Every day is an atheist holiday: Swept looks at CFI


This past week, I delved into the surprisingly wide world of atheism here in Toronto. Not only did I meet with CFI (Centre for Inquiry) founder and spokesperson, Justin Trottier, but I also found myself at a CFI-hosted event with Penn Jillette: great American comedian, magician, and author, as well as atheist and skeptic. They both spoke of community, charity and respect (even if Penn was a little more loose with his language).

I spoke with Justin Trottier from a purposeful point of innocence.

SWEPT: So CFI, in your own words: what is it? What are you about? What do you do?

Justin: That’s a very big question. I would say that, at its core, it’s about pushing forward a worldview that is distinct from both religious worldviews and what you may perhaps call new-age, quasi-spiritual worldviews. I kind of see them as two poles on a spectrum and we’re not on that spectrum. We’re more about, in broad strokes, a scientific, naturalist approach to looking at questions related to: our place in the universe, who we are, where we’re going, that kind of thing. Operationally, that translates into two major thrusts: one would be building a community for people of this worldview. So it’s building a community through social services, through educational programs, and what have you. And the other thing is pushing a social and political agenda, so we are not shy to say that we do have certain beliefs of our own. Those become public policy positions that we take on in a variety of different areas and then we push those through government lobbying, through media exposure, through work in multimedia channels and, again, through public educational engagements; education is really at the core of everything we do because we’re registered as an educational charity, so we have a legal mandate in that direction, and it’s kind of who we are, you know, we’re about evolving our own understanding of those big questions and doing it in a community environment, so of course education is the way to go.

Building a community of like-minded people, devoid of faith, through educational programs and social services, helping non-believers work toward answering those big questions that trouble us all in the wee hours of the night: I wasn’t fully convinced that, in a country like Canada, there could be a significant need for such an organization. Is Canada not free and friendly enough already to welcome all points of view and give them equal opportunity?

SWEPT: Do you think there’s a great need for CFI, specifically in Canada?

Justin: Obviously we don’t have anything like a theocratic government that would make CFI strongly needed, maybe for the survival of some people. Actually that is 100 per cent true: CFI could save people’s lives if it weren’t an illegal organization in places like Indonesia where there are protests in the streets against atheism. Or Bangladesh: we actually have a member, Sharif Ahmed, we did a video with him, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s on Think Again TV… An amazing story; a very sad story, he’s Bangladeshi, he was an out-and-out atheist; he was actually a publisher of humanist literature, in Bangladesh. He was discovered, assaulted; they tried to hang him, he still has the scars to prove that, he survived it…miraculously, if I can use that word, and then he ended up emigrating to Canada. So in Bangladesh, CFI, if it were allowed, could make a real difference. In Canada, the issues are much more minor. We have public funding to religious schools, we have public religious ceremonies, like public prayers and stuff like that, that we don’t like. So in terms of ‘are these life and death issues in Canada?’, no they’re not. But still, in terms of effective use of government funds, in terms of making non-believers feel like they’re equal to all other citizens in Canada, I think that there still are barriers that speak to a continued need for that public policy agenda, but I think, for us in Canada, it is more that community side, because there are definitely a large and growing number of Canadians who are coming out of religion and they need an alternative. And that’s what we are. So they still want to be part of a community, they still want to be involved in charitable, benevolent ends, they still want to connect with like-minded people in educational or social settings, so we provide all of that.

It’s true: it seems that the only province that has fully rescinded the constitutional blotch of public funding for faith schools, without concession or stipulation, is Newfoundland: and people think that the East Coast moves slower than the rest of the country; perhaps the rest of the country should catch up.

There are currently 37 catholic school boards in Ontario alone. There are only 35 public school boards in Ontario, and when the government’s total investment in education from 2012 to 2013 reaches upwards of $20 billion, for Ontario alone, I think one should wonder how much of that is going toward funding a school system based on the religious beliefs of less than half of the population of the entirety of Canada, and wonder why, as well.

So apart from the educational and political mandate of CFI, I wondered about the community building Justin continued to mention. I found myself on the media list to see Penn Jillette at U of T, promoting his new book and giving a talk to those very same like-minded non-believers Justin spoke so well of. As I strode up to King’s College Circle and found my place in line near the entrance of the JJR Macleod Auditorium, I saw it took little time for the line to reach out into the street and begin making its way around the circle. A community indeed!

Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette and Lindsay Coome, a fan of Penn.

