Justin Trottier – The Fight for Science and Reason on the Campuses

September 20, 2008

Justin Trottier is Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry in Ontario, the first venue dedicated to secular humanists and freethinkers in Canada, and helps oversees CFI Communities in Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver. A former freethought campus activist, Justin co-hosts the student oriented Course of Reason podcast and supports over 30 campus groups across Canada. He has had appeared on numerous television networks, including CBC, CTS, OMNI, CH and CityTV, as well as dozens of radio appearances and coverage in campus, city and national newspapers. He is also a regular panelist for the Globe and Mail and the Michael Coren Show and has contributed to Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer and Humanist Perspectives magazines.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Justin Trottier talks about how he got involved with science and secularist activism while in college, and why he focuses much of his attention as an organizer now on colleges and universities. He also explains why the Center for Inquiry devotes so many resources to reaching the college students. He details current threats to the university from both the Right and the Left, and what CFI is doing to counter these trends of unreason, sharing ways that listeners can get involved in this effort.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 19th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries is 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, Justin Trotty, here is a word from Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

Where can you turn to find others like yourself who appreciate critical thinking, turned to Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine that separates fact from media myth. It’s published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Find out what genuine science has to say about the extraordinary and the unexplained. You’ll be surprised. Subscribed to skeptical inquiry today. One year, six challenging issues for nineteen ninety nine. To subscribe a request, a sample issue, just call one 800 six three four one six one zero or visit the point of inquiry. Website point of inquiry dot org. 

Once a year or so, I try to use point of inquiry to highlight the work CFI is doing on the campuses and why we’re doing it. So it’s with great pleasure. I have Justin Trottier on Point of inquiry. He’s now executive director of the Center for Inquiry in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It’s the first venue dedicated to a secular humanist and freethinkers throughout Canada. And he helps coordinate the Center for Inquiry Communities in Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver, a former campus Freethought activist. He now co-hosts the student oriented Course of Reason podcast and supports over 30 campus groups across Canada. He’s appeared widely in the media on CBC, CPS, Omni City TV, as well as dozens of radio appearances and coverage in campus, city and national newspapers. He’s a regular panelist for the Globe and Mail and the Michael Corren Show and has contributed to free inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer and Humans Perspectives magazines. Welcome back to the show, Justin Trottier. We always appreciate being here. Thank you. Justin, it seems like just a couple years ago you were heading up a CFI campus group there at the University of Toronto, and now you’re executive director of our flagship in Canada. To me, it seems like a pretty direct line from one to the other. 

Yeah, more or less. Although I would say that there were some serendipitous accidents and and and we were oddities along the way. But I was very passionate about about Freethought campus activism. And by the end of that first year, which was very dynamic, and we really did make a name for ourselves, taking on a number of issues at the university. Some other student leaders from across Canada were contacting us twice to get involved with us and with the Center for Inquiry Campus Movement, and we were very happy to oblige. And very soon after that, I was appointed to run a lot of the campus and field activism of the Center for Inquiry. 

And Captain Jim Underdown, you were our campus organizer in Canada. Yes. And I know originally you concentrated mostly just on the campuses in the greater Toronto area. Then you came aboard with CFI to do campus organizing throughout Canada. But now working with CFI has other campus organizers. You’re focusing on campuses throughout North America, not just in Canada. That’s what I want to talk to you mostly about today. I guess the first big question is, what’s the point? Why is CFI devoting so many resources to reaching the campuses? 

Well, I’ve been asked this question a few times. If I really thought through the answer, I think. And before I can really address why why we. Well, what? Why? Why I am Freethought campus activist. I think I need to sort of answer the question, why should we be advocating for science and the naturalistic world worldview in a more general sense? I think if you look historically at the sort of advent of the scientific revolution on the one hand and on the other, the sort of places where where culture and society come into the fore are pluralistic democracy is the notion of progress and innovation being a real value. We find that the university is kind of at the crux of both science and society. And I think that if we don’t defend the noble heritage of the university in that capacity and that great defender of scientific evidence based reasoning and the free exchange of ideas, that I think that we really risk a lot. And I do think that we can see that there are some dangers ahead when it comes to being an activist or advocating both on an ad off campus. 

