When Pat O’Brien was eight or nine years old, his father told him that a watched pot never boils.
“So I got a pot, put it on the stove, never took my eyes off it and it boiled,” says O’Brien. “From that moment on I was a skeptic. I wouldn’t believe anything until I actually saw it for myself.” Pretty soon, he was applying the same criteria to religion.
“My entire life was Catholicism,” he says. He attended Catholic elementary school and was a devoted young parishioner at the church up Cambie from the Starbucks we were sitting in — the place with the “dead guy hanging out front,” as he puts it now — where he really honed his skepticism.
“I started asking questions about religion and there were no answers,” he says. “So I started thinking, well, if they don’t actually have answers for things that they’re saying, maybe what they’re saying isn’t true. So that started me on a road to critical thinking.”
He would go on to be the head of Humanist Canada and is now a board member of the Centre for Inquiry Canada, whose mission is to advance “skeptical, secular, rational and humanistic inquiry.” CFI is comparatively new on the scene — it began in Toronto in 2005 and went national in 2007.
There are several atheist groups in Canada. Some focus on fellowship of like-minded people, including creating rites for God-free life cycle events like weddings and funerals. CFI sees itself more as a think tank and political advocacy agency. CFI was the first in the door when the federal government opened its Office of Religious Freedom. One of the topics the group is taking up is tax exemptions for churches.
“As a tax-exempt organization, we have enormous hoops that we have to jump through to prove that what we’re doing is actually charitable,” O’Brien says. “Churches don’t. They can do pretty much whatever they want. And that’s a problem, because that’s a lot of money that could be possibly coming into government coffers that isn’t.”
For O’Brien, and for Richard French, another CFI member who joined us, evidence-based reasoning is the driver of a passionate dedication.
“Skepticism, first of all, is the idea that you shouldn’t believe in a claim until it’s proven,” O’Brien says. “If somebody makes a claim about something, you want evidence. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence.”
Though O’Brien works in film and TV and French is an actor and author, CFI members have an overrepresentation of “sciencey” people. French chimes in: “My own personal concern is fuzzy thinking. I believe religion is fuzzy thinking. Pseudo-science is fuzzy thinking. Belief in aliens is fuzzy thinking.”
French was raised in the United Kingdom by atheist parents who wanted the best education for their son, despite their poverty. They got him into a Catholic school on scholarship. (He’s not active in the alumni association.)
French’s four children are all atheists, in the family tradition, but for them it is no big deal, he says. They fall into the category the two call “apatheists” — they’re not religious and they’re not actively non-religious. It’s not an issue. They’re just … apatheists.
“It would be like asking you, ‘Well, what do you think about witches?’” French says. “But 300 years ago that was a serious question. Nowadays we don’t think about it.”
French admits not thinking about religion is easier in Canada than in most places in the world, including the United States. Religion has not permeated politics and civil society as much here as it has elsewhere, which may be one of the reasons their organization is one of only a few in Canada, where the United States has multiple and major atheist organizations.
O’Brien clarifies the terminology: “Atheism is not the position that there is no God. Atheism is the position that God has never been proved,” he says. “Atheism is simply the idea that religious people have not met their burden of proof. That’s all.”
Believers might say that the proof will come in time. O’Brien has a tart response to the idea that the world is governed by a benevolent God.
“If there was a God, every person in the world would be more moral than that God,” he says. “If you knew that somebody was going to rape a child, you would do everything you could to stop it. What does God do? Lets it happen and then says, ‘I’ll punish you after.’”
Despite their own experiences with Catholicism, both O’Brien and French challenge the idea that atheists are acting out of a knee-jerk rejection of religion. On the contrary, they contend, most atheists know more about religion than adherents do. In fact, a 2010 Pew study indicated that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons were the most informed about the contents of Judeo-Christian holy works, exceeding the awareness levels of evangelical Christians and mainline Christians.
“I’d say for most Christians the Bible is like a software agreement,” O’Brien says. “You don’t read it, you just scroll to the bottom and click ‘agree.’”