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From early childhood until the age of 30, I was immersed in the Christian church. I married my church’s worship pastor at the age of 19 and our son was born shortly before my 21st birthday. Everything about my life was structured around fundamentalist Christian values and how my pastors and other church elders interpreted the Bible.
I was baptized in the Lutheran church as a baby, just like many other North Dakotans of Norwegian heritage. But I didn’t start attending church regularly until the age of eight, when I began going to a Methodist church every Sunday with my best friend and her mother. When I moved to Canada shortly before I turned 13, the church nearest to my home was Baptist. It became my house of worship and the site of my re-baptism.
I attended weekly church services, youth groups, and Bible studies at my Canadian church, and went to Christian lunch club meetings at my public high school. I served as a missionary in Mexico and San Diego for two summers in a row. I read books and magazines from the Christian bookstore and listened to Christian rock and alternative music. My brain would not allow for questioning of my religious beliefs, and the part of my mind that had absorbed the church’s authority was good at sweeping doubt under the rug.
As an older teenager, I began reading literature from all over the world and delved into philosophy and the humanities. Many of these intellectual journeys led to serious questioning of my beliefs, as that censoring part of my brain exerted less and less control. I developed friendships with a few agnostic and atheist classmates – a feat that had been virtually impossible in North Dakota, which has the most Christian churches per capita of any American state.
I had so many questions, but the answers given to me at church were not enough. In fact, they only produced more questions and exposed more glaring contradictions.
At the age of 20, I stopped going to church due to a loss of belief in numerous doctrines, as they were being taught at my Baptist church. But I maintained a Christian identity and allegiance. I looked to other, less evangelical forms of Christianity, such as Anglicanism. I even dabbled in Buddhism and new age trends.
I eventually realized, however, that none of it allowed for true investigation.
All of the dogma that I came in contact with sounded more like wishful thinking than anything else. And all of it in some way seemed to expect the same thing from me: blind acceptance.
After 10 years of trying to remain a Christian, I stopped seeking a replacement church or religion. Two years after that, I declared myself an atheist: I do not believe in the existence of a deity or deities. I’m an agnostic atheist, to be exact, meaning that I do not claim to know with certainty that no gods exist, but I live my life as though none do.
Not only am I an atheist, but the worldview I’ve developed is decidedly Humanist. Humanism is a life stance which promotes human autonomy and freedom, compassion, morality without god, rationalism, and evidence over faith. Humanists place a great deal of importance on the promotion of equality and the elimination of discrimination in all forms.
As of early 2015, there are over 3 million registered Humanists worldwide. Their scientific approach commonly puts them at odds with religious worldviews that promote beliefs in gods or the supernatural. The majority of Humanists are atheists or agnostics, but not all atheists or agnostics are Humanists. What sets Humanists apart is their dedication to social action and building a secular, tolerant global community.
I have known about Humanism for several years, just as I’ve known about the existence of Humanist groups in my area ever since I began exploring “alternative” worldviews. Though I’ve lurked on these groups’ websites off and on for the past several years, I have not had enough courage to attend any Humanist gatherings, fearing that they might somehow remind me of church.
A couple weeks ago, I was invited to attend one of the British Columbia Humanist Association’s Sunday morning meetings. I decided to swallow my fear and accept the invitation.
At 10:00 AM on a bright Sunday morning in October, there are roughly 45 people in attendance at the Oakridge Seniors’ Centre in Vancouver – the official BCHA Sunday meeting spot – and most of them are Caucasian and in the 50+ age group. Ian Bushfield, the young Executive Director of BCHA, tells me afterwards: “I think the demographic you saw this morning has a lot to do with our group’s history,” along with Humanism’s largely European heritage.
The British Columbia Humanist Association officially began in 1984 when it was registered as a non-profit society, and many of its current members started attending in the 1980s and 1990s. Its roots go back even further to the 1970s, when Metro Vancouver freethinkers would meet once a month in each other’s homes. Programs like Skeptics in the Pub tend to draw a younger crowd, and the online community of skeptics, Humanists, and nonbelievers is particularly diverse.
I find a spot on a piano bench, away from the tables where attendees have angled their chairs to be able to view the presentation that will soon begin. Many sip at coffee or tea in paper cups, and some have brought their breakfasts.
Joann Robertson, President of BCHA, says hello and suggests that I watch an interview online of former president, Dr. Sue Hughson, as the video does a good job at explaining Humanism. I then speak with a gentleman who references the theme of today’s meeting, saying that if women do not have access to abortion and other reproductive options, they can never be completely free. I could not agree more.
Sitting next to my piano bench is Brien, who tells me that he appreciates how everyone in the BCHA group has different views and “they are not afraid to show it.” Attendees continue to trickle in, stopping to affix nametags to their shirts or jackets before finding a seat.
Joyce Arthur, a local feminist activist and Humanist, presents on recent attacks on Planned Parenthood by the Center for Medical Progress in the US. Her presentation is well-researched and when members respond, I see firsthand what Brien was talking about earlier. Some in the room are intent on declaring their outright disgust of the Christian Right and “anti-choice radicals” who lead the onslaught on Planned Parenthood, while others speak out to show that they prefer not to disparage all religions or Christian denominations.
No fighting erupts, however, and people laugh off any tension that has formed in the room between a hardline anti-religion stance and a more moderate one.
I reflect on how open and safe it feels here, and how different this atmosphere is compared to my experiences in church, where questions and divergent opinions were not encouraged.
What has drawn me most to Humanism is its dedication to improving the lives of others on a global scale. Some of BCHA’s current campaigns that catch my eye are Humanist Action, which seeks to enact Humanist values through charitable giving and community works; Reproductive Freedom, which highlights Humanism’s continued pro-choice stance and strong support for women’s reproductive rights; and Assisted Dying, described on their website as follows: “The British Columbia Humanist Association supports the right of an individual who has made a clear decision, free from coercion, to choose a physician-assisted death.”
In regards to his goals for BCHA, Bushfield says: “I want to see it as a safe space for anyone who is non-religious in BC. I want to see us as the strongest voice for secular and progressive values, and where we have supportive communities across the province.” People will sometimes contact BCHA, he tells me, lamenting that they don’t know any other atheists or nonbelievers in their communities. BCHA helps put them in touch with likeminded individuals in their area. “We want to give them a place where they know they’re not alone.”
As for me, I plan to attend future Humanist events, such as BCHA’s monthly book club where they are currently reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – a decidedly intellectual option. Regarding the Sunday meetings, it will be hard to give up my lazy Sunday mornings in order to hightail it to the Seniors’ Centre, but I plan to put in the effort now and then. I like these people. They speak my language and their passion is inspiring. I may even contemplate membership, to formally add my voice to the global Humanist cause.
Oh, and my worship pastor husband? We’re no longer together, but we are co-parents and friends. He left the church shortly after I did.