The collective IQ at Common Ground 2015 is higher than average—and the attendants seem to know it. Bouncing off the walls of College Ave’s spacious Student Center, one hears conversations that are cerebral, certain, and serious—as they should be: this is serious business. One side of the room is lined with stands displaying impressive collections of humanist paraphernalia. Papers, pins, pamphlets, pads, books, advice—you name it. Among other big names, the American Humanist Association (AHA) and the Rutgers Humanist Chaplaincy are here. The center of the room is divided by an enormous buffet of middle-eastern food. I am only slightly embarrassed to say that this is the first thing that caught my attention.
While I was standing there, eyeing the Dolma platter with malicious intent, Rutgers Professor Julien Musolino—an A.S contributor, author, and good friend—spotted me from across the room and beckoned me over. “Leo,” he began, “I want you to meet this person—this Reverend—whom I like very much…”
And here we have the ethos of Common Ground (CG), not 30 seconds after entering the room: the belief that, despite deep-seated differences, there can be an overlap between the desires of the religious and the desires of the non-religion. For me the ethos is even more striking as I had just the previous night finished reading Primo Levi’s masterpiece, Survival in Auschwitz. The environment described there and the one in front of my eyes represent two opposite poles on the spectrum of human congregation. One is, at least at first glance, the very pinnacle of tolerance, understanding and camaraderie; the other is—to be mild about it—a world of barbarism, violence, and ignorance.
After speaking to Julien and the Reverend for a while, I found my way over to the stands. The AHA women asked if she could help me with anything. I said no thanks, and told her that I was collecting intel for an Applied Sentience article I was to write about the event. She kindly gave me a few pamphlets, one of which had this question on the front: “Are you Jewish? You may also be a humanist!” This naturally piqued by interest, being both those things. Inside the pamphlet is a great quote from Maimonides (1135-1204), one that I had never seen before:
He who wishes to attain to human perfection, must first study Logic, next the various branches of Mathematics in their proper order, then Physics, and lastly Metaphysics.
This is another sentiment typical of the gathering: the belief that science is our best means of gathering and distilling knowledge about the world. At the stand one over, run by the Rutgers Humanist Chaplaincy, I was given a piece of paper entitled Humanism and its Aspirations explicitly spelling out this doctrine. I quote:
Humanists find that science is the best method for determining [knowledge of the world] as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies.
I’m inclined to agree. And after eavesdropping around the room, I realize that a majority of the people here agree too.
I arrived at Common Ground late, so I missed a few of the initial talks. But I was just in time to be ushered into the adjacent room to hear Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, give a speech called “Lessons from my Grandfather.” His speech was sentimental and short. For the most part it was an interwoven set of stories about the two years he spent living with his grandfather. Some stories were funny, some were sad, all were profound is some subtle way. One quote in particular struck me. Gandhi once reportedly told his grandson that:
Anger is like electricity. Its just as powerful and just as useful as electrical energy is, but only if we use it intelligently. But it can be just as deadly and destructive if we abuse it. So just as we channel electrical energy and bring it into our lives and use it for the good of humanity, we must learn to channel anger in the same way so that we can use that energy for the good of humanity rather than cause death and destruction.
Again I am reminded of Primo Levi. Imagine the rage Levi must have felt after his internment at Auschwitz. His close friends and relatives all murdered senselessly, his freedom stripped away, his dignity stripped of him. After liberation, he could have made a second career killing former SS soldiers. No one would have faulted him for it. But he didn’t. Instead he wrote. He wrote about his life and the times he lived in, he wrote about the lives lost in the camp; he immortalized Germany’s crimes against humanity so poetically and starkly that—at least for as long as there are readers—the world will never forget. And indeed, this is a validation of Ghandi’s advice. Primo used his anger intelligently—perhaps in the most intelligent way possible.
The next talk involved rapid-fire lessons in humanism and tolerance from a panel of eight. While each one of the speakers gave thoughtful, enjoyable speeches, in my opinion the panel MVP was Chris Stedman. His mix of biographical narrative and rhetoric proved to be a very effective means of getting his message across. One story stands out the most in memory. In high school Chris befriended a minister named Matthew.
When Chris went to college, he lost his faith and, along with it, his desire to talk to his still-religious friends (including Matthew). Matthew and Chris didn’t speak again until after Chris graduated. But when they did meet again, in Boston over coffee, they discovered the enormous amount of common ground (!) between them. They both cared about helping people, about making significant changes in the world; about fixing the Earthly, ever-present problems of poverty and malnutrition. Stedman ended his speech with the summarizing observation that, “what I called service, Matthew called ministry.”
Sadly I had to leave before the next talk. But as I got on the Rutgers bus headed back to Busch campus, my mind was still in the College Ave Student Center. At my table there was an older man, around 60 or so. After some preliminary small talk, I asked him why he was here, and if I could get a quote for the article I was writing. He smiled and said, “Sure. I’m here because there are a lot of wise people here saying wise things, and I like that.”