Tag Archives: Lloyd Robertson

The Compatibility of Humanism and Indigeneity

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think HumanistHeritageCanada.ca readers may enjoy. The following article was located on In-Sight Publishing. Dr. Robertson and the publishers have kindly provided permission to re-publish here.

Featured sections of the text are selections of our own.

National Indigenous Peoples Day is June 21 in Canada.

Is Humanism Compatible with Indigeneity?

By : Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson

In this essay I argue that humanism is perfectly compatible with aboriginality; however, its compatibility with “indigeneity” will depend on the meaning assigned to the word. Connotative meaning not only impacts on the immediate message, it can influence the trajectory of thought, making definition necessary at the beginning of meaningful discourse. The term, “humanism,” involves the belief that science, reason and compassion can lead to material and spiritual progress. As defined by the late Carl Sagan (1996) the word “spiritual” exists within the realm of science conveying our ability to “grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life” that includes a “sense of elation and humility combined” (p. 29).

This humanist belief system flows from the Enlightenment that began in 17th Century Europe. In The Evolved Self  (Robertson, 2020), I suggest this Enlightenment honoured the individualism that was already inherent in having a self that was capable of taking oneself as an object in remembered past events and imagined future ones. I argued that this skill had been in existence for at least 3 millennia and that organized religions evolved to put constraints or limitations on the self in the interest of preserving collectivist societies. The question posited in the title to this article then becomes, Is the humanist rejection of supernatural explanations in favour of scientific and rational understandings compatible with cultures aboriginal or indigenous to the Americas?”

The connotative power of words was impressed on me in 1982 when I chaired a committee reporting to the Regina Public School Board on the education provided aboriginal students. Naming our committee proved to be more controversial than our examination of text books or teacher training. The descendants of those who signed treaties with the Canadian government insisted the word “Indian” be in our name arguing, “It was Indians who signed the treaties, and we should honour to treaties and be known as Indians.” Emphasizing our commonality, the Metis, who were recognized as an aboriginal people in Canada’s constitution that year, argued that the more inclusive word “native” should be used. This resulted in the somewhat confusing name: “The Indian and Native Committee on Education for the Regina Public School Board.”

The term “aboriginal,” means “original inhabitants” and its use is controversial when used to describe descendants of multiple migrations. For example, are the descendants of the Clovis peoples who settled most of the American supercontinent more aboriginal than the Dene who appeared around 15,000 years later? Can we call the Inuit, whose ancestry can be traced to the Siberian Birnirk people and who replaced the now extinct Paleo-Eskimo people in the Arctic about 1,000 years ago aboriginal while denying the term to the Norse who were simultaneously migrating from the other direction (Raff et al., 2015; Raghavan et al., 2014)?  In accordance with modern usage, this essay refers to all peoples who inhabited the Americas before the 16th Century European migration by the adjective “aboriginal” or by the proper nouns Amerindian, Inuit and Metis.

Those who originally peopled the Americas were explorers and adventurers. They established empires in Central and South America, but in North America sovereign clan based bands of 100 to 1000 people were the norm. They were not particularly adept conservationists and during their watch woolly mammoths, giant mastodons, ground sloths, glyptodonts, bear-sized beavers, saber-toothed tigers, American lions, cheetahs, camels, and horses all went extinct (Shermer, 2004). Like humans everywhere else on the planet, Amerindians and later the Inuit and Metis made war. War was the cause of death of 30 to 35 percent of the aboriginal populations in northern British Columba from 1,500 BCE to 500 CE (Shermer, 2004). While women and children were often taken as captives following war, there is documentation of entire populations being murdered (Denig, 1856/1961; Widdowson & Howard, 2008).

Humanists often trace religious precepts to notions of supernatural agency developed by pre-historic hunters and gatherers. Equating the animism practiced by aboriginal peoples with the religious dogmatism that served to constrain science is an over-reach. Animism, of course, flowed from our evolved ability to attribute motives to others. In filling a very human need to answer the question “why” the agency we attribute to other humans was often attributed to lakes, mountains, weather systems and other species by Neolithic peoples. It would be logically consistent to assert that these animate forces would have wants and needs that could be appeased by human intervention. “If everyone “knows” that a person needs to make a sacrifice to the sentient spirit of a lake to ensure a safe journey across, then one makes the sacrifice” (Robertson, 2014, p. 31).   Such beliefs are not religiously held if held tentatively subject to new evidence.  In this example, such new evidence could be provided by the repeated successful crossings of people who did not make the prescribed sacrifice. Traditional aboriginal beliefs were more pragmatic than religious.

