At CFI, We Don’t Consider Debate a Strategic Blunder

October 20, 2010

Been off the blog for a couple of weeks. As you probably know, CFI’s affiliate, the Council for Secular Humanism, had a major conference in Los Angeles recently and my attention was focused on that event.

And it is the conference that I want to discuss briefly today. The conference went well, thanks. We had a great line-up of speakers and, in my opinion, we had interesting discussions about topics such as humanist ethics and how best to engage religious beliefs.

However, Matt Nisbet, someone I consider a friend of our organization, has sharply criticized us for making a “strategic blunder.” Specifically, Nisbet takes issue with our decision to invite biologist PZ Myers to participate in our conference. Myers was on a panel with Chris Mooney, Eugenie Scott, and Vic Stenger to discuss the topic of Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation?

Nisbet characterizes Myers as a “bomb-throwing blogger” who exceeds “the boundaries of civil discourse.” Nisbet then asserts that by inviting Myers to speak, we have affiliated with him.  Indeed, Nisbet states that CFI has shown it is “eager to embrace Myers as an important new face and thought leader for the organization.”

Huh? I am dumbfounded by Nisbet’s assertions.

Since when did an organization’s decision to invite someone to speak at a conference necessarily imply that the organization is embracing that person as a “thought leader for the organization”? This claim has no basis in logic. Sure, leading figures in humanism are invited to speak at our conferences, but that does not entail that everyone invited to speak is automatically transformed into one of our “thought leaders." (Many good lawyers are graduates of the University of Virginia; not every graduate, however, is a good lawyer.)

Nor do Nisbet’s assertions have any factual basis. His assertions certainly do not reflect the historical practice of the Council for Secular Humanism or CFI. 

At many conferences sponsored by the Council and/or CFI through the years, there have been speakers who have not represented the views of the organization. For example, we have had Catholic theologians, Buddhist priests, and other representatives of religious faiths. On one memorable occasion (memorable for me, because I was a participant), the Council presented a debate between its attorney (yours truly) and attorneys for the National Association for Evangelicals and the Rutherford Institute. I do not think anyone attending that conference was misled into thinking that the attorney from the Rutherford Institute had suddenly become a “thought leader” for our organization.

CFI and the Council are organizations that are committed to free inquiry and to the critical examination of beliefs and claims, and one very effective vehicle for exposing claims to critical examination is to have representatives of those claims debate their views in public. I fail to see how holding a debate on a topic of significant interest to the nonreligious community can be characterized as a “strategic blunder.”

Granted, sometimes debates may not be effective because the views represented are so absurd they do not lend themselves to rational discussion. Also, not every person who may be identified with a particular viewpoint is always a good choice as a speaker. For example, a person may be known as someone who does not adhere to accepted standards for debate.

Neither one of these criteria were applicable in the case of PZ Myers. The “confrontationist” approach (I actually hate the labels “accommodationist” and “confrontationist” but they are the descriptions typically used) is one favored by many nonreligious, including nonreligious who support CFI. There is a division of opinion within the nonreligious community about the circumstances under which we should criticize religion and how that criticism should be expressed, and this difference in opinion should be brought out into the open for discussion, not suppressed or ignored.

And Myers has done nothing to disqualify himself as an appropriate spokesperson for the confrontationist approach. Is Myers sometimes intemperate on his blog? (Can switching to Geico save you 15 % or more on car insurance?) Sure, and I have criticized him for that. But in the setting of our conference we had every expectation that he would provide a reasoned, well-argued defense of his position—and we were not disappointed

Nisbet, implicitly in this latest blog post, and explicitly in others, has emphasized the importance of marketing strategy for secular organizations. He seems to be suggesting that to promote ourselves successfully we have to require all our conference speakers to stay on message and toe some sort of humanist party line.

I disagree. First, marketing considerations aside, the notion that CFI should impose a party line on its speakers is abominable. The minute CFI does that we become intellectually dead. Second, part of what we are trying to “sell” is the importance of critically examining beliefs. I do not understand how we can do a good job of that if we decline to debate differences of opinion within our own community and instead turn our conferences into pep rallies.

CFI has been, and will remain, committed to promoting open and candid discussion of important issues related to our mission. Heck, we may even invite Nisbet to our next conference.



#1 Jim (Guest) on Wednesday October 20, 2010 at 4:57pm


#2 Dean Buchanan on Wednesday October 20, 2010 at 7:33pm

i am slowly being convinced to support CFI. It hurts, it is painful, and I may have to actually do something!
I have been to 2 of your events. You seem to be just about the right sort of d*ck. That’s crocoduck for those with dirty, dirty gnu minds. Not the, well, you know what.

#3 ckoproske on Wednesday October 20, 2010 at 7:44pm

Great post. Nice Geico reference.

#4 johndbraungart (Guest) on Thursday October 21, 2010 at 8:12am

While I can’t help but agree that dissent and debate are quite necessary to keep ideas flowing, I can also not deny a certain level of frustration at the level of unnecessary hostility, as well as the rate at which it seems to be growing, within a community of otherwise rationally-motivated thinkers and speakers.
For instance, I find myself in agreement with many of Mr. Myers’ comments, however it certainly seems as though the N.Y.Times article focused on Mr. Myers more for the antagonistic way in which he expresses his ideas than for his ideas themselves. To this extent, I was uncomfortable with the disproportionate amount of focus given to Myers in that particular article.
Of course, it would be easy to blame the media for the current wide-spread misconception of atheists as angry, anti-social malcontents. For that matter, it would also be easy to blame our woes on the opposing forces of fanatic religious enthusiasts.
But, I think there is an important case to be made for examining the way that irrational conflicts of emotions, politics, and alpha-dominance have erupted and progressed within the atheist/agnostic community itself.
We can not claim the authority of reason if we do not turn the critical eye on ourselves, and it is not merely for the superficiality of outward appearances that we must do so. Human beings working together need core values to unite them, and right now it unfortunately seems that hostility and anxiety are being accepted as if they were some kind of core values.
If it appears this way to me (and I, for one, am proud to call myself an atheist), then how much worse must it seem to the outside community, amongst whom we must learn to socialize if we hope to dispel irrational prejudice and achieve parity?
We do ourselves no favors in denying the effectively stagnating (if not crippling) effects of internal schism which continue within the secular community.

#5 Dean Buchanan on Thursday October 21, 2010 at 4:31pm

@#4 johndbraungart
You wrote:
“I can also not deny a certain level of frustration at the level of unnecessary hostility, as well as the rate at which it seems to be growing, within a community of otherwise rationally-motivated thinkers and speakers.”

Examples please

#6 johndbraungart on Friday October 22, 2010 at 8:51am


Well, I’m not exactly sure what kinds of examples you’re looking for. I don’t know whether you are unaware of the internally damaging personality conflicts within the secular community itself, or just unaware of the basic level of hostility that a number of publicly outspoken atheists seem to feel compelled to use (with varying degrees of self-justification) in their sometimes amusing, but often intentionally offensive, behaviors.

Since the reactions to the recent public forum on atheism were the basis of this thread, I’ll keep it within that context.

The N.Y.Times article refers to Myers as having derived publicity from his “desecration” of certain objects. While certainly within his rights of free speech, this kind of act can hardly be read as anything other than an overtly hostile one. Incendiary behaviors and speech like this can be quite powerful, but just because a behavior makes a strong point doesn’t necessarily make that behavior rational.

It seems to me that those of us who hold rational behavior and reason as core values may do well to distinguish certain types of hostile behavior and language as being expressions which are mostly unhelpful to the dialogue we are trying to create.

Antagonism can only go so far, and it’s really debatable as to how effective it is as a form of dialogue. But, furthermore, the continued use (or implicit condoning) of strident antagonism seems to lend credence to the same types of irrational behavior and sanctimonious self-justifications which are so often employed by those we oppose.

#7 jerrys on Friday October 22, 2010 at 12:24pm

@ johndbraungart

I think the reporter focussed on the panel with PZ because he attended that and didn’t attend the whole conference.  Sam Harris at a different session expressed opinions at least as militant as PZ’es.  And Dawkins received an award that I think qualifies him as a “thought leader”. 

Personally I think that if someone accepts “reason and rationality” it leaves a lot of room for different styles and emphasis in their personas.  Not to mention, differences of opinion on various substantive issues.  Because two people agree about the existence of gods doesn’t mean they’ll agree about much else. 

For the record,  I asked a question from the audience and if I understood PZ’es response he said he couldn’t imagine someone agreeing with him about religion who didn’t also agree with his politics.

