Robyn Blumner and Ronald A. Lindsay: A Joining of Forces, a Passing of the Torch

February 08, 2016

The freethought movement has seen two of its most respected and influential institutions combine into what has been called a “supergroup” for secularism. The Center for Inquiry, the organization that proudly produces this program, announced in January that it would merge with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, and that Robyn Blumner, the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s president and CEO, would take over from Ronald A. Lindsay as CEO of CFI.

Both Robyn Blumner and Ron Lindsay appear together as our guests this week, here to discuss with host Josh Zepps the reasoning behind the merger, and how the complementary strengths of the newly-joined organizations can make a larger impact on behalf of their shared mission: fostering a secular society based on reason, science, free inquiry, and humanist values.

We learn more about Blumner’s background as both an executive and a journalist, as well as what the Richard Dawkins Foundation (now a division of CFI) brings to the table. We also get a look back at Lindsay’s tenure at CFI, and how he has helped to build the Center for Inquiry into a lasting institution.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, February eight, 2016. 

I’m Josh Zepps, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. We are at a major milestone in the history of secular organizations. 

Two of the country’s most influential advocates of reasons, science and freethinking, emerging to create a secular UBA behemoth. The Center for Inquiry, which produces this podcast, will merge with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. That organization’s president and CEO, Robyn Blauner will become our CEO and future president after our current president Ron Lindsay retires from his post. Both of them join me now to discuss what this means for the organizations and the movement and the future of the world. Ron and Robin, thanks for being on point of inquiry. 

Well, thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here and thrilled to be part of the Center for Inquiry. Great. 

Right. Can you just tell us a little bit, Robin? But before we get into the particulars of the logistics and the merger, how the foundation came to be, what it s what its remit was. 

The Richard Dawkins Foundation came to be after The God Delusion was published. And Richard Dawkins had some additional income and wanted to do good with it. So he established the foundation. Apparently, the story goes that he did not want his name at at the top of it. But other individuals who felt it important for branding and marketing convinced him to put his name on the foundation. And so from 2006 on, the foundation has continued with Richard as chair and founder and chief benefactor. I came on board in 2014, just about two years ago. February 5th was my anniversary date. And since then, a number of additional initiatives and programs were launched. All of which now will be part of the Center for Inquiry. 

What are some of those? 

There are two preeminent programs that the Richard Dawkins Foundation launched over the last two years, both of which will be premier programs within CFI. One is the openly secular campaign, and this is a highly sophisticated public awareness campaign to promote the idea that nonbelievers, secular people, need to come forward and be true to who they are in order to reduce social hostility and break down social stigmas against the non believing community. It’s really just taking a page from the LGBT handbook. I think gays and lesbians were able to show how you can go from social pariah to widespread acceptance in a relatively short period of time, just by telling friends, loved ones, coworkers who you actually are. And that kind of success can, I think, easily be replicated in the secular world if we are just more vocal and if we enlist celebrities, which is one of the great successes of the openly secular campaign, is getting people of high profile to do videos for the campaign, not just people like Bill Marr and Julia Sweeney, who we we well know in the secular world are one of us. But someone like Aaron Foster, who’s National Football League star African-American who came forward, is openly secular last year. And it was a domineering story in sports news, not only in the United States but around the world. So that’s one of the problems. The other biggest program is called the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science. It is an effort to get middle school teachers to start teaching evolution in their science classrooms. We know, sadly, in the United States that evolution is still considered a controversial subject, and in particular, middle school teachers don’t have the knowledge, tools or confidence to teach it. And so the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, better known as Thai’s, offers professional development workshop training for middle school science teachers around the country. 

How would you say each of those two? I’m glad you raised those two points because they touch on something that’s fundamental and two different things that are fundamental about about the mission of the foundation and to end of CFI as well, which is on the one hand, Athie ism and on the other hand, science. Obviously there are overlaps, but I think it’s useful to bear in mind that these are sort of twin objectives of the organizations. How do you think about the balance between those two goals? 

