Frances Garner is a Member of the Central Ontario Humanists. I wanted to gain some more of the smaller stories, especially those with novel perspectives and experiences apart from the international figures who travel the lecture circuit and repeat the same arguments and talking points, often, and the national figures who make the rounds on issues of the day. Here is our conversation.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us start from the top and talk about your own personal and family background, what was it – geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof?
Frances Garner: I grew up in Southern Ontario with a lapsed catholic, probably alcoholic father and an evangelical, fundamentalist mother. My father died of pancreatic cancer when I was a young teen and I regret that I didn’t get the chance to know him better.
My mother took her four children to church every Sunday with the full support of my father. It wasn’t our religious training that my father was concerned about so much as having the house to himself for half a day.
From the age of two weeks until I was 36 there were very few Sundays that I was not in the pew. We were steeped in the fundamentalism of the Fellowship Baptist Church.
I was raised with a very strict God. He was always out of reach and he was waiting with hand poised to strike if you screwed up. It was pretty frightening. My mother was a little bit like Him as far as personality went.
So, I spent my childhood, youth and adulthood in church many days of the week; Sunday school, church service, evening service, pioneer girls, youth group and choir. I even got baptised twice… just to seal the deal I guess.
Jacobsen: [Laughing] There is a story about Anne Frank in the Mormon church. They baptize the dead. She had to be baptized several times because she just wouldn’t take.
Garner: After my father died, my mother married a very fundamentalist retired minister which only steeped me in further. Although I had plenty of questions about why we believed what we did, I was too frightened to ask or express any type of doubt at all.
Of course, I married a guy who was also brought up like me, but he was willing to let me take on the religious upbringing of our children. (who ever said ‘you marry your father’ knew what they were talking about in my case)
We moved to Muskoka in 1993. A co-worker who I had had many discussions with about my belief must have gotten sick of listening to me, said to me one day ‘You sound like someone who has never had the courage to question your own belief system’. That shut me up for the day and then I went on a journey to prove to this person that my faith was real and show this fellow why he was wrong.
Be sheer coincidence, I was in the public library a couple of days later and happened upon a book written by Charles Templeton, Farewell to God. Before I was half way through the book, the scales fell off my eyes and I was done.
Maybe I never really did believe it. Maybe I was just too frightened of loosing what I thought was my foundation because it seems like an awfully easy deconversion. But that was it…eyes wide open and my faith gone in an instant.
Jacobsen: How do you move forward so steeped in it?
Garner: I didn’t run out and tell the world right away but eventually it comes out. My mother and brothers were not at all impressed. It ended up setting me apart from my family and things can still get pretty tense all these years later.
I spent some time over the next few years checking out other belief systems, each of them making about as much sense as the one I had left. But it took very little time to realize that in all likely hood we are on this dot of a planet by ourselves and there is no one out there watching over us or judging us.
It’s frightening and freeing at the same time. I still carry a little bit of that feeling that there is always this invisible someone watching me. There is a children’s hymn from my youth that haunts me now and then…Be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little hands what you do… There’s a father up above and he’s looking down with love so be careful… Creepy, isn’t it?
Around that time and separate from my spiritual searching, I took an in-depth meditation course called Mindfulness Meditation. Twelve weeks of practice with a minimum of two hours a day. Admittedly, I didn’t fully apply myself to it but I thought it was very good.
Jacobsen: How did you find the new community?
Garner: Fast forward a few years, divorced, having raised three kids into adulthood pretty much on my own and living a pretty good godless life. My middle child very suddenly died. In the blink of an eye and with no warning she was gone leaving behind a husband and two little children.
It rocked my world to the core. As every parent believes, our children will see us to the grave, not the other way around. It taught me something about belief. You can believe staunchly anything you please and it counts for nothing. Belief is not truth.
Those days of mourning were unbearable, unimaginable. I was so fortunate that my partner Jim was there to hold me up and to give me a soft place to land. Our dog Heston wouldn’t come near me for three days.
I think he couldn’t comprehend who I was underneath all that grief and then he did what ‘man’s best friend’ does. As I was sinking into despair he got to work. That dog got me out of bed and made me walk. Three, four, five times a day that dog insisted on going for a walk.
And so we did. Miles and miles and miles and slowly the grief began to ease. It will never go away but I have learned to live around that huge hole that my daughter left in my life. I think that dog may have saved my life because I was very tempted to join my daughter in death just to stop the pain and grief.
I wonder, if I had still been living a life that told me there was something after this life, that she was out there somewhere, I may have joined her. Anything to end that kind of pain.
A few weeks later I saw an add in the paper that this Mindfulness Meditation course was happening again and I realized that during those days of sitting vigil over my daughter that I kept coming back to one of the things we were taught; watching the breath, returning to the breath.
I realized that that is what I had been doing those first few days. It was how I kept present in those moments. I took the course again and today I practice being ever present in the moment.
The one thing that church provides is a place for others who think like you to gather. I did miss that. About a year ago, I joined the Humanists of Canada and attend the monthly meetings in Barrie about an hour south of here.
It is a great pleasure to socialize and learn along with others who realize that the best path in life is to take resposiblity for yourself and to know that we are the only ones who can make this world what it is.
My goal is to become a Humanist Officiant so people can celebrate life’s events without having to give the nod to God. I would also love to see a group started here in Muskoka and would happily be a part of that.
