The rise and fall of Paul Kurtz

I’m not a member of the Center for Inquiry, and until recently haven’t followed their doings, but readers might be interested in this piece in yesterday’s New York Times: “Closer look at rift between humanists reveals deeper divisions.”

It’s largely about the problems at CfI that led to Kurtz’s ouster. Here’s a snippet:

In June 2009, at odds with Mr. Lindsay, Mr. Kurtz was voted out as the center’s chairman. In May, he resigned from the board altogether.

According to Mr. Kurtz, there were two areas of conflict. First, he says, Mr. Lindsay changed the work culture. Whereas Mr. Kurtz had managed “in the spirit of a think tank,” Mr. Lindsay brought his legal background to bear.

“I am used to the academic life, where we don’t impose rules on employees,” Mr. Kurtz said, sitting in his living room. But Mr. Lindsay, he said, “set up a command system, said these are the rules and laws, and anyone who deviates from that will be investigated.”

Employees were interrogated for minor infractions, Mr. Kurtz said, and several were let go. “That is like Stalinism or the Inquisition,” Mr. Kurtz said.

By phone and by e-mail, Mr. Lindsay said that the “investigations” were due-process inquiries into complaints, and that he had not fired anyone for questioning his authority. He said that four employees were laid off for economic reasons, one resigned, and one freelance employee did not have his contract renewed. Only the center’s spokesman, Nathan Bupp, who left last week, may have been fired; Mr. Lindsay, in an e-mail, would only say, “This was not a layoff.”

More generally, he said that Mr. Kurtz, after 30 years of leadership, simply found it too difficult to cede responsibility; in particular, Mr. Lindsay mentioned fund-raising, saying that Mr. Kurtz was reluctant to introduce him to donors he had known for years.

Most of you CfI followers probably know this stuff.  The piece also describes other juicy shenanigans, like Ronald Lindsay recently changing the locks at the Amherst CfI center so that Kurtz couldn’t get in.  Of more interest to me is Kurtz’s assertion that he left CfI because of its infusion of “angry atheism.”  Could that accusation explain why CfI has recently been so vociferous in its attacks on the Gnu Atheists?

Donations to CfI have also fallen.

74 Comments

  1. Posted October 2, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I’ve been an active member of CFI for about five years, starting w/ Kurtz’s leadership and then Lyndsay’s. I participate w/ CFI chapters CA, OH and PA.

    CFI might very well be one of the best secular “think tank” organziations one could join. CFI chapters everywhere have done an extraordinary job as an educational and consciousness-raising organization.

    Watching it suffer the pains of child-like pettyness and bickering over such things as “militant atheists” breaks my heart.
    ~Rev. El Mundo

    • Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      Mine too, Rev. El Mundo. Mine, too.

  2. Posted October 2, 2010 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    The author of the article clearly is more sympathetic to Kurtz than to Lindsay. Unfortunately, this results in Lindsay coming across as much more secretive (obviously, there are reasons of confidentiality limiting the things he can say).

    Kurtz says a few things in that interview that I strongly disagree with. Such as this:

    “Angry atheism does not work,” Mr. Kurtz said. “It has to be friendly, cooperative relations with people of other points of view.”

    Actually, it does work for some, as those atheists will happily tell you. And there are cases where anger is the only correct response. Like using underhand tactics to undermine proper science education. Or what about institutional cover up of child rape?

    But Paul Kurtz is going to have to learn that he can’t go around telling other atheists what they can say and do.

    • Posted October 2, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      And the mandatory link to Greta Christina: Atheists and anger.

      • Rieux
        Posted October 2, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        That is, indeed, a foundational work. Christina is a star.

      • Posted October 2, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        Funny you should mention GC and that piece. Greta’s NE Ohio/ W. PA tour, which starts 10/13, has her visiting four CFI or CFI-related venues.

        I know because I’m the instigator and manager of that tour. Local CFI chapters were eager to host her for an evening and are doing considerable promotion for her visit.

        Life just wouldn’t be quite as good w/o a vibrant CFI community.
        ~Rev. El

    • Ken Browning
      Posted October 2, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Rosa Parks would have agreed with Kurtz. Nor southern slaves. Or most gay activists…. How’d that huggy friendship work out with prohibition?

  3. Tulse
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    <blockquote“Angry atheism does not work,” Mr. Kurtz said. “It has to be friendly, cooperative relations with people of other points of view.”

    Once again stated without any evidence.

  4. Sili
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    If Kurtz has left the board and directorship, why does he still have a key?

    Seems perfectly reasonable to change the locks, if one suspects undesirables have access to the keys.

    “Angry atheism does not work,” Mr. Kurtz said.

    His concern is noted.

  5. Diane G.
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    It’s not by accident that the Times headline refers to humanists as opposed to atheists. Kurtz has always been about what philosophy could replace theism in people’s lives, and about offering his own carefully arrived at proposals for tenets of secular humanism.

    New Atheists, it seems to me, are only new in so far as their voices are finally getting some exposure; all hail the new media and communication networks. Also IMO, most of this “movement” is a response to the power grabs of certain theists, rather than arising de novo from any need to proselytize or such. That so much is being made of the phenomenon tells me that Gnus have really been making inroads.

    The distinction between the one campaign–to simply remove the undemocratic, over-represented religious influence in secular society–and the other, the attempt to codify a secular ethos, is often lost in the shuffle.

    In the CFI I’ve always valued, I’d have thought both voices would be welcomely subsumed (and IME, it seems they are at the local chapter level), but Kurtz, as founder (and for decades chief fund-raiser), can hardly be expected to enjoy watching the confrontational arm take control. It’s hard to watch for someone (me) who’s been following CFI for over a quarter of a century.

    It bears remembering that Carl Sagan’s approach to getting his pro-science message across was very similar to Kurtz’s. Which is just to say that categorical dismissals based on differences in preferred approach are really throwing out the baby with the bathwater, here.

    Leadership transfers are often rocky, and before we draw lines in the sand I personally will bide my time and see how things shake out…Expressing one’s preference, either verbally or by with-holding donations is one thing; taking sides to the extent that it ends up vilifying an historic voice might end up more Pyrrhic than productive in the long run.

    I hope I don’t sound like a tone troll; my main concern regards strength in numbers, and fear that internecine conflicts could reach levels at which they inhibit our capacity for success…

    • Posted October 2, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      Dr. Sagan was a brilliant educator. The universe was diminished by his untimely death. We always need more people like him.

      What Kurtz is doing, that I don’t ever recall Dr. Sagan doing, is telling those who sing in a different key that they should either sing in his key or shut the fuck up.

      This, ultimately, is the problem I have with the accommodationists — and I’m pretty sure it’s the same problem that Jerry and the rest have with them, too.

      If you want to preach a kindler, gentler kind of non-theism, please: by all means, do so. I welcome and encourage your efforts and wish you the best of luck. I might even toss a few pennies your direction, point people your way, that sort of thing.

      Just don’t tell me that that’s what I have to do, too. And, for the love of all that’s unholy, don’t tear me down in a futile effort to get me to shut the fuck up.

      Because that’s just Not Helping™.

      Not only is it Not Helping me, it’s Not Helping you, and it’s especially Not Helping advance our shared interests.

      If you don’t like me, that’s fine. You can even tell people you don’t like me, though courtesy suggests you should only do so when directly asked, and then obliquely. You don’t have to associate with me; you don’t even have to acknowledge my existence.

      But attacking me does no good for anybody.

      Cheers,

      b&

  6. MosesZD
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    “Angry atheism does not work,” Mr. Kurtz said. “It has to be friendly, cooperative relations with people of other points of view.”

    Yeah. That worked so well for blacks… Be quiet. Be nice. Keep your head down.

    How could that possibly fail as a stratagy…

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 2, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      With great nuance, it arguably worked for MLK & Gandhi. Each had more “militant” dissenters at the time, too.

      Different targets require different approaches, I’d say. There’s a large populace out there that values “nice.” There are also devious goddists who’ll lie at the drop of a hat to advance their strategy–all the friendly cooperativeness in the world wouldn’t move them…

      Let’s employ whatever strategy circumstances warrant.

      • Rieux
        Posted October 2, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        With great nuance, it arguably worked for MLK & Gandhi.

        That is thick “nuance” indeed.

        Both King’s and Gandhi’s tactics were extremely confrontational. The absence of violence (and, as we’re constantly having to point out, Gnu Atheists are actually not “militant” in the ordinary physical combat meaning of that word) does not remotely imply the lack of anger or confrontation.

        Racist Southerners (and even lukewarm supporters of Civil Rights) and British colonialists assuredly did not regard King and Gandhi and their legions as “friendly” or “cooperative.” Very much the opposite.

        My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

        While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”

        [....]

        I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.”

        [....]

        You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

        [....]

        You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

        [....]

        We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

        Letter from a Birmingham Jail

        The above is many things, but accommodationist is not one of them.

        • Diane G.
          Posted October 2, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

          Agreed. But tell that to Malcolm X.

          And I certainly hope our “militancy” never becomes literal. Though strong resistance is already mortally dangerous in certain Islamic theocracies.

    • Rieux
      Posted October 2, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      That worked so well for blacks… Be quiet. Be nice. Keep your head down.

      Black folks, yes—and feminists. And abolitionists. And union organizers. And GLBTs.

      The Sermon on the Mount prophesies that the meek will someday inherit the earth. In the meantime, though, they don’t actually get much.

    • Adam Leon
      Posted October 2, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

      @MosesZD
      Mr. Kurtz said:

      “Angry atheism does not work. . . It has to be friendly, cooperative relations with people of other points of view.”

      You’re response was:
      “Yeah. That worked so well for blacks… Be quiet. Be nice. Keep your head down.

      How could that possibly fail as a stratagy…”

      I think Kurtz is opposed to irrational dogmatism; which is usually exhibited in ‘angry atheism.’
      There are plenty of reasons to be angry about religion, but if you depend solely on your emotions to guide you, then it is a slippery slope back into close-mindedness.

      You exemplified this perfectly by comparing the Gnu Atheist movement to the fucking civil rights movement.

      I suggest you do some cursory research on that part of history.

      We, as pragmatic skeptics, not just as atheists, should tare down illogical claims that have no evidentiary support, but we should not, if we mean to maintain a rational mindset, become so arrogantly ignorant as to falsely think and act like we can never be wrong; which, I think, is the cornerstone of being angry.

      • Rieux
        Posted October 3, 2010 at 2:07 am | Permalink

        There are plenty of reasons to be angry about religion, but if you depend solely on your emotions to guide you, then it is a slippery slope back into close-mindedness [sic]

        You exemplified this perfectly by comparing the Gnu Atheist movement to the fucking civil rights movement.

        Whereas your argument by bare assertion, complete with F-bomb for emphasis, was the pinnacle of cool reasoning?

        Please. Atheists are a minority that is widely mistreated by a majority that hates us. We are hardly the first group to be in this position, and previous such groups have improved their standing by using tactics that have utilized plenty of emotion, including anger.

        The parallels between atheists and other despised minorities are rather obvious; if you’d like to argue that they are inapposite, you’re going to have to actually provide some reasoning to that end. Empty sneering at the comparison does not actually rebut it.

        We, as pragmatic skeptics, not just as atheists, should tare [sic] down illogical claims that have no evidentiary support….

        Indeed so. Your rebuttal would appear to be just such a claim.

        [W]e should not, if we mean to maintain a rational mindset, become so arrogantly ignorant as to falsely think and act like we can never be wrong; which, I think, is the cornerstone of being angry.

        Nonsense.That’s not what anger is, and you simply haven’t considered the legitimate reasons for, and constructive uses of, anger.

        • Posted October 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

          “Whereas your argument by bare assertion, complete with F-bomb for emphasis, was the pinnacle of cool reasoning?”

          So, whoever says “Fuck” is automatically angry?
          Bullshit. It’s just a word. Grow up, and get over it.

          In any case, I’m not endorsing stoicism. Emotions are a healthy human response, but it will moreover will not add to the progress of humanity;
          it most certainly will not help anyone discover the truth.
          I totally agree that
          Anger can be a great motivator, but if left unattended, it can fester into a self-righteous sense of entitlement, that makes people seem unstable, irrational, and insecure.

          You can live how you like, but I would prefer that we, as a society, be motivated by altruism, logic, and honesty, rather than our basest negative emotions.

          “The parallels between atheists and other despised minorities are rather obvious; if you’d like to argue that they are inapposite, you’re going to have to actually provide some reasoning to that end.”

          I agree that Atheists are a despised minority. How is relying on anger supposed change that?

          Here are a few videos that depict some of the violence that occurred during the civil rights movement.

          We do not see this level of violence in the Gnu Atheist movement, so I don’t think it’s fair to compare ourselves to the blacks protesters of that time.

          Here’s another URL, that I find particularly pertinent to the claim that the blacks wouldn’t have succeeded without anger.

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 4, 2010 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

            If the argument is limited to Gnus & the West, then you have a point. Change Gnus to infidels, though, and include the whole world, and the conflict can quickly become violent and life-threatening. Some Gnus think that the slow, appeasement strategy does not meet the pressing need to combat some of the nastier theocracies.

            • Posted November 26, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

              Well then, this is an argument for directing anger and invective and insults at the nastier theocracies of the world. But unfortunately the Gnus often misdirect it at targets that are nearer at hand. Like Francis Collins, Michael Reiss, other religious moderates, anyone who dares suggest that it’s unfair to blame religious moderates for the sins of religious crazies, etc.

            • articulett
              Posted November 26, 2010 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

              All religions ennoble faith and pretend there are “divine truths” that only the “chosen” have access too.

              This makes the whole concept of theism (and all those who promote “belief in belief”) responsible when disaster results from people mistaking the voices in their head for messages from god(s).

              After all, there is no way to tell a “real” prophet or “real” god from the fake version. The gnu atheist cuts to the core of the problem and says there’s no evidence of either; as far the evidence is concerned, all theists are delusional and have beliefs that are no more supportable than faiths that conflict with their own.

              The gnu atheist feels the same way about theists that theists feel about all those wacky religions they don’t belong to.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted October 3, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

        I think Kurtz is opposed to irrational dogmatism; which is usually exhibited in ‘angry atheism.’

        What a pity that you didn’t read Christina’s post on Atheists and anger, because it would have thwarted your strawman right away:

        “I get angry when believers use the phrase “atheist fundamentalist” without apparently knowing what the word “fundamentalist” means. Call people pig-headed, call them stubborn, call them snarky, call them intolerant even. But unless you can point to the text to which these “fundamentalist” atheists literally and strictly adhere without question, then please shut the hell up about us being fundamentalist.”

