Ronald A. Lindsay – The Future of The Center for Inquiry

February 13, 2009

Ronald A. Lindsay is a bioethicist, lawyer, and chief executive officer and senior research fellow of the Center for Inquiry. For many years he practiced law in Washington, DC, and was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and American University, where he taught jurisprudence and philosophy courses. His new book is Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Ron Lindsay recounts his nearly thirty year involvement with the organization, including his role in a landmark legal case in Alabama regarding the question of whether or not secular humanism is a religion, elaborating on how the argument has been used since by the religious right. He describes the relationship of the “family of organizations” at the Center for Inquiry, including the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP), giving their histories. He talks about Paul Kurtz’ inspiring and foundational role in all of these organizations and in the worldwide movements that they support. And he talks about why it is more important now than ever to get involved at the grassroots to advance the scientific and secular values of the Center for Inquiry, even with President Obama in the White House, highlighting concerns he has with Obama’s positions on a number of issues.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 13th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m D.J. Growthy Point of Inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science reason and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is Ronald A. Lindsay. He’s a bioethicist, a lawyer, and he’s CEO and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. For many years, he practice law in Washington, D.C. and has been an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and American University, where he taught jurisprudence and philosophy courses. His new book is Future Bioethics Overcoming Taboos, Myths and Dogmas. And he’s joining me on the show to talk about the future of the Center for Inquiry. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Ron. 

It’s always a pleasure to speak with you. Thanks for having me on the show again. 

Last time you were on the program, we discussed your book, Future Bioethics, but I wanted to have you back on to talk about your new role with the Center for Inquiry. I actually just kind of wanted to generally discuss the future of this organization that we’re both working at since I get a lot of e-mails about that. 

I have been in the past year appointed the chief executive officer of the Center for Inquiry and have been given responsibility for certain tasks. And obviously one of those is to come up with some long term plans for your organization. 

All right, Ian, I want to get into some of the thinking that you’ve done and the strategy work you’ve done for this nonprofit in terms of the future. Maybe a little in our discussion, but let’s do a history lesson first. You have almost a 30 year history with various organizations at the Center for Inquiry, namely the Council for Secular Humanism. What in the mid 80s, you were involved with the council’s efforts to defeat the religious right from reclassifying, in quotes, secular humanism as a religion by the federal courts? A. I read that Paul Kurtz provided expert testimony, but you filed a critical brief in one of the cases by way of background. 

I am both a lawyer and a philosopher. I have a page from Georgetown. But for most my professional life, I’ve been active principally as a lawyer in private practice. And that’s how I met Paul. Paul, I heard about some of the cases I’ve been involved in, actually for some other organizations. We started talking about of humanism, some of the challenges facing humanism. As I’m sure your listeners are well aware, church state litigation is a continuing arena of battle for for us and other humanists and on religious groups. And in the 1980s, especially as you alluded to, there was a push by a number of religious right organizations to have secular humanism officially classified as a religion. It grew out of a case in Alabama. There was a fairly Right-Wing Judge Judge learn at hand or as we called them, unlearn and hand in the Alabama federal court, who, because he was unsatisfied with some of the rulings that come down about school prayer, he actually motivated some of the parents in the school district was the Mobile, Alabama school district to bring a suit, principal allegation of which was that secular humanism is a religion. And therefore, just as you can’t have prayer in the school, you can’t have certain teachings in the school that they claimed were really tenants of secular humanism. Jim Underdown. 

Yeah, flesh that out a bit. Tenants of the religion of secular humanism. What would that be? Evolution, science education, really. 

The whole liberal arts and science curriculum, ranger aid and wonderful mistakes they made, unfortunately, at the appellate level when it got to the core of appeals. Everything gets straightened out. But, you know, the claim was being made was that what people accept as essentially science based knowledge, evolution, thinking in other areas that supported by science, somehow that is a actually a dogma of secular humanism, because, of course, humanists do believe and evidence based inquiry and in support of our beliefs with empirical evidence and the religious right or some of them try to turn that around, saying, well, OK, that shows that evolution and all these other scientific views are actually outgrowth of secular humanism, which is absurd. But nonetheless, they made some headway. They made a big push. They got some sort of they will respond in certain areas of the media. That was actually a fairly significant case. And as you indicated, Paul Kurtz is the founder of our organization or our family organizations, was asked to provide expert testimony. And at that time, since we’ve become acquainted by that point, he asked me to file a brief with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had jurisdiction over Alabama. And our task was to essentially persuade the court why? ISM is not a religion, and we were successful in doing that. So that was an important landmark and I think at least for a period of time, is significantly set back the efforts to classify secular humanism as a religion. But, you know, that’s really an ongoing battle every few years that that issue pops up again. So it’s something we always have to be concerned about. 

Right. And in fact, the past few years, the movement has had kind of a resurgence under the leadership of folks like Tim LaHaye of the Left Behind series. You know, that single best selling series in publishing history. At one point, I’m also David Noble in Colorado. So they argue even today that secular humanism is the state supported religion of our public schools and therefore it’s unconstitutional to teach its doctrines, which in and they’ve kind of expanded the argument. It’s not just evolution, but, you know, a kind of secular understanding of our nation’s founding sex and all of that. The curriculum here in under the religion of secular humanism, Category four, the stakes are so high and they see this. 

I mean, I think in our heart of hearts, they probably realize this is really an uphill battle for them. But it’s a brilliant strategy, really a strategy and a payoff for them would be tremendous. And the adverse consequences for anyone interested in science education or just a general secular education in general would be would be catastrophic. I mean, they could make the claim that you can’t teach evolution or you’d have to give so-called equal time to other viewpoints. Same thing with sex education, as you point out. I mean, across the board of curriculum would be tremendously affected and it would have a very negative impact on the type of education our students receive in this country. 

Right. They really want to gut the whole liberal arts and science curriculum, denude the curriculum as as we know it. I didn’t have you on the show to debate the question whether or not secular humanism is a religion. I’d like to explore that at a later date. But getting back to your history with the organizations here at the Center for Inquiry, you used a phrase a minute ago, the family of organizations unpack that. 

For me, maybe the most succinct way is to engage in a little brief bit of history here because to understand how the organizations relate to each other. I’m thinking principally of three organizations, the Center for Inquiry, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. I think one needs to understand how they evolve. In 1976, Paul Kurtz, the visionary leader for all these organizations, founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. What is now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and its focus was essentially investigating of any type of claim relevant alternative medicine, UFOs. No questions regarding anything. That is kind of outside the realm of what what we call normal science is sometimes that people who work for CSI are classified as the bunkers. That’s not really the case because they’re investigators. They don’t set out with the idea that, hey, we’re going to show that using this herb is wrong or E.S.P doesn’t exist or there’s no such thing as ghosts or astrology is nothing that is useful. What they do is they investigate. The claims are made on behalf of these methodologies, if you will, or the existence of certain things and determine whether or not there’s evidence for that then. So Paul founded that organization 1976, and a few years later, he founded the Council for Secular Humanism. Actually, at the time was known as the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism. He changed his name after the fall, basically the Soviet Union and then in communism, because we put the Democratic in there kind of to emphasize we were in favor of democracy and also as kind of a contrast from Marxist humanism. 

Exactly. Which has long been good, right? 

Exactly. One time that Marxist Pimas was a movement. And of course, the religious right often lumped together any if you were a nonbeliever. They tried to market the idea that, well, gee, that must mean you’re communist. I mean, that, for example, is one reason. Would only the under God phrase was put in the Pledge of Allegiance during the height of the Cold War because they felt that pay to show that we’re different from communists, we have to show that we’re faithful to God and believe in God. In any event. So the council is founded in 1980. And just as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry used evidence based reasoning to look into these claims pseudoscientific claims, the council has one of its missions looking at claims of religion and providing a critique of religion, investigating it in an objective, scholarly manner. Sometimes the council’s been. Being focused on attacking religion, that’s not really the case. We’re focused on investigating religion, and it is true, of course, because we really haven’t found evidence to support religious claims were often critical of them. But we go beyond that. It’s not just and this is, I think, an important thing that sometimes overlooked. We’re not just negative in our approach. One of the claims that is made by many of the religions is that it’s only religion that can provide a secure foundation from reality. And that unfortunate is a prejudice that many continue to hold currently as part of the mission of the council. We have always been focused on developing humanistic ethics of showing that it is possible based values on human interests and human experience, that one can lead a moral life without reliance on religion. And I think that’s especially an area where Paul Kurtz, whose background is, you know, is a philosopher, has especially excelled. He’s written at least a half dozen books just on that topic alone. 

So as you’re talking about the history here, Iran, it’s true that these were separate organizations at the very beginning, PSI cop, on the one hand for the skeptics movement, the Council for Secular Humanism, for the humanist movement. They were similar in that they kind of shared the same philosophical foundations, naturalism or skepticism. You were talking about commitment to science based reasoning. But they were separate organizations. 

