Samantha Sharf | How to not believe in God
Elements of Style | Atheists should not be exempt from tolerating religious difference
February 28, 2012, 9:07 pm·
Elements of Style
I decided to leave my scarf on as I walked into a meeting of “Rekindle Reason: Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers at UPenn” this Sunday. This was so those around me could not see the tiny gold hamsa, or hand of God, I wear around my neck.
The meeting was Rekindle’s second and drew seven attendees including its three founders. College freshmen Emmett Wynn, Isaac Garcia and Seth Koren explain that the club grew out of a “congruent experience” at the fall activities fair. Koren describes walking along the row of religious organizations twice in search of a table to represent his beliefs. “It made me feel like there wasn’t a community for me,” he said.
Koren is a gnostic atheist. This means he believes there is no God and that this can be known. Garcia is an agnostic atheist. He does not believe there is a God but does not think this can be verified. Although the group is for atheists and by atheists, it does not take an official stance on gnostic versus agnostic beliefs.
Garcia represents one pole of the group’s struggle for identity. He is interested in hearing from theists because he feels it is important to face questions about the existence of God and to understand the various answers. His aim is not “to be on Locust Walk carrying flyers that say there is no God.”
Other members are more critical of religion. Some suggest creating posters with Nietzsche’s, “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything” to promote their next meeting. Although Nietzsche makes a valid point, when the quote is combined with other proposed slogans — such as “Don’t swallow your moral code in tablet form” — it sets a dangerously intolerant tone.
Current events expose the dangers of religious close mindedness. Last week, word spread that NATO officials in Afghanistan burned copies of the Koran. This news has led to deadly protests since Islam has complex rules governing how to handle their holiest book. If the guilty officials had taken time to speak with a few Afghanis, they might have taken different actions.
Closer to home, reports that the NYPD has been monitoring members of Muslim Student Associations around the country shows that misunderstanding does not have geographic boundaries.
Rekindle’s mission statement sets the goal of creating “havens in which people can question religious beliefs in absolute safety and security.” If they chose to attack the religious, Rekindle would be working directly against this admirable ambition. Last week, Under the Button applauded the group “for filling an obvious void in Penn’s religious scene” but brought up concerns about wording in their mission statement.
Although I may not agree with all of writer Sandra Rubinchik’s points, she started an important discussion. Calling the religious “superstitious” and their beliefs “indoctrinated,” as Rekindle currently does, is unacceptable. They have the right to think it and to say it, but alternate views must be considered.
Luckily, this group is young enough to change.
When I walked in the boys were at battle with a Huntsman Hall projector. Koren smiled as he said, “obviously we are a new group.” Technology, however, will be the least of Rekindle’s problems if they do not establish clear goals and guidelines.
Alex Jefferson, College junior and Penn Hillel president, welcomes the group as a new forum for students to search for answers. After years of personal exploration within and outside of Judaism, Jefferson has found a home at Hillel. Although he hopes people of all convictions can feel the same, he understands that for some, an officially religious organization may not feel like an objective environment.
Although University Chaplain Chaz Howard declined to comment on Rekindle before speaking to its leaders, he wrote in an email, “I think that Rekindle Reason will bring another important voice to the ongoing exchange on campus.”
I agree with the chaplain. However, I challenge Rekindle to create an environment where I can show my hamsa without a second thought.
In addition to providing communities for students with common beliefs, all groups that deal with religion should aim to foster thoughtful conversation about their belief systems and the beliefs of others.
Wearing a cross should not keep anyone from walking into Hillel. A man wearing a yarmulke should not be excluded from an MSA meeting and a woman wearing a hijab should feel welcome at the Newman Center. By choosing to organize, this group of atheists is asking to be held to the same standard.
Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is email@example.com. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.