A Place for Inquiring Minds
Sunday sunlight streams through the windows onto a couple of dozen children gathered around the older man reading them a story. Adults are in an adjacent room continuing the "coffee and conversation" session that started earlier in the day. Members of the group discuss plans for a charity drive to collect cell phones to be donated to victims of domestic violence. A little girl in a pink Dora the Explorer hat runs by as the agenda for a future youth meeting is announced.
This facility on the downtown Canal was recently remodeled by volunteer member labor, Reba Wooden explains. Wooden, who has the calm and matter-of-fact demeanor of the school counselor she was before her recent retirement, now oversees the programs here. She helps plan the regular movie nights, family playgroups, and weekend euchre games.
"These families are scattered geographically across central Indiana, so this is a place for them all to get together and have some opportunities for fellowship," Wooden says. She hands me a copy of the group’s statement of principles, which include strong affirmations of generosity, compassion and non-discrimination.
Overall, this scene is largely indistinguishable from those occurring this same weekend in churches, synagogues and mosques across central Indiana.
But instead of crucifixes or portraits of 14th century saints, the pictures on the wall here are of Thomas Paine, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain.
There is no Torah here, but there is a Langston Hughes Library. The call to charity comes not from the Koran, but instead the Affirmations of Humanism.
This is the Center for Inquiry of Indiana. Wooden says the nearly 200 CFI members are "freethinkers," just like Einstein and Twain and Hughes. They are devoted to the promotion of science and evidence instead of religious faith, and to enjoying the fellowship of a community with shared values.
"Some folks call them ‘common moral decencies,’" Wooden explains. "They are the values that have proven throughout the evolution of mankind to allow people to live together in harmony."
Wooden, who herself grew up in southern Indiana attending a Christian church-"But it didn’t take," she says-explains that the center fills an important need for many Hoosiers. "Especially here in Indiana, a lot of people who don’t have religious beliefs feel very isolated."
Fred Mandelkorn walks through the Kurt Vonnegut conference room, holding a volume-Doubt: A History, by Jennifer Michael Hecht –which is the subject of the latest in a regular series of CFI book discussions. He nods as Wooden says that the members here share a common thirst for intellectual discovery. "Our title is great," Mandelkorn says. "We are a center for inquiry, not a center for atheism." In the Jonas Salk children’s play room, the Sunday similarities continue. Sounding like a new member coordinator at a local church, Tim Gilliam wants newspaper readers to know they are invited to join CFI just like they would a religious congregation. "One difference, though," he says with a laugh. "We don’t think they will go to hell if they don’t come."