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Thinking freely and radically

Every other Tuesday evening, members of Brown Freethought assemble at 5:30 on the third floor of Wilson Hall, united by a common interest in skepticism and rationalism.

Perhaps it comes as a surprise, then, that at a school like Brown, the room is never full. At most, 10 students attend each regular meeting, said Jared Lafer '11, Herald opinions columnist.

Lafer is the vice president of Freethought, a student group founded three years with the goal of "promoting and defending reason, science and freedom of inquiry," according to its Web site. "We're an atheist group that is also a skeptical group," said Herald Opinions Columnist David Sheffield '11, the group's president.

But if you compare the size of the group to that of various religious groups on campus, Freethought is remarkably small, Lafer said. "As far as people who are passionate go, it seems that (religious groups) have the majority."

Though Brown is considered to have a very secular student body, there seems to be a lack of discussion about issues of rationality, atheism, humanism and skepticism on campus, he said.

Rachel Cohn '10, a Multi-Faith Council coordinator, agreed. "Brown has a very supportive structure and great people," she said, but the "general vibe" is that religion and secularity is a personal investigation. "It's only on your own time," she said. "There is a lack of conversation."

She said the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life is underutilized by the student body. "People don't know the chaplain is a resource in general," and can help talk through complex questions, whether they be religious or not, she said.

In terms of atheism or agnosticism at Brown, "it's a conversation that's not engaged, it's not that they're dominating the conversation," she said.

Agnostic groups tend to be more popular in areas like the "Bible belt" with strong religious presence, Sheffield said. He said Freethought has moved more toward skepticism because it is easier to advocate on campus.

"Atheism doesn't spur people's passion as much as religion does," Lafer said.

Last semester, the group held a discussion with the Inter-Faith Council. Though Lafer said he found the experience interesting, much religion-oriented discussion "tends to talk more about personal experience," whereas Freethought is focused on the "deeper, more fundamental questions."

Each week's meeting features a different topic of discussion — anything from philosophy to current events — and conversations last upwards of an hour, Lafer said. "Sometimes we really go off."

In the future, the group plans to open greater outreach, publicity and advocacy work. Plans for next semester include encouraging the Brown Bookstore to stop selling homeopathic medicine such as Airborne and Zycam, Sheffield said.


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