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Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Atheism at Vassar College

By:  Elad Gilo

RSA Signator, Elad Gilo

After passing the half way mark of my domestic exchange semester at Vassar College, I think it appropriate to reflect upon secularism and “non-theism” as handled within its community. Vassar in many ways fulfills the quintessential notion of a small liberal arts college.  The small student body which is broken into much smaller class sizes, a predominantly homogeneous middle and upper-middle class demographic combined with a generally liberal-minded and idealistic student body, makes it a suitable place for free thought and general discontent with dogma and established patriarchal institutions seen to be forces of oppression.

My experience however, has been all too similar to most places I visit and in some ways similar to Reed College.  Vassar’s 5 religious student organizations compared to Reed’s one religious organization (Vassar has nearly 1000 students more than Reed) shows the proportional disparity of religious organization at Vassar compared to Reed.  Despite the relatively high number of religious groups that exist, the vast majority of individuals that I have encountered proclaim themselves to be soft secularists and a large number even express themselves to be Atheists.  While all of this is merely anecdotal, the underlying non-theistic world view of the student body prevails.  As I sat in on an ethics class, the teacher jovially poked fun at Vassar’s ever prominent and increasing atheistic student body, which in this case inhibited students from providing religious doctrine as basis for ethical and moral authority in the course.  All of this is encouraging from a secular point of view.

While clearly not possessing Reed’s staunch and ostentatious atheist culture, Vassar seems to be indicative of many comparable liberal arts colleges whose student body shies away from mainstream religion and even if more agnostic than atheist are not prepared to accept conventional conceptions of god. The difficultly, like at Reed has been to convince people of the pressing need for an organized secular movement. Had I been at Vassar for a longer period of time I would have started a Vassar Secular Alliance which currently does not exist.  When speaking to people about such a group it is hard to find resounding support.  People who may be completely onboard in terms of their own personal convictions fail to see the need for such a secular organization to exist, particularly because so much of their objection to religion is mass organization itself.  This is a pressing problem all over, at Reed as well and one that must be battled on the ground, talking to people one by one explaining the need for such organization.  Nonetheless my discussions are usually met with soft agreement but not acknowledgement of the pressing urgency.  Despite being disappointed at the lack of will to organize, I am also incredibly optimistic by the level of non-theism that currently exists on the campus and that constantly reminds me of the endless number of individuals who think similarly but go under the radar for not subscribing to a visible group; they are the silent warriors.

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By:  Leslie A. Zukor

Christopher Hitchens and Leslie Zukor

When I was invited to have dinner with Christopher Hitchens, I jumped at the opportunity.  For the past several years, Hitchens has made a name as a provocateur, as someone who minces no words with regard to his personal views.

His latest target, as he wrote about in God Is Not Great, is the institution of religion.  When I had the opportunity to eat dinner with Hitchens, I was curious as to the validity of the book’s subtitle, How Religion Poisons Everything.

What came next I should have expected.  Hitchens comported himself with an almost narrow-minded disdain for all things religious.  Anything good that believers did was possible without religion, and everything else was the fault of the faith.

By the end of the night, I had tired of Hitchens’s dogmatic rejection of religion.  In a room full of scholars and educated people, he could have learned something from others’ experiences.  Instead, Hitchens clung fervently to his disdain for faith.

It was ultimately Hitchens’s dogmatism that proved to be his undoing.  Such a strident rejection of religion shared more than a little in common with the religious people he condemned.  In short, Hitchens is an atheist fundamentalist.

For more about the Hitchens dinner in Portland and my objections to his dogmatism, see the Portland Monthly Magazine’s website.

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Jerry Donnelly's Letter to the Killeen Daily Herald

When Freethought Books Project webmaster, Jerry Donnelly, read about a religious prison program in his newspaper, he felt compelled to speak out.   “I would like to let readers know there is another way to reach inmates,” he said.  Donnelly went on to extol the virtues of the Freethought Books Project, which gives secular, freethinking, and humanist literature to inmates across the US.

“The Freethought Book[s] Project…does not involve indoctrination in the supernatural, but rather the simple opening of the human mind, with its incredible powers of reason and logic, to the amazing natural world that we live in through reading freethought, secular and science-oriented books.”

In short, Donnelly’s letter to the Killeen Daily Herald recommended alternatives to preaching a religious message in prison.  “Through this program…prisoners will learn to rely on their own logic, reason and inner strength to become successful, productive members of society.”  Keep up the good work, Jerry!

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Inside the Mind of a Creationist

Reflections on a Trip to the Creation Museum

By:  Patrick Julius

Patrick Julius (far right) and SSA Executive Director August Brunsman

Patrick Julius (far right) and SSA Executive Director August Brunsman

Editor’s Note:  Patrick Julius is the founder and President of the Secular Student Alliance chapter at the University of Michigan.  Recently, Julius attended the national Secular Student Alliance (SSA) conference in Ohio.  The convention included the opportunity to go to the Creation Museum in Kentucky.  About 300 attendees went, and the following are Patrick’s reflections on the experience.

