Spirituality Has Numerous Meanings, by Goldwin Emerson

Spirituality Has Numerous Meanings, by Goldwin Emerson

The  London Free Press, February 16.2019

Acceptance of each other is an easy phrase to embrace in our minds, if not in our daily practices. When we believe that others share our ideas, philosophy,  politics or our religion, it is easy to accept them. Conversely, acceptance is more difficult when others do not share our way of thinking and acting. In spite of this, many conscientious people respect the religious choices, political views, occupational choices,  ethnicity and culture of those who differ from them and they try hard to be pluralistic and accepting without abandoning their own moral values.

As a secular person who holds humanist views, I suppose to some of my religious acquaintances, humanism and spirituality seem to be opposites. It is true that humanists sometimes feel uncomfortable about the term spirituality. We think the term “spirituality” ought to be expanded to include concepts beyond strictly religious terms.  Humanists choose words like awe, wonder, fulfillment, inner peace, enrichment and acceptance. Spirituality is also about human connections with animals, nature and with our fellow human beings. 

A common perception of some of my religious friends is their belief that humanists lack feelings of joy, compassion and wonder. For religious believers, spiritual experiences are expressed in traditional religious terms as though one could not be spiritual without being a believer in God. Although this reasoning is inaccurate, it is a matter of concern since it can become a barrier between humanists and non-humanists in understanding each other.

Humanists use the term “wonder” in referring to the natural world which offers experiences of awe, excitement and joy in the present. Humanists hope that thoughtful people will use good judgment and good moral values to use their ability to be rational in order to make positive things happen in this world, here and now. Religious friends ask me how I can be hopeful about human beings when there is so much around us that is not right. To be sure, it is easy to find examples of poverty, pollution, disease, war, starvation and crime. But these unfortunate conditions come about over the years, not by accident, nor by lack of prayer, but by poor decisions made by humans. If such problems are to be solved in the future, it will be by humans applying their best efforts. We need to have confidence that human beings are capable of recognizing and implementing good solutions to problems many of which are caused by previous poor human actions or thoughtless decisions. We need to apply rational and caring solutions whether we do so within or without religion.

Spirituality for both humanist and non-humanists alike remains. I am convinced I share the joys and concerns of the world as readily as my religious friends. I share with humanists and non-humanists alike, joy at the birth of a baby, happiness at the sound of children playing, satisfaction in helping those in need and gratefulness in receiving unexpected help from a stranger. I shed tears at the bedside of a dying friend. I marvel at the metamorphosis of a caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly. I am thrilled by the music of Mozart, the nature paintings of Robert Bateman, the beauty of the Taj Mahal, and I am delighted by the goldfinches at our bird feeder. I am emotionally enriched by the gift of human love. I am optimistic when I hear political leaders talk of peace rather than war. A scientific discovery promising a cure for a medical problem or a new and better vision of looking at the world gives me a spiritual lift.

 Some of my enthusiastically religious friends attribute spirituality to God dwelling beyond nature. I sometimes question whether their beliefs about the supernatural may encourage them too readily to hand over the task of improving our world to a powerful supernatural entity. 

Humanists share the emotions of joy and wonder with both religious and non-religious acquaintances. We share these spiritual emotions, not because they flow from heaven, but because they are part of being fully human. 

How I Became a Humanist, by William Kirk

The following is the transcript of the talk William gave at our last meeting. William is a valued member in our association who also happens to attend a Catholic high school. Enjoy his insights!

Greetings HALA members and most welcome guests!

A few months ago I was asked if I could write and deliver a speech for HALA on how I became humanist/atheist and what humanism means to me. I’m not sure if it will but I hope it goes well. Anyway, here it is.

My family

I don’t think that I could begin discussing how I became a humanist without mentioning and describing my family’s religious background. After all, it is your family of orientation that influences your beliefs the most and it was my family who influenced my values and beliefs the most. My mom’s side of the family are all fairly devout Irish and French Canadian Catholics. My aunt and uncle Ian may not be all that religious (in fact my uncle Ian is a staunch anti theist) but my maternal grandparents are and my great aunt is so devout that she could probably become a nun if she wasn’t already married to my great uncle (who is also quite devout). Growing up my mom went to church every week and went to a catholic girls school in Montréal for high school. My fathers side on the  other hand are all Anglicans of British and Jewish descent. Growing up my paternal grandmother was raised Jewish but converted to Anglicanism after she met and married my grandfather. Although I never met my paternal grandfather since he died before I was born, I was told by my father that he was never much of a religious man and much preferred playing golf on Sundays than going to church. As a result my father and aunt were dragged by my grandmother off to church on Sundays while my grandfather headed down to the local course to play a round of golf. My grandfather must have had quite an influence on my father and aunt because neither my aunt nor my father are very religious and my father considers himself to be an agnostic cultural Anglican (kind of like Richard Dawkins in a way, except for the fact that my dad is softer on religion than Dawkins is). 

My religious upbringing

My mother converted to Anglicanism after she married my father and as a result I was baptized and raised in the Anglican tradition of Protestant Christianity. Growing up with the notable exception of my father we were a pretty devout Anglican family who went to Church every week. My mom joined our local neighbourhood church, St. James Westminster, because she liked the Minister who preached at the church and the strong music programme and children’s ministry that was also present at St. James (I have to admit that the minister was a nice guy). While I was still in Kindergarten I joined the children’s choir for a little bit and began going to Sunday school every week. Despite the Anglican church being one of the more theologically and socially liberal churches in the world gullible me began to suck up all the bullshit and lies the church was feeding me and I began to take rather extreme literalist, socially conservative, and fundamentalist positions on stuff that I learned in Sunday school. For example when young I believed that it was men and boys who were leaders and breadwinners and that women were nurturers who were supposed to stay home and clean, cook, and raise children. I also firmly believed that Noah’s ark actually happened and that he was a direct ancestor of mine, and that Moses and the 10 commandments somehow influenced the laws of every country in the world. I was firmly against atheism as well, believing that Atheists were “Satan’s minions” and that the Abrahamic God couldn’t not exist because humans “were created with God’s love”. My younger brother surprisingly was less gullible than me and when he decided to leave the church around age 8 because he thought that church was boring and that he’d rather do something else on Sunday I warned him that the Abrahamic God was going to send him to hell because he was spouting Satanic ideology. Looking back on it now it is kind of embarrassing that I believed the stuff that I did but also kind of funny because a lot of the stuff that I believed back then is laughable now.

