Leslea Mair is an interesting person doing incisive work on losing one’s religion, e.g. producing and writing for Losing Our Religion (2017). Here we talk about her, her ideas, and views on things. Enjoy.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So to begin, I want to lay a framework of where you came from so people know where you’re coming from when we have the full discussion. So in terms of personal family background, what was it?
Leslea Mair: I grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, out on the prairies. My family belonged to the United Church of Canada. My grandfather was involved with the church. That’s interesting because it’s a progressive church and we were in a progressive congregation.
Nobody believed much of anything. You stand up and say the nice creeds, but you don’t put much into it. It’s all about how you interact with the world. The way you treat people. It’s basically the progressive Christians who say try to be nice and try not to hurt anybody.
That’s what I grew up with. I did have a relationship with a fundamentalist family in my early adult life, which was interesting. It was certainly informative; people think differently.
It was the first time I got up close to the more extreme religious end of the scale. So, I’ve always been interested by religious people because they believe in things in a way I don’t seem wired for.
Jacobsen: Can you expand on that in terms of not being wired for it? Is that something that you simply do not have an inclination towards or simply don’t experience it?
Mair: I think some people are more wired to belief and other people aren’t. If it doesn’t make logical sense to me, it’s not something I can put a lot of store by. As a young child, I thought ghost stories were pretty thrilling. It would be nice to believe in, but ultimately when I look at it, I have to look at it and say the evidence doesn’t stack up for that.
Some people, maybe, whether it’s nature or nurture, are more inclined to be more evidentiary in their beliefs and some people are more inclined to magical thinking. We all do a certain amount of magical thinking though, it’s something we all do. Some of us are more prone to it than others.
Jacobsen: Can you recall any individuals or pivotal moments that were of influence in terms of non-belief, away from the United Church of Canada?
Mair: I don’t think so. We never believed any of the supernatural stuff you deal with in church. So, I grew up not believing in the supernatural aspects of religion. So, there wasn’t any really. I guess you could say I’m a lifelong, deeply agnostic person, which is functionally atheist and have been my entire life.
So for me, there’s no personal shift to or from religion at all. But I find religious people interesting.
Jacobsen: I think that’s a good segue into Losing our Religion, which is a new documentary film about people who have lost their faith. So, I have three questions there. What was the inspiration for it? What is the content? And what was the purpose?
Mair: Well, the film is essentially about preachers who are not believers and what atheists do when they miss having a church community. So, the inspiration for it was general curiosity, which is a handy trait for a documentary filmmaker.
I read Dennett and Linda LaScola’s initial research paper, when it came out, and read about it. I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” We’ve read lots of deconversion stories if you follow the atheist blogs, but hadn’t ever read a deconversion story of a preacher, someone who was actually in ministry.
So, I found it interesting. A couple of years later they came out with a follow-up study and people started talking about The Clergy Project. Realizing, it’s not a handful of people.
There are a lot of people out there who are active in ministry, basically, professional Christians and The Clergy Project covers more than Christianity: it’s Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists. and everybody.
They have all the major religions, Judaism as well. So, it was a big group of people. I thought there is something interesting about it. I wonder what that’s like. I contacted The Clergy Project and said I’m a documentary filmmaker interested in pursuing something about this.
They agreed to it. So, that’s where the idea came from. I read about it. I was curious. I wanted to find out more.
Jacobsen: If you look at the individuals who have made probably the most difficult decision in their lives to leave something where they thought they were there for life and, for instance, in a Christian context guided by God to do, become ministers, pastors, or preachers in the local Church, and then leave it.
What have been some of the more difficult recollections of the transition out of pastoral life that you can recall?
Mair: The hard thing transitioning out of being a pastor is because you’ve got the panic of having to find a job and redefine yourself. Because it’s not a job, it becomes an identity. Even when you are still in the job, you’re hiding what you actually believe.
It has a tremendous amount of stress to it. But when you have to leave, when you are redefining yourself, those are big questions. And they’re hard questions, and when it’s tied to your economic well being as well, and your family and social well being, it becomes overwhelming.
We followed a couple, Brandon and Jen Murphy through their being in the ministry, but not believing all the way through to getting their lives back on track after leaving. It was a tough time for them to go through. It was incredibly generous of them to let us in on a difficult part of their lives.
