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Atheist or Agnostic, a Place for Humanists

Two campus groups for students who doubt or disbelieve

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Students in Humanists of Boston University cleaned the Esplanade recently in their ongoing community service. Photo by Frank Curran

John McCargar found religion fascinating by the time he was seven, an age when most children would sooner eat broccoli than attend church. “I was a strange kid,” he says with a laugh. Growing up, he sampled a number of religions—from Christianity to Deism—and by the time he got to BU, he was a Mormon. But studying further, he found evidence lacking for some of Mormonism’s religious claims, and disenchanted, gave up on religion. (That’s the short version; ask for the long version and this cerebral student talks about “Aristotelian critiques of Platonism” and “metaphysical constructs of reality.”)

“Losing my faith was a painful thing,” says McCargar (CAS’11), but liberating in its honesty.

McCargar now finds himself in a distinct minority: a secular humanist, an umbrella term for those who doubt or disbelieve in the existence of God. The nonprofit Pew Forum on Religion and American Life reports that just 5 percent of Americans identify as nonbelievers. Many atheists call themselves humanists because of the perceived baggage of the a-word. Whatever the term, on a campus steeped in Methodist history and dotted with worship services for all sorts of denominations, BU humanists now have two groups they can call home.

Founded three years ago, Boston University Atheists and Secular Humanists is “a social network as well as a venue for discussions and debates,” which means anyone of any view is welcome, says Miranda Bloom (CAS’12). Few religious believers accept the invitation, however. Because members “essentially agree on our beliefs,” Bloom says, “debates do not generally last long.”

McCargar was looking for something else: a humanist group that featured more dialogue with believers and more volunteer service as part of its mission. So he and friend Tim Martinez (CAS’11) started Humanists of Boston University two years ago. In addition to service projects, such as a recent Sunday cleanup of trash around Boston’s Esplanade, the group hosts discussions that, for mental calisthenics, rival a philosophy seminar. McCargar recently led two nights of discussion around the question of whether science is at all useful—as a moral yardstick to judge right from wrong, or even for explaining the physical universe—taking pro and con positions on different nights.

On the first night, the 20 students in the audience leavened their often abstract discussion with a fun touch—tossing a small “talking ball” among themselves, each yielding it to anyone who signaled that he wanted to make a point. Playing devil’s advocate and arguing that science is irrelevant, McCargar cited physics as an example, running down a list of unsolved questions in that discipline. “Because of this inherent incompleteness, the practice of physics is inherently useless to us,” he said.

Not so, objected one student: “What we do have is useful, but it doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I do believe in black holes, but I don’t know what causes them.” Then she smilingly beseeched, “Somebody?” looking for backup from her peers. McCargar, a natural teacher with a supple, quick-on-his-feet intellect, obliged, offering what he said was a quote from the titular doctor of the TV drama House: “The inexplicted [sic] is not inexplicable.” The discussion ended with no consensus or votes. “There’s nothing that we’re trying to promote, necessarily,” McCargar explained. “It’s just sort of a thought experiment.”

The disparate approaches of the two BU groups partly reflect a broader division among American humanists. On one side, New Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris deride religion as dumb at best and dangerous at worst. Countering them are thinkers like Harvard humanist chaplain and author Greg Epstein, who argues that humanists can reject belief, but learn from believers.

Zachary Bos, administrative coordinator for the College of Arts & Sciences Core Curriculum and advisor to Humanists of Boston University, has broached with the humanist students the idea of establishing a humanist chaplaincy at BU. Such a person would do for them what other chaplains do: organize programs for “contemplation, fellowship, service, and study.” But Bos says humanists would first have to spend several years mustering an endowment to pay for the position. Both groups are small, and whether membership will grow is uncertain, McCargar says. “Increasing disaffection with religious denominations doesn’t necessarily translate into more humanists.”

Still, “I do believe there is plenty of potential” for Humanists of Boston University, he says. “It is a club dedicated to improving lives and bringing people together.”

However, public opinion suggests that many remain uncomfortable with the idea of humanism. Polling indicates Americans are more likely to vote for just about anyone—woman, gay person, Mormon—before they’d vote for an atheist. A University of Minnesota study suggests that the aversion stems from many believers’ equating disbelief in God with self-interest and indifference to the common good. BU is more welcoming, says Bloom, who recalls intolerance towards nonbelievers in the Boston Irish Catholic neighborhood where she grew up; here, she says, professors and peers don’t judge and condemn her.

