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.

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.