Outside the circle

February 12, 2017 was a Sunday. The roads were treacherous and the sidewalk was slippery. There was a snowstorm; the kind that encourages most people to stay in their homes, but that didn’t stop over 100 people from visiting U of T to talk about anything other than God.

The first gathering — service, meeting, it’s still not decided what to call it — of the Toronto chapter of the Oasis network was held in the Koffler House Multi-Faith Centre. The Oasis network, established in the US, provides a community similar to that of a church or a mosque for the non-religious, the secular, the skeptical, and the curious.

“Whether you are continuing within religion, or if you don’t identify with a religion, or if you don’t follow any religion or belief structure, it’s irrelevant. What we’re coming together to do is to focus on our core values and build our community,” explained Eve Casavant, one of the chapter’s organizers.

The core values Casavant references are authoritative: people are more important than beliefs; reality is known through reason; meaning comes from making a difference; human hands solve human problems; and people must be accepting to be accepted.

These values drew many to fill the Multi-Faith Centre, a room with wood-panelled walls and a ceiling that looks like marble. Minutes before the meeting, a bluegrass musician played his banjo, mothers helped young children into seats, and people pecked on an array of snacks at the back of the room. The audience demographic was skewed towards those white and older, but people of several races and ages were also in the crowd.

The banjo stopped playing, and the meeting began. A large projector displayed the Oasis logo.

Gretta Vosper is another organizer who helped bring Oasis to Toronto. The spectacled woman with short grey hair addressed the group; she explained why she was there, thanked the volunteers who made the event possible, and expressed the importance of the newfound community.

“People came from up to three hours away in one of the worst snowstorms of the year to come and talk about how isolated they felt, because whether they were members of a church, or they couldn’t find a church to go to, they were constantly outside the circle of belief. You are all outside that circle in one way or another,” said Vosper, who understands being outside of the circle very well.

An atheist church minister

Vosper is a minister at the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

Vosper became the subject of national headlines after she publicly identified herself as an atheist, despite her position with the Church. She does not believe in a literal interpretation of God.

“My beliefs were formed in the United Church. So, when I was in Sunday school, I was taught about a God that was really love,” explained Vosper. “It wasn’t a being that I needed to obey or that was watching me all the time. The God that I was taught about was about what we needed to live out in the world.”

These beliefs continued to manifest during her years at Queen’s Theological College. “We were invited to explore the Bible as it were written by humans, for humans, for very human reasons, to explore the variety of ways that people had struggled with the concept of God and articulated that,” she said. “And liberal theologians for decades and decades have been talking about God as a human concept or a construct of some kind of or another.”

Initially, Vosper called herself a ‘non-theist’ but took on the atheist label in 2013. At the time, she wanted to become more explicit about her beliefs and join in solidarity with persecuted atheists in other countries.

“We’re taught to speak about what we believe in in softer terms. In my first book, I refer to myself as a non-theist. In my second book, I realized that non-theist didn’t really cut it because some people called themselves non-theist even though they had a supernatural idea,” said Vosper.

“The short of it is, when authors started getting killed by machetes in Bangladesh because they were being called atheists, I had to take a look at my beliefs and said, ‘Well, my beliefs are consistent with atheistic beliefs, so in order to express solidarity, I’m gonna take that label,’” she said.

Vosper’s church, West Hill United Church in Scarborough, is also quite secular. She speaks every Sunday — a commitment that mostly prevents her from taking part in Oasis meetings — and calls her talks ‘perspectives’, rather than ‘sermons’.

“You don’t hear us read from the Bible very often,” said Vosper. “You don’t hear me talk about Jesus as a moral standard and you don’t hear the word God shared regularly, but we still talk about values, a commitment to live.”

It is unclear how many clergy within the United Church have similar views, but Vosper claims that such interpretations of God and the Bible are common.

“If you go into any United Church congregation and many other liberal denominations… in Canada, and you listened to a service, you would hear language that [refers] to a pre-Copernican order of the universe, with heaven and earth and hell,” she explained.

Vosper continued, “You would hear about the divine Son of God through whom we are saved. You would hear about a God who was a supernatural God, who listens to our prayers and acts on our behalf, but then if you sit down on Tuesday morning and had coffee with the person who led that service and asked them if they actually believed in all of those things, I think you would get a very, very different answer.”

Vosper’s position as minister despite her atheistic views, proved to be quite controversial in the United Church. A review committee within the Toronto Conference of the United Church recommended defrocking Vosper in a report released September 2016, stating, “In our opinion, she is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.”

The findings were subsequently presented to the sub-executive committee of the Toronto Conference, who asked the United Church’s general council to conduct a hearing about defrocking Vosper and placing her on the church’s Discontinued Service List. It is unclear when the general council will make its final decision.

