BY EMILY NUSSBAUM
"INTRODUCING--THE HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE!" Derek Araujo, a founder of the Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA), leans away from the microphone and teases a jazzy groove from his electric guitar. Drums kick in, then another guitar, and finally the saxophone--a serpentine riff from an eighteen-year-old blonde girl sporting suede platform shoes and a rhinestone choker. It's the final banquet of a meeting of secular humanists and skeptics from around the country. The dessert-nibbling crowd consists largely of fifty-year-olds in pearls and blazers, but here and there a college student's carrottop or bleach-streaked coif stands out among the gray. The musical number--an original by Araujo--has been renamed for this occasion. It's called "For Hook, Quine, and Pinker," after three of the most prominent influences on the secular humanist movement.
Meet the CFA, a youthful offshoot of the twenty-five-year-old secular humanism movement begun by atheist philosopher Paul Kurtz back in the 1970s. Founded in 1996, the CFA has expanded rapidly and now includes more than one hundred campus organizations, ranging from a tiny enclave of two isolated students at the University of Guelph in Ontario to a rowdy gang of one hundred dues-paying, debate-sponsoring enthusiasts at the University of Minnesota. Secular humanism, these idealistic nonbelievers believe, can be more than just the rejection of religion; for them it is the affirmation of a life philosophy, offering moral direction, an intellectual toolkit, and a call to political action. And this summer--jokingly christened Summer Slave Labor Workfest '99 by its organizers--a geographically diverse group of CFA members have gathered in rural Amherst, New York, where Kurtz's Center for Inquiry is based, to construct the movement's groundwork. While more traditional events such as this week's conference--the Center's summer session, featuring courses on the psychology of belief--swirl around them, these volunteers are busy. They're xeroxing; they're writing how-to-start-your-own-CFA pamphlets; they're planning activities like the popular Superstition Bash (a Friday the 13th bacchanal during which celebrants walk under ladders and smash mirrors); and they're zeroing in on methods to fight the religious right and protect free speech. (They're also flirting and watching South Park.)
The CFA aims to provide skeptical college students with much of what Hillel, Campus Crusade for Christ, and the Muslim Students' Association offer their devout counterparts: lectures, parties, activism, and a supportive community of like-minded compatriots--all the ingredients, in short, of a well-rounded personal identity. When people think of young atheists, says Araujo, they think not of thoughtful and respected scholars like Richard Feynman and E.O. Wilson, but of teenage sociopaths like the Columbine killers. The CFA hopes to turn that image around, and in the process, to make godlessness cool again. To quote executive director Amanda Chesworth, writing in the organization's e-bulletin: "We're no longer just a movement, we're a revolution--and we've got what it takes to kick some irrational butt!"
Evidently, the CFA has tapped into a reservoir of social and political energy. The group's optimism is infectious. Yet, in setting itself up as an alternative to campus religious groups, one might wonder whether the CFA is guilty of substituting one form of groupthink for another. Is this identity politics for universalists? A congregation for independent thinkers? Or are the similarities to organized religion--formal meetings, rituals, and shared beliefs--merely superficial? Is it possible to adopt so many of the trappings that make shared spiritual identities so appealing--and then use them to do battle against blind faith?
Humanism as a philosophy--in its broadest definition, an emphasis on human experience as the basis of morality and knowledge--has existed, in various fuzzy forms, since the beginning of time. Confucianism, the Greek Skeptics, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, "scientific," "ethical," and "Marxist" flavors--everything from Unitarianism to Darwinism has fallen under the up-with-people semantic umbrella, making for bedfellows as strange as Friedrich Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir. Back in ancient Greece, Protagoras asserted that "man is the measure of all things"; in the Renaissance, the neo-Platonist philosopher Pico della Mirandola said that God instructed man to "fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer." Renaissance humanists like Mirandola were also, most often, deeply religious and mystical. It is only in more recent times that distinctly secular forms of humanism began to emerge--in forms too numerous to survey.
