The CFI Merger in Context

Tom Flynn

As you’ve probably noticed, something has changed at Free Inquiry. Its thirty-five-year-old publisher, the Council for Secular Humanism, is no longer a freestanding nonprofit corporation. It has merged into the Center for Inquiry Inc. and is now a program of CFI.

As I hope you’ll also notice, in other ways nothing has changed. The Council’s mission has not altered. Nor will you notice major changes in the content—or on the masthead—of Free Inquiry. It is being produced to the same standard—and by the same people—as before. (I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether or not it is fortunate that I will be editing the magazine as before.) Where there were three corporations (CFI, the Council, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry [CSI], publisher of Skeptical Inquirer magazine), there is now one corporation (the Center) with two major programs (CSI and the Council). The merger will simplify administrative operations and reduce costs as CFI President and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay describes in his editorial in this issue, but the Council’s voice in the public arena (including this magazine) will endure as always.

At a time like this, it is worth looking back. Philosopher Paul Kurtz and a handful of others founded the Council (then the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, or CODESH) in 1980. Its founding document, “A Secular Humanist Declaration,” won front-page coverage in the New York Times even as it headlined FI’s inaugural issue. CODESH (after 1996, the Council for Secular Humanism) achieved significant successes. In the eighties and nineties, it was a major leader in the world humanist movement. FI, of course, emerged as American nontheism’s journal of record. May 1993 saw completion of the restoration of the Robert Green Ingersoll birthplace in Dresden, New York, which has operated ever since as North America’s only freethought museum. In August 1996, the Council launched the secular student movement when it formed the Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA), which eventually became Center for Inquiry–On Campus. (The other major secular student organization, the Secular Student Alliance, began when a group of CFA organizers broke away circa 2000; it is now an independent organization.) In 2006, Free Inquiry was the first national publication in the United States to republish some of the Danish “Muhammad” cartoons, sparking censorship disputes when bookstores in the United States and Canada briefly stripped the magazine from their shelves. Nearing a (we hope) successful conclusion is the Council’s eight-year-old lawsuit challenging contracts between the State of Florida and two overtly faith-based social-service agencies, a case that so alarmed conservatives in that state that they undertook three unsuccessful efforts to amend Florida’s constitution to make our case go away—the last of them a general-election ballot initiative that failed in November 2012.

When and how did the Center for Inquiry enter the picture? There are several answers. When I came to work for the Council in 1989, Paul Kurtz wasn’t quite sure what CFI was going to be. At first the name was attached to the small media-production operation that I helmed. In 1991, Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer moved out of the City of Buffalo and into their first quarters at our current location in Amherst, New York. Our “starter” building there was dubbed the “Center for Inquiry.” You can still see a bronze plaque bearing CFI’s original logo beside the rearmost entrance to our current headquarters campus. When Voice of Inquiry, a thirteen-week radio public affairs program, aired on hundreds of public radio stations in the United States and Australia in 1992, the credited producer was an otherwise murky entity called “Center for Inquiry.”

The notion developed that CFI would serve as a companion organization to CODESH and (as CSI was then known) CSICOP, performing centrally many of the administrative operations that the two publishing organizations had conducted independently up until then. CFI would pay the employees, maintain the buildings, and operate the libraries. Soon it began to conduct its own educational projects, many covering the broad “cognitive waterfront” that encompassed humanism, skepticism, and science and reason in the public arena. In 1995, CFI was incorporated as a “supporting organization,” a specialized kind of nonprofit whose principal (though not sole) mission was to support other nonprofits, namely CSI and the Council.

The year 1995 also saw the unveiling of a dramatic new building on the Amherst campus, enabling us for the first time to conduct meetings for up to 150 persons on our own premises. The CFI libraries moved into their permanent home. And in 1996, the first Center at a remote location was launched: Center for Inquiry–West, today’s Center for Inquiry–Los Angeles. Ever after, there would be Centers for Inquiry, some led by full-time staff, others by volunteers, in a changing roster of cities across the nation. We even midwifed Toronto’s Centre for Inquiry– Canada, today a wholly independent organization.

In 2005, the Amherst headquarters campus was completed, and bold, experimental programming was instituted. CFI continued its leadership in international humanist work and emerged as a leading global voice for free expression and against special legal protections of religions against criticism.

As the trio of Center for Inquiry, the Council, and CSI moved forward, it became increasingly evident that their legacy structure imposed drag on all three corporations (again, see Ronald A. Lindsay’s editorial). Additionally, the tripartite structure was confusing. Individuals could have subscriptions to Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer, hold Associate Membership in both the Council and CSI, and be a Friend of the Center—with each relationship coming up for renewal at a different time. Donors sometimes agonized over which of the three corporations to support depending on which purpose was closest to their hearts. If things got any more baroque and ungainly, people might have started thinking we were a church! (If anyone doubts we’re not, see Tom Flynn, Ronald A. Lindsay, and Nicholas J. Little, “Secular Humanism is Not a Religion!,” FI, February/March 2015.)

Here are the biggest changes likely to affect our readers and supporters directly:

1. Every FI and SI subscriber is now a member of the Center for Inquiry. CFI membership is now the only category of membership offered.

2. Therefore, the Associate Membership programs of the Council and CSI have been discontinued. The newsletters formerly received by Associate Members—for secular humanists, the Secular Humanist Bulletin, and for skeptics, Skeptical Briefs—are now subscription-only publications. Current Associate Members will continue receiving their newsletter or newsletters and will be invited to renew their subscriptions at the same time—and the same price—at which they would have been asked to renew their Associate Memberships.

On one level, January’s merger of the three corporations was years in the making; on another, getting it done demanded roughly a year of unremitting work by key administrative employees and consultants. I, for one, am excited to see that this hard-fought-for new era has dawned.

The Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry remain as independent programs, and their work—magazine publishing included—will go forward as ever before. The Council and CSI just aren’t separate corporations anymore. From that development, in my not-so-humble opinion, supporters of any or all of the organizations have much to celebrate and, really, nothing to dread.

In 2015, a bright future has opened to us. Let’s stride into it together!

Tom Flynn is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of Free Inquiry.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).