Ronald A. Lindsay – Observations on Ethics, Law, and CFI

November 12, 2010

How did his studies at Catholic Georgetown University set CFI President and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay on the primrose path to atheism? Does he now count himself a lawyer or a philosopher, neither, or both?

Point of Inquiry asks Ron about the basis for ethics for atheists and secularists. Are atheists nihilists, as is often said? Would that necessarily be bad? Host Robert Price and Lindsay carry on a brisk, illuminating discussion of Aquinas, Kant, and Hume, applying their insights to ethics and public policy.

One often hears secularists complaining that religious believers are voting the theological party line of their church, e.g., in the case of abortion. But does it matter where their moral convictions come from? Is it the genetic fallacy for us to say they are trying to “impose their theology on the rest of us”?

Finally, he provides his privileged perspective on the direction and approach of CFI since the departure of founder Paul Kurtz.

Ronald A. Lindsay is a bioethicist, lawyer, and President and CEO 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.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 12th, 2010. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Robert Price. Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grass roots. 

Ronald A. Lindsay is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. He received his APHC in philosophy from Georgetown University and is JD Degree from the University of Virginia Law School. 

He has been described both as a lawyer masquerading as a philosopher and as a philosopher, pretending to be a lawyer. Both statements may be true. One undisputed fact, he is the author of Future Bioethics Overcoming Taboos, Myths and Dogmas. Welcome to Point of Inquiry Ron Lindsay. 

Well, great. Be on the show. Thanks for having me. 

Now, let’s say it’s an honor to have you. Ron, what is your religious background, assuming you had one and had you wind up leaving it? 

I was a very strong Catholic when I was young, which inflows to a lot of the decisions I made. Maybe not for the best. Although one of the decisions I made, ironically, was the one that led to my being an atheist. I had a brother, older brother who went to M.I.T. and I still remember the first Christmas break. He came back to the home and, you know, he starts spouting all this nonsense like the Vietnam War might be unjust. And, you know, we can’t expect people in other cultures necessarily to adopt our moral point of view. And in the most shocking thing was he was saying something like, well, Jesus, no, he may he may not have been divine in these schemes. He may have been just a man. I was. Oh, my goodness. This is horrible. Obviously, he had gone to this Eastern Liberal University and had been corrupted. 

So I said, look, I stuck. 

That’s not gonna happen to me. So basically what I was looking for colleges. I limited myself to the state university. I was a backup. And then I applied to Georgetown, which maybe people from Fordham would disagree, but I thought was the best Catholic university United States. And the irony, of course, is that it was at Georgetown that I became an atheist. 

But yeah, I was very strongly religious then and said the experience at Georgetown changed me. And you might appreciate this. The first thing that made me think and question my faith was a course on the New Testament. Georgetown, to its credit, required its students, Elisa’s Catholic students, to take six hours of philosophy and six hours of theology. And the first theology course I took was on on the New Testament with a focus on the gospels. And it was a real, real eye opener. I had you know, I was well, he’s naive believers. You know, I went to Mass every Sunday and you hear the priest give the old familiar stories. And basically that’s your you know, your knowledge of the Bible. Of course, the Catholic Church is a story we’ve been been big on encouraging its adherents to read the Bible on their own anyway. But it just it was a shock to me to find out that there were more than four gospels, you know, were whatever it is, you know, burned either but maybe 36 or 40, that there’d been a lot debate in the early centuries about which gospels to include that. You know, the the gospels themselves were written over a period of time. And, you know, the earliest possible ones probably were written down maybe 30 or 40 years after Jesus lived. Which, of course, goes a bit to their reliability. And that was, as I said, it was a real eye opener for me. 

And that’s when I first began to to question my faith and the Catholic higher education when it gets into biblical criticism and the like. It really is a whole different world than people expect because they’re they because they have the liberty to say, like I believe because the church says so, not necessarily because the Bible says so. So it becomes open season on pretty critical study of the Bible with Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitz Mizer. 

That’s yeah, it was good. And the interesting thing was the courses actually taught by a nun who is an atheist. Why not? 

At the time, I was just outraged, you know, because I was a strong Catholic and I and but I guess I grew to like her in part because I found what she was giving us was very informative. And she was just a very nice person and. She tolerated my orthodoxy, actually give a very high grade. And so we had a lot of respect. So, you know, it didn’t change me immediately but can’t plant the seed of doubt. And then later on, I took a course, starts studying philosophy and studied David Hume in particular. And that was kind of the thing that pushed me over. Finally. Especially David Hume’s essay on miracles is Natural History of religion. I just found a very persuasive and at that point and I said I just can’t accept can’t accept the faith. So it was, as I think is true with a number of people who are strongly religious once they make that break. It’s it it can be a disturbing experience. I remember it happened my senior year of college, and I was kind of emotionally distraught for a while and had the sense of direction in this and. You know, mild depression. So Sarkozy, you know, you build your whole life around your faith. That’s what gives you your meaning. And then to have that taken away May creates a challenging transition. 

But you eventually get over that as many times as I hear these exit stories. And mine was one of mine. It’s new every time, just I guess because it’s in a different life. And you can’t help empathize with them all over again. Fascinating. Well, among these fields that you eventually got into because there was law on top of philosophy, I guess is a stupid question. But I have to ask, which do you like better, law or philosophy or let’s say in law? 

You’re basically a mouthpiece for someone else. But the compensation pretty good usually was pretty good for me, Flossy, of course. He had the advantage of considering. So on the most profound questions that humanity has to confront and you get the opportunity to develop your own thoughts and ideas on that. But the compensation usually a squat for most philosophers. I mean, you know, if if you take teaching at Harvard or something like that, maybe it’s pretty good. But for most philosophers, it’s not that great. That said, a philosophy was my first love. I guess I did graduate work in philosophy before I went to law school. So, in fact, I was almost like becoming a professional student because I did three years or graduate study in philosophy. Then it slowly dawned on me that I may have a difficulty earning a living as a philosopher. And I went to law school. But I always kept up my love philosophy. I left graduate school. I was, you know, the. The proverbial EBD all but dissertation, I’ve done the coursework and done my comprehensive exams, but had done my dissertation by kept up my contacts at Georgetown, and they always encouraged me to try to finish the dissertation. I could hear I thought they were my friends. But, you know, I actually found time in the early 90s to try to fit it in my schedule and happy to said I completed it. And I like I mean, I like both disciplines, but I would definitely say philosophy was my true love. 

Mm hmm. What was your dissertation topic? 

The morality and legality of assistance in dying and voluntary active euthanasia. The typical typical dissertation with a title of about 25 words. 

I want to be somewhat precise, but essentially it was about assistance and dying when it’s morally permissible. 

And beyond that, when it might be a legally advisable to enact something like that, that would give people the right to hasten their death under certain conditions. 

I came to a conclusion that is reflected, I think, more or less in the law as it is in Oregon and now in Washington state, and that is for individuals who are terminally ill provided there are certain procedural safeguards in place. It should be. It’s both morally permissible and it should be recognized as something that people have a legal right to do. Don’t think they’re really uncompelling arguments against that. Not someone who believes in the sanctity of the light of life doctrine, as it’s usually articulated. And then some of the arguments that were made on secular grounds about, you know, the parade of horribles that would happen if we legalized, you know, like Oregon would become a suicide mill and people would be pressured to choose it only be the poor who would take advantage of that. Now, those things. Now those fears have materialized. I think it’s actually worked out very well, which I think is one reason that Washington State just a couple years ago Foaled sued. And I think I think is maybe something that will sweep the country. But I think we’re going to have, you know, various states over time adopt it. And I think it’s I think it’s a good thing. I think people should have. Some measure of control when they’re in a situation when they’ve been given a turtle diagnosis, that they should be able decide how they want to spend their their last days. 

What do you think forms the proper basis for morality and ethics, for a secular folk, atheists, agnostics, whatever you want to call it? Cause cause we’re often tarred with this this brush. Well, those people are their moral nihilists. And they’ve got no basis for morality. And and so on. What is moral nihilism necessarily bad? I guess that’s another question, but that isn’t clear to me. And what do you think is the basis for morality for us? 

It’s funny you should mention that there are raises the question whether or nihilism is necessarily bad. 

And I was telling one time of writing a book called Nihilism. What’s so bad about it? But in it, which would be kind of a nice play on words, too. But then, you know, it really depends on how how you define nihilism. 

You know, if you’re if you say what that means is there’s no value or meaning in the world, then I don’t think that’s a view that that atheists would have to subscribe to. If, on the other hand, you define nihilism as saying, well, you know, there’s no morality or or meaning in the world apart from what humans give to it. 

I would agree with that. Now, I don’t think that’s a proper definition of nihilism. But I mean, as I said, it depends how you define that before you could begin to describe that to atheists. 

I think the natural world and that would include human interests and human desires is the basis for morality in effect. That’s the only basis I think that makes sense. Morality, as I see it, is a practical enterprise, meaning that it’s geared towards certain objectives. 

And if you look at how it evolved, that’s certainly, you know, it came about as a way to create stability within the community, to foster cooperation, to facilitate the growth of trust, to keep peace, you know, keep people from killing each other. There may be some other objectives, but I mean, those are kind of the objectives of morality as it evolved. You could say, yeah, we’re we’re not bound to honor, you know. So it evolved that way. But now that we can reflect on it, should those be our objectives? Well, I think they should be. I mean, what are the objectives? Would you want for morality to. 

You know, to increase the amount of cheese in the world or to, you know, I mean, it’s it’s is clearly it’s geared, I think, to serve a set of objectives. At least that’s how I would argue it should be done. I know some people have this idea of morality if they think about it at all. 

Oh, it’s kind of like the set of rules. We have to follow it. And for some people, that’s all they do. It just guys follow these rules that have been handed down to them. 

Maybe they get from the church, maybe just get it elsewhere and they just kind of follow it without thinking about, oh, why are we doing this? 

And I think once you begin to to reflect on the fact that morality really should be serving some sort of purpose, should have some objective or set of objectives that really changes your outlook on how you approach morality. And I think it kind of helps resolve some of these debates we had about, gee, is morality subjective? Is it objective? Well, it depends on how you look at it. I think it has, because it is something that serves human interests. 

It’s subjective in that sense. It’s not something that exists apart from human interests and human desires. But because it’s tied into the conditions of the world as they are, it’s objective. So, you know, there’s certain things if you want to have cooperation among people, which I think is a goal that’s desirable for obvious reasons. There are certain things you have to do, certain rules. You have to have certain actions you want to encourage. So I think it has very much an objective, factual basis in the world. At the same time, you know, if there weren’t human beings around, it really would be meaningless to speak about morality. I mean, let’s just take for a thought experiment. Let’s assume they’re just animals, non-human animals around. Well, you won’t have morality. I mean, you know, they they act the way they do. And no one thinks, you know, if a bird eats a worm and a cat eats the bird and the dog kills the cat, they’re not being immoral. That’s what they do. So, you know, apart from human interest and human desires, we wouldn’t have the institution of morality. Now, some people I mean, theist might say, well, look, it is to serve God well. 

And of course, you get a little question about, you know, whether it’s God exists or not. Believing that aside, I just don’t see that as a as a basis for morality. I mean, why, again, you you ask the question, why serve God? What’s the purpose of that? You know, presumably if God is a benevolent being and that’s typically how he is portrayed. Well, not always in human history, but, you know, it’s certainly the preferred version nowadays. He wants humans to flourish and to and to thrive. And that would mean whatever rules he endorses would be rules geared toward promoting human flourishing. So you get back to the fact that morality is tied into the in some way the the betterment of our conditions. 

This is especially interesting to me because. And having gone to to Georgetown and study there, I know you’re the guy to ask about this. It seems to me that Combest ethics, despite the weird application to specific issues, sometimes it seems to me that in recognizing the difference between natural and supernatural law, Quaintness says that, yeah, God did set up morality, but that’s a function of his setting up a world of particular kind with human beings, Senate. And they’re going to congregate as communities. And there’s certain laws of maximum functioning in a community you just can’t have. Rape, murder, theft, etc., legal or no human community. So it’s not arbitrary at all. It’s a function of how the human race is. Now, why should we do that? Like if somebody said, well, I yeah, maybe so, but I really don’t give a damn about the rest of the human race. I’m just in it for number one. He would say, well, now that’s where your obligation to worship your creator comes in. He set this framework up. You want to participate in it. But admittedly, that’s that’s a question of worship, not of of of ethics. And I think to myself immediately, well, cheese. Isn’t that the same as like with Conte saying you have Billy, if you believe in God, you’ve got a categorical imperative to obey your creator. He set the game up and you’re in it. But as to the why and wherefore of the specific rules, it’s a hypothetical imperative. If you want to get to this destination, here’s the shortest way to go. And if this makes any sense so far, this makes me think, are we atheists embracing a kind of natural law ethic? But without that. Categorical imperative. So that it’s all provisional and is that a problem? I ask myself that quite a bit. 