Today's secular humanist movement takes its inspiration most directly from the early-twentieth-century pragmatism of the American philosopher John Dewey, and some of his disciples such as the late New York University philosopher Sidney Hook. For Dewey and Hook, human beings were animals who use their intelligence to solve problems. Without any assistance from above, they reason together to determine the most successful way to resolve unsettling situations. Dewey and Hook's "pragmatic naturalism" stressed the origin of both scientific truth and ethical conduct in the fallible and revisable workings of human reason.
Secular humanism as a distinct philosophy blossomed in the 1970s, thanks largely to Kurtz, now a professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Buffalo. A charismatic septuagenarian, Kurtz was born into a nonobservant Jewish family but rejects all nationalistic and tribal allegiances. As a soldier in World War II, he helped liberate Dachau and says his vision of human nature was shaped by the war. "I was in a foxhole," he says brusquely. "I was an atheist. There are lots of atheists in foxholes; they just didn't discuss it." To spread the word about godless morality, Kurtz has sponsored and spoken at hundreds of conferences on topics such as "Why Does Religion Persist?" featuring mediagenic rationalists such as Richard Dawkins and Wendy Kaminer and earning him the sarcastic nickname "Mr. Secular Humanism" from Pat Robertson. Indeed, Kurtz has been a perennial target of the religious right. Last February, the police contacted him to let him know he was on a hit list connected to an antiabortion rally in nearby Buffalo.
In 1978 Kurtz broke from the American Humanist Association to insist upon the necessity of rejecting religious thought. Updating the Humanist Manifesto signed by Dewey and other thinkers in 1933, Kurtz had already issued his own Humanist Manifesto in 1973. "We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of survival and fulfillment of the human race," he decreed. "No deity will save us; we must save ourselves." Ethics, he affirmed, derive from "human need and interest." Reason and intelligence are the most useful tools humans possess; faith and passion are weak substitutes for independent thought. Secular humanism, in Kurtz's formulation, was an activist philosophy. Grasping that ethics is man-made, he argued, would stimulate people to work toward a fairer society, one free from dogma and mind-numbing ritual.
In 1980 Kurtz penned a follow-up Secular Humanist Declaration, which denounced the dangers of fundamentalist religion and "cults of unreason." And this September, the prolific thinker rolled out a millennial update: Humanist Manifesto III: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism, a fourteen-thousand-word document advocating a humanist response to ethnic cleansing, economic globalization, the anonymity of cyberspace, and other modern conundrums.
Over the last quarter century, Kurtz has become a veritable Rupert Murdoch of nonbelief, sponsoring hundreds of god-free institutions and publications. His own books--which range in style from hyper-academic to near self-help--number thirty-six, and include Exuberance: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life (1977), A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology(1985), and The Courage to Become: The Virtues of Humanism(1997) (the last title being a sly dig at the existential theologian Paul Tillich, author of The Courage to Be).
In 1995 Kurtz established the Center for Inquiry (CFI) in Amherst. The center is an airy, hospitable structure complete with a glass display case full of snake-oil cures, a thirty-thousand-volume library, and busts of Darwin and Voltaire, not to mention a surreal mural of a humanist "last supper" in which Albert Einstein, Langston Hughes, and Margaret Sanger sit serenely side by side. The center supports two distinct organizations: the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Each organization puts out a magazine. Free Inquiry, CSH's publication, aims to "promote and nurture the good life--life guided by reason and science, freed from the dogmas of God and state, inspired by compassion for fellow humans..." and features special issues on subjects such as "Rescuing Family Values From the Religious Right." The more gimlet-eyed Skeptical Inquirer, published by CSICOP, debunks alternative health scams, pseudoscience, and other extrarational phenomena.
Meanwhile, Kurtz's publishing company, Prometheus Press, adds one hundred new books a year to an extensive backlist that includes a Great Minds series with works by Voltaire, Julian and Thomas Huxley, and the Darwin-influenced German philosopher Ernst Haeckel. Kurtz's latest project is Philo: The Journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers, a brand-new academic publication issued by CSH. Intended as a corrective to the growth of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the resurgence of belief in the universe as a product of "intelligent design," Philo features such articles as "Why Stephen Hawking's Cosmology Precludes a Creator," "Nonbelief vs. Lack of Evidence: Two Atheological Arguments," and "Legor et Legar: Schopenhauer's Atheistic Morality."
