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Name: Filippo (Fil) A. Salustri

Born: 24 Oct 1961

Location: Toronto, Canada

Organization Affiliation: Ryerson University

Label: anti-theist

Former religion affiliation: roman catholic

 My Story

I’m Fil Salustri, and I’m atheist.  (Well, actually, I’m anti-theist, but I’ll get to that later.)  And now as I close in on 50 years of age, I finally realize that not only have I been atheist my whole life, but I doubt I could have been otherwise.

I’m writing this because I feel compelled to try to make things better on this pale blue dot.  Some will disagree with that motivation and my means to achieve that, but I would respectfully suggest that one who is not willing to devote some portion of one’s life to doing a “right thing” (of which there are many forms), then one is abdicating a basic human responsibility.

I was raised by educated, catholic parents who emigrated to Canada from Italy.  They had me, their only child, late in life (my mom was 41 when I was born, and my dad 45).  That is to say, my parents grew up in times that by modern standards would seen quite weird.  Nonetheless, they were surprisingly enlightened.  We didn’t go to church every Sunday, and we didn’t eat fish on Friday, but there was absolutely no blasphemy allowed in the house, and their authority over me-as-a-child was absolute – although I must admit they were very good to me generally.  The Italian factor is important, because rather than wearing their religion on their sleeve – as many do in North America – catholicism in Europe is more a cultural thing than a religious thing.  This was how my parents practiced religion.

In grade school, was an altar-boy as a child, but I never really saw it as a chance to get close to god.  I was a science geek; I loved the structure and elegance of scientific knowledge, the way it all fit together.  This made me a social misfit, of course, so being an altar boy gave me a clique that I could join where I wasn’t judged the same was I was in the schoolyard.

To their credit, the priests at our parish never made me feel odd or out of place – and they tried to take advantage of me.  But still, I found religion confusing and disconnected from all the other things I was learning about.

I went to a boys’ high school run by Jesuits (the hard-asses of the catholic church).  While they gave me a wonderful education in most things, their perspective on religion was quite literally laughable.  For instance, Father Desgrossier (not sure I’m spelling it correctly) told us in religion class that marriage was only to legitimize sex for procreation – love didn’t enter into marriage (contrary to the standard catholic marriage vows) because one only needed to love god.  He was the calmest man I ever met; I’m sure if you set off a firecracker just beside his ear, he wouldn’t so much as flinch.  I heard years later that he’d been institutionalized for a massive nervous breakdown.  Father Massey was our guidance councillor – yes, he was a Massey, and he bore a staggering resemblance to the actor Raymond Massey.  He chain-smoked and spiked his coffee with brandy.  I have no idea what happened to him, but I’m confident that either his liver or his lungs gave out prematurely.  And yet, there wasn’t a single one of the staff that didn’t expect the very best of me all the time – without being disappointed when I couldn’t manage it – and in their own somewhat twisted ways always gave us the best they could.  That’s the kind of environment it was.

I read one of Einstein’s books on relativity in Grade 11.  Except for div, grad, and curl operators, it made perfect sense to me.  Brilliant writing.  It really helped me see how all of science is really interconnected.  You can’t just pick and choose which bits of science you accept and which you deny.  Deny anything that’s known in science, and you may as well deny it all.  Of course, some bits are a bit blurry, but science can deal with that too, by being skeptical and dispassionate of data, and seeking consensus through the analysis of fact rather than than exploration of feeling. Still, you can start from any given scientific fact and work your way through to any other scientific fact.  The scientific body of knowledge is rather like our own bodies: composed of distinct elements that all interconnect and interdepend in ways that tend to blur their boundaries.

Indeed, I often argue that those who are “anti-science” are horribly hypocritical because even though they deny science they also seem to take advantage of it at every turn: they expect doctors to keep them healthy; they expect planes, trains, and automobiles to work for them; they expect to use computers to spread their anti-science nonsense.  I would suggest that if one is truly anti-science, then one would necessarily have to live one’s life without any of it.

Of course, ‘way back in 1978, I hadn’t yet formed these ideas, but their seeds were there.

Having come from a catholic education, University was a real eye-opener.  Half of my classmates didn’t get any of my pope jokes, because they were Muslim, or Hindu, or whatever.  It was fascinating to hear these people – entirely reasonable people generally – talk about their gods with just as much passion and conviction as I heard from the catholic priests in church and high school.  I note that even back then, in the 1980′s, I was already detaching myself from theism.  It was as if I were an observer, outside of religion and theism, looking at all these frankly farcical discussions.  Maybe that was just my inner geek; maybe I had already given up on theism and just hadn’t yet realized it.

By the time a got my doctorate in mechanical engineering, in 1993, I was convinced that every kind of theism was utterly pointless and that science would eventually cover all the ground that religion claimed.  The reason for that conviction was one of inductive reasoning: science, it seemed to me, had won every battle it had fought against religion.  Science kept contradicting scripture.  And while there were some questions that science could not yet – indeed, cannot yet today – answer, it had a pretty damned good track record.

