If Atheism is a religion, CFI is its Vatican

The question that needs to be addressed today is: Who is behind the growing freethought movement in Canada, and how much control do they have?

CFI Transational - "The Vatican of Atheism"
CFI Transnational – aka “The Vatican of Atheism”

Pictured above is the headquarters of the Center For Inquiry in Amherst, New York (just outside Buffalo) and the major leaders of freethought in Canada, John Xu, Katie Kish and Justin Trottier.

While not quite as glamourous, the main headquarters of the Centre For Inquiry Canada / Ontario can be seen here:

CFI Canada isn't as luxurious

It may look like church, but I assure you its not...

These pictures are from my trip to the CFI Student Leadership Conference last summer which I documented in several stages (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7). Overall, the conference was a blast, despite some rumours, that I ignored then, about the heavy-handedness of some of the leadership.

But recently, and especially as CFI has been expanding, I’ve begun to question how this movement in Canada, and abroad, is structured.

In the USA, there’s no shortage of freethought/secular/skeptic/humanist/atheist/rationalist/any-other-name-you-can-put-to-it (henceforth I will refer to all of these groups as “secular” except in the case of specific groups) groups that exist. See the following chart for a rough diagram of how they all fit together (h/t Friendly Atheist) (also note that this chart is over 2 years old, and applies primarily to the USA):

Atheist Organizational Chart

Not exactly simple right? And there’s a lot more overlap in the work that they do then is self evident.

For a simple example, a new secular campus group can seek funding, pamphletting materials, startup packages (including sample constitutions and event suggestions) and speakers bureaus from both the Secular Student Alliance and CFI-On Campus. For a new group starting up, the only difference is the resources available to each.

Luckily for new student groups, these umbrella groups don’t force their campus chapters to be exclusive or conform to any objectives of the umbrella. So long as you promote freethinking in some fashion, the SSA and CFI will support you (often simultaneously).

So what does the organizational chart of Freethought in Canada look like?


There is also a “Skeptics Canada” group, but it’s website hasn’t been touched for two years, so I excluded it.

As far as I can tell, none of the organizations in Canada have a member-elected board, and the Freethought Association of Canada is a registered charity.

Unfortunately or not, there’s not actually as much diversity of ideas as that graphic leads on.

If our example is of CFI Transnational being the Vatican, then founder Paul Kurtz would have been the Pope (until he was recently relieved of his duties by the new president Ron Lindsay – again h/t Friendly Atheist for coverage of that scandal). Continuing the analogy, CFI Canada would then be an Archdiocese and Justin Trottier would be Archbishop of Canada.

Justin didn’t start with CFI though. His first group was the University of Toronto Secular Alliance, which eventually spawned the Freethought Association of Canada, now headed by Katie Kish (pictured above).

After the TSA/FAC, with help from Amherst, Justin founded CFI Ontario (which has become CFI Canada), where he remains executive director to this day.

But that still wasn’t enough for him, and he presides over the Canadian Secular Alliance.

Finally, the Canadian Atheist Bus Campaign was started by FAC, but atheistbus.ca is registered to Chris Hammond, who organizes the campaign for FAC.

So out of the four major secular organizations in Canada, Justin Trottier founded or currently runs three of them. He has proven to be quite the success for secularism in Canada, earning quite the media repetoire of interviews, TV panels and nationally-syndicated columns. He literally has become the “face of atheism” in Canada.

But looking back through his career, I pause to ask, when did the Evil Atheist Conspiracy proclaim him our saviour from above spokesperson?

Actually, that question doesn’t really bother me. He did a lot of leg work for the movement and worked his way from campus organizing to taking on leaders of the Canadian Christian Right (something I got to try too).

But now that the movement is really becoming visible, it’s time to stop and question if it’s time for a change in direction for at least one of these organizations?

