Melissa Story has been a researcher on creationism in Canada in the past (Part 1, 2, 3, and 4). Her work impressed me, as few reasonably comprehensive works exist in the public records – intriguingly enough. Therefore, I reached out for an interview with her.
Here we talk about her background and Christian creationism – the core source of this religious philosophy posed as natural philosophy, or this supernatural philosophy endorsed (by some) as worth teaching in scientific settings.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was background or upbringing for you? Some of the family heritage and dynamics as a kid.
Melissa Story: I grew up in Belleville, Ontario with my two younger brothers. My Dad was a glazier and my mom worked in food services. My family was your typical blue collar family in Eastern Ontario in the 80s and 90s. Although my family did not follow a religious path, our community was predominantly Christian-oriented. While much of the community was in church on Sunday mornings, my family played baseball on Sunday mornings.
Jacobsen: What was some of the surrounding context for you as a young person?
Story: My community was religiously homogeneous. My family identity didn’t seem to belong in the context of this community so that caused me a lot of confusion. For example, when I was in middle school, I asked my Mom if I could be baptised. I’d heard my friends were baptised and I wanted to be baptised too. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be baptised, but according to my friends it was the only way I could get into heaven. My mom said no and told me I could decide that for myself when I was eighteen, but she did agree to allow me to attend Sunday school with one of my friends. My family just seemed different than those around us, and that really stuck with me and is probably why I gravitate toward outliers.
Jacobsen: When did religion, non-religion, and evolutionary biology and creationism become an interest for you?
Story: Religion became an interest for me at very young age. Although my parents were not religious (they identified as agnostic), they never discouraged my spiritual pursuits. In middle school, I wanted to be like my peers, all of whom followed the teachings of Jesus Christ. As previously mentioned, getting baptised was not an option, but I attended Sunday school for a brief period. It was there that I learned about Jesus. He simply fascinated me. I remember asking my mom if she believed in Jesus. She told me that he was probably a nice man that did a lot of good for people a very long time ago, but we weren’t Church people. That’s when I first understood there was a difference between religion and religious institutions. Jesus and the Church weren’t one and the same and you could believe in Jesus and not be Christian or have to go to Church for that matter. In my late teens, I flat our rejected Christianity as a viable faith path for myself. It didn’t fit with the context of who I was as a person. I started practicing Wicca from my late teens to mid-20s. I became very antagonistic toward any organized religion, but particularly those with a patriarchal focus. This was also when I experienced my first instances of religious discrimination. I was shunned, told I was going to go to hell, and asked on more than one occasion if I worshipped the devil and drank blood. My time as a Wiccan taught me that religions and their followers are often deeply misunderstood by outsiders. I wondered if I, too, misunderstood other religions and their followers. Why had I chosen this faith and not their faith? Was I following the right spiritual path for me, or was I simply gravitating to an outlier religion? The biggest question though, is why did I have to choose? Couldn’t I appreciate all religious faiths? As time went on, I stopped following the Wiccan path, and pretty well rejected all forms of religion and spirituality as being the ‘right’ path. What gave me the most comfort was accepting the fact that “I don’t know” is the only truth I have. And I’m okay with that. It means I never stop learning and growing. So, I adopted agnosticism as my official spiritual path. And surprisingly, my lack of religious affiliation was also met with discrimination, this time though, it was institutional discrimination. I had returned to my hometown to apply for my marriage licence. One of the boxes on the form was to indicate religious affiliation. I found it odd, but indicated ‘n/a’ under my name. My husband indicated ‘atheism’. Upon delivering it to the city clerk for processing, she indicated that n/a was not “nice” and that neither was that while pointing to atheism on my form. She wasn’t going to process my marriage licence until I changed those items. I asked her what I should change them to and she told me “unknown”. To say the least, I was flabbergasted. But, I wanted to get married, so that was a fight for another day. That led me on a quest to understand people and their religious convictions, and in particular biases those convictions can produce.
My academic interest in religion started in my late 20s when I returned to school to study for my BA in psychology. I took a handful of religion courses, and found that there was a lot of methods that I could apply my psychology studies to the study of religion. After completing my BA in psychology at the University of Waterloo, I enrolled at Carleton University to pursue a double honours BA in Religion and Psychology. Of course, much of my focus was on religious biases, discrimination, and stereotypes.
Jacobsen: As far as I can tell looking at all of the works and groups, and people, involved in creationism in Canada, your four-part work drafted from an honours thesis entitled “Creationism in Canada” amounts to the one publicly available comprehensive statement on creationism in Canadian society. I will use this as part of a larger project to catalogue creationism in Canada, i.e., much appreciated. Why focus so much attention on creationism in Canada in 2013?
Story: It’s interesting that you mention the lack of publicly available research. It’s very true for creationist movements in Canada. There isn’t much publicly available, except for newspaper clippings and opinion pieces. I was fortunate enough to have access to materials not available to the public through my studies at Carleton University. My focus on creationism in Canada started when I took an interest in creationist movements in the States. At the time I was working toward a double honours major in religion and psychology. I often wrote papers that combined the two disciplines. So, it seemed like a natural fit to look at a controversy that involved both science and religion. When I started doing my research, I realized there wasn’t much publicly available or much cohesiveness to the issue in Canada. That often happens here because we are so geographically separated and so diverse that we often don’t hear about issues or controversies happening on the other side of the country. Despite the lack of public information, I decided to dig further. I started with the Abbottsford, BC controversy in the 80s, because it is arguably the most high profile creationist controversy in Canada, and it has the most publicly available information. From there it was a matter of following breadcrumbs, so to speak. I chose to focus on creationism in Canada because Canada is often influenced by the socio-political discourse in the United States, which at times includes origin of life matters. I wanted to know, what if any creationist movements existed in Canada and how were they being influenced by their American counterparts?
Jacobsen: What were the main research questions?
Story: I explored creation science theories that had emerged to counter theories of evolution, while also reviewing some of the most prominent U.S. trials, such as the infamous Scopes Trial. How had these trials influenced Canadian discourse? Were there specific incidents of creationist activities in Canada? What, if any, creationist groups existed in Canada and what kinds of activities did they undertake? My main focus was on the Canadian public education system.
Jacobsen: Following from the previous question, what were the main findings?
Story: It was a bit of a mixed bag. Public education is mandated by the provinces in Canada, so there is no set standard on what is taught in science classrooms across the country. Indeed, my research showed that British Columbia was the only province to formally enact a policy explicitly banning creationist instruction in science classrooms. The other provinces and territories tended to leave room for interpretation and discussion, with many acknowledging that students and teachers may oppose or have questions about evolutionary theories. In Canada, most creation-science instruction takes place in at-home private schooling. But that’s not to say Canada’s public institutions and policymakers aren’t being influenced by creationist activities. For example, in 2006 a McGill researcher was denied funding to study creationist activities in Canada’s public school systems. The federal body that rejected the proposal, stated that there was not “adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent design, was correct.” I cite this example in my paper. Even as recent as 2009, Canada’s own science minister refused to confirm the validity of evolution for religious reasons. Clearly, Canada’s public institutions are not immune to creationist ideology.
Jacobsen: What was the single most salient thing about creationism in Canada?
Story: Creationist activities in Canada are much more covert than U.S. counterparts. From politicians to policymakers and school administrators, most religious topics are off limits or kept to one’s self. This appears to create a wall of silence on the issue. Most creationist activity is undertaken in private educations settings; however, occasionally it influences our public institutions. That said, there is very little discourse when it does enter the public consciousness. Creationism is often dismissed by the masses as an issue that doesn’t concern them or an “American” problem. While creationist controversies are certainly more publicized there, the United States also has another big difference from Canada. They have a constitutional separation of Church and State. Canada does not. This may be why legal challenges to creationism in science classrooms are so much more salient. But we won’t know without proper research on the issue, and funding that kind of research is often met with apathy.
Jacobsen: How is Canada linked to the international creationist movements?
Story: The scope of my research didn’t dig too deeply into the links of Canada to international creationist movements, but there is certainly shared information and resources between Canadian and American organizations. Whether that link extends into funding and financing is a question that needs to be researched more fully.
Jacobsen: You moved on from the research after 2013. Why? I ask because of the national expert status for you- again, after researching comprehensively about groups and individuals in Canada.
Story: I moved on from formal academic research in 2013 to move back to my hometown and pursue some of my other passions, such as my artistic endeavors. I still tune into religious issues in Canadian public policy because I’m incredibly passionate about the subject. I share my perspective on a variety of issues that involve religion in public life on my social media feeds and blog.
Jacobsen: Do you plan to put your hat in the ring once more? If so, why? If not, why not?
Story: I’ve considered it, especially given the mood and atmosphere south of the border recently. It will inevitably have a trickle up effect on Canada. How quickly and how severely remains to be seen, but there appears to be some fine lines being toed between the separation of church and state for our neighbours.
Jacobsen: What should educational curricula and public media focus on now in regards to creationism and the influence on political and religious discourse?
Story: Canada is a cultural mosaic, so it’s fair to say that religion has a place in our society. The degree to which we allow religion to shape policies and institutions, such as our public education system, should not be met with apathy. In order for Canada to keep at pace with scientific advancements, public science classrooms need to be able to teach the scientific theories that the wider scientific community at large accepts. Further, it seems unwise for Canada to allow its public institutions to be unduly influenced by religion. Given the diverse nature of religious affiliation among Canadians, it would be irresponsible for public policy-makers to allow any single theological viewpoint to influence their decision-making. The biggest take-away though is that we should not be apathetic or allow a wall of silence to occur when religious motivations influence public office and institutions. While citizens are afforded the right of and from personal religion in Canada, no such protection exists for the government itself. Our government institutions are not immune from religious influence.
Jacobsen: Any recommended authors, organizations, researchers, or speakers?
Story: The BC Civil Liberties Association is great to keep informed about issues that affect public policy. Their archives were invaluable to my research. For a look at how Christian nationalism is intertwined into government in Canada, I suggest reading The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada by Marci McDonald. It was published in 2011 and focused on the previous administration, but it’s an interesting look at how religiously motivated organizations influence our highest levels of government.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Story: I appreciate the opportunity to share some of my research with your readers. I hope every Canadian begins to look at how religion may be influencing, not just our public science classrooms, but other facets of public life. In particular, those facets which religion cannot adequately resolve. More importantly, I hope we can find the right balance for science and religion in the public consciousness, because each has a unique and important place in the fabric of our society.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Melissa.
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.
Canadian Atheist 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, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.