About Free Thinking

January 6, 2012

What is the cornerstone of CFI’s mission? Is it atheism or humanism? No, not really. Commitments to atheism or humanism or any other “ism” are conclusions we arrive at, presumably after consideration of the relevant evidence and arguments. The cornerstone of our mission is freedom of expression and critical inquiry. We see freedom of expression and critical inquiry as indispensable tools for arriving at an accurate understanding of just about any issue of importance, including, but not limited to, the truth of religious or fringe science claims. This brings me to the recent controversy concerning Ben Radford’s blog post on Free Thinking, as well as the related controversy about the blog Free Thinking itself.

The bloggers on Free Thinking, as has been stated on numerous occasions, and as readers of our blog are expressly advised, represent their own personal opinion. They do not speak for CFI. (Even this blog post is not technically official policy, as it has not yet been reviewed by the full Management Committee, but it would be appropriate to describe it as expressing my view in my official capacity as president & CEO.) We intentionally adopted this policy not only because it’s practical (you can’t do a timely blog post if it has to pass through management review), but because we wanted our bloggers to feel free to advance novel and speculative ideas, arguments, and theories without worrying about whether they’d get in “trouble” with management.

We also fully expected that some of the blog posts might make claims that some in our audience would dispute. Great! Isn’t that how the advance of knowledge through free expression is supposed to work? Jane makes claim 1A in her blog post; Joan politely points out in her comments that Jane has overlooked factors x, y, and z; and Jane then thanks Joan for pointing this out, revising her claim to 1B.

This is an idealized version, of course. In real life, it’s more like this: Jane makes claim 1A; Joan calls Jane a fucking idiot; Jane calls Joan a moron and digs in her heels; Tom, over at another blog, yells that both Jane and Joan are stupid; Jane and Joan momentarily join forces to call Tom a sexist pig; Frank says Jane has no business blogging and should be fired; Larry comes up with some obscure dictionary reference the relevance of which no one can understand; and someone using the pseudonym Weeenie10 with a cute Batman icon limits himself to typing in the word “fart,” and on it goes, for about 800 comments spread over 3 or 4 blogs.

Isn’t the Internet wonderful?

Actually, it is. Near instantaneous transmission eliminates certain filters, so, yes, there’s a lot of junk that gets posted, including pointless insults, but there are serious commenters, and their comments can clear up some mistakes and steer a discussion in the right direction. Whether the exchange of ideas works efficiently, as in the ideal model, or in fits and starts, as in the real world, it often works.

Obviously, there are limits to what we’d put up on our blog, not because we want any limits on free expression, but because we are a donor supported organization and we have an obligation to use that donor money prudently. So we’re not going to invite Joel Osteen, Deepak Chopra, Warren Jeffs and so forth to blog. These individuals can take advantage of the outlets available to them. Our bloggers are all, broadly speaking, working from a nonreligious or skeptical perspective.

One or more of our current bloggers could also conceivably write a string of posts clearly contrary to CFI’s mission and/or its official position on important policy issues. A blogger could, for example, argue that the Establishment Clause should not be enforced, that alternative medicine should be exempt from scrutiny, that women should not have the same rights as men, that we should prohibit gays from serving in the military, and so forth. Depending on the frequency of such posts, the person might be removed from blogging or other action might be taken. Again, this would not be because we’re opposed to free expression, but because we don’t see the need to fund a continual stream of messages that are contrary to our mission. That’s never happened and I think it’s unlikely to happen because someone who found themselves disagreeing with several of our key public policy positions presumably would seek employment elsewhere.

This brings me to Ben’s recent post (or posts, as he had more than one, and the one that actually appeared on Free Thinking seems the least controversial). Some commenters have recommended that Ben be fired or removed as a blogger. Similar suggestions have been made, by the way, about Melody Hensley, who commented on Ben’s blog posts, either on Free Thinking or elsewhere.

First, by way of background, these recommendations are not unprecedented. Every few months I receive recommendations about firing employees, terminating individuals’ contracts, or ceasing all contact with certain authors or speakers. For example, I’ve previously been told (in public fora) that I should fire John Shook, Michael DeDora, and Melody, that I should remove Chris Mooney as POI host, that I should never invite PZ Myers to a conference again, that I should not allow Paul Kurtz to post on our blog (back when he was still with CFI) and that CFI should forever cut any and all ties with Richard Dawkins and Rebecca Watson (this last suggestion usually being made by different people). I have declined to follow all such recommendations.  I have declined all such recommendations because the reasons offered were either not worthy of consideration or essentially asked me to cut these people off simply because they were perceived to be on the wrong side of an issue.

The fact that a person may be on the “wrong” side of a particular issue is not a sufficient basis, absent exceptional circumstances, for CFI to stop working with that person—especially when it’s not always immediately apparent what the “wrong” side is. We’re supposed to be free thinkers, not dogmatists.

Ben’s posts may exhibit some mistakes in reasoning and may have used some research that was unreliable. I think I can make these statements with confidence because Ben has acknowledged these mistakes himself, in part because some commenters pointed out some research he may have overlooked. (See, free expression does work—sort of.)

Based on this, I don’t see any reason to take any action.

Some commenters suggested there should have been an official CFI rebuttal. Why? An official rebuttal suggests that Ben was speaking on behalf of CFI and we needed to clarify that he was not, but as indicated, he was speaking for himself. Second, there were already rebuttals aplenty of Ben. PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, and Julia Lavarnway (a CFI employee) had their own blog posts criticizing Ben and commenters on Ben’s posts did not seem to be at a loss for words.

And what is it CFI was supposed to rebut? Ben’s speculations about the hues of dolls’ faces? Presumably not. What appeared to bother some commenters was Ben’s alleged sexism.

OK. CFI denounces sexism. We always have and presumably always will. Stereotyping based on gender is wrong and policies and practices that promote such stereotyping should be condemned. Furthermore, attitudes that exhibit sexism are unacceptable, and we should work to eliminate such attitudes, including, to the extent they exist, such attitudes within secular/skeptical organizations.

The problem is I doubt that Ben would disagree with anything in the above paragraph, nor did I see anything in his posts to suggest he would. Therefore, I’m not sure it counts as a “rebuttal.”

At the end of the day, it seems to me we had a controversial post (or posts) in which a blogger ventured some opinions, invited comments on those opinions, received comments that suggested he had erred in some ways, and then modified some of his opinions. This is not something we should decry. To the contrary, we should support a robust exchange of opinions.

Because of this recent controversy, CFIs Management Committee will discuss the future of Free Thinking this coming week. I have made plain my views, but we do have collective leadership at CFI, so it’s not inconceivable that the policies governing Free Thinking would change.  I hope not, because I think any radical change would undercut what CFI stands for. There are already an ample number of institutions that provide the comfort of orthodoxy for those want that sort of thing. They’re called churches.