Thoughts on CfI and Paul Kurtz

The New York Times reported this month on a rift at the Center for Inquiry, whose founder Paul Kurtz claims he's been unjustly expelled by the board of directors and the president, Ronald Lindsay. Kurtz was also interviewed by my friend Erich Vieth at Dangerous Intersection.

It's very unfortunate the way this turned out. It clearly wasn't handled well, and bad feelings and an embarrassing schism within the secular community were the result. It's especially unfortunate that this involves Paul Kurtz, a lion of the humanist movement who deserves the credit for founding the Center for Inquiry, as well as its influential sister organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP). If he now feels aggrieved and considers himself to have been cast out by the groups he himself founded, that's much to be regretted. Still, after reading these interviews, I'm not convinced that Kurtz has a strong case here.

The first of his two major complaints is that, since his departure, CfI has taken more of a confrontational stance than he's comfortable with:

According to Mr. Kurtz, skeptics must do more than just deride religion.... he contrasted his affirmative vision with recent projects under Mr. Lindsay, like International Blasphemy Day. (The 2010 version, held Thursday, was renamed International Blasphemy Rights Day.) Mr. Kurtz was also a vocal critic of a contest for cartoons about religion that included some entries that could be considered deeply offensive.

This is ironic, considering that I and others have criticized CfI for being too conciliatory and disdainful of vocal atheism. But with all due respect to Paul Kurtz, the vocal, aggressive, confrontational New Atheist strategy is working. We're winning converts, eroding the authority of religion, making our ideas ubiquitous and familiar in a way that would have been unimaginable even just a few years ago. Projects like Blasphemy Day are a part of that effort, a way to make an important point about free speech with humor while tweaking the noses of self-righteous fundamentalists. Unless Kurtz has concrete evidence that these are hurting the cause more than helping, he should cease from baseless objections.

But the question of strategy is beside the point: Kurtz's criticism boils down to the fact that CfI isn't being run exactly as he'd prefer. Well, yes - because he left. He can't rightfully expect that the organization will continue to adhere to his every preference. Even if it's true that CfI's aims have changed, there's nothing wrong with new directors taking the group in a somewhat different direction, so long as they continue to uphold the original mission.

This leads to Kurtz's second major criticism, which is that he's been unfairly shut out from CfI, especially in that they changed the locks to keep him out after he refused to give up his keys. But again, I don't really see that he's got much of a substantive complaint here. As Russell Blackford and others pointed out, if he resigned from the organization, he should have turned in his keys. Since he refused to do that, changing the locks was a perfectly legitimate response. And when he voices this complaint:

Barry Karr said that since I resigned, I have no right to be made aware of internal matters within the organization. I asked, "What about my moral authority?" I said, "This is similar to what happened to Galileo when placed under house arrest."

But this is true! When he resigned, he gave up the right to be informed of day-to-day internal matters about the running of the organization, That's what resigning means. His comparison of himself to Galileo being placed under house arrest is ludicrous and wildly inappropriate, and makes me less inclined to take his other concerns seriously.

Moreover, according to comments by CfI officers Ronald Lindsay and Barry Karr, Kurtz still has an office in the center which he's free to use during normal business hours - he even has his own parking spot - and the only thing he's no longer able to do is enter the building on his own when no other staff members are present. If this is true, then Kurtz is being dishonest when he claims to have been denied free access. (In fact, according to a comment in this post, Kurtz staged a photo-op where he came to the building, tried to open the door without ringing the buzzer, and then fled when an employee saw him and came to let him in. If true, this is especially deceitful and reprehensible.)

Considering he has no more formal connection with the Center, I think it's quite generous of them to allow him continued use of an office in their building during normal operating hours. They would have been perfectly within their rights to box up his possessions and leave them out on the curb, especially considering that he's founded a new organization, the Institute for Science and Human Values, which is actively competing with CfI for donors.

The other thing I'd point out is that Kurtz seems to be alone in voicing these criticisms. He claims that CfI employees have been terminated for expressing dissenting views, even in private communication. But he doesn't name these employees or say what views those were, which makes it impossible to judge the truth of his allegations. Nor have any of these people come forward on their own to corroborate this. Kurtz also complains that the Center has refused to publish his statement of resignation, but if he wants us to see it, why doesn't he just release it himself? Again, if he won't tell us what's in it, we can't judge whether CfI was right to reject it (for example, if it contains false or unfounded allegations against them, they'd be well within their rights to turn it down).

