I am a PhD student at Virginia Tech, a school firmly entrenched in the Bible Belt. Yesterday, our campus newspaper, The Collegiate Times, published a special Good Friday issue called The God Issue. As a member of the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech club (http://www.freeatvt.org/), I was genuinely surprised that they wrote a very positive article about our club in addition to giving me the opportunity to write an essay on a Freethinking topic. They also published a 2008 survey of 4,804 of our students that indicates that 19.7% of Virginia Tech students have no religious preference; this is up 0.8% from 2007. This is an encouraging direction for a campus with such a strong Christian tradition.
The article on the club is here: http://www.collegiatetimes.com/stories/13506. Of course, there is a lot more they could have printed that we said that criticized religion and explained secular humanism, but at least it is positive.
The essay I wrote: http://www.collegiatetimes.com/stories/13494. The editor changed the title from my original, "There Can Be Fruitful Dialogue between Believers and Atheists." It was not intended to be an introduction to Freethinking. But at least they printed it.
The other articles about religion in The God Issue: http://www.collegiatetimes.com/stories/13510
The results of the religious preference survey were only published in the paper, not online.
To keep a record on my blog, I'm pasting my article below:
There Can Be Fruitful Dialogue between Believers and Atheists
“Truth springs from argument amongst friends.” – David Hume
The discourse between religious believers and atheists is once again publicly prominent, thanks to the “New Atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens – and their equally vocal religious counterparts. This discussion devolves too often into a rancorous exchange, and common ground seems hard to find when opinions are so diametrically opposed. However, I sincerely believe that this common ground can be found, leading to a new level of mutual respect between the debating parties.
I am a non-believer, but I grew up in an evangelical Christian home, participated actively in the Navigators and NLCF at Virginia Tech as an undergraduate, served as a missionary to Japan, Guatemala, and Florida, and led music in several churches. Many among my friends and family are seminary educated missionaries and clergy who are familiar with the best of Christian intellectual traditions. Although I left my faith through a long journey studying science, philosophy, history, and religion, I maintain one of the principles I held as a sincere Christian: I will believe only what is true. The Apostle Paul described the value of truth to the Christian when he said that if hope in the afterlife is untrue, “we are of all men most to be pitied.” As a non-believer, I espouse the related concept that if an idea is intellectually vacuous, it should be discarded. The religious and non-religious both believe that an idea is only as valuable as it is true.
Given this common ground, let me speak to the believers. (Forgive my generalizations; brevity extinguishes nuance.) I will momentarily ignore the fact that you believe that your God will torture me for all eternity in hell, and I request the same in return about my belief that your vision of God and a reward in the afterlife is mistaken. Let's call the offenses even and move forward to determine what the truth might be. When we come into this life, we have nothing and know nothing. Yet as unprepared as we are, the mysteries of life immediately surround us. Solutions are presented by the people closest to us: our parents, pastors, teachers, and friends. To discern the best choice from among the varieties of opinion, we need to learn how to think correctly; only then can we know what to think. We must adopt the attitude Aristotle had towards his beloved teacher when he said, “Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth.” We want the fishing pole – and we want to know if, why, and how well it works. We must not be satisfied simply by the fish given to us by others.
The differences between atheists and believers are rooted in our differing methods of discovering truth. My truth-discovering mechanism is the application of reason to the evidence presented to us by the natural world. Believers augment their reason with faith – faith in ideas revealed through holy books and religious traditions. Here begins the controversy. Freethinking non-believers assert that faith offers no means of evaluating the truth of any claim about reality. Faith might offer answers, but it cannot tell you if its answers are true.
If you have faith that the universe is young when others claim it is very old, we turn to the reason-based physical sciences to discern the answer. If a Christian’s faith says that Jesus died and was resurrected but a Muslim’s faith says that Jesus ascended to heaven before he could be crucified, they also turn to reason. Though neither can justify their position with direct evidence, both would point to reasons why their holy book is more reliable than the other’s. While I assert that reason supports neither miraculous account, the answer to the above debates is less important than the following question: what value does faith bring to either discussion if we all eventually turn to reason for justification? The initial faith does not provide a comment on the truth. Why, then, do we bother with the faith in the first place? A more intellectually tenable position is to believe only what is reasonable based on the evidence at hand. The remainder is a mystery yet to be solved.
Though we may diverge in methodology, let us discuss our differences while remembering our shared ideal of honesty in our search for truth, discarding the prejudice that either the religious or the non-believer is stupid, immoral, or dangerous. I have experienced this kind of friendly debate with my family and friends, and I sincerely believe it can take place on a larger scale in our society. Let us, with Thomas Jefferson, “question with boldness even the existence of a god,” while taking it upon ourselves at Virginia Tech to seek the answers with an attitude of mutual respect.