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The free thinker: young Halifax activist takes on religion, censorship

The free thinker: young Halifax activist takes on religion, censorship

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Derek Rodgers doubts many things, and in face of hurdles with atheist ad campaigns, religion is tops
As soon as Derek Rodgers heard her voice, he dialed in. He knew the host of radio program Maritime Morning was talking about the atheist bus campaign, but he didn't know his friend Katie Kish was one of the guest speakers.

"Hi there, Katie?" Rodgers said, after host Andrew Krystal put him on the air.

"Halifax?" she said excitedly.

"It's meeeeee," replied Rodgers, sending his deep warm voice over the Halifax airwaves.

"Is this a private chat here?" asked Krystal gruffly, annoyed at the unexpected interaction. "What the hell's going on?"

Rodgers and Kish met at a conference last summer put on by the New York-based Centre for Inquiry (CFI) — an organization for free-thought activism. Kish is part of the Toronto-based Freethought Association of Canada, a group that organized the campaign to put atheist ads in Toronto subways. Rodgers — a Halifax-native and first-year Dalhousie student — is part of the Dal Atheist Community. Both were on air to discuss ads that read, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Rodgers is an advocate of free speech and thought. When I first met Rodgers he was boldly declaring that as a gay man, he didn't think hate speech should be censored. "As much as I like you as a person, I think you're a censor," he stood up and told a human rights lawyer who was arguing in favour of human rights commissions. He thinks no progressive cause, including the gay rights movement, could have happened without offending people.

He started a free thought group when he was 15, and he received an email last June from the director of CFI Canada, acknowledging his group as the only one of its kind in a Canadian high school. CFI invited Rodgers to a conference in Buffalo, and he has just been invited to be a group leader at CFI's 2009 World Congress in Washington.

Two things struck me about Rodgers when he spoke at the debate: he is young and eloquent. The human rights lawyer must have agreed.

"Have you every considered going into law?" she asked him, when he finished his comment.

"A lot of people have said that to me," said Rodgers, flashing a wide, dimply smile. "In good ways and bad."

As I sit with the 18-year-old at a Halifax coffee shop, I ask if he has always been able to express himself so easily. "Public speaking's one of the hardest things to get over," says the shaggy-haired wide-eyed boy. "But I force myself when I have a justified opinion."

Given the current hype surrounding the atheist ad campaigns, Rodgers has another reason to speak out. He has been working to bring the atheist transit ads to Halifax, after the Freethought Association of Canada raised thousands in support of the Toronto atheist ads.

But there might be a few hurdles ahead. On Feb 2, Halifax Metro Transit rejected an atheism ad on the grounds that it was "too controversial." The ad read "You can be good without God." Metro Transit spokesperson Lori Patterson told the CBC, "If anytime we feel there's a message that could be controversial and upsetting to people, we don't necessarily sell the ads."

Supporters of the ad are vowing to fight the decision — they've organized on Facebook and at Atheistbus.ca.

Rogers' support of evolution comes from his love of science. He's read hard science since he was young, and when he reached high school, he started reading philosophical texts.

After reading philosopher Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World — a text that uses science to critically examine theories about the universe — he started reading science blogs and watching online debates about science and religion.

When a youth pastor started an inter-school Christian fellowship that met at Rodgers' high school once a week, he started going out of curiosity. The pastor found out he was an atheist and wanted to debate the origins of the universe. Using William Paley's argument of the watchmaker, the pastor said if the complexity of a watch requires an intelligent designer, the complexity of the earth requires the same. Rodgers called this an argument an "argument from ignorance" — just because the pastor did not understand how complex forms developed through natural selection, he assumes they did not. Round and round they would go, neither budging on their positions.

Rodgers says he is not trying to reform anyone. He is an atheist because to him, the world is scientific, but most importantly, he is a free-thinker who believes in being critical. "Free thought puts the emphasis on not holding dogmatic beliefs," he says. "And exercising doubt about those beliefs, especially those advocated by authority figures."

He says a lot of atheists get a bad rep for holding negative viewpoints, but he says they merely prefer using human reason over spirituality to explain life. Rodgers sees the atheism ad campaign as a discussion of belief — rather than a promotion of atheism, and a way of reaching out to similar thinkers.

"There's a huge silent minority of atheists and agnostics who are tired of the stigmas attached to non-belief," he says to Krystal and Halifax radio listeners. "What will come of this is public debate and outreach, and I can't see that being a bad thing."

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