Conversation with Mark A. Gibbs – Managing Editor, Canadian Atheist

Mark A. Gibbs is the managing editor (my boss) and contributor to Canadian Atheist. He’s a big deal. Here we talk about him!

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there much religion in family upbringing?

Mark A. Gibbs: My relationship with religion growing up was peculiar.

Where I grew up, Christianity was the only game in town, and it was everywhere. Every day at school we said prayers at morning assembly, and there were mandatory religious studies – read that as “Christian indoctrination” – classes. And they weren’t just for show; people really believed. I started a band at school with my friends, and the music teachers actually arranged an intervention to warn us about demonic influences in rock music. My closest friends growing up were a family of American missionaries, and I went to weekly Bible studies with the parents for many, many years. I still have the old Bible I used to have to carry around regularly, adorned with Transformers stickers.

But within my immediate family, there was virtually no consideration of religion. I was baptized twice within weeks, in two different Christian sects, to satisfy the two branches of the family – that should illustrate how important religion was to the people around us, while at the same time how unimportant it was to my parents. I didn’t even learn my mother was atheist until after she died. Religion was simply never discussed, neither positively nor negatively. It was just something that other people did; it was their “thing”, and that was fine.

My parents just didn’t care about religion. They’d support anyone who needed it. When I was a kid, we actually had people stay with us who had been “disfellowshipped” from the Brethren – they’d been kicked out of the Church and lost their friends, their families, their jobs… everything. My parents let them stay with us until they got back on their feet in secular society. On the other hand, my parents also helped people who were recovering drug addicts who were trying to put together a Christian recovery ministry. Whether it was helping people start a ministry or escape from one, all that mattered was that people needed help.

In fact, my brother went through a phase where he was very seriously considering going to seminary and becoming a priest, and my parents gave him their full support, even going so far as to arrange interviews with ordained clergy to talk about what the job was like… and then a few years later that same brother was playing bass in a heavy metal band with Satanic imagery, and my parents were totally supportive of that, too, with my dad teaching him metal licks on the guitar and lending equipment. Whether it was religion or irreligion, my parents just didn’t care.

Jacobsen: Was the part of Canada in which you grew up religious or more irreligious than the national average?

Gibbs: Most of my growing up was in Barbados. It’s hard for me to measure how religious the areas of Canada I’ve lived in were compared to the Canadian average, because my own impressions are spoiled by my Bajan experience. I don’t think anywhere in Canada is even remotely as religious as Barbados.

Jacobsen: How did you become formal irreligious, an atheist, in Canada?

Gibbs: I was born an atheist, and never spoiled. But for most of my life I identified as “Anglican”. I don’t know if ever even set foot in an Anglican church, and I couldn’t even tell you what the uniquely Anglican tenets are. But I needed to call myself something, and the only things I knew from growing up were Christian denominations, so I figured I had to be one of them. Wasn’t Catholic, didn’t seem to be Baptist, and so on; I eventually narrowed it down to Anglican just by process of elimination.

I don’t think my transition to explicitly atheist was something that happened in a single event. In university I got involved with a number of social justice groups of various stripes, and I guess I realized over time that they were all struggling against religious oppression in different ways. Religious groups just never seemed to be on the side of right. So somewhere along the way I decided that I couldn’t keep identifying myself with organizations and beliefs that were so intolerant, irrational, and odious, so I stopped calling myself “Anglican”. That was just before the rise of New Atheism, so I think I called myself “agnostic” for a while before the New Atheists inspired me to start using the label “atheist”.

Jacobsen: What is your best argument for irreligion?

Gibbs: The best argument for irreligion is simply parsimony – Ockham’s Razor: there’s no evidence for religious claims, so there’s no reason to believe them.

By my favourite argument for irreligion is the moral argument, based on William Kingdon Clifford’s essay “The Ethics of Belief”. The idea is that it’s actually wrong – morally wrong – to believe things without evidence. I don’t buy the argument completely, but up to a point it’s hard to argue against. Ockham’s Razor can only tell you that faith is unnecessary; Clifford shows you that it’s outright immoral.