        That is correct, the empirically incorrect idea that atheists, especially “angry atheists”, are dogmatic, is one of the things that we are angry about! You will meet very few, if at all, atheists that can’t tell you under which circumstances they would change their mind on supernaturalism. (I can remember one, but the most likely explanation for his claim was the obvious trolling he did.)

        So angry atheists aren’t dogmatic. Nor is their anger irrational in any other observable point. Christina’s post goes to great length to test and reject such a claim.

        There are plenty of reasons to be angry about religion, but if you depend solely on your emotions to guide you, then it is a slippery slope back into close-mindedness.

        This is religious reasoning, confusing vocal criticism with personal feeling.

        In fact there is a double barrier here, not only aren’t “angry atheists” espousing the anger Kurtz’ strawman claims, vocal criticism is a strategy as the comparison to the civil rights movement shows.

        I’m not sure what you mean by characterizing an analogy as “close-mindedness”.

        An analogy isn’t equality, so must be handled with care, not close-mindedness, so it seems a bad characterization. If you mean the analogy is wrong, I believe Rieux explained why it isn’t. And if you mean either of these movements were close-minded, it is trivially wrong.

        Atheism isn’t dogmatic (see above). Similarly, the civil rights movement embraced diversity in groups and in thoughts as well as action as much as we do. Or at least we try, outside of when accommodationists like Kurtz doesn’t tell others to shut up or concern trolls in general tell us that our ideas are irrational.

        • Rieux
          Posted October 3, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

          What a pity that you didn’t read Christina’s post on Atheists and anger, because it would have thwarted your strawman right away….

          Said it before, and I’ll say it again: that work is a foundational one, and Christina is a star.

        • Posted October 4, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

          You said;
          “. . .the empirically incorrect idea that atheists, especially “angry atheists”, are dogmatic, is one of the things that we are angry about! You will meet very few, if at all, atheists that can’t tell you under which circumstances they would change their mind on supernaturalism.”

          The fact that your atheism would be lost if in light of certain criteria, does not mean that you cannot have an arrogantly false sense of absolute certainty.

          I did read Christina’s post, and I agree with many of the points she made against the social injustices, but I disagree with her when she makes declarative assertions, like:
          “Social movements are hard. They take time, they take energy, they sometimes take serious risk of life and limb, community and career. Nobody would fucking bother if they weren’t furious about something.”

          According to her, without anger, NOBODY would bother; then how does she account for people like myself, and Paul Kurtz, who do bother, but aren’t entirely motivated by fury?

          You see, when I talk about dogmatism, I’m not implying that you’re aligning yourself with some kind of sacred text–though, I’d say Christina’s Blog has you pretty enchanted at the moment–rather, I’m referring to the type of dogmatism which blinds you to the possibility of ever being wrong, and stops you from independent critical thought.

          Here’s another quote from the blog you use to defend your argument.
          “You’re telling us to lay down a tool (anger) that no social change movement has ever been able to do without.”
          Off the top of my head, I can name the Reniassance as a movement which required no anger. What about the Information Revolution? That was a social movement that required no anger. Her claims fall flat on their face.
          What about the anger of the reactionaries in the social movements she lists? What differentiates their anger from the anger of the reformers?
          Without employing methodological skepticism, in this instance, I fail to see anything other than a redress of the crimes committed by religions.

          “. . . anger is a difficult tool in a social movement. A dangerous one even. It can make people act rashly; it can make it harder to think clearly. . .”

          That is my point entirely!

          “So when you tell an atheist (or for that matter, a woman or a queer or a person of color or whatever) not to be so angry, you are, in essence, telling us to disempower ourselves.”

          Isn’t the truth more empowering than an emotion? Can’t social equality be achieved rationally?

          Skeptical inquiry can help prevent us from believing in dogmatic absurdities, but atheism cannot save us from any absurdities.
          Atheism isn’t a worldview; it is a response to a worldview.

          It is good to point out the atrocities committed by religions and governments, if only to make them accountable for those actions, and to remind us of the actions committed by those swept up in their own self-righteousness, but painting entire groups of people, such as the religious, with a broad-brush, as though their all complicit with all the misdeeds she listed, or failing to offer any positive solutions to these problems, does nothing to aide the progress of humanity.

          There are plenty of reasons to be upset, but it is time to start acting like adults, and stop acting like angry preteens.

          It is time to realize that the only way we can move forward is to stop playing the part of the martyr, and to start combining our efforts to disprove the oppressive misinformed reactionaries, and to make a positive change in our short lives.

