Some Sadly Necessary Remarks on the #wiscfi Intro

Hey everyone – I’m checking in from the final day of the Women in Secularism 2 convention in Washington, D.C. I’m going to write a full wrap-up later (and I enjoyed it enormously, I want to be very clear about that), but there’s something that cast a cloud over this weekend, and I want to clear the air about it first.

Although every other speaker this weekend was a woman, as you’d expect at a conference about women in secularism, Ron Lindsay, the president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, gave the opening remarks on the first day. I was expecting something short and formal, but no. Incredibly, he used the opportunity to deliver a “both-sides-do-it” peroration, in which he expressed sympathy in principle for the aims of feminism while nevertheless scolding certain (unnamed) feminists for allegedly turning feminism in practice into a dogma that unfairly stifles men’s important and valuable opinions. He said, for example, that the idea of privilege is “often used to silence others” in a way that’s similar to “the approach taken by ideologies such as Marxism”. (See the transcript here.)

This is the same kind of condescending, above-it-all “well, atheists may be right about some things, but you shouldn’t be so militant” rhetoric that we’ve all heard and grown tired of. It would have been misguided at the best of times; when it was spoken by a male CEO, at the kickoff of a feminist conference, to a room full of feminist attendees, it was inappropriate to the point of farce. The overall air in the conference room, I think I can say, was incredulous.

When Rebecca Watson (among many others, including me) made our opinions known that this was inappropriate, Lindsay fired back almost immediately, in a blog post on CFI’s website, with the following jaw-dropping ad hominem attacks:

Rebecca Watson inhabits an alternate universe. At least that is the most charitable explanation I can provide for her recent smear. Watson has posted comments on my opening talk at Women in Secularism 2. It may be the most intellectually dishonest piece of writing since the last communique issued by North Korea.

…I’m just glad Watson didn’t notify security: “white man loose on stage, white man loose on stage!”

This is the Shermer affair all over again: an atheist leader – and it’s almost always an older white man – who supposedly esteems peer review and rational debate, yet when he receives arguably merited criticism, flies off the handle and fires off a barrage of bizarrely hostile and disproportionate personal attacks. This is the characteristic behavior of someone who expects to be listened to at all times and to always have his opinions welcomed in any forum, and feels irrationally angered and threatened when that privileged position is questioned.

So let’s be clear about this: the presidency of CFI, like the presidency of any other non-profit, is a political position. Lindsay’s job is to put a good public face on CFI, to be diplomatic to its critics, and to encourage and promote its outreach activities. I don’t object to him giving the introductory talk, even at a women’s conference, but it could and should have been brief and cordial – something along the lines of, “I’m Ron Lindsay, president of CFI, and I’d like to welcome you all to the second Women in Secularism conference. Thank you for coming and we hope you have a good time.”

His job was emphatically not to begin the conference by haranguing a feminist audience about what he sees as the deficiencies in modern feminism, and then, when he received a wave of fully justified and deserved criticism for this, to respond immediately with a barrage of personal attacks directed at one of his critics, who happens to be an invited speaker at the conference to boot!

As I said on Twitter, such loose-cannon conduct is undiplomatic, unprofessional and unbecoming the head of a major secular organization. It suggests a serious deficiency in judgment, which ought to be of concern to all of CFI’s supporters, directors and friends, insofar as it undermines our confidence in CFI’s leadership.

But all this, I want to emphasize, isn’t to cast aspersions on CFI’s other staff members or detract from the excellent work they did in organizing this conference. I’ve said many times that a greater concern for diversity and a stronger alliance with feminist and social-justice groups are the future of the secular movement. It’s smart tactics from a political standpoint, since we have a common enemy in the religious right, and given current demographic trends, it lays the foundation for strong and continued future growth. All the goals that this convention was created to support are good and worthy ones. That’s why it was and is a grave disappointment that the man currently in charge of CFI seems not to be on board with them.

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About Adam Lee

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.


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