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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, June 14, 2010

For Zeus's sake, get behind the CFI

This article by David Gibson at Politics Daily reflects on the current infighting at and around the Center for Inquiry. Gibson has spoken to the antagonists, and reveals more detail than we've seen to date as to how they perceive the situation. Some of his language, unfortunately, suggests a bias against the so-called "New Atheism" - the views of Richard Dawkins, et. al. It's especially tendentious, not to mention sneering and snarky, to portray current debates like this:

The wider debate among secularists over whether to engage religious believers, or whether snark and sneer are the best ways to defeat faith and rally unbelievers to atheism, seems destined to continue.

That suggests a writer who has never read, say, Dawkins' The God Delusion, or has read it with a tin ear. While mockery of religion's absurdities definitely has its place, there's far more than that to the varied "New Atheist" critiques.

Paul Kurtz gets the last word in Gibson's piece - and the most praise for what he's accomplished in the past. In a sense, that's understandable; Kurtz is a larger-than-life figure whose record is truly amazing. But if you read the article without the preconceived idea that the CFI's (relatively) new CEO, Ron Lindsay is the bad guy ... a different picture emerges from the background of facts.

Kurtz had known Lindsay for a long time when he supported Lindsay taking over the organisation's management:

The dispute between Lindsay and Kurtz has been festering for two years, almost since the board of directors named Lindsay as chief executive in June 2008 at the request of Kurtz himself, who has known Lindsay for 25 years. Until 2008 Kurtz had been both chief executive and chairman of the board of CFI, with complete control over operations, and the board wanted to diversify the authority structure, Lindsay said. But, he added, "Paul simply did not want to give up any significant authority. And it spiraled from that. ... Nothing apparently could be done to satisfy him."

Following this saga from the outside, I have to say that Lindsay's account has the ring of truth. This is a familiar scenario: an organisation's founder and powerbroker, someone with dictatorial authority, looks for a trustworthy, competent, and rather younger CEO. So far so good, but then he expects the latter to act like his puppet, getting angry when the new guy has anything like a mind of his own. From here, it looks as if Kurtz wanted Lindsay to have the heavy responsibility that goes with a management position, but no real authority to make his own decisions and lead the organization into the future. Kurtz tried to keep that for himself, and reserved the right to undermine the new guy at every turn. That has included going public to attack the CFI's policies while still sitting on its board.

There's a word for that. The word is "disloyalty". Another word is "unprofessional". As a board member of any organisation you have your say in-house - that and your vote that goes with it. Within the boardroom, you may command personal authority from your vision and experience. But you just don't wash the board's dirty linen in public, not if you want to stay there. Apart from the formal minutes of meetings, what happens in the boardroom stays in the boardroom. Grudges on the board are not aired in public. If you really must publicly attack the positions the organisation is taking, on which you had your say as a member of the board, then it's incumbent on you to resign.

We owe Kurtz a huge debt of gratitude for building the CFI and its associated entities, including Prometheus Books. This mini-empire of advocacy for reason and science couldn't exist without his talent, intellect, and energy, but now it's bigger than he is. If we have to choose between Kurtz and the CFI, I'm going to opt for the CFI every time.

While Kurtz has been softening his critique of religion, the CFI retains an edge - supporting initiatives such as Blasphemy Day and involving itself in constitutional litigation. Some of its recent decisions look like undesirable compromises (surely Chris Mooney is an odd choice as a CFI podcaster), but that's inevitable. After all, the organisation represents a spectrum of viewpoints. We'll inevitably see some of that in its activities and publications. Generally, though, the Center remains true to Kurtz's original vision - truer to it, I think, than Kurtz himself. He seems to want to lead it in new and quieter directions. He does, of course, have the right to change his mind and take a new path. What he can't do is complain publicly when others decline to follow - not if he wants to stay a board member.

I'm growing tired of the many complaints going round that Kurtz was somehow ill-treated. To me, it doesn't look that way at all. On the contrary, the board showed a lot of patience with him - perhaps, out of respect for him, a bit too much. The board ultimately acted properly to support its CEO after Kurtz's public attempts, as a director, to undermine him. Putting it bluntly, the CFI is not Kurtz's private fiefdom or a toy that he can play with as he pleases. For better or worse - I think for better - that isn't what he built. It's a serious organisation with a built-in mission of its own, the mission that he and others planned for it. Frustrating as he may find it, the CFI doesn't, and can't, follow its original master's changes of heart.

Kurtz's recent resignation from the board looks petulant, but at least it's more honorable than staying there and continuing with public criticisms. His ongoing campaign against the new management looks even more petulant: it's doing the job of harming the CFI, but it's unworthy of him.

But most importantly, I’m disappointed to read that the CFI's current appeal for donations had made only $50,000 at the time Gibson's article was written. I hope that a lot more has gone in by now. I do urge all my readers to donate a few dollars if you can.

