Have “Atheist Fundamentalists” Taken Over CFI?

October 21, 2009

He has a list of 57 card-carrying atheist fundamentalists at CFI

I welcome discussion of differences of opinion, as do most staff and supporters of CFI. We readily admit that we are not infallible, and if we are to avoid making mistakes, we need to learn from others.

But an exchange of views is only helpful if evidence and reason are used to support one's points. One doesn't learn anything from name-calling -- except perhaps that the person resorting to insults really has nothing to say.

In this regard, I am troubled by recent claims, strewn over articles, blogs, and other sites on the internet, that "atheist fundamentalists" are now directing policy at CFI. To begin, exactly what is "an atheist fundamentalist"? A religious fundamentalist, as most of you know, is someone who adamantly adheres to a key set of beliefs -- regardless of the evidence. For example, Christian fundamentalists accept as dogma the bodily resurrection of Jesus, his virgin birth, the inerrancy of scripture, and so forth. But that is one problem with the term "atheist fundamentalist." All atheists I know demand evidence for their beliefs. They do not accept doctrines blindly.

I suppose it is theoretically possible for atheists to be as unquestioning and dogmatic as some of the religious, but then we come to the factual question whether any of the staff at CFI can be accurately described as incurious dogmatists. I must say I have failed to encounter any such individual at CFI. Far from being dogmatists, all the staff with whom I work regularly at CFI are open to questioning their beliefs -- sometimes to a fault (yes, as CEO sometimes I wish a little less work time was spent on self-examination). I do not want to embarrass our dedicated staff, but given the serious accusations of "fundamentalism" that have been made, let me just run through a few examples. Are the staff in Outreach, D.J. Grothe, Debbie Goddard, Lauren Becker and Dan Riley rigid dogmatists? I do not think so. How about Norm Allen, the Director of AAH or Nathan Bupp, our VP for Communications? To the contrary, both are intellectually curious individuals. John Shook? He makes a living by studying arguments pro and con, for goodness sake. Derek Araujo? He rigorously cross-examines everything, especially his own positions. Tom Flynn? Read his editorials. Tom unfailingly provides reasoned arguments and evidence for his views, and he may be the most cogent advocate for secular humanism around. Barry Karr, Joe Nickell? Heck, I do not even know if the skeptic side of the organization would describe themselves as atheists let alone "atheist fundamentalists." Our center directors, such as Reba Wooden, Jim Underdown, Jeff Seaver, Justin Trottier, Michael De Dora, Melody Hensley, Clare Wuellner, and Rick O'Keefe? There is not a dogmatist bone in their bodies.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. None of the individuals recklessly hurling accusations of "fundamentalism" at CFI staff have any evidence that would allow them to identify a single staffer as an "atheist fundamentalist."

But perhaps by "atheist fundamentalist" one means someone who is "mean-spirited" and "anti-religious," as one critic of CFI recently claimed. The "mean-spirited" knock is nothing less than a gratuitous slap in the face of the dedicated staff here at CFI, who put in long hours at low pay to advance our mission. We do not usually seem to have much of a problem being pleasant, cordial, and charitable -- although when people who should know better throw insults our way, it can be a little dispiriting. But being temporarily dispirited will not convert us into mean spirits. We are confident in our outlook, and we can leave the bitterness to others.

And speaking of our mission, any of our critics who would actually take the time to read our mission statement could tell at a glance that we defend the free exercise of religion. Yes, we maintain that religious beliefs (and nonreligious beliefs) should be open to unsparing criticism. That does not mean we do not respect the individual believer. So if "anti-religious" implies that we want to suppress all religious expression, that accusation is just false.

In short, there is absolutely no evidence to support the claim that "atheist fundamentalists" are now running CFI. That claim falls somewhere between windy rhetoric and a desperate, unprincipled slur. Whatever its appropriate characterization, that charge has no place in reasoned debate. If you disagree with CFI, its positions, or its tactics, by all means let us know and, more importantly, let us know why you disagree. But if you have any respect at all for the staff of CFI, please drop the insults. You're wasting our time and yours.


#1 BillWade on Wednesday October 21, 2009 at 8:41am

See Justin Trottier’s “My Multicultural Weekend” post for the best example I’ve seen of the “middle way”.

#2 david whitsett (Guest) on Wednesday October 21, 2009 at 8:48am

As a CFI member (and faculty advisor to our student CFI affiliated group, the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers) I just want to let you know that I have absolutely no qualms about this issue.  I heard the NPR piece yesterday that (I believe) has generated a lot of this nonsense and I know the NPR reporter, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, has a bias that caused her to slant the story.  I have written NPR (of which I am also a member) to express my dismay at the inaccuracies and bias in the story. I hope you won’t let such drivel distract you from your valuable efforts on CFI’s important mission.  David Whitsett

#3 SimonSays on Wednesday October 21, 2009 at 9:41am

Ron is absolutely right. This is an imaginary strawman. Who exactly are these so-called “fundamentalists” in our midst?

#4 Joe (Guest) on Wednesday October 21, 2009 at 10:51am

“any of our critics who would actually take the time to read our mission statement could tell at a glance that we defend the free exercise of religion.” 

Is that not the same as a Christian claiming they actually demonstrate that they “love thy neighbor as thyself” just because it’s written in their commandments?  You also imply that your critics don’t take the time to read the mission statement if they disagree that you defend the free exercise of religion.  Written words prove nothing of actions.  I think it would be wise to take care not to sound too much like Pat Robertson when addressing critics.  Especially when those critics are supporting members.  Just an opinion.

The definition of “atheist fundamentalist” is obviously not set.  Not yet.  A friend of mine referred to Dawkins once as a militant atheist, though.  I feel that term is more appropriate.  It’s not to imply that Dawkins or someone like him will take up arms.  It’s a description of the offensive, intolerant stance he has chosen.  Whether you say “fundamentalist” or “militant”, the connotation is the same.  A stance of offense and intolerance. 

