This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 14th, 2007.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science reason and secular values in public affairs. I’m really happy about this week’s show because it was recorded at the recent Secular Society and its Enemies Conference in New York and features college students, six or seven of our campus leaders that we’ve brought in from all over the country. We had 50 plus college students at this New York conference, and they’re going to join me to talk about CFI Campus Outreach Program, why we work to advance secularism and science and skepticism at the university and high school level. But before we get to that interview, here is a word from this week. Sponsor Free Inquiry magazine.
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CFI supports a growing network of campus groups. So on around 200 campuses throughout North America, even around the world, we have campus groups in Africa and in Europe, seemingly everywhere, although that’s a drop in the bucket compared to our, in quotes, cultural competitors. You look at Campus Crusade for Christ that has an annual operating budget surpassing 380 million dollars. That’s each year. So we’re just scratching the surface. Still, we’re able to have an impact. And it’s largely because of the student leaders you’re about to hear in conversation. That’s Roy Natyam from UCLA, Elvia Nydia Gonzalez from Santa Ana College, Lisa Brandt, one from Portland State. Blake Tennesse from University of Florida. Tyler Handly from Wilford Loria up in Ontario. Sara Stone from IUPUI in Indianapolis. Alon Levy from Columbia University. And last but not least, a high school student, Lucia Gwatney from Cherry Creek High School in Colorado. So here’s that recording from the recent conference.
So there’s eight or nine people around the table here. We’re going to have a conversation with everyone about why they’re doing what they’re doing. And let me begin with Roy Nat Young from UCLA. Roy, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thank you. With that enthusiastic. Hello. Roy, let me let me ask you, what’s it all about? Why are you you know, you’re you’re involved with Barth’s at UCLA, the Bruins Alliance of Secularist and Skeptics.
It’s the Bruen Alliance of Skeptics and secular.
Very close. Yeah, my part. Why why are you organizing? Isn’t a university already kind of a secular alliance of people getting together in this learning community to ferret out the truth on all kinds of questions, no matter what they are? No topics taboo. I mean, isn’t it redundant?
That’s my question. Actually, I found out that’s not the case. Universities have become more like factories, I think, to get students in and out with a degree. There are almost no classes there that teach critical thinking. Um, there’s Professor William Newman from the Earth and Space Department. He used to teach honors. He still does, I believe, teach an honors course that deals with skepticism and critical thinking that it’s astrobiology course. And that’s that’s the only class that really deals with critical thinking. Normally. Well, at UCLA, they’re 80 religious groups on campus. But I think she is it’s its unofficial list. But I think five of them are defunct. But so there’s about 80, 75. And, um, you were the only secular humanist atheist group on campus, aside from the Objectivists, although they’re kind of iffy.
Yeah. That Vata get the e-mails rolling in. Objectivists share some of our values. I sure do.
Yeah, I agree with a lot of points. They have the not everything. So we were friends and stuff but. So yeah, we have a group there because personally there’s no real community of atheists there, CFI West, but then there’s no community young students around. And I formed the group mainly to have a group of friends for friends who share similar beliefs. But also another important reason I formed the group was to combat this surge of irrationality that’s appearing out of every nook and cranny of society. And it’s it scares me, actually.
You see that? Happening, even a leading secular institutions of higher learning like UCLA. I mean, you have to combat and the enemies have reason there.
Honestly, I think the biggest enemy of reason is more apathy than anything else. The religious groups are there and we’re not. We can’t get rid of them. And that’s not the point of my group. Let people believe what they want to believe. Just as long as they don’t really affect me adversely. But, um, yeah, I’m just really worried that this whole surge of irrationality is just I’m just afraid of it.
Essentially, I want to get some other voices involved in the conversation. But I just want to ask you one question. Your group is bass. I know that it used to be called or that there used to be a group there at UCLA called Ass Right. Associated secular students. Correct. Is that the name of the game? These groups come and go. What are you doing to make sure that a few years from now a new student doesn’t have to start a new group because Bass is no longer around?
There are two things I’m doing. One of them have started and the other one I’m planning to do really soon. The first thing is I’m trying to cultivate the freshmen and the underclassmen who are going to stay there for a few more years of already gathered, about five people who seem to be really interested. I’m going to teach them more about the club and how to run the club and get the board interested. Second thing I’m doing is I’m going to form an advisory committee composed of professors. Now, professors, usually state campuses for decades. So if I can form a base of professors that will be there for decades, I’m putting giving them a packet of fliers and stuff so that if Bass ever disappears, they can just start plastering campus with fliers or contacting people to start a group again so that they’re always be like some anchors there, too.
On that point, Roy Center for Crise really gratified that some of our strongest supporters on the campuses are faculty members and our faculty member category of membership, you know, as a faculty member can just go to the Web site, fill out a form and get a packet of organizing and education, which is in the mail if they want to work with us to advance our shared values at their school. That’s exciting. It seems to me that there aren’t enough professors that know we’re here for them. Yeah. So I’d like to remind our listeners that if you’re at a school, if you’re a faculty or staff member at a school, please visit our Web site. Campus Inquirer dot org and get involved with helping us at your school. I want to bring Elvia Nidia Gonzalez into the conversation.
First, what school year from Santana College? It’s a small community college in central Orange County.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced trying to organize a CFI campus group there? Has it been hard? Has it been easy?
It’s been a bit difficult. Just our school requires 20 members to start with. So I had a Gorai and asked my friends to help me out, even if they don’t want to go to the club meetings to help me by signing up as a club member, which I managed to do. But the whole fact that we are a community college and students tend to stay there maybe for two or three years, then move on, is posing a bit of a challenge because I know I’m moving on. My boyfriend is my vice president is also moving out next year and we need to get new students involved. We’re going to continue the group and it can be kind of difficult when people are just very in and out quickly of the school.
So it’s kind of organizing at a bus stop, especially at a community college where there’s a constant turnover of student. Yes. Do you find the strategy that Roy mentioned effective using faculty members kind of as anchor points for campus activism?
I hadn’t thought about that until this weekend, but our advisor actually rent runs our math study center, and he’s very big on, you know, secularism in science and mathematics. And I’m going to sign and look at the website. I didn’t know there was any faculty support at the Center for Inquiry. So it’s kind of an interesting thing to learn because I know there’d be a few faculty members interested.
I want to bring Lisa Brandt Heckmann into the conversation. You finding the same kind of challenges for organizing at your school? It’s Portland State, correct?
Correct. Yeah, we do have as all schools, you have the turnover. You have students who are really busy with exams and their social lives. And I think one of the biggest challenges in getting a new group together is simply to define your goals and decide what you’re going to be. Are we a support group for atheists? Are we going to invite religious people in to to discuss things? Are we outreach to them? And I think you can take a long time just to get people cohesive and focused on what they’re going to do.
So how about that point Lisa just made? Blake, Tennesse, you’re at University of Florida. That’s right. Yeah. She talked about the importance of defining your goals as see if I campus groups, you know, freethinker, atheist, secular skeptic, pro science. And you’ve your group is one of the most successful in the nation. And you’ve been successful because you’ve really thought. What about that question?
Right. Our group has tried very hard to show that we are about General Freethought, not just about religious skepticism, but about skepticism in general. We’ve talked about alien life forms. We’ve talked about different branches of philosophy. We’ve talked about ghosts.
And you find that broader agenda helps with your outreach.
Yes, definitely. Students on campus are very interested to find out about all these different schools of thought. And I think it’s also more appealing to students to hear about something, an issue with it, where they’re more likely to change their mind. If you can get somebody to come into a meeting and teach them the tools of logic used to determine if something is factual or if it’s made up, maybe over time, at least, that’s my hope. They’ll learn to apply that kind of razor wit to every idea. And that’s the point of our group. It’s not about what you think, but why you think it.
I think that’s a really great point and one that was echoed last night in the meeting the students had with Richard Dawkins. You were seeing skepticism of the paranormal and some other untested claims as kind of a gateway drug to the hard drug of atheist. I’m right. It’s kind of used. You start small with, you know, do UFOs exist?
Certainly the idea is that if lots of people will get involved in the group and they’re prepared to show up and defend whatever it is that they believe. Hopefully there are other people in the group will be able to take up the other side of the cause and play devil’s advocate. And we’ll get a real discussion going on about what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s truth. How do we know what’s right? And that process is much more appealing to a broad group than sitting around and, you know, ranting against religious fundamentalism in the world.
I don’t although that is a central concern for these CFI campus groups, that kind of an organizing principle is that we want to offer a challenge to the reigning not just paranormal mythologies, but also the religious extremism that is growing a lot on the campuses on that. Lisa Brandt, hack, many had a kind of a rejoinder to what Blake was just saying.
Yes, we’re taking a different approach at PSU because we felt there are so many religious groups on campus and Portland is a very liberal and pretty secular town.
And it was really surprising that there is no place for atheist Ragna Pacific Northwest, the highest unbelief in all of the United States. Right.
Right. Right. And I wish that I could say that I’m the one who is inspired by this to forge ahead and form the group. But actually, it was Jason Bateman and he he was feeling overwhelmed by the religious presence on campus and felt that there was a real need there for those of us who are not religious, to have a place to discuss things openly and to just to have a presence on campus, because nobody on campus is getting our side of the story. And we really felt that we needed to have a voice on campus and not just let all of these claims go on responded to.
So of the CFA campus groups out there, I think it’s obvious everyone around the table saying your agenda is tailored to your learning community there. It’s not one size fits all playing off of some of the things Roy said initially. Let’s explore the question. What’s the real point? Universities are supposed to be what your groups are all about, a place where there’s free, unfettered, critical inquiry into everything. So one of the professors at Washington University, when I was when we were working to start a CFI group there, kind of asked the question, well, isn’t it?
Isn’t it redundant? You know, universities are places where this is already happening. Blake Tennesse from the University of Florida.
One thing that I, I do think is a problem in why are secular or Freethought students groups are not redundant to the university’s goals is because much of the staff in the faculty are very afraid about making claims that contradict Students’ religious views. I’ve had several teachers who’ve explicitly told me they refused to say one way or the other on some particular point or even in a religion class. I had a teacher worry about how to define Christianity so that every person who thought he or she was a Christian would somehow be included in this definition. And there is a need, a genuine need for open discussion of all these issues because collegiate professors are afraid of being caught or having their quotes taken out of context or any number of issues. And I think that our group can support the goals of the university by encouraging this open dialog.
Tyler Handly from Canada. What’s your response?
Campus. Crusades for Christ, Muslim students, OCA, Asian, huge organizations all over campuses across North America. They have a huge presence. Our general problem has been apathy. So they can’t. What the campus crusade for Christ in the Muslim students associations have been so very successful with has been just getting them selves out there. And we haven’t done that. And I think that is what the point of our groups are. I mean, we don’t have huge members all the time, but we have everyone cares about religion. And when an atheist comes out and says something, it’s covered. So although a few of us might have small groups, we have large, large presence on our campuses. And the campus crusade for Christ and the Muslim student associations are worrying about us right now.
And we know that well, that VATA opens up a can of worms. Why should they be worried about us? Roy, you wanted to chime in?
Well, this problem is always never made sense. Why would these religious groups be worried of us, be worried about us atheists? If they truly believe in their religion? I mean, if there is the true faith, if they really believe in what they believe, then they shouldn’t really worry about atheists because for wrong.
Well, one reason to worry about, you know, atheist groups starting up all over the country and, you know, working with the Center for Inquiry to advance a secular pro science agenda is because that is contra the mission of many of these religious extremist outreach organizations. I mean, or am I wrong about that?
Tyler, you want to. Yeah, I just want to say that I agree with you what you say from the religious standpoint. They shouldn’t really worry about us, but. We are taking people’s viewpoints away from them. I know for a fact that certain groups have taken Christians, Muslims and actually converted them into atheists as well.
And that gets back to the mission question that Lisa Brandt Heckmann mentioned. Should that be our agenda? Do we want to go door to door and say, Smil, there is no God when you die, you’re you’re not going to heaven. You want to join whether or not that’s the mission of some of these campus Freethought groups? I don’t think it’s the only mission. I think if a religious organization on a campus is going to be threatened or worry about us or be afraid, it’s not because of the battle of ideas, but it’s because of their mission not being the mission of the university. We do want to pitch a fight, but that fight is over education, over secularism. That fight isn’t over that person’s right to believe whatever they believe. Even if we think it’s well known since Sarah Stone from IUPUI, Indiana University of Purdue University, Indiana. Right?
That’s right. Indianapolis, right. Yes. As far as the Christian groups maybe do have something to worry about from us when it is their goal to undermine the university as on our campus. It has been in particular, it’s a couple of the Christian groups have hosted creationists and intelligent design speakers. There are plenty in the groups that are studying biology. One of our missions is to correct this and stop this. Last year we sat on an intelligent design panel where we refuted along with the philosophy department and the anthropology department.
I don’t want to put anybody on the spot and it should be said that no one’s prepared. Their remarks were kind of having a conversation on the fly. But if you can’t explore intelligent design at a university, where can you? I mean, isn’t a university a place to ask these tough questions? Or is the challenge that comes from our campus groups to these religious activists just that it shouldn’t be taught in science classrooms? Alon Levy from Columbia. You want to feel that?
Yes. I don’t think intelligent design even needs to be discussed that much, except that it’s something that’s very much nonscientific and almost a conspiracy theory. I mean, I don’t see any discussion panels at universities about 9/11 conspiracy theories and the moon landing hoax.
Well, I’ve seen those on universities. But yeah. But I take your point. I want to switch gears a little and talk about the different areas of outreach we do on the campuses. We’ve been talking about universities primarily, but we we have a growing high school kind of secondary education outreach. And I want to bring in Lucia Gwatney from Cherry Creek High School in Colorado on that point. You’re in high school. What are you, 14 years old? Yeah, I’m a freshman. So tell me about what you’re doing on your high school campus.
I’m trying to start a group. I haven’t really had a lot of experience with it yet. We’ve had a few meetings like two or three. And the main requirements is that you have a faculty sponsor. You got 10 people who show interest, and then if you stick around for six months, then you get officially recognized as a group. And so getting the faculty sponsor is pretty hard. Took me a few weeks.
One of the challenges we face with organizing at the high school campuses is that these are closed learning communities. We can’t go to a high school campus and propagandize for our lack of faith or our support of science and reason. Have you found that a challenge? Well, it’s kind of easier to organize from within, which is what you’re doing.
Yeah, I find that in high school they really want to just avoid religion altogether. If religion played a role in something, they tried to avoid saying that like when we were talking about the Civil War, the teacher briefly touched on how a lot of the support came from the Bible, but barely said anything.
And I remember you saying earlier that that you spoke out and that was kind of controversial, a little in English class.
I was trying to talk about hierarchy and the idea of racism coming from hierarchy, which really seems some people think that stems from the Bible, from Judeo Christian or Islamic Judeo Christian concepts of, you know, that even in the Ten Commandments, God is said to have said don’t covet your your neighbor’s donkey or his wife or anything else he owns. So that hierarchy is kind of built in.
Some people argue I was originally wanting to do it. Does God exist debate at your high school? Yeah. But they said no. So I don’t know if the new activities director will let me do that.
You make me want to talk about events. You mention, you know, does God exist debate at your high school. And I have questions about the strategic benefit. Also the kind of the the philosophical benefit of trying to host those debates at high schools where there’s so many other issues that need to be pushed through. But on the campuses of college campuses, definitely we put on massive events. We put on an event at Purdue a few years ago where 4000 people showed up for debate on God’s existence. What kind of events are you doing with your campus groups and what’s been the payoff? We’ll have Blache, Tennessee and then Elvia Nidia Gonzalez chime in about that, Blake.
Sure. Our group has helped organize several campus discussions and panel discussions and an open debate stuck at the beginning of the semester. We actually teamed up with several Christian groups to pay for professional debaters to speak on the debate. Is Christianity based on a lie that was well advertised and several hundred people, maybe even over a thousand, showed up and it created a lot of interest on campus controversy or people up in controversy, people. It was that even the name of the debate was upsetting to a lot of people and the debate went pretty well. Other times we’ve organized something called the Academy, where different student groups of different religions show up to discuss moral and ethical issues facing society today. And it’s really great because it creates a lot of dialog between different groups. And the people who show up are encouraged to talk to people who think something that they don’t they completely disagree with. And the panel will give every every group’s view on a particular issue.
There is a study out a few years ago, I think, with one of the Pew Charitable Trusts or one of those organizations, I’m blanking on it right now. That said, you could go through all four years of your undergraduate education and never once have a really meaningful conversation with someone whose worldview.
As opposed to your so the Muslim students hang out with the Muslims. We hope the atheists aren’t the same, that the atheists don’t only hang out with the atheists, but we think that the mission of the university is to everybody be talking and thrashing it out. And if you can’t do it at a university, when can you do it? Elvia Nidia Gonzalez, you wanted to comment?
I didn’t want to comment on the events, just seen as my group is one of the New York campus groups. We really only had a couple of club meetings and we planned or initially I had the idea of having a debate on the existence of God, but one brought up at the club meeting. Everyone was kind of afraid that we don’t want to become that group that no one likes, especially since on our campus. I know there is fear of our group during a leadership training for group club presidents at our campus. When I announced I was an atheist. The room just went silent. It’s like you could hear a pin drop. Wow. So we rename this the Existence Forum and we’re inviting students to come and discuss the existence of anything they’d like, whether it be Pixie’s or UFOs or God, and hoping that’ll initiate some interest in our community, our student community for people to come and just talk about these issues.
Mm hmm. I love that idea. Tyler, you wanted to. I just wanted to chime in here and say that. That we look at the universe from a scientific standpoint and we have free inquiry built into that outlook. And I think that’s very that’s a very important thing, is sparking debate on campus, because we’re not just about our own group. We’re about involving everyone in debate to come to an answer.
So you’re supporting the mission of the university. It’s not like you’re just groups to get your views on these issues more popular. You’re not trying to convert people into thinking. No, there aren’t UFOs or no, there isn’t. But Bigfoot or God, your having the questions as important as we say at the Center for Inquiry, if you have answers. We have questions.
Yes. I’m trying to get people to basically, like you said.
Why do you believe what you believe but also make the word atheist? Not such a dirty word on my campus, because right now I. I do have the feeling that it is that way, since there kind of a lot less of us compared to the other students who just believe what they’ve been taught. So at the same time that I’m asking those students, why do you believe what you believe?
I’m trying to make a safe haven for people who don’t believe so that they don’t have to feel that they’re the only ones on campus. Sarah Stone on that point.
Sure. I just wanted to add on and give suggestions for what our group is doing in this regard. We have weekly discussion settings are fairly informal, but every week we have a new discussion topic that our members come up with. I try very much to encourage them to make the topic something besides just Athie ism or just besides why you shouldn’t belief. But let’s talk about things that explain how faith or religion has affected our culture or our traditions or why we do the things we do in addition to this. I also tried to make it very clear that we are not expressively atheist organization. You do not have to be a nonbeliever to come to our meetings and you certainly don’t have to be an unbeliever to participate in the discussion. I work very hard on letting people know they’re welcome and bringing them in as often as possible in order to hear all of the viewpoints and also hopefully plant the seed of doubt while we’re at it.
Alon, you wanted to add to that?
Yeah. In addition to what Sara said, which is pretty much what we at Columbia Atheists and Agnostics do. There’s also the issue of the choice of discussion topics. You don’t have to be an atheist or even a secularist to discuss certain issues of relevance to secularism, for example. I mean, our discussion topics are stuff like the atheist movement or the intersection of religion and gender or secular morality. Christian. Christians are welcomed. So and I mean, it’s not something that Christians can talk about. So it’s I don’t want to strain a civil rights analogy too much because they don’t think it’s what we’re doing is in any way comparable to the civil rights movement. But civil rights oriented student groups. They discuss civil rights issues. It’s not that other groups oppose civil rights, that other groups do not discussed civil rights.