While I was on the staff of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College during the 1980s,  a Dakota Sioux elder used to say “Dem Crees, we taught them everything they know.” Historically, he had a point. During the 18th century the Cree, armed with Hudson Bay rifles, drove the Sioux out of the northern Great Plains; but they adopted many of the cultural practices of the Sioux such as powwows, sun dances, horse dances and the heyoka.  They did not convert to the religion of the Sioux in a religious sense, but they chose practices that had worked for the peoples already present. George Catlin, a U.S. American artist who married a Plains Cree woman at the beginning of the 18th century and joined her band described these pragmatists as a nation of atheists. Edwin Denig, who married an Assiniboine woman at the beginning of the 19th century and joined her band was surprised that they had no belief in a creator god and that they asserted that life began when the sun’s rays impregnated the ground (Denig, 1856/1961). This understanding can be used to teach the theory of evolution since life began in earth’s primordial shallow seas warmed by the sun’s rays and continues to be plant based to this day. So where did the idea begin that there is a Creator-god to whom we could pray?

There are creators in some aboriginal mythologies. Saulteaux elders have shared that while their Anishinaabe tradition included a great spirit that spirit was not a creator. Creation of plants and animals was left to four lesser spirits who acted in the spirit of the great one, and they suggested it would be disrespectful to pray to the Great Spirit. In 1871 Wanapum tribal leader and shaman, Smohalla, declared:

It is good for man and woman to be together on the earth…. We do not know how the earth was made, nor do we say who made it.  The earth was peopled and their hearts are good, and my mind is that it is as it ought to be.  The world was peopled by whites and Indians and they should all grow as one flesh. (Bell, 2011)

Smohalla’s words suggest humility and mental flexibility – necessary qualities for the development of knowledge. I have suggested that the traditional stone medicine wheels that dot the Great Plains demonstrate a similar flexibility (Robertson, 2021). The circle can be taken to represent holism but the contents vary. Few of the estimated 343 wheels were divided into four. One in southern Alberta has 26 spokes. Many have no spokes at all with some featuring parallel lines and others featuring petro forms both inside and outside the circle. The number of variations suggests flexibility in thought and representation. Such flexibility allows for new evidence based approaches to life’s challenges. Medicine wheels can be constructed to represent the intersection of two or more variables. They can also be used to illustrate a variety of concepts not necessarily based on the number four which in itself has no magical power.

Secular humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, with an emphasis on critical thinking and evidence. It is relevant to aboriginal peoples in several ways: 1) A humanist perspective emphasizes individual agency leading to people taking control of their own lives, communities, and cultural heritage; 2) Humanism values diversity and respect for different cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles; and 3) Evidence-based decision-making as embraced by humanism can be seen as important for aboriginal communities in making decisions about their future and addressing social, economic, and environmental challenges. Respect for all cultures involves accepting that people can benefit from the knowledge science and reason creates, and they can enrich their cultures accordingly. While it would be tempting to declare, “Yes, humanism and aboriginality are compatible with each other,” such a position ignores a significant challenge mounted by people who call this approach “assimilation.”

During the first decade of this century I presented at six annual conferences of the Native Mental Health Association of Canada on such topics as the use of prior learning and assessment in building the aboriginal self, the self in family and community, residential school syndrome, attention deficit disorder, youth suicide, and building community. Other presenters focused on “The Medicine Wheel” which they assumed was a circle with four basic quadrants: mental, emotional, spiritual and physical. These presenters often attacked the “Bering Strait Theory” that holds that humans, perhaps as early as 20,000 years ago migrated to the Americas from Asia. As with Christian literalists who attack the theory of evolution, these presenters defined the word “theory” to be a guess. They declared that there is a thing called “western science” that holds the individual to be completely separate from the object of investigation; and they asserted that these “scientists” believe they are infallible, exact and accurate, unbiased, objective and impartial. Humanists will recognize the strawman created here as the actual opposite of science which holds that human beings are subjective and we need to find means to reduce our subjectivity to advance knowledge.

At mid-decade, Bill Mussel, president of the Native Mental Health Association of Canada, began talking circle discussions with presenters and members of the association as to whether the preferred term to be used with Amerindian, Inuit and Metis peoples should be “aboriginal” or “indigenous.”  Mussel said he liked both terms but preferred “indigenous” because it implies a people who are rooted in the land. From the Latin indigena, the word refers to a plant or animal that lives, grows, originates or is naturally occurring to a particular area. Those who asserted that there is such a thing as “western science” contrasted it with “indigenous knowledge” which was rooted in North America. The implications of this particular word usage were demonstrated at an Ontario university while these discussions were being held.

In 2005 philosopher Chris DiCarlo suggested to a graduate class at Wilfrid Laurier University that given our common human origins in East Africa any racist philosophy is untenable. When a student complained that DiCarlo was being “insensitive” to the aboriginal teaching that a creator placed aboriginal people to the American continents, he suggested a class debate on the subject. The debate did not happen and he was made to appear before a disciplinary committee for being disrespectful of  this “indigenous knowledge” (DiCarlo, 2005; Kaill, 2005). His teaching contract was not renewed.  Conversely, many aboriginal elders end their prayers with the phrase “All my relations.” This phrase denotes the unity of all living things and can be taken to support the theory of evolution and the united ancestry of the human race.

