Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was the inspiration for the title and content of the new fabulous document film Losing Our Religion?
Leslea Mair: Wow, that's quite a compliment! Thank you!
I wanted to make this film after hearing about The Clergy Project. I think changing your mind about something as important to your world view as religion is such an interesting process. But for ministers to stop believing struck me as a real personal earthquake. I read the stories of the non-believing clergy in Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola's studies and really wanted to explore stories like that. I was so curious about how that plays out for people, not just in the short term.
Jacobsen: You co-directed the film with Leif Kaldor and based on the work of Professor Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola. How did you come into contact with Leif Kaldor and the research of Dennett and LaScola?
Mair: Leif and I met at a film festival in central Saskatchewan, close to where we both grew up, about 20 years ago. We've been business partners and a couple since then. We bring complementary skill sets to directing - we've made quite a number of films together. It's a partnership that works really well for us.
I was the one who tripped across the studies that Dennett and LaScola published, but we were both intrigued by it from the start. I think I first read about them on some secular/atheist blogs and started thinking about what kind of story you could tell about it, so the film was kind of my baby at the start. But we always bounce ideas off one another, so Leif very quickly became involved in the process. His take on the subject was a little different than mine - his childhood had a lot more religious influence than mine did, so it was a good counterpoint to my thinking in the early stages of developing the idea.
Jacobsen: On reflection and reading of Dennett's and LaScola's work, what particular findings struck you, stood out to you?
Mair: The thing that really struck me was how traumatic giving up on believing was for people. You have to understand, I've never been a believer, so the idea that you can still be emotionally attached to the idea of a deity even when you've ceased believing in it was a little foreign to me. I wanted to understand that better.
What also made an impression on me - although it didn't completely surprise me - was how swift and unkind, sometimes even cruel, the reactions to these people were when they either confessed or were found out. I was surprised by how strong that reaction was, and that the risks people take in talking frankly about nonbelief are very real and quite severe in some places.
Jacobsen: Minister Gretta Vosper contributed to the documentary film as well. What role did she play in the film?
Mair: Gretta is one of the people who is trying to make non-belief work in a traditionally believing environment. She's an out atheist in the pulpit. The United Church of Canada is one of the most liberal and progressive denominations out there - I grew up in the United Church myself. So when Gretta and I first started talking, it totally made sense to me that if there was any organization that could handle this, it was this one. But there was still some serious pushback. She was called up on the carpet and has been judged unfit for ministry by a panel in the UCC, but she's still in her congregation. They're still trying to figure out what to do with her -- they don't know how to excommunicate her because they've never done anything like that -- there's no process, really. It would be funny if it didn't have such serious repercussions for her.
What role Gretta and her congregation played was to show that a church-style community could be secular in nature. They're trying to pull a shrinking institution into the future. It's important work, and the struggle continues.
Jacobsen: How do their narratives speak to the stories of others throughout North America?
Mair: Brendan and Jenn Murphy are our primary characters. They're a couple in the US -- Brendan is a former evangelical pastor, Jenn is his wife.
When I met them, Brendan was a "closeted" atheist and still working in ministry, but Jenn was a devout believer. So they were dealing with multiple layers of crisis. Brendan had joined The Clergy Project and Linda LaScola had put him in touch with me. When he agreed to an interview, he wanted to bring Jenn along, and I was fine with that. I didn't think it was going to amount to anything. I was SO wrong! Jenn's a really brave and amazing woman. She was so nervous that day, but she still sat down and gave me not just an interview, but really opened up. This was a major shake-up for her in her personal life and in her faith, and I'm still blown away at how much courage she and Brendan had in doing this.
I was able to follow their story from that point, through leaving the ministry under duress and into their current lives.
Jacobsen: What documentary films speak to telling these important narratives of loss of faith, especially in countries without the massive number of public privileges won such as our own?
Mair: There are a few out there - one of our contributors, Jerry De Witt, is featured in a film that has an excerpt out on the New York Times Op Docs called "The Outcast of Beauregard Parish" about his experience exiting the ministry. And there's a film called "One of Us" about the struggles of three ex-Hasidic Jews who are adjusting to secular life. And Bart Campolo has just come out with a film about his relationship with his father, Tony Campolo, and how they've navigated Bart leaving faith behind.
I don't know of many films coming out of non-Western countries on the subject, but it's very dangerous to approach atheism in many places. You'd be taking a grave risk and often putting your contributors in jeopardy. I'd love to find a way to do that if some risk could be minimized.
It's also hard to find the funding to make a full-length documentary film, or I suspect we'd see a lot more of them. The stories are certainly out there, and there are more of them all the time as people leave faith behind. As far as I know, Losing Our Religion is the only feature-length documentary on The Clergy Project so far.
Jacobsen: What targeted areas of activism seem the most relevant at this moment in time now? For example, the work to prevent the ongoing attempts at the encroachment of individual rights to reproductive health including abortion, the rights to medical care, the right to die, and so on, from groups, ironically, with open, grand, self-righteous proclamations about individualism, the "divine individual," and individual rights as the highest values to attain within the country - ironic because their preventative and obstructive attempts stand in opposition to these individual rights of legal persons in Canada, of full adult citizens in Canada. I see a similar tragic irony in pro-life activists killing doctors.
Mair: Oh, gosh. There's so much work to do, isn't there?
We're in such a rapid state of change right now. I think that the majority of people -- especially here in Canada, although I know a lot of Americans who feel the same way -- support reproductive rights, the right to die and universal health care. It's the vocal minorities that get in the way of those rights. I think Dan Barker said it best in our film when he talked about the religious political right dying out, knowing they're dying out, and lashing out at anyone and anything that threatens them. The world is changing. It's going to continue to change. The one advantage the religious right has is that it has an organized voice. I think we have to build communities of support so that we have an organized voice as well.
The really hopeful thing is that those communities are starting to happen -- the Oasis communities and Sunday Assemblies and other humanist and secular groups are starting to grow and they're becoming more active in addressing social justice issues. So I'm optimistic. There are some really fantastic people out there.
Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?
Mair: Not that I can think of!
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Leslea.
Mair: Thanks so much for taking the time, Scott!