When as I think about these things. 

Well, there are there are a lot of good points to make there. Yes. Certainly a quietness was a big proponent of natural law. And for most issues, he found that sufficient. 

There was inevitably, as you might expect, since he was a, you know, a monk and a member of the church and a theologian. You know, there are certain issues where he relied on revelation in church teaching. You know, certainly how you treat heretics. I mean, that’s not something as part of the natural law. It’s just part of church doctrine. And he was clearly not very favorable toward heretics and thought they should be killed basically after. You. As I recall, he said there should have been given either one or two chances to change their minds. But if they persist after that, they should be executed because they’re a danger to the community and the community of faith. So, I mean, he had religious elements mixed in with his ethics. But there is a core of of natural law ethics, which I interpreted broadly would be consistent with the idea that, yes, morality has a purpose and its purpose is to grow in some broad sense, human flourishing. You know, the peace in the communities to building a community, etc. and go into can’t. Of course, he thought there was a categorical imperative. But I would reject that. I don’t think that’s necessary for morality. I think morality is to borrow con’s terminology, if you want to stick with that. It’s hypothetical imperatives. You know, if in fact your objective is to, you know, live in a community to be at peace with a community leader, to help foster trust, to facilitate cooperation, to bring stability, then these are things that you should do. And, you know, it’s they’re really time tested things. I mean, one thing that’s interesting, once again to the history, morality is very little difference on core moral norms across human cultures, across time. I mean, a look at ancient cultures, medieval culture, modern cultures, they all have certain core norms about, you know, not stealing, not killing, not injuring others. To some extent, helping those in distress. I mean, to the extent it doesn’t expose you to much harm, things of that sort. 

And that’s because those are necessary if we’re to live together. Those are things that you necessarily have to do. The big change in morality that has taken place through the centuries is not so much the content of these core norms, but is the range of the norms, the older people or the entities, if you will, to who whom they apply. Because, you know, humanity initially was broken up into tribes that were very insular, usually didn’t have very friendly relations with the tribe next door, in part because they just couldn’t rely on them. I mean, it was kind of a a battle for resources. So unfortunately, throughout much of human history, we have the outsider is being treated as beings that really aren’t entitled to much moral consideration. Then over time, the scope of the community, the moral community has enlarged. And we see that even in the last few centuries with the with the notion of human rights, which is a fairly recent development, it really came about to a large extent during the Enlightenment. And, of course, is no no work. Winston, that’s at the same time people began in seriousness to question the institution of slavery just because it was inconsistent with the idea of human rights. And obviously, I find that a welcome development. And I do believe that our morality reflects the natural world and the conditions we live in. I’m a little suspicious of anachronistic moral judgments that, you know, looking back in the past and saying, well, gee, how those people look back then was as barbaric as the on the ground slaughtering each other. And, you know, they had no mercy show to the peoples, other tribes and other religions, but they lived in a different world, a world where it was really rely hard to rely on people that maybe you could even communicate with. And there really wasn’t much incentive to engage in trade or communication. Now we have a fortunately, I think, a world in which we have a global community. And that’s in part due to the fact that we can have communications and trade and deal with people across the world. And because of that, we have to have a certain amount of trust, a certain willingness to cooperate with them. And that’s all the good, because I think the more cooperation you have with more people, the more productive society is and everyone benefits. But that really is, I think, the biggest change, not the you know, the content of. These core norms about, you know, don’t kill, don’t steal, what have you. Those always were around, but they applied usually to a very small group. Over time, those groups were expanded. And nowadays, I think it is fair to say that we have a global moral community, at least to a certain extent. And if you go anywhere in the world, you’re expected to treat people in a certain way. And you can usually expect, you know, a fair amount of decent treatment from from those people as well. 