Jacobsen: What is the long-term future, say 50 years, of religion in Canada?

Gibbs: I think the future is very bright! Assuming nothing globally catastrophic happens, religious influence will continue to fade. I doubt religion will be completely eliminated from Canada in any foreseeable future, but we’ll probably come to a time where it’s so niche that it won’t have any impact on most Canadians’ lives. If I had to speculate, I’d say that fifty years from now we’ll have a few provinces with more than half the population having no religion, and a couple of provinces with atheist premiers. (An atheist Prime Minister? Possible, but the odds are just slightly against.)

Jacobsen: What is its near-term future?

Gibbs: I don’t see any major changes in the short term. We’re making such good progress, both socially and legally, that it’s in our best interests to just let things continue to advance at the current pace. It’s probably unsatisfying for some atheists to have such gradual improvement, as opposed to the rather rapid social progress made by other groups, like LGBT people. But moving gradually means we don’t have to face the kind of active hostility and opposition those other movements face. Instead, every time we win a new battle it sorta slips just under the radar and just becomes “normal” before the haters even realize we’ve made progress.

The other problem with trying to push too hard too fast is that we might get careless and swing the pendulum of injustice the other way. Right now we’re (mostly) on the side of right, fighting against religious oppression… but if we’re not careful we could start promoting policies that change the dynamic to where nonbelievers are actually the ones doing the oppressing of believers. There are already worrying signs of that happening in other countries, and even hints of it here. We need to make sure that we’re fighting for our own fundamental rights and for equality… not fighting to take away fundamental rights from believers.

Jacobsen: Why did you begin work through Canadian Atheist?

Gibbs: I started out as a commenter taking issue with some of the things being said on CA. This was just about the time that the Québec Charter of Values was first being introduced, and I was appalled by some of the reactionary and downright irrational arguments being offered in support of it. I challenged the rhetoric, and that caught the eye of the managing editor at the time. I was already writing for a couple of other sites at the time, and I was really stoked to be able to contribute to CA.

Jacobsen: What things do you do for it?

Gibbs: As managing editor of Canadian Atheist, I try to find new voices interesting in contributing to the site. We’re always looking for new contributors. CA’s editorial policy is very liberal – I never tell anyone what to write or censor their contributions – so most of my time is spent doing technical work to keep the site running smoothly, and to catch the attention of search engines so that we can reach more people and have more impact.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved with it?

Gibbs: Basically anyone who wants to contribute content that will be of interest to Canadian atheists and can demonstrate an ability to write, draw, or record clear, coherent, and relevant content is welcome to join the team! Just drop us a line using the contact form on the site and introduce yourself.

Jacobsen: What is the state of not only atheism but also irreligiosity writ large in Canada?

Gibbs: I think we’re actually on the cusp of a very big change. In the past, atheism and non-religion in general were always there, but generally ignored and not given any particular respect by politicians or established institutions, like the CBC. No politician could be arsed to pander to nonbelievers – or even mention them – and institutions like the CBC treated us like this weird freak show on the fringes of Canadian society.

But a couple of things are happening now that might change the game. The rise of the Canadian far-right has made religious-based hate (in their case, it’s usually Christians specifically targeting Muslims) headline news, and it’s leaving a sour taste in Canadians’ mouths. I don’t think Canadians have made the connection yet – I think they’re still seeing it as plain racism, not religious discrimination – but there are other things, like M-103, that are putting religion on the discussion table despite the Canadian tradition of not talking about religion publicly. And now we’ve just elected the first non-Christian leader of a major, Federal political party. We’ve never really had to talk about the religion of potential Prime Ministers before… now we might.

Canadians generally take a “don’t want to deal with this” attitude toward potential conflict, and pick the path that seems to lead to the least strife. If religion becomes a flash point for conflict, I think most Canadians – who are already virtually atheists; they’re certainly not particularly religious – will decide that non-religion is the path to peace.

Maybe? We’ll see.

Jacobsen: What are perennial threats to non-belief in Canada?

Gibbs: Canadian apathy and the tendency to stick with the status quo.

