The Center for Inquiry recently made a decision to sponsor Blasphemy Day, 30 September - the five-year anniversary of the publication of the notorious Danish cartoons of Muhammad. Unfortunately this decision has produced a split between CFI Founder, Paul Kurtz, who opposes the decision here and here, and the organisation's current president and CEO, Ronald A. Lindsay, who strongly supports it.
Kurtz is in his mid-eighties, easily old enough to be Lindsay's father, and comes from a generation more used to decorum and formality than baby boomers like Lindsay, who came of age during the tail end of the Vietnam War era and the Sexual Revolution. For the moment, boomers and older Gen Xers - people in their late forties and fifties - have their hands on the levers of power and influence. But there is a still younger generation making waves: the brash, cyber-savvy younger X's and Gen Y's: people such as those who dreamed up the idea of Blasphemy Day in the first place.
While men and women of Lindsay's generation (and mine) may respect our elders, including statesmen like Kurtz, we have very different life experiences. And we also have to accommodate the attitudes of those coming up behind us, or else the movements we're involved with will die. This is going to make for some interesting policy dilemmas over the next decade or so.
Meanwhile, who is right, Lindsay or Kurtz? I can't help feeling that Kurtz has a point. The CFI is a corporation, and indeed has a strong corporate brand. It needs to satisfy all its stakeholders as far as it can, and it needs to avoid tarnishing its brand, one that connotes a certain dignity in its critique of religion and superstition. It appears to me that the CFI may have embraced Blasphemy Day so wholeheartedly that it has unnecessarily upset some of its more conservative stakeholders.
But that's not to say I'm with Kurtz. The idea of a right to "blaspheme" is important and compelling. I think that the CFI was correct to give some support to Blasphemy Day, even if not to the extent of encouraging artworks and actions that (arguably) conflict with its carefully established brand image. The promotion of symposia to discuss the idea of blasphemy and its political suppression, some general support for the idea of Blasphemy Day, perhaps some clarificatory reservations about blasphemy merely for its own sake (rather than to dramatise a point, as Blasphemy Day no doubt does) may have served the CFI and its stakeholders better. The CFI did some of this, but perhaps it went too far in involving itself in the business of apparently gratuitous ridicule ... though it could certainly have made statements defending the right to engage in this, on free speech grounds, without harming its own brand.
Still, I think it was correct, given the various vectors involved here, to give at least some recognition and support to the Blasphamy Day concept.
Like other corporate bodies and associations, such as the NCSE and various scientific bodies, the CFI has no thoughts or feelings of its own. It is there to adopt policies and programs that serve the interests of members and others whose cause it has taken up. Its leaders and staff need to be very careful to be inclusive, as far as possible, and that may mean involving the CFI in some compromises when it makes delicate corporate decisions. I'm not sure it made exactly the right decision in this case, and I do think it needs to listen carefully when respected people like Kurtz indicate their alienation.
On the other hand, Kurtz has not helped by talking about "fundamentalist atheists", when what he is really seeing is the brashness of a younger generation, combined with a tricky decision for the people who actually hold the power to make tricky decisions at the moment. Though Kurtz insists (in his latest piece) that there are fundamentalist atheists lurking around, this is a meme that should be contested vigorously whenever it appears. A fundamentalist atheist would be an atheist who believes in the inerrancy of an atheist text - perhaps Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian or Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion - even in the face of results from rational inquiry.
I have yet to encounter such a person. Even if any exist, I very much doubt that fundamentalist atheism had anything to do with the decision in this case.
That's not to say that there are no atheists who are knee-jerk in their hostility to all religious people, no matter how theologically and politically liberal. Knee-jerk atheists certainly do exist, and I will criticise them whenever necessary.
There are also atheists who have apocalyptic and/or totalitarian/authoritarian tendencies. I.e., they may wish to eradicate religion in a dramatic way within their own lifetimes, rather than merely contesting its truth claims (with the benefits that I believe this produces). Or they may wish to impose non-belief by authoritarian state action. All social movements are likely to attract people with these tendencies; and even very liberal people (like me) need to beware of the temptations of apocalyptic or totalitarian thinking. While the current religions are great breeding grounds for this kind of thinking, and Christianity helped spawn the apocalyptic and totalitarian quasi-religions of communism and Nazism, no movement is necessarily immune from these tendencies. (As an aside, apocalyptic thinking is rife in the transhumanist movement, which needs to be careful where it goes with this.)
However, I don't think that any tendency towards apocalypticism or totalitarianism - or fundamentalism if it comes to that - lies behind the CFI's handling of Blasphemy Day. It was simply a matter of how to engage productively with the brashness of a younger generation, while trying to protect the CFI brand.
I also disagree with Kurtz when he claims that there is something intolerant or illiberal about Blasphemy Day. Let's be clear on this. Regardless whether the CFI leadership made the most adroit decision, supporting, or engaging in, acts of blasphemy is not intolerant in the way that Kurtz must mean. I.e., it is not inconsistent with Millian liberalism. The latter requires that we not attempt to suppress religion by force. It does not require that we must like religion, be polite about it, or refrain from protesting against it or making fun of it. Indeed, ridicule is sometimes necessary to get across how absurd a position or practice is. It's not a method that I prefer, but it has its place in public discourse, and engaging in it to make a political point to the effect that it does have a place, and should not be prevented, is, however undignified, perfectly legitimate speech.
In conclusion, Kurtz does has a point about the CFI brand (which is not to say that his views should prevail). He certainly should speak up, and we should all listen to him. But I wish he had made his point in a somewhat different way. I hope he can be persuaded to stop talking about fundamentalist atheism, which was not the issue here, and to step back from an interpretation of liberal tolerance that would have dire implications for freedom of expression. Nonetheless, the CFI is not a human being with its own thoughts and feelings; it is merely a legal construct, designed to serve the purposes of its stakeholders. In their deliberations, the individuals who have leadership roles within the CFI will need to think carefully about brand, image, and broad inclusiveness.
But they also need to harness the brashness and enthusiasm of younger, up and coming, generations. This balancing act won't always be easy.