Humanist Leadership and Me

David Koepsell

Tom Flynn recently offered me the opportunity to write about my four years as head of the Council for Secular Humanism (from late 2003 to 2008). To sweeten the deal, he assured me that I could write whatever I wanted. Well, such an offer could hardly go unanswered! But as I thought back on my tenure at the Council, I was conflicted. Part of me wanted to discuss the many events I regretted: the shortcomings witnessed and participated in. Another part wished to paint an optimistic picture of the future. (Being a philosopher, Tom’s two-thousand-word limit didn’t help much either.) So, a bit of history, some blunt observations about the organization, and a bit of pragmatic optimism will have to do. Like my time at the Council, this article will be a mixed bag.

I came to organized humanism through a series of coincidences. I had earned my PhD and law degrees at the University at Buffalo in the mid-nineties. From then until 2003, I spent most of my time as an adjunct professor teaching courses in ethics, law, writing, political philosophy, and critical thinking. My full-time job was in law, but my heart was not in it. Through Richard Hull—a longtime colleague of Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz at the University at Buffalo who was then working for the Center for Inquiry (CFI) as a fund-raiser—I learned of a job opening: the Council for Secular Humanism was seeking an executive director. I applied, interviewed, and received an offer.

September 2003 was an exciting time for the Council and CFI. Cautiously and slowly, I began to learn the ins and outs of the organizations and the rather complicated relationships between them. As executive director of the Council, I also sat on the CFI Executive Committee, which at the time consisted of Barry Karr, Paul Kurtz, and myself. That is, we were the ones with decisional authority. But our committee meetings were populated by numerous others, each with his or her own sometimes seemingly competing role in the various groups and each demanding time, money, and attention. It soon became clear that managing such a vibrant and growing organization was like herding the proverbial cats. It also became clear that the Council, as the composite organization’s cash cow—bringing in most of the revenue donations despite a substantial payroll for magazine production, staff, and facilities—was increasingly funding worthwhile but hungry projects without comparable revenue streams of their own. Regrettably, all too often these projects were spun out of the Council and put under the aegis of the Center for Inquiry, which is (and was then too) a wholly independent, though affiliated, corporate entity.

For example, CFI/On Campus, which had been launched under the Council’s banner as the Campus Freethought Alliance and had continued to thrive with Council funding, was moved to CFI. The theory then propounded by some bright, young, ambitious staff people was that to sell the greater goals of secularism, humanism, and skepticism, the Center’s kinder, gentler face would help avoid the taint of atheism that they felt dogged the Council. At times, even Kurtz seemed to share this view, aligning his interests with a plan that seemed more to me like a sales scheme than a strategy for a New Enlightenment. Call it what you will, but this tendency continued: the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) and its new Jesus Project moved from the Council to the Center. The Council’s busy network of local groups was slowly de-emphasized in hopes of building CFI Communities in every city.

As my bailiwick shrank, I focused on writing my columns for Free Inquiry and editing the Council’s newsletter Secular Humanist Bulletin (which, almost uniquely among Council projects, turned a profit every year). I also sought to expand the Council’s channels for communication. I approached Nathan Bupp, the Center’s vice president of communications, about starting a monthly online newsletter. We agreed that he would do the day-to-day editing while I would be the editor, and we began e-mailing the Secular Humanism Online News through our newly operational online messaging system. We started at around three hundred recipients, and when I left we had more than ten thousand monthly recipients.

I also lobbied hard to get both the Council and the Center more involved in lobbying. A political junkie, I had written mostly about public policy issues before joining the Council. With that experience and my background in the law, I knew that working to change laws was necessary to help spur societal change. In time, my message became generally accepted, and CFI launched its Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C. I also concentrated on organizing various conferences, beginning with a May 2004 conference in Toronto (which morphed into a CFI conference, predictably enough). October 2005 marked what many described as a “peak experience”: the Council’s “Toward a New Enlightenment” conference held in Amherst, New York. This mammoth event celebrated Free Inquiry’s twenty-fifth anniversary and the opening of our new office building. Energized by the participants and attendees, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Ann Druyan, Harry Kroto, and nearly five hundred supporters and subscribers, this event was nonetheless the zenith for me. From there, it was all downhill.

There was a genuine ideological split among the organizations. As mentioned above, this was spurred in part by a sort of private embarrassment about many of the Council’s inherently atheistic supporters in light of the broader pro-science, skeptical, and secular agenda of CFI. There was apparently also a split in Kurtz himself. At times he lobbied stridently to support the Council, noting its pivotal role in society, the reach of its publications, and its generous supporters. At other times—especially as the New Atheists and their connections with the Council became more conspicuous—the Council’s links to atheism clearly irked him.

I should mention that I had not known Kurtz at UB (he retired from its philosophy department the year before I began my PhD studies), but I came to know him through colleagues and then as a colleague of his at CFI. I have tremendous respect for what he has created and the inspiration he has provided, and I think he has been a moving force in combining intellectual humanism with the fervor of a true movement. But the rise of the New Atheists took its toll. With ambitious, intelligent, and prolific spokespersons like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor Stenger, the New Atheists were attracting unprecedented attention. Though each of the four had contributed to our publications and conferences, and their growing notoriety helped bring new members into our ranks, Kurtz began to take great pains to distance secular humanism from the New Atheism. This epic struggle continues to this day (though no longer within the organizations), with the painful consequences apparent to us all. I’m not sure it had to come to this, and I regret that I could do little to stop or even stifle it.

