The New York Times on CFI’s ‘Deeper Division’ October 1, 2010

The New York Times on CFI’s ‘Deeper Division’

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.

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  • Badger3k

    Wait a minute – they are turning towards “angry atheism” – seriously? After the likes of Shook and his crap? After Mooney? After…well, whatever the hell his name was. Is all this denouncing of “angry atheists” merely a cover story? Has this journalist actualy paid attention to more than yesterday’s news?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t trust Mark Oppenheimer as far as I can throw him. In his coverage of Scientology, he took a laissez-faire stance that light-heartedly presented it as wacky and eccentric, rather than dangerous and impoverishing. He acted as if Richard Behar’s famous Time Magazine article had never been written. Oppenheimer’s piece on Scientologist acting coach Milton Katselas missed the point by a country mile. I am not surprised to hear he is at the helm of an article showing secularists in a bad light.

    This airing of dirty laundry (which is of no interest to most of the population) really makes me sad.

  • I like Hemant’s attitude on this. We DO need all types of Freethinkers and Freethought groups. The angry, the philosophical, the leaders, the grassroots, and yes, we also need ex-leaders turned critics of new leadership. Experience is damn important. But there’s more.

    Our differences can strengthen us a lot, so our options for methods and personalities within groups representing us should also be diverse.

    Actually whenever I hear about friendly Atheists complaining about what the “Angry Atheists” are doing, I’m asking…WHAT “Angry Atheists?” lol If ONLY we’d get more angry!

    I’ll wait. I’m patient. :o)

  • Richard Wade

    Emphasis mine:

    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?

    “what replaces it”? “where do you turn”?

    I would really like Mr. Kurtz, (whom I admire and respect) and everybody else who toss about unexamined questions like that to step back and question the unquestioned assumption that religion needs a replacement, that we must “turn” to something else instead. This sounds a lot like a drug addict feeling insecure about the prospect of soon losing his supply. “What will I replace it with? Where will I turn?”

    You don’t replace it with some other debilitating habit, you get busy with all the rest of life that you’ve been neglecting.

    Perhaps there is plenty in life do do, to enjoy, to love, to focus on, to have meaning, to wonder about, to self-define, to self-justify, to self-whatever, perhaps more than enough for us without having to come up with a specifically-designed spare tire for the broad loss of religion in society.

    I’m just saying that we should question this assumption about needing to provide a “replacement” for something that was never needed in the first place.

  • Ed

    I’d argue that some sort of humanist philosophy DOES have to answer the same questions that religion does, even if the humanist answer is just an honestly and openly doubtful “there isn’t an answer, but THIS is why that’s okay…”

    Our psychology almost demands that, it would seem to me…

  • Grimalkin

    @Hemant – I just want to emphasize that this is all regarding the US CFI. The other CFIs, worldwide, have their own leadership, their own strategies, and are not connected to all this silly business. I know that this is an American blog, but I’m a little concerned that your readers, who are not all Americans, may get a bad impression of their own local CFI because of this.

    @Richard Wade – What aspects of religion are we talking about? There are plenty of areas that religion has traditionally covered, such as social aid and community support, that we do need. Now, the secular government is not doing too badly (in most countries) at taking over the social aid, but what about community support? What about secular alternatives to AA? What about emergency babysitting services for when everything goes wrong?

    Ironically – considering which post I am responding to – these are things that CFI is starting to provide in Canada.

  • Ron in Houston


    You’re always so practical and pragmatic.

    Ideally you’re right why should there be any need for a replacement. However I suspect that many folks are not as near practical and pragmatic as you are.

    Personally, my next get rich quick scheme will be a pill for existential angst.

    Once I get that I’ll be the next Bill Gates.

  • I think it’s a good thing in some ways-it means that nontheists are being seen as less fringe and that our inner workings are of (some)interest to the general population. While it may not be the coverage CFI desires, it is still light years ahead of Christine O’Donnell. 🙂

    @Richard I agree with the idea of not replacing religion per se, but many people use religion as the means to an end-they might need some help to identify how they use religion and put into place some other means to achieve that end. Which coincidentally is something I’ve noticed you are very good at in your posts.

  • muggle

    Gah, I can’t stand Paul Kurz and this article isn’t endearing me to either him or humanism. Paul Kurtz is the reason I dropped CFI membership.

    Kurtz is a snob, plain and simple. Always has been and always will be. All this stupid in-fighting and not accepting of younger guys having differing ideas from him to tells me too that his age is freaking him out and he’s so fucking scared of growing old that he can’t even treat the up-and-coming generation with basic respect. How is that humanistic of him? From what I’ve seen in this and other articles, the biggest problem he’s having with Lindsay is that Lindsay’s replacing him. Frankly, that he thinks bad of Lindsay is a point in Lindsay’s favor, if you ask me. Oh, and it’s probably a good thing Lindsay’s watching their butt legally speaking so to speak. This is America.

    Also, he’s finally up and proved my point about humanism being a religion. I didn’t drop out of church to join up some secular religion with snobs like Kurz writing up rules for me to live by instead of “god”. Frankly, it’s the same difference. Because those rules of gawd were really written by other men who, like Kurtz, have overly inflated egos.

  • Spinozaist_4

    @Muggle: Your incredibly snotty, ignorant, and adolescent attitude towards the man who has done more for the non-theist (and skeptic) community than anyone else in the history of the movement reveals more about you than it does Kurtz, Lindsay, or CFI.

