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Reclaiming rationality


Can a new enlightenment dawn in a Buffalo suburb?

Open a newspaper or turn on a news broadcast: everywhere, it seems that religious fundamentalism is gaining ground. In several US school districts, fundamentalist Christians on school boards are insisting that science teachers discuss "Intelligent Design" when they teach evolution. Across the world, Islamic fundamentalists are using tactics like suicide bombings to gain power and impose their religious ideas on entire populations.

It's been more than 200 years since the Enlightenment in Europe, when rational ideas were supposed to have gained prominence in the civilized world. Are we moving backwards?

This question and many more will be addressed in "Toward a New Enlightenment," a World Congress celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Council for Secular Humanism in Amherst.

The CSH, the International Academy of Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry Transnational will participate in the three-day event, October 27-30.

And the biggest names in Secular Humanism will be there. Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew, Lionel Tiger, Nat Hentoff, and other leading writers from around the world will be among the dozens of speakers in numerous addresses and panel discussions.

Dawkins, a professor at OxfordUniversity, author of The Selfish Gene and other books and perhaps the world's leading evolutionary biologist, will be the keynote speaker Thursday evening.

For Flew, professor emeritus in the philosophy department at the University of Reading, England and one of among the world's most respected philosophers, the topic will be "A Syllabus for Moral Education."

Tiger, Charles Darwin professor of anthropology at Rutgers University and a leading figure in the merging of natural science with the social sciences, will deliver a lecture titled "Is Religion the Default Mode?"

Hentoff, a tireless civil libertarian and the author of numerous books, writes columns for the Village Voice, The Washington Post and other publications.

Speakers also include two winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry: Sir H.W. Kroto (1996) and Herbert Hauptman (1985); Margaret Downey, a board member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Ann Druyan, co-writer with Carl Sagan of the Cosmos TV series.

Many of the panel discussions promise to be fascinating. "The New Enlightenment in the Islamic World" will bring together panelists from Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran. Other discussions include "The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion," "The Republican War on Science," and "The God Delusion."

It won't all be deadly serious. Frieda and Steve Mannes will perform Mozart's Sonata in D-major for Two Pianos on Thursday afternoon. On Friday world-renowned mind-reader Max Maven will present "Thinking in Person: An Evening of Knowing and Not Knowing."

Toward a New Enlightenment takes place at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the Center for Inquiry, and the Marriott Hotel in Amherst. Cost: $195 for general registration, including all conference sessions; $39 for Friday evening's dinner and awards banquet; $100 for Saturday's grand opening celebration; $29 for Friday lunch and $29 for Saturday lunch. Registration by phone: 1-800-634-1610. For information, hotel rates, and to make reservations on line, by fax, or by mail, go to the web site: