CFI’s Missing Diversity

CFI’s Missing Diversity October 9, 2019

The Western atheist and skeptical community has historically been monochrome. Although there are and always have been black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian nonbelievers, atheism as an organized movement tends to be dominated by white people all out of proportion to our overall numbers in society.

In recent years, a small amount of progress has been made at redressing this. However, we’re a long way away from parity. And it doesn’t help when major skeptical organizations are oblivious or even hostile to the very idea of being more inclusive.

In particular, the Center for Inquiry has faced criticism in the past for the makeup of its board, which is conspicuously lacking in diversity. Last month, after a long search, they announced the addition of a new board member… and it was yet another white person, Julia Sweeney.

Science writer and speaker Kavin Senapathy, who also hosts CFI’s Point of Inquiry podcast, was moved to protest on Facebook:

This is a shameful day for the Center for Inquiry.

I have a LOT of patience, caring, and even love for the Center for Inquiry. That patience is wearing thin.

I’ve been trying to do my small part to help fix its horrendous diversity problem, as have others, who dedicate far more of their time and energy than they should have to expend.

For one, the CFI’s Board of Directors is overwhelmingly white and relatively elderly. I’ve had conversations with a number of board members about why this is a problem. For one, all of the world’s leading institutions are pushing for diversity and inclusion, not to fill quotas, but to improve scientific rigor and the robustness of inquiry.

One look at the audiences and speaker lineups at CSIcon, for example, reveals the scope of the problem.

So this news of a new board member has come as a blow to not only me, but many.

I’ve been talking to a few board members about this, and the answer to my question– how many non-white individuals were considered for election to CfI’s board over the last year or two?

The answer appears to be zero. One person I asked about why they elected yet another white person to the board?

“Yup. Finding people that want to serve on the board and have the appropriate qualifications isn’t easy.”

When I pressed, this person suggested that I was insulting them, clearly with no clue the perpetual insult that non-white people in America live every day.

Another suggested that my “viewing every decision ever made through an exclusively racial lens” can be “a form of racism.”

To that I said that “there’s no such thing as “viewing things through a racial lens”. This is the world we live in. Are you aware of data maps? Have you done even a few basic google scholar searches on this? Or are you just regurgitating rhetoric that makes you feel better?” I suggested that this person remove “viewing everything through a racial lens” from their vocab.

To be clear, this is nothing personal against Julia Sweeney.

And to be doubly clear, I’m still hosting POI and everything else I do with CSI.

This post is to express that I’ve lost several more notches of respect for certain people.

If CFI had been considering people of color for their board, but their non-white candidates all declined because they lacked the interest or the time, that would be one thing. Instead, by Senapathy’s telling, they didn’t even try to assemble a more diverse slate of candidates. It was mere obliviousness and tunnel vision, not a good-faith effort that fell short.

And the board members’ defense of their actions makes it worse. Essentially, they’re claiming that it’s too much work to have a board that’s demographically representative of the society we live in, as opposed to just picking the nearest white person. And based on the dismissive and hostile tone of their reply, it seems they have no intention of trying harder next time. They don’t want to solve this problem, they want to ignore it in the hope that it will go away.

If we believe that science and rationality are for everyone, yet the skeptical community consistently fails to reflect the diversity of the society we live in, it’s worth engaging in some searching self-examination to figure out why. Unfortunately, the CFI board members that Senapathy spoke to seem disinclined to do that. Instead, they offered the absurd, Fox-News-esque “talking about race is the real racism” argument – which isn’t an answer, it’s a refusal to face the problem (it’s even on the bingo card).

Why does all this matter? Here’s one big reason: Millennials and Gen Z aren’t only the least religious, they’re also the most racially diverse generations in American history. Among Millennials, people who identify as non-white make up 40% of the population, and among Gen Z, it’s 47%.

We’re very nearly at the tipping point of a majority-minority society. By failing to consider non-white candidates, CFI is de facto excluding vast swathes of qualified people from their candidate pool. This goes back to what I’ve said many times before, that if atheists and skeptics fail to make inroads with people of color, we’ll be committing slow-motion demographic suicide. We’ll be consigning ourselves to irrelevance as a shrinking cul-de-sac of white people in an increasingly diverse world.

Besides, paying attention to diversity isn’t just the politically smart thing to do, but a positive benefit for us. It will reinvigorate the skeptical community with fresh blood and fresh ideas. We can draw a lesson from studies which find that corporations perform better and are more profitable when they have diverse boards. We “profit” when people are more skeptical and more rational, and if we want to expand our audience, this is a lesson we should apply to ourselves.

Why does diversity at the top make organizations perform better? One likely answer is that people of diverse backgrounds and diverse life experiences are less likely to fall victim to groupthink. People who are all of similar cultures, races or classes are more likely to assume that the way they’re used to making decisions is the only way to make them. They’re more likely to share the same biases, assumptions and habits of thought. When there’s a flaw in that approach, they’ll go marching off the cliff together. The flip side of this is that more diverse groups of people are more likely to come up with interesting and innovative ideas.

The atheist community, which has blundered time and again when it comes to inclusion and equitable representation, is the textbook example. The CFI board, like Sam Harris and other prominent atheists, is blind to the way their own assumptions and biases shape their arguments. It’s not too late to fix this problem, but it will require more effort and serious consideration than many atheist groups have so far been willing to give.

Image credit: stanhua, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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