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Interview with Dr. Steven Tomlins — Researcher, Canadian Atheism and Nonreligious Identities


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/02/16

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In your research into the nonreligious community, what were some of the bigger findings for you? How do you go about studying irreligiosity?

Dr. Steven Tomlins: Initially I did a discourse analysis of the books on religion by the New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris), looking for similarities and differences of opinion. The media was treating them as a united entity, so I wanted to explore opinions they shared and where they disagreed. On science and secularism they were pretty much on the same page; on morality and spirituality they had quite a few differences. Whereas Dawkins sees science as being able to “at least” match the beauty or usefulness of religion as a subject matter, for example, Harris argues that religion does something that science cannot do: religion can fulfill spiritual needs, and he goes on to explain how spirituality can be facilitated without myth. Dennett’s work was notably more scholarly in tone than the others, but overall my thesis captured a synthesis of their arguments pro-science and anti-religion, which is a snapshot of their writings in response to 9/11.

For my PhD thesis I went local: I did participant-observation with a university atheist community, interviewed the twenty most active members, and compared their answers to atheists I met around Ottawa who had no interest in joining an atheist community. I expected those who belonged to the atheist club to have had more religious upbringings (that the club would replace church) or felt discriminated against because of their atheism. While some had experiences in which they felt that atheists had a poor reputation (a co-worker saying, “I can’t believe you’re an atheist; you’re so nice!” for example), no one felt alienated from a religious society in Canada, and the religious backgrounds of most was pretty average (secular or went to church once a week as a kid). So the backgrounds matched that of the atheists I interviewed who did not belong to an atheist community. The biggest difference seemed to be that those who joined had more of an interest in reading books by atheists, talking about the plight of American atheists, and diverse religious friends. The last point is quite interesting. Having diverse religious friends, many didn’t want to ruin their friendships by being overly critical of, or even discussing, religion with them. In the atheist community they found like-minded people with whom they could discuss religion freely without fear of offending anyone. That was a unique finding I hadn’t come across in studies on American atheist communities, and the aversion to controversy and offence in polite conversation seemed quintessentially Canadian, at least how Canadians see themselves.

Jacobsen: There has been researching into attitudes about the non-religious community by Will Gervais, Ara Norenzayan, and others. The biases seem strong against the non-religious community, throughout the world. Have you looked into this research. Why is this the global trend in implicit anti-atheist biases extant — and robust?

Tomlins: I have looked into it, but mostly through the lens of comparison with Canada. In Canada it’s less surprising to ‘discover’ someone is an atheist than it is in many other countries, yet studies do show that atheists are less trusted than other groups, and the media has tended to characterize atheists as loud and obnoxious on occasion. Two headlines come to mind:

· “Dear atheists: most of us don’t care what you think”(Charles Lewis, National Post, 2010)

· “Could atheists please stop complaining?” (Michael Enright Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2013)

Yet in Canada it’s politically incorrect to wear your religious disposition on your sleeve. After Barack Obama was elected President of the US, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper tested the waters by saying “God bless Canada,” and the media mocked him. He quickly laid that idea to rest. From what I gather Scandinavia is similarly secular, so I’d be hesitant to claim either Canada or Scandinavia as having a strong bias against those who are non-religious (I also hesitate to call the non-religious a community, since it’s so varied). But globally, most countries certainly fit that description, and many have the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy. I wouldn’t call this a trend though, because it has a long history! But it is disturbing, and it is of serious concern for those who face bias, and even risk death, for expressing their thoughts or being themselves.

One reason for this bias is that some religious people can’t fathom someone not believing in their God. To not believe in their God is to insult their God. I’ve heard it said that when someone critiques someone else’s religion it feels to the religious person like someone is calling their partner ugly. From that perspective, the nonreligious are calling your God ugly, and some cultures don’t take insult lightly. Of course, from the nonreligious perspective, they are critiquing an ideology, but from the perspective of someone who is really religious they don’t differentiate between their personhood and their religion. Those who see God as the giver of morality may see those who don’t believe in God as morally deficient, or as denying morality. I think that’s the case in the US, where there’s a sense that it doesn’t matter which religion you believe in, as long as you believe in a religion.

In ancient Greece exposing atheistic or agnostic thoughts could get you ostracized, as the community needed the gods on their side to survive war and the constant threat of war. I still think nationalism plays that role. If a nation is under God, and that God is of one religion, than those who profess differently are acting against the state. Perhaps the more multicultural a country gets the less the nation is built around a singular religion and the less threatening the nonreligious become in the eyes of the citizenry?

Jacobsen: What does your own research, or others whom you respect, say about the young non-believing community, especially in Westernized nations?

Tomlins: Speaking for Canada, I think it speaks to a sense of demanding inclusion. Communities organize debates on the existence of God with representatives from different religions. They want to have the same right to advertise their positions as do religious groups (on buses, billboards). They author articles for mainstream media outlets. Humanists provide services for life-transition ceremonies like weddings and funerals. They want a religiously neutral state. I think it’s much the same in other western countries, although they certainly receive more pushback due to a myriad of reasons. In post-communist countries atheism is associated with communism, for example. So in those countries the quest for equality comes with a greater risk of societal push-back.

Jacobsen: Western nations seem more irreligious, soft, and scientifically literate. Why are Western nations more often lacking in religion?

Tomlins: I think when the west allowed biblical criticism it opened up a door to doubt. Darwin’s theory of evolution gave doubters an intellectual argument based on science that offered a viable explanation for the origins of all species. The Scientific Revolution showed how useful science was, so even if science occasionally pushed God into the gaps it was still well worth pursuing. When the lightning rod was invented some churches refused to utilize them, as God would protect them from lightning strikes. Following lightning strikes they eventually put lightning rods on their steeples. Plus, perhaps after centuries of religious wars and Reformation and Counter Reformation the will to fight for one’s faith shifted into print rather than action. These are just some musings, but it definitely has its roots in history, the invention of the printing press, biblical criticism, stimulating scientific findings, and the use of science to prolong life. Why other nations seem more religious is the flip side of that question, although even the most religious countries have accepted science (the Vatican is certainly well read, and developing nukes, which has happened and continues to happen in the east, takes a good understanding of the scientific method!).

Jacobsen: How can your own research into the non-religious communities bolster activist efforts and community-coalition political work into the future?

Tomlins: Well, it may demystify atheism for those who have erroneous perceptions of atheists. I find explaining my research to religious people tends to do that. In fact, I was once on a cave tour in Collingwood Ontario and, while waiting to enter a cave, got into a discussion with two older Mennonite women who were touring the caves with about a dozen girls, all of whom were wearing old-fashioned dresses and the best in name-brand trail sneakers money could buy. With their embrace of digital cameras they didn’t fit the common perception of Mennonites as completely technology-adverse. When the conversation led to my thesis, they seemed really interested, and wanted to Google it later, since they previously thought of atheists in a more negative light, and now seemed more curious and open to understanding. I think part of their openness came from my recognition that they, the digital camera wielding Mennonites, are often misunderstood. So when I explained that atheists are often misunderstood, they could suddenly relate.

Other than that I’m not sure it will. Lessons can be gleaned about sticking to agenda, perhaps, but my intention was to document a period in time rather than to bolster activist efforts.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?

Tomlins: Thanks for the interview!

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Steven.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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