    As founder of the CFI (and its largest benefactor) Kurtz has every moral right to be chagrined about the change in direction under its current leadership (arbitrarily chosen by Lindsay). Whether you agree with it or not is beside the point. If you want an organization that focuses mainly on aggressive, in your face atheism join the FFRF or American Atheists. These are not the values CFI was founded to embody. Its ambit was to be much broader, basically to move beyond atheism by advancing a positive and constructive worldview based on science and humanism. If you want to learn more about what these values were and meant under Kurtz’s leadership, try reading his countless articles in FREE INQUIRY magazine or his many books. Hell, try reading the original CFI mission statement and its accompanying philosophical explanation before Lindsay and his cohorts got around to changing it about a year ago. Under Lindsay, CFI has essentially become a civil rights organization for atheists. Not a bad thing in itself, but this already exists with the ACLU, American’s United, and FFRF. The only thing that CFI has not abandoned, to their credit, is skepticism.

    Kurtz’s disagreement with Lindsay go WAY beyond “his replacing him.” (In fact,the disagreements are not even related to this misstatement of yours; Lindsay never really “replaced” him. But that is a much larger story) Rather, the disagreements are fundamental and based on principle. I suspect that these will be revealed more and more as time goes on, for they are well-documented in countless e-mail exchanges and public battles on the internet. Your claim that Kurtz is a “snob” reveals your anti-intellectualism, pure and simple. Kurtz is a distinguished philosopher, author, and institution builder, with an incredibly productive 40 year career, not a snob. Kurtz never drew up a set of “rules” for non-believers to follow. What an absurd, uninformed statement. What Kurtz did do was articulate the meaning of ethical humanism; a core set of values around which humanists could defend their worldview and find some guidance in the pursuit of the good life.

    Taking the measure of the tone displayed in your attack on Kurtz, I can’t help but think that you and your ilk represent the Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh wing of the atheist movement. I’m sure many more attacks on Kurtz in this thread will demonstrate this. Finally, the ageism displayed in your comment is beneath contempt. You are the one who is most definitely NOT a humanist, or even humane. No wonder you prefer the current CFI!

  • I make my living off the Evening News
    Just give me something-something I can use
    People love it when you lose,
    They love dirty laundry

    Well, I coulda been an actor, but I wound up here
    I just have to look good, I don’t have to be clear
    Come and whisper in my ear
    Give us dirty laundry

    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em when they’re down
    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em when they’re down
    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em when they’re down
    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em all around

    We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who
    Comes on at five
    She can tell you ’bout the plane crash with a gleam
    In her eye
    It’s interesting when people die-
    Give us dirty laundry

    Can we film the operation?
    Is the head dead yet?
    You know, the boys in the newsroom got a
    Running bet
    Get the widow on the set!
    We need dirty laundry

    You don’t really need to find out what’s going on
    You don’t really want to know just how far it’s gone
    Just leave well enough love
    Eat your dirty laundry

    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em when they’re down
    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em when they’re down

    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em when they’re down
    Kick ’em when they’re stiff
    Kick ’em all around

    Dirty little secrets
    Dirty little lies
    We got our dirty little fingers in everybody’s pie
    We love to cut you down to size
    We love dirty laundry

    We can do “The Innuendo”
    We can dance and sing
    When it’s said and done we haven’t told you a thing
    We all know that Crap is King
    Give us dirty laundry!

  • JimG

    I disagree with both bashing the reporter and saying “We wish you’d focused on positive things we’re doing instead.” Both are tactics we rightly deride when used by religious organizations.

    Whether you like Oppenheimer, or what he’s done on other subjects, is immaterial. The only relevant question is: Is this story accurate? If not, criticize away – but I haven’t seen a complaint about the facts so far.

    If the story’s accurate, we should take our lumps and move on. When a religious figure tries to distract from his misdeeds by saying “Oh, why don’t you ever talk about all the good I’ve done?” – how quick are we to ridicule that excuse? I reject it immediately.

    This, of course, is a story about internal politics and differing styles, not actual wrongdoing. If we wail about something this mild, how can we honestly look down on religious institutions for similar responses to unfavorable coverage?

  • Hi all —

    I really hope Anonymous does not want to throw me.

    That said, I am grateful for the attention to my piece, and grateful for all the perspectives. I will have another column on this subject in two weeks. And I will keep tabs at


  • muggle

    Spinozaist_4, in other words, all hail the patron saint of humanism, Kurtz, and to go against him is tantamount to going against the pope.

    Oh, and I have read some of his articles in Free Inquiry. If you can read, I dropped my membership because he turned me off.

    “positive and constructive worldview” = religion, especially in that it utterly must conform to one man’s view. “core set of values” + this = rules.

    I rest my case.

  • 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.

    Hemant, you do realize that the tag line for the CSH conference is “Secular Humanism’s Next 30 years,” right?

    Sure it could be a continuation, but it could also just be coverage of the conference itself. I think we should wait and see.

    I couldn’t help but think about the enormous conflict brewing in the secular community of Washington DC while reading this article. We all need to step back and do something to make it known that this sort of defamation will not be tolerated within our community (i.e. to atheists from other atheists). Mark Oppenheimer, if you’re still reading this, you’re welcome to contact me. I certainly have one hell of a story for you… pardon the pun.


  • Simon

    Actually Ophelia Benson has a follow-up piece that examines Paul’s claims, it’s quite detailed and enlightening:

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