Quick Thoughts on the NPR “Bitter Rift” Story

October 19, 2009

As I have said elsewhere, I supported CFI's International Blasphemy Day, because I think it is a unique and potentially powerful way to highlight the unwarranted immunity from criticism that religion often has in the United States and around the world. Moreover, satire and even ridicule have often been the most effective tools to criticize outlandish and harmful ideas. Therefore, religion shouldn't be so "respected" that it is off-limits from such ridicule and satire.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty's piece today on NPR focused not only on these stated aims of Blasphemy Day, but on a supposed "bitter rift" and "national debate" among secularists and atheists about best strategies to adopt in order to advance the secularist, scientific worldview.

First, what Hagerty got wrong in the story:

1. "Blaspheming the Holy Spirit" is not at all a component of Blasphemy Day. Ron Lindsay clarifies this point in a recent episode of Point of Inquiry , as well as arguing that the goal of Blasphemy Day is not merely, nor primarily, to offend.

2. PZ Myers didn't desecrate a communion wafer as part of Blasphemy Day, but I believe it was over a year before, as he blogged about on July 24, 2008 .

3. Since a CFI volunteer who was quoted in the article could "speak his mind," there was an implication that a paid staffer of CFI was not allowed to. Hagerty stated that it was a "curious development" for a group that promotes free speech to forbid staff from speaking freely. Let me state it clearly: No one at CFI was ever told to refrain from taking interviews with NPR. It is true that some of the Center for Inquiry staff in Washington DC, after figuring that the story might be covering internal disagreements at CFI (such as recent transitions in leadership), chose completely on their own not to speak to the media.

Now, What Hagerty got right:

1. She covered the story in the first place. Hagerty is an important religion correspondent. As such, she is interested in the changing terrain of secularism in the United States, as she should be. I think it is fantastic that she is covering the growing movement of nonreligious and skeptics.

2. Paul Kurtz is very worried that the "new atheists" will set the movement back. While I disagree with Kurtz here, he does genuinely feel that the New Atheists are not much different than the old atheists, such as the abrasive Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and that the way to really advance the secular agenda is to soft-peddle it somewhat, by working to try to avoid offending believers, unlike O'Hair did. Kurtz emphasizes secular ethics much more than religious skepticism these days. To hear him make these arguments himself, check out his appearances on Point of Inquiry : " A Kinder, Gentler Secularism ," and " The New Atheism and Secular Humanism ."

In my view, some of his appall at the New Atheism may be stemming from an understandable sense of hurt pride that after laboring in the vineyards after many years, he never had a best-seller like the "New Atheists" have had. (I feel like I noticed this same kind of envious or resentful posture in others, especially some secularist Biblical scholars who have been associated with CFI, who would often privately decry Dawkins' and Hitchens' and Harris' supposed lack of expertise in theology and Biblical criticism.) To be clear, I believe Paul Kurtz has done more than any other person in the last 50 years to create the secular and humanist movement as it has been until recently. I just think that it must be hard for him to see others come along and be so successful at reaching out to new people with a very similar message.

My views on some additional misunderstandings some folks may have:

1. CFI is in no sense moving away from its historical focus on fair-minded criticism of reigning mythologies (both religious, and paranormal), and on advancing science, humanism and reason. While only Ron Lindsay was quoted as much in the piece, in fact, the direction CFI has taken in recent months is only a re-emphasis of its core mission on science and reason. The new mission, adopted earlier this year under Lindsay's direction, is "to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values." The old mission, less focused in my view, was "to promote and defend science, reason, and freedom of inquiry in every area of human endeavor." Notice the stronger focus on secularism and humanism in CFI's new mission statement.

2. There is no "bitter rift" or "national debate" about Blasphemy Day or the future focus of CFI. There was near unanimity at CFI in support of Blasphemy Day. A small number of dissenters include Paul Kurtz, a couple staffers, and a volunteer or two. But again, no "bitter rift" nor "national debate."

3. There is room for multiple strategies to advance a shared skeptical, secular and humanist mission. CFI is the leading organization of its kind, and, as such, has adopted many different strategies to reach out to different publics: publishing, secularist and pro-science community centers, campus outreach, international programs, lobbying on Capitol Hill, digital media and outreach, educational programs and courses, etc., etc. There are many ways to skin a cat.

