Interview with Eric Adriaans-Ex-National Executive Director of Center for Inquiry Canada
[Previously published in Conatus News]
Eric Adriaans is the former National Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry Canada (CFI Canada). Eric is also a charitable sector leader, student in Athabasca University’s post-baccalaureate diploma program in Legislative Drafting and Fanshawe College’s Logistics and Supply Chain management program, and writer.
Adriaans is extremely interested in Parliamentary e-petition 382, which is opposition to Canada’s blasphemous libel law. This might set the context for Canadian discussion on blasphemy laws. He notes the e-petition system might or might not prove useful to progressives as an innovation in democracy. It has direct links to Parliament. He remains an active CFI Canada member and continues to provide strategic consulting services to CFI Canada.
In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your family background reside?
My family and I currently reside in Southwestern Ontario but we have lived just about everywhere a highway will take you in Ontario from Thunder Bay to Ottawa and from Elliot Lake to St. Thomas.
We are primarily Anglophones but like most Canadians and almost everyone who has spent significant time in Ottawa, we have a working knowledge of French. My daughter, Chloe-Lynne, and I have both attempted to pick up some German. She’s far more likely to be successful with that than I am.
Culture is an interesting question, isn’t it? My father was born in Germany but when he obtained Canadian citizenship, he proudly identified as Canadian. I don’t recall that he ever used the hyphenated language (i.e. German-Canadian) that people use today. My mother’s family has English roots but has been in Ontario for many generations. Our home was a secular home — meaning religion did not play any significant role in my upbringing. I expect that my parents would have claimed a belief in a supernatural power but there was no religion in my upbringing. Our house was a blue-collar home with a healthy counter-authoritarian independent streak. Education and intelligence was, and is, valued in my family. Literature and reading were core expectations in my family.
For most of my elementary school years, we lived in Ontario’s Durham Region and were connected through my father and sister to the labour movement and the NDP. In today’s language, we might fairly be called social democrats.
My wife, who has been one of the most important influences on me as a cultural person is from a small town north of Montreal. In a way that is very Canadian, our slightly different cultures have come together in our house to create our own family culture that I would call contemporary Canadian. We love the diversity that this country offers.
What seem like pivotal moments in personal belief, and personal life, with respect to humanism, secularism, skepticism, and the associated suite of “-isms” relevant to you?
I consider myself fortunate to have been raised outside of religion in a home that was open to and embracing of people from other cultures. My earliest childhood friends were various…. two kids from first nations families, a brother and sister whose family had immigrated to Canada from India and a couple of brothers from England. Basically, if you were different than me, I wanted to meet you and hang out. That eagerness for diversity and wanting to treat everyone as a valuable and equal person was fundamental. I observed the same trends in my older siblings, so I know it was part of how our family worked.
We were very reluctant to associate with “isms” and I continue to be uncomfortable with labels or the assumptions that come with them. That being said, there are perspectives which gain prominence. I suppose my skepticism came from a basic rule of our family. “Don’t believe them just because they say it’s so,” I heard that about everyone from employers and politicians to teachers or priests. Any authority figure was not to be accepted at face value.
Humanism is a term that I struggle with a bit; I prefer humanitarianism; that is charitable work done for the benefit of people, society, animals and the environment…that general “leave the world a better place” ethic but done without any religious framework. When I was in second-year University, I was choosing between English Literature studies and Psychology. Wanting to avoid significant student debt, I worked during the day. As chance would have it, I was out with a friend who was looking for work and learned about a job at the Canadian Diabetes Association. I was amazed that it was possible to have a career in the charitable sector (I assumed it was entirely volunteer driven) and the path for me was suddenly clear. The idea that my working life could be focussed on helping people was simply too compelling not to act on. Humanism and humanitarianism seem to me to be intimately connected as philosophy and application.
Although the organisations I’ve worked for have always been secular (i.e. not religiously affiliated and embracing modern diversity), I was not a part of the specifically secular movement until I joined CFIC in 2014. As most Canadians have been exposed to issues of faith-based bigotry and violence, so was I. From religious opposition to women’s health progress or physician assisted dying to issues of fanaticism or terrorism…the harms and dangers of religion seemed to have become more prominent to everyone’s attention. I recognised that my former status as a polite agnostic might need to shift to impolite atheist-agnostic in order to defend basic human rights.
You have done some writing and poetry through personal websites. Your writing remains new. In that, the outlets exist, to date, for only a short time. What inspires these forms of self-expression?
Creative writing and journaling has always been an extremely important part of my self-development. Writing allows me to work out my thoughts and try on new ways to communicate. In my poetry, I’ve explored what I think may be new rhyme structures while retaining a deep respect and appreciation for highly formalised structures like sonnets or haiku. I suppose it is the challenge of expressing an idea or creating an image within a pre-determined structure that appeals to me. So often people think they want to do something that is “outside the box” when they may not even know what they can do inside the box.
Whether it is writing or some other undertakings, I am something of a nomad. I am interested in some pursuits for what I can learn or explore. So my writing is sometimes retained only for a short period of time until I’m ready to move on. I don’t hold my prior accomplishments up as significant unless they are informing something that I am working on now or wish to work on in the future. What I do now is intended to help me drive forward.
Sometimes my pursuits are to help me learn something or work on a part of my character. I spent several years watching CFL football and listening to the commentary, because I wanted to understand if the many football metaphors I noticed in the language of business and day-to-day life held any validity. I did eventually become a (American) football fan but it started as an intellectual exercise rather than as a passion. Recently I took up motorcycle riding. I was amazed by the experience of learning a new basic physical skill — the interactions of balance, controlling fear, focussing awareness, coordinating movements.