Well, I think that science and secularism are part of a continuum that at its core is about using your critical faculties to apply to all aspects of your life. I mean, what we’ve known as is open minded, critical thinkers is that the scientific method is the best way to advance human progress. And if you use the scientific method, which is an evidence based way of considering any subject, including the mythologies of your youth, you will come away. I think a more enlightened person in general. So at the Richard Dawkins Foundation, we say we really don’t have two distinct purposes. It’s all of one kind. It’s just that as you give people the tools to evaluate the claims that are made in their life, they come by themselves to a secular point of view, to a humanist ethical code, and to applauding the world of science as a way to advance human progress. 

Ron, you’ve been you’ve been running CFI for as long as I’ve been affiliated with the organization. Can you tell us a little bit about about that experience and looking back on it and how this merger came to be? 


I think, you know, Robin has pointed out the fact that science and secularism kind of go hand-in-hand. And I think that reflects SIFIs experience of axi if I evolved. Initially, we’re two separate organizations. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism can be for skeptical inquiry focused on promoting science and examining pseudoscience. 

Council for Secular Humanism, as indicated by its name, focused on critique of religion and promoting the secular humanist point of view. But both were really joined, and reason Paul Kurtz started both organizations was because he want to emphasize critical thinking and how the use of critical thinking, how the use of reason, how the application of the scientific method will lead people to certain conclusions, including embracing non-religious life stance and humanist ethics. So, in fact, the Center for Inquiry came about as a merger of those two wings, those organizations, during the time that I’ve been involved as president, CEO of CFI, one of the major changes I made, and indirectly least this led to our consideration of the merger of the Richard Dawkins Foundation is I thought, see, if I needed to cooperate more with other secular and skeptic organizations, not something that we had been noted for in the past. Paul Kurtz had his reasons for kind of standing apart from some of the organizations, which is a long, convoluted history is I’ll get into here. But I thought that was a strategic mistake. So that was one of the changes I brought about. We joined the Secular Coalition for America, which gave us a vehicle for working with other organizations. And in fact, that’s one way in which I met Robin, who’s been with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for a couple of years. I met her at meetings of the secular coalition. We’re both based in D.C.. I had a chance to see how she goes about her work. So her managerial skills, her high level of intelligence experience, her ability to articulate the mission of RDF, which is very similar to our mission. So, in fact, how this thing came about, the merger and then the hiring of Robin is back in December of 2014. Our board of directors, as they often do, is a board of directors should do with just thinking about strategic initiatives that could help reinvigorate organization and maybe give us a boost abels to better leverage our resources. And we, of course, knew Richard Dawkins. He had spoken a number of our conferences, has been on cruises with us, and we thought we should reach out to the foundation just to see what type of collaboration we might be able to engage in. And one thing led to another. 

Were there differences in emphasis of each of the organizations or did you feel that there was a duplication of responsibilities? 

There’s probably some slight difference in emphasis, but really what struck us was the similarity in the missions, really. They’re both organizations that are dedicated to promoting science and secularism. What appealed to us was that there was no duplication. Rather, we saw each other, the organizations, as complementing each other’s strengths. CFI has this long history. We’ve been around in one form or another since the late 70s. We have a large staff. We have over 40 employees. We’re the only secular organization actually has branches with paid staff throughout the United States. We have two well-known print publications, certainly at least well-known within the secular or skeptical community. But we didn’t have the type of digital footprint that the Richard Dawkins Foundation has also and I know you may find this hard to believe, because I know Josh is someone who knows me well. You know that to know me is to love me. And I’m free now from my wisdom. But the sad fact is, I mean, I’m not a household name. And Richard Dawkins is one of the preeminent public intellectuals of our time. He’s someone with great visibility and prominence. So, you know, we saw that as working with them and then possibly merging with them would allow us to, you know, fill some gaps in our resources. And I think here, Robert can speak for the Richard Dawkins Foundation. I think they saw also that we brought to them certain strengths that they didn’t have, such as the large staff presence throughout the United States, in effect with international affiliates. So it’s really a merger that made sense really for both organizations. And I think both organizations, of course, we can be one now are going to profit from us. 

Yeah. Robyn, do you have anything to add to that? I mean, there it’s obvious that size and scale carries with it its own benefits. And inheriting accomplished people who know what they’re doing, who are already employed by an organization, has its benefits. Is there anything else that the union of the two organizations? Brings that’s greater than the sum of its parts. 

I think the synergies are obvious that we have an incredible team of talented people at CFI. Ron Lindsay has built a remarkable organization after Paul Kurtz left and the imprint of CFI is everywhere around the country. It’s a publishing powerhouse. There are people who are devoted to outreach, education, organization, branches across the United States. All of that will enhance the work of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, which is right now centered in Washington, D.C., with a relatively tiny staff compared to the amount of attention it gets and with programs that are ready to be scaled. 

If the talent and people power is there to scale it. So you have an ideal marriage here where, as Ron said, the strengths of each organization feed the other. And I think Richard Dawkins is the superstar that helps bring a lot of excitement and attention to any entity that he’s associated with. The Richard Dawkins Foundation benefited from that for the years that it was in existence. Now the Richard Dawkins Foundation will be a division of CFI and Richard will be lending his great appeal and great wisdom to the work of CFI. 

So I think that this is not only a win for these two organizations, but for the secular movement as a whole. And I will tell you that we’ve received congratulatory notes from really across the community, unlike maybe 10 years ago or even more recently when there were more jealousy’s and fiefdoms and problems in the secular community. There really has been a move towards greater cooperation and cohesion. And I think Ron Lindsay is part of the reason for that. And he has reached out to other groups and made common cause, and we’re all stronger because of it. 

As you mentioned, the Richard Dawkins Foundation is headquartered in Washington, D.C.. What is the relationship, if any, between that foundation in the United States and Richard Dawkins work in the United Kingdom? 

We obviously are a friendly organization. Richard Dawkins established the U.K. foundation as partly a way to to send resources back and forth so that if we had two charities talking to one another and exchanging resources. Richard isn’t very directly involved with the U.K. organization. It does some of its own projects, but it is not part of RDF, RSU s. There are some weird libel laws in Britain that you may know about, which makes it. 

Oh yeah. Can you elaborate on those for some of the people who are not familiar with them? 

It makes it a little tricky to have a presence in Britain if you don’t know how to navigate the libel laws. 

Libel laws in Britain allow easy legal challenge against what they consider slander or defamation. It’s a it’s not the kind of difficult hurdle that it would be in the United States to prove out a damages action for defamation in Britain. 

And so you have to really be careful about what you publish over there. So where we’re separate organizations, what we say on our Web site does not appear in in Britain and vice versa. 

Is there any potential legal liability for things that are published in the United States but are online and are accessible from the UK? I remember reading about some kind of absurd lawsuits that were launched by people inside the UK who regarded foreign websites as him as being libelous towards them because they were accessible in the United Kingdom. Is that not a concern? 

Well, Josh, I don’t know the answer to that as a as a legal find out soon enough. But I could tell you that my impression is that there is liability, danger for publishing something on American Web site that is linked to a Web site in the U.K. or vice versa. 

Jim, any thoughts about that, Ron? I think this sort of gets into an interesting territory where the solidity and the rigidity, some would say, of First Amendment principles in the United States where pretty much anyone can say anything within a much wider umbrella than exists in much of the rest of the world. Bump up in the UK against one of one of the developed world’s most strict interpretations of libel and defamation. To such an extent that saying that homoeopathy is is a load of crap can can get you a lawsuit slapped on you in the United Kingdom. Fortunately, I think it was Simon Singh who won that lawsuit. 

But nonetheless, there is a huge liability there. Do you have any thoughts about those differing ways that those two big English speaking countries have thought about the right to freely dissent? 

