Schism among the atheists

The problem with atheists is that they can’t get along with each other and keep spinning off all of these different sects.

[Paul] Kurtz, an 84-year-old who names his dogs for free thinkers throughout history, is the exiled founder of the Center for Inquiry, which is devoted to promoting humanism and criticizing religion. He founded the center’s two affiliates: the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which investigates claims of the paranormal, like U.F.O. sightings and mental telepathy, and the Council for Secular Humanism, which promotes ethics and values without God.

And he started two magazines and a publishing house, Prometheus Books.

There are more famous opponents of supernaturalism, but none is an institution-builder like Mr. Kurtz, a retired philosophy professor. The Center for Inquiry, which assumed its name in 1991, until recently shared a budget of more than $6 million with its affiliates, and it supports campus groups, a West Coast office and branches in many American cities and in countries like England, Peru and Poland.

Which makes Mr. Kurtz’s fall Lear-like.

We are meeting in his home, not at the center, minutes away in this Buffalo suburb. In 2008, looking to spend less time running the center, he supported his board’s decision to hire Ronald A. Lindsay, a corporate lawyer from Washington, as chief executive. He soon regretted the decision. Mr. Lindsay “became very authoritarian and dictatorial,” Mr. Kurtz told me.

In June 2009, at odds with Mr. Lindsay, Mr. Kurtz was voted out as the center’s chairman. In May, he resigned from the board altogether.

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. . . .

But 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?”

In books like “What Is Secular Humanism?” Mr. Kurtz has argued for a universal but nonreligious ethics, one he now calls “planetary humanism.” Its first principle is that “every person on the planet should be considered equal in dignity and value.” In his books, he explains how this principle can be derived from nature and from what we know of the human species.

And 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.

“Angry atheism does not work,” Mr. Kurtz said. “It has to be friendly, cooperative relations with people of other points of view.”

via Beliefs – Rift at Humanist Center Reveals a Deeper Division – NYTimes.com.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    Why, the next thing you know, atheists will be dividing up into conflicting factions – the UAL (United Atheist league) and the UAA (United Atheist Alliance). Then they’ll go to war over the best name for atheists – not to mention world domination. And sea otters will evolve into a super-intelligent race that forms its own faction – the AAA (Allied Atheist Allegiance). And … “Oh my God! They’ve killed Kenny!”

  • Tom Hering

    Why, the next thing you know, atheists will be dividing up into conflicting factions – the UAL (United Atheist league) and the UAA (United Atheist Alliance). Then they’ll go to war over the best name for atheists – not to mention world domination. And sea otters will evolve into a super-intelligent race that forms its own faction – the AAA (Allied Atheist Allegiance). And … “Oh my God! They’ve killed Kenny!”

  • trotk

    In all fairness, this article could have been about the church.

  • trotk

    In all fairness, this article could have been about the church.

  • Tom Hering

    trotk, that’s implicit in Dr. Veith’s humorous one-line introduction to the article. But hey, I understand it’s early morning, and it takes two hours for the human brain fully awaken. ;-)

  • Tom Hering

    trotk, that’s implicit in Dr. Veith’s humorous one-line introduction to the article. But hey, I understand it’s early morning, and it takes two hours for the human brain fully awaken. ;-)

  • http://fivepintlutheran.blogspot.com/ David Cochrane

    Hey we Christians are not the only jerks on earth!

  • http://fivepintlutheran.blogspot.com/ David Cochrane

    Hey we Christians are not the only jerks on earth!

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    In an odd way, I have always appreciated Prometheus Books, they published “Ethics Without God” by Kai Nielsen, and that should be a required text for all ethics classes, especially at Christian Colleges, and probably for apologists too. I don’t agree with everything there, but it is well written and gives you something to think about.
    I’m really not doing well with my plan to stay away from this blog for a while.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    In an odd way, I have always appreciated Prometheus Books, they published “Ethics Without God” by Kai Nielsen, and that should be a required text for all ethics classes, especially at Christian Colleges, and probably for apologists too. I don’t agree with everything there, but it is well written and gives you something to think about.
    I’m really not doing well with my plan to stay away from this blog for a while.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com/ Louis

    Bror – resistance is futile…..

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com/ Louis

    Bror – resistance is futile…..

  • Tom Hering

    Bror, I think we all feel like staying away from time to time, especially after discussions get heated and personal. But the result would be to surrender the field to abhorrent views.

  • Tom Hering

    Bror, I think we all feel like staying away from time to time, especially after discussions get heated and personal. But the result would be to surrender the field to abhorrent views.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    People will be people. One of the atheist blogs I lurk on is always railing against other atheists because as he sees it they aren’t vehement enough. So, this isn’t exactly a revelation. I do have a bit of shameful joy in seeing them tearing each other down, so much for their vaunted ability to act in charity without God.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    People will be people. One of the atheist blogs I lurk on is always railing against other atheists because as he sees it they aren’t vehement enough. So, this isn’t exactly a revelation. I do have a bit of shameful joy in seeing them tearing each other down, so much for their vaunted ability to act in charity without God.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Tom,
    It isn’t about a conversation getting heated or personal, that’s all fine with me. It is about participation encroaching upon my ability to get other things done. Sometimes I enjoy the conversation too much.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Tom,
    It isn’t about a conversation getting heated or personal, that’s all fine with me. It is about participation encroaching upon my ability to get other things done. Sometimes I enjoy the conversation too much.

