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Dana L. Morganroth is an advisory Board-Member and Vice President of CFI-Pittsburgh, and a Board-Member and Vice President Sunday Assembly Pittsburgh.
What began the interest in critical thinking, science, and scepticism for you?
During high school, I was an active member of a Christian youth group that spawned the Willow Creek Community (mega) Church outside of Chicago. Throughout my involvement, I could never successfully take the “leap of faith” that allowed others to drive doubts from their minds. I dropped out of the group and upon entering college took some courses in comparative religion, which led to philosophy, and then what was termed logical thinking.
When did this become and social concern for you?
Quite quickly in terms of geological time – I waited no more than 30 years after college at the most. Immediately engrossed in my career after leaving school, I spent a great deal of time complaining about, but almost no time acting upon, social or religious injustice. I often daydreamed about what I might do to combat the ills of religious dogma and lack of critical thinking in society but never found (took!) time to take action.
How did the interest and the concern feed into the becoming active? You like the quote by the Brazilian author Paul Coelho who said: “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” In correspondence, you described this as a “full-stop!” moment for you. That is, a thought for reflection. What positives followed from this in life for you?
I’m not proud of the fact that for many, many years my ratio of complaining-to-doing-something about it – trying to make the world a better place – was very high. In fact, it probably was infinitely high, the denominator in my ratio being about zero.
That Coelho quote somehow just resonated with me. I suddenly wished I’d spent constructively the time I’d wasted just complaining. I remember sitting in my office chair completely immobile for what seemed like half an hour. Thinking over my career in consulting and business management, wondering if any of the work I’d done was truly important. Reflecting on my belief that the majority of harm done to human happiness and progress was imposed by religious belief and inability to think critically. And since my wife and I chose not to have kids, wondering what might be considered my legacy after I’m gone someday.
I decided the time was “now or never.” Before I left my chair, I’d decided to sell the small company I operated, find one or more compatible organisations to partner with pro-bono, and leave behind the goal of making money in favour of making a difference.
How did you discover Center for Inquiry (CFI)?
Google told me. I researched the multitude of organisations out there in the critical thinking/secular/atheist/anti-pseudoscience/human rights/humanist space and was drawn to those with a broad mission. CFI appealed due to both their mission and the fact that they were just merging with the Richard Dawkins Foundation and taking on new leadership in the person of Robyn Blumner. It seemed that after a suitable period the organisation would be poised for growth and new initiatives and I thought there might be a way for me to help. And there was a local branch with some great people: CFI-Pittsburgh.
Who were personal heroes in the midst of this discovery?
Of course, I was drawn to the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism” – Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris, in terms of their intolerance for superstition, religion, and irrational thinking. But more personally with respect to my own journey, I was motivated and inspired by Meriwether Lewis who, upon being designated by Thomas Jefferson to lead America’s “Corps of Discovery” expedition in 1803, wrote:
I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now sorely feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least endeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestowed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.
All the more poignant for me because Lewis came to that realization in his 30’s (!) and not in his 50’s, as in my own case.
CFI-Pittsburgh does not have paid staff. Unlike most other CFI branches, it operates on volunteers. What is the mission and purpose of CFI-Pittsburgh?
Our mission is the same as that of CFI’s branches that have paid staff.
We promote the mission of the Center for Inquiry, Inc. on a local level – to foster a Secular Society based on Science, Reason, Freedom of Inquiry, and Humanist values. We create a local community of people who share these values and goals and come together regularly to learn, discuss and organise action in support of our values on a local level. We seek out and combat local instances of social, political or other injustice; when our local resources are insufficient to get the job done, we enlist the help of our CFI, Inc. parent or similar organisations.
I’ve come to believe that over the years CFI’s branch organisation has possibly grown more organically than per any particular strategic plan. Speaking for our local members as individuals and NOT officially on behalf of CFI, we hope that current leadership will recognise the value that local branches can provide in terms of creating awareness of CFI as an organisation and fulfilling CFI’s mission, and will develop strategic plans that incorporate expansion of the branch network and enhancements to existing branches and their programs. And we think there’s extraordinary potential to leverage local relationships in terms of fundraising which would benefit both parent and branch organisations.
Now, you are an advisory board member and vice president of CFI-Pittsburgh. What tasks and responsibilities come with this position?
Advisory Board membership responsibilities are the same as for any other corporate or nonprofit Board – to set a Mission-Vision-Strategic plan; to choose Officers who will implement that plan, to ensure adequate financial resources, etc. Of course as a branch of CFI, Inc. our high-level Mission is established by the parent organisation’s Board and Officers and we are overseen by the parent.
CFI-PGH’s Advisory Board, working with CFI-Inc’s Debbie Goddard and the Outreach department, determines what aspects of the CFI Mission are best implemented on a local level. As Vice-President of CFI-PGH, I work with the other local CFI-PGH Officers and Committee Chairs to effectively implement our programs here in Pittsburgh and western PA.
What have been CFI-PGH’s largest initiatives?
Besides creating awareness of the organisation in general, one of our largest standing initiatives has been our regularly scheduled lecture series with draws new locals as well as long-term stakeholders together to learn, to be entertained and to improve their critical thinking skills, and gives us the opportunity to involve them more closely in our mission. We’ve organised locals to lobby Congress in Washington D.C. on behalf of issues important to CFI. Right now our focus is somewhat internal, better organizing our local constituency, educating them on all the programs and positions of CFI, and for the first time beginning formal membership and fundraising drives on a local level.
What have been its greatest impacts?
We’re proud our parent organisation can include our thousands of local stakeholders when counting CFi, Inc.’s constituency for congressional lobbying or UN NGO advocacy purposes. We’re beginning to assemble a critical mass of key people, many of whom echo my own story, that is they are becoming motivated to take action in the community and as contributors to the parent organisation in addition to merely reading, discussing and complaining. And we’ve added our voices to many small but important issues in the community, from effecting greater separation of church and state at local church polling places to protesting church tax credits at rallies of “prosperity gospel” preachers held in Pittsburgh. And we’ve advocated strongly for people to vote for leaders who reflect our values and goals.
What are some of the smaller activities performed by CFI-Pittsburgh to build community?
We bring like-minded people together by organising monthly lectures, social nights and guided discussion groups. We support other related local groups in western PA and try to coordinate our activities with them. We try to get our views into the public sphere by working with local media and thought leaders.
We have a great annual canoe/kayak trip on a local river followed by a family style shrimp boil picnic. Not to be missed!
We celebrate small victories – one of our local members just had “ATHE1ST” vanity licence plate denied by PennDot (PA Dept. of Transportation). The plate was issued after Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) attorneys reminded PennDot that issuance of such a plate does not violate rules prohibiting “offensive language or slogans” and that the individual(s) who may have denied the application could not allow their own religious beliefs to infringe on the applicant’s right to free speech.
More important than the issuance of the single license plate was the local media coverage that educated the public about church-state separation, helped normalise atheistic worldviews in the community and informed readers of the existence and activities of CFI and other secular organisations.
What are the important of science, reason, and secular humanist values?
I think of science and reason as merely the means to the end – secular humanist values. I think the idea that any belief not based on reality is either useless or harmful is kind of an a priori proposition, so I can become overly excited when trying to explain. Let me propose an I.T. analogy:
(Science) in this analogy is a valid database. The nature of science is observation, and the identification of truth, facts. Testing hypotheses results in the validation of the existing truth/facts and the rejection of falsehoods. This both refines and expands the database – it becomes an ever-larger repository of truths/facts.
(Reason) is the computer program we use to analyse the database. It is the program’s capacity to apply logical rules that insure correct and reproducible output when we manipulate data. A program that doesn’t have correct logic, or that introduces random instructions (dogma) we would call “corrupted” and unsuitable for any use.
(Humanist Values) is the output when we run our database (Science) through our program (Reason) with the query “how should human beings behave and act within society to maximize human happiness including social justice…etc.”
All good things flow from the act of critical thinking. To improve the critical thinking skills of humanity would promote science, reason and secular humanist values exponentially.
Sunday Assembly Pittsburgh (unaffiliated with CFI) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, one of 70 worldwide affiliated with the UK registered charity Sunday Assembly. You call yourselves “A Secular Congregation that Celebrates Life.” What is a typical secular congregation gathering like on Sundays?
We strive to live out our motto: Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More. Two descriptions of Sunday Assembly that quickly describe the nature of the event are “Atheist Church” and “TED talk with karaoke.” While putting those two together may best evoke an image of the physical event, it’s what’s happening below the surface that provides value to the human community.
Assemblers are “good without god.” But they recognise that traditional religious congregations provide value based on community. Assemblers come together to learn ideas that enable them to live more fully and wisely. They celebrate their shared values with readings and music. They support each other as needed and do perform charitable works within the community.
We have an Assembly filled with young families with children, it’s probably most rewarding for me to see these children grow up free from the horrible guilt and prejudices imposed by organized religion, while being exposed from an early age to critical thinking, science, reason, tolerance, and encouragement to live this “one life that we know we have” to the fullest.
What has been the experience for the “congregation” from reports to you?
So many people have come forward to thank our group for providing a safe place, a welcoming place, for letting them know that others share their worldviews and experiences. For putting them together with others that inspire and empower them to leverage their talents to stand up for their belief in a society in which currently about 75% (but declining!) of people hold worldviews in strong opposition.
I think there is a real parallel with the LGBTQ movement of some years ago where it took a real act of courage for many people to come out of the closet and share their orientation with family, friends, co-workers, community. And with the advent of social media, “the world.” It’s empowering to know that others have the same orientation or worldview, and once a critical mass is reached real social and legislative changes follow in our society. Without minimizing the challenges still in front of the LGBTQ community, it seemed (at least before the recent election) that critical mass had been reached and changes were forthcoming; we still have a way to go with the secular humanist cause.
Can you sum up your own experience with both CFI and Sunday Assembly?
On a personal level, I have found great reward in helping to promote and advertise the both local secular organisations such that people who have left (recently or long-ago) a faith-based support community can find an alternative supportive community of people who share their values. Most want to promote their secular worldview; they just need encouragement and sometimes mentoring to recognise how they can support the mission that we share. As articulated by Aristotle’s statement “Give me the child until he is 7, and I will show you the man” and best explained by Richard Dawkins’ writings on evolutionary biology, there’s a reason dogmatic religious beliefs and harmful prejudices become so deeply ingrained. It’s inspiring and rewarding to help fellow members of my community abandon old beliefs in favor of embracing critical thinking and humanist values, and it’s exciting to create a community and institutions which enable a new generation to be brought up with those values from childhood.
Thank you for your time, Dana.
Scott, thanks much for this opportunity to share my views and thanks for the work done by Conatus News through its coverage of social progressivism.