Ivy Leaf - Spring 2009
Taking it with a Grain of Salt
By Shari R. Routch
Skep-ti-cism (n): an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in
general or toward a particular object; the doctrine that true knowledge or
knowledge in a particular area is uncertain.
- MERRIAM WEBSTER'S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY, TENTH EDITION
NEW STUDENT ORGANIZATION TAKES A SKEPTICAL LOOK AT THE WORLD.
When trying to arrive at a name for the new student organization on campus last fall, senior Carrie Sieglinger wanted a title that would "promote openness and inclusion rather than exclusion." And thus, the United Skeptics Association—or USA as it is commonly known on campus— was born. "The group is generically called a skeptics group," states USA faculty advisor and founding member Steven Sherrill. "Certainly it's about religion. But there are a number of students in the group who are interested in being skeptical about more things: ESP, UFOs, paranormal phenomenon." Eric Charles, assistant professor of psychology and USA member, agrees. "Some people ask me 'how can you be part of that atheist group?' But that's not what we are. We are a skeptics group. We're not pushing any particular agenda."
The student organization is the brainchild of Sherrill, professor of English and integrative arts, who "took an incredibly conscious step towards atheism this past summer. I finally said, 'ok, this is what I am and what I believe.' I'm not particularly political in many ways, but in this vein I wanted to state my beliefs and see what others had to say." Having no idea if there was an interest on campus in forming a student group to discuss these topics, Sherrill set up an information table in the Hawthorn Building and talked to the students that approached. "There was huge student interest right away. I seemed to have opened a little door that lots of people want to come through."
Seiglinger was one of the first to enter. "I grew up Catholic and for most of my young life, I blindly accepted it. Then, when I started getting older, I didn't really get it anymore. It became a journey for me. I joined the skeptics group because that's where I am right now with my beliefs and, until now, I didn't have anyone to talk to about it."
According to Sherrill, the first meeting "crossed the spectrum of belief. We had several already committed, selfprofessed atheists, but there was also a deist, a druid, and some very fuzzy 'create your own' religious beliefs. It became a place to talk about the issues that clearly some were struggling with."
Its broad-based approach seems to be what attracts so many people to the group. "I think that's what draws people in, because we do have a broad range. We'll pick a topic to talk about and everybody has a different opinion. We don't always come to any conclusion and don't usually agree, but it is a nice, nonaggressive way to talk about issues," notes sophomore Alan Shomo.
It is not surprising to find so many young people actively exploring their belief systems at this age; many are on their own for the first time, making independent decisions and choices without outside influence from family. "One student approached the information table and said 'I believe in God because I was told to and I'm afraid not to,'" notes Sherrill. "That's not active choice and that's the role I would like the group to serve. I'm not invested in whether you change your opinion but that your opinion is an active choice."
"The discussions we have really are the core of what the liberal arts education should be: having a forum where students are free to try on different clothes and see what fits," states Charles. "Students should be changing their minds about different things from year to year at this point in their lives."
The organization seems to have struck a chord with some students, one that was not being addressed. "Students come up and say, 'I've been looking for something like this,' and you can see the fire in their eyes. Whether they come out of meetings rejecting everything or solidifying their beliefs, it is all about defining oneself in a thoughtful way," states Sherrill.
Sieglinger agrees. "I think a lot of students have come to us, looking for something just like this. They're trying to find themselves and figuring out what it's all about. This is a good time in their lives to open up and venture onto a path they haven't tried yet."
Dave Barnes, instructor in computer science, is a Methodist and has strong ties to his church. So what draws him to USA? "There's this perception out there that Christianity and religion in general is an irrational, illogical thing. Any Christian who has any sense of what their religion is all about is going to tell you that the focus is the relationship you have with God; I buy all of that and accept it," states Barnes. "However, there is a part of me that is very logical and rational. What I'm trying to do is look at the supposedly illogical aspects of Christianity, hear what the atheists and agnostics have to say, and then think about it for a while and figure out, 'Is it true? Is Christianity an irrational thing?' Through these discussions, I'm trying to establish in my own mind how Christianity is rational and logical and does make sense."
Students and faculty agree that some of the most interesting discussions have centered on the notion of what the world would look like from a moral standpoint in the absence of religion. "For example," states Charles, "If we stop believing in God, how do we avoid descending into chaos and death and destruction? What basis can we have for a simple, just society without religion? This is the type of very inclusive discussion where even people who are very religious can be engaged in the conversation."
Shomo, an atheist for a number of years, recalls the conversation as well. "We were trying to define morality and whether it is tied to religion. Ideally, that's what some of us would like to do with the group—prove that [the prejudice] is not true, that atheists can be good, honest people even though we don't pray every day." Instead, Shomo and others members assert that factors— such as conditioning and biology—can and do motivate individuals to act morally and ethically in the absence of religion.
One of Sherrill's favorite aspects of the group is that "it provides a format for misperceptions and misunderstandings to come face to face—for example, that all atheists are Godless, cruel heathens and that all Christians are sheep," remarks Sherrill. "Instead, we are people coming together and looking for our commonality, rather than the differences that drive us apart." Chimes in Charles, "What impresses me the most is the level of the discussion and the civility of it. I'm continuously amazed by how many religious people from a variety of religions are in the group, all engaged in the conversation. It's great!"
Senior Colin Lennox, a humanist, feels that "the diversity makes us a stronger organization. We've got Christian denominations, a couple of humanists, and some agnostics. Our conversations wouldn't be anywhere near as lively if we always agreed with each other. We aren't the atheists or the agnostics. We are the skeptics and we take everything with a grain of salt."