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When the ain'ts go marching in

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If there really is a Supreme Being who is concerned about how His name is worshipped on Earth, these days He may be wishing he had put a caveat in His scriptures: Please don't irritate the scientists.

If there really is a Supreme Being who is concerned about how His name is worshipped on Earth, these days He may be wishing he had put a caveat in His scriptures: Please don't irritate the scientists.

In the past year or two, a clutch of high-decibel books by scientists has ignited the passions of non-believers. Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, the best-known battle cry of unrepentant atheism, has been No. 1 on The Globe and Mail's non-fiction bestseller list for the past seven weeks. He joins past anti-deist bestsellers such as U.S. neurologist Sam Harris and Canadian cancer specialist Robert Buckman.

The books' popularity is partly due to their timing, which coincides with popular anxiety about the worldwide growth in both Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, which has arguably resulted in increased terrorism and war. There is also a backlash against evangelical campaigns opposing gay marriage, stem-cell research and teaching evolution. A range of people are frustrated by the religious influence in politics, including among Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Yet while this renewed discussion has made non-religious people feel freer to proclaim their unbelief, they haven't exactly explained what to do with that knowledge. As American atheist Don Hirschberg once wrote, "Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair colour."

Religious faith helps bind people in communities -- a trait some researchers say explains its widespread persistence -- but apostasy has tended to be a more isolating, non-conformist experience. In the movies, including recent Oscar nominee Little Miss Sunshine, any character who admires Friedrich Nietzsche(who famously sounded God's death knell in 1882) is sure to be a depressive or criminal in need of redemption.

But the new wave of non-belief might be different. It's occasioned an organizing drive by groups that want to gather in the unfaithful and offer some secular equivalents of the communal and ritual functions that churches traditionally provide -- not to mention the political strength found in numbers.

The largest international secular-humanist organization, based in Amherst, N.Y., is the Centre for Inquiry, with branches across the U.S., South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Its first Canadian centre is having its official opening in Ontario this weekend, with a CFI in Vancouver planned for later in the year.

"The Dawkins thing has gotten a lot of play because it's brash and bold and a little disquieting, but atheism is only part of the story," explained Austin Dacey, executive director of the CFI in New York and the group's representative to the United Nations.

The CFI is intended to be a place not just for lectures, but for an eclectic list of activities, from a science book club to less-cerebral pursuits such as yoga for freethinkers and "magic for skeptics."

There's a Sunday-morning meeting to discuss different aspects of humanism, and a monthly spaghetti dinner -- where, instead of a traditional grace, the lauded deity is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a lampoon concocted a few years ago in response to the Intelligent Design movement's attempts to derail evolutionary teaching in Kansas schools.

The centre is also organizing social services, such as a regular meeting of Secular Organizations for Sobriety, which is an alternative to Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. Another program, Religious Recovery, tries to ease the transition for people who are leaving organized religion.

According to 2001 census figures, nearly five million Canadians identify as having "no religious affiliation," compared with 13 million Catholics and eight million Protestants. That's a 44-per-cent increase since the 1991 census figures. In 1971, less than 1 per cent of the population claimed no religion.

Yet organized groups of skeptics and humanists generally haven't been popular in Canada. The movement arrived in the early 20th century, but the first major group was the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal in the 1950s. Its patrons were the eminent atheist and philosopher Bertrand Russell -- the Richard Dawkins of his day -- and Brock Chisholm, a Canadian psychiatrist who was the first director of the World Health Organization.

In 1968, a new group formed, the Humanist Association of Canada (HAC), with abortion activist Henry Morgentaler as its first president.

Yet it was not until the late 1990s, for example, that humanist groups were granted the right to perform legally recognized wedding ceremonies. (Other non-believers remain critical of this right being restricted in some provinces to certified Humanists, and not more generally available.)

Another win came in 2004, when Revenue Canada reversed an earlier decision and decided to give the HAC the same charity status enjoyed by religious groups.