In discussing the DiCarlo example, Cree/Metis elder and historian, Keith Goulet, said there is a spectrum of views associated with aboriginal or indigenous spirituality similar to the spectrum that exists within the sects of Christianity. I have previously referred to the more “fundamentalist” indigenous spirituality on this spectrum as Native Spirituality (Robertson, 2014) in describing how it was used to discipline an elder support worker in a northern Cree community.

While the Plains Cree of the 19th Century adopted many of the practices of Siouxian culture, the Cree who remained in the boreal forest did not. In the 1990s I assisted one such community battling the problem of youth suicide (Robertson, 2015). With the assistance of community elders, we were successful. This community had voluntarily become Anglican in the mid-19th Century, and the elders identified as Anglican. For the band’s health department, located some 80 kilometers away, this was “problematic.” The department conducted workshops and sponsored cultural gatherings promoting “Native Spirituality,” but the elders appeared unmoved. They recognized that historically their people had not always been Christian, but they said many of the practices promoted by the “traditionalists,” including powwows and sun dances, had never been part of the Woodland Cree culture, and the efforts to convert them to this new Native Spirituality were felt to be oppressive. The local elder support worker was threatened with disciplinary action for failing to promote Native Spirituality with sufficient vigor, and this led to legal action.

The band health staff did not view their efforts to be one of oppression but one of healing.

Brave Heart (2003), a Lakota Sioux, popularized the notion that all Amerindian peoples suffer from historic trauma irrespective of their actual history. This trauma is “awakened” using audiovisual materials and role play, so that a “cathartic working-through necessary for healing” (p. 11) can commence using prayer, smudging, pipe ceremonies, sweat lodge ceremonies and medicine wheel teachings.  One participant in a workshop on Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition that was sponsored by the local community college did not perceive this approach as healing stating:

Our provincial Department of Higher Education and Manpower has no more business teaching Native Spirituality—with the intent of conversion—than it has teaching Tibetan Buddhism…. Imagine what towering indignation would have been engendered had (the PLAR instructor) been a Catholic and she had asked us to burn incense, to partake in Holy Sacraments, to confess our sins, and tied problem-solving to the four points of the Cross. (Robertson, 2011, pp. 99-100)

In the mind of this participant smudging, the burning of sweet grass often used in a cleansing ceremony, was like the burning of incense in the Catholic tradition. The pipe ceremony was thought of as like holy sacraments. The presumption that all participants suffer from trauma from which they need to publicly confess was felt to be like the concept of original sin. The use of the four part reified medicine wheel seemed to have a similar function to the Catholic cross. The parallels between Christianity and Native Spirituality are not accidental.

Earlier in this article I quoted Smohalla as saying in 1871 that he did not know who created Earth, but that it was good that all races work together. By 1875 he was a changed prophet. He had climbed a mountain in what is now Washington State and received a new vision that led him to predict a day of redemption when people of European descent would be removed from the American continents leaving indigenous people to resume their pre-ordained way of life. At that time the spirits of the deceased who were true to their aboriginal ways would return to their bodies in a great resurrection. Smohalla, who was the first recorded aboriginal leader to use the concept of Mother Earth (Gill, 1991), told his followers to not farm as that was like taking a knife to her bosom. They were also to not participate in mining as that was chipping away at her bones. He was not the first aboriginal prophet to preach a messianic religion.

Wovoka, became a 19th century Paiute shaman after being adopted and raised by Christian missionaries. He taught that by living piously and by performing a type of round dance called “the ghost dance” the Europeans would disappear from the Americas, the buffalo would return, and the way of life of people aboriginal to North America would be restored. Wovoka performed levitation and bullet stopping tricks to convince onlookers of the power of his magic. As the new religion spread northward his Lakota Sioux disciples came to believe the ghost shirts worn by dancers would stop the bullets of the white men (Robertson, 2014). The dream of Smohalla and Wovoka to rid North America of Europeans did not materialize, but many of the teachings were codified and exported to other aboriginal peoples where they continued to evolve protected by a smoldering sense of entitlement.

The modern medicine wheel, often known as “The Medicine Wheel,” is divided into quadrants representing physical, emotional, mental and spiritual selves. The four quadrants  are said to be symbolically representative of the “four” races of the earth: red and yellow; black and white, but many readers will recognize that the order and colours of these so-called races come from a Christian children’s song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” It is said that this medicine wheel divides the stages of life into four: childhood, adolescence, adult and old age; but adolescence was unknown to Neolithic societies having been invented by European civilization with the advent of the industrial revolution.   This medicine wheel is said to count the four seasons failing to note that the Woodland Cree had six.  Widdowson and Howard (2013) questioned whether the concept itself could be used to advance critical thinking, the dissemination of abstract ideas, or the organization of complex information into constituent parts:

