I first joined HAAM in February 2012 after a Twitter discussion on humanism prompted me to look for humanist groups in Winnipeg. The first meeting I attended was also a celebration of Darwin’s birthday, so the room was packed with festive, friendly folks, and there was a neat Darwin-themed cake. I was greeted with sincere warmth and kindness, introduced around the room, and made to feel a welcome part of the humanist family. That meeting turned out to be the last time the group would be called the Manitoba Humanists; a survey shortly thereafter changed the group’s name to what it is today.
I’ve been an atheist since birth. Of course we’re all born atheists, but I’m among those who never developed a belief in the supernatural. My Gran took me to church with her when she visited when I was little, but hearing phrases such as “god loves you” were as meaningful as hearing that I was loved by an aunt or uncle I’d never met. I had no clear concept of god beyond some mysterious person/force like Santa Claus or the Easter bunny, the general gist of all these entities being “Be good and good things will happen (and vice versa)”. It was shortly before kindergarten that an older kid burst the Santa Claus bubble, and from there all the dominos fell: Easter bunny, tooth fairy, and god. Not only god, but all the fantastical stories at Sunday school, where I was already unwelcome for my skepticism (“it’s not possible for someone to live inside a whale!”).
When I entered grade school and was exposed to all sorts of beliefs, my parents encouraged me to explore my friends’ faiths to satisfy my curiosity and to make up my own mind about what, if anything, I believed. Over the years I attended United, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Anglican churches, Buddhist and Jewish ceremonies, and an Ojibway sweat lodge, to name a few. My first close encounter with a Catholic priest was at a table with 8 or so other 10-yr-olds: the priest looked each of us in the eye soberly, and then said in a clear voice, “Shit.” That was his hook for a sermon about the harm of cursing, to others and to your own character. I liked him! However, to this day no Catholic has been able to explain why they want to eat the flesh and drink the blood of a dead guy (no offense intended, I truly don’t get it). I also don’t understand why it’s ok with otherwise decent folk to promote a religion that kills millions around the world by denying condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS, and by encouraging bigoted beliefs that get gay people imprisoned and/or murdered. I feel the same way about the Protestants who embarrassingly deny the scientific fact of evolution. I suspect that most people don’t want to think about the harm their churches do in the world — they just want the fuzzy good feeling that comes from the belief that they’re being good people, and that there may be some unpleasant bits in the bible but <fingers in ears> la-la-la-la-la. And don’t get me started on the various ridiculous official positions on the treatment of women.
I learned the hard way at a young age that atheism was not only unpopular, but also prone to attacks of a bizarre and unpredictable variety. I learned to keep my mouth shut about my non-belief, and to ‘go along to get along.’ As a result, for a few years I called myself “spiritual but not religious” as a way to get out of the full explanation while still avoiding friends’ religious events. I was puzzled by the serious assumption that atheism was some sort of state of abject misery, or worse, of self-delusion, because atheists must secretly believe in god. But which god? When I ask my friends to consider themselves in an airplane falling to earth and suddenly shouting “Ganesh, save me!” they sort of understand how foreign the idea sounds.
Atheism is the rejection of the assertion that the supernatural exists. Without that assumption, the reality and wonder and majesty of the universe take on epic, mind-blowing proportions that fill me with respect and awe, and a profound gratitude that I’m here to experience it. Atheism defines what I am not. What I am is a Secular Humanist; as such, I believe that the world is a better place when public spaces and government policies remain neutral and therefore fair to everyone, no matter what their beliefs or lack thereof. I believe that humanism is a call to action: to work to develop ethical communities that support people in need and allow healthy human interaction to flourish. I answer this call to action by volunteering — for non-profit organizations that raise people up to their full potential, whether it’s in their chosen field or whether it’s giving them something to eat when times are tough. I also believe that humanists who are atheists have a duty to come out and declare themselves publicly as atheists, to educate others and to normalize the idea in society. When I hear people say that the problems in society exist because we removed prayer from school I want them to understand that compassion and morality are secular values, and when we stop teaching and promoting them in society then the problems begin. It’s time to bring purposeful humanism into schools, like the Roots of Empathy program. You don’t need to force religion on kids to make them moral people.
My close friends and family members have always known that I’m an atheist. I decided this year that I would come out to the rest of my acquaintances by joining the Out Campaign on Facebook, and by attending the Morden Corn and Apple festival at the HAAM table. I was worried about certain very dear friends leaving and not speaking to me again. That happened to me once in my 20s when a friend asked if I would be attending the Christening of a mutual friend’s new baby and I confided in him that I was a non-believer; he responded with “Oh, you’re one of those pigs” and never spoke to me again. So I’d say my worry was justified! Thankfully I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I’m ashamed at having judged my dear friends for being shallow instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt. The ones I was most worried about couldn’t have been more lovely and open-minded, and we’ve since had some fascinating chats about beliefs. A few dropped away, unfriending me from Facebook and dropping me from their e-mail lists, but that’s ok. I’d rather have genuine connections with people who appreciate me for who I truly am.
I’m grateful to HAAM for their warm welcome and for providing an avenue for like-minded people to share ideas and explore the issues of the day in a way that brings us all together.