The CFI Summit - An International Congress in the Pacific Northwest

Interviews - CFI Summit - An International Congress in the Pacific Northwest

Interviews

CFI Summit Interview:
Edwina Rogers on Secularism’s Big Year in Washington and the Tough Road Ahead

Edwina Rogers

by Paul Fidalgo

Edwina Rogers is a veteran DC lobbyist who surprised nearly everyone when she became the executive director of the Secular Coalition for America in 2012. (The Council for Secular Humanism, an affiliate organization of CFI, is a member organization of SCA.) Not only was it not common knowledge that Rogers was nontheistic, or even sympathetic to secularist causes, but she’s also a Republican. This, of course, raised all manner of questions (some politely asked, some not) about what role she might play in a movement made up mostly of people who consider themselves progressives.

More than a year later, she and the rest of the Secular Coalition staff have plowed into their work with heightened grassroots activism, intensive lobbying work on Capitol Hill and with the administration, and forming new state chapters. Rogers is set to address the CFI Summit in October, where she'll give the entire secular and skeptic movement an update on what's been accomplished, and what the SCA still has in store to broaden our community's political power.

Rogers was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions for us about the state of things in Washington, and what we can look forward to. One thing that stood out to me about Rogers’ answers was her understanding of relationships, not just between lobbyists and lawmakers, but also between churches and lawmakers, and even among lawmakers themselves, and the influence they can all have over one another.

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PF: One of the things your presentation at the Summit will cover is the lack of scientific understanding in Congress. Specifically coming from the perspective of a lobbying organization, why is this a problem? And is there a bare minimum of knowledge that House and Senate members ought to have?

ER: Unfortunately, there is not only a lack of scientific understanding, but a disrespect for the importance of science altogether. Especially on the House Science Committee, members are actively anti-science, and are in some cases, put on the committee for the purpose of bringing it to a grinding halt. Much of this anti-science behavior comes from a lack of scientific understanding. This means they cannot have basic conversations with the scientists doing cutting edge work about why it is important that work be funded.

PF: So how do we stack the deck to get more scientifically literate people into Congress?

ER: As a community we do a great job showing up to the polls, but we need to do even better and support scientifically literate candidates and hold anti-science candidates accountable.

PF: Mostly we hear about the full-blown fundamentalists in Congress, like John Shimkus saying we don't have to worry about global warming because the Bible says Earth is safe from any post-Noah floods. Is it just the far-out folks like him that concern you, or is the problem more nuanced?

ER: The clearly anti-science Congress members are concerning not just for their views, but their impact on their peers. Sometimes the least-evidence based idea can sound good on paper and it might bring about doubt or questioning in the minds of more rational members, even when the scientific evidence is soundly in support of the opposite.

PF: You’ve mentioned that one focus of SCA is the general lack of understanding from Congress on all manner of subjects that are not necessarily associated with “science," such as criminal justice and immigration. To some, this may sound like “mission creep,” as in, why is the Secular Coalition worrying about immigration when there's church-state separation to defend?

ER: Churches weigh in on a variety of issues, from guns to Guantanamo, and give advice on the “Christianly” way to handle them. To be relevant to the lawmakers looking to the SCA to represent the views of the eight percent of the country that identify as atheist or agnostic, we at minimum must stay educated on these topics.

PF: You were at the first Women in Secularism conference in May of 2012, and you were brand new to the movement at the time—you didn’t know us, we didn’t know you. A year-and-change isn't that much time, but it's a lifetime in the political media at least. So I’ll ask this not just about SCA, but the movement as a whole: How we doin’?

ER: We still have a long way to go, but I think the movement has really made some great strides just in the year just since I’ve been with the Secular Coalition. The movement as a whole, but also just the Secular Coalition, have been making progress every day—and I think the movement is on the verge of breaking major barriers.

Just in the last year at the federal level, we successfully worked with a member of Congress who introduced a bill in the House to allow for nontheistic chaplains—the bill got 150 votes—and 173 members voted against another bill to discriminate against humanist chaplains. We saw sitting members of Congress go on the record on the House floor to speak up for nontheists, something we haven’t seen much in the past, if ever—and that was major. This year, for the first time, we had a sitting U.S. Senator and a sitting U.S. Representative address the secular community at our Secular Summit and Lobby Day. At the federal level we’ve successfully blocked school vouchers twice, our suggestions for eliminating religious exemptions in the tax codes were included in the recommendations to the House Ways & Means Committee, and we blocked the expansion of religious exemptions in Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Also in the last year, we’ve launched chapters in all fifty states. Our state chapters are already effecting change at the state level. Our Montana and Colorado chapters were able to halt “intelligent design” bills, and the Secular Coalition for Arizona organized the first secular-oriented “invocation” on the House floor, during which a state legislator “came out” as an atheist. The Secular Coalition for California successfully halted (A.B. 943), which would have diverted public tax dollars to religious schools, the Secular Coalition for Rhode Island successfully urged the Governor to sign a National Day of Reason Proclamation and helped bring marriage equality to their state, and the Secular Coalition for North Carolina worked successfully to get House Bill 494 entitled the “Rowan County Defense of Religion Act of 2013” knocked down. This bill tried to “allow North Carolina to declare an official religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Bill of Rights.”