That’s right. And they still continued to be separate. But that leads to the founding of the Center for Inquiry in 1991, which was started at least initially as an organization that would help coordinate and unify the work of these two separate organizations. As you’ve just indicated, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry that calls for a second here was a do share a common focus in the sense that their mission is to further evidence based reasoning. But they they kind of look at different aspects of society. The Center for Inquiry was founded in part to say, coordinate the efforts of these two different organizations, kind of help them to share resources, to coordinate their programing. But then the center took on a life of its own. So that is still continues to coordinate the work of its two affiliates and support their efforts as independent organizations try to develop programs of its own. For example, the Center for Inquiry is focused more on community outreach and in supporting various long term projects that perhaps be more difficult for either the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry or the Council for Secular Humanism to to really support properly. So, for example, we have a program under the Center for Inquiry called the Committee for the Scientific Examination Religion that does very high level scholarly work looking into various aspects of religious scholarship. One of its charter projects is the Jesus Project, where we have a number of very eminent scholars looking into questions relating to the historicity of Jesus. And then in the last couple of years, CFI founded the Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C., which has indicated by its name tries to advance the goals of science and secularism in the sphere of public policy. So I guess to sum up in a broad sense, what we have now is these three allied organizations working in a very coordinated fashion on similar but not identical goals. So each one has a different focus and emphasis. But at the end of the day, we make sure that they have a unified effort and all three of them advance in their own fashion the objectives of promoting and protecting science, secularism and the common denominator and all these organizations. 

Paul Kurtz, he’s the founder of all of this. So on the one hand, it seems like it’s, you know, a hodgepodge of these various organizations. You mentioned the Council for Secular Humanism. There’s the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Commission for Scientific Examination of Religion. All these organizations, all these acronyms, you can kind of tell a philosopher who was involved was, you know, a lot of organizations, a lot of acronyms. But the real the real point is that all of it’s a one unified movement and mission to advance science and secularism in society. 

Exactly. And, you know, it’s a tribute to Paul Kurtz. He’s the visionary founder of all these organizations. And significantly, especially when one realizes he started all these essentially from scratch. 

No government funding, no government funding. 

And especially with with CSI and CSI, it’s the initial organizations. It was very difficult to get them off the ground. He had to put a lot of time and effort into it, persuade a lot of people to support the organizations financially. And over time, of course, the. Began to accumulate resources. So by the time we got around to founding the center, praying for you were perhaps a little better shape. But still, that was a tremendous effort on his part. And I think it’s a testament to the to the intelligence dedication of Paul Kurtz and his genius, really, that he has been able to guide his organizations to the point where they are now. This whole family of organizations is without doubt the preeminent group of organizations in the world promoting science and secularism. 

When you look at the history that you just recounted, what stands out to me is this figure of Paul Kurtz, Paul Kurtz, you know, you and I both know him personally, were close to him. But, you know, most people out there don’t realize he did all this. 

Almost on the side, you know, he was a professor of philosophy. He never did this as a living. He’s never been paid by any of these organizations. He volunteered his time for decades to build all this and add all of this, that he founded Prometheus Books, which is the leading publisher of books along these lines. 

Yeah. I mean, Paul’s achievement is nothing short of tremendous. As I said, it really is a testament to his dedication to the cause of humanism and skepticism and his enthusiasm. I mean, if we had if, you know, even a tenth of our supporters had even a fraction of the dedication and enthusiasm of Paul Kurtz, we would be controlling the world like the religious right as we do. 

So we’re not quite there yet. 

Ron, one of the things I’ve heard in my travels giving talks at colleges, especially more recently, is this big question of whether or not the Center for Inquiry and all the stuff that we do. You’ve touched on. Is it actually relevant anymore now that Obama is in office? When George W. Bush was touting a social agenda that was contrary to the aims of the pro science and the prosecutor crowd? We can all get up in arms. We, you know, kind of rally the troops and, you know, people can be enlisted in the culture wars. Right. But now Obama’s there. Obama seems to agree with us on so many points. Is it time to just pack up and go home? 

No, not at all. I mean, I think that would be a huge mistake. First of all, I can’t take the long view of things. I think it’s important to bear in mind that it is true. We’re now living in an age, fortunately, where most scientists, most of the time, at least in the Western world, can engage in the research without too much interference. We’re also living in a world where increasingly but still not quite enough. In my opinion, the non-religious are becoming more accepted. But we’re still nowhere near the stage where we can say, well, gee, there’s no longer any stigma attached to being non-religious, nor are we at the stage where we can say that scientific inquiry or the secular state is secure. It is true that Obama is not likely to interfere as much with science as Bush did. I mean, Bush set the bar very high for that. So it can be hard to kind of hard to top that. And it’s also true that Obama clearly is more tolerant of nonbelievers than than Bush. 