I'm sorry that Kurtz feels he's been treated unjustly, and I wish that CfI had made more of an effort to prevent that, but my reading gives me the impression that he wanted to have it both ways. He can't simultaneously resign and still expect to have access and control over the organization, especially not when he's founded a competing group. Whatever important organizational work he's done, he still has to step down and pass on the torch eventually; he has a responsibility to ensure an orderly transfer of power and responsibility so that the Center will continue functioning after him. It seems he was unwilling to do that, and I think that accounts for his embittered comments.

UPDATE (10/24): Dangerous Intersection has posted the response interview with Ron Lindsay of CFI.

October 18, 2010, 5:57 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink10 comments

Spotlighting Atheism in Greece

Since Greece was the birthplace of Western philosophy, as well as the home of some of history's first freethinkers, it seems only fitting that it should have a lively atheist movement. And what do you know, it does! (HT: EvanT of On the Way to Ithaca)

This is a Greek version of the song "Godless and Free", written and performed by a member of the Atheist Union of Greece (they also have a forum and a blog, for native speakers). I'm told the lyrics can be translated as follows:

You believe in a god that your parents taught you.
But tell me, have you taken the time to think it through?
You were told about it by the school, the state and your dad,
you know everything by heart and mindlessly bow down.

Without a god, without a god,
Deny the doctrines and wonder if it's right,
A book of old with infallible holy words
Search and screw them and all their teachings
Without a god

They told you that you should wait for a second life
And for now to submit to their divine commands
But I'm telling you not to believe to their Santa Claus
And not to pay attention to what comes out of their mouths.

Without a god, without a god,
Live your life, break your silence without hesitation,
You have but a single life, make a difference with it
Just one chance, no more games,

Without a god,
Without a god,

Ask for evidence and not for suggestions, say "no more"
Look a bit into religion, its role in society,
Look into its rotting flesh, walk out and speak up!
Without a god

And if they put forward their morality,
Then ask "what does hell have to do with it?"
Look into your own humanity
and wonder if that's a thing you'd do.

And if the say "don't take the chance,
If you're wrong, you know where you'll end up"
Laught and say what it will become of them
If the god that exists is in fact Thor.

Without a god, without a god
Use reason as your principle every minute,
There are so many superstitions, biases and religions,
All of them artificial and thought-up
Without a god.

Some may be new, but they're all devious,
Without a god.

Let go of myths and pay attention to the lyrics
Live life with passion, there's nothing wrong about that,
Use your mind, judge by yourself
Without a god!

Unfortunately, despite Greece's illustrious intellectual history, the modern state is dominated by the Greek Orthodox church, which enjoys official government endorsement and favor. There's no constitutional provision for separating church and state; the church is exempt from taxation, Orthodox priests' salaries and pensions are paid by the state, and religious education is compulsory in public schools at all grade levels. It was only a few years ago that students were allowed to opt out at all (except for Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses, who've had the right to opt out since the 1980s).

Given all the financial troubles Greece is having, now would be an excellent time for the government to cut the church loose from state support and consider ending its tax exemption. In the past six months, the Atheist Union of Greece has been organizing demonstrations outside temples in Athens and Thessaloniki to push this proposal, as well as to call for greater separation of church and state in the school system. They've also been busy informing Greek citizens of their rights: that students can opt out of religious education, and that parents don't have to baptize their children in an Orthodox church to get a birth certificate (something that most Greeks don't know, according to my correspondent).

Although official statistics show that Greece is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian, that may only be because of another legal privilege accorded to the church: those numbers are obtained by counting baptismal records, which, as already mentioned, the vast majority of people have whether they actively belong to the church or not. Until the Greek atheist movement has had time to get its message out, there's no telling how many sympathizers they may have. If you're a freethinker living in Greece, why not contact them and stand up and be counted?

October 11, 2010, 4:25 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink12 comments

Reminder: Find Me at the FFRF Convention

As I mentioned previously, I'll be attending the 33rd annual convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin on the weekend of October 29-31. Yes, I know that's also the date of the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies; I made my hotel reservation and booked my flight long before those were scheduled. Their loss!

If you're also planning to attend (or if you just live near Madison) and would like to meet up sometime over the weekend, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail. The past few meetups I've planned have gone well, and I'm always interested in meeting readers in person...

October 2, 2010, 4:50 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments

Switchers and Stickers

The Chaplain over at An Apostate's Chapel posted about the latest poll by the Barna Group, which found that 1 in every 8 Americans is an ex-Christian. Meanwhile, about 3% of Americans were raised non-Christian but later converted. The Barna Group's press release described their finding in these terms: "The study underscores that the spiritual allegiances of childhood are remarkably sustainable in our society... the most common faith journey that people take is to form spiritual commitments as children and teenagers that typically last for the duration of their life."

While it's certainly true that most people don't change their childhood religious beliefs, I think Barna is glossing over the most significant finding in their own survey: people are leaving Christianity at four times the rate they're being converted into it. Even though Christians still command an absolute majority of Americans, we've known for some time that their share of the population is shrinking, and this is probably a large part of the reason why: they're just not holding onto their members nearly as fast as they're making new ones.

Part of this, I'm sure, is the low-hanging-fruit issue. When Christianity is virtually the only choice and any other religious belief results in harassment or worse, which was the de facto state of affairs in America for decades, the vast majority will naturally choose the path of least resistance. But with the rise of the atheist movement, Christianity is facing genuine competition in a way it's never had to deal with before, at least not in this country. Leaving faith altogether is more of a viable option than it ever was, and there are bound to be people who respond to that. For the same reasons, it's no surprise that Christian evangelism is bearing little fruit. In our society, it's safe to assume that most people have heard the basics of Christianity already, and anyone who wants to join a church has ample opportunity to do so. They're selling a product in a market that's already saturated.

For atheists, the ongoing exodus from religion is validation of our strategy of persuasion. We've turned a large number of people into nonbelievers, and opened up the religious landscape for many more doubters, questioners and seekers - the people I described as "soft atheists" in the linked post. Although the majority of people still go through life as Christians, it's no longer the automatic option, and we've made them aware that there are other possibilities.

My question is this: We've got half our strategy down - making the arguments and the appeals that convince people to switch religions. But we need to work on the other half - building the secular community that makes nonbelief more "sticky", that is, making it a friendlier and more appealing option for people with opened minds. I can think of two things that may not be obvious:

College scholarships for atheists from religious families. I was thinking of this after reading a comment by Sarah Braasch in the thread on escaping ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Atheism is growing fastest among young people, but many of them are from ultra-religious families who may retaliate against their kids for being honest - cutting them off, kicking them out of the house, etc. A scholarship for young people in this situation, enabling them to escape and to get an education, would be a lifeline.

Vocational training for former clergy. A similar, but even more extreme, problem is faced by nonbelievers among the clergy, who, for the most part, have no marketable skills outside religion. It would help the atheist movement greatly to have more of these people out of the closet and speaking out, and we can make it possible for them to do so if we could offer job training or some other opportunity to have a life outside their church.

What other suggestions do you have for ways we can expand the secular community and make new atheists feel welcome?

September 15, 2010, 5:45 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink13 comments

Atheist Apps for Android

So, I've finally joined the 21st century by buying my first ever 3G smartphone, a Motorola Droid 2. I've been getting a lot of use out of it and I'm happy with the network coverage and connection speed so far. There's also the Android Market, which lists thousands of user-developed applications you can download, everything from games and news readers to compasses and metal detectors (no kidding).

I do have one important complaint, though. There aren't nearly enough atheist-themed apps!

The Market is aswarm with Christian apps: Bible references, daily devotional readings, Christian chat rooms and bulletin boards, phone wallpapers, streaming apps for Christian radio and TV stations, and so on. But atheist- and skeptic-friendly apps are few and far between. Just about the only ones I've found are a pocket debater's guide from the anti-climate-change-denialist site Skeptical Science and an amusing quote database from FSTDT.

So, where are all the atheist app developers? Are they all iPhone users? Or do any readers know about ones I've somehow missed? We need some parity here!

August 28, 2010, 1:19 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink16 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• President Obama signs a law to fight British libel tourism by barring such judgments from being enforced in the U.S.

• My esteemed guest author, Sarah Braasch, has an article in the latest issue of The Humanist on the French burqa ban.

• After a scary brush with mortality, everyone's favorite squid-loving atheist professor is back in action. Visit his blog and leave some get-well-soon comments!

Did a Catholic priest carry out an IRA bombing? And if so, did the church help cover it up and shield him from justice?

• Susan Jacoby contemplates the theodicy of the bedbug.

• And last but not least, An Apostate's Chapel has this outstanding example of the eloquence, wit and wisdom of Robert Ingersoll, written in response to a Salvation Army-organized vigil of several thousand Christians praying simultaneously for his conversion. (Spoiler: It didn't work!)

August 27, 2010, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• Despite the good sense shown by the British Medical Association in lambasting homeopathy at their annual conference last month, the UK National Health Service has announced that it will still pay for water and sugar pills passed off as medicine.

• A court in Utah has thrown out the rape conviction of Mormon cult leader Warren Jeffs, due to a legal technicality, and ordered that the case be retried. Texas is still seeking to have him extradited to face similar charges, so it seems likely that he'll ultimately face justice.

• I was shocked to read of some ultra-Orthodox Israeli communities that are so extreme, they demand that their women wear burqas so as not to arouse the passions of men.

A Liberty University graduate defends the separation of church and state.

• In more welcome news, the U.K. education secretary has said he's interested in proposals for atheist schools, after Richard Dawkins made such a proposal in response to a law allowing faith-based and community groups to open their own publicly funded schools. And why not? If every church in England has its own schools - the article mentions Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu - why shouldn't there be atheist schools that teach students rationality and critical thinking?

July 31, 2010, 5:13 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments

Find Me at the FFRF Convention

So, let it be known to all that I plan to attend the 2010 annual convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which will be in Madison, Wisconsin the weekend of October 29-31. Ayaan Hirsi Ali will be the featured speaker, and since it's Halloween, I'm sure she'll have some scary stories to tell us all...

If you're an FFRF member (and if you're not, why aren't you?) and you're also planning to attend the convention, let me know - I'd be happy to meet up at some point during the weekend. If you're just a godless person who lives in or near Madison, we can probably arrange a meetup too - but see my earlier parenthesis about supporting the FFRF!

July 11, 2010, 6:36 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments

Thoughts on the Occasion of My Marriage

If you're a regular reader, you probably know that I got married last month. Until now, I haven't said much about the event itself on Daylight Atheism. But now that I'm back from my honeymoon (slightly sunburned, but happy!) and I've had some time to reflect, I wanted to put into words some of my thoughts on what marriage means to me, as an atheist, and explain why I chose to enter into it.

But first of all, let me address the most obvious question: Should an atheist even want to get married? Isn't marriage an intrinsically religious ceremony? After all, weddings usually take place in churches (yes, ours was in a church) and are conducted by clergy (yes, we had a minister - more on this in a minute). Doesn't that mean that a committed atheist should refuse to enter into one?

I do acknowledge that, for most of Western history, marriage has been performed in a religious context. However, I don't concede that this makes it an intrinsically religious ceremony. Rather, it's because organized religion has always tried to take exclusive possession of whole areas of human life, and proclaim that it alone owns these experiences which are common to everyone. Just so in this case: marriage is fundamentally an expression of love, and religion doesn't have a monopoly on love. Atheists seek companionship, fall in love, and pledge our commitment just as theists do. Why, then, should we not mark the occasion with a marriage ceremony? Why not take the ritual, strip out the religious trappings we don't accept, and reclaim it as a secular, human rite of passage that nonbelievers also participate in?

And that's just what my wife and I did with our wedding. We planned the ceremony to match our beliefs, keeping the traditions we accept, omitting or changing the ones we didn't. We've been attending a Unitarian Universalist church for the past year, an entirely dogma-free religion that emphasizes ethics and community and has no requirement that its members believe in God or anything supernatural. The ceremony was at Shelter Rock, a huge, gorgeous UU congregation on the north shore of Long Island, and was performed by our minister, Hope, a wonderful woman whom both of us respect deeply.

