Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Getting to know the Red River Freethinkers

My introduction to the Red River Freethinkers begins with an interview with Dr. Davis Cope, an associate professor of mathematics at North Dakota State University and a founding member of the Freethinkers. Dr. Cope is a warm, congenial man with thinning white hair and endearingly thick glasses. He welcomes me into his office and immediately asks that I call him Davis. It is fairly impossible not to like this man. Despite the fact that I am normally extremely introverted and this is the first time we've met, conversation soon flows easily.

I ask if he would describe himself as an atheist. "Well, 'atheist,' yes," he says, "but I think 'naturalist' is a more precise term. I just don't believe that there's anything supernatural about our world."

Davis was raised in Tennessee, where his family attended a Baptist church until he was about 12, then switched to a Presbyterian church. "But," he says, "I was already an atheist by that time. And that basically came from reading Mark Twain." He continued to attend church to please his family, but stopped going soon after beginning college.

Davis completed a PhD at Vanderbilt University and then moved to Fargo in 1981. The Red River Freethinkers organized in 1997, with roughly 20-30 members at its inception. The name "Freethinkers" was chosen to be inclusive of the diversity among the views of the group's members, which included deists as well as atheists and agnostics. Its mission is: "to advocate for a skeptical view of the role of religion in society and to promote critical examination of religious authority and dogma."

Davis says he is most proud of the Freethinkers' role in starting NDSU's Science, Religion and Lunch Seminar series, a weekly gathering for education and discussion of controversial topics relating to science and religion. He is particularly proud that the SRL Seminars don't push any particular viewpoint. Presenters have included scientists, skeptics, young earth creationists, Mormon bishops, and just "regular" folks from the community who have something to say.

Two days after my meeting with Davis, I attend my first meeting of the Freethinkers. We had to leave a little early because the 5-year-old and 1-year-old didn't find it as interesting as Mom and Dad did, but we were there for most of the discussion. 

After quick introductions, we move on to the main event, a talk by Davis Cope titled "Trying to Understand Fundamentalism." Following is a paraphrase of some of his main points.

He starts with a story from the early days of the SRL Seminars. While discussing a presentation about evolution, an attendee referred to as Mr. A expressed an opposing point of view. And, "in the spirit of the Science, Religion and Lunch seminar, he was invited to speak." Mr. A came and presented a case for the Young Earth Creationism viewpoint and by Davis's estimation, did a wonderful job. Davis stayed in touch with Mr. A, who came back to present again a few times over the years. Mr. A married, entered the ministry and had four children. Davis describes Mr. A as intelligent, self-sacrificing and sincere, and says that it is because of people like Mr. A that he will never promote the stereotypes of fundamentalists being hypocritical, prudish Bible-belters.

Davis continues and asserts that when we criticize a point of view, we must first accurately state that view, and the people who are in the position to determine whether the view is accurately stated are the ones who hold the view, not the ones criticizing.

Of the many types of fundamentalism, the focus of Davis's talk is fundamentalism based on Bible inerrancy, the belief that scripture is infallible. The talk explores how fundamentalists analyze information to draw conclusions and how they deal with opposing viewpoints.

Testing the theory of inerrancy requires comparing it with an accepted source of knowledge. For a fundamentalist, no outside source will do because the Bible is considered the supreme source of knowledge and the yardstick by which all other knowledge should be measured. And thus, Bible inerrancy can only satisfactorily be tested against the Bible itself.

That might sound difficult, but it can be done by comparing multiple accounts of the same events or principles to see if they concur. In examining the different accounts, the result is that they typically vary. Davis cites the example of the death of Judas Iscariot. The account in Matthew 27:3-8 says that when Judas realizes what he's done, he takes the thirty pieces of silver to the priests as an attempt at repentance, but they won't accept it because it's blood money. Judas then throws the silver down in the temple and goes out and hangs himself. The priests then gather up the money and buy a field for burying strangers and call the field the field of blood. The account in Acts 1:16-19 says that Judas fell in a field and burst open and his bowels gushed out, and the field was called the field of blood.

The question then becomes, How does a fundamentalist reconcile what appears to be a discrepancy? And Davis emphasizes that they do have an answer and a reconciliation for every criticism. He refers to the book When Critics Ask by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. The authors handle the death of Judas like this:

The accounts are mutually complimentary. Judas both hung himself and fell. They speculate that he hung himself from a tree on a cliff hanging over a field, then fell in the field and burst open.

Now, Davis asks, does this make sense? To him it doesn't, that two writers, if they were both divinely directed, would each only write half the story. And the cliff and the tree are no where to be found in the Bible, but this is the kind of reasoning that many fundamentalists will use.

The meeting opened up to discussion at this point. Lilie Schoenack, secretary for the Freethinkers, compared the addition of the cliff and the tree to inserting a constant into an equation. Further speculation ensued about the legitimacy of "adding to" the Bible. Jon Lindgren, president of the Freethinkers and a former mayor of Fargo, gave the opinion, "As soon as you say, 'what this means is...' you're inserting your own words."

Davis stated, "Fundamentalists are in serious danger of treating the Bible like an idol." A guest, whose name I didn't catch, but who was a member of the Lutheran Missouri Synod and considered himself fundamentalist agreed with this statement, saying that many church members get caught up with the Book, and forget about what the Book points to: Jesus Christ.

A couple of small and cute people (one of whom tugged at my shirt sleeve to ask me if cats lay eggs) made it difficult to follow the rest of the discussion, but I will say that opposing views were expressed and the tone remained civil and respectful.

I'm looking forward to continued association with the Red River Freethinkers.


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Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism