Opening Words from Sun. February 21 by Niraj Tolia

Good morning. I’d like to thank Lance Finney for asking me to give opening words today, in keeping with this month’s theme of “I learn from the world around me”.

I am a scientist and a professor in the School of Medicine at Washington University. I run a research lab that strives to find new methods to combat the devastating disease Malaria. I constantly use the scientific method to learn from the world around me, and I believe the scientific method is the only way to learn as it includes two important principles, testable hypotheses and reproducibility. Without these two one cannot learn about the world at all. But this is all rather dry and I am happy to discuss with anybody who is interested later.

Instead, I’d like to also give you a bit of my own personal story. I was born and raised in Kenya, East Africa. Just to be clear, that is Kenya not Canada – some people assume that as I do not have an accent I can’t be from Africa. I am a third-generation African of Indian descent. I left Kenya when I was 17 for College in England, then to New York for my doctorate, and finally to St. Louis for my position at Wash U. I have been fortunate for all the opportunities that were available to me, for example my parents put me through college which completely destroyed their retirement. Not all Kenyans were as lucky.

We always act as if it is solely our own abilities that result in our achievements. However, the truth of the matter is that opportunity is not a level playing field and I am grateful for the opportunities I have been granted.

When I was growing up in Kenya, your religion was your identity. You were either Christian, Jewish, Muslim or, like my family, Hindu. Atheist was not an option. Atheists and agnostics were put in the category of Satanists, because obviously if you didn’t believe in God you must believe in the Devil. It took a few years for me to realize that thousand year old books did not hold true with me, and that I was indeed an Atheist. The clarity of science also helped a great deal here.

However, when people ask “What do you believe in?” the answer of “I’m an Atheist” is just not satisfying to me. And that is because “I am an Atheist” is actually a negative statement. It tells others what I do not believe in, not what I stand for. Which is why when my wife, Cristen Sargent, found the ethical society, I was blown away by the core values. On a side note, if you really want to meet the ethical, social-justice driven one, you should really talk to Cristen. I’m just a tag-a-long as I am still early in my journey. She’s been true to her core values far longer than I have known her.

So now I am proud to say “I am a Humanist. I believe every person is important and unique. Everybody deserves to be treated fairly and kindly. I can learn from everyone. I am part of this earth and I cherish it and all the life upon it. I learn from the world around me. I am a member of the world community, which depends on the cooperation of all people for peace and justice. I can learn from the past to build for the future. I am free to question. I am free to choose what I believe. I accept responsibility for my choices and actions. I strive to live my values.”

I am glad to have a positive constructive answer to that question.

However, I would like to issue a challenge to the Ethical society, and this has to do with diversity. A lack of diversity is detrimental to any organization be it the police force or hiring committees. It is my honest hope that we work to increase the diversity in the Ethical Society in the future. We need to become more than just a welcoming home, by proactively engaging in improving our diversity. Otherwise, we run the risk of not really being a home for all Humanists.

To end, I would like to share a personal story that meant a lot to me and convinced me to join the Ethical Society. Last year I became a Citizen of the United States of America. I obtained a green card based on scientific merit, and then went through the vetting process for citizenship. Other than Cristen I have no close family here in the US and the two of us were excited to go the federal courthouse down town for the swearing in ceremony. Numerous other citizens-to-be were in attendance with their families. To my complete surprise, and delight members and friends of the ethical society, Kayla Vaughn, Ed Schmidt, Betsey Anderson, Gayle Rose and Keith Rigden showed up, carrying signs of “Congratulations Niraj!” I had only known these people for less than a year through the Ethical Society and the Good eating veggie dinner (which has incidentally has made me a vegetarian), yet here they were, my pseudo family. On top of that Kayla registered me to vote! I only learned recently that it was Kayla who organized the whole thing, and so I am very grateful to you Kayla for taking the time to do this. It just goes to show the caliber of people that the Ethical Society has.

In summary, I am African, I am American, I am Indian. I am an immigrant and I am a naturalized citizen. I am a Humanist and I am a Scientist. I believe in the power of positive construction, and that we can learn from the world around us through the scientific method. Finally, I am proud to be a member of the Ethical Society. Everybody here challenges me daily to become a better human. Plus, I get to play my drums in this wonderful acoustic space.

Thank you.