Now, in his spare time Justin also finds time to run a blog over at Equalism Activism, but I can almost guarantee you it’s not exactly what you’d expect. From the statement on his site:

We believe in equalism, not equity. Provide people equal opportunities, be they atheists and theists, secularists and religious, or men and women; groups should not be subject to social engineering meant to enforce equality of results or systematically bias our neutral public spaces.
This blog is dedicated to the defense of those seemingly all powerful in our society:

1) Scientists: pioneering inquirers, denigrated as arrogant elitists,
2) Rationalists: searching for truth with openness and fallibility, lambasted by the postmodern left and the religious right
3) Secularists: striving to maintain church-state separation, squeezed between religious accommodationists and multicultural ideologues,
4) Men: who die younger, are at greater risk of the top ten causes of death, suffer legal biases against fathers, are denounced in the media, are greater victims of violent crime, yet can’t stop apologizing for their gender
We speak for those groups supposedly invulnerable to slander…not because we believe in censorship and wish to silence our critics. Just the opposite. Because we believe in the most uncompromising freedom of expression. So we’re going to say some things that need to be said.

That last one will catch a lot of freethinkers off guard for a second or two. The Men’s Rights movement is definitely controversial, and I know from personal discussions with secular activists who would otherwise be more involved with CFI (which is currently the pre-eminent secular organization in Canada) have shyed away due to several of Justin’s statements at Equalism Activism and on his Facebook page.

In an ideal society we could keep his men’s rights work separate from his secular work (as I’ve similarly tried to keep my NDP campaigning apart from my secular work), but there’s going to be slips, and the media/public may not always draw the lines that ought to be there.

Case in point, Justin recounts in one post how he was contacted for an interview for the Atheist Bus Campaign (a frequent occurrence), and claims the person securing the interview immediately jumped to FACs then Vice President, Katie Kish for the interview (supposedly for the sexist reasons of misrepresenting the number of females in atheist organizations). Justin writes:

They immediately targeted Katie as the ideal guest (they didn’t even ask about Chris [Hammond, organizer of the atheist bus initiative]), as she is female and they are looking to increase the presence of female voices. Is this a CBC policy, I asked. No, just an unofficial practice. So you would rather speak to the Vice President then the President of the Association, I asked. Well, I’m sure you’re both equally capable spokespeople, was the reply (this is from memory so it may not be exact). Now Katie is more then qualified and she had already fielded loads of these interviews, but there was no attempt at all by this producer to differentiate us in other more meaningful ways, such as by experience, involvement in this campaign, or other accomplishments. It was all about gender.

I told them, very calmly, that I found this sexist, both against men who work hard to earn the leadership of organizations, and against women. Think about it. The media is effectively hiding the real position of females within NGO’s if they pretend they have more power within the organization then they really do, and that’s hardly helpful towards improving the real status of women if that is something they are concerned with. It cuts both ways, right? Anyway, they decided to have me on the air, but ended up emailing later in the day to cancel the segment, no reason given. I would have worried more, had I not already done like 30 radio spots (in fact, I was at CBC studios fielding 6 radio interviews in a row when that particular email came through).

Perhaps I’m being paranoid, but that was only one of two interviews to cancel on me, and the other gave a damn good excuse – coverage of the Tamil Tigers.

One commenter states that Justin’s behaviour was very “unprofessional.” And I’d have to agree. Not everyone has an agenda, and even if they do, leave your mysogony to your personal life, on that telephone Justin, you were representing CFI and by extension of the bus campaign, all atheists in Canada.

I’ve seen some of the groups in Ontario and across Canada, and there’s one thing most atheist groups have in common: an overabundance of testoterone. If that interviewer wanted to put up a female voice to counter the repeated white-male voices, all the better for us to look diverse and inclusive.

So this brings me to my current state of mind.

The secular movement in Canada is just shy of Justin Trottier’s personal movement. Not only that, there seems to be little to no check on his power within the organizations he controls.

Several of these groups have mysterious boards of directors (that I’ve never met nor heard of) and an array of executive officers, but none are accountable to actual atheists across Canada. If anything, CFI Transnational in Amherst has more control over the secular movement in Canada then actual Canadians do (remind you of anything?).