You lost your grounds for claiming tolerance with support of “Blasphemy Day” with a lot of people.  You are a lawyer and philosopher.  You know very good and well that the general idea of the definition of blasphemy is the only definition that really matters.  You know that blasphemy is an intent to offend religion when used in common language.  One should not be required to listen to or read an interview to get a different idea because most people simply can’t take that time out of their daily schedule.  You have very little opportunity to imply your stance and even less to change the views of those that you claim misunderstood the point.  If you don’t like the idea the word suggests, use a different word.  As it stands, CFI supported the one that means to offend.  Words have real power beyond mere definition.  Isn’t that knowledge part of your success as a lawyer?

You seem to be tired of the topic as evidenced in the title of your post “Oh, God! Yet More About Blasphemy Day?”  All that does is show that you are truly disconnected with the impact it has truly had.  People are still talking and sadly some are even talking of disassociation.  It’s serious.  Take it seriously.  Such titles suggest you aren’t.  Articles that read as patronizing to critics don’t help, either. 

Keep one other thing in mind, though I’m sure you must have thought of this already.  You keep sending letters for money.  People don’t pay for things they don’t support.  Too many other organizations are providing positive reasons for donations, too.  Don’t make it harder for people to justify sending that money to CFI.

#5 SimonSays on Wednesday October 21, 2009 at 11:10am

Joe, did you actually attend any of the many blasphemy day events? That seems like the best place to form an opinion.

As I’ve stated previously on the blog post you mentioned, I attended the artist showcase in DC as well as the Ingersoll oratory contest (another great blasphemer). Both received rave reviews by the vast majority of the local members. Clearly there was a high-profile local dissenter in Stuart Jordan, but I haven’t seen anyone else go on the record similarly.

In addition, who/how many are these people you say are “talking of disassociation”? At CFI DC we’ve seen no such trend at consequent events.

Re:donations….blasphemy day was that much of an outrage to you that you’d stop donating? Really? As you wish. Personally, I’ll continue and even increase as my income allows.

#6 Joe (Guest) on Wednesday October 21, 2009 at 6:00pm

No.  I didn’t attend any nor will I ever attend an event under a title known for it’s intentional offensiveness.  It is why I won’t attend a KKK rally.  I don’t have to be present to know that even if the KKK has a right to free speech they are certainly antagonistic based on the words in the title and the implication just the letters KKK hold.  So the “don’t knock it ‘til you try it” stuff is irrelevant. 

I have spoken with families that are not happy about drawing negative attention to themselves.  One family just this past week experienced a situation in school where the oldest son was ganged up on because he said he didn’t believe “in the one true god”.  I said, “good for him!” for standing up for his belief/lack thereof in the face of adversity.  His mother felt otherwise due to a very real concern for his safety.  His father and I had closer to the same reaction, except that he wanted to take this one to the ACLU.  She chose to stop that so that the situation wouldn’t make their son a total pariah.  Her child was unjustly accused of being antagonistic.  CFI appears to be working to make that a just accusation by association.  Stop.

These families are trying to deal with a public that is already against them.  I don’t think you are fully appreciating the discrimination associated with being considered an enemy rather than being considered a rational alternative.  Nevermind the fact that many of us actually have friends and relatives that are still religious and we actually respect these people despite their unfortunate delusion.  We could concentrate instead on the aspect of employment discrimination in a largely Christian city/state.  I know that I have lost bids due to my name getting known around here as running an atheist kids program (even though it isn’t one).  I’ve been accused of attempting to convert children to “atheism”. 

We could concentrate on the fact that I am getting calls and hearing stories at the center of children being accosted verbally and physically for being labeled or labeling themselves as atheist.  It’s happening enough that several parents have asked me to do a program on how to deal with these situations because the parents are at a loss.  Should they make a big stink and risk worse for their child?  Or should we teach the kids how to coexist?  Are we setting a good example for youth by promoting antagonistic behaviors such as outright blasphemy?  How does one reconcile teaching positive conflict resolution and also support overt offensive actions?

One woman in our group expressed disappointment with our kids’ group name change to CFI Kids because it now identifies her child as an atheist.  We had a big ordeal over the name change because there were other parents that felt similar.  Point is, it’s hard enough to deal with adults that find out you’re an atheist or whatever your flavor of non-belief may be.  Children have a harder time.  Add on top of that the fact that CFI is supportive of offensive events that fuel the anger of the religious.  That makes people emotional rather than rational and increases the chance for ostracization and even violence.  At the least it builds barriers where many of us have been working very hard to take them down.  It’s hard to start a convincing persuasive argument to get people to come to the center if I am immediately viewed as a hatemonger by association.

The defensive position against CFI as a “fundamentalist” or “militant” (or whatever extremist term you prefer) atheist group because we choose to support hateful demonstrations in the name of free speech will keep us from making positive headway with many doubters.  We need to be seen as a rational alternative rather than as an enemy.   

I didn’t say I would personally stop donating.  I was pointing out a very real fact of fund raising that should be considered.  I would appreciate it if you represent my statement accurately.

#7 gray1 on Wednesday October 21, 2009 at 6:39pm

Keep up the good work.

#8 diogenes99 on Wednesday October 21, 2009 at 8:16pm

The use of the phrase “fundamentalist” in this context has an important functional meaning, even though its dictionary definition does not seem to apply.  It is a admonition to those who appear to be drifting from central societal norms – propelled by a commitment to beliefs that (apparently) are inconsistent with those norms.  I don’t think it needs to be a “dogmatic” commitment, but merely a commitment to an outlying belief system.

One might object that the word “fundamentalist” does not apply to atheism because atheism is not a belief system.  But, what underlies most atheism is some form of physicalism.  What is most threatening is not the claim that “God is dead.”  It is the belief that a great many more things are “dead” if even a limited reductive phsyicalism is true.  The deep fear is that physicalism will lead to anti-religion, church communities on which people depend will erode, a cherished narrative will lose meaning, and that society will be even more irretrievably divided.

I think many “believers” (more than would admit) interpret the Bible metaphorically, and many academic theologians and clerics have unorthodox ideas about the nature and existence of God.  Are their views consistent with some forms of nonreductive physicalism?  Probably.  But the important thing is that they can still be a part of the discourse, while nudging the discourse gently away from literalism.

My distant cousin (August Spångberg) was a member of parliament in Sweden, and an atheist.  However, he attended church on the major holidays and espoused a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible.  This allowed there to be a connection between believers and nonbelievers, and over the last 50 years Sweden has drifted toward nonbelief.