He actually mentions the existence of such nonbelievers. 

Yes. In his inaugural address, which we took note of, and that we certainly are grateful that that’s the first time in American history that nonbelievers have been explicitly acknowledged during a novel address. So those are those are grounds for optimism. But I think we have to bear in mind that there’s still there’ll be a lot of pressure on Obama from various religious groups and conservative groups. And as much as he might like, I mean, the administration clearly has a role in setting public policy, but they also have to try to accommodate conflicting points of view. It is good that we have an administration that is more friendly, let’s say, to our prospective. But that doesn’t mean we’re still not to have battles. Furthermore, we need to take advantage of this opportunity to push for changes in public policy while we can. 

You’re talking about issues like maybe gay marriage or the secular agenda that has the religious right always riled up. 

Sure. I mean, the fact that we have an administration that, in fact, may be more supportive of science and maybe more tolerant of nonbelievers and individual rights in general, that should serve as a call to get active as opposed to being a reason for complacency. I mean, there’s a certain need to take advantage of this opportunity to push for change in public policy, because if we just sit on our hands and act for eight years, we’ll have only ourselves to blame if we don’t get the changes we like in areas such as same sex marriage, improvements in science education, more respect for reproductive rights, and obviously very important. We need to ensure that Obama appoints the right type of judges to the federal bench because the people that serve on the on the federal judiciary therefore have a lot to say about church state issues, issues related to reproductive rights. So, yes, it is grounds for optimism, but it also should serve as a clarion call to action. We should be actually more enthusiastic and engage in more activities because now we have at least some prospect of success, whereas during the Bush years, we were essentially fighting a holding pattern. I mean, we were trying to preserve what we had no real chance given Bush’s attitude and the fact that for most of his term, he had a Republican Congress. Very conservative that we could actually make headway on these issues. Now we can and as I said, we need to take advantage of this opportunity. The other thing I would mention is that it’s too early in the day to make a judgment right now. But I have to say, on a court issue for humanists in particular, that is church state relationships. I can’t say that I’m entirely pleased with Obama’s track record, especially as support of faith based initiatives. 

He might have renamed the program, but he actually expanded it. 

That’s correct. And that I mean, we knew that actually going in because because during the campaign, he said that he was not only not going to eliminate the faith based initiative, but was actually going to expand. It was a way and it is to tinker around the edges because he’s indicated that in distinction with the way things were run under Bush, he’s not allow faith based charities that are supported with federal funds to discriminate in hiring. But he’s still planning to funnel a lot of money, billions of dollars to these faith based organizations. And frankly, we don’t think it’s a good idea. We don’t think there’s a need to have government money passed through the hands of religious organizations. I mean, for most of the history of this country, that wasn’t the case. So the idea that somehow we have to continue to support this program, which is really a little bit more than a decade old. It was the start of it began under the Clinton administration. Then Bush expanded it greatly and now Obama. Unfortunately, it looks like he’s going to continue to expand it. As I said, he’s gonna make some modifications that we support, but we’d prefer to have the whole thing eliminated. 

Right. And not to sidetrack discussion about the faith based initiatives, but he’s also, I think, expanding it in some of the wrong directions. Some of the money is explicitly to support organizations that includes reduce the need for abortions. So if that doesn’t sound like an anti abortion agenda, I don’t know what is further his support for traditional heterosexual marriages in the inner cities. Whatever. There’s there’s some social science questions regarding that agenda. But, you know, we don’t have to get off on all of that right now. 

The bottom line is we shouldn’t be so complacent about the Obama administration. I think we need to monitor it closely and we need to put pressure on it to make sure that it takes the right steps in the church state, every other flight. One other thing that may not be known to many of your listeners right now, there’s actually a case of the Supreme Court may be deciding, depending how things evolve later this year. It has to do with a cross that’s on federal land in California. There’s like federal park land. I think of the Mojave Desert and there’s a cross that’s been there for a number of years. A former park employee actually challenged the presence of the cross on federal land and the courts ruled that, in fact, it was unconstitutional and that the government did was often tries to do in cases like this, tries to circumvent the ruling. So they claim, first of all, there was a monument to war veterans. Then Congress passed a law that donated the area immediately around the cross to some private organization, I think was a Veterans for Foreign Wars in exchange for some land elsewhere, as clearly just a transparent effort to get around the court ruling and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over California, recognized as such and said, look, this is a sham transaction. While the Bush administration filed briefs, it’s called a petition for search your right, asking the Supreme Court to look at that case. And it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out if the Supreme Court does decide to hear this case. What is the position of the Obama administration that the big said it was Bush’s solicitor general that asked the court to take on this case? Obama and his solicitor general are not required to pursue it. And it would be a great sign if they decided, look, we’re not going to waste the time with the federal government and the Justice Department in defending this cross. That’s on this this federal park land. Let’s just take the cross down. So that will be I would ask people to follow that case. I think it was called Salazar versus Buono, at least before the 9th Circuit, and see what happens with it. And that would be, I think, a good indication of how much Obama and his administration is willing to kind of change the course on church state issues generally. Mm hmm. 

