Doug Thomas is a secular activist and Canadian agnostic humanist. His academic background is in North American Constitutional History and North American Literature. He is both the president of Secular Connexion Séculière (SCS) and an active member of the Society of Ontario Freethinkers. Interview edited for clarity.
Scott Jacobsen: Would you say you come from a humanist family background?
Doug Thomas: I suppose I did, in a way. My parents were what I would call practising Christians; that is, they followed the ethics of Christianity, or the humanist ways of dealing with people and situations, but they weren’t particularly religious and certainly weren’t people who quoted the Bible at every turn. When I decided I didn’t believe in the divinity part of Christianity, their only concern was that I maintain the set of ethics.
Jacobsen: What work did you do before entering into professional humanism and did this previous work help you in your current path?
Thomas: By way of clarification, I try to maintain professional standards in my work with SCS, but it is a voluntary position.
My academic background includes a degree in research and communication and another degree in methods of teaching those skills. The university calls it a degree in History and English, and it can carry on with its delusion if it wishes. Perhaps it is relevant that the core of the History degree was North American constitutional history—an insight into the structure of governments.
I taught secondary school intermittently for twenty years and this certainly gave me experience with all kinds of social and cultural backgrounds and with how people perceive things based on those parameters. Communication skills are vital to keeping thirty or so individuals who would rather be doing something else engaged. At the same time, I was developing theatre and co-operative education programs in the school system so I gained considerable experience in working with senior school board officials.
I also spent a number of years in the business world, quite a bit of it selling manufacturing management software. To be successful, I had to find out more about the client’s business than they usually told me and then explain why I thought my company’s solution was the best for them. Again, communicating abstract ideas and benefits gave me applied experience with the research and communications skills I acquired at university.
The third useful endeavour has been working on various boards of directors and community committees over the years. These include the local Chamber of Commerce and several liaison committees between local businesses and the community.
As a result, I am comfortable contacting and communicating with government officials at all levels, from school boards to the ministries of governments. They have particular concerns about how they can get their job done. Knowing how to detect those concerns and bring forward ideas that help them rather than challenge them is very useful.
Jacobsen: Now you’re the president of the Secular Connexion Séculière. What tasks and responsibilities come with this position?
Thomas: When we founded SCS in 2011, I think we had the idea that secular humanists in Canada were looking for a group that would work actively to represent the secular humanist perspective and concerns to governments and to society in general. Certainly, we heard people speak enviously about the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the US. and I guess we assumed people would welcome SCS with open arms.
One task, however, has turned out to be getting the attention of secular humanists who are scattered across a large geographical area, with two official languages and many different social and cultural backgrounds.
Most of my task has been to establish SCS as a presence in the secular humanist landscape, differentiating it from the other two national organisations and gaining the confidence of secular humanists. We began that differentiation by refusing charitable status. That separated us from other groups in two ways. First, we had to explain why donors could not have income tax deductions for donations, and second, we had to make the point that we could speak to governments in ways that the other two groups could not if they wished to keep their charitable status.
My other task, more serious than I originally thought, was to establish communication in both official languages, English and French. Even the basic terms of secular humanism do not translate well through the cultural filters of these two languages even though, historically, they are welded at the hip.
Communication within the secular humanist community has been a continuing challenge and I still spend considerable effort to find ways to do it. The social media tools that mesmerise everyone are surprisingly ineffective in getting people’s attention, and, frankly, they are full of so much chaff and static that much of their supposed effectiveness is wasted.
In addition, Canadians are transfixed like moths to a flame by American events. Often Canadian issues, even those that directly affect them, sit in the shadows and are less exciting than American ones. This phenomenon is not unique to secular humanists, but it is a major challenge in getting Canadian secular humanists’ attention.
Of course, the central task has been to get the attention of politicians and bureaucrats. They are busy people and getting through the various bubbles around government agencies is a challenge. Consistent and persistent efforts pay off, but they take a great deal of time. This frustrates most secular humanists so getting them to write their MPs or Senators on a regular basis is difficult.
That is one reason that, recently, I became a registered lobbyist with the federal government. This has helped develop confidence in SCS with secular humanists since it can now claim recognition from the government and it helps do the same with bureaucrats because they see SCS as a serious representative of secular humanists—one that is open about its contacts with them.
Jacobsen: What seem like the perennial threats to the practice of humanism? Who have been unexpected allies?
Thomas: The most persistent and perennial threat is the sense of entitlement that religions have in Canada. Religious people assume their philosophy is the norm and the anything else is a threat to civilisation itself. This is largely a matter of historic presence. Since the late 16th and early 17th century, Europeans have been coming to this part of the world, declaring that their religion, primarily Christianity, is the only moral path. Since they have dominated the government and social structure since then, encountering secular humanist unnerves them and they tend to push back.
Christians, for example, assume that their right to freedom of religion includes the right to impose their religion on others over PA systems and in public ceremonies. They tolerate the presence of other religions and will accommodate them because they think theism of any kind provides some kind of moral base. When secular humanists speak up against this imposition of religion, the reaction is often negative and we are accused of denying them their freedom of religion.
Since following a known religion is accepted as the norm, and since most politicians do claim a religion as their own, getting politicians to change the discriminatory legislation in Canada, or even recognise that it exists, is difficult. Sometimes I can tell that they are sympathetic, but that politics won’t let them really act.
Religions already have representatives on every parliamentary committee for the simple reason that most MPs are religious and those who are not keep their political heads below the rampart. For example, when the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Physician Assisted Dying met, it chose to hear from four religious advocates, but from none of the three national secular humanist organisations. SCS has raised this inequity with members of the federal bureaucracy and continues to attempt to appear as witnesses before parliamentary committees.
The other threat is complacency. For the most part, discrimination against non-believers in Canada is pretty benign. However, that results in a “don’t ask-don’t tell” society that keeps social discrimination under the radar. For example, non-believing university students do not put their involvement in secular humanist organisations on their resume as religious students do because they know it will be taken negatively, but it is difficult to take that to a human rights tribunal.
The systemic discrimination that the International Humanist and Ethical Union has identified in Canada, is also problematic, partly because it gives permission for theists to promote their philosophy in O Canada, for example. The blunt truth is that several Canadian laws, including the Criminal Code of Canada and the Income Tax Act discriminate against non-believers.
Surprise allies have included almost all Canadians to whom I have explained the two offending sections of the Criminal Code of Canada: the anti-blasphemy libel law (section 296) and the clause giving religious people permission to publish hate literature (section 319, 3b). Most people, religious or not, are unaware of these clauses and are shocked and supportive of change when they hear about them.
Jacobsen: As a humanist organisation meant to facilitate communication and dialogue among Canadian humanists, how does Secular Connexion Séculière accomplish this?
Thomas: This is may be our biggest task and challenge. SCS tries to work in both official languages and we work on keeping an informative website up to date and attractive. I must admit to carpet bombing Facebook groups when an issue seems important enough, but that is surprisingly ineffective.
SCS is proactive in attending conferences like the Imagine 7 Conference in Toronto this spring. We are one of the sponsors and hope to raise our profile with the humanists who attend.
Recently, we have appointed provincial advocates covering 9 out the 10 provinces so that we have direct representation. These advocates will be contact points for secular humanists who feel that their right to freedom from religion has been compromised. SCS can offer advice and, when appropriate, intervention in these situations. For example, there have been a number of cases where religious groups have managed to get religious materials into public elementary schools in violation of that right. SCS has intervened successfully to get school board officials to enforce their policies against this.
SCS also has a new SCS Forum for people who contribute more than $20 annually to the organisation. This will let interested secular humanists participate in guiding SCS policy and priorities.
Jacobsen: The Secular Connexion Séculière has a number of goals and principles. It does not seek governing powers in the humanist community in Canada. It wants to assist the efforts of Canadian humanists. What are some of the main educational initiatives and social and political supports provided by the Secular Connexion Séculière for the Canadian humanist community?
Thomas: I mentioned the new provincial advocates. These are an addition to SCS’ work in teaching secular humanists how to deal with situations in their community and, of course, supporting them in their efforts.
SCS has focused for some time in educating politicians about the right to freedom from religion. Sometimes, this has meant informing local politicians about Supreme Court decisions like the Simoneau v. Saguenay decision that clarified that opening prayers at municipal council meetings are unconstitutional. Some of those councils thought the decision applied only to Québec.
Informing the federal government and its bureaucrats of our secular humanist concerns about systemic discrimination and sensitising them to these concerns continues to be a major task. The hard truth is that there is no magic way to do this. Consistent and persistent emailing and writing campaigns are the only truly effective way to work on this.
We are developing Skype and You Tube presentations to bridge the geographical gaps in Canada. Given the cost of travelling across the country, both in time and money, these may become staples in our education and awareness campaign.
