspective. We have different issues here. Difficult to see at times. Our Office of Religious Freedom, to protect religious minorities, but they aren’t sure if atheists/agnostics fit that bill.

IB: Canada doesn’t have same level of polling as US. We had a poll of BC this spring. Impressed when two-thirds said they don’t practice religion (although two-thirds were religious).

VA: Canadian Secular Alliance meeting with Deborah Coyne, constitutional lawyer, on July 29. Welcome to attend in Ontario. See CSA site.

IC: What are the specific issues relevant to Canadian atheists that are missing in the larger discussion.

VA: Issues mentioned. We have to make very clear and that government understands that this is not a religious country.

[Tech difficulties. IC will strangle everyone. Disclaimer about how early it is and IC had a show last night.]

DH: Because of size of our organizations, we’re always looking for resources. Maybe the stereotypes are true. Canadians are too polite. We don’t see a lot of outrage. We don’t think it happens here, is part of it.

We have an antiharassment bill and part of this is antidiscrimination, including related to Gay/Straight alliance. Enormous reaction from some about having to accept alliance in their schools. A lot of talk, but when we tried to get rallies against this voice, and ours were lowkey. They had 1500 people showing up in churches to pray for us.

IC: Did the prayer work?

DH: Nope. We had people go to these. They asked if there would be discussion. No. No questions. Bad. End of story.

VA: I dealt with that on Canadian Atheist and talked with a group called HAN [?]

IB: Other issues in Canada not broaching, in Vancouver, we haven’t gone beyond taking on Christianity. Only half Christian. Only half Caucasian. Many different immigrant communities. We need to find how to engage and increase diversity. The Indian Rationalists, I’ve been trying to get in touch with, and the First Nations communities who have faced decades of persecution. I don’t know how to properly engage those communities without being colonial and forcing secularism, etc., down from above.

JB: Same problem here. Pretty close to all white. Would be great to have a broader representation of genders, sexes, races, languages. It’s a local problem, with unique breakdown wherever you go. Would love to hear ideas. The Canadians are polite stereotype is kind of true.

That helps us in that religious people are less likely to be really out there, more personal and private. There are exceptions. But that means our perspective is as well. We have Dennet’s belief in belief. Seems impolite to bring up harms that religion can cause.

I am not personally accosted by religious trying to dictate my life, but I don’t get a lot of support either even when I’m not being extreme. Even casual mentions–“Oh, we shouldn’t talk about that.”

IC: What does the panel think of the seeming contradiction where US has explicitly nonreligious component to their constitution that gets violated again and again, whereas Canada has explicit mention of God. Yet we see on the ground far less intrusion of religion in public sphere.

IB: US founded by enlightenment thinkers as well as puritans. Canada founded by moderates of France and Britain. Also by Catholics and Protestants who hated each other but realized they had to get along. So many public docs are nonsectarian even if not nonreligious. More balance in our history, maybe.

JB: US is the exception in this case. Canada seems similar to European countries. Many countries have official religion but not very religious. Canada is more the norm.

I’ve heard a theory that religion has a free market in America because of separation of church and state, so religions have to really sell themselves. An arms race of sorts among sects and religions. I don’t know if a lot of support for this, but interesting theory.

Recently, US Christians have rallied around the word Christian, whereas in past, more prominent sects of Christianity. I believe the abortion debate brought about this rallying more than ever before. JFK’s Catholicism was controversial, which seems weird now. Recently almost seems like a marketing decision to come together as just Christian.

DH: You see this in Canada, the mega churches selling themselves to the public. So many options in the marketplace. Yes, from the beginning, we’ve had to agree and compromise. Our history with aboriginal population not much different. It is and it isn’t. But we signed treaties. Didn’t really have a different attitude.

JB: Quebec and rest of Canada have different approaches to secularism. The Separatist party just took power, the party that solely exists to get Quebec its own country. Charter of Quebec secularism, but became Quebec charter of values, but sort of squishes religion down. But have to preserve crosses, Christmas tree, etc. because cultural. Let’s preserve culture that’s actually catholicism, because that’s Quebec’s history.

IC: Quebec debating a burqa ban a few years ago. Whether soccer players allowed to wear turbans. They have a secularism that exists in a sort of adversarial mode.