Despite that progress, organized humanism has remained marginal. Among the "no religious affiliation" group in the 2001 census, although there was a 37-per-cent increase in the number of atheists and a 67-per-cent increase in declared humanists, the totals amounted to only 18,605 and 2,105 people respectively.

But according to Christopher diCarlo, an instructor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont., who often lectures about humanism around Canada, Canadians are showing more interest.

"The conferences and lectures are becoming more and more well-attended," he said. "One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the spread of secular humanism is that it just hasn't been promoted or recognized."

To change that, many long-standing Canadian freethinking organizations are significantly revamping their outreach.

On Jan. 1, English-speaking Canada saw the establishment of the first official office of Skeptics Canada, a 20-year-old organization that, according to chairman Eric McMillan, will soon hire its first executive director to work in their new Toronto office. Eventually the group hopes to open an Institute of Critical Inquiry and other centres around the country.

"Skeptics' organizations have always been entirely voluntary, and that's good when you have individuals who are all fired up and organized. But that model relies too heavily on the individuals involved," Mr. McMillan said. "We're trying to professionalize the organization so we're no longer working in basements and rec rooms."

The CFI echoes that sentiment. "We're aggressively eager to expand our efforts to Canada and we're devoting considerable efforts to that end," said D.J. Grothe, program director at the CFI in Amherst. "We've identified Canadian leaders and we're matching that leadership with financial and promotional resources."

The new centre is an important moment for Canadian humanism, according to Gary Bauslaugh, who is the current HAC president and editor of Humanist Perspectives magazine.

He said the group "has been well-meaning but not terribly effective in the past," noting it was historically oriented toward debate rather than action. "We want to appeal much more widely to critical-thinking Canadians and across North America. There are literally millions of people in Canada who think like we do but don't label themselves humanists. We think there's common cause."

At the forefront is a relatively new group of humanist activists -- university students. Until a few years ago, humanist groups tended to comprise mostly older individuals, but it's starting to pick up momentum with a younger crowd. In the non-religiously affiliated population in the 2001 census, 40 per cent were 24 years old or younger.

"More younger people are joining, people who have a more 'let's get it done' attitude instead of 'let's debate this,' " said HAC vice-president Pat O'Brien.

In fact, the new executive director of CFI-Ontario, Justin Trottier, founded the first secular humanist group at the University of Toronto just 18 months ago. Since then, he and other student activists (including his sister, Alex) have founded CFI affiliates at campuses across the country, including Carlton, McGill and Waterloo -- a dozen new groups in all over the past year.

The CFI emerged in the 1970s out of smaller groups organized around its Skeptical Inquirer magazine and other publications. It grew into a secular think tank in the early 1990s and now has more than 100 employees in more than a dozen countries. Its publications reach 100,000 readers worldwide.

On its website, the organization describes itself as dedicated to "science, reason, free inquiry, secularism and planetary ethics" and "developing communities where like-minded individuals can meet and share experiences."

But its members did not necessarily begin as like-minded humanists. Mr. Grothe grew up an evangelical Christian. He heard about the CFI while in Bible college and got involved with the organization during graduate school.

"We're really experiencing a growth spurt now, more now than ever before in our history" he said. "More and more people coming out of the woodwork in North America, asking what they can do. It's a result of looking around and seeing what happens when people are motivated by untested religious dogmas as opposed to prizing science and its outlook."

That belief in the primacy of science is one of the things that led Paul Kurtz to found the Centre for Inquiry, of which he remains chairman. "There's a great vacuum out there," he said about the surge in interest. "People feel beleaguered, alone, isolated and surrounded by a kind of theocratic culture. The rational and humanistic alternatives resonate with a lot of people."

And not just in the Western world. Mr. Kurtz pointed out that a decade ago there were two humanist groups in Africa, while today there are 54. The newest CFI was established in April in Beijing, which will also be the site of CFI's annual international gathering this fall.

Yet all such organizations still face obstacles. People who claim no deity to guide them are often suspected of lacking a moral or ethical code -- exactly the problem a humanist expression of values is meant to remedy.

