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.


#51 Ronald A. Lindsay on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 10:27am

Joe: I have already written on the meaning of “blasphemy.” As I stated in an earlier blog,  “blasphemy” is not limited to ridicule of religious believers, nor has intent to offend been considered a necessary element of blasphemy. Blasphemy laws (only outlawed in the U.S. as of 1952; in the U.K. as of 2008) have been used to suppress free speech by prohibiting any denial or questioning of the dominant religious beliefs of the time, however well-reasoned the blasphemer’s views. Among the earliest persons convicted of “impiety” or blasphemy were the philosophers Protagoras and Socrates.
For a humanist, and therefore someone who allegedly believes in conforming his beliefs to the available evidence, I find it disappointing that you make several assumptions about the process by which CFI came to support Blasphemy Day. Discussions of the Management Committee are confidential, but it does not improperly disclose the deliberations of the MC to confirm this proposal was vetted by the MC, as well as the staff of our Outreach Dept. There was no dissent from the proposal to commemorate Blasphemy Day, which frankly is not surprising. (As you dissent, perhaps you could explain why you apparently believe it should be a matter of indifference to CFI that in most of the world there remain both formal and informal restrictions on speech critical of religion. Do you think we should not protest efforts at the UN to outlaw “defamation of religion”? If that’s your view, fine, but I am confident that’s not the view of the overwhelming majority of CFI staff and supporters.) Re the Blasphemy Contest, there was consensus that the contest would be an appropriate way to engage some of our supporters provided the contest made clear that we were not soliciting statements that were designed to humiliate individual believers. The contest rules were clear about this. Some critics apparently never read the rules or deliberately chose to ignore them.
In short, there was as much deliberation that went into this decision as there has been about other controversial CFI decisions in the past. Back in 2005, FI republished the Danish cartoons on Mohammed. I was not an employee of CFI at the time, but having been informed about how CFI operated then, I’d be surprised if there was significantly more deliberation that went into that decision than the decision to sponsor BD. Certainly there was no polling of membership.
Ina any event, your suggestion that somehow the membership of CFI should be consulted prior to decisions of this sort is highly impractical. First, how do we decide which decisions are so controversial that they should be submitted to FOCs? How is that consultation supposed to take place? Via email polling of the all FOCs?  What about the FOCs without email (there are some). How long should FOCs have to vote? Should we have representatives of the various positions debate the pros and cons prior to voting?
No nonprofit advocacy organization that I can think of (e.g. ACLU, AU) polls its membership prior to deciding to take a position on certain issues. Members that are unhappy about a decision are free to express their disappointment and the leadership of the organization then takes those dissenting opinions into consideration when planning future activities. That seems to me the only feasible model.
Re McCarthy: he claimed there were over 200, then 80, then 57 Communists in the State Dept. He at first failed to identify any individuals and then we he did he failed to supply credible supporting information. The analogy is apt. A smear is a smear regardless of who utters it. I see part of my job to be defending the staff of CFI when appropriate. I am not going to sit idly by and have them unfairly tarred as “atheist fundamentalists.”
I like to be as responsive as possible to our members, but I am now going to move on to other topics. Don’t mean to cut you off, however. Feel free to have the last word.

#52 Hugh Giblin (Guest) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 2:18pm

My “prism” is much wider than you realize ,(see message #45,)  Ron, and it goes beyond your removal of Paul Kurtz to your administration of the CFI the past year and a half
and the most recent fiasco of your appearance on NPR.  I find it paradoxical and problematic that, while I believe you believe in the principles you enunciate and you are also committed to Humanism, your actions seem a disconnect from your lofty words since you assumed leadership at CFI.

You seem to have an almost schizoid talent for saying one thing , doing another then disingenuously disclaiming any involvement in anything untoward.  However, since you mentioned Dr. Kurtz’s removal as Chair lets go back and revisit your comments that
it was only the Board’s decision (characterizing yourself as an innocent bystander , objective, a reluctant player, above the fray. etc) to do so . It is really a stretch Ron to expect anyone to believe that you, in your position in CFI at that time, were simply a neutral, passive, detached person with no involvement in that action.  That claim is also belied by your many emails on the subject over that period of time.

