Interview with Doug Thomas – President, Secular Connexion Séculière

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Doug Thomas is the President of Secular Connexion Séculière. Here we talk about some background and views of Thomas.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you?

Doug Thomas: Early life was very good for me. My parents were comfortable middle class Canadians, although we moved around quite a bit since my father was a banker and was moved every time he was promoted.

My mother was a primary and sometimes elementary school teacher so education was always a priority. They were of the generation that could have gone on to university, but had to start working because of the depression and the war.

I am the third of three sons and born just after WWII so I benefited from some luxuries that my older brothers did not get. There are more pictures of me as a child than there are of them because film was hard to get when they were younger.

Jacobsen: Did religion or faith play a role in early life?

Thomas: My parents were what I would call practicing Christians. They focused on the morals and ethics that they received from their religion, not on the scriptures or rites. Dad was an Anglican and Mom was Presbyterian.

They compromised when they were married by going to the United Church. Anyone who has studied Anglican and Presbyterian theology will tell you that is not really a compromise, but a move in another direction.

The point is that, for them, it wasn’t important since they perceived the moral and ethical values as the same. I grew up in a series of small towns and villages ranging in population from about 500 to 2,500 with enough churches that they could have shared eaves troughs.

Everyone was “Canadian religious.” They went to different churches, but worked together for community. A memorable example was the Orange Day (Irish Protestant) parade in one community. They wanted a white horse for the “king” to ride.

The only one available belonged to a Roman Catholic and it would not be ridden by anyone, but its owner who donned the costume and rode in the Protestant parade. In a small town, a parade is a parade.

As soon as I learned something about scientific method and about historical research in high school, I started to move away from religion since I no longer believed in it. Fortunately, I moved away to go to university at about the same time that I became thoroughly agnostic. My parents were OK with this as long as they felt I was still moral and ethical.

Then I discovered that there were other agnostics and atheists in the world and that agnostic/atheist girls washed their hair on Saturday night as often as Christian girls do.

Jacobsen: Through the Secular Connexion Séculière, what have been some successes in advocacy for atheists in 2018? What have been some successes for secularism in 2018?

Thomas:
Successes in advocacy or, in SCS’ case, lobbying have been small, but important. Through the year, we have been able to develop some alliances in the federal cabinet and with some MPs. These will be useful when Parliamentary committees are looking for witnesses for  
hearings on subjects we are interested.

Section 296 of the Criminal Code of Canada (CCOC) has been removed after the Senate dragged its feet in passing the legislation to eliminate archaic sections of the CCOC. I must point out that the removal is the result of efforts by all three national secular groups (HC, CFI, and SCS) as well as efforts by many local groups and individuals.

In fact, this is a very good example of the incremental progress I am talking about. The 296 success is the result of many letters, meetings, comments all taking many hours on the part of many individuals. All this to make one small change in the CCOC that most humanist regard as an obvious one.

Jacobsen: How have religious fundamentalists tended to take advantage of privileges exclusively bound to religious identity throughout Canadian history?

Thomas: This has been pretty much “same old, same old.” The income tax act, particularly the rules for charitable status has remained the same so churches can still be charities simply on the strength of promoting their own religion without any commitment to community service.

In contrast, secular humanist charities must commit to community services and provide evidence that they have carried these out. The disparity on building fund rules continue – churches can have one automatically while secular humanist groups have to apply on a case by case basis.  

All churches, fundamentalist or otherwise, bask in the assumption that their ideas and culture are the norm and the rest of us are the kooks to be tolerated at best and often attacked and even ridiculed. Since they are Canadian they are polite about it, but the patronizing tone shines through when they “allow us to be here” as if they have or should have the authority to say so.

Jacobsen: In those atheist and secular wins within the country, not as superiority but simply equality with the religious, what have been the fundamentalist religious interpretations, or rather misinterpretations, and, subsequently, mobilization of, typically, conservative sectors of Canadian society against those wins?

Thomas:
Although the replacement of the Lord’s Prayer with a moment of silence (a moment of sleep for adolescents) in school opening ceremonies happened years ago, fundamentalist Christians still claim that they are denied the right to pray in schools. Of course, they can do so during the moment of silence.

The big backlash in Ontario has been the election of the Conservative government with solid support from the religious right who want control of the education system. They particularly supported the government’s return to the 1998 sex education curriculum.

This removes the information about homosexual and transsexual people as well as the information about the dangers of social media. Fortunately, most Ontarians see the problem with this and have put pressure on the Ford government to restore these vital pieces of information to the curriculum.

The same people tend to be climate change deniers or at least human responsibility deniers who pressured the Ford government to reverse any progress that has been made toward reducing greenhouse gasses from Ontario.

At one and the same time, the unity of religious groups is a problem for the rest of us who have to cadge together ad hoc groups to make our point to governments and a lesson we need to learn. If we secular humanists could just get our act together without niggling over infinitesimal detail we would be far more effective in separating church from state in Canada.

Jacobsen: Of the concerns within the nation, what are those? Who leads them? Why those, especially in terms of ramifications for the secular aspects of Canadian society?

Thomas:
Systemic discrimination against atheists in Canada is the core problem in our governmental systems. There are laws that discriminate against us about which even or more astute government leaders are unaware or which they choose to ignore.

Social discrimination against atheists is also present in Canada. Beneath the patina of politeness, religious believers and leaders continue to favour people of faith and resist any attempt to change cultural standards.

