An Interview with J.P. Westlund — President, Humanist Association of Ottawa
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there a family background in humanism?
J.P. Westlund: Not at all, I was raised in a family of believers. They weren’t too strict about it, we went to the united church, and I remember my father would question aspects of Christianity. However they all believed in the existence of the supernatural, each according to their taste, and I was the only one who would become an atheist.
Jacobsen: What is the Ottawa culture regarding religion? Why is the case?
Westlund: I think that the believers keep their views beneath the surface, and they don’t think about them much, but they are afraid to abandon them. They’ve lost much of the connection they used to have with the world of faith, but that world persists because it’s institutionalized and people still rely on the church to bless them or add meaning to major life events like marriages and funerals. This is the case because religion over the last few centuries has, in the West, lost its explanatory power and to some extent its moral power.
Jacobsen: As the president for the Humanist Association of Ottawa, what tasks and responsibilities come with the presidential position? Why pursue this volunteering?
Westlund: I volunteer because I believe in building a Humanist community. I remember the first few meetings I attended, around ten years ago, and the relief of being able to speak openly about religion, knowing I was in a group of non-religious people. That’s something that the religious have that we don’t, the community. Not to the same extent. Can we build it without the illusory foundation? I hope so. Also, I love to argue, and I’ve got a contrarian streak in me. The members tend to be on the cerebral side and not afraid of airing different ideas, so you can get into some interesting conversations that probably wouldn’t happen elsewhere. As the president I set the initial agenda for board meetings, I talk to the media when needed, and there is a sense that the buck stops here, so to speak. But our board is very democratic. One person, one vote. When we disagree we try to come to consensus first though.
Jacobsen: What is the importance of humanist public service, especially with so few of them?
Westlund: The officiants can be the way we get religion out of the important social moments of our lives like marriages and funerals. People need to know there’s another option other than having a religious figure sanctioning it. Right now I think that’s the biggest difference we can make. Many aren’t really believers but they go with the flow because the other options just aren’t as well known. We need to keep working on changing that.
Jacobsen: What seems like, in interaction with others, the international issues for humanists?
Westlund: I think one thing we can all agree on is getting rid of blasphemy laws, and supporting peoples’ freedom of speech worldwide. That isn’t easy because you’re dealing with other states. We can protest at embassies but I think we need to keep the focus on supporting freedom of speech here in Canada as well. Also, the world is overpopulated and yet religious powers are limiting women’s access to contraception. In the Philippines for example, very overpopulated, and very Catholic, they wrote up a reproductive health bill in 2012 but the Supreme Court is putting a hold on it and Duterte had to issue an executive order to finally get it through.
Jacobsen: What are the core values, and virtues, even vices, of humanism?
Westlund: You can look up the values of different humanist groups. Fundamentally, behind those, I think the value and virtue we all share is the belief that we are responsible. There is no ethereal, omniscient judge watching over us. We don’t cast off the burden of existence to dive into a fantasy realm. When there is no idea of a transcendental authority, we have to work it out for ourselves. That’s where I think the vices have the opportunity to come in. It takes intelligence to reject the religious outlook but it also takes strength. You’re going against the grain in this world when you do that, and it’s noble. So when you get a humanist group together, you’re getting several sharp people who aren’t afraid to be bold when they speak. I love nothing more than a good argument but not everybody feels the same. Sometimes the arguments divide us, and the impulse to prove yourself right trumps the need to smooth things out in a group, and try to reach some consensus. I think that’s a mistake, and if we’re going to build this humanist community, we’re going to have to get better at celebrating what we have in common, even while we talk through our differences.
Jacobsen: Does Canada seem to tacitly endorse humanist values across even the religious spectrum of the population, which is most of the population?
Westlund: That’s a tough question. Overall I’d say we don’t. It depends who you mean by “Canada”. If it’s the government, they spend a lot more effort and money on multiculturalism, which implies celebrating religion in many forms, than they do on, say, giving us a better democracy. Look at what Trudeau did to the electoral reform initiative. When the Liberals didn’t get the ranked ballot system they were trying to push, they shut the whole thing down. Ontario has a separate Catholic school board, which was officially considered discriminatory by the United Nations. So we’ve got a long way to go, before we get to the point where Canada is overtly endorsing humanist values.
Jacobsen: What are some issues and concerns around religious influence in political and law, and social life? How can we solve them? Why is this important to tackle right away?
Westlund: In addition to what I mentioned above, on the social side, there’s the widespread and insidious idea that belief in a god or gods or ghosts or energy (fictional energy, that our best scientific minds and instruments have never detected) is a good thing. Even if many people have abandoned Christianity, a lot of them still hold on to the idea that connecting with the spirit world is tantamount to goodness. Imagine the colossal amount of time, money, and effort put into mind-worlds like homeopathy or angel therapy, or unlocking the mysteries of god’s will. I like to think this time could be put to better use. As for the religious influence in politics, I think we can only solve this once we’ve got a strong community, one that can attract not just the types of humanists I mentioned above, but even people who aren’t interested in arguing, for instance. Once we become a default option, then we start having a shot at political change. As a bunch of isolated individuals, even if we do make up say 20% of Canada, we don’t. I wish I knew the best way to make this happen.
Jacobsen: Does Canada seem to be more humanist than not? If so, why so? If not, why not?
Westlund: I’d say no. I think Canada values politeness over the truth, and I don’t think most humanists are like that.
Jacobsen: What are the main forms of disadvantage the irreligious have in Canada compared to the religious? What is the evidence for this claim?
Westlund: I think the main ones are political. You can’t be openly atheist and run for office (at least outside of Quebec), but when Calgary elected a Muslim (Shia, Ismaili) mayor, it was celebrated by many. If you’re part of a religion, you have that huge community and money behind you. The churches get tax exemptions.
Jacobsen: Who are your favourite humanists, books and authors?
Westlund: Henry Morgentaler, A. C. Grayling, and Christopher Hitchens come to mind. Favourite books? Hard to choose but I’d say Thus Spoke Zarathustra had a decisive influence on me, and led to me becoming a humanist. I’m into Michel Houellebecq but I take him in small doses. Also American poetry; Wallace Stevens.
Jacobsen: What are the future initiatives planned for the Humanists Association of Ottawa?
Westlund: To work more closely with the humanist officiants, to work towards abolishing the Catholic school board in Ontario, and to have more fun.
Jacobsen: What could nullify the influence, social and political and legal, of religion in Canadian society How can we do it? How could we expedite that process, youth and the able-bodied?
Westlund: Step one is to build the community while maintaining our freedom of speech. If we lose that, we lose everything, fast. To foster the community on a long term basis we need more officiants in marriages. We can denormalize religion in Ontario by getting rid of the Catholic school board. As for the youth, they have to get involved by joining a group and making a real social connection. Not just online, though that is a piece of the puzzle.
Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the discussion today?
Westlund: This wasn’t a discussion, but an emailed list of questions. However, I enjoyed answering them and I’d welcome a real discussion in the future.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, J.P.