Interview with Derek Gray on All Things Personal, Canadian, and Religious (Or Irreligious)

Was there much religion in family upbringing?

None at all really. I can’t think of a single member of my family, including grandparents, who ever even mentioned religion in a significant way. My father was staunchly agnostic. Christmas was celebrated with an intense level of decoration, including the occasional religiously-themed decoration (and the songs of course) but these were just that — decorations only, out of tradition.

Was the part of Canada in which you grew up religious or more irreligious than the national average?

I could be totally wrong, but I would say average or below-average religiosity probably, in the Durham Region of Ontario. I can recall a friend or two who went to church but were granted the choice to stop attending even before they were in their teens. I do remember the uncomfortable feeling of listening to the Lord’s Prayer in primary school and at Cub Scouts…

How did you become formal irreligious, an atheist, in Canada?

I was always a passive atheist and tended to just think of religion for the benefits it may have provided anthropologically in the past and present (e.g. reading the Bible purely to better understand literary references.) I took more interest in South-Asian religions and language after meeting my wife, who was raised Hindu (we had a full-blown Hindu wedding.) We still participate in and take our kids to cultural events which are technically religious but more social than anything.

Until 2015 it never really crossed my mind to start getting involved more formally. At that time I wrote a letter to the editor to protest retaining the Lord’s Prayer at city council meetings, eventually giving a deposition to city council in person. So I have continued to be involved since then in whatever ways my time allows.

What is your best argument for irreligion?

The mere fact that thousands of religions have come and gone, evolved, transformed, and continue to be invented tells me that the common morals we have cultivated in modern secular societies are coming from human societal evolution, not from religion. If religion has to keep playing catch-up to modern context and morals, why not just avoid the trouble and focus on those shared values without the unproven and baseless mysticism? Like “alternative medicine”: when it’s proven to work we just call it “medicine.”

What is the long-term future, say 50 years, of religion in Canada?

I am actually optimistic on this front that the significant decreases in religiosity will continue to grow unabated. The rises in the “religious right” in my mind are death-throes. With declining influence, they must make bigger noises. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be vigilant. We can’t ignore bigotry if we want to keep the momentum towards eradicating religious privilege. But the bad behaviour of the extreme will only serve to repel more people at a faster pace in my opinion. Hopefully that’s not just Canadian nice-guy naivete on my part. I think we’ll be rid of the remaining publicly-supported separate Catholic school systems. I hope my children will think it utterly absurd that their parents had to vote in elections inside a publicly-funded Catholic school plastered with crosses in a secular democracy. Just as there are so many secular Jews, who don’t believe but maintain a culture through religiously-based customs, I think we’ll see the same thing from other faith communities in the future.

What is its near-term future?

There are a lot of difficult conversations that people are avoiding or responding to with too much emotion and opinion and not enough end-game goal-setting and proper understanding of the law. So we have to keep those conversations going by listening to, rather than pummelling, those few who are level-headed in their arguments yet attacked, amazingly, by polar opposite camps simultaneously. In the near term I think we’ll see more capitulation from religious institutions on the topics of medically-assisted dying due to the overwhelming majority support for it. There will continue to be turmoil in Quebec (and other areas of Canada as well) as we try and reverse the slippage of tolerance and try to balance that with legitimate criticism.

What are perennial threats to non-belief in Canada?

I could be wrong, but I think we’re on a pretty good trend. How can we speed that up? We need to drill into people that no-religion does not mean no-morals. We need more emphasis on how donating to overtly secular charities is the more virtuous path. Speak up when public institutions (schools, police departments, etc.) or your workplace unthinkingly place faith-based organizations on a pedestal when secular options are available (e.g. local food-bank vs. anit-LGBT Salvation Army.) In most cases this is done because this is just unconscious bias — it’s that bias that is the threat.

What are the bigger areas of social discrimination against nonbelievers in Canada?

Probably the idea that as a non-believer you and your children will lack the virtue of “faith,” and that when we argue for reasonable separation of church and state, it is bigotry against us to say that it must be because we lack this “virtue.” People like those at the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (anti-choice and anti stem-cell-research group) would have you believe any one who disagrees with their obvious Catholic ideals are little more than child murderers. And you still have national media outlets such as the National Post publish anti-atheist columns with bigotry that would be absolutely unthinkable in this day if the word “Jew” or “Muslim” were inserted in place of “Atheist.” Hate speech against atheists in the world is always the lowest priority. Good luck if you are an Ex-Muslim! You’ll be attacked by both white-nationalists and Muslim leaders simultaneously!