Next, let’s recall the email threatening to remove Paul Kurtz from his seat on the CFI Board with dire threats (plus censorship)  hastily followed by the usual disclaimer , “but, of course, that is up to the Board”. This is another example of your concept of neutral objectivity? I’ve always felt a leader should take responsibilities for his decision, right or wrong. Sorry Ron, that’s playing dirty in my book.

We have the same disclaimer for Blasphemy Day.  Seemingly we are to believe
you had no sense that there might be people who would heap abuse on religion
when your “Blasphemy Day gave them the uninhibited license to do so, (must be those dark glasses again). Did you really expect fresh new constructive criticism about religion: abstracts, a call for papers, scholarly proclamations, etc., on Blasphemy Day.  If we had
a concerted effort for the latter without allowing the ugly ridicule then perhaps a Blasphemy Day would have made some sense.

We have the obligatory disclaimer on NPR’s “Morning Edition”:“”We were not trying to insult believers” etc”  followed shortly by perhaps a more candid statement: “We will take the high road or the low road whatever it takes to reach people with our message”.  In other words Humanists will do whatever works, ethical standards and common decency be damned.  The new disclaimer on this one:  let’s blame NPR and Barbara Haggerty for it. 

Effectively Ron, you wound up defending the grossest excesses of Blasphemy Day such as the effeminate Christ painting his nails.  I wonder what some Gay Humanists thought about this caricature.  This Blasphemy fiasco has done nothing more than reinforce biases about and hatred of Humanism.  It comes across as either a startling disregard for any standard of civility and/or arrogance by the Movement.

In fairness its possible you might have used a clichéd response to the question on the program without the intent to defend the “insults”, but outside of another cliché ,above, (“not being infallible”) ; and a vague comment about “mistakes” while putting the onus on some entries in the Blasphemy Contest your performance and its impact on a national audience which doesn’t seem to bother you.  I think it bothers a lot of us.

I can and have stepped over the line between satire and ridicule.  It takes real constraint
to avoid ridiculing the absurdities of some religious beliefs.  However, I wind up regretting those comments which are unnecessary and unproductive especially in personal relationships, (however, when it comes to blatant harmful practices by religions I think good satire and tough words are appropriate). However, we are not talking personal relationships but the stance of a national organization which you lead.

Look Ron, I try to understand the militancy of the “New Atheism” as a phenomenon which we have seen with other minorities that have been maligned and oppressed over the ages. The Black Power Movement and the Feminist Movement both had excesses especially early on.  It is understandable in those terms but it doesn’t excuse them and they have been counter-productive to their legitimate goals.  The leadership at the CFI should be mature enough to recognize that and put their money and mouths where it will do the most good for Humanism.

Look, I try to understand the militancy of the “New Atheism” as a phenomenon which
we have seen with other minorities that have been maligned and oppressed over the ages.
The Black Power Movement and the Feminist Movement both had excesses especially early on.  It is understandable in those terms but it doesn’t excuse it and the excesses have
been counter-productive to their legitimate goals.  The leadership at the CFI should be mature enough to recognize that history and put their money and mouths where it will do the most good for Humanism, i.e, in good hard, reasoned criticism of religion not gratuitous insults.

I heard your recent appearance on “Point of Inquiry” wherein you extolled the Humanist
virtue of free expression and condemned censorship of any kind.  Yet reports coming out of the Center talk about an authoritarian approach to supervision, with disciplinary actions, censorship on expression and disagreement and an atmosphere of fear among some staff.  I understand you have told the CFI Centers to “disregard my emails” which have expressed my reservations about the direction of CFI under your leadership thereby precluding their exposure to the Center membership.  Free expression?  Hardly.  Even the NPR segment noted your “curious” version of   “free speech”. Perhaps you’re right, as long as you are running the CFI let’s call it “The Center for Limited Inquiry”, unfortunately, sadly and tragically that would seem to fit it at this moment in time.

Okay Ron, maybe it isn’t so much “playing dirty” as it seems sheer hypocrisy.

(Ps With no attempt to temper or compromise my above remarks I do wish you well with your health problems.)