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink

            Well said. And if we can’t combine our efforts, we can at least work in parallel without having to run down the approach we disagree with. The variety of people that need to be reached require a similar variety of approaches to be convinced. (I do realize it was mostly the accomo’s need to make straw men of the gnus that engendered the current conflicts…)

          • Emburii
            Posted October 5, 2010 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

            You keep saying things like ‘false sense of absolute certainty’, even when people have mentioned that it is not absolute in the sense that they would be willing to change their minds if good evidence were proposed. As for the Renaissance, I’m sure there were some angry people involved in, say, bucking the Church? For the Information Age, the people who use its tactics and technology are often applying it to vocalize their anger over legitimate issues and then boost the signal on those same issues and their solutions. So while the Information Age itself didn’t need tension, its boom and spread might have been aided by many (not necessarily ‘quiet and peaceful’) social justice groups.

            You keep saying ‘surely there’s some rational way’ to the ‘Gnu’ Atheists, pretty clearly implying we’re not rational. You invoke our passion for truth and rational discourse and denigrate it as worthless emotion. Yet, like Phil Plait, you’re curiously light on footnotes and specifics. Practice what you preach and give us some substance, rather than playing the usual tone troll crap.

  7. bigjohn756
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I did not like the way they ousted Kurtz. I do believe that Kurtz needed to go, but it should have been done in a nicer way. Two way blame here as far as I can tell.
    I do not like the way the public persona of CSI is heading right now. It is supposed to be a think tank not a atheist rant squad. So far, the Skeptical Inquirer magazine has not been affected. If it ever is, I am gone.

  8. Rieux
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been a little surprised at Kurtz’s agitation on these points; when I spent a little while as a summer intern at the Council for Secular Humanism as a college student in the 1990s, Kurtz seemed very much a Gnu Atheist type (not that that term had been invented yet) to me. He has written numerous books (e.g., The Transcendental Temptation) that make much the same
    points, and even take much the same tone, as the more recent advocacy by the “Four Horsemen,” et al. Sure, Kurtz also emphasized the “positive” message of humanism–but that was, and is, hardly the element of his work that religious folks find most eye-opening.

    Paul Kurtz is the guy who’s centrally responsible for splitting the American Humanist Association in two (forming the Council for Secular Humanism in the first place) because the AHA was too sympathetic toward faith-based religion. If that isn’t a Gnu-ish anti-accommodationist position, what is?

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 2, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Yes. My impression as well.

      To tap a recent pop psych framing, the central metaphor of “Mistakes were made, but not by me,” it’s like the two entities that start at the top of the pyramid, not so very far apart at all, but in the process of justifying their own POVs slide further & further down opposite sides of the pyramid till it ultimately seems as if they’d never had anything in common. Ah, human nature.

  9. Neil
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never thought much of Paul Kurtz after he threw Randi under the bus in the Uri Geller suit. And I remember him publicly admonishing Richard Dawkins when Dawkins had the temerity to suggest that instead of wasting its time on trivial superstitions like astrology, CSICOP (now CfI) should examine the biggest superstition in the world–religion.

    • Posted October 2, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing that thought, Neil. I was not active w/ CFI in those days and was ignorant of the event you discuss. I conducted the obligatory G-search and found lots of info about the legal battles easy to locate.

      Gratci’
      ~Rev. El

  10. Posted October 2, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    If a former employee or office holder won’t give back his key, why wouldn’t you change the locks?

    The only action by Lindsay that I don’t really agree with is the contracting of Chris Mooney to do podcasts for Point of Inquiry, and even there he is only a third of the team … and I don’t expect that every interviewer or whatever used by CFI must agree with my viewpoint. If Mooney, whatever his faults, has skills in podcasting and a lot of other people don’t (which is probably the case: for example, I don’t claim to have such skills), then the decision is one that I guess I can accept.

    More generally, it looks to me as if Ron Lindsay has introduced ordinary management practices into the CFI and is trying to do something about the tension between its role as a think tank and its role as an advocacy organisation. That’s all commendable, though difficult.

    The role of an Executive Director, or similar, in an organisation like this is not easy, and it’s true that you’re restricted at every turn by issues of confidentiality and so on. It doesn’t help when you are being undermined at every turn. I have a lot of sympathy for Lindsay, who was brought into manage the place, and I’ve lost a great deal of respect for Kurtz, whom I used to admire, as I’ve watched events unfold.

    • Posted October 2, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      I don’t expect that every interviewer or whatever used by CFI must agree with my viewpoint.

      Yes but it’s not just viewpoint. It’s…the way he deals with critics, and the truth, and little things like that. That’s always been why I thought he was a bad choice.

    • Zuropa
      Posted October 2, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      One host of Point of Inquiry is a global warming skeptic.

      http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/viewthread/8869/

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 3, 2010 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      I’m not surprised by the explicit anti-scientism espoused by PoI hosts.

      Similarly, others have let creationists on the show, which isn’t what you should do in science and skepticism, it lends implicit credibility to anti-scientism. This started well before slippery-slope Mooney btw.

      This is what happens when you try to mix healthy science based skepticism with unhealthy non-skeptic views such as accommodationism. Boundary drawing and dilution doesn’t mix, it makes a dispersion.