What are the bigger areas of political discrimination against nonbelievers in Canada?

Some provinces have had the will to change, but some still maintain the horrible pandering to Catholic votes and the fear of tearing down a system of inequality counter to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that is the publicly-funded Catholic school system. We have the same problems with Hospitals systems run by religious institutions — they take public funds but then expect the privilege to opt out of Canadian laws at the same time.

What are the bigger areas of legal discrimination against nonbelievers in Canada?

Legally, and I have little hope of this changing soon (though there are trickles of good news here and there,) the huge sums of money wasted in the form of tax-breaks for religious institutions is just appalling. They provide a service to their members that should be taxed as any other. Let my taxes go to community centres and libraries that benefit everyone. That and the blasphemy laws, but hopefully it looks like those are headed for the trash bin of history.

What are the positives of religion?

This question can be interpreted in different ways. One can ask “what are the positives found uniquely in religious settings” and I would say little positive remains today that can’t also be found elsewhere (though perhaps not as ubiquitously or within a reasonable radius.)

But the question could instead be simply “what are the positives often found in religious settings” and I would have to credit the widespread motivation it provides to have cultural communities come together at regular times throughout the year. For example, I would be hard-pressed to give my children a sense of their Bengali culture without the social impetus to gather together and celebrate.

Who are people attempting to move the conversation within religion to a higher plateau, a more progressive platform?

Probably Gretta Vosper, the former atheist minister in the United Church of Canada is one — you don’t get much more progressive in religion than admitting you don’t believe in God, right? At that point you really give yourself and others the license to cherry-pick only the good parts. There is also the Clarion Project’s founder, Pakistani-Canadian Raheel Raza, a moderate Muslim who fights for gender-equality and against racism, as well as radical Islam/Islamism.

Who is a personal hero for you?

I’m not sure about personal heroes, but there are some people who are very influential in my thinking and attitudes (even if I don’t always agree 100% with everything they say). One would be Ex-Muslim Eiynah (NiceMangos) because she is one of the few who digs into those difficult conversations about just how difficult it is to maintain a flow of valid criticisms of religion, while at the same time countering anti-Muslim bigots. I think Anthony Magnabosco is inspiring for teaching Peter Boghossian’s Street Epistemology techniques by example — the nicest possible way to have a dialog with believers. He should be an honorary Canadian.

What is a better book on non-belief in Canada?

I can really recommend “The Atheist Muslim” by Ali Rizvi. He is so measured, logical and clear in his writing, it was a pleasure to read. The chapter on “Islamophobia” is especially relevant and unique and will challenge your own gut feelings.

Who, naming names, are attempting to either argue for the traditionalist, even fundamentalist, religion in Canada? Also, who are closet religious-minded individuals who are attempting to rebrand religion, especially Christianity, and sell it to the modern generations such as the, as they’re automatically labelled, the Gen Xers and the Millennials?

Andrew Scheer, the current leader of the federal Conservative party is the person I’d be most concerned about because he may not openly argue for fundamentalist Christian-based laws but he is extreme and could cause much trouble should he win a federal election. The following that Jordan B. Peterson has amassed is incomprehensible (and lucrative — hundreds of thousands of dollars a month for him.) It seems based on word salads of little meaning, often of a traditional Christian (read: sexist) mentality hiding behind the veneer of professorship at the University of Toronto. I’m also irritated at the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform and their callous advertising campaigns, pretending that their arguments have anything other than Catholic fundamentalist superiority-complex behind them.

What are your major initiatives the irreligious movement in Canada in the coming months?

As I touched on earlier, I think we need to keep on the offensive and support legal challenges such as the one by OPEN to roll back the public funding for religious schools. We also have to focus on denouncing the vocal bigotry against Muslims.

Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Thanks Scott, for making me think about these questions. I am far from an expert or historian on the irreligious movement, but I try my best to listen and learn from others. Having a place like Canadian Atheist to contribute stories on local events, and curating news for our social media accounts has kept me busy and engaged on a daily basis.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen