Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter

Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 19

November 14, 2014

Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible.

The Main Events

federal-court.jpgFederal Judge Calls Secular Humanism a Religion, CFI Responds

In a recent federal court case involving Oregon prison inmate Jason Michael Holden, who was trying to get his Humanist study group authorized by prison officials, Senior District Judge Ancer Haggerty sided with Holden, but in doing so ruled that “Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.” While we were glad that humanism was declared to be on equal footing with religious beliefs in this case, we are also concerned that this decision will now have unforeseen negative consequences for secular humanism more generally.

That’s why earlier this week, three members of CFI’s leadership—Tom Flynn, Ronald A. Lindsay, and Nicholas J. Little—coauthored an article titled “Secular Humanism: Not a Religion.” They highlight what they see as the problematic aspects of lumping humanism (particularly secular humanism) with supernaturalistic religions and cite the tumultuous history of previous attempts to do so by secularism’s opponents. “In the larger domain of social rhetoric, [Judge Haggerty’s decision] will likely resonate like a cannon-shot,” they write. “It seems likely to provoke an entirely unnecessary revival of those old tropes about the ‘religion of humanism.’”

The article will be the lead editorial in the February/March 2015 issue of Free Inquiry, but you can read it right now at Tom Flynn’s blog at Free Thinking.


Steve Allen Theater lobby for election.jpg2014 Midterm Elections Fallout for Secularism

CFI, as you know, is an entirely non-partisan organization. But it’s hard to look at the fallout from Election Day 2014 and feel that secularism was among the night’s winners. Certainly, a more conservative and less religiously diverse incoming Congress doesn’t bode terribly well for the next two years. CFI President and CEO Ron Lindsay noted in particular in a new blog post that while the switch of control of the Senate to the GOP is significant, of more lasting importance is the significant increase in the Republican Party’s majority in the House, which will reverberate well into the next administration, even if the next president is a Democrat.

But all was not lost. CFI’s public policy director Michael De Dora dug into the results and uncovered quite a few diamonds in an otherwise rough election. There were important gains for equality in Oregon and Dallas, Texas; a “personhood” amendment was soundly defeated in Colorado, as was a similar measure in North Dakota; and Hawaii rejected an attempt to send public funds to religious and private schools. See Michael’s full tally here.

As a sidenote, CFI–Los Angeles’s Steve Allen Theater once again served as a polling place for two L.A. precincts. 


steven_pinker_by_max_s_gerber_srgb_profile_0.jpgSteven Pinker’s Sense of Style, and the Facts and Fictions of Ebola, on Point of Inquiry

Point of Inquiry, CFI’s flagship podcast, has never shied away from contentious topics. The past two weeks prove that without a shadow of a doubt, as the show talked to fascinating experts about two extremely hot-button issues: Ebola and, yes, grammar.

Josh Zepps tackles the subject of Ebola, in front of a live audience in New York City no less, with a conversation with two experts: veterinarian and epidemiologist Dr. Jon Epstein and Dr. Kevin Olival, a disease ecologist and evolutionary biologist. The two of them help separate fact from fiction in the media-fueled paranoia about the disease and provide some much-needed insight into what can be done to prevent Ebola from becoming a true pandemic.

It is Lindsay Beyerstein who treads fearlessly into the thorniest of topics, as she welcomes very special guest Steven Pinker to discuss his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. The result of the discussion, however, is to provide some relief from those who fear the critical ear of “language mavens” and other pedants who thrive on pointing out the unforgivable grammatical errors of others.


Cover-DJ copy.jpgFree Inquiry on the Rise of Global Fundamentalism

Secularism is on the rise in the West, but there is a countervailing force that presents a true challenge to the fostering of a global embrace of humanism, science, and critical thinking: the rise of fundamentalist religion in the developing world. In a troubling but necessary cover feature in the latest Free Inquiry, available on newsstands now, Leah Mickens writes that the lack of access to education, medicine, and political freedom primes the Third World, as well as those countries dominated by extremist Islam, to become more religious and hostile to Western notions of human rights. She warns, “The chance that they will be able to improve their lot is slim, while the probability of dying early is high.”

The December 2014/January 2015 issue of Free Inquiry also includes an op-ed by Ron Lindsay on how religion manipulates morality, Tom Flynn’s 30th anniversary as the “Anti-Claus,” and CFI chair Edward Tabash’s critical review of Sam Harris’s new book Waking Up.


Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 10.48.27 AM.pngREASON FOR CHANGE: CFI’s International Conference Coming This June!

In the last edition of Cause & Effect, we announced that our next major conference, Reason for Change, will take place June 11–15, 2015, in Buffalo, NY, with featured speakers that include Rebecca Goldstein, Susan Jacoby, and Richard Dawkins, among a whole host of brilliant experts, activists, and thinkers. New developments about the conference are happening all the time, from events being added, new speakers joining the lineup, or additional details and information about the program. To keep up with it all, you can follow the Reason for Change website on Tumblr, where we will post new information and news as it comes in. This past week alone, we’ve added five new speakers, announcing the news right on the conference Tumblr. You can stay up to date with all the action by clicking the “+ FOLLOW” button on the upper right of the website.

And if you haven’t already, register right now


News from HQ and the CFI Community

michaelcluff_southjerseyhumanists_lightthenight.jpgFreethought Pen Pals Find Common Humanity

Taking on the Freethought Books Project, a program that gets science and secularism books into the hands of prisoners who want them, has been very meaningful for us at CFI. Part of the initiative includes a pen pal program, which matches up volunteers with inmates looking to talk to someone who shares a nonreligious or skeptical worldview. Two of those volunteers have written about their experiences as pen pals at the CFI blog. 

Addie Lass writes that she appreciates how the program gives her a chance to “recognize the humanity” of marginalized members of society and how freeing she has found the experience. “For the few hours I spend reading and responding to a letter, I receive so much more than sharing a few words.”

Michael Cluff corresponds with a young man who only recently lost his faith and notes, “Despite what might seem to be a wide gulf between me and my pen pal, our common humanity … was plenty enough for us to relate to one another.” 

Learn more about the Freethought Books Project and see if you’d like to be a pen pal yourself.


48_about-photo.jpgConfirm Saperstein to International Religious Freedom Post, Say Freethought Groups

Rabbi David Saperstein is being endorsed by a coalition of fifteen freethought groups, led by CFI and the American Humanist Association, to be Ambassador-at-Large for the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department. The coalition is urging the U.S. Senate to quickly confirm him to the post, as someone who is “uniquely suited” to the position. In a letter to the Senate leadership, the coalition notes that Saperstein “is sympathetic to the concerns of those who are atheistic or nontheistic, a community that is subject to frequent discrimination internationally due to laws and norms prohibiting discussion of religion or de-conversion from religion/s.” We’ll be watching this confirmation process closely, and we’ll keep you updated.


B19ZX8gIYAAoOrT.jpgCFI–DC Celebrates Eight Years in the Nation’s Capital

The community of CFI–DC celebrated its eighth anniversary with a fantastic fundraiser event on Saturday at Busboys and Poets. Journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family and C Street, delivered a fascinating talk on “the frontiers of fundamentalism in an age of gender nationalism,” and comedian Leighann Lord (a true favorite in the CFI community) delighted the audience as always, which included some deftly delivered Ebola humor. CFI–DC’s executive director, Melody Hensley, discussed the year’s achievements, honored local volunteers, and offered a glimpse of what the coming year will bring for this robust and active branch. CFI’s president, Ron Lindsay, was also on hand, signing the first pre-release copies of his upcoming book The Necessity of Secularism, which officially releases on December 1. Happy anniversary, CFI–DC!


Unknown.jpegFresh Perspectives on Tough Topics at CFI–L.A. Events

At the “Feed Your Brain” lecture CFI–Los Angeles, Peter Marston, professor of Communications Studies at California State University, Northridge, explained how to use rhetorical analysis to disarm pseudoscientific and paranormal arguments, but he also advised skeptics to put themselves in the place of believers, as a frontal assault on people’s core beliefs often causes more resistance to critical thinking. And speaking of putting oneself into other people’s shoes, on November 16 CFI–L.A. will host Ryan Bell, a former pastor with the Hollywood Seventh-Day Adventist Church, who will talk about his project of living “as an atheist” for a year. Bell is currently blogging about his year without God at the Patheos network.


