Atheist or Agnostic, a Place for Humanists
Two campus groups for students who doubt or disbelieve
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 email@example.com Comments