  • Tom Hering

    Bror, okay, so I’m projecting.

    Pastors have a lot to do? Huh
    :-)

  • Tom Hering

    Bror, okay, so I’m projecting.

    Pastors have a lot to do? Huh
    :-)

  • DonS

    I’m intrigued by this snippet: “Its first principle is that “every person on the planet should be considered equal in dignity and value.” In his books, he explains how this principle can be derived from nature and from what we know of the human species.”

    How, from nature, or from what we know of the human species, do you get a “first principle” of equality? Hasn’t this guy ever watched nature shows? Nature is vicious.

  • DonS

    I’m intrigued by this snippet: “Its first principle is that “every person on the planet should be considered equal in dignity and value.” In his books, he explains how this principle can be derived from nature and from what we know of the human species.”

    How, from nature, or from what we know of the human species, do you get a “first principle” of equality? Hasn’t this guy ever watched nature shows? Nature is vicious.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Tom,
    Only if you have a large parish. Or a small one. Or a medium sized one. Well, if you have a parish.
    But really I’m trying to get the website up and running. And I don’t know that I’m supposed to be a website designer, but… They didn’t train me for it at seminary. They didn’t give me business classes either the dullards. How do they expect me to preach God’s word faithfully if they don’t give me a business class and teach me how to build websites?
    but yeah plenty to do aside from here, and yet I’m here.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Tom,
    Only if you have a large parish. Or a small one. Or a medium sized one. Well, if you have a parish.
    But really I’m trying to get the website up and running. And I don’t know that I’m supposed to be a website designer, but… They didn’t train me for it at seminary. They didn’t give me business classes either the dullards. How do they expect me to preach God’s word faithfully if they don’t give me a business class and teach me how to build websites?
    but yeah plenty to do aside from here, and yet I’m here.

  • WebMonk

    DonS, maybe check out the book to see how he does it. Looks like it’s available on Amazon for a couple bucks used. Unfortunately, it’s not available in my public library. I’d have to do an inter-library loan.

    I’ve read a few books that sound similar, and they do it with various amounts of validity. One of the problems I’ve seen is that most (all) of them finally use something to define what is “good” and what is “bad” that is separate from anything they derive from whatever aspect of nature they use.

  • WebMonk

    DonS, maybe check out the book to see how he does it. Looks like it’s available on Amazon for a couple bucks used. Unfortunately, it’s not available in my public library. I’d have to do an inter-library loan.

    I’ve read a few books that sound similar, and they do it with various amounts of validity. One of the problems I’ve seen is that most (all) of them finally use something to define what is “good” and what is “bad” that is separate from anything they derive from whatever aspect of nature they use.

  • Porcell

    Don, excellent. Nature in its red-tooth rawness is vicious and a poor basis for morality. Nietzsche, having declared God dead, understood that only a superman could exercise the sort of power necessary for any order. The twentieth-century is largely the story of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao attempting with great evil to be that superman.

    Lately, I’ve delved extensively into Solzhenitsyn who, starting as an atheistic communist, ended as a devout Orthodox Christian. Eight years in the Gulag for criticizing Stalin cured him of atheism and caused him to understand that moral law coming from God is real and the only basis for civilization. Solzhenitsyn in my view is the greatest writer of our time; also, he is a compelling prophet of the Old Testament variety.

    Following Solzhenitsyn, in this earthly plane we suffer and do the best we can with our work and love and try to enjoy our life come what may.

    We live in some sort of transitional period between the obvious failure and decline of modernity and either the fall of the West or possibly, with the work of devout Christians around the world, a resurgence of Christendom.

    Frankly, I try not to despair about any of this. Just now in New England early Fall is a delight, to say nothing of the prospect of a conservative political tsunami come November.

  • Porcell

    Don, excellent. Nature in its red-tooth rawness is vicious and a poor basis for morality. Nietzsche, having declared God dead, understood that only a superman could exercise the sort of power necessary for any order. The twentieth-century is largely the story of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao attempting with great evil to be that superman.

    Lately, I’ve delved extensively into Solzhenitsyn who, starting as an atheistic communist, ended as a devout Orthodox Christian. Eight years in the Gulag for criticizing Stalin cured him of atheism and caused him to understand that moral law coming from God is real and the only basis for civilization. Solzhenitsyn in my view is the greatest writer of our time; also, he is a compelling prophet of the Old Testament variety.

    Following Solzhenitsyn, in this earthly plane we suffer and do the best we can with our work and love and try to enjoy our life come what may.

    We live in some sort of transitional period between the obvious failure and decline of modernity and either the fall of the West or possibly, with the work of devout Christians around the world, a resurgence of Christendom.