While it appears that the Medicine Wheel . . . offers a more systematic pedagogical technique (as compared to concrete conceptualizations in hunter-gatherer societies), this turns out to be a mirage. The “constituent parts” that emerge from the “breaking down of complex situations” are arbitrarily constructed, the only basis for which is a spiritual belief about the significance of the number four. (p. 294)

The Medicine Wheel critiqued by Widdowson and Howard had non-aboriginal origins. The word “mental” has no direct translation in any Algonquian language native to Canada. For example, the Cree word/phrase Kiskwew (literally, “s/he is crazy”) is used to represent the term in northern Saskatchewan to the angst of practicing mental health workers. It can be inferred that whoever first added the word mental to the Medicine Wheel was thinking in a European language, and we need to consider the possibility that it was influenced by the New Age Movement that in the mid-20th century embraced and promoted a Native Spirituality with non-aboriginal pipe carriers. While Native Spirituality is situated on the spectrum of aboriginal spiritualities referenced by Elder Goulet, more traditional spiritualities described here were local to the band, tribe or nation. In contrast, Native Spirituality can be considered to be linked to pan-Indianism where indigineity is viewed to be universal.

My daughter and I attended a powwow on the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal in 2002, and we recognized all but one of the drum songs and dances as being from the northern plains. We attended a family reunion on the Ashcroft reserve in western British Columbia. The drum songs at the honor feast were again plains culture except for one traditional hand drum number. The export of plains culture goes beyond songs and dances. In his study of two bands in Nova Scotia, Poliandri (2011) noted that what is understood as Mi’kmaq spirituality as practiced by traditionalists often involves the beliefs and ceremonies of the Sioux and Blackfoot. While the older spiritualities may be practiced in local communities, the pan-Indian Native Spirituality is recognized by universities and the general public. I have often had students tell me they learned to be aboriginal by attending university. I want to tell them that it is likely their home communities never had aspects of culture taught at university, and in any case their traditional beliefs and practices were not held religiously, that is for all time and place.

At the beginning of the millennium Steven Pinker (2003) noted that a proto-religious movement had coalesced around three myths: the blank slate, the ghost in the machine, and the noble savage. The blank slate is the notion that we are created by culture and thus are infinitely malleable dependent on cultural change with a particular emphasis on how words are used. The ghost in the machine myth supposes some essence prior to birth that, for example, might determine that doctors made a mistake in naming an infant with a penis a boy.  The noble savage myth supposes that pre-colonization civilizations and indigenous knowledge were inherently superior but that this “better world” was destroyed during the process of colonization. Humanists will recognize the parallels with fundamentalist Christianity in 1) being “born again” as a new person, 2) having an essence or soul that defines a true self, and 3) needing salvation from original sin. This new religious movement that includes but transcends Native Spirituality is, as yet, without an official name but is often referred to as “Wokism.”

In 1493 a Papal Bull proclaimed that America was unoccupied and that any aboriginal people found had no right of ownership and could be taken as slaves. Although this original “Doctrine of Discovery” was, in effect, modified by subsequent Papal Bulls, humanism was founded on the idea that no religious order should be able to make such pronouncements and that humans are self-determined knowledge producers in their own right. This is compatible with the traditional aboriginal stance of being humble in one’s beliefs that are dependent on evidence and context. While humanism is compatible with more traditional aboriginalities, it would find those who proclaim superior moral authority based on authority “rooted” in the land to be “problematic.”

In summation, the Enlightenment is a technology that allows for knowledge creation and should thus be available to all cultures ensuring their progressive advancement by the people who constitute those cultures. Humanism is an ethical and moral stance that grew out of the European Enlightenment that recognizes the worth and value of all people. Traditional aboriginal cultures practiced animism, and while supernatural beliefs are incompatible with humanism such beliefs were not traditionally religiously held thus allowing for an indigenization of the tools of the Enlightenment. A new religious movement is evolving that romanticizes a fundamentalistic form of indigeniety, and this has the effect of keeping the tools of the Enlightenment from peoples aboriginal to the Americas.

Acknowledgement: The author conveys his thanks to Francis Widdowson who critiqued an earlier draft of the is article and to Keith Goulet who contributed his knowledge through a series of two interviews.


Bell, D. D. (2011). The bottomless pit becomes the arch-nemisis Ridged Valley Reflectionshttp://justbetweentheridges.wordpress.com/2011/08/

Brave Heart, M. Y. (2003). The historical trauma response among natives and its relationship with substance abuse: A Lakota illustration. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 35(1), 7-13.

Denig, E. T. (1856/1961). Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri. University of Oklahoma Press. (Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri)

DiCarlo, C. (2005, June 25). The importance of being ignorant: Critical thinking and the relations of natural systems Humanism Now Conference, Ottawa, ON.

Gill, S. D. (1991). Mother Earth: An American story. University of Chicago Press.

Kaill, D. (2005). We are all African. Humanist Perspectives154, 5-7.

Pinker, S. (2003). A biological understanding of human nature. In J. Brockman (Ed.), The new humanists: Science at the edge (pp. 33-51). Barnes & Noble.

