Pat O’Brien is a Canadian atheist, an activist, and ex-president of Humanist Canada and the British Columbia Humanist Association. The interview was conducted by Scott Jacobsen, of In-Sight Publishing. The interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your family background reside
O’Brien: Vancouver B.C.
Jacobsen: Your biographic information from the Center for Inquiry Canada (CFIC/CFI Canada) website describes brief personal information about the pivotal moment for your transformation into a skeptic mentality, as follows:
O’Brien: At the age of 8 when told “watched water never boils”, Pat put a pot of water on the stove and proved the adage wrong, thus began the life of a skeptic. Pat did not begin his official involvement in the secular/skeptical movement till 2001 when he was researching a documentary on Humanism.
Jacobsen: What other pivotal moments in early life stimulated intellectual affirmation of skepticism?
O’Brien: I was raised a Catholic but from an early age I liked to ask questions and the church never seemed to have satisfactory answers. My education from grade 1 – 5 was in a Catholic school where we were taught by nuns and they did not have any answers either so it was a gradual realisation that the teaching of the church, since they could not be backed up by facts, must be in some way wrong.
Jacobsen: What about other moments which piqued interest in humanism, secularism, and other “-isms” with relative correspondence, or reasonable conceptual overlap, with aspects of the skeptical worldview?
O’Brien: I was always a contrarian. I liked to take the “other” side of an argument because it seemed the best way to learn about the argument. I never took someone’s word for anything, I always wanted proof. This is the basis of scepticism and although I did not know it at the time, that is the first step towards atheism.
Jacobsen: In your article ‘Humanists see light at end of subway tunnel’, you defined humanism as, “Humanism is neither a religion nor a theology and the fact that a person can live a moral life, without deferring to any deity, has been recognised and accepted by religious and secular communities. Organisations such as American Humanist Association, within the Humanist Manifesto defined it similarlyWhat does humanism look like in one’s real life to you – big and small aspects?
O’Brien: This will sound arrogant and is something I criticise the religious for but I believe that we are all Humanist at our core. I don’t think people get their morality from religion, I think religion gets its morality from humans and our shared evolutionary past that imprinted morality not on our hearts but in our DNA. So, to answer the question, Humanism is the articulation of that morality that is inherent in most of us (there will always be the Clifford Olsen’s) and our shared humanity, our feeling of what is right and wrong is innate in us, in a naturalistic way. So unlike religion where one must constantly have their religious version of morality reinforced by prayer church attendance etc. we Humanists simply live a moral life without much thought to it most of the time.
Jacobsen: What unique opportunities and representations exist for the sub-population of the “unaffiliated,” “no religious affiliation,” “no religion,” “none,” and so on, in British Columbia (B.C.), Canada?
O’Brien: I think we have a lot to offer the general public, mostly in the area of science and the discovery of the natural world and how that creates a most beautiful way of looking at the world. Some, like Oprah, think atheists can’t have either awe or wonder. I think the opposite is true because we see things as they really are, not as we would like them to be. The beauty of a rainbow is not enhanced by thinking a celestial painter did it, but by the understanding of light and refraction. To paraphrase one of the brightest physicists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman; is it not more awe inspiring to have a complete understanding of the way a phenomenon like a rainbow is created that to have an answer that is almost certainly wrong?
Jacobsen: What instigated involvement with Dr. Robert Buckman for the production of Without God, The Story of Secular Humanism?
O’Brien: I was researching the documentary when I happened to come across the B.C. Humanist Association. I sent an email to the web site and got a reply from their board. I met with several of them who proved to be most helpful in the making of the film. It was one of them that suggested Rob. When I contacted him he was very excited about the project and jumped on immediately. We decided that he would be an excellent on air narrator as he had a lot of experience in front of the camera and with that one of the most influential relationships of my life began.
Jacobsen: What was the core message you wanted to deliver with the film? What was the viewership’s actual reaction?
O’Brien: We wanted to show two things, first of all, what exactly a humanist is and, more importantly, why we are not less moral than the religious. It is well known that atheists have a bad reputation and we wanted people to know that we are just like everyone else with the same basic hopes, dreams and sense of right and wrong.
Jacobsen: You earned positions including “board of the British Columbia Humanist Association (BCHA), President of BCHA and then on the board of Humanist Canada (HC), eventually taking over as President of HC.” Can you tell us a bit about Humanist Canada? Its membership involvement, activities, organisational structure and internal dynamics, theory and practice, positions and tasks, internal humanist membership sustainability and national public outreach? How does one run a large organisation from the national scale?
