Tuesday, July 13, 2010

From CFI crisis to 'Neo-Humanism'

I begin with an alarming note I received from Norm Allen, staffer at the Center for Inquiry and Director of African Americans for Humanism for over two decades. The occasion was Norm's being terminated from his job, and not merely the fact of it, but according to him, the callous way in which he was terminated. There were other layoffs, and other offices belonging to CFI are closing (notably the Washington DC office), all due to a severe budget shortfall. This was not the beginning of organizational strife within CFI and tension within the humanist community, but its culmination.

I don't want to recap this sad story in detail just now, but a number of acrimonious debates ensued. Not privy to the internal workings of CFI, and not invested in ongoing disputes within the secular humanist community, I had no particular reason to take sides, but I as well as others initially reacted with a great deal of suspicion, largely on the basis of Norm's report of his termination. My interest was mainly in the fate of Norm and African Americans for Humanism (now in the capable hands of Deborah Goddard).

Here are some relevant links to the debate regarding the Center for Inquiry's financial crisis, closing of offices, and layoffs.






See also:

Secular Humanism  Online News, Vol.6, No.6, June, 2010.

The first item is a farewell to Norm Allen.
All of this is fairly moot at this point, and I'll just make a few general remarks. For me intervening in these debates without a basis in solid first-hand knowledge was mighty awkward. I see three main lines of disagreement in this dispute.

(1) The management style and priorities of CFI's current leadership (which was initially put into place by Kurtz).
(2) The management style and priorities of CFI founder Paul Kurtz.
(3) The unavoidable necessity of these layoffs.
(4) Alleged philosophical differences between Kurtz and the new leadership (Ron Lindsay et al).

The new leadership was accused of being callous and corporate. Kurtz loyalists were accused of misrepresentation. The financial crisis was real, and there obviously was no alternative to cutbacks. Remaining in dispute however were labor practices and organizational priorities. There is also the issue of overextension and dependence on large donors under Kurtz's leadership. Overall, there is a question of the ethics of the various parties' behavior, but also the ethics of the public debate.

In any case, I did my duty by publicizing Norm's complaint, but I cannot intervene sagaciously or effectively in this matter, partly because I am not in a position to answer unanswered questions, and partly because the broader critical framework from which I view the atheist/humanist/skeptical movement cannot be practically applied, considering the inevitability with which this organizational trajectory moves. What is already happening is that African American atheist organizing is moving ahead, inside of CFI as well as without, so this welcome development supplements the usual trite concerns and prominent personalities of the atheist/humanist movement, under the banner of diversity. Humanism will remain as bourgeois a movement as ever, with a few dissident voices within it. It is possible that the management and program of CFI will improve once the monetary shortfall is compensated for and now that fiscal accountability has supplanted Kurtz's alleged profligacy, but my perspective will always remain an outsider's perspective, "diversity" notwithstanding.

So, of the four points enumerated above, I'll let others fight out (1) and (2) and will concede the choices made in (3) for lack of contrary evidence. As to point 4--the philosophical debate--I won't say anything particularly in defense of the new leadership, but I find Kurtz's complaints about the direction of the humanist movement, and about the "new atheism" generally, thoroughly bogus.

As for the ongoing debates, probably the most interesting and confrontational is the one on Friendly Atheist.

There's a new development. Lo, out of the ashes comes a brand new organization headed by Paul Kurtz:

Institute for Science and Human Values

Former employees of CFI are on board, including Norm Allen and Toni Van Pelt. Several well-known intellectuals are involved, e.g. Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker. The rationale is given in the news section.

On the home page you will find a new humanist manifesto, or rather, "Neo-Humanist":

Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values: Personal, Progressive, and Planetary

Note also this news article:

Kurtz launches venture to explore morality, values in secular society
By Jay Tokasz
Buffalo News, July 10, 2010

Here we learn of  "Science and Human Values, a magazine to be edited by Norm Allen."

If this means that Norm Allen has a paying job and can pursue his international projects, more power to him. This is the one aspect of this new venture that could prove worthwhile. However . . .

This new manifesto reminds me of Marx's famous quote on tragedy and farce. The intellectual dishonesty and delusional pretension of this document are remarkable. I can understand for practical reasons why former employees of CFI signed onto this, but I don’t know what to make of some of the famous names I recognize getting involved in it. This ridiculous label “Neo-Humanism” is like a magic wand erasing the real history of secular humanism (and its terminological siblings “atheism” and “freethought”). It unwittlingly bespeaks not only of its own ideological character but of the ideological functioning and intellectual boundaries of the entire history of the secular humanist movement since the McCarthy era.

Kurtz's assertions of his alleged ideological differences with the new leadership of his former organization are ridiculous. Furthermore, I don't see the need for an institute to promote "values" and "morality", nor do I think it could possibly have any influence on curbing the rampage of the religious Right, or for that matter, make what's left of liberalism more socially conscious. There have been social and political movements galore for a half century or more. What could Kurtz possibly have to add to these beyond what he and everyone else has been pursuing all this time? Middle class professionals and the would-be managerial elite have an obsession with putting on a facade of niceness, but it's a self-deluding protective gesture, and the more ineffective to the social good the more vicious society actually becomes.

Now there is a Facebook page for the Institute for Science and Human Values. Note the ongoing discussion, particularly the debate around the Neo-Humanist founding statement. What a mess! There is at least a 3-cornered tangle of issues: (1) humanism vs "new atheists" (pro-Kurtz), (2) refutation of charges against atheists & "new Atheists" (most notably Ophelia Benson), (3) libertarian socialism vs. affirmation of (welfare state) capitalism in the Neo-Humanist manifesto (Barry F. Seidman). It's especially a mess because Seidman belongs to categories both (1) & (3).

"Neo-Humanism" reminds me of the elephant house at the Buffalo Zoo. Ophelia Benson effectively refutes Kurtz's scapegoating of the artificial pundit-generated category of "new atheists". But she also refutes the community-building pretensions of Barry F. Seidman, who occupies a peculiar position in all of these discussions. He dislikes the new CFI leadership but criticizes Kurtz in a collegial manner. He propounds "humanism" vs. atheism along with his anarcho-syndicalism. We learn here, if Seidman reports correctly, of Kurtz's leftist past. Who knew? You sure couldn't tell by anything Kurtz has said in the past 40 years at least. It's about time someone called him on his admiration for Sidney Hook, who was an arch-McCarthyite terrorizing philosophy departments. Barry Seidman strikes me as rather childish, though. I'm not impressed with the distinction between atheism and humanism. And in practice the demarcation is not as these ideologues would have it. "Humanism" no more guarantees community, commonality, progressive politics or human decency than "atheism". It is ideology, sometimes on point, sometimes platitudinous, sometimes duplicitous.

Seidman is on point, however, in criticizing the Neo-Humanist statement for its advocacy of the market economy. Granted, Kurtz maintains the social-democratic thrust of American liberalism which was killed off 35 years ago, but what qualifies Kurtz to uphold a moribund capitalism which long ago ceased to sustain the welfare state, in a statement otherwise upholding abstract democratic values; and in so doing, does Kurtz legitimately sustain a principled difference with neoliberalism? Does his eschewing of right-wing libertarianism, welcome as it is, really mark a departure from the humanist movement of either recent vintage or of the eclipsed era of Cold War liberalism? What right does Kurtz have to proclaim novelty, in light of other, long-standing liberally oriented organizations, notably the American Humanist Association? What good is his manifesto-mongering going to do now, and what's the point of studying values and preaching ethics as an organizational project in the world we live in now, and in addition to other social movements that actually concern themselves with human welfare? What can Kurtz and his liberal friends possibly say about the deadly, perhaps terminal, stage that global capitalism has reached?

All of this bears out the essentially ideological nature of both the intellectual and institutional history of "humanism" and the historical amnesia which imbues all these debates.

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