We don’t suffer from a lot of focused hostility in Canada. Rather, we suffer from passive, almost “bored” discrimination – historical methods of discrimination that Canadians just can’t be arsed to do anything about. Even many Canadian nonbelievers don’t care; the discrimination isn’t so bad that it’s intolerable, so they’d rather not rock the boat.

I don’t see any plausible path to things getting worse for nonbelievers in Canada… unless Canada goes batshit insane like the US and elects a Trump-like PM, which is not likely (but not impossible!). So it’s really just an issue of things not getting better. It took us until 2017 to get a bill to repeal the blasphemy law (which still hasn’t passed!), and we’re still forced to plead to God in our national anthem, and to listen to our elected Parliament praying. There are plenty of things that need to be fixed, but for now I’m not really worried about regressing.

Jacobsen: What are the bigger areas of social discrimination against nonbelievers in Canada?

Gibbs: It may just be that I’ve lived only in fairly progressive and tolerant areas of Canada, or it may be that I’m spoiled for making a decent comparison by my Barbadian experience, but I can’t see I see much social discrimination against nonbelievers in Canada. Oh, sure, no doubt you can find pockets where the ignorance and bigotry runs hot. But broadly speaking, I think Canadians are fairly ambivalent toward irreligion and irreligious people.

At least in my personal experience, whenever I “out” myself as an atheist, the response I almost always get is simple bemusement. People respond by asking me questions about atheism or my personal atheist experience. Some of those questions are the kinds of ignorant questions that make atheists roll their eyes, like, “do atheists believe in nothing?” or “how can you be moral without god?” But I honestly don’t think they are being asked from a place of hate… I think they’re genuinely curious about something they don’t understand, and have been lied to about all their lives. So I try to answer patiently, with a touch of humour and humility. And I’ve found that generally, people walk away thinking better of atheists than before we talked.

Now, I have to be careful to say that that Canadians seem generally ambivalent and curious about atheists… the same is not always true for atheism. I have noticed mildly negative views of atheism – as an ideology or movement. But I think what we’re seeing there is not actual hate of atheism, but rather annoyance at atheism for being activist, and for rocking the boat. Canadians generally want people to keep their heads down and not stir the pot or create conflict… but as an activist movement, atheism has to create a bit of a ruckus to get anything accomplished; only the squeaky wheel gets the grease, after all. I believe that if all of our political and social goals were accomplished, so that atheism no longer had to be politically activist, Canadians wouldn’t have anything against it at all.

Jacobsen: What are the bigger areas of political discrimination against nonbelievers in Canada?

Gibbs: While I don’t think there is a lot of active political discrimination against nonbelievers in Canada, there are a handful of politicians who routinely say bigoted, intolerant, and, frankly, stupid things about atheists that they wouldn’t say about any other “religious” group. The fact that those statements are considered acceptable, and usually ignored by the mainstream media, illustrates that we still have work to do.

But the real problem is subtle forms of discrimination, or “micro-agressions” against atheism. Most of Canada’s public institutions are essentially “old boys’ clubs”, with the same-old gang doing things the same-old way they’ve been doing them for many decades. They’re still mired in old-school thinking – which is usually heavily religious, at least in affiliation – and they don’t really have any voices from the demographics that you’ll find a lot of atheists in, like younger people. To give an example, just a couple years ago, the CBC aired a discussion panel that asked whether atheism was any good for Canada. Can you imagine them doing a discussion on whether Judaism or Sikhism was any good for Canada?! And then to add insult to injury, they didn’t include a single atheist voice on the panel… and instead had invited a Catholic priest. Again, can you imagine Canada’s national broadcaster airing a discussion on whether Judaism was any good for Canada, then not only neglecting to invite any Jewish people, but instead inviting a representative from an antisemitic organization?! There was simply nobody in that “old boys’ club” who had the wherewithal to notice how wildly inappropriate that was.

This is not just an atheist problem. We badly need more diversity in our public institutions, because several groups are simply being ignored or misunderstood.

Jacobsen: What are the bigger areas of legal discrimination against nonbelievers in Canada?

Gibbs: In 1982, Canada basically got a brand, spankin’ new Constitution, complete with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Prior to that, there were numerous laws on the books that were very discriminatory toward atheists. But the Charter changed everything. Those old, discriminatory laws remained on the books… and many still remain to this day… but they’re now dead letter.

However….

There is still one particular area of legal discrimination based on religion. It doesn’t specifically target atheists, but at least in Ontario, Catholic schools enjoy a specially protected “right” that other religions – and non-religion – do not. And not just that, they have the legal right to refuse to hire atheists (or anyone who is not Catholic) as teachers. Doesn’t even matter if it’s a math teach – what does math have to do with Catholicism? The hypocrisy is astonishing; Catholic schools will refuse non-Catholic teachers… but happily accept non-Catholic students – after all, they get paid for the latter. The majority of Ontarians oppose the public Catholic system, but there’s just no political will to do anything about it.

Jacobsen: What are the positives of religion?

Gibbs: I’ll flip the question and say what the negatives of religion are, and there are only two: faith (which I define is belief without or in spite of reason or evidence), and authoritarianism. If you take those things away, religion becomes benign, and possibly even positive.

There are a lot of features of religion that could be put to such wonderfully positive social and cultural use if they weren’t tainted by belief in supernatural or mystical nonsense, or unquestioning obedience to religious authorities or doctrines. It’s a nice way to define and bind a community – it provides a shared identity, shared customs and traditions that can be celebrated together, and a focal point for community organization. It’s not really the silly claims that make religion bad, because the claim that a man lives at the North Pole with elves and travels around the world with flying reindeer to hand out presents is not causing any harm, nor are the customs or traditions associated with that story that we celebrate. It’s the belief in irrational claims that’s the problem; it’s faith that is the problem, as well as the authoritarian idea that the claims must be respected and obeyed without question.

Of course, it’s arguable that if you take the faith and authoritarianism out of religion, whether it’s still “religion”. And none of the positives associated with religion actually require religion; not even watered-down non-faith/non-authoritarian “religion”. We could, in theory, replace every beneficial feature provided by religion with something completely new. But since religion is already extant, and ubiquitous, maybe if we could take the faith and authoritarianism out if it, maybe it would be easier to harness that existing power for good, rather than trying to make something new from scratch.

Jacobsen: Who are people attempting to move the conversation within religion to a higher plateau, a more progressive platform?

Gibbs: Within religion, I honestly don’t know. I was born without religion and never got sucked in, so I’m a bit of an outsider to the whole scene. I can only give a few names, that I vaguely know of via the media. For example, there’s Gretta Vosper, the former United Church of Canada minister who came out as atheist. But I’m not sure how much she can be counted as “within religion” anymore, since they kicked her out. There are also people like Malala Yousafzai, and so on … but there are a lot of people who wouldn’t consider Yousafzai to be a True Muslim™, and so on.

Honestly, I am fairly disinterested in efforts to “reform religions from the inside”. I don’t oppose them, and I’ll even support them if they ask for my assistance, but I just don’t find “reform” efforts to be compelling pursuits. I don’t see it as coincidental that religions are a lot more conservative, dogmatic, and aggressive about their beliefs now than they were fifty years ago. To me that’s the natural result of the growth of nonbelief. In times past, religions were very often at the vanguard of the fight for human rights (not all religions, but every major human rights movement had strong religious support)… but not any more, and probably never again in the future. The people who walk away from religions are going to be the more moderate reasonable people, leaving only the more extremist, unreasonable people behind… thus it’s to be expected that religions are becoming more extremist and unreasonable. As this trend continues, I don’t expect reform efforts to be particularly fruitful in the long term.

Really, the only thing I hope for from reform movements is that they just keep the religion sane (relatively speaking) and non-genocidal long enough until its membership has withered away to make it no longer worthy of serious concern. If they also manage to make the religion tolerant and reasonable, that’s great… but I’m not going to bet anything on them managing that.

Jacobsen: Who is a personal hero for you?

Gibbs: Oh, I don’t believe in heroes anymore. Too many of them have proven themselves to be far too human. But there are people I respect, and I follow their opinions because I find them to be usually far better informed well thought-out than the average.

Off the top of my head, focusing on Canadians, in alphabetical order:

  • Ian Bushfield, Executive Director of the British Columbia Humanist Association;
  • Eiynah, who writes as Nice Mangos;
  • Spencer Lucas, aka The Positive Atheist;

and of course, all of the contributors to Canadian Atheist, past and present.

Jacobsen: Who, naming names, are attempting to either argue for the traditionalist, even fundamentalist, religion in Canada? Also, who are closet religious-minded individuals who are attempting to rebrand religion, especially Christianity, and sell it to the modern generations such as the, as they’re automatically labelled, Gen Xers and the Millennials?

Gibbs: I am not a fan of naming names, for the simple reason that it gives them too much power. Oh, certainly when I’m addressing someone or their arguments specifically, I’ll address them directly – that’s only civil; I’m not suggesting dehumanizing our opponents by refusing to name or acknowledge them. But I prefer not to raise particular people or organizations up as symbols of things I oppose. When you create a boogieman (boogieperson?), you make it too easy to attack the boogieman itself, and not their ideas. And it’s their ideas that need to be challenged.

I don’t think, though, that there’s anyone doing a particularly good job of repackaging religion for the young. Younger Canadians are growing up more skeptical and less religious than any generation before them. And they’re particularly unimpressed by the bigotry, intolerance, and stubborn opposition to science and reason displayed by most religions. Most every attempt I’ve seen to “sell” religion to the young have tried to avoid that core problem; they’ve tried to pretend there’s really no problem with intolerance and ignorance in religion, but young Canadians have seen enough evidence to the contrary that they’re not buying. Nowadays there’s simply nothing that religions have to offer younger Canadians that they don’t already have – they get their community, their support, and their understanding of the universe from the Internet. With no benefits and with that nasty stain of association with bigotry and ignorance, it would take a pretty brilliant marketing campaign to make religion attractive to younger Canadians, and I’m just not seeing it.

Jacobsen: What are your major initiatives the irreligious movement in Canada in the coming months?

Gibbs: Canadian Atheist is going through a bit of a renaissance right now, and that should pick up even more steam in the coming year. We’ve just rolled out a new back-end infrastructure that will allow us to build some really cool new features.

The first one that’s probably going to see daylight is something I’ve called Rosetta. The idea is to create a collection of the documents and writings most important to Canadian secularism, humanism, atheism, and freethought (SHAFT), and translate them to all Canadian languages. All Canadian languages; not just English and French. That means translating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to Plains Cree, translating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Inuktitut, translating the Amsterdam Declaration to Ojibwe, and more. Rosetta will also include a translation dictionary, so one day you may be able to translate “I am an atheist” to every Canadian language.

Ultimately the goal is to make Canadian Atheist less of a platform that a select few can use to shout their opinions at the community, and more of a community hub with an egalitarian ethic – a place where everyone can hear and share their opinions about Canadian atheism. But that goal is a bit of a ways off yet.

Outside of Canadian Atheist, I think the biggest thing happening in Canadian non-belief right now is that are a hair’s breadth away from finally getting some of the most pernicious religious-based discriminatory laws repealed. One more push, and Canada may no longer have laws against blasphemy, witchcraft, and other such things.

Another thing I think is brewing, but has not yet coalesced into a single, organized initiative, is opposition to publicly-funded religious schooling in the provinces of Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. There are some court challenges in flight that could change the landscape completely, and force the government to end funding for separate, religious schools. It’s something I’m keeping a close eye on for 2018.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Gibbs: I just want to say that I really believe in the foundations of humanism: reason, compassion, and hope. I believe that if we use those ideals as a guide, we’ll be on the right path – a path that our descendants can look back on and be proud we took. We shouldn’t define ourselves by the things we disagree with or hate; we should not define ourselves as “anti-religious” or “anti-theist”. We should define ourselves by the things we aspire to.

Thanks for hearing me out!

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Mark.

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