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Retired physicist Jerry Karches says secular humanism isn't only about rejecting the supernatural and dogmatic; it's also about optimism, compassion and dignity. Karches was one of three founders of the Center for Inquiry Community of Southern Arizona, a group that was started in October 2004 to promote reason and science. The community gathers monthly to hear speakers and discuss topics of interest to nonbelievers. Their next meeting, a free public forum called "Spirituality, Religiosity and the Church: an Anthropological Analysis," will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave. Contact Paul Taylor at 648-7231 for more information.

How many people are in your community?

Right now, I think on our mailing list, we have about 120 people. It's been growing steadily. ... We feel one of our problems is we're sort of a hidden group. We're not well-known. We'd like to change that by letting people know, simply because we feel we have a very attractive program.

What are some features of your beliefs, beyond rejection of supernaturalism?

Free expression of people and things that are important to people, like privacy. Things like the right to die with dignity, sexual preferences--these are things that we think are individual rights that people should be able to make judgments on themselves. We feel as long as you don't hurt anybody, then you're free to do the things you do. We're not really into sin. We're into living your life to the fullest extent and enjoying your life here, because we really don't believe there's an afterlife. Consequently, you go through here one time, and you treat others fairly and honestly and ethically, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Some people might ask what kind of morals secular humanists have, if they're not shaped by God or religion. How do secular humanists structure their lives to live morally?

Actually, we feel that we don't need the threat of punishment or the rewards system for doing the right thing. We feel people inherently know that there are rights and wrongs. It's only a human characteristic that you know you don't want to hurt somebody else, because you wouldn't want to be hurt. Stealing from people, harming them in some way--either economically or physically--these are things that are inherently (against) what people believe. Of course, there are laws that prohibit these things, so we feel you really don't need anything more than a legal system as a deterrent for crime, if people are so inclined. Religion is not something they need as a compass; they just need their instincts.

Do you think there are moral absolutes?

Oh, sure.

Like what?

Not harming other people. That's the main thing you go by: Is it going to cause harm to other people? If the answer to that is no, then there's no deterrence. You know, when I was in grade school, the nuns would tell us that it was a sin not to say before- and after-meal prayers, not genuflecting in church and doing other things that, to me, were very trivial. Thoughts could be sinful, and you'd have to confess these things. Then I went to a Jesuit university, and the Jesuits would put things in perspective. They would say, "Now, I know the nuns told you those things were sins. But do you see those long lines waiting to get into confession? I don't like sitting in that box all that time, so unless you have something really worthwhile to tell me, those are not sins. If you have something significant, I'd like to hear about it. But otherwise, those are not sins."

I guess that prompted you to start questioning things.

There are quite a few people, as a matter of fact, who started out as Catholics and were exposed to Jesuit teachings (and) have fallen away from the Church. I'm a recovered Catholic, if you will--recovered from the dogma I was taught many years ago when I was in grade school. And, in fact, most of my friends were Catholic. That's what happens: You get in a society of people who are of like mind, and it's hard to break out of that. So when people say it's easy for you to not go to church and to give up a religion--it's not so easy. It's a real soul-searching thing that most people go through. Sometimes, it's traumatizing, because you ask yourself, "Well, could they be wrong--my parents and other people I respected, who told me these things were sins?" ... When you break out of that mold, you have to discard some of these people who now will look down on you.

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