They still equate non-belief with evil or at least shady behaviour. That is a result of their leaders preaching this nonsense and a result of their lack of interest in reading anything outside their comfortable confirmation prose.

Both of these types of discrimination are a problem for atheists who, at the very least, do not reveal their non-belief for fear of being judged negatively.

A couple of years ago I did an informal survey of university atheists asking them if they would put their membership and leadership in atheist clubs on their resumés as religious students often do regarding religious clubs. The answer was a universal no.

Jacobsen: If you reflect on some of the concerning developments in fundamentalist religions south of the border and its impacts on social and political life here, what trouble you? Who troubles you?

Thomas:
The influence on the American election of 2016 by the religious right who managed to elect the least religious president in years because they knew he would continue to seek their vote regardless of responsibility is disturbing.

The justification for separating children from their parents by Jeff Sessions on Biblical grounds is a clear symptom of the damage this has done. However, the most concerning person is Mike Pence.

As Vice President, he is one heartbeat or one impeachment vote from becoming the most powerful rightwing fundamentalist Christian in the world. The damage he could wreak is truly frightening.

All of this has given licence for rightwing fundamentalists to assume they should be in control here and has resulted in the election of the likes of Andrew Scheer who is a closet fundamentalist as leader of the Conservative Party.

The motions at the Conservative policy convention this year have a much more fundamentalist tone than before. I already mentioned the Ontario election, but the same licence is apparent here.

Jacobsen: How has religion been a force for good in history? How has it been a force for evil in history? What have been the remedies for the evil parts and the boons to the good parts?

Thomas:
I think there is little doubt that it has been a force for evil far more than a force for good. The whole Christian era in Europe is full of atrocities committed in the name of religion. In the Middle East it has been the root of conflict for a long, long time.

In Canada, the worst atrocities of the Residential School system were perpetrated by the religious operators of the schools. Only the Jewish faith did not participate and that was because they were being maligned, persecuted, and denied influence as much as the indigenous population.

The Muslim world is no better and may seem worse only because their social philosophy is approximately at the stage where Christian social philosophy was in the middle ages.

Religious wars are, by far, the most vicious wars even when in today’s “politically correct” world they are not labelled as such and are not directly blamed on religion in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Wars are irrational and are best supported by irrational movements like religion. Other than some anecdotal stories of comfort for some individuals who have toed the religious line, I cannot think of any net positives for religion in Canada or abroad.

Jacobsen: What are some of the provisions for the community through Secular Connexion Séculière? What are some good targeted campaigns for all secular organizations to work together on in 2019 for the betterment of Canadian society – more fair, just, and equitable for all?

Thomas:
SCS intends to continue to do what it has been doing – to work persistently and consistently toward eliminating such legislation as Section 319 (3b). That gives religious people the right write hate literature and deliver hate speeches as long as they support their argument from religious literature.

SCS continues to raise issues regarding the inequitable requirements for charitable status in the Income Tax Act. We continue to do this by lobbying the federal government, its ministers and members of Parliament. This is not dramatic, but is the only real way to make progress.

SCS has an accommodation project underway that asks school boards to make two accommodations for atheist children, both of which would protect their right to freedom from religion.

The first is to play instrumental versions only of O Canada, and the second is to allow students to memorize the non-theist words to O Canada that are published on SCS’ website (http://www.secularconnexion.ca/a-national-anthem-for-everyone/) when they asked to do so as an evaluated assignment.

We are also trying to raise the political awareness and political participation of non-believers across Canada. Writing one’s MP is important, but asking questions about party policies regarding such things as Section 319 (3b) at all candidates’ meetings is also important.

Jacobsen: How can folks become involved with the wider non-religious community and Secular Connexion Séculière in particular, e.g., donations, volunteering time and skills, providing professional networks, and so on?

Thomas: Donations are critical and subscribing to SCS website and following the issues is just as important. I am sometimes asked why we don’t have an organization like Freedom From Religion Foundation in Canada. I have to answer that we do – SCS. At the same time, I assume  
that this question contains the concern that no group in Canada has the high profile that FFRF has.

There are two answers to that. First, FFRF is an American foundation working under the American constitution that has a clear amendment separating church and state and that is regarded as an almost holy document by Americans. The Canadian equivalent is a series of Supreme Court of Canada rulings that guarantee our right to freedom from religion. Hardly ad copy material.

Second, FFRF, perhaps because of the first reason, and also because atheists are confronted more socially in the US by fundamentalists who don’t have the Canadian politeness patina, has more that 30,000 contributing members.

The last time I talked to FFRF’s Dan Barker, he was trying to decide whether to build a new building to accommodate more staff or renovate the present one. He was also about to decide which candidate to hire to fill the third full time lawyer position. My decisions in this realm revolve around whether SCS can afford another trip to Ottawa on my part (Cost- about $600.00).

In other words, Canadian non-believers don’t feel compelled to contribute in anything like the amounts their American counterparts do and our efforts are severely hampered by that lack of contribution.

To see how important that is, remember that human rights in Canada are individual rights. If the school boards we have approached are not ready to make the O Canada accommodations we have asked for then we will have to rely on the parents of an individual student to take a school board to the human rights tribunal in that province. This could involve court cases. This will involve far more support commitment and far more money than we have now.

In addition, our national humanist groups must stop siloing their work. More open communications, more co-operative and coordinated efforts are required to make progress in truly separating church and state in Canada.

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

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: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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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