The CFI and its management still deserve our support. The Center is still a flagship of reason and science. For Zeus's sake, let's all get behind it and the team led by Ron Lindsay.


Unknown said...

I was an early supporter of CFI ( back in the late 80's -- their name was different then -- CODESH?) and of Paul Kurtz as well. I credit him with indirectly supporting my newly found atheist/humanist activism but I have to say that given my limited understanding of this situation I agree with your take on this Russell. I think that at some point Kurtz should have his statue erected but in the meantime I side with Lindsay and CFI. I will, as soon as possible, add my contribution.

On a related but side note I believe that the whole debate between which is the right approach to take, aggressive or friendly, misses the point entirely -- and my impression is that many in the "aggressive" camp would agree with me that the battle for rationalism must be fought on all fronts. I don't see that a schism is all that damaging. I believe it is a sign of growth.

Personally, at times I take a very aggressive approach to religion and at other times tread softly. I can't help but think that in the wider culture we can't abide both -- indeed, we need both.

Anonymous said...

Please do not use acronyms or jargon in titles, which are billboard advertisements for the subject matter to be discussed associated with the title. One attracts the widest possible audience with a straightforward, explicit title that does not require decoding or esoteric knowledge. An acronym or jargon, when used, needs to be explicated initially when introduced in the body text, even in successive new writings on the same or related subject matter.

DM said...

how about we just ANNIHILATE ALL OF YOU and solve the problem?

Anonymous said...

> So now
Now, now, what?

> the religious movement
Because we're all religious now. Only sticks and stones and doormats are real atheists, believing in and doing nothing.

> of aggressive evangelization
So shut up. None of your aggressive mouth-opening or evangalization in the sense of making noise, please.

> comes from
To the bridge!

> the cult of
He said cult. Huh huh huh.

> new-age
Nope, no crystals here.

> "atheists".
Who, uh, being "atheists" really believe in gods? WTF?

> Good luck
Yeah! Rational luck to ya, fools!

> in debating which snarky pressure techniques will help
Our snark is based on Communistofascist research into mind-control techniques. Plus we use the CIA/Cointelpro style guide.

> reign in
The reign in Spain was ended by a fascist. And do you know who else was fascist? HITLER.

> your future sheeples.
Cyber sheep will rule the earth, by our command. I saw it on Glenn Beck.

> (bet you can't wait to begin the brainwashing!)
We'll use sheep dip.

> You false prophets, you hypocrites.
Yay! Bible quote. Profound (ly stupid).

Russell Blackford said...

Please don't feed our pet troll.

DM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
steve oberski said...

I'm always taken aback by the cognitive dissonance exhibited by the religious when the most damning epitaphs that can be hurled at the skeptical are those that ascribe religious motivations to them.

Not to mention the complete lack of a sense of irony.

Jennifer Beahan said...


Thank you for your level headed response and your continued support of CFI.

As a staff member of CFI I have been very disappointed by the actions of Paul Kurtz and others and I am glad that the CFI board is finally speaking out as well as others supporters to make sure that the story is accurately represented.

Jennifer Beahan

Jennifer Beahan said...


Thank you for your level headed response and your continued support of CFI.

As a staff member of CFI I have been very disappointed by the actions of Paul Kurtz and others and I am glad that the CFI board is finally speaking out as well as others supporters to make sure that the story is accurately represented.


Jeremy said...

Thank you.

It has been so awful watching this develop with only one side of the story being heard.

mryana said...

Any atheist who claims there's no aggressive "evangelization" techniques being employed at the behest of Hitchens, Dawkins, etc are just plain liars and hypocrites.

Besides, look at this article: c'mon, yall let's get cohesive and strong with a collective voice by getting behind this movement with full force.

It's laughable on many levels especially when I've heard more than my share of atheists calling people like Dawkins and Hitchens some nasty and vulgar names.

Which way to go, huh? Do you guys really even know??

Get it figured out!


mryana said...


Can you chill out a little, Dude?

Leave Shermer to his own beliefs.
Pray for him, if you may, but seriously, I hate to see you waste your breath when you should most likely be praying and staying peaceful. NO atheist's ever worth losing one's true peace over.


Besides, you're stepping on Satan's toes in the area of harrassing Shermer and the like.

Let it go. For your own sake.

mryana said...

Anonymous, you've not shown any intelligence as of yet in either interpreting a post or in actually posting something coherent and interesting.
In fact, you appear to be a "denialist" of the atheistic kind.

Pastor Dan said...

That this incisive article draws, for the most part, infantile comments is a sad testimony to the paucity of secular discussion. The notion of "good atheist, bad atheist" is a straw man argument-used principally by orthodox apologists. The Kurtz tempest in a tea pot was never about muscular atheism but about individual power and ego. Paul is Abrahamic in his resolve to sacrifice his son (CFI)to "prove a (pointless) point". While secularism certainly must continuously express its moral underpinnings, we must not think that we are more moral than so called Bible based moralities.