CFI in the Media


●   At Benjamin Radford’s Discovery News column, he examines why the Catholic Church feels the need to perpetuate myths about the existence of Satan and includes some wisdom from our own Tom Flynn on how Satan is a convenient source for “all the moral and physical evils that the faithful would prefer not to attribute to God.” 

●   Also, Ben’s newest book Mysterious New Mexico is highlighted in the Albuquerque Journal  and Cibola Beacon

●   Ali A. Rizvi writes at Huffington Post about the imprisoned Saudi activist Raif Badawi, as Badawi is awarded the PEN Canada One Humanity Award in absentia, and notes CFI’s efforts on Badawi’s behalf.

●   Point of Inquiry co-host Josh Zepps sits down for an interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast.

●   Unexpectedly, CFI gets a mention in KPopStarz, an outlet for news about Korean Pop Music. The piece in question is about the possibility of a Cosmos “Season 2” with Bill Nye, and notes Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s task in filling Carl Sagan’s shoes and also how we at CFI celebrate Carl Sagan Day. It is entirely unclear what this has to do with K-Pop, but we’re glad for the mention.


Highlights from CFI on the Web


●   Two important features from Skeptical Inquirer are now available online: Scott O. Lilienfeld and Rachel Ammirati provide a skeptic’s guide to the debate over whether we would really be better off without religion; and Harriet Hall writes firmly on the subject of allowing competent adults to refuse medical treatment on religious grounds but keeping faith-healing as far away from children as possible.   

●   David Koepsell looks askance at some of the criticism over scientific accuracy in the film Interstellar, writing, “Harping upon scientific ‘errors’ or complaining about the license taken by the storyteller in making his point risks undermining the philosophical value of storytelling.” 

●   November 9 was Carl Sagan Day, and the Gulf Coast State College CFI On Campus hosted an impressive week-long Carl Sagan Day celebration that included a film showing, Carl Sagan trivia, and a physics lecture. President Jake Brown wrote about it on The Course of Reason blog.

●   CFI–UK’s Stephen Law literally dons a tinfoil hat to discuss why something so obviously false as young-Earth creationism can seem to its adherents to be so obviously true.  

●   At the Free Thinking blog, Joe Nickell studies a film of the alleged Honey Island Swamp Monster and concludes, “The creature appears not to be Bigfoot but rather Bigsuit.” At Skeptical Inquirer, he follows the siren’s song and finds nothing but “fakelore.” 

●   CFI’s library recently received portraits of Robert Ingersoll and D.M. Bennett, which Tim Binga describes for us, including the back of the Ingersoll portrait, which refers to him as “The Man The Myth The Legend.” (We’re not so sure Ingersoll would want to be referred to as a “myth.”)

●   Matt Crowley writes at Skeptical Briefs on the claim that cameras can steal your immortal essence, saying, “If the soul were something besides light, then we might worry it could be captured by a vacuum cleaner, a fishing line, or a Ziploc bag.”

●   Terence Hines reviews The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America’s Loch Ness Monster, by Robert E. Bartholomew.  

And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.

Upcoming CFI Events

November 15:

●   Carl Sagan Day is celebrated by CFI–Tampa Bay with guests Dr. Jonathan Smith, Dave Dockery, Dr. Jack Robinson, and Jim Peterson.

November 16:

●   Former pastor Ryan Bell, who famously went on a one-year stint as an atheist, will speak about his experience with CFI–Los Ageles and CFI–Orange County.

November 19:

●   University at Buffalo physics professor Will Kinney comes to CFI HQ in Western New York for a lecture on our place in the universe and rejects the idea that it was somehow made “just for us.”

November 24:

●   CFI–Michigan takes part in the 15th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.

December 5:

●   CFI’s president and CEO, Ronald A. Lindsay, discusses his new book The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do at CFI headquarters in Amherst, NY.


Thank you!

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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. CFI’s web address is