PF: Is there a particular success you're most proud of, or has been the most meaningful to you?

ER: We are particularly proud of the formation of our state chapters and the ongoing work we’re doing at the federal level, which is increasing inroads for the community as a whole daily.

PF: How about disappointments or failures?

ER: I like to try to stay positive! Of course we all experience setbacks, but I try not to dwell on them. I try to learn from disappointments and use them to move forward and do better next time.

PF: I've met you once in person, and you're extremely charming and disarming, and that, I have to think, is a useful skill to have honed and developed along with all of your other political skills as a lobbyist. How are you using all of those tools at your disposal, these professional skills, on a day-to-day basis? How are you making your case?

ER: Well, thank you! That must be some of my southern charm, being from Alabama and all. I think a big part of lobbying is being personable because of course, that’s part of building relationships, which is so important to this job—and we will certainly use our charm to get in the door if that helps! But once we’re in, we have to focus on not only maintaining the relationship, but also educating the lawmakers and staffs and providing them with valuable resources and materials they can use to make good policy decisions—such as the Secular Model Policy Guide that we’ll be publishing and distributing to all of the offices on Capitol Hill this fall.

PF: So you've mentioned to me that you will be unveiling a plan at the Summit to recruit more women and minorities to the movement, which has clearly been a big issue of late. Do you want to avoid spoilers, or can you give us a preview?

ER: We are working on several plans to reach out to various constituencies within the movement—among them are racial minorities, women, and even Republicans. Additionally, we will be working to better educate the mainstream media on the community. We will be increasing attendance at minority events—both inside and outside the movement—but also working on better communications approaches and more targeted materials.

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Clearly, there’s a lot that’s been done, and a lot more that’s in the works, at the SCA. To hear Edwina Rogers deliver her grand plans, make your plans to come to the CFI Summit in Tacoma, October 24-27, 2013.

CFI Summit Interview:
Eugenie Scott on Choosing Skepticism’s Battles, Differentiating from Atheism

Eugenie Scott

by Paul Fidalgo

It’s been one year since I last interviewed science education advocate Eugenie Scott, and the struggle to save science from being supplanted by religious ideology in public education has not ceased. But, as you’ll see in our new interview on the heels of the upcoming CFI Summit, much has been learned. Dr. Scott and I talk about what’s changing in this struggle, what’s staying the same, and go deeper into questions about what issues groups like the NCSE and its allies should prioritize.

We’re a dynamic and tumultuous community of humanists, skeptics, atheists, and everything in between, and we’re confronted with anti-science activism coming from all corners of the political map. Dr. Scott has some important thoughts on who we are as a movement (or as separate movements), and what battles we should be choosing to fight.

And if you want to see Dr. Scott in action, register now for the CFI Summit, October 24-27 in Tacoma, Washington!

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PF: One year ago, just before CSICon 2, you and I talked about the state of science education, characterizing the creationist and anti-science movement as "stealthy," using legalistic and rhetorical tricks to wind its way into public schools. Has anything changed in the past year, be it the frequency of assaults on science, or perhaps a change in tactics or strategy?

ES: I don't know whether it's good news or not, but the strategy has not changed, and we got about the same amount of anti-science legislation this year as last. The definitely good news is that none of them passed—due in no small part to the efforts of concerned local citizens who called their state representatives to explain why these bills were harmful to their state's children's education. In 2012, of course, we were very disappointed that the Tennessee Academic Freedom Act passed, despite concerted efforts. Sometimes the politics is just against you.

PF: How about public acceptance of the reality of things like evolution and climate change, outside the stalwart naysayers—do you sense any movement of the needle there?

ES: So much depends on how questions are asked in survey research. I've done just enough of it to give me a healthy respect for people and organizations that do a good job. The acceptance of evolution increases if there is no mention of God, the Bible, or other religion-associated terms. Once religion is mentioned—almost as if the respondents were being reminded—acceptance of evolution declines. So how the question is asked is extremely important.

Last year's bad weather (Sandy, Midwestern droughts, etc.) is correlated with a slight increase in the percentage of Americans who agree that climate change is taking place. The worry here is that a mild winter or a cooler summer next year will reverse that trend. People do not distinguish clearly between weather and climate, so annual shifts in weather can be misinterpreted as implying climatic change in the long term is not actually happening as it appears. Collecting survey data that are reliable is one issue—there is a science to it, of course—but understanding why people hold the views they hold is a second issue independent of the actual data.

PF: Your work with the NCSE has been mostly focused on evolution and climate change, as they are the most vulnerable subjects right now. But I think it's safe to say that we're seeing a movement, much of it from the political left, that rejects science when it comes to things like GMOs and vaccines. Is this a front on which groups like the NCSE will soon have to fight? Is this going to affect science education to the point where we're fighting Dover-like battles, but to save the reputation of germ theory?

ES: I can't speak for my successor or what the board will recommend, but in the past, we've tried to focus on movements like creationism that distort science and affect science education. Climate change denial fits that description. Anti-vax is important, but it's not a science education issue: no one is contending that kids should not be taught the germ theory (except a few fringe Christian Science practitioners, and they have no political power). Anti-GMO is also not a science education issue. It is also, in my opinion, not a clear-cut anti-science issue. In fact, I see a lot of the anti-GMO activity to be focused around economics of growing food in third world countries and so on. Those issues are not anti-science, but extra-science. Of course, people who believe that GMO foods are inherently unhealthy are misinformed, but there is more to opposition to GMO than only those issues.

Being that we are a small organization, we have been careful not to expand our mission beyond a short list of topics. Many years ago, a board member wanted NCSE to take on animal use in scientific experimentation, since he interpreted rejection of animal use as an anti-science movement. I'm not sure that it is, but in any event, it would spread us too thinly -- and it isn't an education issue anyway. 


PF: One of the things you'll be talking about at the CFI Summit is the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which if adopted should strike a blow for quality science education. This is an affirmatively pro-science initiative, as opposed to being a defensive move, it seems to me: Rather than try and keep ground we already have, it's a chance to build up and outward. So first off, would you agree with that characterization?

ES: Pretty much. There are huge advantages in having many states with the same standards: it simplifies textbook writing, for example. Publishers don't have to have an edition for state X, and state Y, and state Z. But the more exciting thing about the NGSS is the stress on inquiry learning, and an ambitious effort to integrate the process of science and scientific reasoning into the content area. The goal is to make science more than memorization of lists of facts.


PF: Of course we have resistance to NGSS from the usual science opponents. What is the character of that resistance? What do they say is the problem with these kinds of science standards?

ES: The resistance takes several forms. One is a political conservative/libertarian antipathy to anything that looks like federal intrusion into local control of education (which NGSS isn't, by the way: it's written by a coalition of states with guidance from the National Academy of Sciences). Another is opposition to the inclusion of evolution and to the inclusion of climate change. Some of these groups overlap, but not all.

PF: The CFI Summit is a little different from most conferences of late, in that it emphasizes a coming-together of atheists/humanists and skeptics, which of course implies there's something a division between them. Now, you're someone who seems to swim in these two ponds with no problem, so I wonder what you see as the nature of that division, if any. In other words, are all of us skeptics, humanists, atheists, naturalists, or what have you, all really in the same boat and part of the same movement, or is there really a divide that needs bridging?

ES: There are two boats, and there's no need to bridge any divide. Humanists, atheists, naturalists and what-have-yous are one group, and skeptics are in another. Skeptics are interested in science, and in applying critical thinking to extraordinary claims. They include both nonbelievers and people of faith, as well as people who don't especially care about philosophy/religion. Humanists/atheists, etc., are people with a nontheistic philosophical view (though I'm not sure that atheism really is a philosophy. When atheists wax philosophical, they mostly channel humanist thinkers or values). Do not assume that humanists are necessarily interested in science or necessarily apply science in their everyday reasoning. I know religious skeptics and new-age humanists.

I don't see a need for a bridge. If I want to think about philosophy, I'll go to a humanist meeting. If I want to think about science, I'll go to a skeptics’ conference. In fact, a bridge hurts skepticism. Skepticism is the larger boat, open to all who are interested in science. If we conflate skepticism and humanism, we are chopping off the end of the boat occupied by theists and those disinterested in religion. I'm more interested in keeping as many people in the critical thinking boat as I can, so I see no value in combining the two movements. If you belong to both, fine. But they are not the same movements.

PF: It was recently announced that you'll soon be retiring from the NCSE, and it's kind of hard to imagine it without you. I hear Microsoft has an opening in a major leadership position, but let's keep that between you and me.

ES: NCSE will do fine without me. It's a solid organization with a good reputation and an excellent staff. I'd be perfectly content if five years from now a new staff member opens up a file in the archives and says, "Genie who?"

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Don’t miss Eugenie Scott and the entire lineup of leaders, thinkers, and activists at the CFI Summit! Register now!

CFI Summit Interview:
Zack Kopplin Will Save Louisiana Because He Loves It

Zack Kopplin

by Paul Fidalgo

It’s almost a cliché to say that Zack Kopplin is a crusader for science education, but it happens to be quite apt. Barely out of high school, Zack began with little more than a flurry of emails, sparked by a desire to turn around his state’s science-denialism. Since he began his work, he’s not only gotten the attention of the government of the state of Louisiana, but the national media as well. Though he’s mustered the support of allies and compatriots from academia, politics, and popular culture, it his singular drive and determination that has galvanized so many in the struggle against creationism and science denial in public education. Zack now studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas, but his work on behalf of Louisiana shows little sign of slowing.

Zack will be one of the speakers at the upcoming CFI Summit in Tacoma, Washington, October 24-27, and he talked to me about what motivates his activism (which includes a cameo from a particular Cajun political operative), how he actually manages to get things done, and what other pursuits he might decide to train his laser focus on.

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PF: As far as the media is concerned, you've emerged as kind of the lone glimmer of sanity in Louisiana, and you told the New York Times you feared the stigma of being from "the stupid state." But what's it like for you in Louisiana itself? Has your activism won you more enemies than friends in your area?

ZK: I wouldn’t call myself the lone glimmer of sanity in Louisiana. We’ve got Barbara Forrest, the Louisiana Coalition for Science, New Orleans City Council and Orleans Parish School Board, the State Board of Education, a few legislators, and hundreds of others who’ve come out to support science or made decisions that put them on the right side of science.

When I was younger I did fear the stigma of being from the “stupid state.” I had family in Connecticut, and so I would spend every summer in the Northeast, and I was judged by people for the place I was born.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve become proud of being from Louisiana, and I do identify deeply as a Louisianan. I went through Katrina and I’ve lived on parade routes all my life. The state gave me my taste in food and music and my sense of humor.

I’d rather be a Louisianan and fight to improve my home than worry about other people’s judgments of my state.

I’ve got the support in and out of Louisiana that I need to keep going with this fight. Some people don’t like me and can be incredibly nasty, and that’s always been the case. I’m not going to stop, just because someone is upset by what I’m doing. I know that I’m fighting for what is right.

It does always amaze me how nasty people can be though. My first instinct isn’t to go for the jugular, so I’m always surprised by how mean people can actually be.

PF: When the public sees you, they see you on Bill Maher, on a talk show, or footage from your appearances in hearings. But of course there is much more to activism than being on TV. What's the grunt work you're doing? When the camera's not on you, what kind of day-to-day work comprises your activism?

ZK: I’m sending emails, having conference calls and writing all day, every day. We’re working on getting a non-profit set up in the near future, and have a few other side projects going on, and it’s just tedious work that you have to get through.

Also, social media takes a surprising amount of time to manage and keep updating every day. It takes time to find relevant articles about science to share.

We’ve built an incredible amount of buzz and energy and now we need to harness it. 

PF: Do you see yourself expanding the scope of your activism beyond Louisiana and creationism?

ZK: I am. I want to work on fighting all science denial, whether it’s about evolution, climate change, GMOs or vaccines.

I’m also advocating for more science funding, because we do not spend enough on science.

PF: Did anyone serve as a model for activism for you, in or outside of the freethought and skeptic movements?

ZK: I’m always impressed by James Carville. I took his class at Tulane while I was in high school, and quickly realized that James could see connections between everything that was political. He always understood what was going on, and what he should say.

PF: You're pretty young to be so immersed in politics and religion. You must have other interests or outlets. What else takes your time, or your creativity?

ZK: The last year was fairly rough for me in terms of work, and I was working 90-100 hours every week up until May. It’s why I’m taking a year off school, now. I want to be able to do my policy work and still have a little time for myself.

I’m getting myself back into running and playing guitar and I want to join a pickup soccer league at some point. I also want to travel out of the country more.

Lastly, Houston has an incredible number of good restaurants. I’ve been to a lot of them, but I want to go to all of them.

PF: Bonus Question: Any chance you'll run for office yourself someday, and then be lobbied by some other tenacious young activist?

ZK: I don’t see a path to office anytime in the near future, I really like the freedom I have to pursue a specific platform, right now. Once I’ve got the movement built though, who knows.

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