Debunk'd

The CFI's campus crusade for common sense

It's a boom time for belief. Whether it's a virgin-strewn posthumous paradise, that "clairvoyant" ghost molester John Edward, or the idea that Jesus should play a role in foreign policy, there's a fantasy to which people can attach their dreams, hatreds, and fears. Almost half of all Americans believe that man was created in his present form about 10,000 years ago, and one-third are biblical literalists, according to a November 19 Gallup poll. Most Americans still cling to their baseless beliefs (81 percent profess a belief in God), and what's more, many of them want to silence or marginalize those who don't share their views. This struggle is at the center of our ongoing culture wars, and the front lines are our schools and universities.

Believers know: Get them while they're young. And they've sent their Christian soldiers onward to America's campuses to convert, cajole, and corral as many more troops as possible. These groups, with names such as the Campus Crusade for Christ, with thousands of campus ministries around the country, are well funded and omnipresent. New York University alone has more than 30 official religious groups on campus. Arrayed against this holy horde are a few stoic nonbelievers, skeptics, atheists, humanists, and agnostics, organized mainly under the banner of the SUNY Buffalo-based Center for Inquiry.

"We're a secular, pro-science alternative to groups like the Campus Crusade for Christ, or to paranormal clubs or groups of kids that are interested in psychics," says DJ Grothe, director of campus and community programs for the CFI. "We're not just seeking to criticize the prevailing movements of irrationalism on campuses, but looking to advance the scientific outlook, which encompasses the whole goal of the university itself." Toward that end, the CFI has helped to create approximately more than 500 campus chapters across the nation since it started its college efforts nine years ago; 160 are still active. "That's just the nature of campus organizing groups: Students come and go," Grothe tells the Voice. "It's like organizing at a bus stop."

illustration: Jessica Mazurkiewicz

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  • Despite the challenges, the Center's popularity is growing. Fourteen new campus affiliates have been added to the CFI's roster since November, and it's set to begin construction on a $2.5 million expansion of its headquarters in upstate Amherst, located just outside the Buffalo campus. With an annual budget of approximately $5.5 million, the Center for Inquiry funds its education efforts, its campus outreach arm, affiliate groups such as the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and the publication of Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines. Compare that to the Campus Crusade for Christ, which has an annual budget of $400 million, and that's not counting the other religious and spiritual groups that vie for the minds and souls of America's college students.

    Even if the funding levels were more equitable, there's still the fact that the CFI doesn't try to convert students—conversion being the lifeblood of its so-called "cultural competitors."

    "We're not an evangelical organization," says Grothe. "We're on the campus to defend this outlook from a very well-organized and well-funded minority who peddle quackery and ancient religious dogmas."

    Take the book Mind Siege, co-written by David A. Noebel and bestselling Rapture-porn author Tim LaHaye (co-doomsayer, with Jerry B. Jenkins, of America's most widely read fiction series, Left Behind): It purports to detail the ways in which secular humanism threatens the "moral fabric of America," and argues that Christians should be willing to fight humanists with "blood, sweat, and tears to defeat this very real enemy."

    And these are the sorts of books Christian groups distribute to students as part of their campus outreach efforts, says Grothe. "They [Noebel and LaHaye] seek to advance the Christian biblical worldview and have it replace philosophy, law, history, psychology, and literature as they are now taught in the schools," says Grothe. "It sounds like I'm making it up—it's too ludicrous to believe." Nevertheless, it's the opinion underlying the Left Behind books, which have sold more than 62 million copies.

    Grothe says that he has debated Noebel about secular humanism, and he takes pains to point out that his organization, while competing with groups like the Campus Crusade for Christ, isn't always at odds with them, often co-sponsoring debates on theological issues, as it did recently at Purdue University, where Grothe says almost 4,000 people attended a debate on whether or not God exists. It's the sort of discussion that is held far too rarely on television and in the mainstream media.

    The Center for Inquiry is working to change that too. In coordination with SUNY Buffalo, it's planning to introduce a new master's degree program called Science and the Public, which will focus on "how the emerging scientific outlook intersects with basic cultural beliefs and values," beginning with the 2005-06 academic year, says Austin Dacey, CFI's director of education. The program's structure is still being discussed with administrators, but Dacey believes it will be the only degree of its kind, and will explore the intersection of science and religion from a rationalist point of view, rather than from a theological perspective. "It's designed to attract scholars in the sciences and humanities, but also policy makers and journalists."

    The focus on science advocacy and away from atheistic horn-blowing is intentional, says Grothe. "Our strategy is to go into classrooms talking about the Center for Inquiry's issues," he says. "If we're out there as knee-jerk village atheists or skeptics, people aren't going to be receptive to that dialogue." With that philosophy in mind—and standing in stark contrast to some of the proselytizing campus religious groups—they are helping to fund an upcoming Darwin Day conference on February 10 and 11, at SUNY Stony Brook. The featured guest will be Daniel C. Dennett, Tufts University professor and author of Freedom Evolves. "It's kind of a science festival, kind of a secular celebration," says Grothe, with planned panel discussions on topics such as the pseudo-theory Intelligent Design, and perhaps the traditional Darwin Day fish fry.

    And Grothe makes no bones about the social component of these secularist gatherings, considering that for many attendees, church-as-pickup-spot is out of the question. "Nonreligious people want community also," he says. "When you find someone that you like and who is attractive and shares your basic worldview—how rare is that when your worldview itself is rare?"

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