This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 21st, 2008.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe key point of inquiry, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Austin Dacey, to talk about his new book, The Secular Conscience Why Believe Belongs in Public Life, here are a couple announcements. One. The Center for Inquiry is looking for a web developer to add to our team. Our network of Web sites is kind of far flung. It’s growing. We need some help. So if you skilled in the field of Web design and development, please take a look at the job posting at Center for Inquiry, dot net slash employment. There you’ll also find a job listing for field organizer. We’re hiring another field organizer in the outreach department. Field organizers assist our growing network of centers for inquiry to advance science and reason at the local level. Now, here’s a word from this show’s sponsor, Free Inquiry magazine.
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I’m happy to have my old friend Austin Dacey back on point of inquiry. Austin was here the same summer, the first summer that I interned here at the Center for Inquiry when I was in grad school. So I’ve known him for a while. We’ve had a lot of fun working, helping build the Center for Inquiry, had a lot of great arguments, the content of which sometimes centered around the arguments he makes in this book. He is currently a representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry in New York City, where he works on issues of science and secular values at the international level. He’s the author of articles in a number of publications, including The New York Times. He joins me on point of inquiry to talk about his new book, The Secular Conscience Why Belief Belongs in Public Life. It’s created quite a stir, but has also gotten accolades from people like Wendy Kaminer and Peter Singer, who said that this book breathes new life into an old topic. Welcome back to a point of inquiry.
Austin Dacey, thanks so much for having me. DJ Grothe.
Congratulations on the book, Austin. We’ve worked together for years. I’ve known that you’ve had this kind of controversial view. It’s not a view that a lot of other secularists share. This book is making quite a splash out there. Not only is it being praised big time by some secularists like Sam Harris, but also by conservative religious thinkers who’ve been fighting secularism for decades. Maybe we’ll get to that later in the discussion. But to start off, Austin, you begin your book by arguing that secularism has lost its soul. You’re basically saying that secularism, secular liberals, have lost their sense of moral direction.
Yes, I argue that secular values like individual autonomy, separation of religion and state self-criticism are under assault from from Rome to Tehran to Washington. And almost nowhere are secular liberals defending them. The religious claim, a monopoly on morality and secular liberals stand accused of standing for nothing. Now here by a secular liberal and I consider myself one. I don’t necessarily mean an atheist or agnostic, but anyone for whom gods and religion make little difference who puts the here before the hereafter and the freedom of the individual morally prior to the good of the group. So I say far too many secular liberals today are afraid to talk about religion or to use the language of virtue and vice. Good and evil. Sin and redemption. And so we have abandoned the field of morality to the religious, the heart and soul of the very idea of the secular open society. I say is conscience, and that is what we have lost.
I see your point that secularism has lost its soul when you talk in the book about how secular liberals failed to speak out about the big Muslim cartoon controversy. But might they’re not speaking out just be a function of secular rebels having a different set of morals that refuses to stand up for free speech? Maybe. But because of their respect, maybe to a fault of multiculturalism, the rights of Muslims to never be offended.
Look, these secular, open society has met its antithesis. We are being tested in a confrontation with radical Islamism. Now, you know as well as I do, because you work on the magazine Free Inquiry. And as you’ve discussed in this podcast two years ago, in the midst of the global controversy over this Danish cartoons of the Prophet three inquiry was. Only magazine of note to actually publish what the controversy was about the images themselves. And for this, we were promptly banned from the shelves of two major book change The New York Times, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, Boston Globe. All the so-called liberal papers saw fit to run a story about the controversy without running what the controversy was about. Think about that. In effect, they they concurred with. I think the bone chilling comment from the Vatican that, quote, freedom of expression does not imply the right to offend the religious sensibilities of believers. Now, if ever there were a victimless crime, it’s it’s blasphemy. Why were so many Western liberals unwilling to stand up and say so? What could explain this shameful failure to confront radicalism while at the same time engaging with the internal reformers of the faith of which there are millions? Was it fear? Yes, but also, I say a kind of debilitating confusion. We secular liberals have contracted conceptually transmitted disease, a moral malady. And the symptom is the inability or refusal to grapple with matters of conscience in which I include religion and values in an open and objective way.
Might it be argued that some secular liberals refuse to publish those cartoons because they were standing up for a commitment to not offend Muslims? They prized diversity. And you know that a person’s personal religious beliefs should not be skewered and made fun of.
Wendy Kaminer says if if you’re living in a free society and you’re not offended at least once a day, there must be something wrong with you. Now, surely many people are well motivated by their respect for others, the respect for religious believers. But actually, I think religions don’t deserve respect.
Religions don’t deserve respect. Religions are collections of metaphysical ideas and and ethical ideals. So ideas are either believed or disbelieved. Ideals are either affirmed or denied, would deserve respect or not, are persons persons. And the way you respect a person is not by agreeing with everything that he or she says, but by holding that person to the same intellectual moral standards to which you hold yourself. Anything less is not respected. It’s indifference. So sometimes in order to in order to respect religions, peoples, we must critique people’s religions.
Mm hmm. Jim Wallis on the on the left and others seem to be working to help secular liberals get their soul back. Something arguably you’d be in favor of. They’re working for Democrats to take back the language, the power of talking about these moral issues, to use the rhetoric, the language of right and wrong. Yet you seem to even have a problem with that agenda.
I think this illustrates the moral bankruptcy of the secular liberals. I mean, consider what’s what’s been happening with the Democratic Party, especially since 2004. As you point out, they’ve been getting religion. I mean, even Hillary Clinton has been to the mountaintop, or at least she’s hired a consultant who, as she recently told an assembly of Baptist denominations in Atlanta that while, you know, faith without works is dead, works without faith is just too hard. But at the same time, evangelicals are more and more talking about something other than just sex, right. The evangelical agenda has enlarged to include the environment and poverty, HIV AIDS, genocide. So there’s religious left, as Jim Wallis calls it, is born. But I’m afraid the secular left has been left behind for now. What it means for liberals to say that poverty is a values issue, a moral issue. Is that one can find a verse of scripture about that, too. Barack Obama says we need Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on Capitol Hill talking about the estate tax. We need an injection of morality in our public debate. Those are his words, as though the two were equivalent. I mean, whatever happened to a public moral language that transcends sect, which is certainly a part of the American tradition? How about people of conscience on Capitol Hill?
They’re invisible people of conscience. Whether or not they’re religious, but speaking the language of conscience, not speaking the language of a sacred text. Precisely. I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of. The secular conscience y belief belongs in public life through our Web site point of inquiry, dawg. Austin, you blame secular liberals themselves for this problem. It’s not that competing conservative or anti secular movements won the battle. It’s that secularism has lost. It retreated, like you just said, from the one time moral high ground where it could talk about these moral questions, and it retreated with appeals to privacy, appeals to individual liberty. The argument has been for the last at least 30 years that religion should remain private. That’s the line of organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State that this stuff should remain personal and private and not be brought out into the public domain.
That’s right. And surely that is correct. If by private you just mean nongovernmental, that that matters of religion and ethics should not be coerced. They should be left up to people not forced by the government, nor should they be subsidized or endorsed by the government. If that’s what you mean by the private conscience, I have no problem. Unfortunately, the notion of privacy is is a slippery one. And it flies imperceptibly from this notion of the nongovernmental to the notion of the personal more or the subjective. So here, secular liberals had hoped to prevent believers from introducing their sectarian beliefs into politics. But of course, they couldn’t. And freedom of belief means believers are free to speak their minds in public, too. Instead, we imposed a gag order on ourselves because private beliefs are just those that are personal or subjective than questions of conscience are placed out of the bounds of serious critical evaluation. But if if conscience can’t be criticized, then liberals can’t subject religion to do public scrutiny when it encroaches on individual rights. We’ve seen this in the harsh reception of the so-called new atheist authors. Well, words are secular liberals, weapons of choice. We now find ourselves up against something we’ve sworn not to talk about religion. If the privacy thesis is taken that way. I call this the privacy fallacy. It consists in assuming that because conscience is private, in the sense of nongovernmental, it’s private in the sense of personal preference. But there’s a related confusion that I think comes from the core liberal idea of freedom of conscience. Again, an indispensable principle that conscience must be left free from coercion. But the mistake, often unnoticed that happens, lies in thinking that because conscience is free from coercion, it must be free from objective standards of right and wrong.
