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.


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