For a group of University of Calgary students, arguing about religion and politics isn’t a social faux-pas, it’s an extra-curricular activity.
The U of C Freethinkers are a campus club that meets once a week to argue their views and challenge each other’s beliefs. According to Freethinkers president Brandi Hesse, the club gives students the chance to talk about life’s larger questions in a secular setting.
“The purpose of the club is to provide a secular option for students,” Hesse said. “If you’re not religious but you want to talk about religious subjects, or if you’re a theist, a deist or a pantheist, we’re open to anybody. We just ask that everyone is open-minded and that they don’t take their opinions as above everyone else’s.”
The club explores more than just religion. The Freethinkers hold discussions every Wednesday where members challenge each other on everything from economics to metaphysics.
“We get together and we talk. That’s what most of us like to do,” Hesse said. “We’ll sit down and have awesome discussions about whatever we feel like talking about that day.”
As Hesse acknowledged, the Freethinkers are often perceived as “the atheist” club on campus because of members’ public challenges to religion.
This includes an incident in 2012 when William Lane Craig — a Christian philosopher who often debates his views — held a lecture at the U of C hosted by an off-campus Christian unity group. The group advertised Craig’s lecture in a way that annoyed some members of the Freethinkers club, leading to a kind of poster war on campus.
“After seeing the advertisements [for William Lane Craig], some of us started putting out counter-flyers,” said Freethinkers vice-president events Wesley Kyle. “Some of the flyers that this group put up were really inflammatory. They had messages that implied goodness or meaning can only come with a Judeo-Christian understanding of God.”
In response, the Freethinkers plastered the U of C with posters brandishing messages like, “Think you need God to be good? Think again,” and “If you’re waiting for a sign from above, we hope it’s more impressive than a piece of paper nailed to a board.”
The club often collaborates with the Centre for Free Inquiry, an American based NGO that advocates secular values. In the past, the Freethinkers helped the CFI bring Daniel Dennet and Sam Harris — both forerunners in the New Atheist movement — to the U of C for lectures.
Every year, the club sets up a table in MacHall for an event called Ask A Freethinker, which gives students the opportunity to challenge club members’ beliefs.
“People can come to us and ask questions about why we believe what we believe and what we stand for,” Hesse said. “Basically, people come up to us and try to argue that we’re wrong.”
Hesse said that despite the conflict, the club gets great support from students.
“During clubs week, a student from Abbotsford ran up and yelled ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe you guys are here!’ ” Hesse said. “He was just thrilled with the fact that there is a non-religious option on campus.”
When asked if the term “freethinker” is a rather large claim to apply to oneself, Freethinkers vice-president media relations H.J. Hornbeck explained that the term “freethinker” is borrowed from Irish philosopher William Monyneux.
“It comes from a letter from the 1700s,” Hornbeck said. “[Monyneux] was discussing something with a Christian and he said, ‘He’s a wonderful chap, full of wonderful ideas and a freethinker.’ It just means someone who is willing to use logic and reason to question reality.”
Hornbeck went on to clarify that the term “freethinker” could apply to the religious and non-believers alike.
Hesse said that religious students are welcome to join the club, but they must be ready to defend their views.
“For me, extremism is a bad thing. I’m fine with people believing what they want to believe as long as they don’t affect people in a negative manner and they’re ready to discuss what they believe,” Hesse said.