CFA is "no longer just a movement," writes its executive director. "We're a revolution--and we've got what it takes to kick some irrational butt!"
Despite Kurtz's proselytizing, however, by 1996 the membership of the Council was aging steadily. "The humanist groups have always had a problem with too many gray hairs," notes Matt Cherry, the dapper British head of CSH's Los Angeles chapter. "It seemed as if the staff were the youngest people here." The few twenty-something council members were frustrated by the throwback atmosphere, and Kurtz realized that his life's work could die out with the center's mailing list. Was there an untapped youth market? Kurtz and Cherry had noticed an upswing in emails from college students, isolated nonbelievers either concerned about the growth of the religious right on their campus or else seeking a godless alternative to postmodern theory, one that didn't lead directly to French-tinged moral paralysis. From these emails, Kurtz compiled a list of potential members. In August 1996, CFI organizers gathered seven of these students at the center for a tentative constitutional congress.
The soft-spoken Derek Araujo, a Harvard graduate who is currently teaching high school physics, remembers that first meeting as a moment of exhilarating unity. "We were all concerned about growing fundamentalism, antihumanist tendencies, paranormal, and antiscience attitudes," he recalls of the initial session. "We voiced [our interest in] finding those students who were ostracized and cast out. And we decided to go for it." (Cherry, for one, was a bit startled by the militancy of the group: "I think one of the reasons for their success was their sense of being under attack [from the religious right].") The participants--three from the existing atheist group at the University of Maryland, the others from SUNY Buffalo, Harvard, Marshall University in West Virginia, and Webster University in Missouri--drove to a restaurant near Niagara Falls to brainstorm. More cyber-savvy than their elders, they immediately established a listserv as well as a board of directors and made plans to connect existing campus organizations with one another. Then Araujo "walled himself off" and penned the CFA's Declaration of Necessity--a kind of Humanist Manifesto, Jr. "Too many secular humanists, atheists, and skeptics face the demands of college life alone," Araujo wrote. "We invite our fellow students to loft high the banner of rationality and to join us in this most necessary endeavor." The document was signed by forty-eight students and promptly emailed off to every likely free thought --friendly student or professor the founding members could pluck off the Web.
Are college atheists really so embattled? After all, studies show that undergraduates are somewhat less likely to believe in God when they leave school than when they enter. Christians regularly point to campus life as a den of nonbelief--or at the very least, of decadent apathy toward spiritual matters. Not so, says the CFA. Like college fraternities, well-funded religious groups provide a major attraction for unaffiliated students, offering them everything from dining halls to dates. The pressure to be "spiritual" is everywhere. Religion is increasingly prescribed in the press as the cure for youth problems, from teen pregnancy and drug use to adolescent ennui. The public appetite for New Age products--as evidenced by the success of The Celestine Prophecy, Deepak Chopra, and the television show Touched by an Angel, to cite just a few examples--continues to grow. Archaic laws in seven states still bar atheists from holding public office. And ritualized affirmation of piety is a requirement for politicos on the left and the right. In recent months, George W. Bush and Al Gore have each touted the concept of steering public charitable funds toward religious organizations. In May, Gore's policy advisor bragged, "The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time!" while Bush was already warning against the threat of youthful "superpredators"--kids who are "fatherless, jobless, and godless."
Meanwhile, the state of Kansas has removed evolution from its high school science curriculum, and in the wake of Littleton, a martyr cult has grown up around Cassie Bernall, a Columbine student who was shot after declaring her faith in God. The prevailing cultural message, CFA members fear, equates belief with virtue and nonbelief with barbarism.
If nontheists don't become more visible, say CFA leaders, others will define them as the enemy. "A lot of Americans buy into the stereotype of the immoral atheist as an 'out-to-destroy-the-foundations-of-society' type of person," notes Araujo. High school junior Micah White, head of one of the CFA's teenage offshoots, was shocked when his history teacher publicly compared White's newly founded teen atheist alliance to the trench coat mafia. And at Harvard (which even has a humanist chaplain), Araujo says students frequently told him that he was the first self-proclaimed atheist they'd ever met. "We take the philosophy that just by having a presence on campus, we can turn that around," he says.