So you just said the campuses are already kind of havens of the point of view that were pushing at the center of our inquiry. Their missions are to promote free, unfettered, critical inquiry into every area. You used a phrase like scientific evidence based reason, you know, that sort of stuff. Universities are the place in our society where we say no questions are off limits. No issues should be taboo. Professors have tenure, so they’re not going to get fired if they look into some too controversial subject. CFI is mission, which is almost exactly, you know, in some ways what the university’s mission is free, unfettered, critical inquiry and everything. Isn’t it kind of redundant that we’re on the campuses because the campuses aren’t they are already doing what we say we want to be doing? 

Well, Robert, you mention that so explicitly. CFA is mission assigns reason. Free inquiry is definitely the mission. That view historical mission of university. But you get your question. There are threats that I think that there are fairly big ones. And I think that they can be kind of broken down into threats from the left and right, from the right, although that might sound kind of crude from the right. We do have the impact of the religious right in the states very much that the Christian right advocates on campus. The campus crusade for Christ in Canada. Actually, it’s just the Kaffirs for Christ. I guess they have different PR gurus, right? 

They’re smarter up there. They’ve distanced themselves from the idea of a crusade to get their their budget is orders of magnitude above ours, I believe Jim Underdown. And in the U.S., the campus crusade for Christ has an annual operating budget surpassing 400 million dollars a year. Infinitely larger than CFD budget. 

Hitting the campuses, I do know, is that large. But I do believe that you can feel it here, too. I should say in Canada, there are many Muslim students, most Asians across Canada. I believe there are probably nearly as well funded, but also from the left. We have threats from within academia itself, from radical epistemological skeptics who in the curriculum sort of decry sciences as just another narrative of no more value than any other. And from from fellow activists, we have the notion of cultural relativism, which which in a sense stifles our ability to have real debates and dialogs on the campus. 

So you have activists on the left saying that CFI is out of line to be critical of religions, say, or Islam or kind of this extreme tolerance that says no one has the right to criticize any other point of view. 

Absolutely. I can give a couple of examples, if I may. One was a couple years back when a number of student groups in Ontario were advocating against the introduction of Sharia Islamic law or Islamic Courts in Ontario. And we took this to a number of the student unions to gain their support. And we were looked at as if we were racists for daring to make this an issue. The interesting thing is, even when we advocate for the removal of the Lord’s Prayer of Christian prayers at a graduation ceremony, once again, this is seen as as the wrong thing to be doing. But in a sense, all we’re doing is advocating for the secular position. We’re not advocating for special rights for atheists. We’re advocating for neutrality with respect to religion from from a public university. But even that is seen as kind of being intolerant in the sense that we’re taking away somebody else’s right to have their prayer Jim Underdown. 

So CFI is pushing for a secular level playing field on the campuses and you’re seeing that we’re getting opposition from the left. That raises an interesting question. You know, some of our cultural competitors on the far right, you know, I, I get less than fanmail when I even use the phrase cultural competitors’. I defend that there is something like a culture war going on. That said, you know, we often talk about the rights of the far right, the religious political extremists on the right side of the fence. But we have opposition. People don’t support this. This mission of the Center for Inquiry on the campuses, even from the left. So I guess what I’m getting at is that we’re not just a leftist organization pushing some some liberal left leaning ideology. We’re kind of centrists at the Center for Inquiry. And we get it from both sides. 

Absolutely. You know, I can go on and on and give you examples where our main competitors are really those student leaders who have a sort of a misguided sense, I would say, of the way multiculturalism and diversity should be implemented in the case of a number of Kadin universities with multi faith centers. We’ve actually had some success in leveling the playing field so that the mandate and even the implementation of the programing of the Multi Faith Center is not just giving free prayer space to campus. Muslim and Christian and Hindu groups. But it really has been opened up so that no one seems to have a place. Not that they’re representing a religion, of course, but that when it comes to discussing and dialogs on the place of religion in a secular university, when those dialogs happen at the multi faith center, were involved in that, as I think it’s appropriate. 