4. CFI is not anti-religious, but is openly critical of destructive aspects of religion. For instance, some of our best friends on the campuses are religious organizations who agree with us that the kinds of questions we focus on (meaning of life, existence of God, whence morals, evolution versus creationism, role of religion in education and in government, limits of science, etc.) are important questions everyone should be asking, even if these organizations disagree deeply with us about the answers. And on Capitol Hill, we work in coalition with many religious organizations to advance a pro-science and secular agenda (in the broader, church-state separation sense of "secular").

5. Even as CFI is not anti-religious, we work to promote alternatives to the paranormal and religious worldviews which we think are harmful (as Paul Kurtz was getting at in the NPR story). These alternatives are based on science, reason, and humanist values, and not on atheist dogma, or creeds pronounced by beloved leaders of small non-profit organizations.

6. As far as blasphemy goes, even Paul Kurtz himself has argued a few years ago in an essay in Free Inquiry about the Danish Muslim Cartoons that "we should defend blasphemy by committing blasphemy." After all, in our view, blasphemy is literally a victimless crime.

I just skimmed this entry, and was reminded of a Churchill quote: "Sorry this is so long, I didn't have time to make it shorter." But alas, our XBOX 360, and my spouse, await.


#1 Benjamin Radford on Monday October 19, 2009 at 9:49pm

Well put, DJ. I think you are on target on several points.

#2 moizkhan on Monday October 19, 2009 at 9:52pm

Very interesting post. The factual inaccuracies of that article almost forced me to write a response.

The only thing I’d like to note is that, the quote by Churchill is actually a Blaise Pascal quote.

#3 Melody (Guest) on Monday October 19, 2009 at 10:24pm

A fair analysis of the situation. Thanks for your post.

#4 Justin R on Monday October 19, 2009 at 10:48pm

There should be dissenting voices.

If I had wanted to belong to an organization where everyone believed as the leaders, and we all did what we were told, I would go back to church.

I admire Paul Kurtz a tremendous amount, and he makes many valid points about blasphemy day and New Atheism in general. Regardless, sometimes we do things one way, and sometimes we do things another. Broad and spacious is our road leading off into reason.

#5 Edwin Goei (Guest) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 12:29am

Thanks for the clarification and I enjoy listening to the podcasts.

#6 SimonSays on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 5:11am

Great post DJ. It’s good to get some facts regarding this piece out there.

A few observations:

1) CFI (very astutely) promotes the work of Robert Ingersoll. Would he be considered a “New Athiest” ?

2) I know O’Hair was the founder of a different organization and her style may have been different, but we should at least give her some kudos for getting a HUGE victory with removing school prayer.

3) Blog NPR Check just did a piece about this article and the questionable motivations that its author Barbara Bradley Hagerty had: http://nprcheck.blogspot.com/2009/10/barbara-bradley-hagerty-god-help-us.html

#7 heidianderson on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 6:48am

Another piece Barbara Bradley Hagerty got wrong; she claimed “PZ Myers writes a blog calling for an end to religion.”

No, PZ Myers writes a biology blog. He often mocks religion, he often mocks creationists, he often offends ALL kinds of people, and would no doubt be happier without religion in the world, but Pharyngula is still a biology blog with lots of hot cephalopod action.

And pictures of PZ riding a dinosaur at the creationist museum.

#8 diogenes99 on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 6:57am

I think Grothe misses Kurtz’s points: (1) that the new approach is different in kind, not in degree (it’s not soft peddling verses hard peddling), and (2) the approach should not contradict the goal (a civil democracy).  I think Kurtz’s point it that the disagreement is not merely about style.

There are three paradigms (to use a worn out term) regarding values and meaning of life: naturalism, supernaturalism, and metaphysical neutralism.  Kurtz is a metaphysical neutralist, for pragmatic reasons.  Lindsay is a naturalist, for epistemological reasons.  I think Kurtz neutralism is the best approach until ethical naturalism is better developed. There are many more people who will accept that ethics is God-independent. When seen in terms of a multi-generation paradigm shift, Kurtz’s approach buys valuable time while ethical naturalists can articulate a robust alternative.

