Interview with Dr. Chris Norris – Member, Membership Committee, Pittsburgh Freethought Community

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Chris Norris is a Member of the Membership Committee in the Pittsburgh Freethought Community.

Here we talk about her life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Dr. Chris Norris: I grew up in a family of academics. My mother has a Ph.D. in Psychology and my father has two Master’s degrees. I remember my mom’s grad students being at our house a lot. I being in the sort of environment encouraged my curiosity and love of learning. My father is a Buddhist convert and I would call my mother agonistic, so religion was never something that was forced on me. When I started expressing explicitly atheist views as a teenager, however, I did get some resistance. My father gives me the typical atheist label of “closed-minded” but never anything more serious than that.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Norris: I earned a BA in psychology, an M.Sc. in Behavioural Neuroscience and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. I’ve always loved to learn. I used to read books of facts as a kid and repeat them to anyone who would listen. The reason why I am in research now is because learning new things is still my favourite activity.

Jacobsen: What is the new news on membership for Pittsburgh Freethought Community?

Norris: Pittsburgh used to have numerous and fractured secular groups, such as a local CFI chapter, the Humanist Community of Pittsburgh and Steel City Skeptics, so in 2017 the PFC was incorporated as a charity and combined all these groups to focus our efforts.

Jacobsen: Why earn the Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario?

Norris: I met the researcher who would be my Ph.D. advisor at a conference. I was looking for another lab that studied cannabinoid neuropharmacology and Dr. Steven Laviolette had a lot of interesting projects going. I moved to Western because I wanted to work with him.

Jacobsen: What is the majority view of the neuroscientific community on the mind and the brain? What theoretical framework or paradigm for them? Any minority views still not entirely disproven?

Norris: I would say the majority of neuroscientists accept that mind and brain are the same and many take the stance of hard determinism. As an emergent phenomenon, consciousness still has to be studied separately, however, because we don’t currently have anywhere close to adequate understanding of the basic mechanisms of the brain to understand what we mean by “mind”. Some– mostly religious– neuroscientists attempt to use this current inability to build basic neurological mechanisms into consciousness as proof of some supernatural quality to the mind, but I see that simply as an argument from ignorance.

Jacobsen: What are some important activities of the Pittsburgh Freethought Community now?

Norris: The PFC is a 501(c)3 registered charity, and the local affiliate of American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association. We recently had a booth at Pride here in Pittsburgh and continue our lobbying of local and state government, advocating for women’s rights, addressing injustices against people of marginalized/underrepresented races and ethnicities, and the LGBTQIA+ community.

Jacobsen: How has the Pittsburgh Freethought Community maintained its numbers and remained active over the years?

Norris: We do multiple events a month, including social gatherings at pubs, participating in the Pittsburgh Sunday Assembly, discussion groups, and interesting monthly speakers, including Dan Barker from the FFRF and Alison Gill from American Atheists.

Jacobsen: Any recommended authors, organizations, or speakers?

Norris: I always highly recommend the work of Sean Carroll, especially The Big Picture. I don’t think there’s a book that explains complex subjects like cosmology and entropic time so well, while simultaneously expressing tremendous wonder and compassion. It’s a very humanist view of the universe.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Norris: We offer yearly memberships for $20, or $10 for students. We also except donations, and as an official charity they are tax-deductible. We are also always looking for volunteers, there are a number of committees run by volunteers and the board consists of people donating their time and expertise to help the PFC.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Norris: If anyone finds themselves in Pittsburgh we would be glad to have them.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Norris.

Norris: Thank you for the discussion.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Igor Oliyarnik on Unsplash

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