  11. Posted October 2, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    “Angry atheism does not work,” Mr. Kurtz said. “It has to be friendly, cooperative relations with people of other points of view.”

    As many people have already pointed out, this is just stark staring nonsense. Look at second wave feminism for example – it was angry. It wasn’t friendly, it wasn’t into cooperative relations with sexists or with sexist customs and laws and hiring practices. Is it the case that that approach did not work? Hardly!

    • Neil
      Posted October 2, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      I don’t buy the premise that most atheists are “angry” to begin with. What have I got to be angry about? I’m not the one being duped.

      Telling it straight and being angry are NOT the same thing.

    • Posted October 3, 2010 at 4:33 am | Permalink

      Most people are not going to stand up for change or do anything unless they are angry. Anger is a natural response when boundaries have been violated, and anger provides the energy to make things right again.

      Being nice to the violators just encourages them to go on violating.

  12. Insightful Ape
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    This is the same Ron Lindsay who came here and told us not to worry too much about the John Shook crap, since whatever Mr Shook said was his personal opinion and had nothing to do with the CFI? Interesting to see someone accusing him of being tough on discipline.
    Donations have gone down? Good.

  13. Purdeep
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid I’m not feeling the feminist or black comparison here.

    If the mission of the CFI is to advocate atheist rights, or atheist equality, then I suppose the analogy holds. But I don’t think that is their mission.

    Persuading the religious to adopt humanist values is a very different job than fighting for equal rights for women or visible minorities.

    • Rieux
      Posted October 3, 2010 at 1:51 am | Permalink

      I’m afraid you’ve lost the thread. Kurtz’s comments are not limited to “the mission of the CFI.” He has alleged, much more broadly, that “Angry atheism does not work.” The feminist/black(/abolitionist/GLBT/union) comparison is a direct rebuttal to that, whether you’re “feeling” it or not.

      Moreover, what gives you the idea that “the mission of the CFI” is not “to advocate atheist rights, or atheist equality”?

      The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

      Exactly how can the above be achieved without “atheist rights, or atheist equality”?

      Seems to me that the latter is actually centrally relevant to the former.

    • Posted October 3, 2010 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      Even more clearly showing that CFI is advocating for atheism than the quote Rieux gives, this is taken directly from the “about” page of CFI:

      Fostering a secular society requires attention to many specific goals, but three goals in particular represent the focus of our activities:

      1. an end to the influence that religion and pseudoscience have on public policy
      2. an end to the privileged position that religion and pseudoscience continue to enjoy in many societies
      3. an end to the stigma attached to being a nonbeliever, whether the nonbeliever describes her/himself as an atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker or skeptic. [Emphasis mine]

      If you replace “non-believer” in that last paragraph with “female”, or “gay”, or even “black”, you can easily see the parallels.

      That doesn’t mean the movements are equivalent, of course. Atheists have never been slaves, or have had to deal with gay-bashers, nor are we structurally underpaid. We merely needed to make sure that we kept quiet about our opinions about religion. So we shouldn’t make too big of a deal about the comparisons either. But to deny that there are some parallels is not helpful either.

      And one of the parallels is that being polite and quiet does not help. Society at large merely has to define certain topics off-limits for polite discussion (like criticism of religion, for instance), and you’ll be stuck. Show of righteous anger can work, as the feminist movement, the LGBT movement, and the civil rights movement have shown. Kurtz is simply wrong.

      I also wonder how he thinks we can remove the stigma of being a non-believer if we’re not allowed to show some emotion about having that stigma in the first place.

      • Rieux
        Posted October 3, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        Even more clearly showing that CFI is advocating for atheism than the quote Rieux gives….

        That it is. Kudos.

        So we shouldn’t make too big of a deal about the comparisons either.

        As you imply, the area in which comparisons make the most sense is in the (endless) discussion of tactics. Certain parties incessantly assert that atheists won’t get anywhere by being angry, forthright, confrontational, etc.; supposedly one catches no flies with vinegar, only honey.

        But the history of justice movements for despised minorities demonstrates that that’s nonsense. No, atheists aren’t denied marriage rights (though don’t forget this little obscenity), but that doesn’t mean that we’re any better off flattering and kowtowing to majority notions about what and who we are.

        All oppression is different, but means if fighting oppression have plenty in common–and the history of such efforts makes it very clear that accommodation is not an overwhelming necessity. “Out and proud” is a productive, valuable thing for minorities to be.

        (I don’t think I’m substantially disagreeing with you.)

        • Rieux
          Posted October 3, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          Whoops–forgot to finish this sentence:

          No, atheists aren’t denied marriage rights (though don’t forget this little obscenity), but that doesn’t mean that we’re any better off flattering and kowtowing to majority notions about what and who we are.

          …any better off than gays and lesbians are flattering and kowtowing to majority notions.

          My point is that the differences in oppression between atheists and other minorities doesn’t render those minorities’ experiences irrelevant to our tactical calculations.

          You probably knew that was my point, of course.

