Stephen Skyvington is the President of Politrain, Inc.. Here we talk about early life, belief, God, an upcoming new book, being the President of Politrain, Inc., and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us start from the beginning, as I have said in other interviews, like a superhero origin story. How did you get here? What were early life and education like for you?
Stephen Skyvington: I was born in 1958 — on New Year’s Eve, no less —in Toronto, Ontario. I spent the first twelve and a half years of my life going to school and playing sports in Scarborough, before we moved to a small town about fifteen miles north of Toronto in 1971. I say small town but it was really more like someone had plopped down fifty houses in a corn field on what had been prime Ontario farm land before the farmer who owned it sold the land to developers. As a result, I’ve grown up with something of a “split” personality, in that I feel just as comfortable living downtown in a big city — as I did for seventeen years in Toronto, from about 1990 to 2006, before moving here to Cobourg — as I do living in the country.
Jacobsen: How did these influence personality insofar as they influence temperament and belief structure?
Skyvington: Although my parents told me many times I was the only “planned” child, arriving a full eight years after my middle brother and ten years after my eldest brother, the reality is I ended up being left on my own quite a bit growing up. Especially after we moved to the country. My one brother stayed behind to go to university while my other brother met someone, fell in love, and returned to the city to live with his new wife after being with us for only one year. As a result, I spent most of my days reading and drawing and dreaming. All worthwhile activities, to be sure — although, unfortunately, I started to become more and more reclusive like my mother and less and less gregarious like my father. I suspect this is why — even to this day, some forty-five years later — I often feel “alone in a crowd” no matter where I happen to be at the time.
Jacobsen: What did God seem like as a kid and adolescent, whether in observation of others and with a theory of their conceptualizations or in your mind?
Skyvington: I’m not sure I had much of a concept of God growing up, although I do remember standing up in class one morning for Show and Tell and proudly announcing that my Grandpa “went to Heaven last night!” a couple of months before my eighth birthday. I also vividly recall crying one Sunday morning and telling my dad I didn’t want to go to Sunday school anymore, that I wanted to stay home and watch the “Roy Rogers Show” on TV. Much to my astonishment, he let me skip church, which began a long — and to this day, pretty much unbroken — estrangement from organized religion.
Jacobsen: Your next book has a standing title of “Un-belief-able: An Atheist’s Take on God, Organized Religion and Spirituality.” What inspired the topic, the title, and the content?
Skyvington: I’d just finished writing my latest book, “This May Hurt A Bit,” which is about how we might go about reinventing Canada’s health-care system, and was casting about for something new to explore. Around the same time, I found myself reading Christopher Hitchens’ excellent memoir, “Hitch-22,” in which he explores his atheism and speaks at great length about organized religion, when the title “Un-belief-able” popped into my head. Now, regular readers of your magazine will recognize that title as the one I used for a piece I submitted to you for publication a few months ago, which I wrote after attending the funeral service for my wife’s cousin. Re-reading the article, I realized I’d barely scratched the surface, as it were, and that there was a whole lot more I could talk about on the subject. I asked my wife what she thought about the idea and if she’d be good enough to dig up as many expressions as she could find that had something to do with God, organized religion or spirituality. From the dozens she came up with, I narrowed it down to twenty-five, and set myself the task of writing a 3,000-word essay on each topic over the next few months. Hopefully, this will result in my publishing a brand-new book sometime in 2020.
Jacobsen: As the president of Politrain, Inc., how does this build into the religious/non-religious views to you? Politics, ideally, does not influence religion, but the world does not reflect this. Citizens will vote for religious identification of a leader. Of course, Canadian citizens have full right to vote for the reasons deemed fit by them.
Skyvington: A few years back, I wrote an article that was published by the Sun Media chain entitled, “Why can’t an atheist be prime minister?” If memory serves me correct, I believe the article came about as a result of watching all those presidential candidate debates on CNN, where it seemed that every two or three minutes someone would invoke the name of God or Jesus as a way of reaching out to individual blocks of voters — typically the “religious right” — as a way of validating their candidacy. While I found it frankly appalling that so many of these candidates felt it necessary to pander to that particular sector of society in hopes of winning the nomination, it got me to thinking about just how nearly impossible it would be for an atheist to become president or prime minister these days — even though, as I argue in the article, we’d be a hell of a lot better off if we were to elect an atheist. Needless to say, that article and a couple more I wrote on similar topics set off something of a “sh*t storm”. I guess it’s sort of like what Mark Twain once said. “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.”
Jacobsen: You experienced more time than me. You witnessed more than me. You read more than me. These give the basis for substantiated reflection. In Canada, over the last four decades, what trends in religion and politics concern you?
Skyvington: Ever since Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in 1968 — and particularly since 9/11 — it seems to me that the world has lost its sense of humor. We are incapable of laughing at ourselves and have lost the will to love and find joy in the little things that make day-to-day life so worth living. I’ve spoken before about the need to “ban” organized religion, that it has caused just about every war world-wide over the past several centuries, and that too many people use prophesy and The Word as a way of spreading hate and keeping people down. While Canada has managed to avoid much of the religious strife we witness going on elsewhere on what seems like a daily basis thanks to both mainstream media and social media, it’s clear our Day of Reckoning is coming soon. This is why it’s so important, I believe, that those of us who are atheists speak out in a very public and even forceful way in order to help those whose vision has become clouded by lies, half-truths and myths. While I realize banning organized religion would be tantamount to the book burning that the Nazis engaged in or an outright act of fascism, the fact remains that religion — as it’s being practiced today in the 21st Century — is every bit as dangerous as a nuclear bomb and should be treated as such.
Jacobsen: Over the last four decades in Canada, what trends in religion and politics seem positive to you?
Skyvington: Pretty much nothing in religion or politics seems positive to me. As I say in my forthcoming book, governments used to do things for people. Now they do things to people. Our leaders are no longer “giants” — they are mediocre at best; thieves, liars and crooks at worst. They like to say they are leading from the middle. Well, leading from the middle isn’t leadership. It’s following. While I try to be sunny and optimistic as much as possible, and lead my life following the example of the great American author Henry Miller, whose code was “always merry and bright,” I do find myself wondering more often than not if I haven’t somehow ended up on the wrong planet. Idiocy reigns supreme. Not just in the world of politics but also with organized religion. Everyone is afraid of the unknown and of each other. The Internet is a place where people go to vent and spew all kinds of garbage. We don’t know how to love one another. We only know how to hate. No wonder the aliens haven’t bothered to visit our planet. Clearly, there’s no signs of intelligent life down here.
Jacobsen: As an atheist, this begs questions. What defines God to you? Why deny this God?
Skyvington: It’s not really a matter of denying anything. The way I look at it, we are God and planet Earth is Heaven. Which is why I believe we should live for today, not for tomorrow. What do I mean by this? Simple. I often watch my dogs — we have three: two that we rescued from abusive situations and a big, beautiful puppy who’s full of life. Whether they’re playing in the backyard, going for a walk, eating, sniffing the grass or just lying on the couch sleeping, they seem so wise to me. If only human beings could be more like animals, I can’t help but think we’d be a lot better off. Unfortunately, instead of being full of loving thoughts and caring for each other, humans are constantly scheming and looking for way to get ahead by taking advantage of the sick and the vulnerable. I hate to be so negative, but we really are a disgusting bunch.
Jacobsen: Does organized religion seem more like a positive or negative force in Canada? If a mixed answer, what domains seem good? What domains seem bad?
Skyvington: Negative, of course. It’s sort of like that old joke: “Life is for people who can’t face drugs.” For an atheist, life is for people who can’t face religion. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I have something of a built-in B.S. detector. I know when I’m being “spun” and I know when I’m being played. The Bible is a great story — and yes, in case you were wondering, I have read the Bible cover to cover — but that’s all it is . . . a story. Written by ordinary people just like you and me. It’s not the word of God. It’s just a bunch of made up stories written by people with an agenda. To fall on our knees and bow our heads in prayer and repeat these stories and sing a bunch of hymns . . . well, it kind of reminds me of communism, to be brutally honest with you. It’s mind control. It gives hope to the weak and provides a sense of importance to the well-off. And while I understand the need to make sense of this old world, and that everyone is looking for answers and for a way to not feel so afraid all the time, I’m afraid the Bible and other religious texts like it no more contain the answers to the mystery of life than the phone book. In fact, in some ways, the phone book is better, because at least if you dial one of the numbers inside, you’re likely to get a real, live human being on the other end. Calling out to God, however, will in all likelihood leave you deafened by the silence. At least, that’s been my experience anyway.
Jacobsen: What equates to the spiritual and the spiritual life to you?
Skyvington: People are often perplexed when they hear me — an avowed atheist — say that I believe everyone has a spiritual side. By that I mean, we all have that voice in our head that tells us the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust. Whenever I sit down on a bench in a park, or walk through the trees in the woods, or sit beside a lake or stream, I like to quiet my mind and engage in what I call “the spiritual life”. It has nothing to do with God or organized religion. It’s merely a time where one can see the world as it is — a place of great beauty, filled with peaceful, loving creatures — and appreciate the perfection of it all. We don’t need to fit the real Garden of Eden into a box or try to turn it into some kind of morality play. The real thing is plenty enough and fine just the way it is.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Skyvington: Bob Dylan once said that the Bible is the most under-rated and the most over-rated book of all time. I think that about nails it. Mr. Dylan also wrote a song in which he suggested that to live outside the law, you must be honest. That’s how I, as an atheist, have always tried to live my life, and how I think all of us should face each and every day on this wonderful planet. Not by perpetrating the Big Lie, but instead by being honest and loving and telling truth. After all, as someone else once said, the truth will set you free. Something to think about the next time you see someone flailing their arms like a maniac, waving the Good Book, and telling you he or she has all the answers.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mr. Skyvington.
Image Credit: Peter Gabany.