Yes, and I have to say, I strongly endorsed the American way because it allows for greater freedom of expression. I mean, one of the you to quote our mission statement. See, if I was to promote a secular society based on science reason, freedom of inquiry and humanist values. And I think freedom of expression is is a key value undergirds a lot of what we do, a lot of what we try to promote. We believe very strongly in the points of free expression. It really, I think, is the key. One of the keys to human progress, if you look at the last few centuries, how we’ve managed to change certain social practices and institutions, that because there was relative freedom to criticize some of these things from where there was slavery, denial, civil and social rights to to women, oppression of lesbians, gays, people spoke up about these issues. And that’s how you bring about social change. And obviously, you look at countries around the world where they’re regressive regimes. One of the things they do, of course, is try to suppress free expression. So I’m strongly in favor of the American way of approaching these issues. Yeah. And I’m aware that the United Kingdom, which is certainly a democracy and certainly a country that does allow its citizens a great measure of freedom, I think they’ve struck the balance in the wrong way in terms of the restrictions they place. On free expression, by the way, they apply their libel laws. You’re quite right to point out it is much easier to bring a defamation claim in the United Kingdom than it is the United States. And again, I think they’ve struck the wrong balance in terms of how we approach things. I think how the law prize I could be wrong about this is not my particular area of expertize. But if we published things on our Web site and our access by people in the United Kingdom or some other countries, our understanding is it’s U.S. law that applies, that someone would be unsuccessful in trying to apply British law or Greek law or what have you to something that was on our Web site, Tom Flynn. 

One of the weird paradoxes that one notices in the United States as a foreigner is that this this combination of extremely strong defenses of free speech in the legal realm is paired with a very overt religiosity in the cultural and social realm that’s not found elsewhere. So at the same time as as you can, you can have enormous freedom to say whatever you want. In practice, nobody who’s running for political office ever says anything other than mouthing the appropriate bromides about their faith in God that are required of them in a way that would be perceived as completely unseemly in the United Kingdom. Robin, I wonder whether or not you have any any particular thoughts about that kind of cultural difference? I know you’re not an expert in the U.K., but it just strikes me, since it’s Dawkins is British, about about that kind of much more, I suppose, subtle, and one might even say a feature relationship to public professions of religiosity in the United Kingdom versus here. 

Well, in that case, I subscribe to the British model much more so than the American one. 

I think the idea that politicians here not only wear their religion on their sleeve, but often as a very loud tie is inappropriate and it goes against the enlightenment principles that the founders established in our founding documents. I don’t quite understand why it’s become an essential element of political campaigns to be so overtly religious, whereas in most of the other Western democracies in the world, they’ve gone completely the other way and run away from their established churches and made it political faux pas to be too religious in political campaigns. Some people actually ascribe it to the fact that America has a marketplace of ideas for religion. And when you have a competitive environment, you have a lot more energy injected into that community. And so the competition among religions for congregants has led to a kind of aggressive religiosity. You know, it’s almost like religious capitalism in the US versus places where there’s an established church where the church just automatically gets a certain portion of income from the state doesn’t really have to go out and shake the trees for supporters or for for converts. 

And they have been allowed there themselves to slowly wither because they’re actually not hungry for. For tithing and for dollars. Whereas in the United States, to survive, you actually need to convince people to reach into their pockets and pay you money. But the consequence for the US is that we have a political system that is steeped in expressions of faith, whether they’re sincere or not. And it really causes a lot of problems for the non-religious community. Firstly, we’re marginalized. We are not really represented at the public policy table. And secondly, it means that only hypocrites among us. Only those people who falsely claim a belief are viable candidates for political office. And that’s just simply unfair. And it’s part of the reason why the openly secular campaign was launched. 

How do you see that unfolding in the future, Rob, and I assume that if you could sort of if you could have your your genie pop out of a out of a pot and offer you three magic wishes for what we might be able to achieve as a result of the merger and coming, I suppose, years and decades, one of them would be to make it possible for four people to to come out and be openly irreligious without that meaning anything controversial about them, certainly in public office. Are there any other sort of big, big ways by which you would measure success in this field? 

I think you can already measure success by the polling indicating that secularism is in the ascendancy in the US. And that young people are sloughing off the religion and mythologies of their youth in larger and larger percentages. It’s very encouraging and I think it can be attributed in part to the work of the secular movement. And it also, I think, to be frank, can be attributed to the fact that religions in the United States, at least the most fundamentalist ones, have allied themselves with right wing political ideas. And young people are rejecting those ideas. And in the process of embracing more progressive politics, they find themselves outside the religious milieu. They were brought up in. So you have young people who now, at the rate I think it’s now at 35 percent of those under 35 self-identified as having no religious affiliation. 

