Long before he became Canada's top atheist, Christopher diCarlo was an altar boy.

"I was born and baptized and bred in a pretty staunch Catholic upbringing," the University of Ontario Institute of Technology professor
and Guelph resident recalls.

Even then, however, the seeds of his eventual disbelief were being planted.

Like any little boy, he asked his mother about right and wrong and the makeup of the world. But it wasn't the questions that made him doubt his family's religion, he says, it was the answers.

"It's when you get into conversations with Mom and you ask, 'Why is the sky blue?' and she says, 'Well, it's God's favourite colour.' "

Simplistic even to a young boy, the answer seemed increasingly trite as the years passed. More questions and more doubt soon followed. A turning point came regarding a young friend who wasn't Catholic.

"I asked, 'What's going to happen to Howie Goldstein when he dies?' "

Told that his friend and his family might go to hell because they were Jewish, diCarlo had his first real crisis of faith.

"I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute, they seem like a pretty nice family,' " diCarlo says. "Why would God create a bunch of people and just because they have different beliefs, punish them forever?"

By the time he reached university, after a childhood of Sunday dinner discussions and debates with high school buddies and friends of his older brothers, already in university, diCarlo had become a staunch humanist, as atheists prefer to be called.

And last weekend, he was honoured as Humanist of the Year by the Humanist Association of Canada at their convention at a downtown Toronto hotel.

Being singled out for excellence in his field is not new for diCarlo. The former University of Guelph professor won the title of Best Lecturer on TV Ontario's "Big Ideas" in April.

He makes the long commute from Guelph to Oshawa, where he has taught at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, because he has school age children and extended family here.

DiCarlo teaches both bioethics and critical thinking at Oshawa's UOIT, where he pushes students to recognize the cultural and religious underpinnings of their opinions. Such self-awareness, he says, is essential to constructing a strong argument -- the goal of his university lectures and a current book project.

"The last thing I want is to make a bunch of converts (to atheism)," he says.

He says that's what separates him from other atheist thinkers who argue that no good has come of religion, which they blame for the world's inequities and leading nations to war.

"It doesn't bother me that people are religious or spiritual up until it moves them to do something that harms others," he says.

"You can worship squirrels for all I care."

Statistics Canada reports that atheism is now the second-largest belief system in the country, at 16.3 per cent in the 2001 census, behind Catholicism at 43.2 per cent. In 1971, only one per cent of Canadians identified as atheist.

But to hear Kathy Meidell explain it, only one per cent would admit to being non-believers in 1971.

"The number just keeps going up -- or, at least, the number of people willing to come out of the closet is going up," says the executive director of the Humanist Association of Canada, which celebrates its 40th anniversary with this weekend's meeting.

According to the 2001 census, 40 per cent of those identifying as non-believers were aged 24 years or younger. A recent Harris-Decima poll found that 23 per cent of Canadians do not believe in any God.

As in the religious world, they have myriad groups through which to congregate, some identifying as humanist, others as free thinker and still others bold enough to use the world atheist.