Students Doubting Religion Now Can Join Group of Peers: Secular Humanism Movement Reaches out to Youth

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

Students Doubting Religion Now Can Join Group of Peers: Secular Humanism Movement Reaches out to Youth


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Secular humanism is putting on a human face, and a younger face as well.

As a God-denying group that became the bogeyman of Christian conservatives in the 1980s, it only now has begun to help students organize at universities and in high schools.

Secular humanists also hope to revise their image as coldly rational, independent and graying skeptics.

"We have transformed ourselves into an activist membership movement," said Paul Kurtz, who founded the Council for Secular Humanism in 1980. "We're refocusing our efforts on young people."

In 1996, the council flew eight university students to the Amherst headquarters to found the Campus Freethought Alliance. Since then it has had events or chapters on 50 to 80 campuses. Tomorrow in Chicago, high school students attending a major Council for Secular Humanism conference will announce the formation of the Young Freethinkers Alliance.

Because high school students are "facing discrimination for their lack of belief in the supernatural and paranormal, we are in desperate need of a national alliance," Cori Bazydlo, 16, of New York, said in a press release.

Under the Equal Access Act of 1984, students can organize atheist clubs as well as Bible clubs. The Young Freethinkers said it will follow that pattern.

"We expect a lot of students," Mr. Kurtz said of the Chicago conference - "Why Does Religion Persist?" - which opens today. He said students are seeking community, social action and alternatives to religion, what he said "neo-humanism" has to offer.

Organized humanists have been around since 1933, when the first Humanist Manifesto was issued. The American Humanist Association has 5,500 members today.

But Mr. Kurtz, a retired State University of New York philosophy professor in Amherst, wanted to separate the final vestiges of religion from humanism. He adopted the term "secular" and published two magazines, Free Inquiry, on society and religion, and the Skeptical Inquirer, on science.

By the mid-1990s, the council had 100,000 supporters and subscribers. They were mostly older, well-educated skeptics. Then students began to inquire.

"They picked it up on the Internet," Mr. Kurtz said. "Then they came to us."

The council is sponsoring the university clubs, from which inquiring high school students will receive support, resources and organization. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish ministries do likewise for college and high school students.

"The No. 1 thing is that humanism teaches that ethics and religion are not necessarily connected," said Chris Mooney, who graduates from Yale University in English this year. He joined the alliance last year.

"I started by getting a copy of Free Inquiry," he said.

Though coming from a non-religious background, Mr. Mooney said students from religious homes often are the subscribers on a 200-student e-mail list at Yale - though only 10 students are "really active." In February, they organized a student debate on "Does God Exist?" It pitted Free Thought students against Campus Crusade for Christ members. The event drew a campus audience of 400.

"We argued that there is no good reason to believe God exists, and that the burden of proof is on those who claim God's existence," Mr. Mooney said. The theists, he said, argued for God as a first cause, on ethical grounds and from "Pascal's wager" - that it is better to believe in God, for there is nothing to lose even if God is not there.

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