Beaming faces, one and all, the crowd squeezed into the greeting area of the auditorium. Smiles and goodwill came from all CFI volunteers. After an eloquent, heartwarming introduction by Justin Trottier, Penn Jillette took to the stage with a jolly stride, carried by jovial applause and cheer. Like a true skeptic, Penn began by addressing not how great atheists are or how paltry the religious, but his respect and love for the faithful; for people like his dear friend, Glenn Beck, without hint of sarcasm.

Penn: I like to mention Glenn Beck to atheist/skeptic organizations because he is so completely and utterly hated. He’s also completely wrong about, as far as I can tell…everything. And he’s also a friend of mine. And he’s also the reason I wrote the book, Every Day is an Atheist Holiday. There are some really good things about Glenn Beck. First of all, Glenn Beck can take a punch.

After much praise of a man who is so seemingly bigoted and insane, I began to realize that this gathering wasn’t going to be a chorus of atheists, shouting together in solidarity over the ineptitude or prejudice of any one person or group. This community was, as Justin said, based on education: and they were indeed being taught a lesson by Penn. He seemed to work in the opposite of so many atheists I had known before him.

Penn: If you believe, for instance, that everlasting life is possible, then not talking about it is completely immoral. I love the fact that [Christians] proselytize. And I also believe that the quickest way to find out if you’re wrong about something, is to say it everywhere: tweet it, lay it out, say it at every party possible, till you get the shit beat out of you [figuratively speaking], then you may find out where you’re wrong. I love the fact that people proselytize. I even love it when they come to the door and they want to talk to you about Jesus Christ. Sometimes I invite them in and actually talk to them. And sometimes I’m not in the mood. And then I just simply strip naked, open the door, and say “Come on in!”…I’m not bluffing. One, I really did that. Two, I’d love to have them come in. Maybe I could fuck the living Jesus out of them.

It was clear where he stood, but it was clear that, in spite of the tactless humour, there was a real love for the world in Penn Jillette. Not satisfied with simple answers and ‘offering it up’, Penn spoke of his hatred of herding people together, finding meticulous ways to manipulate others to rally under a certain banner, which struck a chord with me – given the mass of people gathered together to hear Penn speak, and his platform is clearly of no insignificant influence.

Penn: I hate, so much, the lack of respect, and the lack of love for humanity, to think there are techniques to win friends and influence people. We should be kind. And we should not be hostile, and aggressive, and insulting. When I am talking to someone and I am having an argument or a discussion, and I sense in any way, in any level, that they are trying to work me, that they are trying to manipulate me, I just shut down completely. I believe the moment you have that [sort of] plan, you are a pig. And that doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to be polite, it doesn’t mean the only way to talk to these people is to say “motherfucker”, it doesn’t mean the only way to talk to these people is to say “you’re wrong”, but it does mean that whatever side you have: if you are genteel and soft-spoken or if you’re a big, loud asshole [points, very grandly, to himself], you should be that. That’s my sense of how to proselytize without being manipulative.

He continued on about his dislike of the word cynicism and its constant, and unfair, interchange with the word skepticism. He regaled us with stories of his very kind-hearted ‘hate-mail’, his work on Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, and his work and relationship with South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. He spoke beautifully about his heroes and with great reverence and personal account of other famed atheists like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss and the late Christopher Hitchens. Being raised Catholic, I still couldn’t help but be put in mind of church, albeit a far more entertaining and joyous church. I wondered if this community wasn’t unlike those communities of churchgoers. What made these inquiring minds different than those soul-searching minds (besides the obvious)?

It all came to me with the very first question of the night, from the audience, to Penn.

Audience Member: I’m curious what you think about the idea of an atheist church.

And his response:

Penn: What that brings to mind is a standup comedy standard joke. When someone gets up and walks out during a comic’s act, a guy would say “If you’re looking for the toilet, you’re standing in it”. If you’re looking for the atheist church, you’re standing in it. That’s what CFI is, that’s what all these things are: gatherings of people. I think using the word church is just a little too confusing… But one thing, that I’m sure a lot of you have dealt with is hearing, “I’m so sorry the religious people treated you so badly you became an atheist”. Religious people treat me so well. I’ve been treated fabulously by religious people. But I think you’re completely right, but I’d rather not call it church, I’d rather call it CFI; I’d rather call it a collection of people. But that’s really important to me.

Penn made me realize what, I think, many people seem to forget: we are all just people. Regardless of how we think or what we think we see. No matter what we say, we all go through this life together. So why not show a hint of respect? Respect people enough to tell them how you see things, and respect them enough to let them tell you how they see. I think he’s got the right idea. And we should work to better the quality of life through education, as per CFI’s mandate. And hey, if nothing else: in spite of all religious observances through the year, be content knowing that every day is an atheist holiday.

- Header image by Michael Willems