The Center and the Council never had to be at odds, and in fact I don’t believe they are now. But they were at odds because those who encouraged the public distancing of CFI from the Council’s agenda were tearing the place apart. After the New Enlightenment conference, my fight for the Council’s public agenda within its own umbrella organization—and sometimes seemingly against its founder’s wishes—was wearing me out. I applied for and received a fellowship at the Yale Center for Bioethics, took reduced pay, and continued to manage the Council while traveling regularly between Amherst, New
York, and New Haven, Connecticut. Norm Allen stepped up to serve as a sort of deputy director, handling a fair amount of day-to-day issues; I continued to write, edit, speak, and otherwise do what I could to increase the Council’s influence. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. I took solace in minor victories, like helping to launch the lawsuit against the State of Florida for providing taxpayer funds to support religious institutions. (That lawsuit continues to move forward today as CSH v. McNeil.) This is the first lawsuit in which the Council is a plaintiff, and it may yet alter public policy. But I began to consider other options.

I didn’t object to fighting for a cause in public—in fact, that’s what I signed on for—but I began to feel like I was fighting too many internal battles to maintain the dignity and role of the Council as part of the broader humanist movement. In my view, that movement was never contrary to anything the New Atheists were saying; it was merely broader.

Secular humanism’s contribution to the debate remains relevant. We borrow from numerous naturalistic philosophies and contribute our own often vibrant, relevant, and hopefully evolving worldview. Free Inquiry has been a leading source and channel for secular humanist thought and debate. I wanted to practice philosophy—to continue to speak, teach, and reach audiences with my views about ethics. The Council offered an avenue for doing that, and I enjoyed the opportunities to engage with other secular humanists through our publications and conferences. But given the diminishing role of the Council within CFI, my own consequently diminished role, and the occasional conflicts with Kurtz and others, it was time to think about moving on. My wife had a post-doctorate offer in San Francisco, so I tendered my resignation. I did some contract work for CFI during the transition, sold my house, and embarked on a Bay Area job hunt.

To put it mildly, things did not go according to plan. In sum, I got a teaching offer in the Netherlands, my wife found a post-doctorate there as well, and we moved to one of Europe’s most secular countries. I couldn’t be happier.

There is a happy ending of sorts and a clear future for the Council for Secular Humanism, the Center for Inquiry, and their sister organization, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. They all live and function under one roof, and they are a monument to the particular genius of Paul Kurtz, who built an amazing empire. I have been in touch with Kurtz, writing to support his neo-humanist declaration and encouraging him to be proud of his legacy, which is so much more than anything I could ever hope to accomplish. It is a shame that the leadership transition at CFI has been so difficult. Kurtz is the intellectual father of modern humanism, and he served for decades as its most outspoken voice. Others can certainly fill that role now, and the Council, the Center, and the Committee are now served by great spokespersons, thinkers, and the hardest workers in the business. Many of the critical voices who had encouraged the internecine warfare among the sister organizations have since moved on; today the Council, the Center, and the Committee work together as they should. They are now symbiotic and no longer merely co-dependent.

Despite my frustrations, and the difficult time period in which I served the Council, the organization has never been stronger than it is now. We all love Kurtz for what he did in founding the modern secular humanist movement; we admire his intelligence, entrepreneurial spirit, and determination. It is difficult when a new generation steps in; transitions are often painful. I sincerely hope that everyone will somehow magically make up and get along. But there is no such thing as magic, and hope can go only so far.

I treasure many of the friendships I have with Council staff, members, supporters, and friends near and far. I am encouraged by their continued support of the Council and the Center, and their continuing, difficult fight for secular humanist values in this new Tea Party America. I am also happy that Kurtz is moving forward with his writing and life’s work in ethics and human values. He will no doubt continue to lead us and challenge us to think, spreading his philosophical exuberance to the masses. Finally, I am thrilled that Tom Flynn now excels at a job I struggled with. He is the most competent person to manage the Council, as he was back then (I relied on his guidance); the organization is “blessed” with him in his current role. And yes, I said that just to piss Tom off, but I also mean it in a totally secular sense.

David Koepsell

David Koepsell is an author, philosopher, attorney (retired), and educator whose recent research focuses on the nexus of science, technology, ethics, and public policy. He has provided commentary regarding ethics, society, religion, and technology on numerous media outlets. He has been a tenured associate professor of philosophy at the Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Technology, Policy, and Management in the Netherlands, visiting professor at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Instituto de Filosoficas, and the Unidad Posgrado, Mexico, director of Research and Strategic Initiatives at Comisión Nacional De Bioética in Mexico, and asesor de rector at UAM Xochimilc.


Tom Flynn recently offered me the opportunity to write about my four years as head of the Council for Secular Humanism (from late 2003 to 2008). To sweeten the deal, he assured me that I could write whatever I wanted. Well, such an offer could hardly go unanswered! But as I thought back on my …

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