Now, that doesn’t mean they’re all nonbelievers, but it does mean a pretty sizable proportion of them are nonbelievers, atheist, agnostic, humanist skeptics. However, they want to identify themselves. 

But the rest of them don’t subscribe to a theology. They don’t accept religious authority, and that can only mean good things for the United States and for the safe space for politicians to be irreligious and still have the prospect of elective office. 

One of the phenomena that I think is interesting about that growth in irreligious city among young people, among millennials, and I think you’re you’re totally right to align that with with political movements and fault, the fault evangelicals in particular for for hitching their wagon. So absolutely. To a particular political party in the United States. But one one thing that I find interesting is that a lot of those people who claim to be nuns and in E.S. having no religion are nonetheless believers in some kind of deity. And I wonder what you think about the portion of our mission, I suppose, as as secular humanism and atheists to that represents the attempt to encourage such people not to fall for bullshit in non non theological terms. 

You know, it’s it’s entirely possible for someone to not subscribe to the dogmas of a formal religion, but to nonetheless be full of all kinds of airy fairy nonsense in their heads that may be influenced by the Deepak Chopra is or worse of the world. How do you see us tackling that mission? 

Science, science, education, using the scientific method to understand the nature of reality and all its aspects. Training people to use the scientific method in all aspects of their life is one way to undercut the propensity of people to want to believe in something supernatural. I remember a story that my father in law told me, which was that he he was talking to a coworker about the Muslim belief of virgins being offered up upon martyrdom, and they were laughing about the absurdity of that belief. And I couldn’t agree more. But at the same time, I asked my father in law, who had been a Catholic most of his life. Whether he thought it was any more absurd than the idea of virgin birth and resurrection from the dead, which made him stop in his tracks, and why, because he had a science background and understood that the rigor of thinking that science requires is something you shouldn’t leave at the threshold of a religious institution. Bring it in, apply it and see where you come out the other side. He was doing that for Muslims, but he wasn’t doing it for himself and were more and more people do it for themselves and they’re sort of pointedly asked to do it for themselves if they are not too emotionally attached to the religion that you’re gently probing. They may very well start to see more clearly. 

Mm hmm. 

Yeah, I don’t remember whether it was Richard or Hitch who, as you said, say that we’re already atheists. Everyone is already an atheist about all religions except for one that they happen to believe in. So shouldn’t be that hard to just make it one less move, rather one more run. 

I want to get back to sort of the big picture. Look at you as you sort of approach the twilight of your successful position at the helm of this organization and gazed wistfully back across the vista of what you’ve achieved. Can you give us a sense of, I guess, how you came into this whole movement in the first place and how you ended up in your position at CFI? And any pearls of wisdom that you can’t drop on our ego is along the way? 

Sure. Well, I mean, I started association with CFI as I have a philosophy degree, but also a law degree. 

I was practicing lawyer for many years and I became interested in CFI, heard about the organization and volunteer to do some pro bono work and church state matters. The organization was actually on the board of directors of the Council for Secular Humanism for a number of years. 

