Wednesday, September 12, 2012

DAFT Meeting Days

Hey guys! So we've got the remaining meetings for the Fall quarter scheduled. I'll update this blog post as needed with topics and room numbers. Meeting time is always 6:30-8:00

September 26- room 380
October 9
October 24
November 6

And some other notable Dates:

Secular Social: October 6
Hemant Mehta: October 16
Light the Night: October 20
Sagan Day: November 1st.

Events for these will be made on facebook and orgsync well in advance with all the information you'll need.

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Religious Experience"

*please note, the contents of this post are the thoughts of the author, and do not reflect the position of everyone affiliated with DAFT*

So I was browsing around the internet looking for some new music to listen to. I very rarely get involved in the comment-section on youtube because it's mostly filled with the ramblings of 12 year olds trying to figure out how to deal with all the new hormones they're experiencing. But I came across a musician who writes some really excellent music so I thought I'd browse through the comments to see what other people think. And little to my surprise, there was an argument ablaze over god. Luckily enough the arguments weren't over some dogmatic issue, and the arguments for god were more like for some transcendental-abstract-hindu-buddhist-simplified-type-thing.  I never really figured out how arguments over god's existence ever show up on completely unrelated videos on youtube, but alas, they do, and I'm sort of tired of it.

Now, as many of you may know I'm an anti-theist, and I'm damn very well active in my secular drive, but there comes a time when you have to just let an opportunity for argument go. Let me lend everyone in on a little-known fact in neuroscience: Your experiences, thoughts, emotions, are results of highly complex neuro-chemical reactions firing off in your brain. Some of the chemical's amounts are genetically controlled, others may be environmentally-dependent, either way- that's beyond the point.

Religious people's perceptions of god are a result of these reactions. Prayer, like a rather secular act of meditation, work similarly and evoke much of the same activity in the brain. They "feel" a holy presence, or a feeling of calmness because it's actually really there for them. They honestly feel something. Of course, the more scientifically minded will attribute those feelings to what they are: neurotransmitters going off, neurons blasting at eachother. Yet again, there are those that may not be as versed in these biological concepts; for them, the experience is attributed to whatever god or gods they were raised into believing.  I would never deny someone's "religious" experience, as they really did have an experience. They really did feel something, in some more euphoric cases they may have even heard or seen something.

If someone interprets those experiences badly, which happens... a lot, we have every right to retaliate. When people use these experiences as rational for their bigotry, we have every right to fight back. When they want to force these experiences on the unwilling, we have every right in telling them to fuck off. When people want to use these experiences to drive pseudo-science and bullshit into minds of children, we have every right to argue.

On the other hand, when people use these experiences to do good. When people use these experiences to do non-discriminatory charity work, when people use these experiences to help others, to create things, to build things, to make art, to make music, to love- we have no fucking right to be assholes to them simply because they gain inspiration from somewhere else than us. Service, community, love are secular things, even if they're religiously inspired, as it benefits humanity.

So next time we come across a person of faith, let's examine if what they're doing is beneficial to the world. If it is, I'd recommend chipping in and helping a bit. If what they're doing is backwards, bigoted, crap that perturbs progress, continue to be the bad-ass juggernauts you are and inform them of their mistakes and work towards progress.

May you all be touched by his noodly appendage,

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Officer Positions 2012-2013 School Year

As finals are about to start here at DePaul and the school year is coming to a close, we'd like to announce the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought e-board members for the 2012-2013 school year!

President: Andrew Tripp
Vice President: Arthur Wawrzyczek
Treasurer: Emily Mackmiller
Secretary: Danielle Wordelman
Co-Media Liaisons : Erica Binelli and Sean Austin
Community Liaison: Heather Stebbins

Congratulations to the new board members and returning officers! 

Happy Studying!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

DAFT executive board positions!

Daft Executive Board Positions


- Lead/delegate meetings

- Schedule meetings (dates, times, places)

- Plan major events during the quarter (speakers, panels, fundraisers etc.)

- Represent DAFT at events (info fairs, our own events, events we’re invited to etc.)

- Arrange promotional tables as needed

- Manage SAF-B paperwork

Vice President:

- Communicate with president about meetings (including topics, dates, times, etc.)

- Assist president in meetings and events

- Run around and do things, really


- Manage money matters, etc.

- Manage SAF-B paperwork as well


- Record meetings/ideas from meetings for potential events and activities

- Follow up on event planning

- Post minutes to blog

Public Relations Liaison

- Update blog/twitter/youtube accounts

- Assemble contributors/topics to said accounts

Community Liaison

- Communicate between DAFT and interfaith community/other on-campus groups

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day, 2012

Genesis 1:28 “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Dominion: the power or right of governing and controlling; sovereignauthority.

To give a very quick lesson into some theology, in the Abrahamic faiths you have god making covenants (promises). The one I’d like to mention that is of relevance is the Noahic Covenant. I’m sure we’ve all heard the story of Noah, god tells some freakishly old dude to build a boat and fit a bunch of animals in it as his maniacal, genocidal, ass destroys the planet. God (I hate having to capitalize god because it’s the first word in a sentence…Atheist World Problems) then put up a rainbow and was all like (to paraphrase): “sorry dude, I won’t destroy the earth anymore.”

