Ian Bushfield, M.Sc. is the Executive Director of the British Columbia Humanist Association (BCHA). He earned an M.Sc. in physics from Simon Fraser University and a B.Sc. in Engineering Physics in 2009. He is the Events and Development Coordinator, and has been the Director of Development, at the Cerebral Palsy Association of British Columbia. He was the Founder and President of the University of Alberta Atheists and Agnostics. He is an Ambassador for Dying with Dignity. He grew up in the “Bible Belt” of Alberta – Southern Alberta. He fought to reduce the influence or mention of God at the University of Alberta convocation ceremony. Here is his story.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed. Let’s start the interview talking about your background. Do you have a family background in humanism?
Ian Bushfield: Not formally. I was raised in a fairly non-religious household. It was basically areligious in that we didn’t really even talk about religion. I joke that I first learned about religion from The Simpsons.
SJ: When did humanism become the philosophical and ethical worldview for you?
IB: I think like most secular people, Humanism was always my somewhat default mindset, even if I didn’t really come across the term and context until university. I was raised with the idea of being good to others because it’s the right thing to do and, at its core, that’s all Humanism is. So as I got involved in atheist activism in my undergrad, I came across Humanism in my reading and I naturally gravitated to it as an identity for my worldview.
SJ: What seem like the more pressing topics for humanism in British Columbia at this time?
IB: BC is a pretty nonreligious province, yet we still retain a few specific privileges for religion. I think the most egregious are the public funds that go to religious private schools, through our own sort of voucher program, and the fact a number of our public hospitals are still run by religious institutions. Both these schools and hospitals are able to turn people away who don’t conform to the institution’s narrow dogma. For example, some evangelical schools require students to be able to speak in tongues, while Catholic hospitals in the province refuse to provide abortions or medical assistance in death, both of which are legal in Canada.
Beyond that, BC is no more immune than the rest of the world to the rising xenophobic, misogynistic and anti-Humanist populism we’re seeing around the world. We’re lucky in Metro Vancouver to have a fairly tolerant and multicultural society, but there are still white nationalist groups and anti-immigrant sentiments bubbling under the surface.
SJ: You made a video about the Big Bang, which was great. I recommend it. You work as the executive director of the British Columbia Humanist Association (BCHA) in British Columbia (BC), and for a better world through compassion and science. It begs the question: what is the “better world”? Also, how, and why, are compassion and science the two best tools to reach that better world?
IB: Thanks. My concept of a ‘better world’ is somewhat utilitarian – that is, one with more flourishing and less suffering. Compassion in this case is shorthand for being empathetic to the plight of others and seeking means and paths to improving as many people as possible, both alive today and in consideration of future generations.
I say science is one of the best tools we’ve discovered to learn about the world as I think it’s empirically true (and yes, I realise that’s a bit circular). Science at its core asks us to test our ideas against the real world. So if we have a set of propositions about why apples fall from trees, science gives us a path to figure out which one is closer to reality. The same process works for solving more human problems, like how to tackle an overdose epidemic. Here in Vancouver, science has shown that a supervised safe-injection site and related harm reduction policies save more lives than the sort of “war on drugs” mentality. Of course, science on it’s own is not enough. We need compassion or some kind of value system to guide what and how we use that tool.
SJ: What tasks and responsibilities come with being the executive director of the BCHA in BC?
IB: My job is basically to handle the day-to-day operations of the organization. Whether that’s lining up programming for our events in Vancouver, giving advice to local groups across the province, working on any of our campaigns or even answering interviews like this, no two days are the same.
SJ: The BCHA had a recent success with the biblical texts, Gideon Bible distribution, in some schools in the province. Some of the story, in general, is in the article. What are the next battlegrounds for the BCHA in BC? Why?
IB: As I mentioned, I think two of the big challenges are going to be around the public funding of religion in our private education system and in our public healthcare system. Those are going to be long fights as none of our politicians want to upset those constituencies at this time.
Our other challenge is working to get recognition to perform marriages in BC. Humanists in a number of countries around the world and in the province of Ontario are able to perform weddings but the Government of BC doesn’t consider us qualified under the law here. We’ve put out a report documenting the differences between these jurisdictions and believe we can press the government to either change the law or take the case to court.
SJ: You work for the ‘Politicoast’ podcast. What tend to be the political themes discussed on the podcast? Why?
IB: PolitiCoast is more of a hobby in my spare time than a job in of itself and it’s completely independent of anything else I do. Mostly, my friend Scott & I wanted to get more discussion about BC politics out there as it’s somewhat neglected in the broader scene of politics podcasts. We met through Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub so I think we both try to bring a bit of that sceptical approach to our analysis, even if we come from slightly different partisan bents.