It should be free from criticism. It should be free from scrutiny, from someone expecting it to be testable, right and wrong out here in the real world.
This is the difference between mill liberty principle, which surely must be defended. And what I call the liberty fallacy. I mean, think about how we talk about beliefs these days in English speaking countries at least I am entitled to my belief. You know, you can’t take it away from me as though they were pieces of private property. This is the plague of liberal thinking.
And surprisingly, this is the secular liberal attack on the new atheists. They say, who are you to sound just like those fundamentalist Christians, your fundamentalist atheist whom dares to attack another person’s personal religious beliefs?
Exactly. Because of this confused, sick interpretation of of privacy and liberty of conscience, where we’ve turned on our own, we’re eating our own. And it’s disgusting. I mean, Lord knows what an atheist fundamentalists would look like. Right. I mean, the the mantra of the religious fundamentalist is, I’m right. You’re wrong. Go to hell. Retreat of the you know, the Enlightenment fundamentalist. It seems to be. I’m right. You’re wrong. But let’s talk about it some more.
So you’re arguing in the book that liberals have lost their grip on the real meaning of freedom. And you’re seeing this as a liberal. You’re not saying this is someone who’s become disaffected with the whole project of secular liberalism. You’re speaking to your own here.
That’s right. And let me be clear. I think that secularism will win. Secularism always wins in the long arc of history. But but it must be defended and it’s in its in its moral core must be kept intact.
What’s surprising in all of this, Austin, is that without really trying to read into what you’re saying, it sounds just like you’re agreeing with our cultural competitors that conservative critics of secularism who’ve complained for decades that religion has been excluded from the public square and how horrible that is. These are the folks that secularists have have traditionally fought really hard against. In fact, Richard, John Newhouse, the leading Catholic intellectual that George Bush seems to rely on a lot. The intellectual who wrote the really influential book, The Naked Public Square, in a review of your book, Newhouse calls you his ally.
Yes. Please don’t tell my boss.
But look, Newhouse says I should be considered an ally. In his words, in my contention that these are moral questions that must be addressed by moral argument. I agree with Newhouse. Newhouse agrees with me that culture war is war. It can be civilly conducted, but it is war and it’s a moral war. It is inescapable and inescapably moral. There is no coherent way to resolve the political disputes surrounding abortion or stem cell research or doctor assisted suicide, condom distribution in the developing world without engaging the moral substance of the matter. Do three day old embryos have rights? Is contraception a sin? Now Newhouse has said that. The public square has been stripped of controversial religious and moral claims, his famous book, The Naked Public Square. He said this from a religious perspective. I’m seeing it from a secular perspective.
Think about how well the naked public square has worked out for us. How well has it worked out? It’s backfired.
You’re arguing politics as pious as never before. And it’s and it’s we who have lost our shirts.
You’re saying that if the public square isn’t naked, if these matters of conscience are allowed to be deliberated in the public square, that it will shed light on these religious arguments and hopefully puncture their pretensions? I don’t know.
That’s part of it. And also to create a a firmer moral basis for the secular liberal agenda. I mean, take abortion rights in America, for example.
And the idea that the philosophical strategy of the Roe v. Wade decision has been called the bracketing strategy, the idea here is that we can somehow resolve the policy question of whether women can can terminate a pregnancy without resolving the question of, as the court put it, when life begins. They said, we’re going to we’re going to set that aside. We’re going to bracket that because we can’t resolve it. We are going to watch. Act as though it has been resolved in favor of those who would permit abortion. I mean. Commentators on all sides agree that, you know, abortion rights are as precarious as ever and that that this decision may have circumvented a longer and broader public moral debate about the question, which could have produced a broader consensus.