It’s makes that even more clear when you look at what appear to be, I don’t know, would they be exceptions, approved the rule or whatever? 

When when people point out the cynicism or the obliviousness of, let’s say, of Iran and Pakistan and others being on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, they say, well, this is worthless. This is total hypocrisy. But yes, it is. But we only noticed that because things in general are much better and anybody has the idea at all of having such a. Exactly. 

That’s one benefit, if you will. I’m not one these people that tries to pretend you have a silver lining in everything. But, you know, you look at World War two. I think the U.N. obviously was a reaction to that. And again, human rights, the notion of human rights developed during Durney Leitman. But it really was the post-World War Two era that solidified that in part because of the horrors of Nazi ism, Naziism. You know, it was an atavistic movement. It was a throwback to the way people acted back in barbaric times. You know, Hitler had this idea that there were, you know, certain races of peoples, certain cultures that didn’t deserve to to live. And, you know, he would often point to historical examples, you know, Genghis Khan or whatever. And he would say, well, gee, well, that’s how things were done. I’m not doing anything different. And to some extent, he wasn’t. I mean, there were times in human history where you’d have certain people come in, sweep through a country and basically annihilate the people who were living there. 

And that’s how things were done. But fortunately, we’ve gotten a better understanding of the the scope of the moral community, the human community. And as I said, Hitler was a throwback. And because we don’t want that to happen again, I think that’s why we’ve now got a much firmer understanding of the importance of human rights than we want to have a global community that recognizes the importance of human rights. Mm hmm. 

Yeah, too bad he left off the I g on his noble, savage doctrine. That’s right. Right. Right. What do you think that it vitiates morality to base it on any sort of a philosophical or religious premise, like to make it a function of something else? Like usually I think of it as well. You know, if God said it, it must be true. Well, come on. That. That vitiates morality. It’s just divine kwam in that case. But then I start thinking, well, am I making it a function of other philosophical axioms and should it be a thing unto itself in some way? I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I wonder if it’s if it’s the implication of something else, as are we in trouble already? 

Yeah, well, you know, I don’t think morality can be tied into any specific philosophical doctrine. You know, it’s and it would be weird if you think about it, that if it were so I mean, we can’t say the secret to morality is, you know, contin ethics or Aristotelian aspects or something like that, in part because, among other things, most people aren’t familiar with Con or Aristotle and be kind of strange to say that, well, gee, you know, what they’re doing is really carrying out the implications of these very detailed and specific philosophical doctrines. On the other hand, I think it can be tied into philosophy without necessarily undercutting it’s kind of natural underpinnings. 

And that is when it comes about, again, as we discussed, you know, morality evolved over time, you know, and people in the Paleolithic times weren’t gathered around in a philosophy seminar thinking about what do you what is the right thing to do here. They just these are things that just developed and they developed began because they benefited the group. You know, if if you have a cooperative group more likely to survive than if you have one that’s dysfunctional, more people are always, you know, at war with each other. But then obviously we’re at the stage now and had been for some time. Well, we can reflect on those things. And we have to justify in some way what we’re doing because, you know, people will think, well, gee, you know, now we can think about it and we have the ability to to try to figure out, well, shall we continue with this or not continue with this. There has to be some rational justification for what we’re doing. I don’t really think it’s that complicated. I don’t only think you knew you like APD in philosophy to figure out, as I said. If you assume that the morality has objectives and those objectives are kind of like what I’ve described, I know people would describe them different ways. 

It’s not like this is somehow doctor or something I’m putting out there. But, you know, generally it’s a set facilty, cooperation, foster trust, make sure we can live in peace. Then you begin there is an understanding. Well, there are certain things we have to do if we have to want to achieve those objectives. Now, where it gets complicated, I think where we get moral controversies these days is because we’re actually confronted now with certain issues. That people in pass weren’t confronted with. And that’s actually especially while like bioethics, because it is an area where you have to come up with kind of new ideas and novel approaches because, you know, people don’t have to worry about organ transplants in the past. They worry about stem cell research. Abortion certainly wasn’t unknown to people in the past. But in terms of having a safe abortion, that really is an option that’s only developed fairly recently. So, you know, our ideas on these, I think, are not that well formed. And, you know, as a result, because these are novel things, people have differences of opinion about them. I think that’s to be expected. And we just kind of have to sort them out again with the backdrop of, well, gee, what is it that we’re trying to achieve with a or a rules? 