#8 Dean Buchanan on Friday October 22, 2010 at 5:33pm

<html><p>Thank you for the example johndbraungart. I have found that it is helpful, when discussing issues, especially complex ones, that having a common example or two helps.
So, here is the post where PZ explains why he wants someone to obtain the Eucharist. It is an interesting, but long, post. The basics: Webster Cook, a student, was receiving death threats and had politically active, national Catholic groups attempting of file complaints through the student judicial system of his school. All because he didn’t swallow the Eucharist, but took it out of the church. To get a feel for the scope of what this boy was going through, you should read the post. PZ’s response was deliberate, reasoned and rational. Regardless of what others may feel about his tactics, he cannot be accused of simply acting out of blind anger, or simply wanting to insult Catholics.
Here is the post where PZ describes what he was did with the Eucharist. “inspired by an old woodcut of Jews stabbing the host, I thought of a simple, quick thing to do: I pierced it with a rusty nail…”. He then threw it in his kitchen trash can with old coffee grounds, a banana peel, followed by a few ripped out pages from the Qur’an and The God Delusion.
To me, this is an example of very good performance art. It seems to have been done with the proper amount of anger at an injustice, and a symbolic action dramatized to get across the main point, that is, that people are more important than symbols. It seems a very humanistic value and a measured response that addressed the local issue and the larger issue. The larger issue being the social norm not allowing criticism of religion.
Would I have done that, no. But I do not think that anyone can credibly argue that what PZ did was not rational.Dean</html>

#9 Dean Buchanan on Friday October 22, 2010 at 5:53pm


You wrote: “Antagonism can only go so far, and it’s really debatable as to how effective it is as a form of dialogue.”

I agree with you here. But what if we need to do other things in addition to having dialog? We have been engaged in quiet dialog for a long time.

I think a case can be made that the reason more people are joining and becoming active and outspoken, is because of the new attitude that some atheists have adopted. Therefore, I think that the more outspoken atheists are benefitting the cause of freethinking, skepticism, humanism, and secularism. But I can not say whether this will be a strategy we need to follow at all times and in all cases. Actually, I can say that it most assuredly will not be. These are questions of social and political tactics that those of us who want to move our country in a secular direction, need to grapple with and find, at least, provisional answers to.
Unfortunately, I am in no position to really analyze the political tactics that ‘our movement?’ is using. I have opinions, but I am the first to admit that these opinions may be terribly wrong. However, I have heard no convincing arguments, at least convincing to me, that the more outspoken and ‘in your face’ approach of some of our comrades, is doing more harm than good. In short, I think we need all types of tactics and strategies, and we have them.


#10 DagoRed (Guest) on Friday October 22, 2010 at 6:22pm

I disagree, we can very much completely ignore this problem and let it play out of its own accord.  I commend CFI for providing an open forum for these two sides to work out their differences a bit, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this is anything more than a minor, insignificant side show that most of us simply follow, like “daytime dramas”, for pure entertainment value.

What people need to forget is that secularism itself is a naturally convergent ideology.  There is no sects or divisions or flavors to secularism because it is a simple single-line, easy to define ideological goal.  You either believe in it or not, and if you do, whether we are united as a group or separated by other ideological differences, all pro-secularists will always end up towing the line together in the same direction. If you doubt this point, recall the fact that there are many religious people who fight for secularism just as hard and just as fervently along side the non-theist community, and many of them disagree vehemently with us on a myriad of topics far more divisive than this “accomodationist v confrontationist” debate ever could possibly be.

Granted, a united group of people may perhaps have a bit better political clout at times, but fractured as we may be, we are still nearly as strong because secularism is a convergent ideology.  Like the orcs of Mordor, we instinctually always end up fighting on the same side even when we fight and bicker incessantly with one another in the interim. 

It really is time to bat all the concern trolls of our movement on the nose and tell them to go back to their caves and sulk.  Let’s stop feeding them by worrying about whose tactics or tone is best.  There are far better things to worry about in life than this soap opera.

#11 johndbraungart on Saturday October 23, 2010 at 2:05am

If all we want to do is have a dialogue with others who already agree with us, then we can use whatever strategies we find amusing amongst ourselves. It just seems, to me, a little too self-congratulatory and limiting to keep proceeding in this way.

I think that all forms of communication may, in fact, be perfectly valid depending on the circumstances. However, one can’t reasonably deny the overt psychological impact of publicly destroying an object, whether that object is considered sacred or secular, because the act of destroying something has obvious connotations of hostility.

Years ago, when women burned undergarments, it was a revolutionary act of consciousness-raising that came from deep anger about gender-based oppression. Similarly, when men tore-up their draft cards, it was a rebellious act of non-compliance against reigning government policies. These types of demonstrations of public anger made sense given the circumstances in which they occurred. I just don’t see how a credible argument can be made comparing these types of situations to that of the secular community in the U.S. today.

While our position is certainly one of minority disenfranchisement, our civil and human rights are hardly being threatened to the extent that such hostility makes any rational sense. On the contrary, by maintaining hostile attitudes, we are much more likely to be perceived as over-reacting (and, therefore, more apt to be summarily dismissed), by the very people in society whom we might otherwise gain as our allies.

I don’t see any reason to simply deny the anger that many of us must naturally feel about the hypocrisies and harms caused by the irrational acts and beliefs of others. But, I also don’t see how following their poor examples of behavior helps us.

The language of anger is both powerful and useful, and I’m not advocating to keep it under wraps. But, I think we do ourselves more harm than good if we fail to examine ourselves and hold ourselves accountable to some kind of rational, ethical standard in our expression of that anger.

If we truly want to strive for a secular society by any means necessary, then we can easily justify our own acts of irrationality; but I hardly think most of us would truly want to see that type of scenario play itself out.

But, if our goal is to convincingly present the benefits of accepting a secular approach to life, I believe our case would be more powerful if united under core principles such as reason and rationality.

Otherwise, it just seems like our strategy is to make fun of other people until they feel ashamed enough to acquiesce to our views, and I find that a childish and short-sighted approach.

#12 johndbraungart on Saturday October 23, 2010 at 2:21am

Pointedly throwing objects into the trash hardly qualifies as an artistic gesture, and certainly doesn’t seem like a very intelligent remedy for death threats.

#13 Dean Buchanan on Sunday October 24, 2010 at 6:14pm

“I just don’t see how a credible argument can be made comparing these types of situations to that of the secular community in the U.S. today.”

We can compare them in the sense of ‘compare and contrast’. History is a teacher. Yes, our situation in history is unique, as were the civil rights movement, the LBGT movement, the women’s movement, and so on, unique relative to one another. We are adopting some of the successful tactics of the above. And possibly some that won’t be successful for us, I think you are saying. Is your argument about proportionality or about specific tactics? Again, I think we need to be specific rather than general.

Specifically, you say that our human rights are not being threatened so much that our ‘hostility’ is justified and will be alienating to potential allies.
Here is an example, posted just yesterday, of one way that minds are changed, and then support is given to those who escape very serious religious indoctrination. Yes, it is an anecdote, one of many however, and anecdotes are real data about this topic. Of course, not enough to draw a conclusion or thoroughly compare differing strategies.
Another type of evidence we have regards the state of secularism in this country. It is apparently rising after many years of stasis. This corresponds to some social factors, including a reaction to 9/11. However it also corresponds to the newer outspokenness of some atheists. It is undeniable that this outspokenness, and sometimes mockery, helped galvanize many of us, and that gives us a place to gather, if you will.

There is evidence going both ways on the tactics. If anyone has put their finger on what the ‘best’ (at least provisionally) combination of tactics and strategy is, then I certainly want to hear it, and we are having part of the debate here. My understanding is that multiple strategies have always won the day in any effort to change the prevailing norms and beliefs. I take your point that verbal hostility is not a long term strategy. But I know of no person that believes that hostility is a long term strategy. There may be some, but they are not any of the recognized ‘leaders’, if you will, of our movement. As we grow and mature, having more conversations like this, and watching the particular social situations change, our tactics will evolve.

As a social movement (which I believe we are), we are mighty tame compared to most historically disenfranchised folk. This supports your point that we are in a different position than some other groups have been. We are not armed and threatening, we are asking, and some of us are loudly demanding, that our political system be secular and that no topics should be off limits in the public debate.

There are, and will be leaders of different stripes emerging, with different agendas and styles. I celebrate our diversity and know that it represents strength. That, and the fact that we are concerned with whatever is true, not just what we want to be true.

I guess the short way to say all of the above is that, while I think I understand your general concerns, I don’t share them. I am bothered more by the injustices of the world, (as I imagine you are). They are many, and they certainly don’t all have to do with religion, but a lot of them do.

Also, re:PZ. You are simply wrong. What he did was very much good performance art, did you even read his posts?

#14 Dean Buchanan on Sunday October 24, 2010 at 6:44pm

Also, toward Dr. Lindsay,

I agree with your post.
After reading the first few paragraphs of Nisbet’s article, I furiously typed…(unedited)

“As I wrote last week, at issue is how secular humanists and atheists should participate as citizens in society.” 

Mistake number one, tell people how they “”“"should”“”” participate as citizens.

“On the other side, “confrontationalists” argue that they should close ranks and engage in relentless attack and ridicule against all forms of religion, a Holy Grail pursuit to eliminate religious faith from the world.”

WHAT IS NISBET THINKING. How can I take this man seriously when this is how he characterizes the “”“"new”“”“atheists?

It just gets worse, his ‘evidence’ is from LA and the fact that there was PZ. ...of course everyone knows that he throws bombs. What a crock of Nisbet.