Poliandri, S. (2011). First Nations Identity and Reserve Live: the Mi’kmaq of Novia Scotia. University of Nebraska Press.

Raff, J. A., Rzhetskaya, M., Tackney, J., & Hayes, M. G. (2015). Mitochondrial diversity of I ñupiat people from the A laskan N orth S lope provides evidence for the origins of the Paleo‐and Neo‐E skimo peoples. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 157(4), 603-614.

Raghavan, M., DeGiorgio, M., Albrechtsen, A., Moltke, I., Skoglund, P., Korneliussen, T. S., Grønnow, B., Appelt, M., Gulløv, H. C., & Friesen, T. M. (2014). The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic. Science, 345(6200), 1255832.

Robertson, L. H. (2011). An application of PLAR to the development of the aboriginal self: One college’s experience. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(1), 96-108.

Robertson, L. H. (2014). Native Spirituality: The making of a new religion. Humanist Perspectives47(1)(1), 16-23.

Robertson, L. H. (2015). The trauma of colonization: A psycho-historical analysis of one aboriginal community in the North American “North-West” Interamerican Journal of Psychology, 49(3), 317-332.

Robertson, L. H. (2020). The Evolved Self: Mapping an understanding of who we are. University of Ottawa Press.

Robertson, L. H. (2021). The Medicine Wheel Revisited: Reflections on Indigenization in Counseling and Education. SAGE Open, 11(2), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1177/21582440211015202

Sagan, C. (1996). Demon haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. Ballantine Books.

Shermer, M. (2004). The science of good and evil: Why people cheat, gossip, care, share, and follow the golden rule. Henry Holt and Company.

Widdowson, F., & Howard, A. (2008). Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The deception behind indigenous cultural preservation. MiGill-Queen’s University Press.


American Medical Association (AMA 11th Edition): Robertson L. Is Humanism Compatible with Indigeneity?. April 2023; 11(2). http://www.in-sightpublishing.com/illusion-inequalities

American Psychological Association (APA 7th Edition): Robertson, L. (2023, April 8). Is Humanism Compatible with Indigeneity?. In-Sight Publishing. 11(2). http://www.in-sightpublishing.com/illusion-inequalities.

Brazilian National Standards (ABNT): ROBERTSON, L. Is Humanism Compatible with Indigeneity?. In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, Fort Langley, v. 11, n. 2, 2023.

Chicago/Turabian, Author-Date (17th Edition): Robertson, Lloyd. 2023. “Is Humanism Compatible with Indigeneity?.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal 11, no. 2 (Spring). http://www.in-sightpublishing.com/illusion-inequalities.

Chicago/Turabian, Notes & Bibliography (17th Edition): Robertson, L Is Humanism Compatible with Indigeneity?.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal 11, no. 2 (April 2023). http://www.in-sightpublishing.com/illusion-inequalities.

Harvard: Robertson, L. (2023) ‘Is Humanism Compatible with Indigeneity?In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, 11(1). <http://www.in-sightpublishing.com/illusion-inequalities>.

Harvard (Australian): Robertson, L 2023, ‘Is Humanism Compatible with Indigeneity?In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 11, no. 2, <http://www.in-sightpublishing.com/illusion-inequalities>.

Modern Language Association (MLA, 9th Edition): Robertson, Lloyd. “Is Humanism Compatible with Indigeneity?.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vo.11, no. 2, 2023, http://www.in-sightpublishing.com/illusion-inequalities.

Vancouver/ICMJE: Lloyd R. Is Humanism Compatible with Indigeneity? [Internet]. 2023 Apr; 11(2). Available from: http://www.in-sightpublishing.com/illusion-inequalities


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Citations, References And Other Reading

  1. Featured Photo Courtesy of : https://destinationindigenous.ca/blog/guide-indigenous-tourism-canada/
  2. https://in-sightpublishing.com/2023/04/08/humanism-indigeneity/
  3. https://www.hawkeyeassociates.ca/

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Requiem for a Discussion Page

As a follow-on to his popular article “Is Wokism a Mind Virus?” article, Dr. Robertson has agreed to share his experience as a moderator of a popular humanist-themed social media discussion page.

By Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson

In the early 1990s the Humanist Association of Canada (HAC) created an on-line open discussion forum for people who believed in the free and open exchange of ideas and were committed to respecting the dignity of each individual. This forum moved to Facebook shortly after 2005, and the discussion group’s membership grew to more than 1,500. Then, in 2015 a re-branded Humanist Canada unveiled its new professionally designed Facebook page. Only board members could initiate posts on this new platform (although this right was eventually taken away from them as well). The old HAC listserve was allowed to continue. Although it was basically self-monitoring, board secretary Michel Virard was named administrator and I was named as one of three moderators. This article is about how this discussion group came to be viewed “problematic,” and was terminated.

Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson

The major part of my time as a volunteer Humanist Canada board member at the time was to research the need for ceremony in the lives of humanists (Robertson, 2017b). As a consequence, I was invited to participate in a HAC thread initiated by the Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba on the need for humanist ceremonies. As expected, the discussion was cordial, informative and productive. I returned to the discussion group site in 2019, but this time the language was anything but cordial. Some members were calling on the moderators to ban others they called “racists,” “alt-right,”  “white supremacists,” and “anti-humanists.” I read the offending posts. No one had advocated racism, white supremacy or even conservative politics. Earlier, white academic activists who used such language to support what some called “cancel culture” had appropriated the term “woke” from black culture to imply those that did not share their views were “not awake.” I told these Woke to keep the discussion civil. A couple of weeks later I found the former victims giving as good as they got, so I admonished them all. Over time non-Woke stopped participating. With no debate, the only new threads on the old site were pleas for donations from a humanist school in Uganda that was, at the time, partially funded through Humanist Canada. To stimulate discussion, I posted an article by a police officer (Wilson, 2020) arguing against the then current campaign to defund the police. I invited comments, but as a moderator offered no opinion. One commentator stated that articles published in Quillette Magazine should not appear in a humanist forum. I set up a separate thread to discuss whether we should censor articles based on their magazine of origin.  

Image Courtesy of vectorstock.com

Several articles from Quillette were posted but none promoted an ideology of racism, sexism or hate, and I refused to impugn motives based on some subjectively held notion of “dog-whistling.” One participant repeatedly expressed insult over my refusal to share my own views on the RCMP officer’s article. I agreed to do so, but under my own name outside of the moderator role. The resultant exchange was reasoned and civil.

Steven Pinker

Two posts in a different discussion thread implied, without evidence, that humanist Steven Pinker was associated with pedophilia. I viewed this as promoting hatred against an individual, and in the role of moderator, I deleted the posts. During the subsequent discussion, I informed one of the posters that he could appeal my decision to the site administrator, but he replied that he would approach “Martin,” the Humanist Canada president, instead.

During the ensuing months the HAC site generated more comments than the official Humanist Canada page despite having one third the members, and discussions were mostly civil. Then, in early August 2020, another moderator who had only recently become involved, cancelled a participant’s right to post under circumstances I challenged. The moderator explained:

The reason I blocked Ullrich Fischer form (sic) the HAC site had nothing to do with the nature of the content he was posting, but for targeting another member for harassment by systematically going through her previous comments on previous posts and replying to each one. (Sassan Sanei, e-mail, Aug. 6/20)

Ullrich had posted “five or six” replies to separate posts mostly responding to comments the other member had posted to him. For example, she had advised “Please don’t post alt-right material to a Humanist Group” to which he had responded, “Please don’t define as alt-right everything which disagrees with you about anything.” I restored Ullrich’s privileges because due process had not been followed. I explained that we could create a rule limiting the number of posts a member could make, but in fairness we would need to communicate such a rule to everyone in advance, and no one should be cancelled after a first offense. I also pointed out that the alleged “victim” here had called yet another member a “terrible human being” and had sent that member a private message calling her a “condescending bitch,” so if anyone should be cancelled it should be this alleged victim. Sassan then apologized to Ullrich admitting:

It was wrong of me to do that without informing you why the action was taken, giving you an opportunity to respond, or discussing it with other moderators. I’m sorry, and I promise you it will not happen again.

Sassan took exception to my use of the term “Woke.” While the term had been appropriated from U.S. black culture, he explained the word was now used as a slur directed against the appropriators. I agreed to use an alternate term “Identitarian Left” instead.

In early September I deleted four posts that consisted of name calling, swearing or belittling of people. In keeping with our protocol, I notified the other moderators. Sassan re-instated two of the posts explaining in an email, “The idea of a safe space does not extend to non-victimized or non-marginalized persons.” One member whose post remained deleted after calling another “a racist piece of shit,” declared that I, the moderator, favoured “raping and torturing children.” When asked for evidence, he posted that I had deleted the incriminating posts.

Brand Management: Entity over Ideology? (Image Courtesy Marketplace Valet)

At a meeting that included the Humanist Canada president, Sassan and me, it was decided to remove all reference to Humanist Canada in the old discussion group as the discussions were “hurting our brand.” I thought it odd that the site administrator had not been invited to this meeting. Nonetheless, the Identitarian Left still insisted that anything stated on the site represented Humanist Canada policy. In keeping with the discussion at our meeting, I posted:

This is not the official webpage of Humanist Canada and the opinions expressed here do not conform to any official statement or position. This is an open discussion group for humanists with a wide variety of opinions and perspectives. We ask that participants to this forum talk to each other respectfully.