Recently I visited the Creation Museum in Kentucky. One exhibit above all hangs in my mind: A diagram showing the complex evolution of ape species, gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees; the diagram is largely correct from what I’ve read, though the scale at the side is off by a factor of almost a thousand. But then, beside it is a diagram of human evolution—or lack thereof: It is a straight line, with no change, no divergence. The citation given is for a Bible verse, Acts 17:26. (I looked it up, and even more remarkably it seems that they have abridged the verse significantly, and their translation is nonstandard. Read most literally, it seems to imply only that all humans share a common ancestor, presumably Adam.) This nicely encapsulates their whole worldview: Human beings are different from all other animals, and our reading of the Bible is more important than any amount of empirical evidence. The rest of the Museum is really only so much expounding upon this one point.

Another important exhibit, also characteristic of the Museum, is what my friend called “atheistland.” This exhibit is a short, winding alley sprayed with graffiti and plastered with news articles; the general sense seems to be that this world of crime, vandalism, suffering, moral relativism (and, the exhibit can’t help but add, gay rights, secularism and feminism) is the terrible result of people turning away from God and the Bible. In fact, crime and suffering have decreased in recent decades and centuries (Pinker talks at TED about why this might be so), moral relativism is ridiculous but usually harmless (since no one actually believes it; they just like tearing down other people’s morals), and gay rights, secularism, and feminism are among the best things ever to happen to the human race. But this is plainly not how Creationists see things.

And I must confess, I have difficulty sympathizing with these people. I just can’t wrap my mind around the idea that millions of otherwise normal people could believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old. I keep feeling that they must be lying, or miscommunicating, or something; they can’t possibly really believe what they say they do.

In fact, maybe they don’t. I don’t think anyone believes in Adam and Eve the way I believe the Earth is round. The way I believe the Earth is round is such a simple, obvious matter; look, it’s round. This is clearly not how people believe in Creationism; the world doesn’t look 6,000 years old. It’s not obvious that tyrannosaurs used to be herbivorous; nor do I think it could seem obvious to anyone. Belief in Creationism could be like the way I believe in quantum mechanics; it isn’t at all obvious—indeed, it’s quite counter-intuitive—but the evidence in its favor is too overwhelming to ignore. But really, I think people believe in Creationism the way I believe in justice, or the way I believe in morality. You can’t just look at the world and see without a doubt that justice is possible, or that morality is absolute; yet on a deep level I do hold to these propositions.

Yet even this isn’t quite right, since in believing in justice I don’t have to discount a massive body of scientific evidence; rather, it merely seems like the sort of thing that cannot be directly accessed through experiment and observation. But Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, and herbivorous tyrannosaurs—these are the sort of thing that ought to be accessible to empirical study; it’s just that under such study they fail miserably. Yet people continue to profess belief in these things.

The explanation for this may ultimately rest on Dennett’s concept of “belief in belief”: No one really believes in herbivorous tyrannosaurs, but they do in fact believe in morality (the same way I believe in morality), and furthermore believe that in order to sensibly believe in morality, one must profess a belief in herbivorous tyrannosaurs. Voltaire wrote, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” I agree; but I think Creationists believe quite the opposite, that in order to not commit atrocities, you must believe (or claim to believe) absurdities.

If this is correct, then no amount of scientific evidence for evolution will be persuasive to any Creationist; we must instead offer moral evidence, to show that herbivorous tyrannosaurs are not a necessary (or even beneficial) part of a sound human ethic. The answer will not be found in science, but in humanism.

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Editor’s Note:  The following is the text of Reed Secular Alliance President, Leslie Zukor’s letter to the editor of the Oregonian.  Although this letter wasn’t published, it is the latest in the RSA’s efforts to stand up for science and rational thought.

I am disappointed by Charles Hunter’s (August 1st) characterization of the practitioners of rational thought.  As the President of the Reed Secular Alliance, a college atheist and freethought group, I know that the majority of freethinkers are not advocates of genocide.

Contrary to Hunter’s assertion, leaders who use rational thought do not kill millions of their own people.  In reality, the atheists I know rebuild houses in New Orleans, give food to the hungry, and donate books to prisoners. In short, we are concerned with creating a just society in this our only chance at life.

If the world were populated with more clear-thinking rationalists, I am confident that it would be a better place to live.  In a universe of careful observation and analysis, Ava Worthington would have had the best of medical care.  Now she is dead, and we have only religious dogmatism to blame.