Many of us who have identified ourselves as atheists wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to attend church, or welcomed in church, as we would be welcomed in Sweden.  There is a different dynamic in the USA.  Would Kurtz’s metaphysical neutrality work, i.e., would it expose “believers” to a different view of metaethics in a nonthreatening way?  I am not sure.  But Kurtz’s approach doesn’t prompt cries of “fundamentalist!”

I cheer the FFR lawsuits and billboards, the American Atheists’ history of no-holds barred slap-downs, and the Hitchens tirades.  Yeah for our team, kick some butts!  But what kind of group can help facilitate friendly communication with a hospice worker, a state supreme court justice, a legislator, or a mayor?  These interactions are tightrope walks, and they can be threatened by even the slightest mistrust or perceived extremism.

The cry “fundamentalist!” should be taken seriously.  It is a tribal yell, a warning to those who appear to be on society’s fringes, and it is a intended to stigmatize the rebels. More importantly, it is a signal that the message is being lost, that the message is not being taken seriously.

#9 Russell Blackford (Guest) on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 4:37am

As I’ve been saying in my own posts on this, use of the expression “fundamentalist atheist” is, to say the least, very unfortunate. I talk about this a bit more in the interview that Udo Schuklenk and I did with Tauriq Moosa over at Butterflies and Wheels. In essence, there are few if any fundamentalist atheists around for exactly the reasons you give.

It’s really a pity that this phrase is being used by people who are supposed to be your allies. While I’ve tried to see Paul Kurtz’s point about Blasphemy Day, his use of that expression does a lot of damage.

#10 AndruA (Guest) on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 7:14am

I have profound respect for Paul Kurtz but this all just seems to me to be about one thing. The man is about to be 90 years old for Christ’s sake and is incapable of understanding the best means of reaching and speaking to THIS new generation. I’ve read Kurtz’s commentaries and listened to his gripes on POI and get nothing but the feeling of an old, old, man who has lost touch. Even the Pope is younger than Kurtz, and I think most people don’t think of the Catholic Church as a beacon of youthful vigor, passion and new ways of thinking. A movement of open-minded non-believers should be full of more fresh ideas, passion and energy than a stale institution led and governed by nothing but a bunch of old decrepit men. You would hope a man of intellectual openness like Kurtz would have the wisdom to understand this. With each generation, the message may not change much, but the means should always be evolving and adapting to the needs and ever changing climate of the times we live in. To keep doing things the way they’ve always been done would truly be fundamentalist and dogmatic because the very nature of those two concepts suggest a mind closed off to the idea of change and that is what is at the root of Kurtz’s and everyone of like mind’s disagreement.

#11 gray1 on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 10:00am

“for Christ’s sake”? 

Are we still in the “blasphemy day” mode to start off with the above epithet and then attempt to denigrate even that icon of secular humanism, Dr. Paul Kurtz?  My paranoid side suspects that perhaps this is a Christian “fundi” plant attempting to destroy CFI from within.

#12 AndruAesthetik on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 10:05am

Regardless what a man accomplishes, he nothing more than a man. It is religion that make men into “icons”.

#13 Michael De Dora on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 10:15am

Indeed, I have actually been called my many secularists “too conciliatory.” Can’t please ‘em all.

#14 J. (Guest) on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 11:07am

Engaging in antagonism and not talking the bait is considered a shortcoming? Those who accuse Michael of being “too conciliatory” would do better to pick a fight with someone else.

#15 SimonSays on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 11:19am

Joe, the KKK is not “antagonistic”, they are a terrorist organization. This is not even close to real world comparison.

I’m looking at the comments, and as of yet nobody has actually answered Ron’s main question:

Who are the so-called “atheist fundamentalists” ?

#16 gray1 on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 11:40am

So, is secular humanism not a specific denomination of active atheism? Isn’t it a little funny that a “non-religion” should inspire many people moreso than a categorized religion.

Perhaps CFI should not viewed as “fundimentalist” atheism as long as the message goes something like, “Prove to me this God thing, if you please”, as opposed to “There is no such thing as God, you idiot” (at which point a large part of your more intelligent audience probably drifts elsewhere).

It should not be lost that many active adherents and thus supporters of organized religion remain so chiefly for social reasons as opposed to idealistic ones.  How many times does a kid need to be told that his mother’s a whore before he resents the name caller(s) more than his own mother?

#17 SimonSays on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 11:45am

gray1: Who at CFI has ever called religious people “idiots” or any other name for that matter?

#18 gray1 on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 11:53am

No one that I know of within CFI has done so and such is my point.  I could not consider CFI in the vein of fundimentalism of anything and I’d like to see it stay that way.  The recent podcast interview with Dr. Kurtz was excellent in showing the right direction and someone calling him “too old” to continue providing such sounds a bit naive to me.

#19 Nathan Bupp (Guest) on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 12:02pm

Since I believe most of us care about getting the facts straight, please allow me to correct the record about Paul Kurtz’s age. He is not about to turn 90. Kurtz is in his mid-eighties, and I, at the age of 37, sincerely hope at age 50 to have half the energy, drive, and enthusiasm he has at his age now.

While I agree that Kurtz’s use of the term “fundamentalist atheists” was unfortunate—and probably did more harm than good—I can honestly say that what he was simply trying to describe in his critique was a certain kind of dynamic found in certain quarters of our movement (certainly not at CFI) where the focus is exclusively on the rejection (and sometime childish mockery) of religion. The positive alternative of ethical humanism tends get lost in this approach. Kurtz has always been critical of an over-emphasis on what we are against. He had many heated battles over the years with Madalyn Murray O’Hare on this very issue. For more context, Google Kurtz’s article “Far More than Atheism” from about 2003.

#20 gray1 on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 12:24pm

And for some strange reason I can’t help but envision flames when I see the words “Madalyn Murray O’Hare”.  BTW, was she a redhead?

#21 Reba Boyd Wooden on Thursday October 22, 2009 at 12:34pm

Good post, Nathan.  I would challenge some of you younger people to keep up with Paul both physically and mentally.  See my blog at:http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blog/the_exuberant_life/

#22 Joe Oliver (Guest) on Friday October 23, 2009 at 8:37am

I went ahead and started using my last name, too, but I’m the same Joe as above.