It's this mission that has brought CFA members from the far reaches of British Columbia, Kentucky, Kansas, and Minnesota to the "Summer Slave Labor Workfest '99." At first sight, their Amherst group house resembles the crash pad of a typical twenty-year-old--Monty Python tapes, a garbage bag full of movie theater popcorn, and The Moosewood Cookbook. Then one notices an abundance of Darwin Fish stickers (the Christian "fish" symbol fitted with tiny cartoon legs), and, in the basement, tottering columns of books from Prometheus Press threatening to spill onto the unmade cots lined up dormitory style across the floor. A sign in the kitchen puckishly warns chore slackers: "Failure to abide by these rules will result in flogging, name-calling, and a trip to church."
There is, to be sure, a street-theater streak to this crew. Bertrand Russell, for one, might be startled to note the multiple nipple rings dangling from his philosophical offspring. Executive director Amanda Chesworth sports a tattoo on her arm of a fist clenching an atom symbol--an adaptation of a Hunter S. Thompson logo symbolizing that "writing is our most powerful weapon." (In Thompson's rendering, the hand clutched a crumpled piece of paper.) One mild-mannered volunteer left Amherst with a brand-new mohawk, dyed purple with Kool-Aid. But along with these flashes of flamboyance, there is a genuine intellectual intensity and seriousness of purpose. CFA members are passionate about their commitment to free thought as a moral stance requiring action, not just contemplation.
Kurtz is a veritable Rupert Murdoch of non-belief, sponsoring hundreds of god-free institutions and publications.
"I'm so ashamed that the house of Representatives voted that public schools can post the Ten Commandments on their walls," says Erika Hedberg, a student at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and an intern at Free Inquiry. The two of us are clipping flowering weeds from a swamp across the road from the group house, prepping decorations for that night's banquet. Erika snips vehemently at a handful of purple buds. "It makes me embarrassed to be American," she says. Hedberg was born Catholic, but never confirmed. At CFI's Kansas City center she was "unbaptized." "You get a hair dryer blown on you," she explains with a grin. "You get a certificate."
At her upcoming wedding, she adds, she's planning to have a humanist ceremony, complete with quotes from Robert Green Ingersoll, the "Great Agnostic," a now-forgotten celebrity orator of the late-nineteenth century and a hero of the secular humanist movement. The son of a Presbyterian minister and a supporter of numerous Republican politicians--he gave the "Plumed Knight" nomination speech for 1876 presidential prospect James G. Blaine--Ingersoll thrilled audiences across the nation with his orations on atheism, women's rights, African-American civil rights, Darwinism, and Shakespeare.
Hedberg was led to CFI by her philosophy teacher. The story sounds like a pious parent's worst nightmare: A godless professor leads his student astray. In fact, academic classes do provide the most frequent instigation for students to become secular humanists, with members citing semesters in Darwinism, philosophy, and history as classic conversion experiences. Hedberg and I join Jason Loxton, a voluble twenty-one-year-old from British Columbia on the front lawn. Sipping white wine and listening to Tom Waits, we fall easily into a classic "what's life about?" freshman-year-style rap session. "The thing about not believing in an afterlife," says Loxton, flopping wings of ketchup-colored hair, "is that it's ennobling and enabling. It forces you to recognize the responsibilities of life--there's just no justification for any suffering to exist." According to Christian thought, Hedberg adds, the more you suffer the better you are. Thus, it's easy to allow injustice to exist, since it will all be resolved by God. Secular humanism, the two aver, is a better foundation for both moral behavior and tolerance. "Integrity is very important to humanists," says Hedberg. "There are such things as bad people and good people. The delineation comes in the way you live your life and treat others."