So why is it that the right-wingers are against environmental reform to combat climate change? Well, god told them they have dominion over the Earth to do with as they please and then promised he wouldn’t let the earth get all destroyed and stuff. I don’t want to speak about the dangers of this since it’s rather obvious and climate-change-denying congress-people are in the news all the time rolling their mouths to no end. Not to mention, of course, there’s hundreds of millions of dollars in the energy lobby to protect the interests of oil companies over the wellbeing of the planet and its people.

The environment should be very high on the list of important things for secularists. Our planet is a finely balanced machine of life; throw off the balance a little bit, you’ll get unprecedented mass extinction rates and increasingly destructive natural disasters. This is not some “hypothesis” those damn satan-worshiping liberal communist scientists came up with. This is a demonstrable fact and a serious issue that seems to be thrown away by politicians and laymen on a daily basis.

As secularists, we must understand that we are responsible for ourselves and the welfare of the planet and each other. While it is true that we will not live to see the full effects of man-made-climate-change, there are generations that will succeed us and will be forced to cope with a progressively more desperate situation. It is our responsibility to our home planet, its many citizens, and its future, that we begin to consider the ramifications of the crap we’re spewing into the air.

“Our planet is a living organism and we must treat her carefully.” –Tim Minchin. “We are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically.”- Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

On this Earth Day, 2012, I urge all secularists and allies to bring forth this issue and shine some godless light on the consequences of our belligerent exploitation of non-renewable resources. There is no god to fix the planet when we destroy and there is nowhere else to go that can support our species. This is not the time to make excuses and think of outlandish terraforming ideas for the moon. This is the time to recognize our responsibilities as part of a larger system to preserve what we should cherish more than anything: life.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Secular Social Tickets

Hey all! Our winter quarter Secular Social will be held February 18th at a location to be announced soon, but it will be near or easily accessible by the CTA from the Lincoln Park campus. Tickets are $5 ahead of time, $10 at the door, and all proceeds will go to Jessica Ahlquist's scholarship fund. You can pay Emily, our treasurer, at one of our meetings, or just to the right of this post you will see a PayPal link where you can buy them. Please come out and have a great time for a great cause!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Alain de Botton Tries Out a New Atheism

Nicolas Cable, the former President of DePaul Interfaith and currently of the Chicago Theological Seminary, sent me this TED talk by Alain de Botton, the Swiss writer who has made his name rather pompously proscribing a stripped, pop version of philosophy as something that can be useful to all. I am provisionally in favor of advocacy on behalf of the discipline, being a philosopher myself, but he has always done so from a position of great and unchecked privilege that frankly, in my opinion, undermines what could be an important message. So, I already start here as less than a fan of the speaker, but I think the talk raises enough important points that it is worth discussing. His conclusions, however, I find less convincing.

The objective of this talk, Botton states, is to present a new version of atheism against that of those writers who "live in North Oxford" (a reference to Richard Dawkins), who he claims write off religion as a thing of child's play, a fairytale. He believes that there's more to it than that: nonexistence of the supernatural, the topic of many New Atheist books and writings, is just the first step. There are, he says, plenty of people who cannot bear the doctrines of the various organized religions but still miss the ritualistic, moralistic, communal senses that go along with being a member of a congregation. Botton makes the claim that there have been, up to now, only two choices for such people: grin and bear the doctrine, or live in a "spiritual wasteland." The alternative, he says, is "picking and mixing" the best parts of religion, in order to "fill the holes" (meaning the spiritual, communal, etc.) of secular life.

So, he's essentially identified the same problem that the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard tries to address. So what does he think religion does better than secularism? Botton first identifies education. He claims that the secular world, which greatly values education, does not do it very well. Early in the 19th century, he says, church attendance began to drop, and those who left the church turned to culture as a source of morality and guidance: Shakespeare, Plato, Austen, and the like replaced the Gospels. Current institutes of higher learning, in his mind, do not offer advice anymore on how to live, but instead treat us as adults and offer cold, unyielding information. Religions, on the other hand, he freely admits, teach their adherents as children in need of guidance, and thus tell people how to live through sermons, which want to change life. Botton buys this completely: humans need guidance and morality, because we are children, and thus we should go back to the tradition of sermons, rather than lectures.

This is, needless to say, incredibly problematic. Remember at the start of this entry, when I said Botton operates from a place of enormous privilege and pomposity? Here you go. Plain as day. We are children, we know nothing, but instead of offering some guidance and allowing us to discover ourselves and formulate our own versions of morality and our own worldviews, as a skeptical, freethinking person might do, Botton says no. Dogma and absolute truths are the only way to provide morality and guidance, and for that we need sermons. This is such a typically authoritarian, regressive point of view, I can't believe it is actually being proffered in a modern context.

Don't worry, though, because he's not done with education. He attempts to make the case that secular education teaches a student something, for instance the works of Plato, once, then expects them to remember it the rest of their lives. Here, I actually agree with the premise; in the U.S., we have in high school an educational philosophy that memorization is best, because especially in public schools students are taught to take standardized tests that their graduation and the school's reputation/funding hinges on. Once that test is over, the knowledge is not reinforced or built upon, and so students forget it. It's why I couldn't do calculus to save my life now, three years after my last instruction in it, but I can tell you each and every part of Rousseau's philosophy on the state and formation of a social contract, the making of good citizens, and so on. But, Botton's solution to this problem is again very, very poor: religions, he says, force their adherents to constantly learn and repeat so-called "great truths" again and again and again, to "get down on [their] knees and repeat it," and thus they remember. This is, as I just pointed out, exactly the problem with teaching today. As PZ Myers explains very nicely in his takedown of Botton, rote memorization of the type the latter advocates might allow for retention of whatever it is being endlessly repeated, but it does not allow for the development of critical thinking or the mastering of concepts. If we were to follow Botton's prescription, it would be no solution at all, but merely a continuance of the problem.

The next thing he advocates as something religion does well is emphasize oratory as an important skill. Again, I agree with the premise: we are language-based creatures, and the ability to advocate for one's beliefs is one of the most essential things in life. His example to prove religion's skill at this is black Pentecostal churches, and the congregants' responses to preachers. This, I think, goes hand in hand with his proscription of the repetitive learning style: particularly in communities with high religious belief, like black communities (Sikivu Hutchinson is a great source on the effects of long-standing religious indoctrination amongst black people), that dogma that has been pressed into you as the ultimate, most perfect truth every single day of your life will naturally grant the speaker of that scripture a certain allure that will lead to a more enthusiastic response. It's not entirely dependent on that particular orator's skill, but also the audience, and so Botton's example simply does not prove his point.

And finally, arguably the poorest part of his talk, art. Botton claims that we are letting ourselves down when it comes to analyzing how religions use art. In the secular world, by contrast, he says that we hold art in very high esteem; a great amount of our surplus wealth, after all, goes to the "new cathedrals" that are museums and institutions of the fine arts. Religions handle art better, he claims, that they do not treat art as being for art's sake, that it shouldn't explain itself or interact with the world; religious art always, he says, have a "saner attitude" and reminds us of what there is to love and hate. It serves as a "visceral reminder" of the truth of the world around us, and is never ambiguous, whereas with contemporary art, he claims that the feeling of "puzzlement" is structural to its very being. Rembrandt, he says, was a propagandist, and that's not a bad thing: propaganda is for Botton not to be associated with Hitler and Stalin, but is a "matter of being didactic in the honor of something, and if that something is good then there is no problem at all." He advocates for museum directors to organize their institutions so that works are separated according to virtues, and that each room would have explanations of how this artwork is working to push the viewer into a better frame of mind. We would then, he says, "get a lot more out of art."

Now, I work in the museum world. I am a technician at the DePaul Art Museum here in Chicago, where we pride ourselves on doing precisely the opposite of what Botton advocates. Our current exhibition, "Re: Chicago," was put together using a democratized curatorial process, meaning that art world types with connections to Chicago were asked by us to nominate works that they thought were important or should be seen as important, and we built the show from their recommendations. This kind of practice, Botton seems to think, is what contemporary institutions do all the time: as someone in the field, I can tell you that our approach to curatorial practice is about as unorthodox as is possible in the fine arts world. As long as there have been artistic institutions there have been curators and directors offering authoritative viewpoints on art movements, artists, and individual works, with no outside views allowed. That is art history. That is curatorial practice, as it stands today. Stepping outside of that rubric is radical. The art world, as it happens, is actually EXACTLY as Botton wishes it was, with a slowly growing number of exceptions. I honestly have no idea how he has missed this fact. He clearly has not stepped into, or at least critically analyzed, an art exhibition in the last 40 years or so.

Finally, he talks about organized religion's senses of communities. And he argues for it based on the Catholic Church's capitalistic success, and that that success and exploitation is a good thing. And because of this, the individual poets and philosophers have no might, no power. So, he suggests they assimilate so they can be heard. And seems to find nothing wrong with this. After the other aspects of his talk, I have no energy left to yell at the sheer ignorance and lack of critical thinking going on here. It is truly, truly mesmerizing.

In conclusion, I have to say that this is one of the poorest TED talks I have seen. Actually, it's one of the poorest philosophical presentations I have ever seen. In trying to make a case for secular people adopting aspects of religion, Botton has failed miserably. His premises are, in some cases, true: education, particularly at a high school level, is in a pitiful state, and our society is not educating our children in positive, lasting ways, for instance. But, in each and every case he presents, Botton argues for a path that would eliminate critical thinking and free thought and instead push an authoritative, dogmatic view of the world onto people. Botton's proscriptions would only lead to less knowledge and a less dynamic citizenry, not the more rounded or intelligent one he thinks will result.