Simon, you will simply not be satisfied no matter what example is given.  Would you prefer the example of the groups of fundamentalist Christians that stand outside of funerals of soldiers with signs that say “Thank God For Dead Soldiers”?  Should I support that and claim it’s about free speech when it obviously is about hate?  When something is actually about free speech the title should make it clear.  Otherwise, it’s about the title.  Period.  The KKK was just a well known example.  Maybe I should suggest a “gay bashing day”.  Would CFI support it because it is about free speech?  I certainly hope not.  Because it would obviously be about offending someone since that is what bashing and blasphemy both are about.  Therefore neither should be supported as an event.  It’s one thing to joke amongst friends that you know will not be offended.  That’s having a grasp on the concept of tact.  It’s entirely different making it a public spectacle to be known for.

#23 Joe Oliver (Guest) on Friday October 23, 2009 at 8:38am

Sorry, one more thing.

I want to point out some irony that just now occurred to me.  Blasphemy is about insulting.  In fact, it is a known synonym.  It’s okay to have blasphemy day and support it, but when staff feel they are being insulted it’s not okay and defensive blogs are written.  “But if you have any respect at all for the staff of CFI, please drop the insults. You’re wasting our time and yours.”  It’s good to know that Ron recognizes insulting is a waste of time.  Now if we can just put that advice into practice all around maybe the organization would be the better for it.

#24 SimonSays on Friday October 23, 2009 at 9:04am


Please name one Blasphemy Day event at CFI that became a “public spectacle”.

At CFI DC we displayed the work of a respected local artist (can be seen here: http://danaellyn.com). These same paintings have been on display at other local art galleries many times in the past. There was never a single incident that would indicate the level of outrage you seem to suggest is appropriate.

Satirizing religious, political, and other high-profile figures through art is a quite uncontroversial within a modern democratic society. How many times have comedians poked fun at religious figures such as Jesus, Moses, or the Pope? Is Stephen Colbert condemned for doing this? Was George Carlin?

For someone to make a leap from poking fun at the Pope to “insulting millions of Catholics” is to adopt the same totalitarian logic that would have people who criticize the president “side with terrorists” or “be enemies of America”.

#25 Peter (Guest) on Friday October 23, 2009 at 4:35pm

Interesting discussion.

The answer to “atheist fundamentalist”: Behavioralists- just kidding.

The connotation to the word “blasphemy” is wrought from church abuses and church control/domination of skeptics and potential nonbelievers, and really against anyone who dared to utter a thought contrary to “power.”  For an organization bent on disrupting unexamined power/knowledge structures, in order for rational discourse to become available, they should feel no shame or backlash, and continue to press the point that such intolerance (control) will not be tolerated.

I sympathize with those parents who fear for the upringing of their “atheist” children under such tension, but children are resilient and there are plenty of other ways for parents to protect and help them.  CFI needs to continue making all inquiry open to all in the public without any sense of intimidation at any level, and helping parents overcome this difficulty is a priority.

#26 Joe Oliver (Guest) on Friday October 23, 2009 at 6:32pm

Actually CFI’s support of blasphemy day damaged our relationship with at least one journalist with the Indianapolis Star that viewed and portrayed us in a positive light and has potentially had an effect on our relationship with NPR.  It’s not about what happens at an event.  I can’t believe you aren’t grasping that perception doesn’t require attendance, Simonsays.  It’s about the support of the concept, not the content.  Again, just like a “gay bashing day”, it doesn’t matter if anything offensive happens.  Simply supporting such an offensive event is the public spectacle.

Is a CNN article on Wednesday portraying us as supportive of the slogan “No God, No Guilt, Debaptize Now” not public?  Maybe I’m just crazy or maybe I’m not quite grasping the idea of public.  For 8 hours Michael De Dora was portrayed as supporting this offensive slogan.  It was a mistake because the wrong picture was posted with the article.  8 hours after it was posted, it was removed from the CNN home page headlines and only then was the correct picture put on.  The problem is that we can’t argue that the we don’t support that slogan because as an organization we did by supporting blasphemy day, which included those very ceremonies.  Specifically, it looked like De Dora himself, who mentions above he is often called “too conciliatory”, supports that type of overtly offensive action.  Well, De Dora, for anyone that read that article during the first 8 hours you sure don’t look conciliatory anymore.  In fact, for 8 hours it appeared that he actually thinks that the slogan is (and I quote De Dora from the article) “not poking fun at religion and not being outright nasty”.  To anyone that read that article in that time frame, De Dora looked like a big liar (because the religious and many of us non-believers do find it outright nasty) and anyone that came to this website to see CFI’s support of Blasphemy Day seemed to be able to confirm it.  Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.  Perception is reality.

Alright.  I’m done.  I’ve put a lot of time into this and I think I’m spinning my wheels.  I truly hope the direction CFI is going isn’t one of offense.  Nobody wins friends by appearing to be the enemy and I’m pretty sure there is a reason we members are called “Friends of the Center”.  You want more friends?  Be friendly.

#27 SimonSays on Friday October 23, 2009 at 7:40pm

Joe, I understand what you are saying about perception. I work in marketing after all.

However, some context:

Re: CFI Indiana, it is my understanding that they did not hold a blasphemy day event due to similar concerns as yours. This was their decision to make of course, however I personally believe that this definitely created the impression with their faith journalist (who wrote about the event) that we’d be surely be engaging in Unspeakable and Depraved Acts. The reporter was apparently also emboldened in this belief after reading Paul Kurtz’s blog post the very next day as is evidenced by his follow-up: http://blogs.indystar.com/thoushalt/2009/09/a_struggle_for.html

re: NPR, their deplorable “bitter rift” story has been adequately criticized here: http://nprcheck.blogspot.com/2009/10/barbara-bradley-hagerty-god-help-us.html
Once again, you’ll note that every attempt is made by this journalist of questionable motives to highlight, accentuate, and sensationalize the disagreements within the organization. Think what this story would have been without the palace coup comment.

re: CNN, this appears to have been an honest mistake which is now corrected. These things happen.

