Eric Thomas is the Former President of Humanist Canada.
Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, let’s start from the top, superhero origin story. What was your early life like? How did religion or non-religion play into this, if at all?
Eric Thomas: For me, Scott, it was the more non-religious mom who was English and getting off the boat in the ’30s. She was a strong woman. Religion was never a part of our life together in the family. In early life, my older brother passed away. We were both young. It soured her on religion as “he’s better off in heaven” was the explanation she got from the religious authorities. It soured her completely against religion. It was not meant in a strident way, like a strong person making their way in the world. She had no more use for it. We did discuss it. I know that part, of her part in my life at that time in our family legacy. So, she never talked about it so much. She did not want to be overpowered with religious dogma and doctrine, etc.
So, that was the early days. As an adult, I am proud to follow her strength and purpose. Her strength of logic, and her strength and reading and education. So, that was part of my early origin to read and as much about humanism or non-religion as a young person. However, once I got a bit older, flew more miles on me, through life’s travails, I realized that as a humanist and joined a small group here at Quinte.
It is still the present guy after more than a decade. Humanist Canada, five years ago, I was the president until last summer (2018). I served two terms. I found it an enjoyable, rewarding effort to try and help lead for it. That is my origin story, being able to chat with you about things, atheist, et cetera.
Here I am.
Jacobsen: On this note of atheism, religion in humanism, humanists assumed as atheists, or most are atheists.
Thomas: That is correct.
Jacobsen: And there is a sense in which religion is almost an adjacent, but not necessarily overlapping. Some of the concerns of those would identify as humanists, even though most identify as atheist.
Thomas: Yes, those are still very, valid points. One of the cornerstones of my tenure as president of Humanist Canada was to try and resolve that early on, like literally within months of becoming president. I realized that the outreach of Humanist Canada was more divisive. It had atheists. They were not actively avoiding atheists, but they certainly had no dialogue, no interaction with the atheist groups around the country. So, that dynamic was a similar thing with other human rights groups. It was something that I successfully resolved. So, we started to talk to people in Ontario and elsewhere, hoping to have an active ongoing dialogue. The challenge, I have had many conversations about this, Scott, over the years. Of course, I am hoping to be more person to person than philosophical.
What about the strident nature of rebellion, which is the atheist community, it sometimes leads and follows up with their perspective and their ideology. So, I have made an effort to include those folks who would describe themselves as atheists, period. Atheism, and atheists, have been branded by religion for 2,000 years. Atheists are philosophically in the crosshairs because of their strident appearance. Because they do not tend to use more humanist values or expand their atheism to include humanism. You are right, if you are a humanist, do not prescribe. You are an atheist; absolutely, you are. Even, I have spoken to the pulpits here in Ontario, Scarborough.
The first question was, “Are you an atheist?” My answer unequivocally was “Absolutely, I am.” Granted, I took a bit of an exception to it. Their different flavours, different ideologies, and different perspectives. However, I am afraid. I draw the line in the sand. The pure humanist, whether you are secular humanist, atheist skeptic, and nontheistic, and so on. You are an atheist. There is no need to duck the issue. You might want to duck it only because religion’s marketing program for the last 2,000 years that the brand is of the atheists as dirty, rotten dogs. The longer we respond in that way, like dirty, rotten, hard to get along with, strident. The longer it will stick around. There is no need to stick around the question as we all know. The religions are dying their own deaths. We should leave them alone and let them do it. They are quite capable of doing it all themselves. However, that is my perspective on atheists per se. I am only too happy to chat, get along with and learn from the atheist, the pure atheist strident perspective.
Jacobsen: Within the humanist frame of mind, what scientific questions and ethical questions hold the most import to humanists?
Thomas: I almost hesitate to react with the first word that comes to mind, but I won’t hesitate. That word is “kindness” when we have interactions. I have spoken at Ahmadiyya Muslim events and Jewish events, etc. The common ground is kindness and wanting to do better for your managing of religious dogma centred on that. Gosh, I do not have any problem with that. It is a good idea. But it did not come from upstairs. This came from you and I. So, the “god directed” is you and I directed. So, that is what my hopes for the future comes, where the commonality is kindness and a Golden Rule. It is wanting to be better in a positive way as opposed to a controlled way. That’s the first thing that comes to mind.