Briefly stated, I think the new atheists will rally the base.  But, in the long view we need Kurtz’s bridge strategy.  It connects theists and nontheist together in a common discourse and form of life.  Once one tries to mix both approaches, the bridge collapses.

#9 Melody (Guest) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 7:22am

“Once one tries to mix both approaches, the bridge collapses.”

But the bridge didn’t collapse. It didn’t collapse during the Suffragist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Women’s Rights Movement…

#10 Reba Boyd Wooden on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 8:28am

Good post,DJ.  I agree with diogenes on this quote except for the last sentence:

“Briefly stated, I think the new atheists will rally the base.  But, in the long view we need Kurtz’s bridge strategy.  It connects theists and nontheist together in a common discourse and form of life.  Once one tries to mix both approaches, the bridge collapses.”

Contrary to what Diogenes says, I think it makes the bridge stronger.  As Melody states, other movements have had similar disagreements and yet they prevailed.  The Abloitionists did not want to be associated with women’s rights, the suffragists did not want to be associated with Stanton’s atheist viewpoint, Booker T. Washington established institutions to educate African Americans in the trades but was afraid to be associated with those who advocated equal rights for fear of losing his white benefactors, etc.  However, there is a progression and every movement needs those persons who are the “point” people, who are more strident and also those who build the bridges to accomplish the end goal.

In my opinion, it takes the more strident to get the public attention but it takes those “laboring in the vineyard” to reach the long term goals. 

So, we owe much to Murray, and our cause gets the attention of the mainstream with Hitchens, Dawkins, etal.

#11 Donna Danford (Guest) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 9:05am

The real story behind any “atheist schism” at CFI: The Narcissist.

It is time to call a spade a spade and stop the destruction of a great organization by supporting its current leadership. What’s done is done; move forward, be positive, be proactive. The Narcissist is bent on hijacking and destroying an institution that upholds that which he did not create: Humanist ideals, the Enlightenment, the Secular Movement.

The Narcissist will destroy one of the few places in the country that promotes reason and scientific thinking because of narcissism. This is a fact. I witnessed it, and from afar continue to witness the attempted destruction of CFI due to a Narcissist’s toxic lies and character assassination. To talk about atheism right now obscures the REAL ISSUES negatively impacting CFI.

The workers at CFI give true momentum to the ideals CFI embodies. Those workers are the current leadership and staff who still show up every day to ensure that CFI’s goals and vision aren’t commandeered by blind egoism and the “cult of personality.” Those who are in a position to do so should SHUT DOWN the toxicity running rampant at CFI because of The Narcissist. And yes, by shutting down the negativity, the toxicity, you will say goodbye to everything that holds this great organization back and hello to a future focused on supplanting lies with truth. By puncturing that over-filled balloon of hate, back-biting, distortion, and factionalism, CFI will shore up its own integrity and accountability. What’s the worst that can happen? Oh wait, it’s already happening, unless you (the collective YOU) have the courage to stand up and say get the hell out unless you can be a force for good. This is NOT about the right to dissent. This IS about lies and distortion and to couch it in any other argument is yet more distortion, more lies. Let’s not enable The Narcissist.

I’ve pasted below some quotes Bruce Gregory about narcissism that apply to what’s happening at CFI.
”NARCISSISM is distinguished from true leadership (which shares attention) by narcissism’s use, abuse and exploitation of people, as opposed to enhancing and facilitating the value of others. [Organizational] Sustainability is dependent on collaborative, mutually complementary group efforts that seek to maximize benefits for the largest amount of people without exploiting each other or the integrity of the environment. This is offensive to narcissism because it is in direct contradiction to narcissism’s values of dominance, exploitation and control. So what does narcissism do in the presence of sustainability proponents? It resists. It resists in a methodical, calculated way toward the end of either distracting, derailing, or simply stopping whatever program the sustainability contingent is seeking to implement. Character assassination, misinformation, and blocking access to funding and other resources are commonly employed methods.
“…..reinforces the stranglehold narcissism can have is when people are committed to being “nice” or fair, and as a result are unwilling or unprepared to hold the narcissist accountable for positions or behaviors. Finally, an unwillingness to “go for the throat,” as champions do in sporting events, only allows narcissism to recycle and feed off its commitment to domination….