If we’re going to bring up articles, how about this extremely positive one from the Secularism Examiner: http://www.examiner.com/x-4275-Secularism-Examiner~y2009m10d1-Center-for-Inquiry-in-DC-celebrates-Blasphemy-Day-with-heretical-art-show-with-audio

#28 Leticia (Guest) on Friday October 23, 2009 at 11:57pm

I have personally experienced the Atheist presence within the Indiana center, and this has caused us to lose potential friends of the center. I think this is most unfortunate.

The center is a wonderful place to experience community. I have looked for many years for a family friendly organization without having my children subject to religious indoctrination when we attend activities.  I didn’t expect when I joined the organization that my children would be subject to indoctrination, and yet they are.

This is a huge issue for my family. I am raising free-thinkers. I am not raising my children to be anything more than what feels right for them, as individuals. I am raising them to respect others and hold strongly to their values and beliefs. I use the Atheist presence as a teaching moment for my children, but I am also aware that for many parents this does not come naturally to them and so they leave, taking their hard earned dollars with them.
It’s unfortunate that people get a bad taste in their mouth for the CFI from the Atheist presence, but it happens. This is costing us charitable contributions. The numbers may be small, but I believe that every dollar counts. If people are showing signs of concern on this issue it seems to be it would be in the best interest of the CFI to consider the possibility that perhaps the organization as a whole is getting bad press with reason, and to truly consider the concerns as valid.

I just don’t see how anyone can consider blasphemy in keeping with mission to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

I am all for the initiative to focus efforts and attention on the right of individuals to express their viewpoints, opinions, and beliefs. These viewpoints should include all non-theist views. Having a strong focus on Atheism suggests that the CFI strongly supports Atheism over all non-theist viewpoints.

So, does the CFI really foster a secular society, and encourage freedom of inquiry if it is promoting the rejection of theism as a whole? Where is the Humanistic value in that? Where is the dignity in saying “We’re promoting a day to show you just how much we do not believe in a God, and to make fun of you for believeing!”

The Blasphemy day contest may have been portrayed as an initiative to focus efforts and attention on the right of individuals to express their viewpoints, but the focus on blasphemy instantly gives the public a negative message on just what the CFI is all about.
The problem I see is that real people are making real choices to not support the center because of the Atheist undertones within the center.

Our center in Indianapolis has a Coffee and conversation every Sunday. I would love to attend. I chose not to because of the strong Atheist presence at these meetings. I recently joined the Indiana CFI young adults group, which I felt had a very strong Atheist participation level. I didn’t feel welcome. It may not be a fit for me either.

My family very much enjoys the Secular Family Network we’ve formed at the center. It’s nice to be able to socialize with families that can completely disagree on many subjects, and yet have enough respect to be mindful of young ears and enjoy a sense of community. The same goes for our CFI Kids group. The kids are being taught a sense of community, free-thought, and most importantly how to make our world a better place.

Lastly, I cannot help but point out that some centers, like the Indiana CFI, are located in areas where religion has a far stronger presence. Living in the Bible belt means we are forced to have some measure of religious tolerance if we are going to make friends. Centers in more diverse areas may not have to have as much consideration.  What the CFI Transnational puts out there may not be as well received by Indiana residents as it is in other states.

#29 Reba Wooden (Guest) on Saturday October 24, 2009 at 10:40am

International Blasphemy Day—Wednesday, September 30, 6:30 pm, Center for Inquiry Indiana, 350 Canal Walk, Suite A, Indianapolis. Discussion.  What is blasphemy?  What laws are there now and have been in the past concerning blasphemy?  Should blasphemy be a crime?  Should religion be immune from criticism?  Reba Boyd Wooden will be the discussion leader.

#30 Reba Wooden (Guest) on Saturday October 24, 2009 at 10:41am

The comment above contains the description of the prgram we did at CFI Indiana for Blasphemy Day.

#31 Reba Wooden (Guest) on Saturday October 24, 2009 at 11:05am

The weekly Coffee and Conversation at CFI Indiana is just like a coffee house with unstructured conversation. So—people are expressing their personal viewpoints and we have some members who are more strident atheists than others.  This is also true of the two discussions that the CFI Young Adult group has had so far.  People are free to express their own opinions and there are many. I am especially proud of our family groups and feel that families have found real community at CFI Indiana and at other programs as well as the Sunday morning gathering.  I hope we have a big enough tent for everyone.  Yes, some are farther on the atheist end of the scale and some are more toward the softer approach.  I just hope we can all respect each other’s opinions and continue to build our center and community together.  The C & C on Sunday mornings has become a regular weekly gathering for many.

#32 Ophelia Benson on Saturday October 24, 2009 at 5:43pm

The Atheist presence? What is “the Atheist presence”? Are atheists considered a contaminant now?

All this name-calling and othering is clearly doing its work - atheism is spreading but so is atheist-phobia. Now apparently atheists are A Threat to The Children.

#33 diogenes99 on Sunday October 25, 2009 at 9:13am

Here is an attempt at a definition of “fundamentalism,” and I think the key idea is a narrowing of focus to “fundamentals.”  I propose that the following four conditions are necessary and sufficient.

(1) A fundamentalist world-view (F) is derived from a predecessor world-view (P).

(2)F emphasizes a small subset (S) of the tenets of P.

Basically, F-adherents thinks P misses the important facts, and P-adherents thinks F misses the big picture.  So, I try to capture this idea thusly:

(3) From F-adherents’ perspective, P-adherents (or the broader culture) need to be reformed by strictly adhering to S or by accepting S as important true belief.

(4)From P-adherents’ perspective or the perspective of the broader culture, F deemphasizes or undervalues (a) important tenets that are essential to the goals of P or (b) F falsely denies the epistemology, meta-ethics, reasonable beliefs, needs or goals of the broader culture.

I don’t expect this definition to be watertight, since it is a family resemblance term which is evolving and is often used pejoratively.  I don’t think unquestioned dogma is essential to the definition, but it often associated with fundamentalism. Two tenet often contained in P but not emphasized in F are wide-scope empathy and community building (e.g., for many Christian fundamentalist, anti-gay activism is promoted over love for neighbor).  I believe the above conditions capture the idea behind Protestant, Islamic, and (alleged) CFI atheist fundamentalism.