SCS is embarking on a new fund raising campaign, albeit a modest one by most standards. Even though SCS is a completely voluntary organisation, we need funding to operate. For example, we are working toward getting media releases published in major media outlets. Since Canada’s so-called free press is actually a vertically integrated capitalist system, no major outlets will publish independently sent news releases. We have to pay a media company to run a campaign for us at a cost of about $1,500 per campaign.
Jacobsen: I like the new O Canada non-theist and non-sexist lyrics from Secular Connexion Séculière. What was the inspiration for the new lyrics? How can these be implemented throughout the country and replace the lyrics biased towards one grouping– the theists– of the country?
Thomas: I have long been interested in the concept of having a national song that all Canadians can sing and have watched the amazed faces of the American women’s hockey team when the whole arena of fans sang it during the gold medal ceremony in Calgary. As a university student in the 1960s, I was an active participant in a protest that got movie theatres to play O Canada at the beginning of movies instead of God Save the Queen. When Pierre Trudeau proposed the current theist version of the song in English, I actively opposed it and advocated for restoration of “in all of us” into the second line.
The current motivation is simply that non-believers, immigrants, and women should all be able to sing O Canada without being hypocrites. Neither of the official versions allow that. The National Anthems Act of 1980 does not provide for any penalty for singing other words. It simply declares the current words as the official version.
Implementing the new words must have two approaches. One, get as many people aware of and singing the new version as possible, and two, continue to make Senators and MPs aware of the deficiencies of the current version. To this end, SCS recently sent emails to all Senators encouraging them to consider the new words while they debated a minor change in the words – “all thy sons command” to “all of us command.”
Jacobsen: What is your philosophy in running Secular Connexion Séculière?
Thomas: SCS should be the voice of secular humanists speaking to governments and it should be the go-to organisation when secular humanists need support in situations that affect their right to freedom from religion. SCS should focus on eliminating both systemic and social discrimination against non-believers in Canada.
Jacobsen: What are the upcoming initiatives for Secular Connexion Séculière? What are the new battlegrounds, and the most controversial ones? How can they be tackled and won?
Thomas: SCS is broadening its approach to include provincial matters through its provincial advocates and increased intervention in local situations. SCS is developing a plan to make all school boards across Canada more aware of the right to freedom from religion and to encourage those boards to review and enforce their policies on inclusion and equality to include non-believing children.
The new battlegrounds, or at least the ones we are now ready to tackle, are the provincial governments, school boards, and business that are not aware of or choose to ignore the rights of secular humanists.
O Canada will certainly be a wedge issue since people just assume that it has some kind of special constitutional place in our heritage when, in reality, it has been rewritten several times and doesn’t deserve an argumentum ad antiquitatem (appeal to tradition).
In the background will be the struggle to stop the practice of parliamentary committees selecting witnesses to support their own biases. Achieving more openness in this selection process will take some serious lobbying.
Again, there are no magic bullets. While some members of the secular humanist community are frustrated that SCS does not look like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, SCS actually does pretty much the same thing without the money that their 30,000 or so donors provide. Billboards are effective in motivating non-believers in the social discrimination atmosphere of the US., but probably have much less effect than the letters that the organisation sends to governments—the kind of letters that SCS sends regularly.
Thomas: SCS is still looking for advocates in Québec, Nunavut, The Northwest Territories and Yukon Territory. For that matter, SCS would like to have advocates in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island rather than covering all the Maritimes from Newfoundland and Labrador.
Secular humanists should report incidents they think are violations of their right to freedom from religion to their provincial advocate (http://www.secularconnexion.ca/provincial-action/).
Secular humanists should write their MPs. This is like voting between elections. I can guarantee that religious groups are doing this all the time. One should not expect immediate feedback, but MPs tally emails like votes and every vote on the secular humanist side of an issue helps.
Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion about the conversation today?
Thomas: Well, first of all, thank you for the opportunity to give people an insight into SCS. Merci bien.
I often feel that I am trying to sell abstract ideas to people who do not perceive any immediate threat to themselves. If they could hear and understand the frustration of Canadian secular humanists whose children have religion imposed on them; of those who live in fear of dismissal if their boss learns of their secular humanist life stance; of people who must feel left out of ceremonies, then perhaps they would be more inclined to step up. My challenge, regardless of how SCS can do it is to raise awareness and sensitivity to the problem both within the secular humanist community and with the general public and government.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Doug.