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UWRF Freethought Society focuses upon reason, science

September 27, 2007

Students dressed like pirates stood in front of the UW-River Falls University Center Sept. 19, spewing “yarrs,” and “arghs,” and talking about a “flying spaghetti monster.” Most students passed by the pirates looking a little confused by the display.

“I don’t understand them,” student Lynn Bruvold said. “What is their deal?”

People who stopped and talked to the pirates learned about the group behind the pirate act, the relatively new Freethought Society of UWRF.

“The Freethought Society of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls is a group of students, faculty, and staff that hold that beliefs should be formed on the basis of science and logic rather than religious dogma,” according to the UWRF Webpage describing the organization.

Trevor Tomesh, one of the pirates, is the founder and president of the Freethought Society. Starting out at UWRF last fall, Tomesh said he discovered four organizations on campus for Christians but none for atheists and agnostics. This lack of a “liberal, freethinking” organization is what led him to found the Freethought society in fall 2006, Tomesh said.

Jordan Java, another pirate who is the Freethought Society’s vice president, joined the organization because it matched his outlook.

“As an atheist, it’s the only freethought society out there or on campus, that is,” Java said.

The Freethought Society aims to increase religious diversity and tolerance at UWRF and bring together people on campus who share a scientific, logical way of thinking, Tomesh said. With these goals in mind, the group came up with the idea of the “flying spaghetti monster” as a way of commenting on the dangers of following religion blindly at the expense of logical thinking, Tomesh said.

“People call it ‘the pirate thing,'” Tomesh said.

For the act, some group members pretend that they are pirate disciples worshiping their mock creator, the “flying spaghetti monster.” This story is intentionally ridiculous to make a point about the lack of logic often found in long-standing religious traditions, Tomesh said. It also stands as a caution against bringing religious theory such as intelligent design into the classroom, Tomesh said.

The group used International Talk Like a Pirate Day, Sept. 19, as a platform to spread this message, as well as inform people about the Freethought Society.

“I agree with the premise of the Freethought Society,” James Rust, a physics and civil engineering major who is a member of Campus Crusade for Christ and a friend of Tomesh, said. “But, for me, I don’t see logic, reason and science as being incompatible with religion.”

People should use logic and science to think about their religions rather than blindly following them, Rust said.

Despite its emphasis on logic and science over religion, the group isn’t really anti-religion, Rellen Hardtke, the advisor of the Freethought Society, said. Atheists, agnostics, Christians, polytheists and students questioning the faith they were brought up with all attend Freethought Society meetings, Hardtke said.

“If you’re interested in free thought, humanism or alternatives to an overtly Christian culture, it’s a great place to find like-minded individuals,” Hardtke said.

Freethought Society gatherings also offer students a chance to discuss views they may not feel comfortable talking about anywhere else, Hardtke said.

“If you tell a lot of people that you’re agnostic or an atheist, they look at you like you’re a two-headed monster, right?” Hardtke said.

Hardtke attends as many of the group’s meetings and special events as she can and even occasionally uses her expertise as an astrophysicist to lead the group in a discussion. Last year she gave a presentation on the big bang theory, Hardtke said.

The Freethought Society, though, isn’t only about intellectual discussions and making statements. They also put on fun events like movie nights, Tomesh said.

Additionally, some of the group’s members plan to go to Madison for the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s national conference this October. This major event will feature various speakers and “like-minded people hopefully,” Tomesh said.

The Freethought Society meets 7 p.m. Mondays in room 232 of the University Center.