#34 Joe Oliver (Guest) on Sunday October 25, 2009 at 8:18pm

Well, I was finished, but now I feel I need to add on the “Atheist presence” part in response to Ophelia.  The atheist presence spoken of is the one that fits the “fundamentalist atheist” idea.  I got some clarification today at a meeting she and I were both at.  It’s those that feel it is okay to ridicule others for being a believer of any sort despite the fact that CFI claims that this is a freethinker organization.  Is this an atheist organization or a freethinkers organization?  Some people seem to be seriously confused in thinking atheism is a precursor to freethinking.  Actually a lot of people.  There are atheist freethinkers, but not all atheists are.  There are freethinkers that are believers, too.  I met a Quaker today that fits that description.  I met him at the center, in fact. 

And yeah, those angry atheists can be dangerous to impressionable children.  They teach negative conflict resolution and overt offensiveness (like blasphemy) through example.  These behaviors can lead to violence.  It’s never good to teach a child to be offensive toward their fellow human beings.

#35 SimonSays on Sunday October 25, 2009 at 8:35pm


Apologies. I misread your below comment (and didn’t read your subsequent one clarifying what you mention above):

I agree with you. This is a program of the Transnational organization which I personally voiced my disapproval for. We are not doing any of the out landish activities locally. Reba Boyd Wooden, Executive Director, CFI Indiana

Source: http://blogs.indystar.com/thoushalt/2009/09/blasphemy_conte.html

#36 gray1 on Sunday October 25, 2009 at 8:46pm

So, a celebration of blasphemy hseems to have led to some division and strife in a backfired and gotyah sorta way.  Whoda ever thunk that was possible?

#37 Ophelia Benson on Monday October 26, 2009 at 8:56am

“Well, I was finished, but now I feel I need to add on the “Atheist presence” part in response to Ophelia.  The atheist presence spoken of is the one that fits the “fundamentalist atheist” idea.  I got some clarification today at a meeting she and I were both at.”

I beg your pardon, but I was not at any meeting yesterday.

#38 Ophelia Benson on Monday October 26, 2009 at 9:07am

Now, on the substance - the problem is that Leticia in comment 28 did not specify a certain kind of atheist, she did not narrow her complaint to those-atheists-who; she complained of atheists tout court.

“I have personally experienced the Atheist presence within the Indiana center, and this has caused us to lose potential friends of the center…I use the Atheist presence as a teaching moment for my children…It’s unfortunate that people get a bad taste in their mouth for the CFI from the Atheist presence, but it happens…The problem I see is that real people are making real choices to not support the center because of the Atheist undertones within the center.

Our center in Indianapolis has a Coffee and conversation every Sunday. I would love to attend. I chose not to because of the strong Atheist presence at these meetings.”

That’s creepy stuff. It may not be intended to be, but it is. Just for one thing, it quite obviously boils down to saying atheists shouldn’t be there. It’s very overtly hostile to talk about an X presence - substitute ‘Jewish’ or ‘black’ or ‘gay’ or ‘Muslim’ or, forsooth, ‘Christian’ for ‘Atheist’ presence and perhaps that will become clear.

#39 Leticia (Guest) on Monday October 26, 2009 at 10:39am

Ophelia-You could not be more wrong in your opinion/interpretation of my post.

I have several very close friends whom are also friends of the center. They are also Atheist. One is quite a staunch Atheist. We love to debate our views. We debate with compassion and respect. We know where each other stands. They know it is not appropriate to say things to my children like “If you believe in a God you are a fool.” I know not to tell their kids “You never know until you have proof.”

I used to be an Angry Atheist for a short minute. I quickly saw a person in myself I didn’t care for. I had such hatred built up inside of me that I thought it was comical to belittle others because of their inability to use science and reason in their spiritual path. That got me no where quickly. I’m just not built to be an Atheist, but some of my very best friends are…and are quite steadfast in their lack of belief and are respectful about it.

As far as the Atheist presence? That isn’t neccesarily refrencing people. This is why I did not to call out a particular type of Atheist.

It’s in the materials we submit over the www via Transnational. It’s the artwork hanging on a wall. It’s the greeter at the front desk who feels the need to be on the defence anytime someone enters the door who may be a believer. It’s the idea that others should participate blasphemy by way of acceptance/support.

I love our center. It’s been a wonderful experience overall for my family. Lif is what you make of it. Instead of seeking out the negative I focus on participating in the positive. I don’t contribute offending comics to the comis wall at the center. I do not participate in activities where a strong Atheist view point is present. It’s pointeless.

As the young Quaker that visited our center spoke about yesterday “I enjoy people visiting the center with other points of view. When they are turned away because of highly offensive material it’s unfortunate because not only do we lose someone who has something to bring to the table, we lose a potential friend of the center.

There is no need to hide what we believe and support, it’s all in how we deliver it.

#40 R. Malin (Guest) on Monday October 26, 2009 at 12:26pm

To Ophelia Benson:

The only thing that is creepy is the amount of anger being directed towards humanists who want to focus on the positive contribution of reason, science, and humanism, and, when prudent, build coalitions with liberal religionists. In reading the comments on this site and others, one comes away with the impression that one had better past the atheist purity test to escape the wrath of the angry embittered atheists. I’ve been in and out of this movement for a lot of years and I’ve seen such bitterness and anger tear humanist groups apart in the past. I always perceived CFI as being above all of this nonsense.

#41 Joshua Slocum (Guest) on Monday October 26, 2009 at 3:43pm

Leticia -

Ophelia is perfectly correct in her assessment of your comment. You repeatedly referred to the “Atheist presence” (n.b. - you don’t need to capitalize it) in broad terms, and it did indeed read as if you thought atheists, as a class, contaminated the meeting. You made no distinctions, no nuances. That, madam, is offensive. I trust you’d feel the same way if someone were to write about the troubling “Quaker presence.”

Defending your distasteful statement with the limp prose of those who desperately want to be thought of as Nice, Tolerant, and Inclusive doesn’t actually make you nice, tolerant, or inclusive. Apologizing for making mean-spirited generalizations would.

#42 hugheen (Guest) on Monday October 26, 2009 at 7:17pm

Joe Oliver has nailed it.  I agree completely. Blasphemy Day and the NPR segment did nothing to advance Humanism and atheism, in fact, it damaged it.