So then, back to my original question: Why did I, as an atheist, choose to get married?

First, there are the practical reasons. It sounds tactless to mention, but I'd be lying if I said I never thought of it: Marriage isn't just a religious rite, but a civil ceremony that brings considerable civil and legal benefits, including many that are impossible to obtain any other way.

Of course, these protections are held out as an incentive to couples like us, even as they're denied to gays and lesbians. That these civil benefits are denied to mature, consenting same-sex couples due to religious prejudice is something both my wife and I feel passionately is a grave injustice. That's why we chose the following passage to be read at our wedding. It's an excerpt from Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, the case where the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to forbid marriage to same-sex couples. Even in the dispassionate language of the court, this ruling was full of poetry:

Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations.

The union of two people is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any.

Without question, civil marriage enhances the welfare of the community and is a social institution of the highest importance. Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and a connection to our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life's momentous acts of self-definition.

But there was more to my decision than this. Although the civil benefits of marriage are non-trivial, even without them we would have gotten married anyway, and the last paragraph of that ruling hints at why.

I said that atheists feel love just like everyone else, but I want to say more than that. I believe that love is the quintessential human emotion, the one that most truly defines us, that inspires all our noblest endeavors, and that gives expression to what is best in humanity. But love, by its nature, demands to be shared. If kept secret, it stagnates into mere obsession; but if shared with others, it is multiplied. Like one candle lighting others, it spreads without diminishing its source, and brings greater joy to every person who partakes of it than any of them could have had alone.

This reasoning is both why I got married in the first place, and also why we had a ritual to mark the occasion. I believe that life's challenges are better confronted together, rather than alone, and a two-person partnership is the simplest and most stable way to accomplish that.

At the most fundamental, our marriage isn't a civil ceremony or a religious rite, but a mutual obligation, a promise given freely and in awareness of its weight and solemnity. We pledged to make our partnership an enduring one, to remain faithful and true to each other, to share our happiness and support each other in times of trouble. And it makes this pledge all the more weighty that we made it not to each other in private, but before our gathered family, friends, and loved ones. We invited them to be there because we wanted them to bear witness to our decision, but also because we wanted to share our joy with them!

My wife and I have both found much good in our partnership: we complement each other's strengths, we comfort each other in times of pain and sorrow, we challenge each other to grow and mature, and we've each found that the things we love separately are even sweeter when shared. And that, more than any other reason, is why an atheist like me got married: because when you're in love, you want to tell the world.

And it's in that spirit that I'll close out this post. We wrote our own vows for the ceremony, and if you'll forgive me, I'd like to share mine:

Dear MissCherryPi,

Before we say our vows, I want to tell you why I'm here today.

You know that there are some things I don't believe in. But today, I want to tell you about some things I do believe in.

I believe in sunrises and sunsets.

I believe in hikes in the woods and walks on the beach.

I believe in traveling the world and exploring places we've never been before.

I believe in good books, good conversation and laughing at shared jokes.

I believe in picking pumpkins in autumn, decorating the tree for Christmas and drinking champagne on New Year's.

I believe in watching fireflies on summer evenings and stargazing on dark clear nights.

I believe in all the beauty, the mystery and the wonder of life, and I believe that these joys, like all joys, are multiplied when you have someone to share them with. And I'm here because I want you to be that person.

There's no one else I'd rather spend my life with. I love your shy smile, your sweet laugh, your sense of humor, and your adventurousness. And most of all, I love the way you make me happier than I thought anyone ever could. That's why I'm here, and that's why I'm marrying you today.

June 23, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink57 comments

Open Thread: Forums

On the sidebar of this site, I have listings of atheist blogs and podcasts that I like and recommend. The one thing I don't have a good list of, however, is atheist web forums. I used to post on IIDB, but no longer, and I haven't been a regular on any bulletin boards in a long time, so I don't know what's out there these days.

So, I'm posting this thread to ask for recommendations. Do you know of an atheist forum that you'd encourage everyone else to go visit? Post a URL and tell us why you like it. I'll check them out and link to the most interesting ones.

June 15, 2010, 6:01 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink19 comments

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