And I hesitate, Scott, because the kindness can be a little bit less than positive or less than ecstatic. It is where we get, some times, labelled by the religious because some of us can be discharged here. Some of us are almost evangelical in our fervour in our position. I am guilty of that sometimes. I go on, ad nauseam, to promote the beauty of the positive nature of humanism. It sounds like it is religion sometimes. Often, I thought that of every evangelical humanist as a good idea. Maybe, it will be one day.
Jacobsen: Speaking of, any thoughts on the notions or sincere firm beliefs of the creation of Christian humanism, where other religious ideologies become tied to a humanist one?
Thomas: Yes! I have read some on that, like secular Judaism. Sounds like a nice idea, there is a guy upstairs. Obviously, I am not buying it, Christian humanism. Sorry, if you believe in the big guy upstairs, we are done. There is no such thing. If you are going to have those two things, it is an oxymoron, whether it is secular evangelicalism over Israel or otherwise. These two words do not go together, so it starts with a belief in a direction from a power. Then I think that we are toast. I am sorry, but we can chat and have a wonderful conversation as to human beings. But we are not going to agree. I will not agree with the secular Christian or a secular Jew. There is that little problem of upstairs.
So, do you? Yes! You are not a humanist per se. You could be a litany of humanist ideologies. So, yes, we could find some common ground. It is an easy break here. So, that is where I draw the line as an atheist. There are a lot of shades of grey in the middle, but I am sorry. I draw the line.
Jacobsen: Humanists in history made mistakes in their approach to the general culture and in terms of building community with one another.
Thomas: They have an excuse. There is a reason for the mistakes. Look at somebody like Charles Darwin who was less than a pulpit pounding humanist in his lifetime, he waited on his books for 20 years until somebody else was going to publish it. So, he rushed around and it is done. I am respectful of his society. Also, for his family, because his family is like in particular was religious, he never gave up on it, but he understood the environment that he lived in and that was probably a better approach than jumping up and down. There is no origin of life story that we have developed that fits with evolution and natural selection. So, mistakes, yes, I am sure there is been a lot. But honestly, when I see them and Darwin, in particular, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.
It was only as successful as it could’ve been at the time. So, we live in a time, a place. I have been in dialogue with the interfaith councils. With all the ideas, they love me. I am a great guy. They keep inviting me to make speeches and participate without ambiguity.
So, we get to participate now, where we did with Doug Thomas – no relationship by the way – from western Ontario secular life. It is a good example. He goes to many interfaith events, as he should. He’s got an open-minded and critical thinking based approach. In this day and age, people are accepting it, not sure why. If they are trying to defend their way of life, of Islam in particular, but under the guise of transparency and openness, they are willing to talk about it. It wasn’t the case 5 or 10 years ago. I know of people who made mistakes; mistakes could have been under the guise of protecting their life or protecting them thinking from what was obviously a religious governing perspective.
Jacobsen: In an earlier response, you made a note of the Christian God being a male god. In standard interpretations, especially based on the imagery, the phrasings – “He,” “Him,” “Lord,” how does humanism provide more equitable foundation philosophically, ethically, and otherwise, for women within a worldview compared to standard religious ones?
Thomas: That is a wonderful question. It is one of the keys to our future. My strong mother and strong older sisters said, “No,” to sexism in my life. It was her big age because they were taller and stronger, but it never occurred to me that there should be such a thing as male-dominated hierarchy in my family. It was never there. So, the women’s movement, I was a little bit young for that. But one of the by-products of that is the Abrahamic religions are the first ones to die. The United Church of Canada, these are some of the first ones that will disappear.
They’ve allowed a fulfilment in a part of the society in that which we live, which is a good thing. One of the by-products was women became ministers, et cetera. We are drinking the Kool-Aid now. Many times, they tend to come to the realization with logic and the future of humanity in the mix. One is the need for women to become educated. Another is for them to become empowered.
So, having said that about the Abrahamic religions, when I have discussions about the demise of Islam, this was the one attribute that I bring to the fore because the religion is famous for a male-dominated ideology.
So, there are logical things that have developed in the last hundred years under the auspices of Roman Catholicism and The United Church of Canada, and so on. So, Islam when the other half of their society gets equality or something smelling like quality, it is going to be difficult. I have my doubts; I wrote in my notes this morning, Scott. When I see extremists, jihadists, et cetera, doing terrible things around the world, it is the most positive thing that they could do for the demise of their religion.
