The faithful atheist: Speak freely, just don’t suggest there’s a God

Just what Canada needs:

Atheist says you’re free to speak, as long as you agree with me

Justin Trottier studied engineering at the University of Toronto, but along the way he found a higher calling. He began to look at what it meant to have faith in God. And what he saw made him ill. It was driven home during his second year of university, when he paid a visit to the World Trade Center site in New York City a few years after the 9/11 attacks.

“I had this feeling that if religion wasn’t the only potential force for negativity in the human species, it was a pretty big one,” said the 29-year-old Mr. Trottier, from the Toronto office for the Centre for Inquiry, the country’s most organized atheist group, where he helps set policy and is the group’s public face.

“Faith could lead to great things but it could also lead to hijacking planes and flying them into buildings. I promised I would do something about this revulsion I felt towards blind faith.”

Two years after that trip, when the university was reviewing how it conducted its graduation ceremonies, Mr. Trottier saw an opening to his assert his views by lobbying to remove any element of religion from the convocation.

“Having prayers at the ceremony tied religion to the search for knowledge. For some people like myself, religion furthers ignorance,” said Mr. Trottier, whose parents were Jewish and Catholic but both secular. “If that was OK to have prayers at the ceremony it would equally be OK for bus drivers to welcome you on board with a prayer. We would recoil at that, so why was a graduation prayer acceptable?”

Mr. Trottier graduated in 2006, at the first U of T ceremony in which God was kicked to the bleachers.

Girders from the remains of the World Trade Center towers, shaped like a cross, stand as a memorial at Ground Zero in New York on Sept. 10, 2002. Ironically, it was a visit to Ground Zero that turned Justin Trottier away from religion. “Faith could lead to great things but it could also lead to hijacking planes and flying them into buildings,” he said.

Mr. Trottier began sitting in on an informal atheist get-together that, oddly enough, found a room inside an Anglican theological school. “I had no idea what atheists would talk about. I found a group of interesting people that liked to talk about everything.” Eventually he founded the U of T Secular Alliance that, by March, 2007, became the Centre for Inquiry, which now has 10 branches in Canada with roughly 1,000 members. They are financed by a few donors with deep pockets and many smaller donations.

He has since pushed for the de-funding of Catholic schools, the separation of church and state. He has also waged war against what he sees as junk science, such as homeopathic medicine, for “which there is also no evidence.”

Most recently he testified at Ontario provincial hearings on Bill 13, the anti-bullying act that calls for the establishment of gay-straight alliances in public and Catholic schools. The bill passed leaving the Catholic Church fuming.

“The Catholic schools are publicly funded. They can’t have it both ways. They’re entitled to their views on homosexuality, but they can’t impose them on society.”

Rev. Charles McVety, an ultra-conservative evangelical who has a regular spot sparring with Mr. Trottier on Toronto’s popular John Oakley radio show, said Mr. Trottier is becoming more influential as an enemy of faith.

“His cause is to rid the government and our schools of any vestige of faith,” Rev. McVety said. “But he is a bright young man seeking the truth. He is truly trying to do good, but I believe he is misguided.”

Mr. Trottier’s office is replete with photos of secularist heroes: Charles Darwin, June Callwood and Carl Sagan. He is rake-thin, almost an aesthete. He is sure of his point of view but does not seem himself as infallible.

In an interview this week he discussed, among other things, why religious education is dangerous for children, how science and religion are incompatible and his brief flirtation with the tooth fairy.

  Q Did you ever have a God phase, even as a child?  

A I do remember believing in the tooth fairy because there was evidence: Someone put the money there and I never clued into that it wasn’t the tooth fairy. I do recall memories of making wagers in the middle of the night with God. “If you give me what I want or if you protect me I’ll believe in you.” I realized I was just talking to myself, getting psyched up for an exam or something else. I never connected passing an exam to God’s intervention.

I do remember believing in the tooth fairy because there was evidence. Someone put the money there

  Q You’ve said religion and science are contradictory. Why?

A You do have to acknowledge that there really is not much evidence for a god or for a religious world view. I’m not sure why someone whose primary concern was looking to the world with an eye to critical scientific inquiry would leave out religion from that kind of approach.

  Q Francis Collins, a deeply believing Christian, headed the National Center for Human Genome Research and was appointed by President Obama to lead the National Institutes of Health. George Lemaître was a Catholic priest who first proposed the big bang theory. How does that square with your view?

A [Anglican] Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, the father of physics. But when he got to his ideas of why planets revolve without crashing into the sun, he offered God as an explanation. It turns out more advanced physics came along later that explained it without needing God. [Laughs] Maybe if he hadn’t been committed to working God into his system he might have figured that out. But if you look at the best scientists, most turn out to be skeptics or atheists.

George Lemaître, a Catholic priest, first proposed the big bang theory. “But if you look at the best scientists, most turn out to be skeptics or atheists,” says Justin Trottier.

  Q Is there too much religion in the public square?

A I think there’s favouritism. I don’t think a purely religious argument has a place in a decision made in the interests in society at large. I don’t know why you would give special accommodations to religious beliefs that are almost always at odds with secular society.

  Q But religion has had no influence in establishing laws against abortion or gay marriage. They are constantly losing at human rights tribunals. And just recently Bill 13 in Ontario was passed, a law that will force Catholic schools to adopt gay-straight alliances on their campuses. Is that favouritism?

A It’s interesting to hear you say that [and] give counter-examples. Sometimes I do modify my positions on things. If you look at our Conservative government, they promote family issues, are tough on crime and drugs. A lot of that is consonant with the faith communities. I also think government grants favour faith-based communities.

Q As far as I know, there are no Christopher Hitchens soup kitchens or homeless shelters.

A When I talk about favouritism that doesn’t mean there aren’t situations in which religious groups shouldn’t get the grants. The burden is on the secular community to come up with their own things. But charitable laws should be changed to make it easier for secular groups to take up some of those roles so as not to favour religious groups.

  Q Is it dangerous to teach religion to children?

A I think it’s a big problem. Robbing kids of critical faculties is a bad thing. It’s not just bad for the child affected but it’s bad for having a broad educated citizenry who can make decisions in an ever more complex world.

[Teaching religion to children] is a big problem. Robbing kids of critical faculties is a bad thing

  Q You came out in favour of the high school student who was disciplined in his school for wearing a Jesus T-shirt day in and day out. Why?

A Because we believe in freedom of speech.

  Q You’ve also been critical of universities that decertified anti-abortion clubs and yet those clubs are almost always fuelled by religious belief.

A  Again, that goes against free speech. It’s dangerous to impose that kind of censorship. It also shows there is also unquestioning orthodoxy on the left. That has nothing to do with critical thinking.

Q Who are your heroes?  

A [Agnostic] Carl Sagan got me interested in all of this. He was a critical thinker and he was very good at popularizing science, something I’m very interested in. But there are others like the little known Bernard Délicieux, a 13th-century Franciscan friar who resisted the Inquisition in southern France. He bucked the tide. He was anti-Inquisition and he believed in convincing people based on rational arguments rather than by torturing them.

Q Do you ever doubt your own certainty that God does not exist?

A Absolutely. I think a lot of people are shocked by that. I’m not embarrassed to have that doubt. If everybody doubted, whether atheists or theists, I would be happy about that. I think that having doubt is even more important than being an atheist.

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