***Update*** (April 6): CFI says it will repost all of the articles it took down… but not without further criticism of Senapathy.
For several years, Kavin Senapathy was a welcome voice at the Center For Inquiry, where she co-hosted their “Point of inquiry” podcast, wrote articles for their publications, and spoke at their conferences.
She became involved with them for the same reasons many of us got into this whole movement: She thought promoting reason and rational thinking, especially as they pertained to science and skepticism, was worthwhile.
All of that ended last October, when Senapathy was asked by CFI to “part ways” with them. She wrote an essay in which she attributed this breakup to her speaking out against the group’s “negligence toward matters of race and diversity.”
Among her concerns? She was frequently the only non-white person speaking at CFI’s conferences. CFI’s board of directors consisted of predominantly white men. The group’s merge with the Richard Dawkins Foundation was problematic because of his own history of controversial statements. There was even an issue of CFI’s publication Skeptical Inquirer titled “A Skeptic’s Guide to Racism.” Those articles, written entirely by white men, also overlooked a lot of concerns raised by people of color.
None of this, Senapathy said, was properly addressed in private, despite the efforts of several staffers and associates. That’s why she eventually wrote an article (for an outside publication) detailing her concerns.
Part of the problem, she said, is that CFI didn’t seem to share her concerns — or at least didn’t feel a need to directly address them within the group. We focus on pseudoscience and irrationality! they seemed to argue, neglecting that racism and anti-feminism arguments are often the result of faulty reasoning. It’s one thing to debunk psychics and the Loch Ness Monster; why not use those same logical tools to debunk matters concerning race or gender?
I can tell you I’ve been personally persuaded in this direction over the years. There was a time I would’ve regarded issues like wealth inequality, or gun safety, or women’s rights, or LGBTQ equality as outside the purview of “atheism”… but it’s easy to see how public policy regarding those matters is often guided by irrational thinking, religious rhetoric, and illogical adherence to “tradition.”
And aren’t those the real problems we’re all trying to tackle? Disproving the existence of God is just one aspect of a larger issue.
Even if all of CFI’s leaders didn’t buy into that thinking, here was an activist eager to show them why it mattered. Why not celebrate or promote or at least acknowledge people who want to address those issues under the umbrella of skepticism?
An organization led by people who don’t look like or think like the people they intend to serve will inevitably have some glaring blind spots. (Just look at the Republican Party.) It’s to their own benefit to be more diverse, provided people still adhere to some basic principles, which means actively seeking out people who don’t fit their typical profile — and elevating those voices.
I first got involved with groups that promoted atheism because that alone was important to me. But promoting atheism today feels hollow if we’re not talking about how religion affects the rest of the world, or how logic alone won’t persuade most people to leave their churches because of what they’d leave behind, or how being right about God doesn’t mean you’re rational about everything else. Atheism now feels like a byproduct of my advocacy.
There’s a reason I don’t spend a lot of time arguing against standard apologetics on this site: Christian Nationalism is much more concerning than Christianity itself.
In any case, Senapathy’s attempts to change CFI from the inside didn’t work. When she eventually voiced her concerns on Facebook, it seemed to cross a line, and they “fired” her from the podcast.
Since that article was published, however, things got worse.
In a Facebook post published on Wednesday, Senapathy said that all of the things she created for CFI when she worked with them — numerous articles and podcasts — had been scrubbed from their website. It’s as if they were literally trying to erase her, even on topics that weren’t a matter of debate.
… my writing on things like quack autism “cures,” spurious birth practices including lotus birth, the “breast is best” mantra, pesticides, alternative medicine, mom guilt, and more have been unpublished. My podcast interviews with people like Carl Zimmer, Angela Saini, Massimo Pigliucci, Paul Offit, Adam Conover, Alison Bernstein, Iida Ruishalme, Claire Klingenberg, Sarah Taber, Susan Gerbic, Jen Gunter, and more on everything from MSG to OCD to the alarming resurgence of race science have also been removed from their website in apparent retaliation.
I’m not angry about this. I am bewildered, especially because CFI CEO Robyn Blumner is a self-styled “free-speech purist.”
I’m with her. It’s a petty way to deal with a personal disagreement. (Another organization has offered to host all those articles Senapathy wrote; she said she’ll likely take them up on that.)
It should be said that CFI does a lot of international outreach. They work with a lot of people of color — though most of them are not in leadership roles within the organization. Still, much of that outreach is centered directly around science/skepticism, pushing back against things like blasphemy laws and witchcraft, and promoting Dawkins. In other words, even when they’re working with people of color, it’s to promote their primary agenda, not to expand that agenda beyond their traditional concerns. They’ve staked out a position in the world of skepticism and they don’t want to change it.
Senapathy’s argument — one I’m sympathetic with — is that their lane needs to be widened if they truly care about promoting science and skepticism in all aspects of life. What they’re doing is far too narrow these days to be useful, especially to a younger generation with very different priorities.
I reached out to CFI’s CEO Robyn Blumner last night for further comment, and she sent me this statement just before publication.
The effort toward greater understanding and inclusiveness is one we will always be engaged in as an organization. We are confident that the Center for Inquiry — as an intellectual institution, advocacy organization, media publisher, and as an international community of everyday people — has played an important role in making the world a more inclusive, understanding, and reasonable place. We will continue to play that role to the best of our ability. CFI is proud of our association with so many diverse lay leaders and professional colleagues in the United States and around the world, and the work on behalf of reason and science that we accomplish together.
In regard to Ms. Senapathy, it simply no longer made sense for us to feature the work of someone who is actively and unfairly fomenting hostility toward our organization. We understand there is disagreement about this decision, but in the end, we decided that this was the best way to move forward.