Jacobsen: Off-tape, we were talking about some of the ways in which that transition can be even more difficult because the individuals not only leave their community, but when leaving are still within the context of the theology – even within the language.
So, for instance, in the case of people who have left Islam, they become ex-Muslim. For those who leave Hassidic Judaism, they become OTD, or off the derech. In a way, it’s playing by the rules of the theology to the benefit of those that are still within the religion?
Mair: Yes, well, it’s interesting. Because when you stop believing, you’re still the same person you were when you were a believer. It’s one of the details about you have changed.
But people see when you do stop believing, especially if you’re a minister, they see that as a tremendous betrayal. They react badly a lot of the time. There’s a special cruelty saved for de-converts.
You can add up by ten times when it’s a minister. But what is interesting, they may have stopped believing in the supernatural, but the way they speak, especially with Evangelical people, has certain phrases and things.
Jen in our documentary describes it as Christianese. It’s funny because when you’re having a conversation with them. There are turns of phrase, Certain words have their own special meaning within particular religious contexts.
They don’t think about them. They’re part of the vocabulary. It’s interesting to think about how being part of a religious community does seep into us at almost a cellular level. We don’t even realize how invested we are with it or how it shapes us.
That’s part of the journey they’re going on even after they come out of believing in the supernatural.
Jacobsen: We both know of some public figures who have made the difficult transition in real time, in national news. People like Gretta Vosper, for instance.
Mair: Yes. Gretta is in our film. I was happy to have her there. She is a member of The Clergy Project and has been on their board of directors. Gretta is interesting because she is still in the pulpit.
She is not willing to walk away from it. Her congregation is fine with it. That’s the interesting thing. Who is not fine with it is the larger church organization in the United Church of Canada, which surprised me, having grown up within the institution. It never seemed to me like we were heavily invested in belief anyway.
So, Gretta’s struggles with the United Church of Canada are something interesting. But a lot of progressive churches stand to gain if they can find a way to start accepting some secular people into their congregation in a community sense.
Building the kinds of communities where secular people can feel comfortable because, quite honestly, churches are dying out. The numbers don’t lie. And the progressive churches are dying out faster than any other church.
So, they need to start embracing people who are embracing science. They say they do and to a large degree they do a good job of it, but they’re still hanging on to those threads of the supernatural that don’t make sense to people anymore.
It’s taking the leap into the next thing, which Gretta is pushing them to do. They’re fearful. We had a review in the United Church Observer. I found it funny because they didn’t say we were wrong or anything.
It was that I lacked nuance in my view of religion. I found that incredibly funny because it’s like “I’m not going to attack you on the substance of what you said. I’m going to say you don’t get it.”
I get it as much as the next person does and probably as much as many of your parishioners do. So, it’s interesting how they approach it. It’s not different from how a lot of church organizations reacted to Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola’s study on preachers who weren’t believers.
They said, “We knew that. It’s not a big surprise to us.” But they don’t want to talk about it.
Jacobsen: In a way, I feel that could be taken by analogy to a legal context, where someone knows an individual that they don’t like hasn’t broken the law, but they can say, “Well, they went against the spirit of the law.”
Mair: Yes, something like that. It’s a bit of a vague thing, “I don’t like where you’ve gone with this.”
Jacobsen: Because the documentary film only came out recently, what has been some of the early reactions to the film outside of the United Church Observer – so to speak?
Mair: That’s the only bit of negative review we’ve gotten. We’ve had actually quite positive reviews from lots of people. I haven’t heard much. Surprisingly, I haven’t heard much from people who are religious, or churches or people who are believers.
I haven’t had any of that feedback. What I get from people who are in the atheist community is they quite like the film, it’s positive; we’ve had lots of positive feedback. I’ve had a few people who are pastors or former pastors send me a message – either on Facebook or via email.
They say or write, “Thank you for making this film, this is great. It was so nice to see a story that is partly like my story out there.” So, there is a desire for people to have the conversation, to talk about what are other ways we can organize ourselves into communities.
What happens when you do stop believing? Where do you go from there? We tried to do that. We didn’t want to go into this thing saying all religion is bad, and religious people are stupid. I didn’t want to do that.