That’s an excellent point. So you’re casting a wide net even at the same time you’re standing on firm ground saying who you are and what you believe. So you’re doing both of those things at the same time. I want to ask, does anyone have any closing comments? Maybe. I’m curious where you see this in quotes movement heading, where is this campus movement of freethinkers and secularists and skeptics and pro science people, science advocates? Where where’s it going to be in five years? Roy Nazia.
Well, personally, I went there to things I wanna see this movement accomplish. The first thing is to increase these critical thinking in all aspects of life. And the second thing is, I got this idea from philosopher Colin McGinn is to reach a point of post theism where the issues regarding ageism and religion are kind of subjects of the past, where people said, oh, people believe in those things, oh, can you just go on with your life and just live a good life without having to follow these old archaic beliefs?
I did want to kind of finish up, but I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t just touch on this point. And that’s the label question. We’ve used mostly the term atheist in this discussion with everybody around the table. I think everyone’s been able to chime in about one or another topic. Is that effective for you as you’re doing outreach? Is Athie ism working? If you’re talking about Athie ism, let me put a finer point on the question. I come out as an atheist. Every opportunity I have from every podium I speak at, just like I come out as gay, if it’s appropriate or on topic. If I’m talking about intelligent design, I don’t say, hey, everyone, I’m gay and there is no intelligent designer. But here’s the question. If if you’re just calling yourselves atheists, what do you say to your cultural competitors on your campus who question, well, what do you believe in? Because if you say you’re an atheist, you’re only saying you don’t believe in God.
Blake, Tennessee. Yeah. Our group stands for so much more than just atheists. We stand for critical thinking. You can be an atheist and still not have thought seriously about your position. And that’s what our group stands for. When you think critically, you must criticize and most people aren’t really aware of the implications of that term. Critical thinking is very important. And in our group, we encourage everyone to support their ideas and everyone else to try and tear them down. Our group is critical thinking incarnate. It’s not necessarily the conclusion isn’t necessarily the most important thing.
Before we finish up any students out there listening to point of inquiry, you want to get involved with us to help advance science and reason at your school, go to our Web site, Campus Inquirer dot org and avail yourself of the free resources CFI makes available to help impact your school. Maybe the last couple comments. Tyler Handly.
I see it as a battle of semantics. The word atheist to us doesn’t just mean non belief in God. We have a scientific national outlook on life and we cherish free inquiry and that means we tolerate all beliefs. But that being said, all beliefs are open to criticism and that’s what we think should happen. So we don’t use the term atheist. We have used the term freethinker. We’ve called ourselves the glory of free thought association because we don’t just want atheists, we want people that just are skeptical and that can really challenge beliefs. We’re equal opportunity offenders.
I love it. And by skepticism, I mean, we’ve talked about this before, so I feel like I’m sure that I’m not putting words in your mouth by skepticism. It’s not just doubting. Maybe that’s the beginning, but skepticism as a method of finding things out. So it’s not not believing in anything, but it’s beginning with doubt. In order to believe in the supportable things. Am I right about that, everyone? OK. So it sounds like all y’all are saying it’s the method that you’re emphasizing. It’s not just a set of beliefs. You don’t tell your members when they when they come to a meeting. Hey, everyone, here’s what you must be. Used to belong. But there’s instead a kind of a you know, a shared commitment to a method of finding things out. And that’s you could call it skepticism or science or the scientific spirit, scientific naturalism. I do agree with Tyler others that we have a nomine cloture problem. And that’s what’s, you know, the people whose job it is to strategize for the movement and the activists who are in the trenches. Well, that’s why we thrash it all out at these meetings and talk about how to best advance our shared values on the campuses.
Thank you, everyone, for joining me on point of Inquiry. I think it was a really fun discussion. Thank you.
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Point of is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kirk’s point of inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael.
Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe.