The Center for Inquiry is making news… but it’s not positive publicity. The New York Times has a story in Saturday’s paper about the CFI rift that’s been happening for a while now and isn’t much of a surprise to people who know the players.
It’s only disappointing because instead of focusing on a lot of the good work the CFI has done historically (and recently, under Ron Lindsay), reporter Mark Oppenheimer is focusing on the clash between Lindsay and Paul Kurtz.
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.”
… Mr. Kurtz’s second complaint goes beyond internecine power struggles. He said that Mr. Lindsay was turning the center away from Mr. Kurtz’s humanist philosophy and toward negative, angry atheism.
According to Mr. Kurtz, skeptics must do more than just deride religion. “If religion is being weakened, what replaces it in secular society?” he asked. “Most of my colleagues are concerned with critiquing the concept of God. That is important, but equally important is, where do you turn?”
As for the first conflict area, it sounds like an inevitable clash between old and new leadership. You’re not going to like what your successor does, especially when that person does things very differently. That’s not a new story.
The second conflict is more significant. But if I’ve learned anything in my work within our movement over the past few years, it’s the importance of having many different tactics. We need angry atheists and we need friendly ones. If CFI is accused of being more hostile toward religion, it’s because that’s where the action, fundraising, and interest is in our culture right now. I don’t blame them for putting more energy into that.
That doesn’t mean I’m a fan of everything CFI’s done recently. A year ago, I was upset with how they went about promoting Blasphemy Day.
But the more groups we have, the more our message gets out there. If the groups are working together, that message is amplified. CFI has been much more cooperative with other groups in recent years, and that’s a tremendous development.
The NYT article is missing the bigger picture here.
The last line in the piece says:
Next: In Los Angeles, taking stock of atheism’s future.
I’m hoping for something better in that story… but I’m not optimistic.
***Update***: Erich Vieth has an extensive interview with Kurtz on his website. They talk quite a bit about his departure from CFI.