        • Posted October 3, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

          No, we’re not disagreeing at all.

        • Posted October 3, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

          Certain parties incessantly assert that atheists won’t get anywhere by being angry, forthright, confrontational, etc.; supposedly one catches no flies with vinegar, only honey.

          The amusing aspect to this analogy is that vinegar actually attracts flies much more effectively than honey does. ;)

  14. articulett
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    The problem with being respectful of religion is that it gives the faithful the idea that faith is something to be respected. I think it’s dangerous to make faith an admirable quality and it’s disturbing that so many trusting people have been indoctrinated to believe that FAITH is the key to their salvation. Kurtz can’t reach those people.

    But the “new atheists” have. They make them examine their beliefs at the core– they ask them why they believe the things they believe and would they want to know if they were wrong?

    I prefer the “new atheist” approach as it treats all magical beliefs with the same dismissal– as well it should.

    I remember hearing that Paul Kurtz and James Randi had a falling out many years ago having to do with whether it was proper to challenge religious beliefs when one was testing supernatural claims. I think Randi thought that you should, and Kurtz aimed to stay on religion’s good side. (James Randi said at a TAM a few years back that they had resolved their differences.)

    • Rieux
      Posted October 3, 2010 at 1:53 am | Permalink

      Kurtz aimed to stay on religion’s good side.

      Again, as I’ve said elsewhere on this thread, I find that kind of anecdote and/or position befuddling. Kurtz has written so much that doesn’t try “to stay on religion’s good side” in the slightest; he’s written lengthy books that savage religion repeatedly. WTF?

      • Posted October 3, 2010 at 6:00 am | Permalink

        Don’t know. Maybe he’s had a change of mind (or of heart). His recent writings are clearly hostile to “New Atheists”. Maybe he too wants to feel superior to both religious fundamentalists and atheists?

  15. Adam Leon
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    I recently spent the entire day at the library, and discovered Paul Kurtz. I read his wonderful book entitled, “New Skepticism,” which I was sadly unable to check out.

    The nefarious behavior of Mr. Lindsay reminds me of something a villain would do in a Joseph Heller novel.

    Why would he change the locks? To protect himself from the ideas of the dangerous skeptic?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 4:24 am | Permalink

      You are posting your comments here as posts on your own website. Please choose only one of these alternatives.

      • Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

        Sure. Normally I like to share the discussion with other people, and document it so that I can later reflect on it, but if you would rather I didn’t, I won’t.
        Thanks for your posts!

  16. Dawn Oz
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    This is an important debate to have to firstly separate linguistic issues, such as using ‘angry’, rather than say forceful. People have described Dawkins as ‘angry’, which is a way of minimizing his arguments (I’ve not experienced him as ‘angry’). Secondly, all organisations have debating points, which is healthy. I would like to have heard Kurtz and Randi’s discourse.

  17. Posted October 2, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Okay – I’ve raised an eyebrow over the whole ‘angry atheist’ drum that Kurtz has been banging, and have criticized him for it in the past.

    But that aside: Kurtz has done good work. For all that I disagree with him over the confrontational atheism thing, the whole changing locks thing rubs me right up the wrong way.

    • Posted October 3, 2010 at 4:36 am | Permalink

      As someone pointed out: if an ex-employee (even the director or president) won’t turn in his/her key, of course one changes the locks.

      How would Kurtz even know that the locks were changed unless he tried to enter the premises improperly?

      • Posted October 3, 2010 at 5:52 am | Permalink

        Exactly. When you leave, you hand over the keys. That’s what I have done whenever I’ve left an organisation, and what everyone has to do. If you haven’t left, you don’t badmouth the organisation in public. Kurtz can’t have it both ways. Either he’s left or he hasn’t. He needs to make up his mind.

        He’s left, and that means he hands over his goddamn keys. If someone refuses or “neglects” to hand over the keys in those circumstances, changing the locks is standard and justifiable practice. I don’t get all this crap about how mean and nasty it was for the CFI to change the locks. That’s exactly what it should have done. Probably sooner than it did.

        • Posted October 3, 2010 at 6:03 am | Permalink

          I don’t get all this crap about how mean and nasty it was for the CFI to change the locks.

          I do. It fits in the narrative about the CFI being taken over by mean and nasty angry atheists.

          • Posted October 3, 2010 at 6:57 am | Permalink

            I get that, but I don’t get why people are falling for it.

            • Posted October 3, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

              Probably because it fits their prejudices about atheists.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted October 3, 2010 at 6:11 am | Permalink

          I tought I’d read somewhere that he still maintained an office at CfI, in which case it wouldn’t be so straightforward.

          • Posted October 3, 2010 at 6:59 am | Permalink

            That’s a good question. I’d like to know about the status of that office. It does seem like we have conflicting information in the public domain on that point.

            • Posted October 3, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

              And the problem is, Kurtz is loud and angry, while Lindsay is trying to lay low. That’s why in the public eye, when conflicting stories come out, Kurtz’ story will be given more weight, while Lindsay will sound evasive.