For Mr. Lindsay while representing
Atheists and Humanists to say that “we are willing to take the high road, the low road or any road etc.”
simply confirmed and reinforced the image of Atheists and Humanists as amoral religion-hating, and yes, mean-spirited, closed minded persons. 

Mr. Lindsay says above “that perhaps the person resorting to insults has nothing to say”. One wonders
if the dark glasses he wears in his photo blinds him to the reality of what he and the CFI promoted in their ill-conceived Blasphemy Day which did little more than promote insults by those people who had nothing to say.

(We can play semantic games with Dr. Kurtz’s choice of words but we all know the kind of Humanist and Atheist he was alluding to and most of us have met them even if Lindsay doesn’t recognize them [you’ve got take those dark glasses off inside Ron]

There is a lot of criticism to be made of religion and it should done 365 days a year in strong, clear, critical words but not what I call “restroom graffiti”. 

Mission statements are fine but actions speak louder than nice rhetoric in them.  Mr. Lindsay talks noble but plays dirty.  He is taking CFI to a sad “low road” and can’t see the “right” path for Humanism.

#43 gray1 on Monday October 26, 2009 at 7:22pm

Perhaps there is a new convention to be considered as to whether it is a matter of “Atheists” who will go so far as to state that all believers in god(s) are delusional as opposed to “atheists” who will say only that they simply do not believe in god(s).

#44 Robert Halfhill (Guest) on Monday October 26, 2009 at 9:30pm

Don’t some of you people realize that simply saying you don’t believe in God is considered blasphemy by Christians and other theists?

As both a militant Gay activist and an Atheist, I have had a t-shirt made that says on the front, A Gay Christian Is Like A Jewish Nazi.  On the back it says, A Gay Christian Is Like A Black Klansman.  Many
Atheists have told me that “there’s a better way to say it” (i.e. more displomatic).  To some of you people, any clear, unambiguous statement of disbelief in God is “strident,” “fundamentalist,” etc.  Blasphemy Day was a reaction to Ireland passing a law against blasphemy and other European
countries threatening to pass similar laws.  Civil disobedience in the countries that have such laws and solidary blasphemy elsewhere is an appropriate response.

The overreaching of the religious right and the ultimate “faith based action” by Islamaniacs on 9/11 has led to a long overdue couterreaction.  Gay rights activist have gone through every referendum to repeal Gay rights ordinaces and same sex marriage laws to be primarily led by Christ Crazies.  The Christ Crazies have led the fight against womens reproductive choice.  The same Christ Crazies lead the opposition to right to die laws.

Historically, the Christo and Islamo Fascist have soaked the last two thousand years in blood with their religious wars.  All in all, religion has been a net negative force in human societies.  As Voltaire said: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

As a supporter of free speech and opinion, I would defend the right of theists to believe in and advocate their nonsense.  But I will also defend our right to criticize their nonsense.  And when they attempt to force others to adhere to their beliefs and persecute others, they must be fought.

If by fundamentalist Atheist you means someone who calls a spade a spade and who critiques religion as the malign influence it is one human affairs, then I am a Fundamentalist Atheist!

#45 Ronald A. Lindsay on Tuesday October 27, 2009 at 1:25pm

Although I am off on medical leave at this time, I have read the comments to my post, as I read the comments to all my posts. I thank everyone for their input. I can assure you that not only I, but the entire CFI Management Committee, will give careful consideration to the views expressed about the wisdom of Blasphemy Day/the Blasphemy Contest – although that was not really the topic of my post (more on the actual topic of my post below).
I explicitly draw a distinction between Blasphemy Day and the Blasphemy Contest – one of several different events held in conjunction with Blasphemy Day – because I am not sure that all are aware of this distinction, based on the comments I have received to this and other posts. The primary purposes of Blasphemy Day were to draw attention to the continuing problems posed by attempts to restrict speech about religion and to educate our supporters and others about the history of blasphemy regulation. See the press release that accompanied CFI’s announcement of Blasphemy Day. http://www.centerforinquiry.net/newsroom/center_for_inquiry_to_celebrate_blasphemy_day_events_set_for_sept._30/
I hope those critics of CFI’s BD initiative who call themselves humanists and freethinkers are not saying those goals are objectionable. If so, then we really do have widely divergent understandings of the implications of humanism and freethought.
Re the Blasphemy Contest itself, as I have stated many times over already, and as the contest’s rules make abundantly clear, we were not soliciting remarks whose principal intent was to humiliate individual believers. We did expect pointed comments about religious beliefs – but what’s wrong with that? If we are serious in saying that all beliefs should be subject to critical examination, then religious (and nonreligious) beliefs are legitimate targets for pithy criticism. And if we’re not serious about that position, why don’t we just close up shop? Perhaps we should change our name to the Center for Limited Inquiry.
BTW, I have reviewed about 200 of the entries so far (we received over 650) and some are quite good; moreover, none of the ones I have set aside for further consideration could be plausibly characterized as “hate speech.” I am glad to learn that those several hundred individuals who participated in the contest actually bothered to acquaint themselves with the rules for the contest, in contrast to some critics who appear to have acquired their understanding of the contest exclusively from those with religious or personal axes to grind.
I will concede that, for various reasons, the Blasphemy Contest may have had flaws in its execution; I am unpersuaded that the contest itself was a bad idea, much less a manifestation of “atheist fundamentalism.”
Which brings me back to the subject of my post. If an atheist fundamentalist is someone who is dogmatic in his/her beliefs and/or sees attacks on religion as the predominant purpose of an organization such as CFI, then no one has provided (and I submit no one can provide) evidence that there are atheist fundamentalists at CFI, much less that they have taken over CFI.
And a discussion of evidence brings me to hugheen, now a frequent visitor to CFI fora and blog posts. Hugheen sees everything through the prism of my supposed coup at CFI. It’s probably too much to expect a concern for evidence from someone in thrall to this dreary fantasy, but the charge that I “play dirty” would seem to require some support. Of course, if endorsing Blasphemy Day and its attempt to raise awareness about the threat posed to free speech by formal and informal restrictions on criticism of religious beliefs is what hugheen means by “playing dirty,” then I plead guilty.

#46 John (Guest) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 at 6:07pm


“...none of the ones I have set aside for further consideration could be plausibly characterized as “hate speech.”

