Two Different Visions of the Center for Inquiry, Indeed

October 1, 2009

I read Ron Lindsay’s recent characterization of my misgivings about “Blasphemy Day” with dismay. I am so stunned by his blog that I can hardly believe what I read. He says that there are two different visions of CFI. His scenario of what I have advocated is totally false.  Mr. Lindsay states that:

“Paul Kurtz does offer to the readers of Free Inquiry a choice between two starkly different views if CFI. There is the CFI that stands with those who believe that we should be free to criticize religion just as we criticize other beliefs; then there is the neo-Kurtzian vision of a CFI that would tiptoe around religion for fear of giving offense.”

Has Mr. Lindsay read any of my approximately 1000 articles and more than 50 books written over a long life dedicated to the critical examination of religion and the defense of secular humanism and scientific rationalism? I suppose so, but did he comprehend what I was trying to say?

Do I need to point out that I founded Prometheus Books (in 1969), which is now the largest publishing company in the world specializing in books critical of religion and the defense of humanism and secularism? Prometheus over the past 40 years has published more than 3,000 books, many of them powerful critiques of religion by renowned atheist and skeptical authors.

Do I need to point out that I also initiated the founding of CSICOP (in 1976), publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer , which defends the scientific outlook and has forthrightly criticized paranormal claims? Similarly, I founded the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry (in 1980), and I have consistently said that we are committed to freedom of inquiry and that religion needs to be critically examined the same as all other claims.

The same thing is true for the establishment of the Center for Inquiry (in 1991), which is “committed to the use of reason, science and free inquiry in every area of human interest” (including, of course, religion.).

I have taken more than 100 trips all over the world encouraging the founding of Centers—from India and China to Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America—bringing the same message. And I have given thousands of talks and media appearances on similar themes. And now to be castigated for being a “tiptoer”? Wow, that’s gutsy!

The main difference between Mr. Lindsay’s approach and mine is that I have attempted to take “the high road,” if you will, by providing intelligent, responsible and judicious critiques. I am happy to say that as a result the Center for Inquiry has been considered one of the most respected organizations in North America, offering dignified critiques of the reigning orthodoxies and fanaticisms, and we had attracted many of the leading scholars and scientists in the world under our banner. Indeed, the Center for Inquiry had been the largest freethought organization in North America—larger in readership and resources than all of the other organizations committed to similar goals combined!

My objection to Blasphemy Day is that it can be rather sophomoric; particularly the holding of a contest to see who come up with the most pithy forms of blasphemy. I have consistently said that if we are to be taken seriously, we need to provide the best scholarly and scientific examination of claims. I have also forthrightly defended “the right to blaspheme;” but there are different ways of doing this, and I submit that poking fun at ones opponents is counterproductive. I do not think that “in your face” atheism will get us very far. I have defended the right of the Danish newspaper to publish cartoons critical of Muslim suicide bombers, and I am not unilaterally opposed to the use of cartoons, particularly where there is a political or social point that needs to be made. But this is different from purposely seeking to blaspheme to gain public notoriety.

My second and most important response to Mr. Lindsay is that he has totally ignored the main point of my life work, namely that we need to be affirmative and positive, providing constructive alternatives to religious systems of faith. And here the development of humanist ethical principles and values are crucial.

In my view, the main failure of “atheist fundamentalists”—and they do exist—is that they often are so eager to criticize theistic religions that they ignore the need to develop a genuine moral compass and the principles of personal morality.

I have been called “the father of secular humanism” (for well or for woe). I do not believe that atheism is a necessary condition of being a secular humanist. One may be an agnostic or skeptic, or simply indifferent to religion. Thus our appeal should be broad enough to attract a larger section of the general public, without asking that they pass the “atheist’s test” of purity. This will drive more people away than attract; and the argument is patently nonsensical.

The point to be made is that it is possible to lead a creative and meaningful life of joy and fulfillment, be concerned not only with one’s one self-interest, but with the needs of others, be empathetic and loving, a good parent and a conscientious citizen in the community, respecting those with whom we disagree, being committed to the use of reason—but also have a compassionate heart, exemplifying genuine affection and good will toward others.

There are indeed two different visions of the Center for Inquiry: The first insists that there ain’t no God. And that people who believe in him are foolish. The second agrees that there is insufficient evidence for God, but that humans have the opportunity to realize the fullness of life for themselves and society. The second vision is affirmative and constructive in scope, and has proven enormously successful thus far. It would be a tragedy of monumental proportions to abandon it now.