Regardless of what had become glaringly obvious to me, many people for whom I had great respect were theists of one sort or another, so I kept my beliefs to myself.  Not that I feared reprisal or discrimination, but that I simply didn’t want to offend those people.

I also thought, at the time, that being atheist was just a way to be, and that there was no harm in theism if that’s what people needed to get through the day.  Silly me.

And so things stood until one day a few years ago, while driving to work, I heard an interview with Chris Hitchens on the radio.  Hitch explained why he was an anti-theist. It was the first time I’d heard that term.  I nearly drove off the road because I felt all the things that had been rattling around in my head for years suddenly fall into place.  It was suddenly and completely obvious to me then – and it remains so today – that once one reaches a point of being atheist, the next step to anti-theism is rather inevitable.  That is, if one steps outside of the culture of godliness and regards the impact of the god concept on humanity throughout history, one cannot but arrive at the conclusion that the god concept – though it may have been an important part of human development in the past – is today far more harmful than it is beneficial.  Specifically, religion enables behaviours that do not work towards the general well-being of individuals or societies globally.

I started reading books by the “four horsemen,” and I started to talk to people more about how I felt.  I was surprised and pleased to discover than more people around me were atheist than I’d thought.  I started blogging about atheism – and those blog posts have become common enough that I had to start a new blog just for this, I think, absolutely essential topic. (See http://replacinggod.blogspot.com/)

These days, advocating for atheism takes up a lot of my time – after my family and my work – and I’m good with that; in fact, I’m quite enjoying it.  I know I’m still a noob, but I’m a quick study, and I’m looking forward to leaving this world better than how I found it – that is, with a little more godlessness in it.

I would like to offer some observations that I’ve made over the last few years.

I think that, just as there are many types of atheists, so too are there many kinds of theists.  While this may seem trivial, there an important and, I think, under-appreciated consequence.  Any argument made by an atheist that addresses one type of theist is likely going to annoy, if not insult, some other type of theist.  This means that, eventually, we’ll do ourselves more harm than good because all theists will have one reason or another to hate us.

So it’s important that, as we start to build a voice that represents the atheist population, we phrase our supporting arguments to minimize the number of theists we offend.  They, generally, don’t care, so it’s up to us to take the high road and do it right.  Of course, this doesn’t mean we just capitulate to crackpots like Rick Perry, but we do have to (try to) make arguments that, at least, requires a substantive level of stupidity to misinterpret as an ad hominem or vitriolic attack.

Related to this, we really need to focus on the moderate theists, the ones on the verge of falling off the religious bandwagon.  It’s virtually impossible to change a bible-thumper into an atheist (this is based on the fact that virtually no fierce believer has abandoned religion); to gain critical mass as a significant social group, atheists need to focus on those who we stand a chance of moving away from religion.  A great example of this is the IQ2 debate in Australia this year on the topic of “Atheists are wrong“.  The key feature there are the pre- and post-debate statistics from the audience.  The number who maintained that atheists are wrong (the theists) remained essentially unchanged.  Those against the proposition (atheists) gained significantly by drawing on the undecided vote.  One has to bring out the “big guns” (e.g. Hitchens and Fry at IQ2 in 2009) to bring significant change to the theist side.  (One might argue that the theists who attend such debates are already primed to abandon their beliefs, so even here the numbers are probably not representative of the broader population.)

Another important feature of our struggle is to explain what will replace god and religion.  It would seem that some people benefit personally from believing in god without ever doing anything as a result of that belief that could be considered wrong or harmful.  Why should they give up the god concept?  My answer is that religion and the god concept enable evil behaviour, while secular morality systems do not (or at least do not do so as badly).  There are probably other answers.

I’m very  happy to see Sam Harris running with the ball on this matter.  In his book, The Moral Landscape, he does an excellent job of putting non-religious moral systems on equal footing with religious ones, thus undermining the conventional wisdom that god is necessary for morality.  We need more high-profile people to argue as he does that there are other perfectly valid ways to be moral than by basing morality on religion and the god concept.

I think that it’s inevitable that, eventually, religion will be finally recognized for what it is, a primitive belief system and (possibly) a symptom of mental dysfunction.  I base this on an inductive argument: science has essentially defeated religion in every case where the two went head to head.  Everything from disproving the earth is flat to explaining seizures as medical conditions rather than demonic possessions has been representative of our expanding scientific knowledge disproving religion doctrine, teaching, dogma, and scripture.

So one good way to advocate for atheism is to advocate for science.  The more science we do and teach, the more people will abandon religion and the god concept.  And by doing this, we’re not directly attacking the theists.

That’s just about all I can say, without going on for another hundred pages.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

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