Some critics of the Freethought movement say there you go again, you’re just trying to be a religion like religion is. What do you say to that challenge? 

Well, in this case, whenever there’s a topic of general interest that the multi faiths that are a topic that would involve more than one or two faith groups working together, it’s always a topic that has some relevance to secular society. It might be a topic like religion and science or what is the role of religion in a pluralistic democracy or why is there evil? And on all of those topics, a secular humanist has a say. We have an opinion. We’re not a religion, but we have an opinion. And so because of that, we can either allow ourselves to be locked out of the debate or we can take a vow of silence, or we can grudgingly accept that in order to have this say, we’re going to have to at least accept that the infrastructure in which we’re being a part of that dialog is inside a building called the Multi Faith Center. And so I advocate that it’s not such a bad thing to allow ourselves to take that small compromise for the sake of getting our opinions out there. 

As long as we don’t think we need to call ourselves a religion in order to be at the table. Absolutely. So so far, we’ve been talking about the the reason that we’re on the campuses is in terms of advancing kind of a secular and atheist, a humanistic point of view amidst many kind of opposing viewpoints. But our mission on the campuses surely isn’t just about secularism and humanism. 

No, not at all. In fact, if I were to give you a sort of short laundry list of the activities and events that we do both on and off campus here, you’d be hard pressed to attribute thought of atheist advocacy to the motivation behind all of those. So, for example, some of the best events, in fact, have been pure science. And it’s that if we did a big talk here in Toronto about the Large Hadron Collider, which recently went online at CERN. We had one of the leading physicists behind that project and that drew a couple hundred people just really to hear about the impact of science on on our views of the universe, on our place, in the cosmos. We’ve also hosted the debates examining paranormal and fringe science claims, examining conspiracy theories with a critical scientific lens. For example, the debate we had on the whole 9/11 truth or conspiracy theory. On the other side, we’ve done some more sort of political events on church, state separation, on free inquiry. And so it really is extremely broad and it brings in people who may not even be comfortable with the label of atheists or humanists. 

On the other hand, Justin, most of the 15000 or so students connected with us on the schools, they consider themselves atheists or maybe they consider themselves skeptics or free thinkers or humanists, you know, whatever term we want to use to describe our naturalistic world view. Does that mean that we’re in the business of supporting a network of what atheist support groups like? Is that our job on the campuses? 

But that isn’t directly the mandate of the Center for Inquiry. No, but I should say that if if you zoom is something that people are passionate about, if the new atheists and their sort of brand of organizing and all of that is something that brings people out, I do support that. But I think that that should just be the starting point. I don’t think that’s where we stop our our jobs. If it excites people to come together and then when they do come together to have those science and skeptical inquiry events that I described, if it motivates them to become church state separation advocates, if it motivates them to create secular social services, alternative social services, to religiously monopolize ones which the Center for Inquiry is all about, then I think there’s some value to lending support to what starts out as simply atheist outreach groups. 

So it’s not just atheist support groups, but yeah, we do get together. We’re social primates. We like, you know, being social. But there’s something more than just the groups, right? 

That’s right. And so being insular is not helpful if what we’re trying to do is have an impact both on university learning community, but also on the general tone of the conversation in our society about science and about secularism and about those those big questions that we do have a stake in. 

And that’s really the crux, you know, from my vantage. The real reason we’re on the campuses is because it’s the chief means by which we can influence culture. If you look at the conservative intellectual movement and, you know, 40 years ago with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which is not well known by people who aren’t part of the conservative intellectual movement, but this organization is largely responsible for identifying and cultivating the leading conservatives in our culture, especially the United States. So Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Colter and Bill Kristol and all these folks graduated out of this student outreach program. William F. Buckley was their first president. They said early on the way to impact culture is by impacting the campuses. And it seems like you’re persuaded by that argument as well. But from the other side of the fence. 

