The Challenge of Freethinking Among Nonbelievers

September 6, 2017

According to a 2015 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, a research organization specializing in politics and religion, Portland, Oregon ranked first for being the least religious city in the United States, with 42% of respondents identifying as religiously unaffiliated. San Francisco and Seattle tied for second place with 33% unaffiliated. University campuses have even higher numbers of nonreligious people simply due to the age demographic. UCLA’s annual Cooperative Institutional Research Program survey found that student nonreligious affiliation in both public and religious colleges has been rising rapidly since the 1970s.

At PSU, one is more likely to see socialist advocacy than religious proselytism

In this environment at PSU, discussions about God, creationism, Darwin or other atheist topics drew little interest. Why would it? There was already near-consensus on these matters. Instead of declaring victory, our group members found that dogmatic, unskeptical ways of thinking manifested themselves in different ways. On PSU, but also other campuses, many students are hostile to open inquiry and free speech in the name of intersectional social justice. Words are equated with actions and therefore hurtful language needs to be curtailed. Although I can see how this is laudable in intent, what is considered hate speech to the ideologues has expanded so widely that dissidence is practically treated as a hate crime.

Consider what happened to Professor Bret Weinstein, who teaches biology at Evergreen College some two hours north of Portland. After taking issue with a planned day of racial segregation in June, Weinstein penned a letter to his colleagues explaining why he disagreed with the organizers’ request that all white people stay off campus. Soon after, around 50 students stormed his lecture, calling him a racist and supporter of white supremacy. Weinstein had to move his classes off campus due to threats of violence. 

When I visited Evergreen College in June to work on a news report, I spoke with a student who said he accidently attended class during the unofficial day of segregation. Although he is a staunch supporter of racial justice, he said he was made to feel unwelcome through his peers glaring stares. “There was an aura of ‘you weren’t supposed to be here,’” he told me.

“Black bloc” Antifa protesters at Evergreen College in June 

Evergreen is not a one-off anecdote. Consider the violence at Berkeley and Middlebury College earlier this year when protesters injured individuals and destroyed property in response to visits by invited controversial conservative speakers. I witnessed a similar incident at PSU last year when a hundred people stormed a small pro-Donald Trump meeting forming in the cafeteria. Chanting slogans and threatening violence, the activists’ fervor reminded me of religious fundamentalists in fits of irrational rage.

In my time covering this subject as a student journalist, I’m confident to assert that these ideologues make up a small minority of the student body but because they are the loudest and most aggressive, they also have the ear of student government and the administration. In addition to their protest methods, they’ve also developed other mechanisms to enforce group-think. By presenting their far-left views as the embodiment of morality and justice, skeptics and dissenters are demonized as amoral and even evil people. Hence, ritualistic public humiliation and sometimes violence are seen as righteous responses.

A protester on the right tries to fight a pro-Donald Trump group organizer at PSU in April 2016

As a team, the leadership of Freethinkers of PSU decided we needed to curate events and discussions that confronted the anti-intellectual and illiberal ethos on campus. In the fall, we screened Deeyah Khan’s “Islam’s Non-Believers,” a British documentary film about atheists of Muslim background. Posters for our event were vandalized and flyers calling us atheist Islamophobes were posted on our display case. For many on the left and far-left, the desire to support Muslims is mistakenly channeled into protecting Islamic orthodoxy and traditional practices from scrutiny. For example, Islamic modesty garb for women, emblematic of an ideology obsessed with sexual purity, is now championed as an icon of resistance against the political right.

Notes critical of a film screening about ex-Muslims were left in the display case for Freethinkers of PSU

Several months later, we invited feminist dissident Christina Hoff Sommers, YouTube show host Dave Rubin and PSU philosophy professor Peter Boghossian to discuss the challenges of protecting free speech on campuses. For this event, Antifa, a self-described “anti-fascist” movement whose tactics involve violence, started a campaign calling for individuals to shut down our event. “Melt these snowflakes by disrupting their fascist safe space!” they wrote in a Facebook event page that garnered around 70 RSVPs. We had to involve private security and campus police for the event.

Reflecting on this past year, I’ve come to accept that freethinking doesn’t flower naturally among nonbelievers. This was disappointing as I once naively saw organized religion as the root of many social problems. There is research which suggests that humans have evolved to be irrational as a survival instinct. Even if we remove organized religion from society, historic and contemporary examples show that other ideologies and orthodoxies, even genocidal ones, easily take their place. It is the role of skeptic and freethinking organizations to challenge irrationality in all its forms, whether they come from religious or secular dogmas. The social consequences will be heavy but heresy, the engine of progress, has never been popular.