RECOGNIZING NARCISSISM IN ACTION: When the narcissistic defense is operating in an interpersonal or group setting, the grandiose part does not show its face in public. In public it presents a front of patience, congeniality, and confident reasonableness. However, beneath the surface it is supremely smug and superior. It is confident it can deceive the “fools” or their objective it is committed to blocking, while maintaining its own control and dominance over either the rules, and/or the flow of events.
It is critical to understand that the narcissistic defense is addicted to power and control. It, the defense, and they, the people who are controlled and possessed by the defense, must have power…..
One of the best places to spot narcissism, unfortunately, is at the top of a company or a public organization. The narcissism can be detected by being sensitive to resistance from the top. The top, or the person or persons at the top, will resist efforts toward change in process or structure. The resistance is communicated through a variety of techniques: always needing more information, appearing confused or having a lack of clarity; excuses; premeditated “blowups” or other distractions from whatever the issues being considered.
On the surface narcissism presents so the individual appears as confident and entitled. NARCISSISM loves and demands attention to reinforce its grandiosity. It needs to dominate and control the “space,” to be “more special” than anyone else. It also needs perfection and immediate gratification to satisfy its all powerful aspect of its grandiosity. As a result, inside the individual, the narcissism feels extremely arrogant.
However, underneath the surface narcissism is fragile. Disappointment and frustration threaten its grandiosity, leaving it vulnerable to feelings of shame and humiliation exacerbated by its harsh, punitive component. Along with the shame and humiliation come deep fears of annihilation which are fueled by the black and white, rigid thinking component: “if I am not perfect and all powerful, then I am nothing.” The extreme fear of being found out to not be omnipotent requires the narcissism to resort to hiding its deeper nature. This act of hiding ultimately leaves the narcissistic self vulnerable to forces that have trust at their core, not fear….
When narcissism perceives that it could lose control of a situation or process, it often feels threatened. The grandiosity’s sense of omnipotence is being threatened. When this happens, narcissism’s response can be one of character assassination of those who are threatening its objectives. The presence of character assassination is another way of detecting the presence of narcissism.
Moving to the next phase, interacting effectively with narcissistic forces, involves a number of important factors which include: awareness of and freedom from victim complexes, freedom from being intimidated, skills to deal with intimidation efforts, excellent emotional boundaries, accountability skills, skills for building consensus with others in the group, empowering others, and a highly developed inner ability to tolerate frustration and anxiety.”

#12 Justin R on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 9:22am

You kind of sound like a narcissist Donna, you should look it up.

#13 DJ Grothe on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 10:19am

Thought-provoking post, Donna. Thank you.

#14 liberalartist on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 10:37am

I thought the disagreements about Blasphemy Day led to some very good discussions and I thought there were good points made from all sides. Its what I like most about this organization and why I chose to join a couple years ago. Its a place to discuss things from a rational perspective and to approach ethics from a human-centered standpoint (rather than supernatural nonsense).

CFI is a breath of fresh air in a world littered with ignorance, misinformation and superstition. If this is what one calls a bitter rift, then that isn’t so bad.

#15 Kevin Kent Colquitt (Guest) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 at 12:45pm

I hope that Mr. Kurtz will let us all in on what his definition of a “fundamentalist atheist” is.

Since there is no such thing as “atheism” (there’s just us atheists) and an atheist is a person who has no belief in deities (that’s the extent of it, then Mr. Kurtz’s use of this pejorative (fundamentalist atheist) plays into the hands of those who would seek to deny atheists equal rights and access and necessarily casts every atheist in the world as a “fundamentalist atheist”.

#16 llewelly (Guest) on Wednesday October 21, 2009 at 8:38am

Admit the truth, D.J. There is a Deep Rift(tm) between New Atheists(tm) and Accommodationists(not yet tm). Nothing will be resolved until Kurtz and Dawkins strip to the skin and go mano a mano. Preferably in jello.

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