They're also stereotyped as self-righteous and bitter, perhaps all too eager to trample on others' supposedly benign religious or sentimental illusions. On that level, atheists may not be so well served by finding their current figurehead in the notoriously acerbic Dr. Dawkins.

A recent two-part episode of the satirical cartoon South Park paid tribute to his profile, but not his personality. One character explained the scientist's success this way: "He learned that using logic and reason isn't enough -- you have to be a dick to everyone who doesn't think like you."

Similarly, Canadian humanist pioneer Brock Chisholm faced public scandal in the 1940s when he espoused the view that children should not be exposed to myths such as Santa Claus, leading one glib critic to title him "Canada's most famously articulate angry man."

"Unless you have the skill of H.L. Mencken, railing against religion is just boring," remarked Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a non-profit watchdog group that tracks right-wing networks.

More particularly in Canada, social custom used to discourage individuals from detailing their spiritual beliefs in public -- even if they were religious, said Robert Buckman, a professor in medicine at the University of Toronto, former president of the HAC and occasional contributor to The Globe and Mail.

"In the past, you could only talk about religion generally or objectively. It was much more private than sexuality," said Dr. Buckman, who last year was featured in the documentary Without God on CBC television. "I think what's happened is, one, we're slightly easier about talking about personal beliefs, and, two, people are much more allowed to admit that they don't believe in the supernatural or a divine source."

Humanists are quick to point out the anti-authoritarian character of many non-believers, which doesn't make them joiners. What's more, many are unfamiliar with humanism or any reasons they might wish to participate.

"Very few people know what humanism is," said HAC vice-president Pat O'Brien. "They think that we pick up stray dogs on the streets or something like that." Mr. O'Brien himself was introduced to humanism only in 2001, when he got some work on a documentary film on the subject.

"There are a lot of people who . . . didn't know that there are organizations of like-minded people out there," Mr. diCarlo said. For that reason, he said, when he takes part in debates with creationists and supporters of so-called Intelligent Design, he focuses more on context and promotion than on argument.

"I'm not up there as much to preach or convert the unconverted," Mr. diCarlo said.

"I get up there and show a physical demonstration of a decent guy who makes solid arguments and has a nice family. I'm there saying, 'Here I am, and I'm really okay without your God.' I'm sure the other side is wondering, 'Hey, how come he's not eating children and setting kittens on fire?' "

Mr. Dacey, the CFI director, said the biases against non-believers are distortions that have been filtered through a religious prism.

The core values of secular humanism "are really mainstream values," he said.

Ultimately, the Canadian humanists say, they are seeking acceptance. They want to be able to stand up for their beliefs in public, and hope to be more included in public debate -- for example, to be asked to comment on issues in the media, the way religious figures are. But they have a long way left to go.

"If we want to influence Canadian public policy," said HAC's Mr. Bauslaugh, "we need to be bigger than we are now."

Christopher Dreher is a New York-based writer.

Secular huma-who?

If you're unfamiliar with the various labels non-religious people take -- atheist, agnostic, humanist, rationalist, skeptic, secularist, post-humanist, freethinker -- they may seem more confusing than the distinctions between Sunni, Shia and Sufi Muslims. Humanism and secular humanism are perhaps the two most prominent.

According to the Council for Secular Humanism's website: "Secular Humanism is a way of thinking and living that aims to bring out the best in people so that all people can have the best in life.

"Secular humanists reject supernatural and authoritarian beliefs. They affirm that we must take responsibility for our own lives and the communities and world in which we live. Secular humanism emphasizes reason and scientific inquiry, individual freedom and responsibility, human values and compassion, and the need for tolerance and co-operation."

The definition at the Humanist Association of Canada is a bit more particular: "Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality."

One widely emphasized tenet is the separation of church and state. "I don't object to people's personal beliefs, but I don't want them to try to impose them on public business," said Gary Bauslaugh, the current president of the Humanist Association of Canada. "Many religious people agree with that. It's mostly the fundamentalists that try to do that."

-- Christopher Dreher



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