Declining religiosity

I attribute my decline in religious belief to 3 main events that happened in my life. The first one happened when I was fairly young, around 8-9 years of age. During that time period I stumbled upon a Greek mythology book at the South London Chapters, picked it up, read it, bought and brought it home. As a result of that experience, I became extremely fascinated with Greek mythology and often wondered whether I could convert from Anglican Christianity to someone who believed in Greek paganism. I was fascinated by Greek Gods such as Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Ares, and Aphrodite and wondered why no one believed in them at all. At the same time I learned from that book that the Greek Gods and their stories were referred to as myths because the people who believed in them had all died out and that there was no one who accepted them as fact anymore.  Needless to say that book really shook my faith and although I still went to church on a regular basis I started questioning the stuff I was told by people at church. The second thing that happened to me was when I accidentally  found out that the tooth fairy, Easter bunny, and Santa Claus did not exist on one of the nights that I lost a tooth and put it under my pillow. During that morning I woke up to find my Dad putting money under my bed and got extremely angry. I went downstairs to find my mom awake and she explained to me that Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy etc did not exist and that they were lies put into children’s heads to make Christmas, Easter, and losing a tooth more fun for children. Needless to say I was pretty devastated by that experience and it shook my faith even more than the last one. I was now more than 60% certain that there was no God and that the whole thing was a thing made up by ancient conmen who never revealed their lie before they died. Still I kept going to church because I liked the people at church and some of the sermons that the Minister preached. The 3rd and final thing that made me into an atheist was when in the late spring early summer of 2014 I accidentally stumbled upon one of the super fundamentalist Christian websites of the US Christian right movement and came face to face with all of the bigotry and anti scientific nonsense that Christianity had to offer. Let’s just say that some of them had quite disgusting attitudes to say the least! I spent countless hours searching on anti evolution websites like Answers in Genesis, anti gay and anti feminist Christian websites like focus on the family, family research council, and websites of those despicable Christian organisations that claim that they can “heal” people from homosexuality with prayer and therapy. I then went to go check out atheist websites like Hemant Mehta’s blog Friendly Atheist and the Richard Dawkins foundation website to see how they compared to Christian websites. After that experience of being so horrified at the anti gay, anti woman, and anti science attitudes of those websites and the contrast between them and the atheist websites I decided that I was done with religion. No longer was I going to identify as a non religious agnostic Anglican like my dad was. I was and am done with religion and I’m never going to step foot in a church for as long as I live (although I have to do it for high school sometimes). Science, reason, and enlightenment values were important to me after that experience and they are still important to me now.


Some of you may ask why I, as a humanist, atheist, and secularist, chose to go to a Catholic school like Catholic Central. The truth is I did choose to go there and that nobody pushed to go. In fact family members like my father were rather reluctant on me going because he wanted me to have a secular education. I chose CCH both because I was bullied a lot at my public elementary school, CCH was (and still is) known for its strong academic record, and because my neighbourhood school South had a bullying and gang violence problem back when I was in Grade 8. Central was full and although Beal was secular it was not very appealing to me when I went. During my time at CCH I have actually had quite a good time despite being a non religious person and the teachers and students have all been very nice to me while I am a student there. Although most of the students are of a Catholic Christian background there are quite a few non Catholic students in the school such as those from other Christian backgrounds, Muslim backgrounds, Hindu backgrounds, and non religious backgrounds. Last year there were something like 5-6 fellow grade 12 students who were also atheist. There is also a teacher there, Mr. Brown, who despite being Catholic sympathizes with the atheist/secular humanist movement and is a fellow fan of Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (Mr. Brown happens to have a PhD in evolutionary biology). Given this I’m not sure how I feel about abolishing taxpayer funded catholic schools because on the one hand I am a strong secularist who despises religious privilege but I also am really fond of CCH.

What Humanism means to me

Secular Humanism means to me a couple of things, Liberalism (social liberalism anyway), reason, science, secularism, and the common good. As a staunch secularist I believe that there should be absolutely no religious privilege in society. For me this means, taxing the churches, secularizing of all taxpayer funded religious institutions like religious hospitals, universities/ university colleges, religious public schools etc. getting rid of Chaplains in hospitals and the armed forces, and getting rid of all religious themed federal holidays like Christmas and Easter. For me it makes no sense why a non Christian would have to take a day off work just because the majority of Canada is from a Christian background. My social liberalism means that I embrace things like women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, racial minority rights, and freedom of and from religion. Unlike some religious people,  I will not reject someone just because an ancient book of myths says that have to. Embracing Reason to me means that we have to look for the most logical and reasonable explanation for why things happen rather than trusting ancient dead tribesmen who didn’t know where the sun went at night for explanations. Finally trusting in and accepting and embracing science means that that we have to trust science and the scientific method as way to test things in a reliable manner. We can’t go around denying climate change, evolution, the safety of vaccines etc. because all of the evidence suggests that both evolution and climate change are real and that the safety of vaccines is well established. Science has raised our standards of living in a way that backwards thinking, superstition, and woo never has and never will. 

Thank you

William Kirk