It’s been done to death quite frankly. It’s not a positive message. It’s not something I was interested in exploring. But the idea of “What now?” or “Where do we go from here?” appealed to me.
The more I talked to ministers who didn’t believe anymore, the more I realized they’re still ministers. Some of those ministers like Mike Aus, who started Houston Oasis, that are continuing to be ministers in a secular way.
I found utterly that fascinating. Bart Campolo is a humanist chaplain now or has been until recently. There are people doing things outside of the belief, who are still doing the positive things people get from religion. It was so cool.
Jacobsen: When you reflect on the set of reasons for individuals leaving the faith, whether as members in the pews or as leaders in the church in some capacity, what tend to be the main reasons for them leaving?
Mair: There’s never one reason. That’s the thing. People expect there to be some cataclysmic happening that drove them to make this change or this decision and it’s never one thing.
It’s the slow drip of this or that didn’t make sense, so they set things aside and then don’t think about it. They prayed for someone and they didn’t get better. For one of the people in our film, it was the day to day ministry stuff.
“Can you pray for me for something that’s fairly trivial?” And then seeing on the news terrible things happening in the world eventually making the cognitive dissonance unbearable.
Most ministers have a level of cognitive dissonance in their training. For a lot of people, the movement towards atheism or agnosticism starts in seminary.
Because you’re confronted with the historicity of the Bible. You’re confronted with things. You have to study the scriptures. You have to address some of those contradictions in the book.
So, a lot of people find seminary fairly traumatic. Then you carry that into day to day ministry, it’s a hard job. You’re dealing with people in stressful times a lot of the time. When a loved one is ill, when a loved one passes away, you have to be there for the family to get them through that tough time.
You’re also there for the happy times, marriages, the baptisms, and christening of children. All of the good stuff. But there’s times where if your marriage is in trouble, you’re going to go to your pastor.
Dealing with stress day to day grinds on a person to begin with, so there’s a high level of burnout, but you add to some of the cognitive dissonance. Often, you find people go, “I can’t buy it anymore.”
Or some of them will go from being more fundamentalist and move towards a more progressive Christianity, over a period of decades, they will find themselves at a point where they think, “That’s not a real thing. The God thing doesn’t make sense ultimately.”
But at that point, you’ve spent your whole life in it.
Jacobsen: What about for young people who themselves are on the fence? What kind of communities exist for them if they are reading this to reach out and potentially make that transition out of the faith if that’s what they desire?
Mair: That’s where the secular communities are starting up. The Sunday assemblies and the Oasis communities. Things like that. The humanist organizations are starting to put together regular meet ups.
They’re starting to incorporate elements of what we get out of Church. Gretta put it best when she said atheists don’t need church, what they do need is community. It’s true. We all need to feel like we’re part of a group. We’re social animals.
Talking to Bart Campolo, talking to a lot of people about how to build secular communities, what they talk about now, “I want to know there if is going to be someone to visit me if I go into the hospital.”
“I want to know someone will help me out if I’m going through a rough time.” So, the secular communities are trying to find ways to step into the role for people who are either agnostic or nominal believers who want to be more private about their belief or whatever.
These communities are open to everyone. Everyone is welcome. The West Hill United Church is a secular community more or less attached to a church organization, but everyone is welcome.
They base their community on loving your fellow man (or woman). That’s a tremendously positive thing to be putting out in the world. So, we’re going to see a rise of those communities.
We are seeing a rise from those communities right now. It’s actually exciting to see. Sunday Assemblies by the way, the way Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans are going, are an absolute riot to attend.
They are so much fun. It’s a Sunday morning rave basically. Everybody is dancing and singing. It’s great, great fun. And why not?
Jacobsen: If you look at the landscape of Canada in terms of a lack of formal religious faith, as you noted, the writing is on the wall in terms of the decline of not only Church attendance but religious attendance generally.
Who are some individuals, outside of Gretta for instance, that stand out to you in terms of, not necessarily being direct leaders but more, thought leaders in the country, in Canada?
Mair: In Canada, that is hard to say. Because we are a little bit more buttoned down about this thing than the Americans, so we Canadians tend to keep it a little closer to our vest.