And I think that should be kind of our touchstone and what we should use as a guide in trying to resolve some of these questions with the thing with the like the new frontiers of biomedical ethics and so on. This is hardly the main point that occurs to me about it. But I always like to bring it up to dogmatic religious friends that say, oh, we’re really in the dark here unless we have the word of God to tell us what’s right and wrong. And I say, well, all right, but but do you think you’re at any advantage over meat when it comes to these incredibly strange issues that never occurred to the ancients? 

Like we don’t have any reference in the Bible that cloning, obviously, or many dimensions. What if you I mean, you’ve got to make some sort of decision on these things? And and if that’s good enough, why isn’t it across the board in ethics? Why do you need this ancient book? d’Italia and it’s not a gotcha kind of a thing, but it’s it might be a tool to help people realize, well yeah, maybe we should just not be afraid of exercising moral intuition or whatever way we deal with these things. 

Right. M.A It’s clear that if you try to mind the Bible and a Qur’an for insight on the bioethical issues, you’re just fooling yourself. I mean you’re making stuff up. I mean I know there people do it, which is a basic I mean the Catholic Church has mined that story of own and for so many things just. You know, it just laughable. But yeah, I mean you wind up you have to use secular considerations and, you know, empirical facts to try to resolve silly things. You just can’t rely on scripture because, among other things, scripture just as silent on these issues. 

Yeah. What’s the biblical view of flying saucers or what? Some people say that, you know, what’s a biblical view of this and that it just won’t give it up. It’s just not right. Yeah. Well, here’s another thing I wanted to get your view on in terms of hard line religious people. I am related to people who are very, very dogmatic, Roman Catholics, etc., and I know which way they’re going to vote given the chance on certain issues. And I women than I can well imagine. People say, look, you’re just voting the party line of your church, which is supposed to be revealed by God. 

Look, I don’t believe in that. How can you impose your dogmas on me? But then I think back on the other hand, does it really matter where they get their ethics and their positions if aren’t they entitled to just vote on what they think? And this is it was the genetic fallacy for me to worry where they got it. 

Yes and no. How’s that for lawyer answer? Look, you know, I have a lot of religious friends and, you know, they’ll tell me they find inspiration, especially in the story of Jesus. 

You know, he’s looked upon as this very virtuous person and it inspires them to do good things. What have you. And I can’t quarrel with that. I mean, it’d be pointless for me to call without anyway. But when it comes to if, in fact, they want to participate in democratic discourse about some of these issues. And there are issues largely of public policy, if you’re talking about abortion or stem cell research, they have to be able to frame their arguments in terms that are accessible to other people. So it’s not so much what may initially inspire them to take a certain position. But if, in fact, they want to engage others who may not share their views in a real discussion about these issues, then it is incumbent upon them to frame their arguments in secular terms because otherwise you’re just cutting off discussion. I mean, if you say, look, you know, I hear your arguments about abortion and you know how you think that Fuze may not be a person or even if it is a person’s wrong to impose out on a woman, etc., etc.. But, you know, it’s a sin. You know, as far as I’m concerned, I’m a Catholic. And that’s the end of it. And I have a right to vote that way. Well, their right to vote that way, but. They really aren’t doing their duty, I think, as as citizens in a democracy, I think it is incumbent upon all of us to try to explain our reasons to people in terms that are accessible to everyone. 

That is very well put. Yeah, that’s exactly an answer to my question. 

In fact, it reminds me, I think, of something, something in the epistle of the Philippians where the writer says do what is right and the sight of all men. Well, that’s interesting that this person is a Hellenistic age. Everybody had clashing religions. But there’s this advice not to follow some cultic revealed ethic, but do what’s right in terms of public discourse. 

Interesting. Well, here’s a public versus private religion issue. What is the exactly the problem, do you think, with posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms? Because it certainly is problematic. I’m curious as to where you see the problem arising. 

Well, the problem is it’s say specifically. Well, among other things. Which which Ten Commandments. I mean. 

