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'My way of picking a topic is to make it kind of controversial," says Gary Grine. "I picked last week's title ['God Save Us from Religious Fundamentalists'] because I'm very concerned with fundamentalism, especially after the Taliban blew up the statues of Buddha. I was really upset about Muslim fundamentalists because I saw them as being ignorant or having too much power or being terrorists. Now I can see that they're operating out of fear of the Western culture taking over their religion. I don't agree with [fundamentalism], but the important thing at these meetings is that you keep your ear open and learn something." Every Thursday night Grine hosts "P&R Discussion Hour" at the Other Side Coffee House in North Park. "Politics and religion are the things you're not supposed to talk about in polite society," says Grine. On February 8 the topic is "Is There Still Poverty in America? If So, Why?" On February 15 it will be "History -- Its Definitions and Importance."

Though no set rules are in place, Grine works to mediate and sometimes neutralize the discussion. "I had to kick one guy out. He was an atheist, and he was off his meds. He tried to direct the conversation toward atheism, like, 'It's all about me, and I'm going to try to convert you guys to atheism.'" At Grine's request, the manager of the coffee shop intervened and asked the man to leave.

Grine insists that, "unlike atheists," his group is "not a mutual-admiration society." Grine modeled his forum after the Socratic method -- rather than proffering information, a teacher asks questions of the students under the supposition that they will eventually arrive at a deeper understanding of the material. Anywhere from 15 to 30 people attend each week, the majority of whom are men in their late 40s to 60s.

Grine often brings in a guest speaker. For a discussion of the fall of Berlin, a man who was a child during the Russian Army invasion of WWII was invited to speak. The speaker for a discussion of "Understanding Mexican Politics" never showed, although around 12 Mexican-American students from UCSD did arrive, hoping to learn more about their parents' country. "We ended up questioning [the students] for two hours," says Grine. "They were very cynical and said, 'Nothing's ever going to change [in Mexico], there's just going to be a wide gap between the rich and poor because of the power of the rich.'"

The group's regulars represent various religious sects and political viewpoints. "You won't find a staunch Republican going to a Democrat club, and you won't find an Orthodox Jew going to a fundamentalist Christian meeting," says Bill Newsome III, who began attending the discussion group three months ago. "Because this group holds no affiliations like that, different opinions and even dissenting opinions are cherished. Gary nurtures vigorous dissent and, at the same time, prevents it from turning into a barroom brawl."

Newsome describes the goal of the group as "discussion for the sake of discussion." Still, certain topics can inspire heated debate.

"The Iraq war always brings it out," says Newsome. On December 14, the topic was "The War in Iraq -- a De Facto Civil War?" "One individual made the comment that, 'Well, gosh, yeah, it's a big ugly mess right now, but the Democrats sure haven't come up with any suggestions,' and then this other, really sharp guy, I think justifiably said, 'Wait a minute! You Republicans got us headfirst into this nightmare, this complete disaster that is getting worse, and then hand this bucket of mess to us and go, 'Do you have any answers?'"

Grine reminds his fellow conversationalists not to be blinded by labels. Before the issue of fundamentalism was discussed, the term was defined. Newsome explains: "What do you mean by fundamentalist? When you pull it apart and set the label aside you realize, 'Okay, these people have core beliefs, and here's where they get them from.' That doesn't turn everybody into a 9/11 attacker. When you stop and set the label aside, [the word] isn't what you thought."

Newsome's favorite thing about these meetings, which he likens to rap sessions from the "hippie era," is exposure to new ideas. "Not only do I hear other views that I don't necessarily share, but we get a succinct and sort of logical examination of those views instead of just, 'Here's what they think and what we think and never the twain shall meet'...it's time well spent, as opposed to watching ex-football players ballroom dance." -- Barbarella

Politics and Religion Discussion Group Thursday, February 8: "Is There Still Poverty in America? If So, Why?" 7 p.m. The Other Side Coffee House 4096 30th Street North Park Cost: Free Info: 619-521-0533 or www.coffeeside.com

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