O’Brien: HC, founded in 1968 and with roots in the former Humanist Fellowship of Montreal as an organisation, exists within the philosophy of “education, reason, and compassion.” The fellowship was an organisation of humanists that was founded in 1954 by Drs. R. K. Mishra, Ernest Poser, and Maria Jutta Cahn. Lord Bertrand Russell and Dr. Brock Chisholm were its first patrons.
You don’t run it, you let it run itself. It has been said many times that trying to get Humanists to agree on something is like trying to herd cats. I learned early on that as a leader I could not rule from above, or make unilateral decisions. The membership is highly educated and smart they do not respond well to decrees or being told what to do or what position they should take on a matter so one learns to be inclusive, trying to reach consensus. Without going into too much detail, the reason I resigned was because I felt in a particular circumstance unilateral action was the best course to take and still believe I made the right decision, but it lead to me being forced to resign. In the end, my decision was upheld.
Jacobsen: You held the presidency of the BCHA too. How does one operate a provincial-scale organisation?
O’Brien: It is easier because you meet regularly with members, they know who you are and there tends to be more trust. Again though, the members are smart, skeptical people who will question everything so you have to not only know what you are talking about but must be willing to compromise. All Humanist groups function democratically and all decisions must be discussed and voted on at least the board level. The other thing about running a local group is that it is easier to plan and hold events. Most of the work that gets done even in a national organisation is initiated and run by local groups.
Jacobsen: What common problems emerge, and solutions require implementation, in the midst of leadership at the national and provincial magnitudes?
O’Brien: The biggest problem is fundraising. It is difficult to get Humanists to part with their money. We can’t offer eternal salvation so when we do fundraise it has to be a specific initiative. Even then, most Humanist living in Canada do not feel the need to be out there advertising and being social activists, most are happy with weekly or monthly meetings where they discuss topics of interest. This does not require much money so the donations reflect this.
Jacobsen: You have been an ambassador for Atheist Alliance International, sitting briefly on their board. You have also been involved in many grassroots initiatives in Vancouver. Personally, what social inclinations would you say it takes, to drives such involvement with grassroots initiatives and ambassadorship?
I am someone who wants to make a difference in my community. I like being part of social change and I think we need more people like that who are willing to take on leadership roles to try and make our society better. I really do believe, and the evidence is on my side, that the world would be a better place with less religion. My goal is not to stamp out religion but to show people there is an alternative to living a full rewarding life that does not include believing in the unbelievable and hopefully they will see us as a suitable alternative.
Jacobsen: You are also theBoard Vice-Chair with CFI Canada. What conduct, duties, and responsibilities remain expected with this position within CFI Canada?
O’Brien: CFI Canada is a secular organisation, a registered educational charity, devoted to “educate and provide training to the public in the application of skeptical, secular, rational and humanistic enquiry through conferences, symposia, lectures, published works and the maintenance of a library.” As the board member from BC I keep an eye on things in the west and try to engage the membership here. I also am the media representative in BC so if a story is in the news and they need the Humanist/Atheist side, I often will get the call. As Vice Chair, all that really means is that I take over the duties of the Chair if he or she is unavailable.
Jacobsen: Your various roles have meant that you have had considerable representation in the media, through CFI Canada, and Humanist Canada. What duties and responsibilities come from influencing the public mind through the media, whilst being an important personality in the educational charity sector?
O’Brien: I think it is the most important thing I do. Communication is the key to understanding and I take my responsibility as a communicator very seriously. It sometimes means I have to tone down the message I would like to give, when one is on TV talking to the masses, one must be succinct and clear, without putting people off to the point where they turn the dial. It is a fine line because to many religious types my very existence as an atheist is offensive to them. So my job is show them that I am a regular person with some (I hope) interesting things to say, and if I can educate one person or show one person a new way of looking at an issue then I call that a win.
Jacobsen: There are many publications and resources that exist for the distribution of principles and values interrelated with critical thinking, humanism, naturalism, secularism. What importance do flagship publications, such as Skeptical Inquirer, have for the “no religious affiliation” individuals and groups?
O’Brien: You’re right, there are quite a few and they are extremely important. For example, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, the old title)/The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, the new title) publishes Skeptical Inquirer. It is vital that our point of view is out there in the public. Magazines, TV and radio programs are essential to both creating a sense of community and as a means of education, without being pedantic.
Jacobsen: Exemplars manifest themselves under the umbrella of “no religious affiliation,” at least in standard interpretations such as a lack of formal religion. What role do exemplars perform for these movements without direct religious affiliation?
