Freethought Today ·

Vol. 29 No. 2

March 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Activist hat fits Pittsburgh prof

Meet a Member: Stephen Hirtle

Name: Stephen Hirtle.
Where I live: In an eclectic neighborhood called Regent Square in the east end of Pittsburgh next to the 560-acre urban woodland Frick Park with hiking and mountain biking trails.
Where and when I was born: Oak Park, Ill., in 1954. I moved a few times before high school, spending several years in the Boston, Cleveland and Chicago areas. Our family finally settled in Naperville, Ill. That move also marked the end of our minimal church attendance as a family.
Family: My son, Ben, and daughter, Molly, both in their early 20s, live with me in between their various adventures, which have taken them wide and far. They have been atheists their whole lives, but also were members of a local Unitarian Universalist church, which gave them the opportunity to meet other atheists their age.
Education: I studied mathematics and psychology at Grinnell College in Iowa, followed by a Ph.D. in mathematical psychology at the University of Michigan. My research has focused on building formal models of spatial memory, looking at how we divide up space by neighborhoods and what kind of landmarks we use to keep track of where we are when traveling.
Occupation: I am a professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. I have had the chance to live and work in New Zealand, Thailand, Austria and Norway over the years. Most recently, I finished a monograph on geographical design, which answered questions such as “Why doesn’t your GPS tell you ‘Go to the top of hill and turn right at the stop sign?’ ”
Military service: None, but I have protested many military actions, including illegal funding of the contras in Nicagarua in the mid-1980s.
How I got where I am today: Spiritually, I have always been more interested in actions rather than good intentions. Earth Day and the ecological movement seemed like the moral right thing to support but was ignored by organized religion in the early days. In terms of science, I was always curious why people believed weird things. I also dabbled in magic tricks, which taught me that what you think you are seeing is not necessarily so.
Some connections with Unitarian Universalism allowed me to meet other atheists, who were clearly strong moral people with belief in God. I am no longer affiliated with UU’s, but I’m glad that they still bring Dan Barker to Pittsburgh, on occasion, for a Sunday service!
Where I’m headed: In addition to working with local freethinkers, I volunteer my time to maintain a set of 80-year-old clay public tennis courts in a neighborhood park and work with an environmental group that promotes sustainable, natural landscaping in urban neighborhoods.
Person in history I admire: There are so many. Right now, I would say Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s a serious scholar who promotes science and does so with humor and flair.
A quotation I like: I always like how Penn Jillette puts things. Sometimes it’s serious: “Believing there’s no God means I can’t really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That’s good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.” (NPR’s “This I Believe”)
Sometimes it’s just snarky but true: “It’s fair to say that the bible contains equal amounts of fact, history and pizza.” (“Penn & Teller: BS!”)
These are a few of my favorite things: I have recreational interests in juggling, tennis and promoting (and occasionally playing) acoustic music, mainly guitar and pennywhistle. Traveling is a good part of my job, and I enjoy seeing the world.
These are not: Pittsburgh drivers. It’s the only place I know where, rather than “Drive Slowly,” the signs say things like “Maintain Speed through Tunnels” to try to get drivers to stop hitting their brakes.
My doubts about religion started: When people were using religion to justify the Vietnam War, it made no sense to me. By the time I got to high school, I could think of no evidence that there was a god. At the same time, I saw people wearing religion on their sleeves and still doing immoral things.
Why I’m a freethinker: I’m a scientist at heart, who wants to see evidence and data to back conclusions. Having studied cognitive psychology, I also understand both how easily the mind can be fooled, but how those adaptations make sense from an evolutionary perspective.
Ways I promote freethought: I’m active in the several local groups, including the Steel City Skeptics, Pittsburgh Secular Freethinkers and the Pittsburgh Center for Inquiry. Each has various events, from discussion groups and lectures to a monthly Drinking Skeptically group for socializing. (I favor Festivus, brewed for the rest of us, an ale from Full Pint Brewing Co.) I also support secular groups at Carnegie Mellon University and at Pitt, as well as a yet-to-be-formed group at Duquesne University.
More recently, I worked with FFRF to remove a nativity scene from the lawn of the Municipal Building in Ellwood City, Pa. I also very much enjoy attending the national FFRF conventions.

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