“I do not believe that one has to be affiliated with an organized religion in order to make a positive difference or to discuss religion’s role in history and in the world,” she says. Indeed, according to a recent Pew survey, the American group most knowledgeable about religion was—atheists.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Atheist or Agnostic, a Place for Humanists

  • Anonymous on 12.01.2010 at 10:06 am

    Humanists the minority?

    Though I am impressed by your statistic and that humanists may indeed be in the minority, I daresay that their perspective is not. I would say that the dominant perspective from which most university courses are taught is that of the secular humanist. As a student at the school of theology, despite its Methodist history, I would venture to say that many of the courses purport to be Christian, and may indeed focus on Christian texts, but treat them and teach from a secular humanist perspective. I think on a university campus you are more likely to find secular humanists who simply don’t identify because the term is obscure.

  • Tracy Hall Jr on 12.01.2010 at 9:46 pm

    Evidence lacking?

    Mr. Barker does not make clear whether the reference for “evidence lacking” came from Mr. McCarger or from his own “research.” In either case, “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise,” by Richard and Joan Ostling, is anything but a dispassionate, scholarly examination of Mormonism. Indeed, if the book helped to destroy the faith of Mr. McCarger, then the Ostlings succeeded in their purpose.

    The cover blurb of one edition betrays its agenda: “Revised and updated for the 2008 election. The True Story Behind Their Beliefs, Rituals, Business Practices, and Well-Guarded Secrets.”

    The Ostings’ sinister portrayal of the Mormon “hierarchy” contradicts my own 65 years of experience with them. I love our leaders for their unflagging testimony of Christ, their inspired and uplifting counsel, and their obvious and undying love for all of our Heavenly Father’s children.

    For a perceptive and penetrating review of the “Mormon America,” see “Faith with Caricature?” by Raymond Takashi Swenson, FARMS review, vol. 13, Issue 2, pp. 65-77

    http://tinyurl.com/caricature-of-faith

    Also see a trenchant review by Louis Midgley, who makes clear why the editors of another anti-Mormon book “heartily recommend” “Mormon America,” which they claim “will serve as an excellent companion” to their own attack on Latter-day Saint beliefs.

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/faulty-topology

    Undismayed, Midgley is encouraged to see such critics of the Book of Mormon ” . . . reach out for more subtle and sophisticated arguments to buttress their unfaith as the old ones fall by the wayside. And our past is not such that our faith can be toppled by carping about this or that incident, as the Ostlings do, or by celebrating some recent revisionist history, and certainly not by turning a former Mormon historian into a stick with which to beat the church.”

    The Ostlings’ dirty little secret is that the “liberal” and former Mormons whom they use to bash “traditional” Mormonism often espouse positions on moral issues that are antithetical to their own evangelical values. In fact, the ex-Mormon who is their primary source about the “Mormon hierarchy” is a homosexual activist.

    If you are looking for “lack of evidence,” you will find a lack in “Mormon America.” But as noted humanist Carl Sagan said, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

    Why drink downstream from the anti-Mormon feedlot when you can walk upstream to the pure source?

    Throw out all the other books and read, yes, actually read, “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Then go to Mormon.org and talk to a believing Mormon. Seek, and ye shall find.

    http://lds.org/scriptures/bofm?lang=eng

    mormon.org

    Tracy Hall Jr

    hthalljr’gmail’com

  • Anonymous on 12.10.2010 at 9:20 am

    Humanism

    “Many atheists call themselves humanists because of the perceived baggage of the a-word”

    Though this may be accurate of some humanists, Humanism is not a soft term for atheism. They are 2 distinct things. The only thing that atheists have in common is a shared non-belief in any of the popular gods. Humanism is a step beyond this. Its a skeptical, evidence based philosophy focused on the improvement of the human condition.

    In other words not only do we not believe in gods, but not in big foot, nor in ghosts. That is until evidence can be provided that they exist. We realize that the challenges the human race face, may only be overcome by working together. With the best knowledge we can find through the the scientific process. Atheism, while being a part of humanism, is a very small piece.

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