Like most members of the CFA, Hedberg and Loxton are classic political liberals. They support racial equality, women's rights, gay and lesbian liberation, sexual freedom, environmentalist causes, and--most of all--the separation of church and state. But they are disenchanted with the jargon-laden theorizing that passes for political activism on many campuses. "I think postmodernism is a big, fat excuse for sitting on your ass and doing nothing," says Loxton. "I'll tell you a little anecdote: I approached our student union, looking for a bit of funding for stickers and buttons. They said, we can give you a hundred bucks, but go hit up the women's center. So I start to explain to the women's center liaison what skepticism and free inquiry are all about. She says, 'That sounds like you're preaching a religion.' I said, 'By definition I'm not religious.' Then she threw in, 'Well, you're saying there are moral absolutes. I don't believe there are any moral absolutes.' 'What about rape?' I said to her. 'That's just plain wrong!' But she's postmodernist all the way, and she actually said, 'It's only wrong if you think it's wrong. In some cases it is relative.'" Loxton shrugs in disgust. "Finally, she blurted out, 'Actually, I believe in magic.' I left disappointed. Essentially, you can't get more of an amoral philosophy! She's a nice woman, but this sort of attitude is just what arises out of that system of belief." (Not all CFAers reject Foucault & Co. out of hand: Chesworth shrugged at a recent listserv slam calling her a "po-mo," noting, "There's theory that's useful, as long as you stay focused on the pragmatic.")
Loxton says he comes from a "crazy hippie" family where his atheism was accepted. And the CFA's public relations director Chris Mooney had a beloved biologist grandfather who referred to Charles Darwin as "Chuck." But many CFA members come from religious--even fundamentalist--backgrounds and have been rejected by their parents after leaving their faith. Araujo recalls a Muslim student who received death threats from his community upon becoming a nonbeliever. Gabriel Carlson, born to devout Italian Catholics, says he struggled with depression and alienation before emerging as a humanist activist. As we talk, Carlson reclines on the living room couch in his trademark skull-printed shorts and bleached-blond baby-duck hair tufts. "I really tried to convince myself that there is an afterlife," he muses of his adolescent crisis. "My dad was a psychologist, so I used a writing assignment as a pretext to ask if, under hypnosis, people could be convinced to believe in the afterlife. I tell that to Christians a lot: If I could believe and have any intellectual integrity, I'd do it." Now a student at the University of Minnesota and head of one of the oldest and most active chapters of the alliance, Carlson says he views human mortality as "a positive thing, since it really forces me to seize every day."
In some parts of the country, secular humanists say, it is as difficult to be godless as it is to be gay. "I'm the right's worst nightmare," jokes D.J. Grothe, who came out as both gay and atheist at Ambassador University, an Evangelical Christian school in Big Sandy, Texas. Coming out as atheist, he says, was by far more difficult. "I was the Christian in my dorm in college who reminded people that they weren't behaving like Christians," says Grothe. "I had my little niche, and it appealed to my spiritual vanities." Then, in his sophomore year, he read ex-nun Karen Armstrong's A History of God(1993), which treats the Creator as a cultural construct. When he attempted to discuss the book, one of his favorite professors suggested he throw it away. Shaken, Grothe had a minor nervous breakdown. He turned to philosophy. "I began with an ambitious attempt to read the intellectual history of the Western World, which is, of course, a lost cause," he recalls with a laugh. "I found Nietzsche: 'A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions.' When you begin that dialogue with yourself, the whole thing crumbles. If God exists, you ain't gonna prove it on paper, you need personal experience. And I never had it. God never spoke to me."
Tempted to leave the school, Grothe nonetheless decided to remain in what he generally found to be a loving and secure environment. The very professor who had discouraged his reading made a trip to his room to see whether he was okay. He remained discreet about his atheism, telling only a few friends and professors. Still, word spread: "I wasn't shunned, but it was a shock, and it sent ripples. I got emails saying, 'you of all people, this is a test of your faith, you'll be a minister, just wait and see.'" Since graduation, Grothe has entered an interdisciplinary master's program in history and philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis. He's currently studying the German Enlightenment and is a member of the Washington University League of Freethinkers. (Their slogan: "Don't Be a Sheep, Be a WULF.") The organization, he notes, has an amicable relationship with the local Campus Crusade for Christ--as many CFA groups do, since religious groups often co-sponsor debates with their ideological opposites, winning converts and publicity for both organizations. "We're all going to the Billy Graham crusade together," he says.
