New Directions: Centers for Inquiry and Human Enrichment

Paul Kurtz

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is the newest star on the cultural horizon. Readers of this magazine should by now be familiar with its existence. The Center for Inquiry–International in Amherst, New York, is headquarters of the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry. Since there are now over a dozen Centers for Inquiry worldwide, and many new CFI Communities now in the process of formation, it is part of a rapidly growing constellation of Centers.

What is the purpose of each Center for Inquiry? Its first focus is on inquiry. We wish “to promote and defend reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor”; and, in particular, to critically examine and, if need be, change the basic beliefs and values of society, its unexamined “sacred cows.” Our second focus is on human enrichment. We endeavor to cultivate values that enhance the realization of human happiness.

Recently some of us participated at a grand-opening celebration of the Center for Inquiry–Community Long Island. We met in a restaurant in a place with the unlikely name of Hicksville, Long Island—which turns out to be centrally located and near a Long Island Railroad station! Gerry Dantone, the energetic coordinator of the new CFI–Community, welcomed everyone by remarking that there were 4,004 churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques on Long Island, but until the CFI–Community was created there was no explicitly secular institution devoted to beliefs and values that did not depend upon religious faith!

If, according to a City University of New York Graduate School poll, 14 percent of the American public are nonreligious, this would mean that some 385,000 of the 2,750,000 inhabitants of Long Island need to be served. The same thing is true in most communities in the United States. Granted that there are numerous secular institutions in American society—schools and colleges, museums and sports stadi-ums, factories and offices, cafés and restaurants, libraries and hospitals—nowhere are there institutions explicitly entrusted with espousing a naturalistic outlook and humanist values. Nor are there many communities where nonreligious folk can meet other like-minded individuals. In other words, we are surrounded by a culture that is steeped in religiosity and in which a nontheistic scientific, philosophical, and ethical life-stance is all too rarely appreciated, much less encouraged.

Who champions the concerns of people who construct their values and make moral choices without seeking guidance from some faith tradition? Who speaks for the hundreds of millions of humans on the planet who are fed up with religious intolerance? Who speaks for scientists and skeptics, naturalists, and humanists, who are concerned with a realistic appraisal of world problems and wish to progress to a new level of understanding and cooperation? Ever since the Renaissance, the democratic and scientific revolutions of the modern world, and the secularization of values, religion seems increasingly an obstacle to solving the problems of the world. Yet we are ever in danger of slipping back to a premodern era dominated by religious conflicts, as is happening today in the Middle East.

Granted that religions have over the long history of the human civilization per-formed many worthy deeds: they have provided consolation for those who grieve, charity for those in need, and hope for those who despair. Yet at the same time they have often censored truth, engendered hatred not love, intensified violence not peace, and they differ profoundly on which of them provides the legitimate road to salvation. (“You believe in your religion, and I’ll believe in God’s!” says the militant believer.)

Humankind today possesses powerful secular methods of science, technology, and education that can continue to contribute to the progressive amelioration of the human condition. Medicine and the helping professions, schools and universities, art and music, poetry and philosophy, and other cultural institutions are all avenues for seeking human enrichment, independent of religion. Yet there are all too few openly secular leaders of sufficient intellectual integrity and moral courage, willing to rise above the religious morass and boldly chart a new future. Is it not time that we think about achievable secular goals for humankind other than other-worldly fantasies spawned during the infancy of the race?

We submit that the Center for Inquiry constellation—however modestly—has something relevant to contribute. Our goal is to draw upon the best scientific and philosophic minds to take the long-range perspective that will contribute to human knowledge and understanding and will nourish human enrichment.

It is clear that it is possible to lead a moral life and achieve happiness without depending on the religions of the past. Although religious literature may provide inspiration to countless numbers of people, its message grew out of premodern epochs of human history. We submit that we need to deal with the problems facing humankind in the twenty-first century such as:

• population growth;

• the depletion of natural resources and environmental degradation;

• widening disparities in income and wealth;

• free markets and principles of fairness; • international cooperation and orderly adjudication of grievances;

• the need for collective security;

• a reduction of poverty and disease;

• improved nutrition and health care;

• the extension of life for everyone;

• open access to the media of communication;

• travel and leisure;

• the advancement of free educational opportunities for every child of the planetary community;

• expanding the opportunities for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

To reiterate, the Center for Inquiry is concerned with inquiry into the larger questions of science and society, ethics and religion—the root questions that are not often raised. We are dissatisfied with the old-time remedies; we wish to draw from the frontiers of research and their implications for the human condition. The Center for Inquiry takes the university as its model by being home to many colleges, departments, and interdisciplinary programs. Among these are the Council for Secular Humanism, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health; also it hosts such important programs as the Campus Freethought Alliance, now CFI–On Campus; African Americans for Humanism; Secular Organizations for Sobriety; the Center for Inquiry–Institute; and the Center for Inquiry Libraries.

By all of these avenues the Center for Inquiry critically examines the claims of religion and the paranormal, but more, it seeks to provide constructive alternatives. We believe in:

• furthering research and education;

• developing reliable knowledge through science;

• advancing affirmative moral conceptions of the good life;

• being nonreligious, sometimes engaging in objective criticism of religious claims, without being reflexively anti-religious;

• defining ourselves by what we believe in, not by what we do not;

• freedom and autonomy of the individual;

• social justice and responsibility of the community;

• the wonder and mystery of the universe;

• the open, inquiring mind, ever willing to change beliefs in the light of new evidence;

• the party of humanity as a whole, not a sectarian political agenda;

• the cultivation of the arts, music, poetry, literature, and drama, an appreciation of aesthetic beauty.

In our view, every major city and town in the United States should have a Center for Inquiry where people can meet and share ideas. Centers appeal to all age groups, offering moral education and critical thinking for the young, activities for teenagers, a program for college and university students, and enrichment programs for individuals and couples, gays and lesbians, families and retirees.

We are prepared to help create nascent CFI communities or full-fledged Centers for Inquiry in any area.

Similarly, we believe that the Center for Inquiry has a role in various regions of the world. In spite of our limited resources, we have been working with people on six continents in order to develop Centers in North and South America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia.

We emphasize our conviction that the world needs a New Enlightenment. This means that:

• we need to apply the methods of scientific inquiry to all areas of human interest, including religion and the paranormal, ethics and education, politics and economics;

• we seek to develop a naturalistic cosmic perspective based upon the sciences;

• we wish to maximize human freedom, creativity, excellence, happiness, and exuberance;

• we wish to apply humanistic ethics to the democratic secular society.

We invite all people who share our vision of a better world, and are passionately committed to nourishing the art of intelligence to improve and enhance human life to join with us to do so. We are ready to work with our religious neighbors when they agree with us about the need to create a genuine planetary community beyond the ancient rivalries, dogmas, and animosities of the past, a world whose main focus is on the improvement of the lives of all individuals on the planet, beyond nation or race, creed or class. We are optimistic about the possibilities of achieving a better world in the future. We recognize that we are part of a new global civilization that is emerging, and that science and humanism can play a vital role. We can do it now.


Paul Kurtz, chair, Council for Secular Humanism

Norm Allen, deputy editor, Free Inquiry, and director, African Americans for Humanism

Jan Loeb Eisler, member of the board of directors, Council for Secular Humanism

Tom Flynn, editor, Free Inquiry

DJ Grothe, director, Campus and Community Programs, Center for Inquiry

Richard T. Hull, development director, Center for Inquiry

David Koepsell, executive director, Council for Secular Humanism

Andrea Szalanski, managing editor, Free Inquiry

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Center for Inquiry.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.