How about any of the ones you didn’t set aside

#47 Ronald A. Lindsay on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 6:40am

John: I probably should have been less enigmatic in my phrasing. None of the entries I have read to date could be plausibly classified as “hate speech,” if by “hate speech” we mean speech directed at or about an individual(s) that expresses hatred or attempts to incite hatred toward the individual(s) based on some characteristic such as race, religion and so forth. Some of the entries are very indignant about certain aspects of religious belief (e.g. the claim that God is good in the face of all the pain and suffering in the world) and a few make liberal use of “fuck” and its various derivatives, but the entries don’t express hatred toward Christians, Muslims, Jews or any type of religious believer.

#48 Joe Oliver (Guest) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 7:40am

I should never have said I was finished. . .

CFI’s support of BD was a large reason (though not the only one) for the claim of a “Fundamentalist Atheist” takeover.  So please don’t pretend it isn’t the topic.

I don’t think most of us are concerned with whether you feel BD was a bad idea or not, Ron.  That is your opinion and you are entitled to it, obviously.  What we care about is the fact that you supported it as CEO and so did other staff.  Claiming CFI supports such behavior is not accurate, but it painted that picture for the rest of the world.  It’s not accurate to claim CFI supports something just because you or SOME of the staff do.  You fail to remember or simply choose to ignore the fact that CFI is not one person or just a handful.  It’s not one location.  Many of us are under the impression we are members of this organization with a voice in what it is about.  If not, then what is the point of being a Friend of the Center?  I could just be a visitor that comes and goes and get nearly the same benefit.  I became a Friend of the Center and pledged a donation (though it is a low monthly amount) to support the cause I believe in.  A secular humanist one.  When CFI officially announces support of negative behavior, it is assumed we all support that behavior or you wouldn’t be receiving our money.  That is what the concern is.  You and others in control are representatives of us all and have a responsibility to listen BEFORE acting on something so controversial. 

Can’t see the evidence?  Well, it isn’t because it doesn’t exist.  Support of BD was/is evidence in and of itself.  The fact that you chose to just throw opinions aside and act on this does represent a form of “takeover”.  The fact that it does contrast starkly with secular humanist values does give the impression of “takeover”.  The fact that you resort to bad argument to denigrate critics makes it worse.  “Fundamentalist Atheist” is a term with a connotation most of us understand.  You’re not going to make that idea go away with poor arguments, denigration, or poor taste in posted photos (McCarthy, really?).  If anything, you are reinforcing some of our opinions.  You might have noticed a couple of us didn’t start posting until you posted this particular blog.  Every time you write lately, you reinforce the idea there actually is some kind of “takeover”.         

You reference the press release.  That release only paints us wanting to be blasphemous and hide behind the terms “examination and criticism”.  Examination, criticism, and free speech are not objectionable.  Relying on them as an excuse to be offensive is very objectionable.  Your twisting of the word blasphemy to mean “examination and criticism” is also evidence you fail to acknowledge.  This can be supported by simply opening a dictionary (I use Webster’s) or thesaurus.  Criticism of religion is not even a synonym to blasphemy.  Insult, however, is. Your attempt to claim that we are upset about criticism of religion is diversionary.  Frankly, it’s disturbing to me that you try to paint it as if those of us objecting to blasphemy are objecting to examination and criticism when they are different concepts all together.  Again, I will liken your tactics to Fundamentalist Christians, giving weight to the “fundamentalist atheist” claim you try to reject.  It is the same as claiming the Bible doesn’t really say what the words written mean.  They try to apply a wild, loose spin to justify concepts written that are unacceptable in today’s society.  Then they resort to attacking critics based on their spin of the subject rather than on the real subject.  You are most certainly doing the exact same thing.  Many of us signed on because we stand against that kind of behavior.

#49 SimonSays on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 8:10am

Joe, you say here:

“Fundamentalist Atheist” is a term with a connotation most of us understand.

I do not understand this term. Please advise on what it means, and -more importantly- who according to you falls in this category at CFI.

Also, you claim that only “SOME” of the staff support blasphemy day. How many staff have you spoken with about this? Can you name any -apart from Reba- who were against? Note that her opposition was around the blasphemy contest, not the whole idea, as Ron alluded to. CFI Indiana did hold blasphemy day events after all.

Finally your below statement is completely off base:

Support of BD was/is evidence in and of itself.  The fact that you chose to just throw opinions aside and act on this does represent a form of “takeover”

1) Unless you are privy to the internal deliberations of CFI management, you should not make such blanket statements. How do you know which opinions were listened to? Do you really think that Ron would just make something like this up on a whim and not get any feedback from others? Please-let’s be serious. In fact, my own limited interaction with Ron on another CFI matter showed exactly the opposite.

2) Fact of the matter is, when all centers act in a coordinated and organized fashion (albeit with their own local individuality), CFI is more effective in achieving it’s communication objectives. Under the previous leadership, CFI Centers would more or less fend for themselves. It was great that they had autonomy, but they also lacked direction and cooperation. Blasphemy Day was really the first coordinated national campaign that CFI did, and I sincerely hope it won’t be the last. For you, this type of organizing may be a sign of a “takeover”, for me this a sign that we are evolving as a unified movement.

#50 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 10:09am

“Claiming CFI supports such behavior is not accurate, but it painted that picture for the rest of the world.  It’s not accurate to claim CFI supports something just because you or SOME of the staff do.”

Do you know that a majority opposed Blasphemy Day while only a minority supported it? I doubt that you know that (because I doubt that you would have access to any data that would show that), and if you don’t know that, what is your point? That something short of 100% of the membership of CFI supported Blasphemy Day? If so, what is the point of that? Do you expect 100% agreement on any particular issue?

“Examination, criticism, and free speech are not objectionable.  Relying on them as an excuse to be offensive is very objectionable.”

But it’s been pointed out repeatedly that ‘blasphemy’ is examination, criticism, and free speech to many people, and that that is part of the point of Blasphemy Day. Ideas of what is ‘blasphemy’ and what is ‘offensive’ keep expanding to take in what other people consider to be examination, criticism, and free speech, and that is why it is worth paying attention to the very idea of ‘blasphemy,’ which was the idea behind Blasphemy Day.

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