Self-expression is about communicating something of yourself to others. We do it for strategic reasons whether it is through the way we dress, what we write or anything we do as an attempt to reach others. For me that is all about what I’m learning today, helping others, growing as a person and preparing for tomorrow
You earned a Bachelor of Arts, psychology and English, from 1987 to 1992 at Carleton University. In addition to this, you hold the following certifications: Volunteer Development (1994), Fundraising Management (1999), FDZ Licence (2005), Certified Automotive Fleet Manager (2010), PB Diploma (2014) — with continued education in Legislative Drafting at Athabasca University. Within each domain, the consistent pragmatic elements of charitable leadership and work, management of individuals, and clear communication seem prominent to me, how does each qualification assist in personal and professional life to the present day?
What we learn as individuals today helps to make future options either possible or out of reach. I wanted to learn how to drive large commercial vehicles at one time my life and that positioned me as a uniquely qualified candidate for a specific career opportunity at the Canadian Red Cross Society — not many people have a long charitable sector management background and the capacity to operate commercial vehicles). That career opportunity gave me the opportunity to study legislation and how to communicate the need for regulatory compliance to a variety of people, which in turn led to further studies and opportunities. It may be that my most valuable skills have been literary, an ability to recognise strategically important information and to communicate what I learn.
If you aren’t able to communicate what you know, then the information isn’t of much value to anyone. That to me has been the value of my English literature and language studies.
Leadership in the charitable sector has always been a very clear situation to me. Given the dependence of charitable organisations on volunteers, if people don’t like you or what you’re trying to do, they won’t help. Pretty simple. So I have always looked at it as a situation of creating an environment where people are not only able to do the work of the organisation but actively want to do it. You have to show that you are aspiring to be the best representative of the organisation that you can be.
I actively manage myself more than anybody else; in life and in charitable organisations we have to learn, understand, communicate and drive forward to new and better circumstances and outcomes. We’re here to make things better. The status quo is always a launching point to a better tomorrow.
You worked for the Canadian Diabetes Association (District Coordinator, 1991–1997), The Kidney Foundation of Canada ((A) Executive Director, 1997–1999), The Arthritis Society (Associate Director, Ontario North & East, 1999–2001), Ottawa Humane Society (Manager, Development and Outreach, 2001–2002), Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (Director, Development & Finance, 2002–2005), Avocado Press (Director, Business Development, 2005), The Lung Association (Fundraising Coordinator, 2006), and the Canadian Red Cross Society (Director, Regional Operations, 2006–2014). This work occurred in diverse areas including Thunder Bay, New Zealand, North Superior, Ottawa, and Western Ontario. With respect to these diverse and extensive experiences throughout professional work and leadership, what insights come to mind, and seem relevant, about the nature of the charitable sector, especially for those without religious affiliation?
The charitable sector is about making the world better — not accepting the status quo. It doesn’t matter where you live, things can be made better. No charity I have ever worked for has said “OK, our job is done.” Just as with science, any question or problem that is investigated brings up a host of new questions and problems. Charitable organisations, big or small, will always need more resources and more time.
The charitable sector is the most socially productive counter-authoritarian undertaking I can think of. Charities tell authorities, whether they are governments, media, religions, judiciaries, political parties, corporate forces or any other form of authority that they must not rest. It is the charitable sector which pushes for human rights, education, health or any priority.
Charities are the community expression and engagement of non-religious people. People get involved with issues that matter to them through charities. Charities are the modern secular replacement for churches. There’s nothing supernatural about showing up at a foodbank to help out, coaching a children’s sports team or protesting violence or bigotry.
You were the national executive director of the Center for Inquiry Canada (CFI Canada) on March, 2014 until July 1, 2016. You drafted the Statement of Values, in addition to its revision, which, in part, states:
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…I. CFI Canada values people above ideas…the leading international voice for critical thinking, secularism, skepticism, humanism, and free-thought…III. CFI Canada values Humanism…IV. CFI Canada values skepticism; we strive to ensure that information or messages we circulate do not require the audience to accept it without validation of evidence…V. CFI Canada values science, rational thought and critical thinking…VI. CFI Canada values free thought…VII.CFI Canada values human rights…VIII. CFI Canada values education…IX. CFI Canada values the wellness of people…X. CFI Canada values excellence…XI. CFI Canada values transparency…XII.CFI Canada is an open and diverse community of individuals that embraces individuals regardless of sex/gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion. We do not tolerate harassment of participants in any form.
Of course, more information exists with thorough answers to relevant questions about humanistic values, for instance, in the CFI Canada Statement of Values and elsewhere. Regarding the representation and functions of CFI Canada, what does CFI Canada represent — in terms of direct and indirect constituents, and function as — in terms of its general activities, within the general population of Canada?
CFIC’s mission statement includes the term “secular humanist” as a key feature. It also includes keywords like freethought and skepticism. All of these words are charged with history and significance for the people who use them. There are even degrees of identity politics associated with them.
Secular humanist is a very near synonym for atheist. Recently, I have started to encourage the use of the phrase “Your Community For Science and Secularism” to feature the basic values of an evidence-based approach to matters such as education and healthcare and the separation of religion from governance of people.
Many people have assumed that CFIC is therefore an organisation specifically for anyone who self-identifies as atheist, skeptic, agnostic, secularist, secular humanist, humanist, rational, freethinker or rational. To the extent of active members and volunteers, that is mostly true.
I argue, however, that the organisation is for the majority of society, whether they view themselves as religious or not, because it is my perspective that all of society benefits when evidence-based practices are in place and when religious freedom and freedom from religion is assured. I sense that CFIC represents the view of most Canadians, they just don’t know it yet.
I very much want people to move beyond arbitrary and partial labels which will never adequately describe any whole person and get to the work that is done to make the world a better and more satisfying place for more and more people.