It should be said, regarding abortions, stem cell research, cloning, all of these that we were talking about. Newhouse, that Newhouse disagrees with you on your answers to all of these culture war issues, but that he does agree that the questioning, that the debating of these moral questions should be part of the public conversation. He concedes your major point to in this review, he says something kind of like Sam Harris says that religious reasons should not get a free pass just because they’re religious, but that they should be open to the same scrutiny as every other kind of argument.
That’s right. The price of admission to the public square, even even for him, is susceptibility to public scrutiny. The same standards of serious conversation about what we ought to do must apply to reasons of all kinds, including reasons of conscience standards, such as does it make sense? Is it consistent with the rest of what we know? Is it practically feasible? Is it legal? Is it moral?
And you’re saying that since the public square has been gutted of all this moral reasoning, all of these matters of conscience, that the religious reasons have kind of gone underground. They haven’t been subject to public scrutiny. They haven’t been subject to people debating over them.
The religious were always free to voice their claims of conscience in in public life. They’re guaranteed that freedom under the religion clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Liberals have groused about it, but what they haven’t done is to address the substance, the substance of those reasons. They’ve addressed a procedure. They’ve said you’re violating the ground rules for public discourse. I wish you wouldn’t drag God into politics rather than addressing the substance of the matter.
So, Austin, you’re saying that claims of religious conscience, along with claims of secular moral conscience, should be allowed in the public square, even encouraged in public discourse? But isn’t this only going to lead to more divisiveness, more civil strife? I mean, what happens when someone advances a public policy position for ending the right to abortion, for instance, or another culture war question, and uses religious reasons that aren’t open to everyone understanding them? Religious reasons like God says abortion is wrong or God says gay marriage is wrong because homosexuality is wrong.
The first thing to say, as I said before, is that we have no choice. Religious liberty includes the liberty to speak one’s mind in public. Even if people don’t agree with you. What else could it mean? But I want to point out that the secular moral conscience and moral reasons can be as contested, as controversial, no less divisive than than their religious counterparts. I mean, think about the controversies over globalization or immigration or race relations in this country. These aren’t religious disputes.
These are moral and empirical and legal disputes.
And even issues like abortion have great debates within the secular community. There are secularists who are for a woman’s right to choose abortion and secularists who are against it.
Sure, there are plenty of secular opponents of abortion. There are plenty of secular opponents of physician assisted suicide. So, you know, religious reasons don’t have a lock on nonpublic divisiveness.
On that last point, Austin, the argument has gone that secular reasons are different from religious reasons in that religious reasons are essentially subjective. Religious reasons for morality are inherently subjective. They’re not based on objective, testable, sharable evidence. They’re based instead on things like revelation, on faith, on God told me so. So isn’t that a good reason for privileging secular arguments in public discourse over religious arguments? Isn’t that why we’re justified as secular liberals to discount religious reasons in public discourse?
Many have said so many prominent liberal philosophers have said so for that reason. But I think it’s just a mistake. Religion has been called a conversation stopper, but, you know, it takes two to converse in that decision about whether to stop. The conversation lies as much with the secular, liberal and the religious person. The fact that a claim originally. In a subjective or personal experience that you don’t share doesn’t mean that you can’t criticize that claim. I mean, if you’ve ever comforted a child who had a nightmare, you notice you say it wasn’t real. But how could you know that if you didn’t have the experience? I mean, you might have an irrational fear of of flying, but others can talk to you about it rationally.
Well, all of that sounds gloriously condescending. You know, you’re talking about irrational fear of flying or a child’s nightmare that wasn’t real and comparing it to a person’s subjective religious reasons for having this or that moral position. You’re basically saying open the floodgates, let religion into the public square and hope like hell that everyone sees through it, criticizes it and then discards it. Right.