And then when in my early fifties, I decided that I wanted to do something useful with my life instead of being just a high paid lawyer in a D.C. firm. Paul Kurtz at the time was opening up a D.C. office. And, you know, we started talking and he offered me a position as the legal director for the organization. And within a couple of years, I was made the president and CEO. Part of that had to do with, you know, Paul kind of entering into a semi retirement stage. I think the board of directors deciding that they had someone else to take over day to day management. So that’s how I wound up in the position I have in terms of looking back at my tenure as the head of CFI. I would say a couple things that I think were useful. The organization and I think also used for the second movement as a whole in terms of how we should emphasize things. We’ve talked already a bit before during this interview about the inner relationship between science and secularism. And I think you kind of literalism one of your questions about how there may be a carryover between critical thinking, not just as a release religion, but also relates to science. I think I can’t overemphasize the importance that connection is one thing we try to emphasize here at CFR. So we have a active advocacy portion of our program. We have a lobbyist, Michael Didor and CFI, and we note we don’t just limit our lobbying to church state issues, but we lobby on things, for example, like climate change, a very important scientific issue. And I like a lot of the issues we have to address in the future. Obviously there our touch on religion and we want to keep religious influence out of public policy because as always, tends to distort things. And, you know, we don’t need dogma. We need empirical evidence. But we also need to attack the kind of pseudoscientific or anti scientific attitudes of people. And, you know, there are nuns who may reject dogmatic religion, at least in its current forms, but still may engage in some kind of mystical thinking or nonscientific thinking. And that’s something we need to be concerned about. So one thing I think that we have managed to accomplish in the last few years, the CFI is orient the organization in such a way that seemed not just as an organization that critiques religion, but an organization that promotes science and offers positive solutions to some of our pressing social issues. That’s an important thing. Another thing we’ve emphasized is were clearly in favor of freedom of conscience across the board. And those aren’t just empty words. We have strongly advocated at the U.N. and elsewhere for freedom of religion, for all people, not just for atheists. And that has had a very important impact. We are now being recognized by the State Department, for example, as an important non-governmental organization. They’ve asked for our help and assistance and have consulted with us on a number of issues, including the situation involving the the bloggers in Bangladesh who, of course, have been under attack. So we’re making a name for ourselves there. And I think that’s a very important issue. Against CFI and the CFR, Richard Dawkins Foundation has emerged organization is an organization, not just interest and was happy United States. Clearly, that’s our primary focus, but also interested in the situation in other countries in terms of what type whose freedom those people have, because ultimately, if we’re going progressed as a civilization, we can’t just limit to one country. We have to make sure that freedom of conscience, respect for other people are human as values is something that’s accepted globally. 

I’m so glad you mentioned that, Ron and Robin, I wonder if I can get you to wrap up with with a thought about that, because when we pull back to the 30000 foot point of view and look at the way the world is going, I suppose you might frame the question as to whether or not you’re pessimistic or optimistic. Broadly, I mean, where to where at a moment where increasingly in Western liberal democracies, populations are becoming more secular and less religious, but also in many ways more divided. Meanwhile, the Muslim world is a complete pardon. My French shitstorm and human rights and feminism and gay rights and all kinds of liberal ideals are striving to flourish there, but not successfully, especially in the Middle East. What do you sort of see the 21st century unfolding? Do you even care to prognosticate? 

I’m hugely optimistic about the future, and I think that if you take the 20th century as a kind of social experiment, you’ll see that enlightenment, values and humanist ethics have proven to be the greatest benefit for humanity’s happiness. Everyone who studies this knows that countries that are more secular by choice are much more likely to have a whole other variety of targets that indicate a healthy lifestyle for human beings. Less inequality, more tolerance towards minorities, more likely to embrace freedom of expression, to have an engaged electorate, to have an educated electorate tab healthy people with access to universal health care. So what we know is that the world advances when the ideas that are promoted by the Center for Inquiry, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, the secular movement as a whole, are adopted. 

And I think that’s in a sense where at least the most advanced countries are moving toward and the middle range countries see that as a goal. I’m very, very worried about the Muslim world right now and the implications for something highly disruptive to the rest of the world. 

But ultimately, we have to remember that in the 20th century, we were dealing with an existential threat with the Soviet Union. And in some ways that threat has has diminished and the rise of the Muslim radical Islam violence is not at the same level. So although it’s very challenging to be optimistic about what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Iraq, I nonetheless feel as though people escaping to Europe will slowly become absorbed in the European culture and that eventually those values will also have an impact on the Muslim world as well. 

I’m glad you reminded us of that since the 21st century began with the with the Great War in which they were single battles that killed a million and a half people and then went on to the greatest calamity in history in the Holocaust. And then the Cold War. And we’ll manage to muddle through it somehow. I appreciate the note of optimism. Welcome to the team. I look forward to working with you in the future. Robin and Ron, thank you for all of your great work. And I’ll get to be with you next time we’re together. Thanks for being appointment Quiring. 

Well, thank you. Thanks for having us. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.