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Northwestern University

Q&A: Gideon Goldberg and Mackenzie Eisen

The co-leaders of Northwestern’s Undergraduate Philosophy Society are carving out a space for fruitful discussion of provocative and controversial topics.

Each week, Gideon Goldberg ’17 and Mackenzie Eisen ’18 gather with a dozen or so other students at an Evanston pub and discuss the world.

As leaders of Northwestern’s Undergraduate Philosophy Society, Goldberg and Eisen navigate the tricky waters of morality and ethics through rigorous and friendly debate. Their goal: to carve out a space for fruitful discussion of otherwise potentially difficult and dangerous topics.

This year, the society plans to expand its philosophical dialogue by hosting a conference in February centered on religion and toleration — a topic that has dominated public discourse this year, as political and media personalities have conflated religious fundamentalism with the threat of violence and extremism.

Weinberg talked to Goldberg and Eisen recently about the society, the upcoming conference and the group’s hopes for the future.

What does a Philosophy Society meeting look like?

Goldberg: Once a week, we all show up at the Celtic Knot. Last week, there were about 16 people. Mackenzie and I write a “claim of the week,” which is basically a provocative assertion. Then we kinda fight and we agree and we come up with strong positions and think about which positions are weak.

How did you come up with the theme “religion and toleration”?

Goldberg: When you think about the term “religious fundamentalists,” it’s not really clear what fundamentalism is or if it is unique to religion. Which beliefs, religious or not, are actually dangerous? How might you interact with someone who holds these beliefs?

Because we see politicians talking about these beliefs a lot, it will add depth to the conversation to talk to people whose understanding of religion comes from within. We hope to bring a rabbi, a priest and an imam to speak together at the conference.

What do you hope will come out of the event?

Eisen: While the goal of the conference itself is not to make provocative assertions, our hope is to learn how to communicate and interact with those who may hold views deemed to be provocative, as well as discover how those views came to be.

Goldberg: It’s important that we talk about religion. That includes the values of community and the sharing of a common space, and where that can be a little dangerous. If we can learn how to talk to people who hold “dangerous” beliefs and think about what supports those beliefs, then eventually we can learn how to be thoughtful about extremism and how to challenge it.

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