Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Debunker Gives Up the Ghost

Passionate about dispassionate fact-finding, Derek Araujo takes helm at the Center For Inquiry.
As an Ivy League undergraduate physics major, smartie cum hottie Derek Araujo founded the Harvard Secular Society, an organization committed to rational and scientific explanations of phenomena and values.

Although he was raised in Massachusetts in a religious family, Araujo, 30, has always been passionate about eschewing dogma in favor of sifting the facts to make decisions and behave ethically in a complicated world. After getting his law degree, also at Harvard, and making the big bucks on the corporate side for a while, Araujo was named the new executive director of the New York chapter of the Center for Inquiry in April. CFI, a so-called secular humanist organization, publishes Skeptical Inquirer magazine, long known largely for investigating haunted houses and other ineffable stuff including alien life, but now shifting focus to issues such as stem cell research and the impact of fundamentalist religions on the world political stage.

Aruajo lives near Columbus Circle with his attorney partner of four and a half years and is a devotee of - and Web master for - jazz bassist and '60s rock icon Jack Bruce (

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: So what's a secular humanist?

DEREK ARAUJO: A secular humanist is an atheist or agnostic who derives his or her ethics from reason rather than religion. The term emphasizes that rejecting the existence of the supernatural doesn't mean giving up the distinction between right and wrong. You don't see much religion in college courses on ethical philosophy, after all. Most non-religious people fit the "secular humanist" label, even if they don't apply it to themselves.

CM: Why is it important to grow the CFI in New York City now?

DA: It's important to grow in New York because our city is the nation's media and cultural hub. And it's important to do so now because science, reason, and secularism are under vigorous assault from so many quarters. Science, church-state separation, and freedom of inquiry are traditions that have kept our democracy strong, and they need defending.

CM: The Skeptical Inquirer has been investigating haunted houses for over 30 years and never found a ghost?

DA: Not one! The only spirits we ever found were in the liquor cabinets. So the magazine has mostly given up that search to take on other fringe science claims, such as "intelligent design" creationism, homeopathic medicine, and New Age therapies.

CM: Both your partner and you are corporate lawyers, but you just left that to run the New York office of CFI. Why did you make that change, with the, I assume, concurrent hefty salary cut?

DA: I took an enormous salary cut, and I did so for the opportunity to work full-time on issues I'm passionate about. I still practice law with CFI, but now focus on the kinds of cases that excited me in law school, like church-state separation. I try not to think about the pay cut because it could make me cry. I count myself lucky to have a partner who's willing to support me in what I do. And it helps that he's still a corporate attorney.

CM: How do you respond when people say that there are more important issues to be concerned with in a country at war than whether there is extraterrestrial life or whether ESP exists?

DA: ESP and extraterrestrials aren't CFI's main focus. We are particularly active in supporting church-state separation and stem cell research, among other issues. But the short answer to your question is that this argument proves too much. We could ask the same question about support for gay rights, or any other issue we care about. If we wanted to, we could make the war in Iraq our only priority and turn ourselves into a military dictatorship, or a modern Sparta. The wonder of the human mind is its ability to fret about multiple problems at once.So I can worry about the war, support marriage equality, and defend science and reason all at the same time. The longer answer is that there's good reason to worry about irrational thinking. Think of the immense misery and death that result from teaching discredited abstinence-only sex education, inhibiting condom use in AIDS-ridden Africa, or opposing stem cell research because of the belief that a sand grain-sized speck of cells has a tiny soul.

CM: Is your family religious? Doesn't your mom have a 'strange entity' she believes in?

DA: Most members of my immediate family are religious. My father has become much more religious as he has grown older. Some equate that with growing wiser, but I think of it more like getting arthritis. And yes, my mother is one of the 40 or 50 percent of Americans who believe in ghosts. She swears that one visited her when she was a child. But we all manage to get along fine. Part of being a skeptic in modern America is dealing with a large majority who think very differently than you do.

CM: Are there any logical sympathies between secular humanists and gay people? I'm thinking in particular of alternatives to religious fundamentalism.

DA: Most definitely, and you put your finger on the reason. It's hard for many gay people to take seriously a holy book that explicitly condemns them to death by stoning. Even the New Testament denounces same-sex intercourse. So it's no surprise to me that many gay people lose their religion. Secular humanists, on the other hand, embrace gay people and support their equal rights, so it's not a bad alternative.

CM: Is there any personal connection for you between your homosexuality and skepticism?

DA: There is a connection, but not a causal relation. I became a skeptic of religion at an early age, before I was aware of my sexuality, by following my interests in science and philosophy. But discovering and dealing with my homosexuality probably reinforced my skepticism. There's a lot of religious bigotry against gay people, dressed up as moral concern. The reasoning, to the extent there is any, is always bogus, and often dishonest. The Catholic Church, for instance, condemns homosexuality on the basis of long-discredited Aristotelian notions of teleology and "offenses against nature."I never could understand how something that brings so much joy and fulfillment to two loving, consenting adults, and that brings no harm at all to anyone else, could be immoral. It shows that this brand of religious thinking is deeply perverted. It's also ironic to derive opposition to homosexuality from the thinking of the ancient Greeks. They practically invented the stuff.

CM: The LGBT community has its own long-standing internal controversies, for example those who are skeptical in some way of the reality of bisexuality or transgenderism. How can principles of inquiry approach these beliefs or prejudices?

DA: Scientific investigation is the only method I know of approaching these issues. Crystal balls and tea leaves just aren't useful for these questions. Sadly, there isn't much research in sexuality today, mainly due to opposition from conservative politicians. They probably fear we will discover a biological basis for sexuality.

CM: Paul Kurtz, in an article in The Skeptical Inquirer from 2004 about science's power and limitations in helping us make ethical judgments outside of a religious framework, asked: "Is homosexuality genetic, and if so, is the denial of same-sex marriage morally wrong?" What's your answer to that, Derek?

DA: As to the first question, my understanding of the current research is that homosexuality probably has some genetic component, but only enough to explain less than half of the variance in sexual orientation. Politically-motivated funding cuts mean that the research is spotty and far from conclusive. In any case, it's important to emphasize that even if homosexuality has no genetic basis, this doesn't necessarily mean it's a choice.Biological factors other than genes, like prenatal hormonal influences, might play a role. Compare handedness. For a long time, we thought that handedness wasn't genetic, but nobody argued we could therefore choose our handedness the way we choose which shirt to wear. We knew it was hard-wired into each person, but we didn't know how - by genes, by hormonal influences in the womb, or by some combination of these and other factors. Likewise for sexuality.Regarding the morality of same-sex marriage, we often fixate on the genetics question because gay rights opponents tend to soften their resistance if they think homosexuality isn't a choice. I would suggest, however, that the biological basis of homosexuality should have no bearing either way on questions of civil rights. Same-sex love brings immense happiness to many people, and harms no one. Even if sexuality were a matter of choice, I could see no reasonable basis for denying gay people equal rights.

©GayCityNews 2007

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