Yes, absolutely. And I think you can see that the battleground, if you’ll excuse that, that expression, I think is appropriate here, is really education book. And I would say not just the campuses where we do see a lot of sort of creationist that evolution debacles and court cases playing out. But even in great schools, it is a huge issue where we see a real battleground between sort of the secular values and those of the religious right. I can throw up some great examples of that. In grade school in Ontario, we have this publicly funded Catholic school system and that is defended with vigor because we’re talking again about our youth that was defended with vigor. It’s also opposed with vigor by the Center for Inquiry and others who believe in secular public education in Alberta. We’ve learned from our colleagues at the community of inquiry out there that evolution has really given short shrift in the in the education system, which I’m sure is completely familiar to your American listeners. In Quebec, there’s extreme tension happening right now because of the introduction of a new faith and ethics course into the great school system. So I think that education and and campuses specifically is a real kind of focal point for a lot of these issues. 

Justin, tell me specifically what CFS campus programs doing to reach the campuses. We’ve spoken in kind of general terms about why we think we need to be at the colleges and universities. What are we specifically doing? 

Well, we’re doing a lot at specific campuses, but there’s also a very vibrant national and international movement where we network and bring students together and make the movement grow as a result of that. And some examples of the way we accomplish this is through WYO, a leadership conference, that convocation of campus groups. And once a year in our headquarters in AMRS, New York, we bring together student leaders from across North America. Often we bring people in from from outside the continent as well for a weekend of stimulating discussions, networking sessions and lectures to keep the movement going, to share ideas and concepts and all of that. We also have a newsletter that we e-mail out once a month called Campus Inquirer, which is full of ideas for getting involved stories and examples of successful student leaders and brandnew. We’re proud to introduce the Course of Reason podcast, which we’ve been putting out now for a couple of months. 

And you’re one of the co-hosts of this. It’s a campus themed podcast. 

Yes, that’s correct. And the other co-hosts are Debbie Goddard at CFA headquarters and Evers, as well as Tyler Hadley, who is one of our more active student leaders in Waterloo, Ontario. And it is really a campus and also education themed podcast dealing with our issues. Secularism, skeptical investigations and free inquiry should be said. 

We’re also investing in a robust volunteer program across North America that’s right across North America. 

In fact, we have student leaders that have come on board to volunteer with us at the local level to help us better network and get our mission across to many campus groups as we can. 

Justin, if someone’s listening to our chat, they tune in to hear conversations with, you know, luminaries in science and kind of, you know, the different fields of inquiry. And they’re listening to two guys who work at a nonprofit talking about why they prize their activities on the campuses. And let’s say they’re persuaded that it is important. What’s your advice to them? 

Well, the first thing I would definitely suggest is that anybody who’s at all interested, who wants to get involved as quickly as possible, should really join the movement by registering themselves at our Web site, Campus Enquirer dot org. They can do that. Well, you’re a student, a faculty supporter or an off campus supporter or student leader. We’ll get you a package of material in the mail right away. 

This is free education on Moesha Materials that we give to anybody who asks. 

Yes, absolutely free. We’re especially looking for faculty, which can be of assistance to us both on campuses where we have groups and especially on campuses where we’re looking to start groups. And lastly, I should recommend that anybody who’s interested in supporting what we do in keeping our resources flowing would be urged to become a friend of the center so that we can continue investing in this important campus movement. 

Friends of the center, that’s the kind of the membership program of the Center for Inquiry. And when people become a friend of the center, it’s not that they’re joining our campus outreach program, but they’re supporting CFI. And that support helps us do the campus outreach. 

Yes. As well as all of our other programs. 

Right. Well, thanks for this kind of quick discussion about why we’re doing what we’re doing at colleges and universities. Justin, I enjoyed it. 

It’s my pleasure. Thank you. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. One adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry Magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine or Center for Inquiry on Campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting WW w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode. Go to our online discussion forums at Center for Inquiry dot net slash forums. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Playlet. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.