Interview with Patrick Morrow – (New) President, Humanists Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba

by | January 22, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Pat Morrow is the President of the Humanists Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba. Here we talk about religion’s, or rather non-religion’s, existence in life for him, and his work and views, and how to become involved, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was religion in youth to you? What was its presentation in life?

Pat Morrow: Nonexistent, I can’t say if I was ignorant or oblivious, probably both. My first memories of religion were from elementary school. way back when public school still had daily bible readings as a part of morning exercises.

Sometimes confusing stories but for most of my early youth, I honestly didn’t realize people were supposed to believe them. In my later youth, I tried to do the whole church thing at the time I dated a church girl from pretty mainstream religion. I couldn’t do it.

There was just know way I could believe what they were selling. I did check out her Facebook page some time ago, apparently, she’s a fan of evangelist and prophet-wingnut Joyce Meyer. So, maybe, I dodged a bullet on that one.

Religion itself, I didn’t think about much. Births, deaths, weddings, religion for me was something people did, not something you believed. 

Jacobsen: What was your perspective of you?

Morrow: I suppose I was an atheist with Humanist values long before I knew with the terms meant. A skeptic as well, but not a very good one.

If someone asked me about god’s existence/ where it all came from, I would usually give a very noncommittal “this all must have been started by someone right?”

It would be years before I would realize I was asking the wrong question. The universe, if it had a beginning at all would’ve been started by a what not a who.

Jacobsen: In a manner of speaking, who influenced you, in the community of younger life – either religious or non-religious?

Morrow: I have to say my mum. She was a Christian, attended church intermittently, but her personal faith was one without any dogma. Her only comment on the Bible was “true or not, it’s an interesting collection of stories.”

Evening TV with her would be watching PBS nature documentaries, Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic. My mum was not one for using religious platitudes like “well, I suppose that’s the way God made it.”

If you had a question she couldn’t answer she’d tell you to go to the library look it up. I would probably also have to add my seventh and eighth grade science teacher Mr. Mac.

The man had a way of teaching science that was easy to understand. His experiments in class we’re entertaining and taught me a lot. He also introduced me through books, Gerald Durrell, David Attenborough and Carl Sagan long before Contact and Cosmos

Jacobsen: What is the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba? 

Morrow: We’re an all volunteer organization based in Winnipeg, we have in any given year about 100 +/- paid members, a small executive, and a shoestring budget. With that we run a monthly meeting with topics of interest to our community and other, smaller social get togethers such as BBQs and what’s become known as “bad Christian movie night.”

Many of our members are former believers some coming from the Anglican or weaker tea type religions as well as some of religions’ more fundamentalist forms.

Mostly ex Christian we also have ex-Muslims, ex-Mormons and one ex-Hindu. Our meetings, a closed fb page offer support and a safe space for them to talk about anything… and sometimes just to vent.

HAAM also supports the Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda where we sponsor a little fella by the name of Bogere John.

We also have an active outreach and “ask an atheist” program and a good core volunteers that venture into school classrooms, staff our outreach booths at various festivals and are happy to talk to anyone about Humanism, atheism and rational thought.

Outreach has worked out well. Through these efforts we have been able to establish three other groups within the province. The Pembina Valley Secular Community (PVSC) and Brandon Humanists are pretty casual, a social network where likeminded folks can get to together for coffee without someone praying over the cream.

The Eastman Humanist Community (EHC) is a growing organization in Steinbach MB, the heart of Manitoba’s Bible Belt. For the first time they will be running their own community outreach this summer.

Jacobsen: Why was it (HAAM) founded in Manitoba? 

Morrow: Manitoba has always had a large religious population and with that there’s always been rationalists or non-believers/atheists trying to navigate it.

The modern organization was founded in 1995; it was a loose group of likeminded thinkers, mainly academic minded folks sharing ideas socially. At that time, it was not engaged in actively promoting Humanism, Atheism.

But Humanism in goes back along way in Manitoba. Coming out of was called the rationalist movement of the 1920s the first humanist organization. The Winnipeg Humanist Society was established in 1934.

Unfortunately, there are huge gaps in the history of our early organizations. In 1994 or 95 long-time humanist and Unitarian Cec Muldrew called a meeting of those he believed might be interested in revitalizing a humanist group.

The Humanist Association of Manitoba (HAM) was born. At that time HAM existed as a mainly educational and social group, just atheists and freethinkers getting together, listening to a guest speaker over Dinner and talking about issues and ideas that matter to them.

That part of HAM continues. Seven years ago we changed our name to its present form, Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics of Manitoba. And with that new name we developed a clear mission statement:

Our mission is to build a secular community where non-believers can feel safe and supported.

-We support critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world.

-We support building secular communities using democratic principles and the active pursuit of the separation of religion and government.

-We seek to give a voice to humanists, atheists and agnostics through discussion, constructive activism, education and philanthropy.

-We seek to use our human capacities of empathy, compassion and rational thinking as the foundation for ethical behaviour.

The main reasons we changed was to be more inclusive and frankly it sells better. Many people haven’t heard of Humanism but most understand or misunderstand what an atheist or agnostic is:

Atheist, because that’s what we are we might as well own it. Agnostic because some people don’t like calling themselves atheists, and others don’t know the difference.

Humanist of course because it’s a life philosophy worth promoting. The name change has worked well as many conversations have been started with the question: “So, what’s the difference between an atheist, agnostic, and a humanist?”

Jacobsen: How does incorporating more than one grouping help build the super-minority communities into a collective within the province? 

Morrow: Because when you are herding cats is best to be as broad based and inclusive as possible. It’s a big province, our members and supporters in the secular world come in all kinds.

Firebrand atheists, social justice warriors, and those who are recovering from religion. Everybody has issues and goals that are important to them and they all overlap.

What’s important is we harness these passions and all work together. Not just inside our local organizations but all across the country. It was also important to HAAM local groups after starting up must have autonomy right down to picking their own name.

Local people know best at what will work in their communities. In the end, no matter what your label you have something to contribute.

Jacobsen: What is involved in the Bible Study? 

Morrow: The bible study as an effort of one of our exec members Dorothy Stephens. She hadn’t read the bible since she was in the church many years ago and she felt she wanted to read it again as an atheist and using actual scholars, textural critics and historians to understand it.

It was a one-time project that’s finished but exists as an archive so that if someone comes across it now, they can still follow it.

The purpose was just to read the bible as a nonbeliever – mostly aimed at those who had never read it before and had no idea what was really in there, and also for people who had left fundamentalist religion and wanted to see it fresh through the eyes of an outsider.

She made it clear in the description that she never pretended to be any kind of expert and that i was undertaking the project for interest only.

We had about a 100 people following it along at the time we did it but only two got through the whole thing without missing a page. Because hey, it’s the Bible. They can’t even get Christians to read them and probably why they give so many away for free.

Jacobsen: How important is a get-to-know a humanist component when in communication and involvement with religious communities within the larger community of Manitoba?

Morrow: When we engage in our outreach efforts the first priority is finding those likeminded thinkers in religious communities sometime just letting them know there are others out there like them is enough. If you’re in a super minority the best way to build community is getting to know those members of your community.

In one case two atheists living in a Bible Belt town next door to each other had no clue they were both atheists till HAAM had an outreach in their town. They had never had the conversation; I suppose both thought it was just too risky. These are the connections that are so important to make. 

Of course if you put up a booth in a bible belt community and slap the word “ATHEIST” on it, the effect for many Christians is akin to flies on flypaper. We have great conversations with believers who are genuinely interested.

Others religious tell us they have never met an atheist, or more likely have but didn’t know it. Still more think it’s the best place to try to win a soul for Jesus or just let us know what’s in store for us after we’re dead.

One of our Christian visitors to our booth after a somewhat long conversation about how important Jesus was to him exclaimed to one of our staff “hey you’re a beautiful women and the only thing stopping me from raping you is Jesus.”

Now, some might think this would be cause for a quick knee to the groin but without missing a beat our staff member said “if the only thing stopping you from raping me is Jesus you just keep on believing you hold that Jesus tight.”

Yes, this fella was a creep, but what’s important is how we are perceived by the folks listening in, it can and does break down barriers. For many of the more fungelical types all they know about atheists and Humanists is what they’ve been told from the pulpit, so getting to know an atheist and learn what Humanism really is the utmost importance. We’re not going to eat their children.

Jacobsen: What are some of the common things to expect in the newsletters and events? What tends to be the more prominent events of Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics Of Manitoba?

Morrow: For the newsletter content upcoming events, and news that would be of interest to our community.

The charity of the month is a big feature and it to encourages our members to “put the H on Humanism,” then any calls to action on issues that our members would support – frequently these are petitions or letter-writing campaigns by individuals or other groups we network with such as B.C. Humanists, Kelowna Atheists Skeptics and Humanists (KASH), Society of Edmonton Atheists (SEA), Humanist Canada, and the like. 

Recent ones have been ban gay conversion therapy, support advance requests for MAID, sign up to be an organ donor, end the ban on LGBT people donating blood, end faith-based healthcare… Articles about holidays or social issues, reports of events that we have attended or been involved in, like outreach or debates.

Our Book of the month feature helps to promote our library. Advice to our members about stuff like religion in schools, workplaces, health care facilities, children’s camps and activities. Opinion pieces if they’re short; longer ones go on the Perspectives page.

Jacobsen: What have been the most read articles within the perspectives portion of the website? Why those ones?

Morrow: That’s a tough one I can say our website hits have slowly climbed we get about 4,000 hits a month we don’t actually have the ability to track individual entries.

The two I’ve personally gotten the most direct feedback from were “HAAM takes on Apologetics” and “Christianity tries to remain Relevant.” Apologists don’t like these opinion pieces for some reason. Our outreach recaps are always popular with our members as well.

Jacobsen: What other provisions are available to the community, within the community? 

Morrow: We have a lending library of over 250 books covering just about every interest. It’s helpful for those coming out of religious belief or just unfamiliar with secular writings. Many of us who have been activist atheists for a very long time forget what it’s like to read something with a brand new eye opening perspective.

We carry everything from counter apologetics, secular parenting, evolution, psychology, women and gay rights, biblical history and textual criticism. Including, some of the great humanist and atheistic works. I think we have a few children’s books in there as well.

We also have a private secular counselling referral service. These professionals are not vetted by HAAM but come recommended by our members. It’s actually tuff especially for those in Bible Belt communities to find mental heath services that are not faith based. 

We’re also willing to help out folks as best we can. Time to time we’ll get letters from the public on religion in public schools, faith based healthcare or any issue regarding separation of Church and state. Often we can’t help them directly but we can help them understand the issues and what their rights are and put them in touch with people who have the resources to help.

Jacobsen: How can individuals become involved with the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba, e.g., donations writing, researching, newsletter help, becoming a member, provision of professional networks, and so on?

Morrow: Ask, show an interest and get involved, attend a meeting or event. Offer suggestions then offer your labour to help bring those suggestions reality. At HAAM over the years, we’ve had some great ideas and suggestions but lack the people power to put them in place.

Jacobsen: What are some ways in which the secular community can form a national network to petition and become activists for secular equality throughout all levels of democratic Canadian society?

Morrow: This question ties into the previous one. Get involved! 

I would also say in addition to supporting your local group, support our national organizations as well. Secular Connexion Séculière, Humanist Canada, Center for Inquiry.

If you don’t have the time maybe you have some cash to throw their way. Even just buying a membership means so much.

We have the numbers in Canada we just have to show it. Just ask yourself, if Humanist Canada is going to bat for Humanist and secular issues, the ones you care about, is it better to approach the powers that be representing 2,000 members or 200,000?

Every organization, big or small even if it’s someone running a private atheist 20-member Facebook group in a religious community should have someone with the job of networking with other groups.

This can be as little subscribing to their newsletters and social media just to monitor what’s going on. Or it could be developing contacts and personal relationships. This has paid off of many times for HAAM.

One time we were developing a new banner for one of our outreaches. We couldn’t make it work and badly needed a graphic designer and we didn’t have one. Luckily, because of our contacts with the SEA we knew they had one that was ready to help.

We had professional quality banners designed and ready on time. That’s the power of working together. This network would be helpful in getting the word out when it came to petitions and speaking with a national voice.

Jacobsen: What are your fears and hopes as we’re moving through 2019 for the secular Canadian community?

Morrow: I have, and will always be of the belief that over the long haul reason will win out. I can’t look at a short a term as one year. But I still worry. In Manitoba, Young Earth Creationism and it’s accompanying anti-science has crept into the local religious population.

The openly dishonest nature of apologetics seems to be entering the moderate parts of the Christian religion teaching many how not to think. Nationally we’ve seen how the “carny handed melon man” down south has empowered the worst of Canadian ignorance and bigotry.

Reason will win out what’s not known is the damage the unreasonable will do before we get there.

My hope is the many Canadians who have empathy for others, value reason and evidence-based decision making can come together and make a difference.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Pat.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

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