VA: Whatever happens in the US leaks across the border. However religiously extreme the US gets, it influences Canada. We both have prayer breakfasts. Especially conservatives like to imitate the US.

IB: Article in paper recently with anonymous sources saying in center and leftwing parties, some MPs are expressing concern about how anti-religion some fellow MPs are. But they don’t come out as publicly to bash religious right. We’re doing better with US. Those parties aren’t in power. You called them the Republican North Party, Ian, I think.

IC: Questions from chat room, but before we do, I’d like to ask the panel to describe a project in your area you’re currently working on.

DH: In Manitoba, working on atheist transit bus ad campaign. Fundraising. Within a few hundred dollars of our goal. Also a festival in August, [inaudible] corn and apple festival, in midst of Manitoba bible belt. They were quite surprised to see us last year.

The reaction from some was, you have guts coming out here.

IB: Lots going on in BC. Doing Pride Parade this year, and we’ll have 45-50 people marching in Vancouver. I’m moving to England, so we’re hiring a replacement. Hope to announce soon.

Trying to get marriage officiants for humanists recognized. Only recognized in Ontario. In BC, they said we’re not religious enough to perform weddings. We could change the law slowly or get an exemption. Also fighting to get Gideon Bibles out.

JB: A lot going on in NS. Skeptics in the Pub tomorrow in Halifax. We’re also going to be involved in Halifax Pride Parade.

VA: My biggest project is the prayer case. CFI is between national directors right now. Biggest thing is the petition. We’ll be involved in the Pride Parade in Peterborough.

IC: Questions from chat room. Those wondering about relationship between federal govt. pro-science policy of late and their ridiculous levels of anti-science.

IB: I think it helps to have this big anti-science target out there making a lot of noise. Puts them in the spotlight. Gets our message out there. More people want to fight it. When private, difficult to get people to care enough to join us, to help.

Pope John Paul II Day petition draws attention.

JB: We have a science minister who when asked if he believes in evolution said, I’m a Christian. That’s a disgrace for an elected official to give that answer period, let alone for a science minister.

IB: He is also a chiropractor, but we’ve recently had a shuffle and have a new science minister, although not much of a pro-science Vote history. Gary did clarify and said something like, women’s shoes have changed over time.

JB: We make the mistake of saying, at least he’s not as bad as Rick Santorum. We downplay our issues. At least as it’s not worse. That’s a big problem.

IC: Chat room question about lawsuit. How has the reaction been from the community at large?

VA: There was a lot of pushback. The women who amused me the most asked how I get out of bed in the morning, I must be so depressed. But no face-to-face pushback.

IB: At U of Alberta, convocation said “use your degree to honor god and country,” and we had a petition. There was soft support: “I guess that should be changed, but is it that important.” Also the surprise: “That’s really happening in Canada?” And even nonreligious people who just like tradition. And that’s most frustrating. I don’t care about tradition. I want to make things better.

JB: Pushback only when I deliberately seek it out, which I do.

IC: Have any of you had opportunity to discuss work with media, as expert?

DH: Two or three months ago, in Winnipeg Free Press invited me to comment on recent poll showing increase in Nons in Canada. I had not really had a chance to discuss anything with believers, about why they believe. So I had a bunch of people wanting to engage in me. Had a discussion with a young Christian with reporter there. That exposure goes a long way. People are often surprised we even exist.

IB: I put out a lot of press releases. I found in Vancouver, media more likely to just publish press release or take quote rather than calling me. Edmonton just surprised I existed.

Four calls from radio show, when they want atheist perspective. Asked me to be on panel about pope. When writing for Canadian Atheist, my name listed at top because of alpha order, so I got media contacts.

JB: I’ve had a few opportunities, mostly minor, school papers, etc., although I get approached about scientific skepticism more than religion. I would love the opportunity!

VA: Never. But I wish someone would call me.

IB: At U of A, I was put on telephone interview with Charles McVetty (sp?), most rightwing nutjob in Canada, so debated him live on air. I also debated one of the Sun News hosts, who eventually hung up on me. That was. Fun.

Wrap up and thank you from IC, who is going back to bed.