Summer Educational Program to Explore What Lies “Beyond Belief”

Amherst, New York—The Center for Inquiry (CFI), a secular humanist think tank located in Amherst, New York, has announced that it is offering a unique educational experience this summer called “Beyond Belief.” Taking a cue from the recent flood of highly popular books on atheism and unbelief, CFI hopes to bring something new to the cultural conversation by contributing in a positive and constructive way. Running July 5 through July 22, the three-week session will explore topics such as the future of unbelief, does one need God to be good, and the constructive role of doubt and science in everyday life.

“Atheism and doubt have become popular fare in the marketplace of ideas,” said R. Joseph Hoffmann, the vice president of academic affairs at CFI. “Time was when one had to search deep within the philosophy section of your local bookstore to find material on humanism and unbelief; now one can go shopping for atheism right in the religion aisle.”

Hoffmann isn’t just whistling in the dark. Recent books by respected authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, and, most recently, the irascible man of letters, Christopher Hitchens, have placed the topic of atheism squarely in the pages of Newsweek, US News & World Report, Wired, The New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post, National Review, and countless book reviews and newspaper columns. Hitchens new book, God Is Not Great has recently moved to number one on the New York Times best-seller list.

While some see in this new trend the beginnings of an open season on religious faith, atheists and secular humanists see these new books as an opportunity to peel back the veil on an alternative approach to humanity’s greatest questions, an approach that has been around as long as Confucian China and the ancient Greeks. Continued Hoffmann, “Certain issues inevitably arise whenever the topic of unbelief is tackled head on, but unfortunately in our sound-bite culture these issues rarely ever get adequately addressed, let alone examined at length.” What are some of those questions? What about notions of meaning, goodness, truth, and beauty, for starters? And what happens to these ideals if God is removed from the equation? Hoffmann says that the recent spate of books on atheism, although certainly interesting as a social phenomena, basically serve as a critique of religion and do nothing to explore the different varieties of unbelief or explain the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of science and humanism. “This is the distinction we hope to show this summer, between mere atheism, and a comprehensive affirmative worldview which looks to doubt and unbelief as only a beginning, or clearing of the chaff.”

Instructors from around the country will be addressing these issues in an open and friendly learning environment. Hoffmann has assembled an impressive line-up including the well-known secular-humanist advocate and CFI founder, philosopher Paul Kurtz, famous skeptic Joe Nickell, Ophelia Benson, editor of the Web site Butterflies and Wheels, British writer and philosopher Jeremy Stangroom, and others. Students from around the country, both young and old, will be in attendance and scholarships are being granted to exchange students from as far away as Russia, China, and Africa. The classes this summer are part of a larger educational initiative in humanist learning headed up by the CFI Institute.

The Center for Inquiry/Transnational, a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and scientific-research think tank based in Amherst, New York, is also home to the Council for Secular Humanism, founded in 1980, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP), founded in 1976, and the recently formed Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health. Its research and educational projects focus on three broad areas: religion, ethics, and society; paranormal and fringe-scientific claims; and medicine and health. The Center’s Web site is here.

Nathan Bupp is director of communications of the Center for Inquiry.

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