Leslie A. Zukor
President, Reed Secular Alliance
Portland, Oregon

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On July 17th – 22nd, Reed Secular Alliance President, Leslie Zukor, attended the Center For Inquiry’s Civic Days in Washington, DC.  The following are Zukor’s reflections about the experience.  We hope that you will enjoy what she has to say.

Leslie Zukor and CFI Founder, Paul Kurtz

Leslie Zukor and CFI Founder, Paul Kurtz

Although I had been to Washington, DC before, I never had the chance to lobby my representatives.  In high school, I had been part of the Close-Up and Presidential Classroom Foundation’s trips to the nation’s capital.  While I had enjoyed the experience, going to Washington, DC was more about meeting legislators, rather than influencing them.  However, the Center For Inquiry’s Civic Days changed all that.

Toni Van Pelt explains the process of lobbying

Toni Van Pelt explains the process of lobbying

Directed by the CFI Office of Public Policy’s Toni Van Pelt, the conference’s 20 attendees were treated to a crash course in lobbying for secular principles.   Van Pelt explained the problems with Charitable Choice, namely, Congress’s efforts to allow religious organizations to provide social services, when they discriminate in hiring and employment.  She also expressed concerns about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, regarding homosexuals in the armed forces.

The Lobbying Group, including Melody Hensley, Toni Van Pelt, and Leslie Zukor

The Lobbying Group, including Melody Hensley, Toni Van Pelt, and Leslie Zukor

In addition to discussing Charitable Choice and “don’t ask, don’t tell”, on Friday, June 17th, CFI unveiled its “Credibility Project”.  The Credibility Project is an analysis of nearly 700 global warming deniers, who were named in James Inhofe’s Senate Minority Report.  While many of those cited are indeed scientists, only 10 – 15% are actually scientists with original, peer reviewed research.  In short, there are more meteorologists than scientific experts named in Inhofe’s list.

Brian Baird explains the threat of global warming

Brian Baird explains the threat of global warming

While it was great lobbying Congressional offices, I was a little disappointed with the lack of access to our elected officials.  During the whole conference, we only had the opportunity to hear one Congressperson speak, and that was Brian Baird of Washington State.  Although I do understand that our legislators are busy, I attended a US Capitol Historical Society event later in the week, and there were three to four Congresspeople at a single event.  Despite the lack of distinguished speakers, I did enjoy my stay in Washington, DC.

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Good Without God

How I Live Out My Secular Values

By:  Leslie A. Zukor

Leslie Zukor proudly wears an irreverent t-shirt

Leslie Zukor proudly wears an irreverent t-shirt

Editor’s Note:  Leslie Zukor is the founder and President of the Reed Secular Alliance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.  She is a Senior Anthropology major and an avid photographer, squirrel enthusiast, and baseball fan.  Zukor aspires to be an author and social activist.

Before I was an atheist, I didn’t believe that people could be good without god. In my conservative worldview, humans were divided into two camps, those who were good and those who were evil. Prisoners were all evil people, whose sinfulness had condemned them to a life of harsh punishment. After all, they needed draconian penalties to correct their immoral actions. Only those who had faith in an all-just and all-powerful god and lived a perfect life were worthy of my respect. However, by the time I graduated from high school, my right-wing worldview had begun to crumble.

Although I was a conservative during high school, it was reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian the summer before college that led to the undoing of my religious faith. Through perusing freethinking authors, I learned that atheists were not all dirt-worshiping materialists. In point of fact, non-believers had the same moral aspirations as did everybody else. Armed with this new-found understanding, I put my theistic beliefs under the microscope. And upon further inspection, I concluded that the preponderance of the evidence pointed toward there being no god.

After my atheist transformation, I understood that there was no god to rescue me, no divine being to reward good people with heaven and punish the wicked with hell. Rather, I had to take my own initiative here on earth to create a more just society. Furthermore, as the result of my experience with people, I have learned that “good” and “evil” are merely approximations of an individual’s total moral compass. People are shaped by their biology, the environment, and their own free choices, making them complex beings who are hardly wholly heavenly or heinous.

As a result of my new-found understanding about human nature, I wanted to help people who are often neglected by our society. Thus, as a sophomore in college, I started the Freethought Books Project, to give atheist, humanist, and freethinking literature to inmates and others in need across the United States. Freethinking literature had opened up a whole new world of human-based ethics in my life, and I believed that it had the same potential among prisoners. And it was through corresponding with the incarcerated that I truly lived out my secular values.

After corresponding with thirty inmates, I realized that the incarcerated are not all evil sociopaths, destined for divine punishment. Rather, there are a million possible reasons for why someone could be in prison, including victimless crimes such as cannabis use. While it is sometimes taxing to communicate with those who have committed great crimes, the best we can do for inmates is to inspire the critical inquiry that leads to minds being freed and rational thought about their current condition. Personally speaking, my non-theist creed is to promote justice in this our only shot at life on earth.

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