O’Brien: Unfortunately we live in a world where the “cult of personality” influences many people. By creating our own “stars” we are better able to communicate our message. But when an existing star such as Ricky Gervais or Bill Nye take up the cause, people listen. Some in our community see this as a bit of a sell out. I disagree, as long as the message is consistent and not dumbed down, using famous people and TV and Movie starts is a very good way to give your message some credibility.
Jacobsen: What relationship do religious belief systems connected to humanist proclivities have with the secular humanist movements in history?
O’Brien: Apart from non-theistic humanisms, it has been argued that some religious formulations ground themselves, in socio-cultural and ethical life, in belief systems translatable into humanism. This was an argument articulated by Dr. Susan Hughson, another past president of the British Columbia Humanist Association, in conversation with David Berner about Judaism. However, remember that for most of recorded history the concept of an atheist did not exist. It was taken for granted that there was an unseen world inhabited by goblins, ghosts, gods etc. It was not until relatively recently that the idea of a world view that carried no supernatural baggage was even possible. There were pockets of it, some Greek philosophers are a good example but mostly the world was made up of people who had some kind of supernatural belief. So it was the religious, looking for something more, who began the slow intellectual march towards Humanism, Erasmus is a good example. Today he would be considered a religious person but in his day he had many ideas that did not endear him to either the Catholic or the burgeoning Protestant church. He is considered by many to be the founder of Humanism. Today, most religious Humanists seem to come from the Jewish tradition. Jews have a history of doubt and questioning so this does not come as a surprise, in fact the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University is almost exclusively the product of Jewish Humanists.
Jacobsen: With respect to their positive or negative interrelationship, the theistic and non-theistic humanisms, how might their mutual futures turn out to you?
O’Brien: If you are talking about theistic Humanism, I find that a contradiction. I don’t use the term as I think it has outlived its usefulness. Either you believe in God and are a theist or you do not and you are an atheist, many atheist adopt the Humanist worldview but Humanism and atheism do not necessarily go together. So I see a conflict between theists and Humanist and so the term Theistic Humanist is meaningless to me.
Jacobsen: Canada is not as rigid as the US in terms of the separation between Church and State. Preaching the Word of Atheism notes the forceful nature of creationism into Canadian schools and bias against atheists in the family court system too. What remains the highest importance about this separation, the absolute division between church and state?
O’Brien: Religion is a personal matter as are family and personal relationships. In a free and democratic society, the only guarantee that you can keep your personal religious beliefs or your family structure or maintain the relationships that are important to you is by keeping government and by extension, laws out of those areas. When someone tells me that their religion should inform how we are governed my first questions is, which of the thousands of versions of your religion do you want? Which interpretation of you scripture do you want to live under. Religion is something not even the religious can agree on how on earth could we form a societal structure that at its core is purely personal and introspective? The only way to design a society and laws so as to serve the most number of people is to base them on the things we have in common, not those things that divide us and religion is the great divider. The problem we secularists face is that the religious have had it their way for thousands of years. They do not want to give up any ground, this is understandable. But when someone asks for the same rights you have, it is not taking away you rights, many religious people see it this way and we need to fight this notion.
Jacobsen: One quote of Dr. Carl Sagan’s keeps coming up in discussions about a supernatural entity – “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,”. You have stated a version of it, in saying “Claiming there is an unseen transcendental being who is outside space and time and created the entire universe is a pretty extraordinary claim so the evidence had better be pretty extraordinary.” What evidences and arguments make a transcendental being seem impossible, implausible, or unreasonable to you?
O’Brien: It is not the evidence or arguments for the existence of god that are unreasonable, it is the lack of evidence and sound argument that makes gods highly improbable. I have read dozens of books both for and against, seen dozens of hours of debates with brightest and the best of both sides and after all that I have yet to hear a convincing argument in favour of a god. The arguments in favour of a god could fill an encyclopaedia and after all that human effort, no one has proved anything, every argument seems to end with “well ya gotta have faith”, that to me is an admission of defeat.
Jacobsen: What evidences and arguments might make a transcendental entity or object with some, most, or all of the traditional “divine attributes” appear possible, plausible, or reasonable to you?
O’Brien: I have given this a lot of thought over the years and every bit of evidence that I can think of that might convince me that there is a god, I can think of a naturalistic explanation. In other words, I honestly cannot think of any evidence that could convince me. But that does not mean there isn’t any, otherwise I am guilty of the argument from ignorance fallacy. No, if there really is a god who literally created my mind, then that god would know exactly what kind of evidence could convince me. So, if there is a god, the evidence is trivial for it to produce belief. The fact that this evidence is not forthcoming gives me comfort that there is none. Of course the theists would say “Ya gotta have faith”, and that, QED, is the worst kind of evidence.