On our Vancouver Sunday meetings

Questions arise from time to time about the structure and procedures behind the Sunday meetings that the BC Humanist Association hosts in Vancouver. Rather than continue to respond to these inquiries as they land in my inbox, I thought it might be prudent to share some of our thinking here.

When I moved to Vancouver in 2009, I started attending the Sunday meetings here as a way to meet other Humanists and to keep involved in the atheist movement. During my undergrad, I had founded an atheist student group that had over 300 members when it launched. The BCHA’s local meetings were a wonderful and supportive community of like-minded individuals.

At the time, long-time BCHA member Conrad Hadland was organizing the discussions. Every meeting he would greet me (and others) with “welcome to reality”. At those meetings we could expect to watch a video, followed by a discussion of the issues it raised. The meetings had evolved from a weekly breakfast meeting that first started in 2002 and had been held at Oakridge Seniors Centre since 2008.

As I got more involved, I joined the board and served as secretary and then president. When the board decided to hire a part-time executive director to take over some of the day-to-day tasks, I applied and a separate committee of the board eventually hired me. Since then, our organization has grown from one that had an annual budget of under $15,000 to one that exceeds $50,000. With that growth, the board and I have worked to professionalize all aspects of the organization, including those Sunday meetings. Specifically, this has meant that we began inviting speakers rather than showing videos starting a couple years ago. We also began recording those presentations for a podcast we launched to help ensure the content reaches a wider audience.

As the organization continues to grow, we risk attracting greater scrutiny from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), who have a series of regulations to ensure registered charities are serving the public benefit and fulfilling their mission. Specifically, the BCHA is established “to promote the ideas and philosophy of secular humanism by all available means of education and communication” and “to serve the educational needs of its members and others of humanistic, scientific and naturalistic outlook, in a democratic, non-dogmatic manner free from authoritarian doctrine,” so these meetings serve our educational purposes and we therefore must pay particular attention to the CRA's regulations. For example, the CRA states that information presented by charities must be “free of bias” and “well-reasoned.” When charities deviate from these guidelines, they risk censure up to revocation of their charitable status and possibly forfeiture of the charity’s assets.

In light of this, we’ve developed the following guidelines to select topics and speakers for our Vancouver Sunday meetings:

  1. Topics should connect to the ideas and philosophy of secular humanism, for example, those outlined in declarations of Humanism or the BCHA’s issues summary.
  2. Speakers should have demonstrable expertise in their subject matter, whether through formal education or direct experience, for example, academics, spokespeople for non-profit organizations or journalists. Their work should tie to the subject matter, so a nuclear physicist is not inherently qualified to talk about homelessness.
  3. Presentations must be strictly non-partisan, meaning they “do not include the direct or indirect support of, or opposition to, any political party or candidate for public office” (this is directly from the law).

In practice, when I go to schedule our Sunday meetings, this means that I’m constantly on the lookout for local academics or other subject matter experts who are writing about their work in a public context. I collect all of those names into a spreadsheet. I reach out to half a dozen or more at a time to schedule them over the coming weeks or months.

It's worth emphasizing that this represents only a couple hours of work each week, with the rest of my time being spent working on the numerous campaigns we’re engaged in, keeping our social media active, building our fundraising capacity and other administrative work (for example, ensuring tax receipts go out correctly or writing reports for the board). The Sunday meetings represent a much smaller portion of the BCHA’s activity than they did even a few years ago. And while it's the primary face of the organization for a couple dozen of our members in Vancouver, an overwhelming majority never interface with those meetings.

The selection of speakers for Sunday meetings therefore has little to do with my own personal values or beliefs (other than that I personally identify as a Humanist). In many cases, I have my own private reservations about some aspect of a speaker's politics but I see some connection between their work and broader Humanist values and interests. So we've invited speakers who discuss things traditionally talked about by Humanist/atheist groups like evolutionary biology, critical analyses of religion (whether from sociology, history or psychology) or philosophy to more applied thinking like how civic planning affects society, the human rights system or even the ethics of medical tourism.

At the same time, while the tent of ideas that are compatible with Humanism is big, it’s clearly not all-encompassing. Humanism has always stood for a free society, cosmopolitan internationalism and human rights. Conversely, Humanism has opposed authoritarianism, nationalism and other ideologies that seek to divide humanity. Our Sunday meetings are therefore not a place for talks that promote intolerance or that are otherwise antithetical to Humanist values. Furthermore, our legal purpose of advancing Humanism would be undermined by promoting those who oppose Humanist values.

This is not to say the BCHA has a list of taboo topics or support efforts to suppress the free exchange of ideas but merely that we have a clear purpose as an organization. We don’t expect medical schools to give equal time to pseudoscience or for creationism to be given an equal hearing to evolution in the science classroom. We should therefore be free to reject calls for Humanist spaces to be used to promote anti-Humanist thought.

Further to that, Humanism is also committed to "free inquiry, the power of science and creative imagination for the furtherance of peace and in the service of compassion." Such inquiry and exchange can only happen in an open space where everyone feels welcome. Unfortunately, some of the past discussions at these Sunday meetings have gotten heated and has led people to describe them to me as "toxic." I've heard again and again from people who've told me they don't enjoy these meetings specifically because the rhetoric in the discussions too often rises to the level of vitriol and personal attacks. The sad reality is that I've heard from far more of these people than the number who perpetuate such attacks, a few bad apples can really spoil the bunch.

As such, the board has been trying to promote a more positive atmosphere. In late 2017, the Board adopted a Code of Conduct with the aim to provide "an open and welcoming community" with a prohibition on personal attacks and harassment. This Code was based on one created by the Washington Area Secular Humanists and is pretty common among membership organizations. Nevertheless, this basic concept that people behave respectfully to one another and target their criticism at ideas and not individuals remains controversial among a small segment of self-identifying Humanists for fear it will precipitate the death of free speech. Yet, as I recently wrote for Humanist Perspectives, these free speech defenders are often quite selective in their outrage and perhaps the better focus for Humanists would be on "our broader pursuit of the liberation and the maximum possible fulfillment of everyone everywhere," to which freedom of expression is but one of the tools that we employ.

I realize this can be a bit abstract, so to make it tangible, I want to add a personal note. It can be tough to get the balance right in terms of finding speakers and setting some basic procedures around which to hold our meetings. Finding interesting people who are based in Vancouver to speak every week can be quite challenging at times. We’ve had some speakers that I wasn’t totally sure how their talk would go and was then blown away by the quality. At other times I’ve raised a skeptical eye to the presenter's arguments. Nevertheless, we’ve managed to have about 100 different speakers in the past two years, while also having nearly even gender parity to boot.

At the same time, I have opted to turn down some requests for topics. This has included desires to hear from self-described men’s rights activists (who often spend far more time arguing against feminism and women’s rights), “race scientists” who use pseudoscience to justify racist policies or talks whose sole reference is someone with a clear ideological axe to grind.

In the end, the board and I are always open to ways to improve the Association’s events. I do my best to respond thoughtfully to every email I get (and honestly, the majority are still overwhelmingly positive) and for those with more serious concerns, we do have a formal complaint process. I’m also always open to suggestions for speakers. As I said, it’s a challenge to find interesting people week after week and I’m eager to make sure we have topics that people want to hear about. I do my best to prioritize those requests but unfortunately sometimes there just isn’t anyone available to give a (free) presentation to our group on a specific topic.

I don't know what the future of these meetings holds but with a continually growing membership and supporter base across the province (currently numbering 200 members and 3000 supporters), I want to see the BCHA get to a place where Humanists everywhere in BC have open and welcoming communities to be a part of.

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