Merger Creates America's Largest Secular Humanist Organization

February 11, 2016
Merger Creates America's Largest Secular Humanist Organization

Last month, two prominent atheist organizations announced their plans to merge, creating what is now the largest secular humanist organization in the United States.

The Amherst, New York-based Center for Inquiry (CFI)—an education, outreach, and advocacy organization with a mission of “fostering a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values”—will keep its name as it joins forces with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDF).

While both organizations have working relationships with many other United States-based atheist and freethinker organizations, Todd Stiefel, who runs the Openly Secular project at RDF, told Religion News Service that he thinks CFI and RDF can uniquely benefit from combining their resources.

“CFI is doing more on the skeptic side and the humanism side and legal side. RDF is a much younger, smaller organization but is doing really well in science education and discrimination (against atheists),” Stiefel said. “CFI has some of that, but this can really benefit both teams.”

Among the anticipated benefits to CFI is the added name recognition that accompanies the involvement of controversial figure Richard Dawkins, whose 2006 book The God Delusion sparked widespread debate. Dawkins’s comments in recent years on topics such as Muslims and abortion, however, have also made him a polarizing figure among the atheist community.

In response to questions about whether Dawkins will now speak for the CFI, the RDF website posted, “Prof. Dawkins is his own person, who can and will speak for himself. His views are his own, unless he is specifically serving as a spokesperson for CFI.”

While Dawkins will serve as a member of the organization’s board of directors, the combined organizations will be under the leadership of CEO Robyn Blumner, who had previously been the president and CEO of RDF. In a statement announcing the merger, Blumner expressed her vision for the CFI:

“Secularism is on the ascendency in the United States and beyond. Science has proven to be the engine of human progress. Bringing more resources and ambition to promoting these forces of reason is what this merger is about.”

While statements from both Dawkins and Blumner have emphasized the shared goals of CFI and RDF, Hemant Mehta, writer for the Friendly Atheist blog, wondered about how the merging organizations will navigate the subtle differences in their ideologies.

“CFI has historically been known for its promotion of Secular Humanism while Dawkins is obviously Mr. Atheism,” Mehta said. “While that’s a distinction without a difference for most people, I wonder if any CFI loyalists will be upset." 

CFI itself has undergone internal ideological shifts since its launch in 1991. Founder Paul Kurtz, a philosopher who is frequently credited as the father of secular humanism, resigned from the CFI board in 2010. A proponent of “universal but nonreligious ethics,” Kurtz told The New York Times that he felt CFI leadership more concerned with critiquing the concept of God than with promoting secular values. “If religion is being weakened, what replaces it in society?” Kurtz said.

An FAQ on the RDF website indicates that, looking ahead, the new organization shares a clear vision: “To remove the influence of religion in science education and public policy and eliminate the stigma that surrounds atheism and non-belief.”

In an interview with Mehta on the Friendly Atheist podcast, Blumner reiterated her belief in the importance of the work CFI is undertaking.

“If you think about the millions of people in America who are atheists, who are non-believers, for them not to ever be represented, never have a voice…demonstrates that there’s just still tremendous hostility, antagonism, and stigmatization toward the community,” she said.

As of November 2015, Pew Research Center reports that 23 percent of American adults are religiously unaffiliated.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Richard Dawkins. Photo by syslfrog, Flickr Creative Commons.