I mean, especially as a Catholic, I know our version differs from the Protestant version. 

So, I mean, you have that. But Lee, leaving that issue aside, it is a religious document and it it actually promotes I mean, the you have maybe I’ll be embarrassed because I have to try to remember now, but maybe have like three or four the commandments that talk about what we would consider secular morality. 

And you know that the rules, as I said, that most cultures have follow, you know, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness the adultery thing. Well, that’s been kind of interpreted different ways. But, I mean, there’s always some sort of regulation of sexual behavior in cultures. So, as I said, you have some of them that deal with sexual morality. But, you know, you know, three or four of them deal with specifically religious duties. You know, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. Keep the Sabbath day, holy day with the gods before me. So it’s promoting a specific religious viewpoint with and if you put in the public schools, essentially, it gets the implicit endorsement of the government. And so the government is supporting a particular religious point of view. And I think that’s improper. I think the country is well served by keeping a very strict separation between church and state and letting people come to their own decisions about this. I mean, I think that really is a very important freedom, freedom of conscience. And I want to people I want people to think about this. You know, I want people to if they want to study the Bible. I also like them to have, you know, study some philosophy, maybe some Bertrand Russell or what have you. But this is something these are decisions they have to come to on their own. And I just don’t think it’s proper for the government to endorse a particular religious point of view. So, yeah, I would definitely be opposed to having the Ten Commandments posted. 

In in the school or in the courthouse or anywhere where it might look like the government is pushing this particular religious position in intro to Bible courses, I’ve often given quiz ungraded quizzes to the beginning to just try to assess what I could take for granted among the students, if anything, and usually was nothing. And one of the questions I would ask is name any of the Ten Commandments? Well, almost nobody can come up with like four of them. And then the commandments they would come up with be like avows shalt not drink. 

And I really had to wonder in the thick of this debate a few years ago, have the people in Congress ever read the Ten Commandments? Because it does, as you say, just tell you, you’ve got to worship the Hebrew God. I mean, it’s not even some sort of vague DSM. You tell him to tell you by name what God. Have you ever even read this? I wonder because if if anything is that would be a case of trying to establish a particular religion. I preferred something I saw in an old comic book. 

Once you have a little public service things in the front cover, back cover somewhere of a comics in there was one where Bob Hope somehow winds up speakings at some sort of a school. 

And he says he unrolls this thing and it doesn’t have the Ten Commandments. It’s got about eight different versions of the Golden Rule from all different religions as the Koran. There’s Confucius, there’s Hillal, there’s Jesus and so on. And it showed it doesn’t really matter what religion or none, at least you can just live and let live. I thought, no, why don’t they just do that? The whole point is it is no one religion, but nobody was as smart as old Bob, I guess. 

Hope not me, of course, Bob Hope the philosopher. But yeah, I didn’t realize. Yeah, well, he had he had many virtues, but he went. Well he wasn’t a bad comedian but yeah. You know, that wouldn’t be bad. 

I guess I’d have a problem with who were tied into specific religions, but you could have something like that. I mean, the reality is, I mean, to some extent, the schools do have something that passes as kind of, you know, ethical training at a very rudimentary level is based around the idea of respect for others. And, you know, I don’t see how anyone could have a problem with that. 

Now, I’ve taken up loads of your time, and I’ve got to ask you one other question. We’re both involved with the Gloria Says Council for Secular Humanism and CFI. 

I got to ask you, what would you say, if any, is the basic change of direction or or philosophy? 

And CSA, CFI, with the departure of Paul Kurtz, has much changed. And what is done and how? 

Well, the basic mission hasn’t changed. I know there’s been quite a bit of talk about this in the blogosphere and elsewhere. But, you know, back when Paul was in charge, we. We critically examined all beliefs, including religious beliefs and and, you know, pseudoscientific claims. We do the same thing now. Paul is very interested in developing and promoting humanist ethics. We do the same thing now. 

