In Conversation with Dr. Steven Tomlins – Researcher, Canadian Atheism and Nonreligious Identities

by | February 17, 2018


By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

I read about some of the research done by Dr. Steven Tomlins for the non-religious community in Canada, or on the irreligious community in Canada more properly. I reached out and, as with other articles, felt this may be something of interest to the community: his story, views, and work. Enjoy.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was religion a big part of early life for you? Can you recall some pivotal moments relevant to the discussion around theism and skepticism?

Dr. Steven Tomlins: Catholicism was a part of my life growing up; I’m hesitant to say it was a “big part” because I went to public schools and had non-religious friends, but I went weekly to whatever Catholic Church was near our military postings and I went to Sunday school. My mom was quite Catholic and my dad was nonreligious; he joined the family in church but never converted to Catholicism or any other religion.

I recall a few pivotal moments about theism. The first was when I was in grade nine, listening to Nirvana’s Nevermind a lot. I misinterpreted the lyrics to “Come as You Are,” where Kurt sings, “I don’t have a gun, no I don’t have a gun.” I thought he was singing, “I don’t have a god, no I don’t have a god.” I remember wondering what it must be like to not believe in God, and I also was of the mindset that it’s better to not believe in God than to worship Satan.

A few years later I remember listening to Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral and feeling uncomfortable but curious at the lyrics in the song “Heresy,” which called God dead and ‘critiqued’ Christianity. Music was – and still is – very important to me, and I don’t recall these artists who I respected as forcing me to question my religious persuasion, so much as become aware that there were those who don’t have a religion, and that’s just fine.

Around the same time, a friend moved back from a military posting and we reconnected. When he moved, at the end of grade 8, we were both Catholics, but when he came back around grade 11 he was an avowed atheist, adamant that God was a lie, and he refused to go to church anymore.

We had lengthy discussions about God, neither changing the others mind.  Incidentally a few years later, while I was questioning religion and existence, he became a born-again Baptist. Our arguments shifted to his denying of evolution as a devilish lie and my attempting, unsuccessfully, to convince him of its basis in fact.

As far as skepticism in general, I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t skeptical of ideas and of human motivation. My family has always questioned, discussed, and debated issues; I’m not sure if I learned to be skeptical from my opinionated folks or from the realization as a kid watching commercials that commercials were made by adults to fool kids into buying whatever they’re selling. Probably a bit of both.

Jacobsen: How did you get into the disciplined study of irreligiosity in Canada? I may need some help with being precise on the terminology, as you spent a Ph.D. studying these phenomena.

Tomlins: Well, using ‘irreligiousity’ shows a good use of terminology, so I wouldn’t be so humble! In a nutshell, my undergrad was all about learning about other cultures through courses in Religious Studies.

My interest was in how these religions came about, what my neighbors believe in today, and how religious expression (painting, art, texts) spoke to human creativity. For my Master’s I shifted gears and decided to do a discourse analysis on New Atheist literature, because it was new, I was already familiar with a few of the books, and they were bestsellers in the religion section of my local bookstore.

Following that, I wanted to hear the opinions of Canadian atheists – not pop culture atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins, but your average, everyday Canadian atheist – on issues pertaining to religion and atheism.

While I was pondering how to go about finding some atheists to interview I saw a table set-up promoting a brand-new student club, the Atheist Community of the University of Ottawa, and they accepted me as a participant-observation and interviewer of their club.

Jacobsen: What was the main research question? 

Tomlins: “Why do some atheists in Canada join atheist communities?” I understood many of the reasons why people identify as atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious, and I could understand why some atheists in the United States join groups, feeling persecuted/distrusted, but I didn’t understand the desire to join an atheist community in Canada.

Jacobsen: What were the empirical or statistical findings in the research?

Tomlins: There’s a bunch, but I’ll share one of the most interesting, as it answers the research question. This is a quote from one of the most active members of the atheist club I interviewed:

“I sort of like the idea where there’s this club where you can say all of these things, where you can say whatever you want about religion or not believing in God and you don’t offend anybody, so that’s sort of a good thing.

Because I think in Canadian society we have a tendency to avoid controversial subjects even if they’re important, we don’t like controversy.  I think there’s some sort of tendency to be averse to controversy in Canadian society, so we don’t go deep into things, we don’t have deep meaningful discussions about meaningful issues because we don’t want to make anyone upset.

And so the advantage of the atheist club is that you get to have these meaningful issues, and then you get to learn more, and you don’t have to worry about upsetting anybody, and I think that’s a good thing.”

While in practice the club certainly ruffled a few religious feathers, the notion that the club was a safe-space to engage in controversial discourse with like-minded people who wouldn’t get offended answered my research question, and it spoke to a unique Canadian atheist experience.

Jacobsen: What are your upcoming projects for 2018?

Tomlins: Primarily creative. I have a lot of creative writing projects (satires, a children’s novel or three) that I’ve put on the back burner while focusing on academic pursuits. I’d like to take some time and finish those projects.

Academically, I just finished final edits on a textbook chapter for a volume on religion in Canada (my chapter was on the statistics Canada category of “Religious Nones”), and I am toying with the idea of putting together an international volume on Commonwealth Blasphemy Laws – it’s historical use and its current status.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?

Tomlins: Just that the field of nonreligion and secularity has grown a lot in ten years. At my first conference the organizers put my paper on how the New Atheists view morality on a panel titled “Evil Incarnate,” in-between papers about Satanism and how devilish Heath Leger’s Joker was.

Today panels dedicated to secularism, nonreligion, and atheism are common. Nonreligion is treated as a growing minority religious persuasion worthy of study, but that begs the question: as the nonreligious population continues to grow, in Canada for example (where it’s at just shy of a quarter of the population), at what point will nonreligion become treated as the norm, rather than the exception?

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

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