              This, of course, puts in another nail in the coffin for the idea that anger never works.

  18. Posted October 3, 2010 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    According to Mr. Kurtz, there were two areas of conflict. First, he says, Mr. Lindsay changed the work culture. Whereas Mr. Kurtz had managed “in the spirit of a think tank,” Mr. Lindsay brought his legal background to bear.

    “I am used to the academic life, where we don’t impose rules on employees,” Mr. Kurtz said, sitting in his living room. But Mr. Lindsay, he said, “set up a command system, said these are the rules and laws, and anyone who deviates from that will be investigated.”

    During the recent London “Protest the Pope” march, I was talking with a friend who has known Kurtz for years. According to her, he is about as hard to work with as anyone she’s ever known.

    It’s pretty rich for Kurtz to claim that he had an easy-going management style and was pushed aside by a rigid authoritarian.

  19. Paul W.
    Posted October 3, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Confrontational politics doesn’t work. You catch more flies with honey.

    That’s why the religious right has no power anymore.

    That’s why Rush Limbaugh can’t get on the radio.

    That’s why gay rights is a non-starter, and always will be.

    That’s why we still have chattel slavery of black people, too.

    Can you imagine people having the effrontery to disagree with other people’s moral positions, grounded in their religious views?

    As Mooney says, the only effect is to generate backlash. People take it personally, dig in, and never change their minds.

    • Rieux
      Posted October 3, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      You’ve convinced me. And I, for one, welcome our new faitheist overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted blog commenter, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground Templeton Foundation grant-writing caves.

  20. Paul W., OM
    Posted October 3, 2010 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Paul Kurtz apparently has a new organization and a new (Neo-)Humanist Manifesto.

    http://www.instituteforscienceandhumanvalues.net/Articles/neo%20humanist%20statement.htm#PREAMBLE

    He’s apparently not a big fan of the New Atheism, and makes his “new” approach sound like the sane approach to avoid overly atheist atheism turning into Stalinist repression.

    There are juicy bits both in the main body and in the Appendix.

  21. Dawn Oz
    Posted October 3, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the link and continuing debate. I guess all movements have their issues, differences, and occasionally some metaphorical blood shed. So we have 2 wings of a movement which wants our government to be secular and to ensure the teaching of science and other inconvenient truths. One wing is inclusive and the other strident. The pain is in the change of direction of the Clf and the resolution in the setting up of a new organisation. As a feminist who was active back then, the people we marched with varied along the angry spectrum. Anger can burn out and be associated with unconscious motives. What counts is the ability to commit to steady action and a message which will be accessible and inclusive. I’m glad that Kurtz has a new platform and delighted that Dawkins continues to use his considerable talents to reach people. We need the message fine tuned for those for whom it is intended.

  22. Posted October 4, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Barry Karr of CFI clarifies a few things – which the NY Times should have done itself.

  23. Ronald Lindsay
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Let me comment briefly on the key issue. I must say I find it perplexing that some appear troubled that CFI management would not issue a key to Paul Kurtz after we decided to change the exterior locks. (The locks were not changed primarily because of Kurtz, but that’s another issue.)

    Paul Kurtz resigned from all his positions with the Center for Inquiry and its affiliates in May, 2010. Since then he has launched a competing organization, solicited CFI donors, repeatedly sought access to confidential information by questioning our staff, and worked with others to denigrate CFI. Were I to allow unrestricted after-hours access to our facilities to such an individual, then the board of directors should terminate me for incompetence.

    And it is worth emphasizing that unrestricted after-hours access is the only privilege that Kurtz does not now have. He can visit CFI’s facilities any time there is a staff person there with whom he wishes to talk. Not only that, CFI allows him to use his former office and his reserved parking spot—the only person to have such a parking spot.

    Rather than wondering why CFI has not issued Kurtz a key, I think a more pertinent question is why Kurtz is so bothered that he can no longer be in the building when no staff member is present.

  24. Simon
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Re: Donations to CfI have also fallen.

    There was a single very large anonymous donor who reduced his/her annual support from $800,000/year in 2009 to $200,000 in 2010: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/news/donor_gives_200000_to_council_for_secular_humanism/

    This is a significant amount of money and of course has a negative effect, but still just a single donor. Overall, the amount of donors is actually increasing: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/uploads/attachments/Fact_Sheet.pdf

  25. Simon
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Also, for additional info I highly recommend Ophelia Benson’s blog post: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/more-on-cfi-with-some-actual-information-for-a-change

  26. Posted October 8, 2010 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    For an extended interview of Paul Kurtz regarding his departure from CFI, see http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/10/02/expelled-founder-paul-kurtz-explains-his-departure-from-the-center-for-inquiry/


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  1. [...] Torbjörn Larsson, OM Posted October 3, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink “I think Kurtz is opposed to irrational dogmatism; which is usually exhibited in ‘angry [...]

  2. [...] 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 [...]

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