Ron, we’ve covered a lot of ground. And a bit before we go, I just want to touch on some thinking you have about the future strategies of the Center for Inquiry, really the Center for Inquiry as a movement. You’ve done some reorganization of CFI in your first few months at the helm, right? 

Well, that was part of my mandate when the board of directors of CFI put me in the position of CEO. They want to take a look at the organization and assess what happens. We talk about what Paul Curtis has done over the decades. 

These organizations grew up kind of organically. You’re Paul Kurtz inspired people to dig in and build these organizations. 

But you’re you’re providing a little more kind of nonprofit management on these organically grown up organizations. 

Exactly. Well, I mean, because Paul has been such a visionary leader. He’s always been interested in growth and expansion. He’s focused on growth, didn’t always have time to focus on management. And now we’re at the stage. In part because of the tremendous successfully we’ve had that we really had to take a step back and enter a period of consolidation, if he will. So part of my mandate is to ensure the organizations are on a solid financial footing and that they have a and efficient organizational structure so that in the first six months that I’ve been functioning as a CEO, that’s what I’ve done. We’ve developed a budget. We’ve developed a management structure. We now have an organizational or operational chart for reorganization, things that most organizations and most nonprofits, when they get to our size, should have. And now we have them. And I think we’re going to see increased efficiency in the organization as a result. 

And all of that is really to honor the work of Paul Kurtz and everyone involved in building these organizations. It should also be said that, you know, he’s not been put out to pasture. He’s very active now. He’s just stepping back a little from the management of CFI as he devotes his time and energies to a number of writing projects he’s focused on. 

That’s true. I mean, it’s really a division of responsibilities. I mean, the fact is that Paul had engaged for decades in this virtually superhuman effort of building these organizations, at the same time being very active as a thinker and writer scholar. And because we’ve grown so much, especially within the last decade, it really just become too much for one person. Even that person was Paul Kurtz. So the board decided, look, let’s have Paul focus on what he does best, is writing his scholarship, his speaking and turnover sort of management responsibilities of someone else. So it’s essentially a division of work. I think it’s turning out to be good so far. 

So last thing then, Ron, if people are listening to this and they get excited about what you’re talking about, the future of CFI being. How can they get involved? How can they roll up their sleeves and say, count me in? 

Well, the easiest thing to do is go to our Web sites that are, frankly, dot net. And on that page, you’ll be able to join up immediately as a friend of the center. We count on our friends to provide us with much of our support. The standard membership is sixty dollars. Obviously, we’d like to see people if they’re able to give more than that. At the same time that you join up as a friend, you can also make a donation. And once you do that, of course, you’ll get in contact with our various programs and activities. People get in touch with you. We’ll talk with you about how you can get involved, not just financially, but in terms of the activities you’d like to participate in. 

You’re talking about at the local level, at the grassroots, at a grassroots level. 

I mean, one thing that distinguishes us actually from some other secular skeptic organizations is that we have a well established grassroots movement. We have centers in communities throughout the country. And so it’s relatively easy for people anywhere in the country to get involved in our programs and activities. And one thing I would especially mention, it’s kind of timely. We are going to have a world Congress in Bethesda, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., from April 9th through 12th. If you go to our website, you’ll you’ll see the advertisement for the Congress. And that will be a splendid opportunity for people to become more acquainted with the center and support the center at the same time. It’s going to be a fantastic program. We have leading scholars and thinkers throughout the world. We have several Nobel laureates, John Mather. 

We have Drew Shindell from NASA, Roger Brown, a lot of science, a lot of philosophy, a lot of political thinker as we have. Eleanor Smeal is going to be there. Pat Schroeder, Chris Hitchens. The list can go on and on. 

I’m afraid actually give the list as I probably omit some names and the people might be miffed, but just about any leading thinker in the area of science and philosophy, certainly people with any scientist or floss would be secular orientation is likely to be on our program. So it’d be a great event. 

Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that. And I’m looking forward to, as I know, you are meeting many of our listeners, a point of inquiry at that conference. Ron, thanks for joining me for this conversation. 

Thanks so much for having me. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.