I think there’s there’s no condescension in the condescension wrestling with the person who doesn’t take that serious public claims of others seriously. I think the same the the exact same reasoning applies to claims of religious revelation. And by the way, many, many claims of the religious in politics have nothing to do on at least on their own account. With Revelation, for example, the Catholic natural law tradition is supposed to give us access to moral truths which which are open to all Theroux’s really through secular reason. So it’s it’s just empirically false that every religious claim in politics is a claim based on revelation, empirically false. But even those that are based on revelation can be and are must be criticized. I mean, if somebody tells you that that God has told you to, you know, murder your parents, we don’t just accept that. We say don’t do it. We we can criticize Glenn as immoral. We can criticize them. And that’s impracticable as as illegal, regardless of their source. Mm hmm. Will this open up the floodgates? Again, we have no responsible alternative, but I think that our confidence can be can be buoyed by our history. After all, we did not escape the cauldron of actual religious war. Forget about in polite conversation, but the actual religious war was not escaped in the history of the West by privatizing conscience in the sense that contemporary liberals mean it. After all the leading arguments for secularism in the West, as I discuss in a chapter on Spinoza and others, the leading arguments for secularism were, in a certain sense, religious arguments. The dissident Protestants who who first popularized the idea of religious toleration in the West were making arguments from the Bible. Spinoza did likewise in his great book, The Political Theological Treatise. But he also pioneered an argument, which I call the argument from futility, which said that the attempt to coerce belief would be futile and self-defeating because belief is just not the kind of thing that can be forced. It must flow freely from one’s own assessment of the evidence. Madison picks this up and says that, you know, coerced belief would not be pleasing to God. So here the idea is it’s an argument for secularism based on a particular model of salvation.
To get a copy of the secular conscience. The book Sam Harris calls an extraordinarily lucid and a helpful book. You can go to our website Point of inquiry dot org. Austin Most secularists, as we’ve discussed, see conscience, these moral reasonings, well, that they should remain private. But you argue that there’s a better way. Rather than arguing that, you know, your personal beliefs should remain private, there’s a better way to see it. And that’s to understand secular liberal liberalism that it’s based not on the idea of conscience as being private, but on the idea that conscience is open. What does it mean for you to have a conscience that’s open?
I mean, open as in the open society. Think of the press or the media in a free society. We protect the press from autocratic control by government or other powerful institutions. The press has to be autonomous, but we don’t therefore say that it’s private. The press is protected. It’s left free and open. Not so maybe private, but so that it may serve a vital public purpose. And I think conscience is protected in order that. They pursue through conversation are vital questions of meaning and entity value and truth, both in and out of the public square. This, by the way, has always been the liberal tradition of secular liberalism, wasn’t always about stopping conversations. It used to be about starting them. Spinoza was exiled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam when he wrote his his his masterpiece on politics. And he hoped that it would convince people to open their society to permit the discussion of the kinds of revolutionary ideas he was proposing. John Stuart Mill advocates a free society so that people may pursue what he calls experiments in living and share the results of those with each other in hopes of discovering the best and most worthwhile forms of human life.
The distinction that you’re drawing just now sounds kind of like a semantic distinction, not a big distinction. I’m curious how all that would cash out in practical terms.
Take the issue of stem cell research, for example. George Bush cited a higher medical authority saying life is a gift from God. Most liberals protested the intrusion of religious reasons into politics. Ron Reagan Jr. actually wrote a great letter to The New York Times in which he sought a second opinion. And rather than objecting to Bush’s right to talk about conscience and politics, he took his claims for what they were. And he said, well, let’s let’s see how far we can go with this. If you’re making a moral claim, you should at least be consistent, which means that you should also be against in vitro fertilization clinics. So that’s an example of how conscience can be treated as open rather than private to advance the secular liberal agenda.
Austin, we touched on Islam earlier in our conversation. Let’s get back to it real quick before we finish up. A lot of your book is devoted to the matter of Islam. In fact, the famous apostate Ibn Warrick has called the secular conscience. Well, he’s he’s said that it should be read by every friend of the open society. Why is this book important to dissident Muslims?
As I mentioned earlier, the secular open society has met its antithesis. We have the Anglican Archbishop, Rowan Williams, considering Sharia courts in the UK. We have a human rights commission in Canada bringing lawsuits alleging religious offenses against Muslims. We have honor killings spreading across Europe. But at the same time, there are, as you mentioned, untold numbers of secular Muslims and what your Manji calls reform minded Muslims. These are people working to reconcile their faith with human rights, freedom of conscience and secular modernity. The young people of Iran are mostly secular humanist, trapped in a theocratic nightmare.
One would expect secular liberals to be at the forefront of this struggle.
Yeah, they’re not Jim Underdown you’d expect secular liberals to be the biggest ally of these secularizing elements within Islam.
That’s right. But I can tell you, I’ve had the privilege to organize some gatherings of of secular Muslims, dissidents from the Muslim and Arab world. Many of them in the United States. And the first question that we always get is I can see that you have your problems over there. But we have our problems over here. They mean the Christian fundamentalists. And they they sometimes use the phrase American Taliban. We have our own Taliban in America. Well, when I hear someone use the phrase American Taliban, it’s all I can do to keep from throwing the book at them. A big book. Yes. America has a noisy minority of Christian fundamentalists. But get back to me when they start killing their sisters and daughters with impunity for the crime of dishonoring the family. Get back to me when they think gazed at the gallows in the streets of American cities. Until then, stand with the Muslims and non-Muslims who are working to reinvent their faith.
What you just said, Austin, I can sink my teeth into. But a lot of secular liberals will hear it and it just screams to them Islamophobia.
Islamophobia was tale of anger and Islamophobia. After making the movie submission in the Netherlands, he was shot. He’s bleeding on the street in Amsterdam and before his throat is sliced open. His last words to his killers were, surely we can talk about this. Is Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Islamophobia. How about Jamal Ladine? He’s an Iraqi Shiite cleric who’s calling for the absolute separation of mosque and state in Iraq. But yet, he said when young people come to religion, not because the state orders them to, but because they feel it themselves in their hearts, it actually increases religious devotion. James Madison couldn’t have said it better. But notice, this argument would be impossible if we thought religious claims were out of bounds of public discussion. So people like Hirsi Ali and Jamala Abdeen, they should be the chief allies of secular liberals and their enemies should be our chief enemies. This means giving up the private conscience for the open conscience.
We’ve taken for granted in this whole conversation that there is such a thing as secular moral conscience or secular morality and that it’s open and objective. And the way that you describe you want secularists to break the religious monopoly on morality. I’ve heard you talk about it. That’s basically the underlying argument in all of our conversation today. But many commentators, Austin, religious and secular alike, deny that this is possible. And, of course, there are a lot of religious objections that are well-known for many secular pro science types. Morality isn’t something that they feel comfortable about advancing in the public square. For them, it’s just an evolutionary device that’s helped us survive and reproduce. Or maybe they see morality is just enlightened self-interest. Some of my best secular liberal friends, some people we’ve talked to on point of inquiry also really seem to be moral relativists when it gets down to it, when the chips are down on any of these views, any of these culture war questions, moral values for them seem to have no independent, no objective existence. So maybe secularists just have to bite the bullet and have to agree that if if you don’t have God without God, everything is permitted.
I teach ethics. And one thing I can always predict about my undergraduate students is that they will be moral relativists, at least until the end structure reminds them that since all grades are equal, no, I’ll be getting a different look. Not only is the secular conscience possible, I say the religious conscience is impossible. Without it, without conscience. Secularism and religion are hollow. Without conscience. Liberalism is defenseless. Conscience is the soul of the secular liberal order. And we can we must be Kliment.
Thank you very much for joining me again on point of inquiry, Austin Dacey. Thank you, DJ Grothe.
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Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe.