Token Skeptic Podcast – On Safe And Secular.org With Michael De Dora

Over on the Token Skeptic podcast #184, you can hear the latest episode of the show – here’s what we discussed.

As you may have heard in the news this week, the American Food and Drug Administration has given a controversial Houston doctor the green light to continue providing experimental cancer treatments.

The FDA has lifted restrictions on a clinical trial run by Stanislaw Burzynski, who for nearly 40 years has claimed that he has discovered natural substances that can fight certain cancers.

More recently their site features an update on the issue of contraception that has hit the news: Help Fix What Hobby Lobby Broke: Tell Your Senators to Protect Women’s Access to Birth Control.

It’s due to worrying cases like this and many others, that the Safe and Secular Campaign was created – at http://safeandsecular.org:

To keep health care safe, effective, accessible and responsive to needs – it has to be secular. It has to be based on scientific principles. Not magical thinking. Not religious beliefs. Not conspiracy theories: Evidence and reality… Right now health care is beset by two plagues:
The imposition of religious dogma on health care, resulting in limited access to and even the denial of medical services;
The shameless marketing of sham remedies, sold as “natural” or “traditional” cures, often accompanied by the rejection of scientifically proven treatments.
…Keep Health Care Safe and Secular is harnessing the talent, intelligence, and enthusiasm of people who want to ensure that our health care is focused on effective remedies and proven outcomes. We’re educating the public, the media, and policy-makers about the threat of misinformation, dogma, and quackery. And we’ve created this website to provide you with the information you need and the actions you can take, right now, to help keep health care safe and secular.

For this interview, I speak to the Centre for Inquiry’s Policy Director Michael De Dora, about how he first became an advocate for secularism, freedom of religion, belief, and expression, about the campaign, its goals, and what it’s like in the USA when faced with challenges to good health.

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Michael:  The Center for Inquiry, broadly speaking, is an educational and an advocacy organisation that tries to advance reason, science, secularism, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. That’s a lot. We’re not a single issue organization, or a single label, or identity‑based organization, but I think an organization based more on a range of different values, a range of different positions on how we can best decide on public policy and best come to decisions about morality and ethics.

It really originates from a rich history of both really two different camps, both scientifically‑minded people, people who are really interested in skepticism and applying the scientific world view to especially questions of the borderlands of science. What’s science, what’s pseudoscience? Things like alternative medicine, and do ghosts exist, and things like that.

But then on the other side, people who are really interested in mainly two things, one is trying to maintain a proper relationship between religion and government, and the other is trying to elaborate and promote the idea that you can be a decent human being without being religious. Basically trying to promote secular ethics. So the Center for Inquiry, that’s kind of the intellectual history of it.

In practice there’s a lot that goes on. I’m the director of the office of public policy, which carries out CFI’s mandate here in Washington, DC, where I’m speaking from, but also in New York where we have representation in the United Nations. We also have representation at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. So we’re lobbying for separation of church and state for reproductive rights, for sound science and public policy, for basic human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but there’s so much more to CFI.

There’s the “CFI on Campus” program, which is designed to help student groups on a variety of different university and college campuses around the United States to give them resources to connect them with speakers and things like that. There is a podcast, a great podcast called “The Point of Inquiry” which has all sorts of guests from Dawkins and Harris to I think the most recent guest was Janet Mock who’s been in the news recently.

There are magazines -”Free Inquiry,” and “Skeptical Inquirer.” Broadly speaking as I said, it’s an educational and advocacy organisation. The idea is to educate the public in some way and then actually either try to get them involved in advocating or to get them to support our ability to advocate on their behalf.

Kylie Sturgess:  What led you to get involved?

Michael:  Well, if you were to have caught me 10 or 15 years ago, things would have been a bit different!

I was raised Roman Catholic. I really didn’t come into this stuff until really late. It was not something I was raised with. This was not something I even realised was, in terms of the free thought movement and stuff like that, it was not stuff that I knew that was even going on until… and to be fair, it wasn’t going on for a long time, at least that actively until about 2005, 2006. I graduated from college in 2005. I went to the State University of New York in Albany. It’s a state school in upstate New York.

I moved into the city. At that time, my first job I was working at Fox News. I was an editor‑reporter for the website. I really just wasn’t terribly interested in the news as a long‑term career goal. After a while, it really started to wear on me so I started thinking about my options. At that point, I just moved in the city. I was starting to read some books and meet people. One of the books that I read actually was “The End of Faith,” by Sam Harris. I think that was probably about 2005, 2006.

I had gone through this de‑conversion phase where, over the years in college, I simply lost interest in religion. I didn’t believe anymore. There was never any instance where it was clear or any specific cause. It just became something that I thought about for a while and didn’t really stick. I started reading books like Sam Harris’ books and Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc. Then, even more specifically (this is probably 2007 now) – I went to my first event in New York City in terms of the secular‑atheist movement.

It was actually a philosophy discussion led by Massimo Pigliucci. That just lit the fire under me. That was just like, this is where I want to be. These are the rooms that I want to be in. These are the people that I want to be speaking with. These are the issues that I want to be talking about. Pretty much since then, I’ve been involved with the community in a way that specifically I worked my way up at CFI – was I found CFI after learning that they had a branch in New York City.

I started volunteering, to start offering to help, to organising events, etc. It just so happens at about a year or two after I started, I started volunteering, there was a position opened in New York City, which I applied for and accepted, after they offered it to me. Then after a couple of years in New York City, about three years in New York City, I had completed my Master’s degree in Political Theory, which I went back for after realising that I didn’t want to work at Fox News my whole life.

After I finished that, I started poking CFI and saying that wouldn’t it be interested in seeing if I could do more policy work instead of more of the communications outreach stuff they had me doing me doing now, which is good, but I think I would like to do more policy work. I guess in 2011, 2012 they asked me to relocate from New York to DC and oversee the Office of Public Policy. That’s how I got here, literally in my office in Washington, DC, right now.

Kylie:  Fascinating.

Michael:  For me I hate, like a lot of people, talking about my story too much and things like that – but it’s a good example of how doing some work that in the immediate doesn’t seem to have an enormous payback to you, in terms of monetary or other volunteering, can actually lead you down a path that you can’t even possibly imagine.

If I would have thought that volunteering for CFI, helping put on some events, literally buying hummus and crackers, and wine and cheese before events and showing up and setting up tables would actually gotten me, with a lot of the other stuff I did, as the Director of Policy for a non‑profit group, being the Center for Inquiry, I would have said, “You’re crazy,” but here I am! I actually really do encourage people, so many people think it’s so difficult to find jobs and it’s kind of skeptic, atheist organizations. It is. It’s a small world.

The only way to really show those groups that, or really any group or more broadly speaking, that they’re interested and willing to help out and you’re dedicated to the causes to volunteer. I highly recommend that to other people.

Kylie:  Of course massive number of projects and campaigns that are involved in the Center of Inquiry, why safeandsecular.org? Why this particular campaign now?

Michael:  Many campaigns, indeed. In fact two years ago we launched a different campaign called “The Campaign for Free Expression“…

Kylie:  Yes, I remember.

Michael:  …which was really focused on the right to free expression and specific increasing a tax that we’ve seen, in terms of passing blasphemy laws or putting dissidents in jail for speaking their mind. That’s a big part of CFI’s work is protecting the right to free expression, and freedom of religion, and freedom of belief.

In a similar way, the campaign to keep health care safe and secular operates in a sense that CFI had been working on many of these issues for a while. Just like we had been working on all kinds of free expression cases and situations. It’s easy when you’re doing that kind of work for things to get discombobulated, and to feel disconnected, and you’re throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and hoping that something sticks, and to lose track of what’s going on in the process.

When we launched the “Campaign for Free Expression,” it was a way for us to summarize a lot of different cases that we’re working on, our viewpoints on the issues, and providing easy access point for a lot of people to both come to a website and learn about an issue, but also learn how to take action.

The campaign to keep health care safe and secular operates in the same way. We have been working on a range of different issues in the past couple of years. Anything from defending access to reproductive health care, anything from abortion to birth control. We’ve been working on issues like hospital ownership here in the United States. One in five patients go to Catholic hospitals. Catholic hospitals are very popular here in the US.

We’ve been working on cases like alternative medicine and pseudo medicine. There’s a case of a cancer clinic down in Houston, Texas run by a guy named Stanislaw Burzynski, who you may have heard of.

Kylie:  Absolutely.

Michael:  We’ve been pressing the FDA to get more strict and crack down on him because unfortunately, he’s getting people to give him a lot of money when he actually doesn’t have a cure for the kinds of cancer he claims to have a cure for. All these different issues we’ve been working on and they really relate to health care.

The one thing that we do realize is that Stanislaw Burzynski is coming from a very different place than say, the Catholic bishops, when they’re talking about restricting access to reproductive health. They’re coming from a specifically religious traditional.

Burzynski really believes that scientists and the medical community are keeping him down and that he really has this cure. So the causes of their actions are a bit different. What we were thinking about, when we were working on these issues, is that actually the response to those issues is almost always the same. The response to those issues is to argue via reason and science to use critical thinking to look at the arguments being made and then to rely on scientific evidence as you’re proposing what our position should be.

The campaign is really a way for us to highlight how on this wide range of different health care issues that we’re working on, and a lot of different groups are working on to be sure, the response is almost always the same. It’s to use reason and science to be guided by those in trying to come with a reasonable policy. The really the campaign, the goals are two.

One is to highlight a lot of the different issues that are going on, a lot of the different news stories that are out there. A lot of the different attacks on health care, whether they’re coming from religious belief or whether they’re coming from pseudo‑science.

Then, two, after people are informed about that, hopefully, they’ll take action. There’s a button on the page where you can learn and at least right now it’s focused on domestic US actions. You can learn how to contact your congressperson, contact your local representatives. What to say, what to say in emails, what to say in phone calls, how to place phone calls, etc. etc. We’re hoping that people don’t just come to website and learn, but then actually call their representatives and say, “Why are you doing, X, Y, and Z.”

Kylie:  Now, are the health concerns based in the US very different to other countries when it comes to, as you mentioned, pseudo‑scientific claims and religious interference?

Michael:  Yes and no. It depends. It depends on the issue. For example, whether or not you’re talking about alternative medicine or reproductive health. I think, for example, the British National Health Service does cover some homeopathy. In the US, there are plans as well, under state run plans and what not, government run plans that are offered say under Obamacare that will cover some alternative medicine as well.

That has been a point of controversy for some skeptic groups in the US, that we try to work on, but it’s a very difficult thing to lobby on because you’re lobbying the government to tell the insurance companies what not to cover. It’s an uphill battle. In some sense, on the alt‑med stuff, I think you do see some similarities. The business for alternative medicine, and homeopathy, and acupuncture, is big in the US and it’s big in a lot of other countries as well.

In fact, it may… be bigger in a place like Britain. When you talk about some of the other issues though, you see some similarities. I think in some ways, we might have it better in the US and we might have it worse. It’s hard to tell. So for example, reproductive rights. There have been a record number of attacks on access to abortion and access to birth control in the United States in the last couple of years. Broadly speaking, women still have access to many… and in many parts of the US, they’ll have access to abortion. It’s not nearly as simple, straightforward, and easy as it should be.

That’s something that we’re working on improving. But when you go to some other places, say in South America, you have places where women get put in jail for miscarrying. To be sure those are ideas, sometimes, that some law makers will propose in the United States. The rhetoric is there. The far‑right religious law makers saying that maybe women should be jailed for, because maybe she caused the miscarriage.

You look at some of the countries in South America and elsewhere in the world, I think that women have it unfortunately, much, much tougher. In Brazil, there was a case a few years ago, there was a nine‑year‑old girl who’d been raped by her stepfather. She was pregnant with twins. She needed an abortion. The doctor said that most likely she will die if she goes through with birth. In Brazil a woman can only get abortion if it puts her life in danger or if the pregnancy is a result of a rape.

So the girl actually fit what the law allowed for. Yet it still was incredibly hard for her to get an abortion because the Catholic Church in Brazil is so strong. It was hard in opposing her right to get an abortion. Eventually, she did actually. It’s worth noting that the Catholic Church excommunicated her and the mother and not the stepfather that was the one that actually got her pregnant. Some of the challenges, even in places like Ireland, a couple years ago, where there was a woman who died because she couldn’t get an abortion.

Kylie:  Yes, Savita Halappanavar.

Michael:  Yeah – these issues in other places, they happen in the US. It’s important for us to keep in mind that everywhere you go it’s going to be a little bit different. Some places are actually going to be worse. One place where the belief in a lot of suicides is very strong is unfortunately in Africa right now, which is a place where you could probably use a good dose of science. You have political leaders telling citizens that vaccinations are just Western attempts at control. They don’t actually work, so people don’t get vaccinations. You also have religious leaders preaching about how contraception is either immoral or doesn’t work as well, so you have STDs spreading.

Then you have a lot of pseudo‑science about treating AIDs and HIV. That’s something that we don’t have nearly as much in the United States. I think there are all sorts of cultural reasons for it. Again, it’s really important for us to keep in mind that everyone in the world is going to face different challenges. The important thing, once you realise what all those different cultural barriers are to trying to improve health care and promote science in these places, is to think about what are then the best ways to do it.

That’s where you really get into a lot of controversy, because in some places it might actually be that the best way to promote, say, safe sex and the use of birth control in Africa is actually to promote it through the churches. That might actually be the most effective way to do it. You have a lot of Western atheists and skeptics who will be very hesitant to be involved with religion in that way. If the goal is to get people using birth control and to lower the rate of STDs, that might actually be the best way to do it. Those are the things that all of us need to think about as we’re trying to address global issues, because like I said, it’s just different all over the place. You have to realise that.

Kylie:  Safeandsecular.org in a way is leading in terms of saying you have to look at these things and be considerate in terms of how you move forward.

Michael:  Sure.

Kylie:  Had there been any personal accounts that people have asked for help with so far?

Michael:  So far, there have not been any personal accounts shared with us that have been like, “We need immediate help.” We’re hoping that we’ll get some of those stories. Obviously, I’d prefer that those stories don’t exist, because I don’t want women who say, “I need an abortion, but my doctor won’t give me one. I can’t find a place to go, and I don’t have the funds.”

If that’s happening, and it is happening in the United States, we really want to get those stories out. We want to get stories out about people who are maybe conned by some guy who’s a doctor who says he has a cure for a specific form of cancer who really doesn’t, and they gave him their life savings. Now their son or their daughter is still dying. We want to know their story and we want to tell their stories to the public.

One of the things we are really encouraging people, there’s a tab on the website where you can report an issue. We’re really encouraging people to get on there and if they have stories, share them with us. What we’re going to do is, probably in the next six to eight weeks, after the ball gets rolling a bit, that we’re going to launch a part of the website called a testimonial page. That will feature a lot of these different stories, of course so long as people give us the permission.

We have gotten already some stories of women who went through a very difficult time to get abortions in years past or who went to a pharmacy in years past and were told that they’re not allowed to get birth control there because the pharmacist’s religious belief obviously is more important than a woman’s need to have birth control. Those are awful stories, and those will be featured as well. The stories that we’ve gotten so far have all been stories that have already happened. We haven’t gotten anything that someone’s saying, “We need help right away.” That could happen, and that is an essential part of the campaign.

CFI, in the past six or eight months, have hired a new legal director Nicholas Little. Nick is great, and we’re hoping that we can involve him more in some of the office of policy work, make this whole thing work together so that when we’re working on policy issues and people report an issue, if there’s a legal angle to it, he might be able to help as well.

Kylie:  Finally, what are some of the forthcoming projects? What can people expect to see if they click on the site?

Michael:  The testimonials page will be a big one. Like I said, that’s probably come out in the next six to eight weeks. That will really put a face, or put faces to a lot of the arguments and the stories or the issues that we talk about on the website. It’s very easy to talk about really anything. That was one of the things we realise when we’re working on these free expression issues is that it’s so easy to talk about the legalese, to talk the human rights arguments, and forget that there are actually people involved.

Kylie:  The abstract as opposed to the real life experiences.

Michael:  Precisely. When we launched the “Campaign for Free Expression,” the central part of the website, where the individual stories, where the individual stories of people who had been persecuted in some way for speaking their mind whether on Twitter, or in Facebook, or writing a blog post, or something like that.

One of the things we want to do with this campaign as well is, we talk a lot about reproductive health and vaccination and hospital ownership and alt‑med. We also want to put a face or, rather faces, to those issues to show people that these are not just things that are happening in the abstract, as you said, but they’re actually harming real people. That’s one major thing that we’ll be doing. More broadly, I think the site will continue to function as not just a resource center for news. We’ll continually update it with news and other tidbits that are related to the campaign, but also as a hub for political and legal action.

We have a page on the website where you can sign up to get action alerts from the Center for Inquiry’s i office of public policy. On the “Take Action” page, we also suggest a number of other organizations you should sign up for to get action alerts, Planned Parenthood, and all kinds of scientific groups. As those get released, as there are pertinent political issues posting those on the website so that when people come to the website, again, it’s just kind of a one‑click place where they can say, “Oh, there’s a bill in Ohio where they want to ban private insurance companies from covering abortion and birth control.” That’s actually a bill right now.

Kylie:  Wow, that’s dreadful.

Michael:  We put out an action alert about that that we’re going to post on the website. Now if you didn’t know about that, not only can you come to the website and learn about it but in one click you can go right to the action alert, if you live in Ohio of course, and fill out the action alert. There are going to be federal alerts.

Lastly, I think what we’re hoping is that while this is focused on the US, mainly because most of our work happens in the US, and also you do have to when you’re making a website or any kind of project try to keep it focused. You can’t include every single thing that you want to include.

Kylie:  Pretty natural, you’ve got to understand staff are only human.

Michael:  Right, the staff that you have are only human. Then again, it’s depending on how many staff you have. One of the things that we want to do though, is keep in mind some of the international issues that are going on, some of the stuff I talked about in Britain, or in South America, or in Africa, to track those things and also post those on the website and inform people about them potentially causing them to act, because they’re all connected.

Again, the point is that all these different health care issues that are going on, all these challenge to science‑based, evidence‑based, humanistic health care, all these challenges share certain traits whether or not they’re coming from religious or pseudo‑scientific forces.

The way to answer them again is to be guided by reason and science rather than religion or pseudo‑science.

Thanks very much to CFI, Michael De Dora and to http://www.safeandsecular.org

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.


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