The Evolving Atheist: The Toronto Effect

The car was a white boat. A New Yorker that drove like a tank and got almost no mileage. The car was in cruise control and approaching the outskirts of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada in the drizzled rain. It was September 30, 1986 and the good Catholic boy was at the wheel.

First, Thunder Bay’s “claim to fame” is that it is the city where Terry Fox ended his cross-Canada run when his cancer returned. Second, it is a small quiet city mostly known for its paper mills and logging.

Back in 1986, Alberta would allow auto learning licenses at the age of fourteen. Generally it was so that the farmers could get the kids working the tractors on the family farms. The boy had gotten his learner’s permit prior to leaving Calgary. There was uncertainty that he was legally allowed to drive out of province, but his father snoring beside him was enough of a confidence boost for him as he saw that relaxation as a sign of trust.

Considering how far they had traveled, it was more likely a sign of exhaustion.

The three spent a night at a Thunder Bay motel sharing a pizza and watching the premier of the television show Sledge Hammer. It was a good night of laughs before heading southeast. The next morning, other than washroom and meal breaks, the three traveled 17 hours straight to Toronto.

The three arrived completely exhausted. Technically homeless, but the boy’s uncle on the mother’s side lived in Mississauga with his family. Mississauga is the city that borders Toronto on the west.

The boys were each given a choice of what school to go to. They had an apartment that would be available October 15 across the street from the uncle’s home, so they were staying in the area. The brother chose the local public high school for its band program. The good Catholic boy chose the Catholic school, St Ignatius Loyola Secondary School…not for expected reasons, however. He liked that they wore uniforms and that would keep his clothing costs cheap.

On the first Sunday as they stayed at the uncle’s, they were all preparing for church. The boy’s uncle and aunt had recently become “born again” Christians, so they had their own service to attend. They had two small children, a three year old boy and a daughter just a year old. As they were preparing to leave, the little girl toddled to the top of the stairs that looked down to the entry foyer. She then proceeded to do a flip off the top step, somehow missing all of the twelve steps and landing in the good Catholic boy’s hands. After the screaming from her fear subsided, the aunt decided to blame the boy for having distracted her daughter

There were nights when the good Catholic boy would come over to play with his young cousins. He would listen to his aunt and uncle go on about the mysteries of God and how great that was. The boy thought of many questions that he would keep to himself for fear of where those conversations would go. Some of those questions did slip out and were quelled very fast by saying how God worked in wonderful ways that humans would never understand.

The high school was typical, no doubt. Hormones running wild as the girls hiked their kilts higher and higher. All of his time in high school, unlike the Amazon at Carmody Jr. High in Denver, he never was aware of any of his female classmates showing any interest in him. He wore a tie, a cardigan, a fedora and even carried a briefcase. He was like Douglas Adam’s complaining scientists as he claimed to hate parties and such…but that was simply as he was never invited. The good Catholic boy did, however, get his first taste of what some would call the occult through joining a group playing Dungeons & Dragons at the local public library after school. Being it was a Catholic school, playing on school grounds was frowned upon.

The boy would graduate high school six months earlier than his peers. He then proceeded to volunteer at a Catholic elementary school. He had his eyes set on becoming a teacher. He would later abandon that idea due to finding that hiring quotas were making it difficult for caucasian males to get into such positions.

It was God’s will that he do something else. But what? And why was God so secretive about it?

In the summer on 1988 the good Catholic boy picked up his first book on the occult. It was a book on spiritual meditation and psychic abilities. He read the entire book sitting in his mother’s Chrysler LeBaron as he waited to pick up Kathy for their first blind date.

Kathy would become his first girlfriend. Their first date was just a soda pop at a local eatery as he had tickets for an upcoming concert by his favourite band, Chicago, and through a connection from his parents had invited Kathy.

She was the first girl he kissed in an extremely awkward kiss on the shore of Lake Ontario in the freezing cold. She was the first girl that he touched above and beyond slow dancing as one evening his hands ‘accidentally’ slid under her sweater.

He attended York University that fall majoring in economics and also taking courses on religion with thoughts of a minor. It seemed easy. He also took broadcasting courses and did get his certificate for that.

The boy was also exposed to Douglas Adams’ trilogy in five parts, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The good Catholic boy has never completed his university degree, however.

In the early spring of 1989, Billy Joel was touring in support of his Storm Front release. The good Catholic boy had tickets for nosebleed seats at the old Maple Leaf Gardens where he would take Kathy that evening. The couple, however, was almost late as prior to the show…at his home…in his basement bedroom while his parents were out…on his tiny twin bed…he lost his virginity to Kathy.

In the winter of 1991, the boy and his father sat quietly watching the television screen in the living room. Explosions, the rat-a-tat of machine guns, and watching tanks rolling along the screen was their shared activity. It was the good Catholic boy’s first war as they went after Saddam the first time in the “Mother of all wars”. His father turned to the boy and asked if he would like a beer. That was his first beer.

Two nights later he sat in the same room, alone this time, nursing his second beer. He had the house to himself and fell in love with two shows that evening. The first was Star Trek: The Next Generation as he watched both parts of the third season cliff hanger when Picard is assimilated by the Borg. The second show was full of Catholic and occult references…The Exorcist.

In the summer of 1991, he found out that Kathy was also the first girl to ever cheat on him. She had attended a weekend seminar for her church youth group and hooked up with one of the slightly older leaders. All bias aside, the good Catholic boy never held any ill will towards her for doing this. He was more surprised than hurt.

The good Catholic boy then did what all good Catholic boys would do. He went and had a talk with one of the parish priests about his situation.

The broadcasting courses had finally helped to kill some of his shyness and timidity, so he shared with the priest that he was sexually active with a young woman. The priest then gave him a lecture that would strike fear in most hearts. Sinning, fire, brimstone and penance were the order of that evening’s discussion.

The good Catholic boy went from the priest’s office to the local mall for a coffee. He sat in the coffee shop and looked at the book store across the hall from him. Finishing his coffee, he wandered into the bookstore and picked up the Rider Waite Tarot Deck.

To separate himself from what had become an awkward feeling, he left Toronto in August of 1991. One of his class buddies, a fellow Dungeons & Dragons player came along with him.

One aside as this chapter wraps up. The priest that gave the lecture left the priesthood not long after that and married one of the women he had been sleeping with while he was a priest.


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