Atheism Panel Sparks Heated Discussion

The Pomona Student Union (PSU) hosted a panel entitled “Now What? Atheism Beyond the Question of God” on Nov. 11. The discussion featured three atheist panelists and took place in Edmunds Ballroom.

Rose Green PO ’12, a lifelong atheist, organized the event.

“Most events on atheism ask, ‘atheism—yes or no?’” she said. “In formal discussions, these questions are not very fruitful and can upset people. I wanted to move beyond the question of whether God exists or not.”

The PSU invited David Silverman, President of American Atheists; Chris Mooney, atheist journalist and writer; and Hemant Mehta, atheist author, blogger, and member of the Board of Directors of the Secular Student Alliance to speak on the topic. Green asked the panelists three questions, which were followed by questions from audience members.

The speakers began by commenting on the current state of atheism.

Silverman said that, growing up, he was the only atheist he knew, a feeling that he does not think would not exist today.

“Because of the Internet, it is literally impossible for someone to think they’re the only atheist in the world,” he said. “People will know they’re not alone.”

“It’s a good time to be an atheist,” Mehta said. “In 2004, there were 40 secular student groups and now there are hundreds.”

Green then asked the panelists to discuss the lack of atheist representation in politics and the fact that 53 precent of Americans have said they would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate. Mehta spoke about the sole “out” atheist member of Congress, Pete Stark.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a giant political campaign, but hopefully we’ll see more candidates who say they don’t believe in God,” he said. “It’s always good to have rational people in office—who support science, who support civil rights—but we’re not going to tell people how to vote.”

“We must become more political,” Silverman added. He emphasized, however, that atheists are “not trying to convert anybody. We have one broad umbrella issue, which is the separation of church and state. If it fails, America as a country dies.”

At this point in the event, Mooney and Silverman began to disagree about the appropriate approach to the discussion of atheism.

Mooney mentioned that religion often strengthens communities and helps individuals survive traumatic or difficult experiences. Silverman disagreed, arguing that we wouldn’t advocate the abuse of heroin if it, for example, helped someone survive a rough divorce.

“Religion is like being high on heroin?” Mooney asked.

“Yes,” Silverman said. “I do not see a positive side to religion. Religion convinces you that you need religion. You don’t.”

Toward the end of the event, Green asked the guests to comment on “live and let live atheism” versus a more militant approach.

“I don’t like the word ‘militant’ because it implies violence,” Silverman said. “Under no circumstances do I want religion outlawed. Do I want a secular nation? Yeah. That doesn’t make me militant, it makes me honest and straightforward. We should treat everyone with respect. But when they start talking about breaking a law because God wants them to, you have to stand up to that.”

“I don’t believe that confrontation changes minds when someone has a deeply held belief,” Mooney countered. “Let’s think about how important religion is to someone’s life. What’s going to happen if you try to refute their entire identity?”

“I don’t like the idea that you’re saying we are going out to try to convert people,” Silverman said. “But if they try and go into my pocket or my government, they’re going to hear about it.” He discussed the need to combat religious exemptions in the law that allow, for example, parents who do not take their dying children to the hospital for religious reasons to escape murder charges.

At the end of the event, the panelists discussed the atheist community.

“Lots of atheists don’t want anything resembling a church,” Mehta said. “But it’s important that likeminded people can band together. There are groups springing up across the country for atheist parents, and there are summer camps.”

Mehta emphasized that although “individual are going to disagree on tactics,” the atheist community is a strong, generally unified force. “We’re working together more now than we ever have,” he said.

Green thought the event was successful.

“It turned out better than I expected,” she said. “They clashed on stage, which made for a more entertaining event. And it was substantive.”

“It was definitely entertaining,” Alison Frost PO ’11 said. “They presented atheism as rational, and I came out of the event wanting to ask whether it is any more rational to say no God exists than to say a God exists. Would the label agnostic not be more rational?”

Yet, some audience members were more critical of the event.

“Although I actually think that this was one of the best PSU events I’ve been to because of the relatively argumentative tone of the panel, I did find some portions a bit off-putting,” Leyla Tarhan PO ’13 said. “At certain points [Silverman’s] pugnacious attitude became simply offensive. This was especially clear when taking questions from the audience, blatantly disrespecting one student’s religious views, and belittling another who asked a complex question. I also saw a few contradictions in the some of the panel’s insistence that they didn’t object to religion itself, but that it was basically a cancer on the human body.”

All of the panelists encouraged the formation of an atheist group at Pomona. They explained that, especially on a largely non-religious campus, it is easy to become apathetic and to forget about issues that will arise after graduation.

“Don’t become complacent in your beliefs,” Mehta said.

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