Interview with Karis Burkowski – President, Society of Ontario Freethinkers

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Karis Burkowski is the President of the Society of Ontario Freethinkers. Here we talk about her life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start from the top, was religion or freethought more prevalent growing up?

Karis Burkowski: Growing up I was a good, church-going, Evangelical Lutheran girl, a ‘true believer’ in a conservative, white bread community.

Jacobsen: Reflecting on the important factors leading to secular beliefs, a worldview apart from the religious, what were these important factors for the transition into a secular view of the world?

Burkowski: In a word: rationalism. I can pinpoint the moment when I first began to question my faith. I was 13, in Confirmation Class, and we were learning about transubstantiation and consubstantiation.

The idea that the wafer actually ‘became’ the body of Christ, and we were supposed to eat that, like cannibals, was just too much for me!

From then on, I started paying more rational, critical attention to everything we were being taught. Sometimes the minister could provide answers that made sense to me, but often I was told I simply had to ‘take it on faith’.

On the surface, I tried to go along with what was expected of me, but the cognitive dissonance just would not let go.

This was back in the ’60s and there were other influences such as the exiled Dalai Lama, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Hare Krishna movement to explore, and it became increasingly clear to me that all religions were the products of either wishful thinking or desire to control people.

Jacobsen: In the world of freethinkers, regardless of the region insofar as I can tell, why are there fewer prominent women than men?

Burkowski: I know far more freethinking women than men. This does not surprise me, since virtually all religions are less ‘friendly’ to women. The word ‘prominent’ is probably the key.

The women just don’t seem to concern themselves as much with getting recognition from others. We self-publish our books (eg. “Why Men Made God”) and network locally, but we tend not to strive for the spotlight.

Jacobsen: How did you come to find the community of Ontario freethinkers?

Burkowski: It was a fluke, really. I had spent about 30 years socializing with non-believing women in various groups. One day one of those women was working at the LCBO when a customer came in wearing an atheist T-shirt.

She got into a conversation with him and learned that there was a freethinkers group in town. She wrote down the details, and later passed the information on to me. I followed up and that was that. Now SOFREE has a website and a Facebook page, so we are easier to find.

Jacobsen: How did this lead into a leadership role within Society of Ontario Freethinkers? What tasks and responsibilities come along with the position?

Burkowski: It’s “Society of Freethinkers” – we have officially dropped the word ‘Ontario”.

I had no intention of seeking a leadership role but I became actively involved in some of the projects such as organizing the NonCon 2015 (conference for non-belivers) and getting the “Good without God? You’re not alone!” bus sign on a local bus.

Being active and willing to take on some responsibilities for smaller projects gradually led to becoming President.

Jacobsen: What are some of the communal activities and opportunities provided by SOFREE? What are some activist efforts ongoing at the moment?

Burkowski: Our regular meeting is the monthly Sunday brunch at a local pub. That doesn’t change. In addition, we are trying to help a group in Guelph get organized by meeting with them once a month.

We put up a SOFREE table at community events such as the K-W MultiCulture Festival, to let the community know that we exist and attract new members. We hold special events from time to time (eg. Darwin Day, Solstice) and we are experimenting with a movie night/discussion group.

My focus, personally, is on networking with other groups in the area. I attend humanist/atheist events in Hamilton and Toronto as well as Guelph with an eye to bringing the groups together to do some interesting activities.

I’ve been a member of Interfaith Grand River since 2001, which also leads to community involvement. Lately, SOFREE has been encouraging all of its members to become more politically active so that the local political leaders become aware that there are many local voters who are non-believers.

We are currently running a poster campaign, putting posters and flyers in libraries, recreation centres, and other public places to increase visibility in the community.

Jacobsen: Ideally, the mass of non-religious and freethinking organizations and people, which is growing, of Canada would come together within a general coalition to work for large changes within Canadian society for symbolic, legal, and social equality of the non-religious. How would you do this, in an idealistic context?

Burkowski: That is exactly what is needed – but organizing humanists/freethinkers is like the proverbial herding of cats. They are notoriously independent and tend not to join groups.

We are trying to reach out and build community at the local level and among nearby cities. Since non-believers are mostly ‘recovering Christians’, they have a built-in resistance to the kind of networked heirarchies that give churches political clout.

Most non-believers understand the importance of getting organized effectively, and some groups like Humanist Canada and CFI Canada are trying to do this, but I don’t have an answer for how to make it happen.

Social media is a reasonably effective tool for motivating people to sign petitions, etc. but it is far from enough.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Burkowski: I appreciate the work that Canadian Atheist is doing to aid in coalescing the many non-believers here in Canada. Keep on being inspiring!

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

Burkowski: Thank you, Scott.

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.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by zhenhao Liu on Unsplash

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