Secular Humanists have often been accused by their enemies of creating a religion in disquise.
Several hours after the inaugural performance of the CFA band, the post-banquet bash is reaching a climax. I wend my way from the grooving crowd on the front porch--the band performing an encore, "No, I won't say Lord have mercy!"--past a group of middle-aged men bellowing, "War: What is it good for?" and on into the kitchen. There, I find CFAers congregated around Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire and a member of the parapsychology-busting wing of the movement. Tomorrow morning, as part of the Center for Inquiry's weeklong summer session, Wiseman, an antic, self-deprecating orator, will present videos unmasking New Age scams and offer a compassionate summary of "believer psychology." To spread enlightenment, he will urge humanists to propound media-savvy lessons in critical thinking rather than employ an "us vs. them" approach. (Though it's hard to imagine that believers would not be insulted by his analysis, in which they come across as fuzzy-minded, psychologically damaged, and not all that bright.) At the moment, however, Wiseman, once a professional magician, is busy performing close-range card tricks in the kitchen. "Have a Purple Humanist!" interrupts Loxton, merrily pressing a thick alcoholic milkshake of a drink on me.
There is, it's clear, a distinctive free-thought culture of a sort. Many CFA members seem to take seriously Great Agnostic Ingersoll's declaration that "a smile is the dawn of doubt." In-your-face T-shirts abound, printed with slogans such as ATHEISM: IT'S NOT JUST FOR BREAKFAST ANYMORE, or silk-screens of Christ alongside the words HAVE YOU SEEN THIS GUY? I HAVEN'T EITHER. At a secular humanist rally in Houston on Darwin Day (February 12) this year, a demonstrator dressed in a monkey suit accosted observers, yelling "Accept me! I'm one of you!"
It's sometimes a struggle for CFA organizers to prevent the jocularity of new recruits from degenerating into straight-out religion bashing--an activity that secular humanists are eager to quash, and which they identify with the rival American Atheists movement founded by the (disappeared, and most likely murdered) rabble-rouser Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Their organization is not, they insist, merely a campus crusade against Christ. But for some people, notes Araujo, the role of "Socratic gadfly" comes naturally. "It's a stage people go through," adds Mooney, grimacing slightly. He recalls his eagerness to act as a devil's advocate through an atheistic newspaper column called Finding Dog that he wrote while attending Yale. "We want to move past first-level atheism, the kind where you have to respond to every Bible quote," Mooney says. "We want to say what we do believe and not just what we don't believe." Middle-aged members of the CSH seem, as a whole, more prone to believer-baiting than the CFA; one of the few sour notes of the conference is a queasily wrongheaded film about a child-molesting priest. Still, the college alliance doesn't always take the higher ground. One potential fund-raising idea under discussion is a stress ball in the shape of Pat Robertson's head.
As I sip my Purple Humanist, a debate breaks out in the kitchen doorway. It's a tactical dispute: Should CFA chapters maintain two separate organizations, one for debunking the paranormal, and one for the advancement of secular humanism? Yes, says Amanda Chesworth. No, says Jason Loxton. He runs a CFA chapter at tiny Camosun College in British Columbia and argues that it's impractical to separate a small rationalist population into two groups. Chesworth counters that it's important to include the more rational-minded religious believers, who would be attracted to the debunking project, and that maintaining the dual system would keep the CFA's structure "parallel" to that of its parent institution. In this debate there are raised voices, frequent interruptions, and manic gesticulating, but as I listen, I decide it all seems healthy. Such tactical disputes are necessary growing pains as the CFA adjusts to a wide range of campus settings. And in the end, like good critical thinkers, the debaters agree to disagree until further evidence emerges.
Secular Humanists have often been accused by their enemies of creating a religion in disguise. What is humanism, anyway, other than an effort to turn man into God? That argument is debatable: If rituals and shared values define a religion, everything from Chicago Cubs fans to the Republican Party would qualify. Still, the Campus Freethought Alliance, like the Center for Inquiry, faces its own contradictions. Members view secular humanist philosophy as a defense against the worst excesses of identity politics--nationalistic cliques, the brutality of religious isolationists, prejudice of all stripes. These divisions would be wiped out, they say, if people would recognize the simple humanity we all hold in common. "The problem of evil," says Kurtz, "breaks the back of God." Yet the CFA is itself a clique--deliberately so, since it aims to provide students with an out-loud-and-proud secular humanist identity with which to withstand, in Kurtz's phrase, "the transcendental temptation." And cliquishness has its costs. Reading the entries on the CFA listserv, one frequently sees members accusing one another of "uncritical thinking" rather than actually arguing with each other. "Critical thinking," like any other buzzword, can become a substitute for actual thought.
Of course, the CFA's closely knit style is no accident. Religion, Kurtz readily acknowledges, satisfies emotional needs that are particularly acute among college students: for community, for identity, and for security in an uncertain future. At Yale, notes Mooney, he used to eat at Hillel's kosher dining hall, despite the fact that he wasn't Jewish, simply because it was a great place to hang out. In the world the CFA envisions, Mooney could hang out at a Humanist Union instead. Events such as Superstition Bash, Darwin Day, Banned Book Week, and Freethought Day (October 12, the day in 1692 that Massachusetts courts banned spectral evidence from the Salem witch trials) are intended to match the ritual and festivities of Christmas and Passover, while simultaneously publicizing secular humanist values and history.
There are other efforts afoot to formalize and ritualize the movement's ideas. Secular Organizations for Sobriety has provided a nonreligious alternative to AA for almost fifteen years. This May, the Young Freethinkers Alliance, a high school version of the CFA, was inaugurated. Camp Quest, a secular summer camp for kids aged eight to thirteen, has been operating for four years. And the budding Secular Family Network aims to meet the "unique needs of non-religious families." Ironically, the newfound popularity of religious charities may work to the advantage of the secular humanists. If politicians begin channeling more public funds through religious groups, they will probably have to subsidize secular groups as well.
For university students, the secular humanist campaign could even extend to the curriculum. In an interview with Lingua Franca, Kurtz proposed establishing a secular studies major--the ultimate identity politics coup. "You could call it humanistic studies, perhaps, or naturalistic philosophy," he says. Getting approval is a lengthy process, but Kurtz is confident he will succeed. The center, he notes, has been offering courses for years. Academic recognition would have larger repercussions: a new generation of secular humanists with expert status. "We need to develop new leaders among unbelievers," he says firmly. (CFA members don't necessarily endorse the idea. Derek Araujo seems startled by the suggestion. "Off the top of my head, it wouldn't be something I'd major in," he says, "though I can see the usefulness of having courses for credit.... I don't know how appropriate it would be as a major.")
Is the CFA in danger of giving in to groupthink, institutionalizing its ideas to such an extent that they form a cage rather than a ladder? In the words of a tool of prophecy CSICOP would surely disdain, "Answer unclear, ask again later." Certainly, there's something undeniably admirable about the freethinkers' passion for clarity, responsibility, and social action. Students in the CFA, at least the ones present this weekend, seem models of intellectual vibrancy, combining theatrical joie de vivre with serious social purpose. And while rituals like the unbaptism in Kansas City may sound silly at first hearing, they provide a shot of energy to what might otherwise be a dry movement--transforming abstract concepts into memorable bonding experiences. (If secular humanists can't dance, who would want to be part of their revolution?) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a public organization for nonbelievers serves as a warm haven for the CFA's most vulnerable members--those at smaller, more conservative schools and those from fundamentalist families.
With such good intentions, where will the CFA's road lead? With careful thought, the group hopes to avoid some of the pitfalls of other campus organizations. But perhaps we should heed the words of a more appropriate source than the magic eight ball: the Great Agnostic Robert Ingersoll, at whose centennial celebration earlier this summer, near his birthplace in upstate New York, the musicians of the House Judiciary Committee held their very first paid gig. Too much doubt, Ingersoll maintained, is, in the end, better than too much credulity.
Emily Nussbaum is a contributing writer for LF. Her article "The Sex That Dare Not Speak Its Name" appeared in the May/June issue.
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