ISHASH member interview: Tina Block

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In the fifth installment in our series of interviews with ISHASH members, Elliot Hanowski interviews Professor Tina Block, who studies the history of unbelief in postwar Canada.

Can you tell us a bit about your academic background and your current position?

I completed my undergraduate degrees (in English and History) at the University of Calgary, and my graduate work (both my Masters and PhD) at the University of Victoria (working under the supervision of Dr. Lynne Marks). I graduated with my PhD in 2006, and was hired on at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, in 2007. I started at TRU in a limited-term position, and after a couple of years embarked on the tenure-track. I just recently received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor. I feel very fortunate to be part of the wonderful, collegial community of TRU.

What was the topic of your dissertation? What led you to choose it?

The topic of my dissertation was irreligion in the Pacific Northwest (British Columbia and Washington State) during the 1950s-1970s. The Pacific Northwest was, by all measures, the least religious region of North America during the postwar era. In my work I explore not only why this was so, but what being non-religious meant to the people who lived in the region. I became interested in the social history of religion as an undergraduate, when I took a course with Dr. David Marshall on religion in Canada. In my Master’s thesis I explored gender and church life in postwar Victoria, BC. It was my graduate supervisor, Dr. Lynne Marks, who turned me on to the question of Northwest secularity. Since completing my dissertation, I have turned it into a book – The Secular Northwest: Religion and Irreligion in Everyday Postwar Life – which is forthcoming from UBC Press in the spring of 2016.

How does your forthcoming book fit into the existing historiography? Is there an existing historiography?

 My work fits within the rich and growing literature on the social history of religion in Canada and beyond. While scholars have done much to reveal popular and lived experiences of religion, we still have much to learn about what it meant to be non-religious in varied contexts and at the level of everyday life. My research is inspired, in part, by the work of British historians such as Callum Brown who have used oral history to explore the experience of those who rejected, avoided, and/or lived without religion.

In your dissertation you drew on Robert Orsi’s ideas about “lived religion.” How did you find the approach worked with when discussing irreligion?

 I found Orsi’s ideas on lived religion useful for thinking about the complicated ways that people not only engaged with, but disengaged from, religion in particular times and places. I was also drawn to his emphasis on practice – on what people do with religion rather than on formal doctrines or denominations. The concept of lived religion is fluid, flexible, and allows for analysis of not only religious but irreligious practice.

Could you explain briefly what being non-religious meant to the Canadians you’ve studied?

 Some of the people I interviewed very actively rejected religion (organized or otherwise), whereas others viewed religion with indifference and disinterest. Despite different ways of ‘being non-religious,’ most of the people with whom I spoke saw the freedom to be religiously uninvolved as a positive, valued aspect of the Pacific Northwest lifestyle. For them, ‘being non-religious’ was described not as an absence or gap but rather as something linked to their own, and to the region’s, perceived qualities of tolerance, independence, and broad-mindedness.

Your former supervisor Lynne Marks has studied the roots of secularity in the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century. What do you think has made this region less religious than the rest of North America, from the perspective of your work on the postwar period?

 This is a good question, and one without a straightforward answer. Lynne Marks suggests that, in some ways, the region was “born secular.” In my work, I contend that the Northwest was (and is) relatively secular, in part, because it has been imagined that way. Over time, secularity has come to be entwined with the regional identity of the Northwest, and taken for granted as part of the region’s quintessential lifestyle. Northwest secularity is grounded in history and has been reproduced and sustained over time in a range of material and discursive ways.  For various reasons, then, the possibilities for being non-religious have been wider in this region than elsewhere.

I understand your current research project also involves irreligion in postwar Canada. Could you tell us about it?

 In my previous work I focused on the intersections between irreligion and regional identity, and examined how religious non-involvement, in particular, was part of Northwest culture. My newer project looks more explicitly at unbelief and atheism in the broader Canadian context. I am currently conducting oral interviews with people across Canada who considered themselves non-believers, or lost their religious belief, in the postwar era. I’m interested in learning about the lives of non-believers, the place of atheism/unbelief in Canadian culture, and the nature, meaning, and trajectory of secularization in the postwar world.

You’ve also written a fascinating article on Marian Noel Sherman, a Canadian missionary who became a secular humanist activist in the 1940s and ’50s, and who faced a lot of opposition to her efforts. Could you speak to the changing social and cultural context that Canadian unbelievers encountered from the 1940s through the 1970s?

Sherman first turned to atheism in 1946, and was an atheist/humanist activist (in Victoria, B.C.) up until her death in 1975. She was vocal about her atheism/humanism in the local and national media, and received letters from people across the country – many of whom were themselves unbelievers. Such letters suggest that atheists/unbelievers continued to feel silenced through this period. Many letter-writers indicated that they felt compelled to keep quiet about their unbelief for fear of offending family members, friends, and employers. At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that the cultural pressure to believe – or at least to remain silent about one’s unbelief – lessened over this time period. Sherman encountered less social approbation in the 1970s than she had in the late 1940s, and was, over time, able to disseminate her views more widely. During this era, organized secular humanism grew, institutional Christianity came under increasing attack, and unbelief became (somewhat) more common and acceptable.

Now that you’re moving from focusing on the Pacific Northwest to looking at unbelief across Canada, have you noticed any major regional differences in the postwar era?

I’m just moving beyond the BC/Pacific Northwest-based research, so I can’t say anything with great confidence yet. Figures from the Census of Canada certainly point to wide regional variations, at least in the numbers of people claiming to have “no religion.” In the postwar era, levels of “no religion” were highest in British Columbia and lowest in the Atlantic region. I’m eager to explore (through oral interviews etc.) how or whether place mattered to the lived experience of unbelief in various regions across Canada.

Thanks very much for these insights! I look forward to reading your new book and to learning more from your current research as it progresses.

If you have any further questions, you can contact Dr. Block at tblock[at]tru.ca.

 

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