    Frankly, I try not to despair about any of this. Just now in New England early Fall is a delight, to say nothing of the prospect of a conservative political tsunami come November.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com/ Louis

    Webmonk – that has been my experience too – their good/evil definitions tend to be on very loose ground. But I still strongly maintain that atheism is merely a non-theistic religion, since it asserts as it’s founding priciple, the unproveable – namely, that there is no Divine. The only credible irreligious point of view would be agnosticism. And by it’s very nature, I doubt if true agnosticism can be anatagonisitc. It has to resign itself to indifference, if not to praxis, at least to belief.

    The “angry atheists” written of above are Modern atheism’s fundamanetalist version, and Dawkins is one of their chief prophets.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com/ Louis

    Webmonk – that has been my experience too – their good/evil definitions tend to be on very loose ground. But I still strongly maintain that atheism is merely a non-theistic religion, since it asserts as it’s founding priciple, the unproveable – namely, that there is no Divine. The only credible irreligious point of view would be agnosticism. And by it’s very nature, I doubt if true agnosticism can be anatagonisitc. It has to resign itself to indifference, if not to praxis, at least to belief.

    The “angry atheists” written of above are Modern atheism’s fundamanetalist version, and Dawkins is one of their chief prophets.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Webmonk – that has been my experience too – their good/evil definitions tend to be on very loose ground. But I still strongly maintain that atheism is merely a non-theistic religion, since it asserts as it’s founding priciple, the unproveable – namely, that there is no Divine. The only credible irreligious point of view would be agnosticism. And by it’s very nature, I doubt if true agnosticism can be anatagonisitc. It has to resign itself to indifference, if not to praxis, at least to belief.

    “The “angry atheists” written of above are Modern atheism’s fundamanetalist version, and Dawkins is one of their chief prophets.”

    Awesome comment. I am saving it on a sticky on my desktop for future reference.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Webmonk – that has been my experience too – their good/evil definitions tend to be on very loose ground. But I still strongly maintain that atheism is merely a non-theistic religion, since it asserts as it’s founding priciple, the unproveable – namely, that there is no Divine. The only credible irreligious point of view would be agnosticism. And by it’s very nature, I doubt if true agnosticism can be anatagonisitc. It has to resign itself to indifference, if not to praxis, at least to belief.

    “The “angry atheists” written of above are Modern atheism’s fundamanetalist version, and Dawkins is one of their chief prophets.”

    Awesome comment. I am saving it on a sticky on my desktop for future reference.

  • Tom Hering

    “Solzhenitsyn in my view is the greatest writer of our time …”

    Isn’t he the guy who got all bent out of shape when he was told that Tolstoy’s original title for War and Peace was War: What Is It Good For? Then threw an electronic organizer out the window of a limousine – hitting a woman on the head and sending her to the hospital?

  • Tom Hering

    “Solzhenitsyn in my view is the greatest writer of our time …”

    Isn’t he the guy who got all bent out of shape when he was told that Tolstoy’s original title for War and Peace was War: What Is It Good For? Then threw an electronic organizer out the window of a limousine – hitting a woman on the head and sending her to the hospital?

  • John C

    So, according to your logic Louis (atheism is a non-theistic religion), a bald man is not only a bloke who has hair, he combs it daily and washes it once a week.

  • John C

    So, according to your logic Louis (atheism is a non-theistic religion), a bald man is not only a bloke who has hair, he combs it daily and washes it once a week.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com/ Louis

    John C – atheism is a belief system, if only a minimalistic one. I’m using the words belief system and religion interchangably. To say – “There is no God” implies belief. To prove that would mean you have exhaustive knowledge of everything. To say – we don’t have proof of a God, would be an agnostic statement. The first statement requires dogma, but not the second. Hence my calling atheism a non-theistic religion (or belief system, if that makes you more comfortable :) ), leaving agnosticism as the only real irreligious point of view.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com/ Louis

    John C – atheism is a belief system, if only a minimalistic one. I’m using the words belief system and religion interchangably. To say – “There is no God” implies belief. To prove that would mean you have exhaustive knowledge of everything. To say – we don’t have proof of a God, would be an agnostic statement. The first statement requires dogma, but not the second. Hence my calling atheism a non-theistic religion (or belief system, if that makes you more comfortable :) ), leaving agnosticism as the only real irreligious point of view.

  • Tom Hering

    “… a bald man is not only a bloke who has hair …” – John C @ 18.

    I’m not bald. I just part my hair in the middle.

  • Tom Hering

    “… a bald man is not only a bloke who has hair …” – John C @ 18.

    I’m not bald. I just part my hair in the middle.

  • John C

    My sympathies Tom.
    To part your hair in the middle is an affliction sons inhairet from their fathers. The failure of Intelligent Design to explain this phenomenon is the primary reason why ID still remains discredited.
    ( a bad pun is not a sin is it Tom?)

  • John C

    My sympathies Tom.
    To part your hair in the middle is an affliction sons inhairet from their fathers. The failure of Intelligent Design to explain this phenomenon is the primary reason why ID still remains discredited.
    ( a bad pun is not a sin is it Tom?)


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