One poster became so offended by this statement that he called on the president, Martin Frith, “to do something with me.” In the meantime, Sassan suspended comments on a thread in support of ex-Muslims who had become humanists, and he suspended the person who started the thread for the next 30 days with the ominous warning “if another admin approves (his posts) I will remove them.” As it had become apparent that the two moderators were following different rules, I decided to bring it to the Humanist Canada board for resolution. I proposed that Sassan and I each resign to be replaced by a former Humanist Canada treasurer who could be seen as a neutral moderator using the following rules:

  1. No racist, sexist or hate speech permitted;
  2. Bullying including name-calling is not permitted;
  3. Posts that contain racist, sexist or hate speech or otherwise exhibit bullying will be removed;
  4. Participants who have posts removed will be advised of the reason for the removal;
  5. Persistent abuse of the rules will result in an individual losing their posting privileges.

Sassan’s response at the board meeting was to demand an apology from me for using the term “Identitarian Leftist!” The board decided to refer the matter to its social media committee. I reverted to using the term “Woke.

Four new discussion group members identified as transgender. When Sassan posted a “trans rights are human rights” banner in the forum, one trans person accused him of appropriating trans issues to advance his organization. He replied that his post was necessary because many humanists had been posting “transphobic” and “hateful” statements. I had not seen any such statements, and I asked Sassan to produce them. He said he had deleted them, but as moderator, I had access to all deletions, and found none. Sassan subsequently deleted as “transphobic hate speech” an article written by a transwoman, that was critical of J.K. Rowling. I did not consider her call for dialogue to be hate speech, so I reposted it under my name. The initial discussion on this article was civil, but it was interrupted by an individual who called me a transphobe and a bigot without any arguments supporting those assertions. Ze also contacted me on my private messenger service with threats to have me removed as moderator. Ze subsequently posted, on the personal Facebook of another member, “You are completely uneducated. Ignorant. Privileged and bigoted.” As this individual had six similar posts removed earlier, I cancelled the member’s posting privileges. Sassan reinstated the person without contacting me. I cancelled the person again. I then discovered I was cancelled as moderator. I appealed to the site administrator but he had been cancelled too! The president suggested we sort this problem out at the social committee meeting he would schedule.

The dam burst. Transactivists and their allies attacked non-Woke with the same derision that had prompted me to become an active moderator the year earlier. Three participants defended me saying that they had searched my postings and did not find any posted by me that were anti-trans. Woke replied that I had removed the offending posts. One of the Woke organized a letter writing campaign. Sassan defended this behaviour stating, “The member(s) in question was (were) not harassing anybody. They were standing up and speaking out against the endless stream of hateful, transphobic commentary and bullying that has dominated the group in recent weeks.No examples of such hateful, transphobic or bullying comments were given.

 The HAC discussion group was shut down with the rationale that social media necessarily degenerates into such divisive name calling. I believed this was likely true at the time, but the New Enlightenment Project (NEP) established its own Facebook discussion forum in 2021, and it has proven to be a safe place in which humanists can have respectful, informative and civil conversations about controversial topics.

Sassan had not been authorized to terminate a moderator or the discussion group administrator. President Frith was determined to ensure that this matter would not be discussed by the Humanist Canada board, and he invited me to attend a “discussion group post-mortem.” After waiting for Martin who failed to attend, Sassan apologized for his actions to the cancelled administrator and myself. I thought he should apologize to the board because he had broken a board protocol, but the former administrator suggested that we should move on to educate humanists about the threat of Wokism.

This was my first direct experience observing Wokism in action. The Woke accused those who disagreed with them of being anti-humanist. People who said Canada’s first prime minister should not be blamed for things that happened well after his death were accused of favoring the torturing and raping of children. Feminists who want to ensure biological females have safe spaces were accused of wanting to deny transsexuals right to exist. Those who defended their positions were accused of harassment or bullying. There were thus two types of humanists represented: the Woke who viewed freedom of speech, science, logic and reason as “white, male ways of knowing” in opposition to their “anti-racist” narratives; and, those grounded in the Enlightenment view that we can learn about objective reality through careful observation, science, reason and logic. To these Enlightenment humanists, freedom of speech acts as an antidote to dogma and is a means of checking our own subjectively held biases. Those who coined the term “The Enlightenment” implied that those who disagreed with their approach were unenlightened, but in my book,  The Evolved Self  (Robertson, 2020), I argue that these values flow from the individualism inherent in having a self, and that this self is both cross-cultural and ancient. The Enlightenment was not about educating unenlightened people so much as removing cultural constraints on the powers of mind. From this lens, Wokism is a reactionary movement seeking to re-impose such constraints.

I came to the conclusion that Wokism is not a coherent ideology but amalgam of partially assimilated and conflicting belief systems (Robertson, 2021). It replaces the economic ruling class of Marxism with the racial designation “white.” It uses anti-Marxist postmodernism to “deconstruct” all beliefs with no rationale given as to why its own dogma is exempt from such deconstruction. Its attack on science and reason is copied from Martin Heidegger (1962), but it claims to be anti-fascist. It claims allegiance to social justice but ignores the egalitarian basis of the civil rights movement upon which social justice is built. The Woke claim to be anti-racist but promote the racialization of society through identity politics. They claim to be anti-capitalist while being embraced by the largest corporations in the world. They are convinced of their moral superiority, but are prepared to act unethically to defeat their opponents. These contradictions help explain the psychology of the people I observed.