If he has a good point in there somewhere, I would really have preferred that he come out with it.

Thank you for your work. I will be continuing to support CFI.

Dean in DC

#15 johndbraungart on Monday October 25, 2010 at 11:12am

Well, it seems to me that there’s enough here to fairly represent the differences in our opinions, as well as ample evidence of the values which we share.

I view many of Myers’ comments as quite intelligent and hope that much of his content resonates with many who already consider themselves atheists or agnostics; however, I also think a future vision of secular growth in society must include deeper self-examination on the part of many who publicly voice dissent.

Going forward, I hope to see more media attention focusing on moderate points of view within the secular community, so that the public perception of atheists does not continue to be overwhelmingly stereotyped as hostile, aloof, and overly-antagonistic; because this is how we are currently seen by many who are uninformed in society.

I don’t find it so easy to deny that a good deal of this perception has been born directly out of the behavior of many publicly outspoken atheists who are doing more to advance their own publicity than the cause of secular values.

I’m sure as lengthy as our discussion on the value vs. impediment of hostile language in public discourse has been, the topic of socially valuable vs. publicity-based art would be even more exhaustive. So, on this point I am willing to simply agree to disagree.

Suffice to say, from my perspective, certain ideas in this debate, though rhetorically defensible, are not ultimately provable, and therefore ever remain in the category of opinion and not fact. I do, however (like all people), maintain an allegiance to some of my own opinions as if they were fact, and that itself can be either to my benefit or detriment, depending on both the content of, and motivation behind, my thinking.

There are times when anger and the expression of outrage are clearly justified, but I would still say a measure of care must be maintained, even in desperate cases, in order to avoid falling into the same irrational trappings of our opponents. Of course, even irrational free speech is defensible, but one hopes that the rational mind will prevail; and that is ultimately the reason behind what I’ve attempted to convey here.

#16 Dean Buchanan on Monday October 25, 2010 at 4:02pm

I agree.
Thank you for having a good conversation with me about this.

I especially like:
“Suffice to say, from my perspective, certain ideas in this debate, though rhetorically defensible, are not ultimately provable, and therefore ever remain in the category of opinion and not fact.”

I remember being part of the 1980’s ‘left’ in college. We tore ourselves apart by continuously pulling the scabs off of our smallest differences. My politics have changed somewhat since then, but one lesson will never leave me. After returning from ‘cutting coffee’ in Nicaragua, I could no longer look at our constant arguing in the school coffeehouses as interesting or productive. I saw the privilege of middle class college students being squandered in the solipsistic faux rebellion of lazy ideas and easy answers. I learned that conversation and the sharpening of ideas is important, but it doesn’t help anyone if it ends there.


#17 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday October 26, 2010 at 12:54pm

I think Matt Nisbet “exceeds the boundaries of civil discourse” by calling PZ Myers “a bomb-throwing blogger.” That’s incendiary rhetoric, not civil discourse.

#18 Stan Friedland (Guest) on Sunday October 31, 2010 at 4:50pm

I read the LA Times article but was not comfortable with term “accomodationist” and what it implied. I think it’s inaccurate and reincarnates the image of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who kowtowed to Hitler after the latter’s invasion of Czechoslavakia back in 1938. We are not weak, nor ineffectual in proclaiming our identities as Secular Humanists, neither individually or collectively. Who has done more to advance the sum, substance and worth of SH than Paul Kurtz in our lifetime? We certainly do have some new kids on the block named Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc. and, for the most part, I welcome their emergence and enjoy their books and lectures because, after all the noise dies down, they each have something of worth to contribute.

It is well known that it takes multiple bullets to stop the charge of the heavily armored rhinocerous. That example is analogous to the need for multiple approaches to advance the major premises of all non-believers in our efforts to cut into the domination of religiosity in our country. Each faction of non-belief, each faction of Secular Humanism, has common central premises, but also different degrees of emphasis on how to achieve their goals. It’s important now not to be so hung up on our relatively minor differences that we become divided in our common major quest; namely to diminish in our society the harmful domination of religion.

Major principles of Secular Humanism are Reason, Rational Thought and Science based Empirical quests for the truth. We believe we can advance our cause by civil discourse that is strong, firm, repetitive, articulate and coherent. We believe that our messages, delivered in a civil fashion, are likely to be better understood AND responded to affirmatively by theists than by ridicule, confrontation and loudness. There is even credible behavioral research to support these methods of communication.

Does such an approach make us “accomodationists” or just more effective and influential in our efforts than the other modus operandi?  If we believe in thinking and acting with reason, logic and rational thought as our descriptors, then let it be reflected in our actual behavior.

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