Irresponsible Criticism of CFI

May 13, 2010

The June/July issue of Free Inquiry may be coming to your mailbox soon. The lead editorial by my colleague Paul Kurtz contains some sharp criticism of the current management of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and its affiliates, including the Council for Secular Humanism (Council).

Kurtz has every right to express his disagreement with actions undertaken by management. But critics, especially those who embrace humanist ethics, do have some responsibilities. Their criticism must be supported by facts and must not misrepresent the actions or positions criticized. Regrettably, Kurtz’s editorial fails to meet these standards.

In his editorial, Kurtz suggests that readers new to Free Inquiry may not realize that CFI and the Council used to sponsor academic conferences; he implies that CFI and the Council now focus on "buffoonery." Not unexpectedly, he repeats his tiresome and fallacious objections to Blasphemy Day. (There is no need to delve into that issue again, but you can look at my post from last year if you want to.)

However, he also maintains he has new evidence to support his claim that CFI and its affiliates have now adopted ridicule as the preferred method for critiquing religious beliefs. He points to the Council’s Free Expression Cartoon Contest, voicing his outrage at the winning entry , which features a Catholic bishop walking into a room with ten altar boys and musing, "God! It’s like everyone I’ve ever slept with is here." Tsk, tsk, says Dr. Paul. CFI and the Council should not "engage in such forms of lampooning." Nothing so tawdry would have run in the pages of Free Inquiry when he was in charge.

But the facts contradict Kurtz’s claims and demonstrate that his objections are intellectually dishonest.

To begin, please look at your last issue of FI , which featured articles based on papers delivered at CFI’s conference on John Dewey. Was Dewey a buffoon? In addition, just a couple of weeks ago, I received a report from Ibn Warraq, CFI’s noted Islamic scholar, commenting of the Inarah conference which was sponsored in part by CFI. (The Inarah conference focuses on studies of the early history of Islam.) The fact is CFI and the Council continue to support scholarship to the extent we have the financial means to do so (more on that below).

Second, the principal judges for the Free Expression Cartoon Contest were not employees of CFI or the Council. Instead, outside judges were used. And leading the panel of judges was Steve Benson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Arizona Republic . Benson found the winning entry "wickedly humorous, brutally direct . . . a stinging indictment of the Church’s pedophilic priest scandal." He might have added that its tone was not very different from cartoons on the same topic appearing in newspapers and other publications throughout the country.

Finally, and most importantly, the winning entry was similar in tone to the cartoons that have appeared in the pages of Free Inquiry for decades. Indeed, FI published more such cartoons when CFI and the Council were under Kurtz’s absolute control than after June 2008. ( FI has dramatically reduced its use of cartoons.)

Don’t believe me? The cartoon that heads up my post is from the Spring 2003 issue of FI , and accompanied an article on the soft treatment pedophilic priests were receiving. The next cartoon is from the Fall 2002 issue, and accompanied an article on child abuse by priests. This latter cartoon strikes me as particularly crude as the bishop is actually salivating at the prospect of abusing a boy.

One cartoon that is very pointed I cannot, unfortunately, reproduce in my blog for copyright reasons, as FI paid the cartoonist from the Dayton Daily News for the rights to run the cartoon only in that particular issue (the Summer 2002 issue). But I can describe it: One priest is kneeling, confessing to another. The penitent priest says, "Forgive me, Father, I want to fondle little boys." The confessor shows relief, remarking, "Whew . . . I thought you were going to say you wanted to ordain women." 

Free Inquiry cartoons, of course, touched on issues other than child abuse. For example, FI published one wanly ridiculing the Salvation Army (Winter 2000/01), and another one showing a muscular, superhero Jesus in briefs (Spring 2003). You may recall that last year Paul Kurtz roundly criticized a painting that was displayed at the CFI Center in Washington, D. C., in part because it showed Jesus as effeminate. I guess he prefers the beefcake version.

Nor were contemptuous cartoons limited to the inside pages. Who can forget the notorious cover showing Uncle Sam about to marry a Pat Robertson look-alike with breasts? (Incongruously, the Robertson figure was also wearing a mitre — apparently this is de rigueur for any religious caricature)

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Given this factual background about the contents of Free Inquiry when Kurtz controlled everything, there are two possible conclusions about Kurtz’s recent criticism: 1. Kurtz has never actually read an issue of Free Inquiry , or seen any of its covers. 2. Kurtz’s expression of outrage at the Cartoon Contest is feigned. There is no principled difference between him and current management. He has personal grievances, but because he knows it is not politic to acknowledge his personal grudge, he manufactures a dispute about the "wrong direction" of CFI.

Tired of the Kurtz melodrama? Yes, I am too. But Kurtz will not stop, and the sad reality is that Kurtz’s constant carping and false claims are having an effect. CFI may be losing public support because some may be taken in by Kurtz’s misrepresentations; others may just be sick of the never-ending disputes and will want to give their money elsewhere. CFI has had to cut some programs and staff already. More cuts may be forthcoming.

Apparently without any realization of its irony, Kurtz entitled his editorial "Toward a Kinder and Gentler Humanism." A worthy goal, but I’d settle for simple honesty and a sense of responsibility.