Hugh Giblin

#53 SimonSays on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 3:14pm


For someone who has been allowed to freely spam these same same accusations (while at the same time admitting elsewhere that you were “not privy to the events which led to this dramatic change”) to the CFI blog, forums, Friendly Atheist, and internal email list servs (to name a few places), it’s quite laughable that you are crying censorship.

I am really not sure what your true beef is with Ron, but the tone and history of your attacks seems to indicate that it is not about blasphemy day and goes further back.

I am even less sure what action you would like the board to take since you fail to specify any kind alternate course. Basically you are “telling us what you are against, rather than what you are for” How Humanist of you.

All you are doing is inciting needless drama. To what end? What are you trying to accomplish? The return of Paul Kurtz (whose advanced age you’ve also conceded is a factor)? For someone who claims to understand how to productively advocate for a cause while avoiding “excesses”, your own PR tactic of drama and spam accomplishes very little.

#54 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 4:16pm

Oh, please, Hugh Giblin - all this spittle-flecked gossip and hand-rubbing - it’s disgusting. Keep it to yourself. Talk about public issues or be quiet. Nobody is interested in your salacious speculations about the inner workings of CFI.

#55 david whitsett (Guest) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 4:21pm

I agree with Ophelia.  This stuff adds nothing to the quality of the debate.

#56 Stan Friedlnd (Guest) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 7:03pm

The image of the infamous Joe McCarthy on the cover of CFI’s web-site reflects the true character of CFI’s new leadership. And,it’s not a pleasant sight in any respect. Given Dr. Lindsay’s air-headed statement on his NPR appearance (“we’ll take the high road or the low road; whatever it takes, etc”), he’s now receiving the criticism he justly deserves and he’s lashing out with a black coat of paint directed at any and all of his critics. And he has many. Here he was, a relatively new head of a national Humanist organization that had been superbly built up under the widely respected leadership of Paul Kurtz and he makes a statement totaly contrary to the most basic principle of Secular Humanism, namely a commitment to moral and ethical behavior. It was most appropriate an indeed courageous of Dr. Kurtz, on the same show, to label the Lindsay statement and other such irresponsible “Blasphemy Day statements, as smacking of “Atheist Fundamentalism”. Having heard the entire program, the Kurtz statement was accurate and very much needed to be a voice of reason and rationality, two qualities that are supposed to be central to Secular Humanist thought.
So what does Dr.Lindsay do to retaliate? He trots out a photo of one of our country’s worst hatemongers, the notorious Joe McCarthy, and likens all of his critics to his image. What a sad demonstration of negative and destructive leadership!
And there’s a deeper and more important point to be mmade here It has become painfully obvious that Dr. Lindsay is looking to develop his own reputation by trying to destroy the good name of Dr. Kurtz. I say this reluctantly and regretfully; but it has to be
said so that all CFI members and Secular Humanists
everywhere can be more alert and attentive to see if
this charge is matched by Dr. Lindsay’s actions. Thus far, there has been ample evidence of this
deplorable trend, which is why I feel the need to
identify it now,out in the open like this. If Dr.
Lindsay would like to deny tis charge, then, I would welcome his doing so. His leadership, thus far, has
been anything but that of someone qualified to lead
the way in promoting the ideals and principles of
Secular Humanism. To paraphrase a recognizable quote,
“I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Paul Kurtz and Ron
Lindsay is no Paul Kurtz!”

his doing so.

#57 SimonSays on Wednesday October 28, 2009 at 7:26pm

Stan, not to quibble, but Paul Kurtz made a Nazi reference in his post on blasphemy day (http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blog/a_disssenting_view_about_blashphemy_day/), so if we’re going to discuss characterizations we should at least be fair and present the full picture.

Ron is absolutely right that this “fundamentalist atheist” lunacy is not grounded in reality. This is evidenced by the continued failure of ANYONE to name even a single so-called “fundamentalist”-or even define what that is.

I can appreciate that you have a personal affection for Paul Kurtz and may even prefer him to be in charge, so I think you’d do all of us a favor and just state this outright, instead of using unrelated issues as a proxy to question Ron’s leadership-and quite crudely I might add.

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