Setting the stage for Oasis

Vosper’s involvement with Oasis began in 2015, at which point she was already looking into creating a community like West Hill in the downtown core.

“We have a lot of people who travel a lot of distance to come to West Hill, so in 2014, we wanted to start a community on the west side of the city and we did that. They meet monthly. In 2015, we wanted to start in the community in the core of the city, but we realized that we needed to have more than monthly gatherings,” Vosper explained.

Much like a church, Oasis meets on Sunday mornings, despite attempts from organizers to meet at a different time.

“The first time we started talking about when it would be, people said, ‘Anything but Sunday morning! I just want to sleep in and have my coffee.’” Vosper explained. “But as we started talking about time, it became apparent that if you want to have children involved, you can’t do anything in the evening. That took all the evenings out. The only mornings are Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings. Well, nobody wanted it to be Saturday morning. So, it ended up on Sunday morning.”

Vosper said that she was looking for an organizational model that wouldn’t focus on a single leader. Her search led her to Oasis, a pre-existing network of secular congregations located in several US cities.

Vosper expects religious discussions at Oasis to be “limited” and notes that it will not be an “atheist” community. “There may be groups that form that want to have conversations about religion,” she said. “There may be groups that form for people who have left a fundamentalist religion and they’re trying to recover from the realities of that.”

Raihan Abir, an atheist writer from Bangladesh, fits this description. Although he wore a smile for most of the day, he had many difficult stories to tell.

Abir came to Canada as an asylum seeker in 2015 and is now a permanent resident, living with his wife and daughter in Toronto. His journey to Canada was necessitated by his beliefs, which put his life at risk in Bangladesh. Atheist thinkers like Abir are common targets for violent religious extremists.

“Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, they established themselves in 2012 with the hope in mind that they would convert the whole Indian subcontinent including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, this whole region,” Abir explained. “To do that, Al Qaeda’s strategy is [that] they will attack people who are generally seen as a taboo, like, they will attack atheists, gays. They will attack any secular activist.”

Abir continued, “[Al-Qaeda’s] greatest enemy is the United States. It’s not right now, but when they started, their greatest enemy was the United States. So they think [of us] as Western agents who are polluting Islam. So they think of us as anti-Islamic spies from the West. And with that accusation, they killed us.”

Many of Abir’s friends and colleagues were killed by Al-Qaeda for blogging about atheism. Abir himself was attacked. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was largely indifferent to such attacks, criticizing atheists for writing “pornography.” The Islamic State (IS) would join Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh soon after.

“IS started their operation in 2014 in Bangladesh because they started out around that time in Syria as well,” said Abir. “And they also wanted to make the whole Indian subcontinent as an Islamic state. Same as Al Qaeda. And they have India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, that region, the whole region.”

The two groups share the same mission but employ different tactics.

“IS wasn’t actually making any list of atheist bloggers. They still hate us, but they’re kind of [an] authoritarian movement,” he continued. “On the other hand Al-Qaeda is a populist movement. So that’s the difference between them. So the government is  very hard on IS, but very soft on Al-Qaeda.”

Abir grew up in a Muslim family, but found other worldviews and perspectives online.

“When I first started blogging in 2007, in a post people were mocking Allah. And I thought ‘Whoa, you can mock Allah?’” Abir said. “So literally I thought that you can’t mock Allah before something bad will happen… So many religions had that capability of making people think this way. But when you just say, ‘Well, we didn’t come from Adam and Eve,’ many people say ‘Really?’… I try to do that, feeling that it’s my responsibility.”

Abir is a fan of ‘New Atheists’ like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, all of whom have gained massive followings for criticizing and advocating against religious ideas and supernatural beliefs.

On its online FAQ page, Oasis notes that it is not a place to “denigrate” religion. “I have an incredible amount of respect for many religious people,” said Vosper. “If someone is going to use their [religious] beliefs to get in the way of someone else’s human rights, then I’m going to get in the way of them, opposing them.”

In time, Oasis may provide a platform for Abir’s ideas to challenge Vosper’s and vice versa, but the first gathering had little to do with religion. Rick Miller, a playwright who resembles famous American preacher and televangelist Joel Osteen, delivered a talk called “The Architecture of Creativity.” He has taught a class at U of T based on this concept.

“If we can get our butts out of bed on a Sunday morning, it’s always valuable to see yourself amongst a community of people who don’t so much share similar beliefs but [are] at least on a journey of trying to expand and understand each other a little bit better and that’s what I feel here,” said Miller. “These are inquisitive people. They’re not just here accepting anything by rote.”