Luckily, CFI has exerted very little control over its local communities and centres. CFI Calgary, which became CFI Alberta, was structured entirely from the grassroots by activists in the province. As more Edmontonians started joining CFI Calgary, Cliff Erasmus, the director of CFI Calgary, worked out a multi-city partnership which formed CFI Alberta. This is the first time that the Center for Inquiry has ever set up a community across multiple cities, and so far it seems to be a success.

Each Centre/Community is basically free to decide their own objectives, just so long as they fall under the Centre for Inquiry’s broad overarching mission statement.

And this is not to diminish the work of Justin, he definitely championed for autonomy for the local Canadian Communities and Centres to Amherst, and a lot of what’s been accomplished in establishing this movement must be accredited to him.

Yet each local Centre/Community remains a microcosm of the greater issue that plagues CFI: members aren’t in control. Even the Unitarian Universalists elect their leadership. And half of them are atheists already (note: made up statistic)!

For the Center For Inquiry to truly place itself and secular humanism as a legitimate alternative to established religions, it must do things differently then the religions.

While it is likely easier to run an organization like a business and merely push secularism as a product for the Canadian culture to consume, and this tactic could likely be highly successful in this world, I don’t think that’s the kind of organization that many activists want to be part of. I know I’m personally growing increasingly uneasy with this situation as it exists – and I say this having been given a role as “Campus Regional Coordinator” for all the universities from Victoria to Winnipeg (not exactly manageable for a full-time student with no travel budget).

Meanwhile, the Secular Student Alliance, mentioned earlier, operates more ideally, with a board that is elected by the paid members of the organization (another perk of paying to join the SSA). The board then appoints, and holds responsible, the executive director and other staff of the organization.

If it all comes down to money, at least the prospect of a minor bit of control over the organization you’re buying into would likely push further to sell a few more CFI memberships.

I recall talk a while back of CFI moving towards an elected board, but since Ron Lindsay assumed the presidency of the organization, no obvious moves have been made.

I can nearly guarantee you that every campus group affiliated with CFI holds their leadership accountable to their members, so its time for the big boys (sic) in Toronto and Amherst to face their membership.

If they’re doing a good job, they should have nothing to worry about.

Once final note, you can read the email I sent to Justin Trottier, D.J. Grothe, and Ron Lindsay with my concerns here. If I get a reply, I’ll let you know.

11 thoughts on “If Atheism is a religion, CFI is its Vatican”

  1. Holy smokes, Ian!

    While there are a lot of things that need a response, I just want to clear one thing up.

    FAC is a registered charity. And although it was founded by Justin he is no longer involved except to advise me when I run into something I honestly can’t handle… (charities are pretty complicated).

    But the entire board is voted on during a public meeting that we informed over 500 people who are our members. So… FAC ftw.

    And we’ve taken it in a completely different direction than what Justin intended it to be for.

  2. You are far too generous in your assessment of Justin and his web site. He has posted a string of logically flawed, outright false, and generally mean spiritied articles. He has shown himself simply too lazy to do basic research which meets general academic of scientific standards. Then, he claims to blog in defense of science. Justin is either delusional or just plain lying a lot of the time on his blog. The effect is the same, he’s not a good face for secularism in Canada.

  3. CFI has always been and always will be a top-down organization that attempts to portray itself as having “grassroots” membership and involvement. Kurtz feared ceding too much control to the membership, always hated boards and advisory committees, and there’s no sign that the new leadership feels any differently.

  4. I noticed Justin has written a fairly extensive repsonse to this matter on his Equalism Activism blog – around Oct26th.

  5. Humanist Canada is a registered charity with a member-elected board of directors. I run a local-affiliate of that organization. It was founded by Henry Morgentaler in 1968.

    Also, for completion sake, you missed the Ontario Humanist Society

    1. I’m aware of Humanist Canada. I believe its elections are what allows it to move past fractured boards.

      I included only national organizations because otherwise there would be a lot of provincial and municipal affiliates.

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