He was very interested, of course, in in advocating for defending certain fundamental freedoms such as freedom of conscience. And we do the same thing now, really in terms of our mission. That has not changed. We we changed the mission statement a bit. But really, just to make a bit more concrete in terms of giving, like, certain goals we thought were achievable. So, in fact, our mission statement, you’ll see that we have as one of our goals to try to diminish, if not eliminate, the influence that religion has on public policy, to end the privilege that religion and pseudoscience have in our society, in many societies, and end the stigma that’s attached to being non-religious. And I think those are all all goals that are challenging but are can be achieved. And I think are they are realistic goals. So that to that extent, we we came up with, as I said, a set of objectives. I think that we help. We think will help motivate people. The only change maybe would be in certain tactics, but not in the areas where people might think. I know there’s a lot been made about Blasphemy Rights Day and how that supposedly indicates where mean spirited atheists and we’re just interested in ridiculing people. Well, that wasn’t the intent of blasphemy rights. They were trying to underscore the importance of. Of criticism over religious beliefs and also to emphasize that we don’t think there are any beliefs, including religious beliefs, that should be immune from criticism. And also there’s a actual danger in the world right now. There are many countries that still have LASLEY laws on the books. And some European countries are actually move in that direction as well, which is which is some concern. So it was to kind of bring home those points that we we started that idea. 

But I know we’ve gotten some criticism for that because people say all of you all you’re interested in doing is just ridiculing the individual believer. And that’s not really what we’re about. And I don’t think that our tactic will has changed. I mean, Paul, just a few years ago in 2006, wrote an article in which he talked about the importance of blasphemy and talked, for example, about the importance of using cartoons sometimes to make a point. He had his one line where he said, you know, I’d be great if we live in a world where it was perfectly logical, rational. That’s not the case. And sometimes a cartoon is worth a thousand syllogisms. And, you know, I would agree with that. You know, when you’re criticizing religion, you can need the whole arsenal. Just depends on the circumstances and what’s going on the time. Sometimes a Scali debates the right way to go. You know, sometimes a cartoon may be the way to go. It just depends on the circumstances. I don’t think you can say one is out of bounds or necessarily better than the others. There have been some changes in tactics. I think one change is really we’re just trying to engage our supporters a bit more than perhaps we did in the past. This year, for example, we’ve had various contests. We had a blast. Miss Frase contest. But we also had student essay contests. We had a video contest not emphasizing blasting persay, but just the importance of free expression. And I think I think that’s good. I think some of the perception that people had of CFI was I was kind of a top down organization, you know, that this is the human’s philosophy. This is what you should accept. And I’m not sure that really resonates well with with everyone. I think we’re trying to get our supporters more engaged and more involved. And I think that’s that’s one thing we have changed. So the mission stays the same, essentially. But I think there is a different approach in trying to further the mission. So, yeah, the tactics have changed a bit, although they’re not as radical change as some people might portray. Mm hmm. 

Well, I you’re certainly a very winsome representative of the the group and the organization. It seems to me the forebode very good about whatever the word is, good things to come. And I’ve I find it very encouraging. The conferences I’ve been to and presentations I’ve heard, things I’ve read are really seems to be onward and upward. 

Well, we certainly hope so. That’s all right. 

I just have to personally thank you for one of the most illuminating interviews I’ve done on point of inquiry. It’s just very fascinating to me. And I’d love to have you on again. Thanks for being with us. Well well, thanks for having me. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join the online discussion for a met point of inquiry dot org. And if you haven’t already subscribed to point of inquiring on I tunes, views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. And questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed forest by Emmy Award winner Michael Failand. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Robert Price. 

Robert M. Price

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, Robert Price moved to New Jersey in 1965. At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary he took an MTS degree in New Testament (1978), then, at Drew University, a PhD in Systematic Theology (1981) and a second PhD in New Testament (1993). He has served as Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, North Carolina, pastor of First Baptist Church, Montclair, NJ, and Director of the Metro NY Center for Inquiry. He founded and edited the Journal of Higher Criticism and has authored scores of articles on the Bible and religion. His books include Beyond Born AgainThe Widow Traditions in Luke-ActsDeconstructing JesusThe Incredible Shrinking Son of ManThe Da Vinci FraudThe Reason-Driven LifeThe Pre-Nicene New TestamentJesus Is Dead, and The Paperback Apocalypse. Price is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He served as Professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary and Professor of Biblical Criticism for the Center for Inquiry Institute in Amherst, NY. He and his wife Carol and daughters Victoria and Veronica live in Selma, NC.