It is much like waking up and when I hear Christmas music or Christmas commercials in my rural Ontario town about Christmas. I turned them up because, how can anybody believe this stuff? The reality is approaching 75 to 85 percent of us do not believe this stuff. So, every time I hear a commercial about the birth of the baby Jesus. I think that somebody’s going to be thinking about this in a logical way. Or, Christmas was the 25th of December because Jesus was born. No, it is not. If you started to do a pragmatic empirical homework on the 25th of December, or the Christ child or the origin stories, oh geez! Not exactly new is it? No, it is not. So, when I hear those things, “Yes, sent his only son. Virgin birth! Walked on water.” [Laughing] okay. Tell me some more and the same with Islam. Some of the tenets that take a near and dear part in the origin story are totally unsupportable.
Jacobsen: Who are three Canadian humanists who stand out, living or dead to you?
Thomas: The first is one whom I considered to be a mentor. I have only known him for at least 7/8 years. He was at the last Imagine No Religion conference in Toronto. In my existence and Henry is an 80 odd-year-old poet, a professor, from Concordia, et cetera, he’s been doing this. He had been doing history long before. He grew up in Germany and escaped slavery. Young enough not to have to serve. His parents hid him from the young Nazi association. He is an absolutely brilliant public speaker and an absolutely wonderful man. He was the editor of Humanist Perspectives for many, many years. I still have an ongoing relationship with Henry.
So, he would be, for me, at number one. Number two would be Christopher DiCarlo. He is the father of critical thinking, as I like to describe him. Again, Christopher was a Humanist of the Year. This was for Humanist Canada several years ago. I have worked with Chris on a couple of things and continue to stay in touch. Even though, I am not the president of Humanist Canada anymore. I stay in touch and follow up. So, he would be up there. Lastly, I would have to say the founder of Humanist Canada.
Our first president Henry Morgentaler was remember-able because of his initiative to start the organization. It was from the humanists’ fellowship with the Fellowship of Montreal in 1968. He took it from there to a national platform, national presence. I hear that is his motivation, but he started Humanist Canada. Immediately before, he was president of the Fellowship of Montreal. By the way, the wonderful anecdotal stories before Henry started Humanist Canada. He took over from none other than Pierre Elliot Trudeau. So, one step removed from Henry Morgentaler started here in Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Jacobsen: If you look at the literary canon of either humanistic material or outright texts, which ones stand out? We can go with the same number of three, as before.
Thomas: Dawkins first and foremost: again, through the conferences, we had a fortune. We had one with Mr. Dawkins a few times. It was having read his work. He’s an absolute hero, wonderful, wonderful, humanist. The second would be his loyal authority, of course. This would be Lawrence Krauss. Lawrence is often above my feeble brain, but I read gracefully whatever he writes. So, they would be two. The other, I am going to say, Bertrand Russell. Of course, he is from the 50s, 60s. The stuff that he put pen to paper and then it goes on and on from there. He created much of my library here. So, those would be my heroes: Dawkins, Krauss, and Russell.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Thomas: You’ve asked wonderful questions. I have gone on a little bit because I have thought about them in the last number of years with a couple of points that I did want to make sure I recounted. I think that education is the cornerstone of our teacher Mr. DiCarlo. I made the point about Islam, how that is good for us going forward. One of the things we get to chat about, Scott, was the sense of community that you did not see them humanist groups around the country and how they are morphing into a church, bake sales. Minister kids trying to evangelize in the teenage years and serving to a blood donor clinic regularly. The one other thing that I have done this morning was the officiant programs here in Ontario, which has expanded significantly, by the way, in the last few years. What I failed to tell you were the former president, Kevin, was not able to get to the same stage in other provinces, that is something strong and its humanist officiant program is going places. They can help us lead the charge. Those are a couple of things that come from my notes from this morning, Scott.
Jacobsen: Thank you much for the opportunity and your time, Eric.
Thomas: You are welcome. I appreciate it. Thank you for the time to rant. It has been wonderful, thank you, Scott.
Jacobsen: And you too, take care.
Thomas: Okay, bye now.
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.
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