Sassan had been extremely deferential to the transperson who accused him of using trans-issues to further an agenda. Sometimes referred to as “victim culture” (Campbell & Manning, 2014, 2016; Gabay et al., 2020; Haufman, 2020), Wokism establishes a hierarchy of identity groups with members of some groups presumed to have suffered greater victimization thereby acquiring greater moral entitlement.  One would think that white males would be at the bottom of this hierarchy, but they are given a special role. Several times white males in the discussion group would state that they were “giving voice” to those “without voice.” This gives them a leadership position in which they engage in aggressive attacks on others as evidence of overcoming their own “whiteness.” On numerous occasions I observed Woke amending their posts after the discussion so as to make themselves appear more effective.

In periods of high emotion, Woke act as though they are subject to a moral panic, but individuals cannot sustain such energy indefinitely. I have demonstrated how complexes of cultural memes can attach to the self of an individual acting as a kind of mind virus (Robertson, 2017a), and I subsequently determined that Wokism meets this criteria (Robertson, 2021).  Put simply, the Woke virus attaches itself to the selves of individuals so that a challenge to Wokism is felt as an existential attack on oneself. Like a primitive religion, Wokism protects its flock from alternate ideas by censoring individuals, declaring media it does not control to be racist, and by denying objective reality. If there is no objective reality, then science, empiricism and reason are empty culturally sanctioned performances legitimate only insofar as they promote Wokism.

Like a secret cult, Wokism may not be named and attempts to name it are deemed to be “slurs.” The Woke would prefer to be known as “Left” or “Progressives;” yet we know there are many people who identify with the Left who embrace science, reason and free speech. We also know that progressivism is an Enlightenment doctrine that peoples’ lives can be improved incrementally. By this measure a leading progressive is Steven Pinker (2012, 2018), a humanist whom the Woke have repeatedly denounced.

Every cult needs some means of identifying authentic members, and the Woke do this through the inventive use of language. For example, the word “Latinx” is not used by Hispanic people and it is not used by Woke talking to Hispanic people. It is used by Woke talking through Hispanic people to other Woke. The word “systemic” is thrown in before words like “racism,” “sexism,” and “oppression,” but it is not used as an adjective because the Woke never explain how systems work to establish these problems. The word “problematic,” is used in preference to the word “problem” so as to appear more “systemic.”  Similarly words like micro-aggression, intersectionality, and cisgender are not needed for communication, but signify that the user is Woke.

“in the final analysis, wokism is abut power.”

In the final analysis, Wokism is about power. The Woke have taken over universities, school boards, media, non-government organizations and government agencies for the purpose of creating more Woke. Although they were successful in disabling and shutting down an open humanist discussion group, the Woke were not finished with Humanist Canada. Enlightenment humanists need to recognize the challenge to our movement and to update our understandings in light of modern conditions.


Campbell, B., & Manning, J. (2014). Microaggression and moral cultures. Comparative Sociology, 13(6), 692-726. https://doi.org/10.1163/15691330-12341332

Campbell, B., & Manning, J. (2016). Campus Culture Wars and the Sociology of Morality. Comparative Sociology, 15(2), 147-178.

Gabay, R., Hameiri, B., Rubel-Lifschitz, T., & Nadler, A. (2020). The tendency for interpersonal victimhood: The personality construct and its consequences. Personality and Individual Differences, 165, 110134. https://doi.org/doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110134

Haufman, S. B. (2020, June 29). Unraveling the Mindset of Victimhood: Focusing on grievances can be debilitating; social science points to a better way. Scientific American.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.; First English ed.). Blackwell. http://books.google.ca/books?id=S57m5gW0L-MC&pg=PA3&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false

Pinker, S. (2012). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. Penguin.

Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. Penguin.

Robertson, L. H. (2017a). The infected self: Revisiting the metaphor of the mind virus. Theory & Psychology, 27(3), 354-368. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354317696601

Robertson, L. H. (2017b). Secular weddings in Canada: An examination of a humanist response to the evolution of marriage. Journal of Secularism and Non-religion, 6, 1-10. https://doi.org/<http://doi.org/10.5334/snr.76>

Robertson, L. H. (2020). The Evolved Self: Mapping an understanding of who we are. University of Ottawa Press.

Robertson, L. H. (2021). Year of the virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism. In-sight, 26(B). Retrieved March 1, from https://in-sightjournal.com/2021/02/22/wokism/

Wilson, M. (2020, June 30). Policing in the anomie era. Quillette, June.

Citations, References And Other Reading

  1. Featured Photo Courtesy of :  http://liveyesand.com/episode-101-be-woke/
  2. https://www.hawkeyeassociates.ca/

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.