I’m not sure. I was excited to read in the news this morning our governor general got up and said let’s set aside belief in things aren’t real. She’s getting some blowback for it, but I was cheering.
It was great. As we see more and more of those kinds of people, the Chris Hadfields, the Governor General Julie Payette, we see more people standing up and saying, “You know what? We have to get down to brass tacks and start dealing with reality and start setting aside some of the magical thinking we do.”
Because it’s not all based around religion itself. There’s a lot of magical thinking. The shift away from religion is coming not towards atheism; there’s people who have replaced the idea of the traditional God and Jesus stuff with the universe or the energy fields.
There’s still mind-body split and all of that stuff. As we become more and more scientifically literate, that shift is going to continue people down the road to atheism or even deep agnosticism, which is more or less the same thing.
Is anybody particularly leading the charge? I don’t know. We should have more people leading charge. That’s an interesting question. I haven’t thought about that one very hard.
Jacobsen: For myself, when I reflect on it, I think of analogies to individuals such as Margaret Atwood. She was at a different time in the history of the country when she was growing up as well as becoming a professional writer.
However, a lot of her work focuses tacitly on women’s rights and the violation or oppression of women in various ways throughout history. She, as a methodology, takes individual points of fact in history and then reincorporates them like little puzzle pieces to make a bigger puzzle for her books such as The Handmaiden’s Tale.
These, in a way, speak to women’s rights through example, through writing. In a way, that’s a much subtler way to do things. That’s not getting up on a pulpit and speaking out. It’s getting into the veins of the society.
Mair: She is getting right into the nitty gritty of it. She’s finding a way of expressing it, expressing opposition to the religious oppression of women through her art. You do find that.
It’s a different way to approach it, standing up and going on tour like Richard Dawkins does – and more power to him. He’s one of the reasons that we’ve started having these conversations.
Now, we’re carrying them on to different levels and in different ways. We’re at an interesting point in history, where we can directly confront some things when she wrote The Handmaiden’s Tale.
Atwood was not in a particular point in time where this was an easy thing to directly address. Right now with what’s happening in Hollywood and with the Weinstein scandal, where we’re at with climate change and things like that, we have to start talking about things that are real because it’s our preservation.
The culture is going to be going through abrupt and rapid change and quite frankly, as a feminist of more decades than I would care to admit to, I’m happy to see this happening.
Jacobsen: I want to talk a little bit in conclusion about some of the social and legal privileges of religion in Canada. So, things like the religious exemption to anti-hate speech legislation, blasphemy law, and so on?
Statements about “sincere beliefs” or “reasonable accommodations.” Catholic school privileges, the anti-GSA in some Catholic education institutions in the country.
Even to symbolic ones like in the Preamble to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, of the statement of the “supremacy of God,” and so on, do you think that as these discussions move forward, the ones you’ve noted, that individuals who are concerned about equality for those who lack a formal faith, that there could be targeted activism on some of these points?
Mair: A lot of things need to change. The fact we reference God in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms to me is absolutely ridiculous. When you get into that it’s a strongly held belief, so they can say that. Where is the acid test for that?
I can say I believe your skin is green. Your skin isn’t green. Sorry, that’s silly. Why should you accommodate me in that belief? That doesn’t make sense. You can believe what you want to believe, but you can’t expect to be unchallenged.
When it comes to something like hate speech, I’m sorry. There are things that are not socially acceptable to say; if you’re going to say stuff like that, there needs to be a consequence, especially if it’s the speech that genuinely hurts people.
That’s a deeply held belief of mine. I’m sure there are people who are going to disagree with my stance on that. It’s not in relation to my film, which was more about community and things like that.
We need to start having those conversations. How do we take stuff out of our legal documents? We still have a blasphemy law on the books. Why do we still have that? I know it’s mostly a historical artifact, but it can still be used against people.
We need to make some big changes. The atheist community and the secular community, because not all secular people are completely atheist, are starting to organize. It’s up to us to start pushing for those changes and start pushing for a world where people can be kind to each other and safe.
That’s what a lot of this has been about for me was, “Wow, let’s talk about communities of kindness. Let’s talk about places where you can come together and be safe. Let’s look at all of those because they’re so important.” It’s so important.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Leslea.
Image Credit: Leslea Mair.