SJ: “Terahertz” is a common theme, e.g. Terahertz Atheist. Why this title throughout some work for you?
IB: I took on the moniker back in undergrad when I was working in a terahertz spectroscopy lab and kept it as I continued to work on similar technology in my graduate studies. Basically it refers to the band of the electromagnetic spectrum between radio waves and infrared radiation. We’ve only recently been able to generate those kinds of pulses and they’re incredibly useful for analysing the properties of semiconductors and are actually also used in some kinds of airport full-body scanners.
SJ: You contributed to the Canadian Atheist, Pharmaceutical Journal, Postmedia Network Inc., St. Catharines Standard (Letter), Terahertz Atheist, The Province (Letter), and the Vancouver Humane Society. You spoke for the Secular Student Alliance, on Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge, and Left at the Valley, and at the Café Scientifique Vancouver, South Fraser Unitarian Church, and Leeds Skeptics. You are a founding donor for Bad Science Watch. You have been featured in Humanist Action and Indi in the Wired. What inspires this activism and writing in multiple domains through different outlets and organisations?
IB: I think it’s just a curiosity that extends to a wide array of different interests. I spend a lot of time, probably more than I should, reading things I come across through social media and that forms different thoughts and ideas in my mind. Perhaps it’s my privilege, but then I guess I’ve just felt confident enough to express them anywhere people are willing to hear me. I do like to think that it’s all tied to a common thread of Humanism though, whether it’s promoting better science, equality and liberty, scepticism or even a politics that puts people first. That’s not to say all Humanists will necessarily agree with me on everything of course.
- It has been eight decades since the last conviction under Section 296, and thirty-five years since the last charge of blasphemous libel was laid;
- Blasphemous libel serves no purpose in Canadian law or modern-day society, and would likely be found to contravene section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects freedom of expression;
- In Canada and elsewhere, blasphemy laws have been abused to suppress minorities and stifle inconvenient speech;
- Authoritarian states point to Canada’s blasphemous libel law to defend their own laws criminalizing blasphemy;
- Repealing Canada’s blasphemy law would demonstrate, at home and abroad, Canada’s commitment to the value of free speech for all; and
- Freedom of expression is the foundational human right in our society. Many others, including freedom of assembly and freedom of conscience, are derived from freedom of expression.
We, the undersigned, residents of Canada, call upon the Government of Canada to repeal Section 296 (Blasphemous Libel) of the Canadian Criminal Code.
Was it a success?
IB: The campaign is still in progress. We’re lucky that this government was elected in part with a promise to reform the justice system, including the Criminal Code. So in her response to the petition, which received over 4700 signatures, the Justice Minister said that the blasphemy law would be included in the review of the Criminal Code. We’ve seen one bill come forward to strike sections from the Code that the courts have ruled unconstitutional and frustratingly the blasphemy law wasn’t included in that draft. We expect the government is still working on other bills and we’re optimistic that this section will be repealed in one of those.
“It represents a shockingly outdated view of the discrimination faced by the LGBTQ community,” said Ian Bushfield, director of the B.C. Humanist Association, another intervener.
Are there similar cases outside, even inside, of BC?
IB: This case is relatively unique in Canada. We don’t have many private religious universities in the country and TWU is the first to really push the limits of how many programs it can offer while still maintaining very strict anti-LGBT policies. So as this case moves forward to the Supreme Court of Canada it will really be a litmus test of what approach our courts take to religious freedom as an organisational right. In the USA, the courts have opened the door wide and allowed religion to trump a lot of other concerns with rulings like Hobby Lobby. We’re hopeful that the courts in Canada will take a more balanced approach and include other considerations, like the equality rights of women and the LGBTQ community, in their ultimate decision.
SJ: You spoke on the “Urgency of Humanism.” In BC, this seems like an easier message to disseminate with the ‘oasis’ of non-believers, the Nones, or those with no formal religious affiliation. What, still, is the urgency of humanism?
IB: While BC is overwhelmingly non-religious, and our polling suggests as many as 70% of British Columbians don’t practice a religion or faith, Humanism is more than just rejecting organised religion – it’s that positive and progressive framework that gives life meaning. With rising intolerance and open bigotry, I think we, even in BC, need an open and inclusive Humanism more than ever.
IB: I’m not sure whether it’s a blessing or curse, but as far as I can tell I’m the only Ian Bushfield to ever exist, so I’m pretty easy to find online. I’m most active on my personal Facebook page, where anyone can follow my public posts, and Twitter.
SJ: Thank you for your time, Ian.
IB: Thanks for the questions Scott.