Leaving religion has been scary, lonely and empowering over these last years and today I am a stronger more fulfilled person for it.
Jacobsen: What role do you play in the humanist community now?
Garner: I go to the Barrie, about an hour South of here. We have one meeting a month. I am there for that. I am like a support person on the Board of Directors. I do not hold a position, but I am a support person.
I am working to become an officiant. Something, I would love to do as a humanist officiant. Hopefully, by the end of this year, I can provide humanist weddings or baby namings. Living in Muskoka, it is a treasure trove.
There is a wedding on an island every weekend around here. We live on a lake as well. That is what I would like to be doing by the end of this year.
Jacobsen: I know there is a lack of services for humanists and other associated types of people who are public service in that way – officiants and so on – in the prisons, in the army, and in universities.
If you take the army or universities, something like a humanist chaplain might be a deep need for a lot of humanist on campus. Do you know what the process is for doing that? Is it similar to becoming a humanist officiant?
Garner: I do not. But I would be very interested in doing that. We have one federal and one provincial here in Gravenhurst. That work appeals to me. I guess that I would start with an officiant. You never know where that can go.
Jacobsen: When you think about the activists of the Barrie Humanists, what are some of the practical everyday things that they have in the community that you would value that you would find in a traditional religious community or something that doesn’t come with a bunch of supernatural baggage – so to speak?
Garner: Since I am new, the thing I get is the freedom to question whatever I want to question. it is freeing coming from a fundamentalist background. The ability to question anything that you want. Living where I do in this small community, I would love to see them come North and would love to play a part should that ever happen.
As a humanist, in order for me to not shine my light – do not want to say that and it is not cool considering where I come from [Laughing], the people who know me. I have had so many people ask where I get my morality.
If you read Leviticus, where do you get your morality?
Jacobsen: By not reading Leviticus…
Garner: Are you familiar with the Bible?
Jacobsen: It happens now. It happens in international politics where people want to punish others with the Curse of Amalek which had to do with the slaughter of the Amalekites. I am familiar. It is quite striking.
The genocidal impulse, I have heard it said. People are told to be more like God. Then if you look at page after page within the Bible, you see killing and genocide. This may explain international politics for centuries.
Garner: It may explain the gun laws in the United States. They seem to be taking each other out at alarming rates.
Jacobsen: If you look at international politics, where it has apparently been the case, it does work as a basic heuristic for an explanation.
Garner: One of the things that are a little bit alarming is how the United States is moving towards more of this – more of the Christian Right philosophy, which is quite alarming.
Jacobsen: You have the mix with Mike Pence as a Christian fundamentalist as his prime identity in life. Then you have Paul Ryan who takes on an Ayn Rand – who was an atheist – laissez-faire capitalism.
It is a strange mixture in the richest, most powerful country in the world.
Garner: Anyone who is an atheist is considered to be lower on the scale than a pedophile.
Jacobsen: Yes, that research that was done. They were seen as that in specific contexts. So, I do not want to overstate the research, but based on the new more preliminary research that has been done.
When they give an example and ask who this is, atheists come off, in terms of the numbers, worse than but, in terms of the statistics, statistically significantly equivalent bad in certain circumstances.
Garner: What amazes me, today, after this journey that I have been on since 1996, I would consider myself far more moral and ethical than I ever claimed to have been as a Christian back them.
Jacobsen: Why is that?
Garner: I can’t say, “Whoops! Sorry, the slate is wiped clean. Whoops, sorry! Jesus forgives me, I get a pass. My sins are forgiven.” I have come to realize that I am responsible for the one life that I have been lucky enough to be thrown into.
I am responsible for me. Putting me in that place and not some deity has just really changed the way I see almost everything I do, and I am accountable for that. It is not my church dogma that drives my morality.
It is not how I was a raised. It is not the invisible uncle in the sky. It is me who is doing this. It is Frances Gardner who decides right from wrong. That is why I think I am far more moral and ethical person today.
Knowing that my every action shapes the world around me is why I stopped eating any and all animal products.
Not only because I feel that it is part of my humanism or atheism by any stretch, but that moral and ethical responsibility that I feel for the planet and for other sentient beings just said, “You cannot participate in this any longer.”
I just can’t see myself as a vegan Christian. I would not be welcome at the socials for sure! [Laughing].
Garner: “Have some ham!” It is how I feel a connection with the planet as a whole.
Jacobsen: When you are looking at the trends in the country now, and I want to keep things consistent with the specifics of Ontario, what are some concerns you might as to certain movements or organizations developing, growing, and trying to influence maybe the political situation or the social situation in Ontario?
Garner: I think Ontario is quickly becoming more and more and more secular. We do not have some of the problems that other parts of the country and the world have. One thing that I would like not to see is for our nation to become “spiritual.”
“I am not religious but I am spiritual.” I would hate to see that attitude seap into anything politically. I wonder if that might be a little bit sometimes about where we are going. As long as there is someone out there going to look after it in the long run, then it takes aaway our own responsibility.
As far as movements go, environmentally, we are on the cusp of some pretty awful things. As a humanist, I would like to see us work towards bettering the landscape of the planet for the next generations, where we are responsible for that.
I am not a real political animal. So, I am not sure if I would join any political movement. Maybe, the Green Party or the Libertarians, I might support them, but I am not political enough for a Conservative or an NDP or a Liberal government.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Frances.