A Response to Stephen LeDrew

Tom Flynn

I begin by thanking Stephen LeDrew for responding so thoughtfully to my review of his book. I will focus on only two concerns: LeDrew’s response to my analysis of his book’s treatment of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and an implication of one of his discursive comments that again, for me, calls into question his grasp of movement history prior to the twenty-first century.

Regarding CFI

In my review, I examined LeDrew’s discussion of matters pertaining to CFI at substantial length. LeDrew calls this “understandable” but expresses concern that it gives “a false impression of the focus of the book.” He has a point. The fraction of my review that treated LeDrew’s discussions of CFI was considerably larger than the fraction of LeDrew’s book devoted to that subject. That said, I noted my interest in a “Caveat lector” note attached to the review’s headline—and I was writing for Free Inquiry, whose readers are unusually interested in matters pertaining to CFI. I sincerely hope that no one came away misled as to the focus of LeDrew’s book.

More substantive, I think, is LeDrew’s disagreement over how to interpret the change in the thinking and writing of CFI founder Paul Kurtz. (To review: circa 2004, Kurtz moved away from earlier views relatively inclusive toward atheism and adopted a perspective that distanced secular humanism from so-called “militant atheism.”) LeDrew comments:

In Flynn’s account, Kurtz was “unnerved” by the politics of the Bush years, and this was the motivation for his “cold shoulder” to atheism beginning around 2004 but is not representative of the sum total of his views, taking into account the full span of his years as a secular activist and thinker. But this makes no sense. Is he not permitted to reject his previous views? Flynn’s position here would be like saying that because Christopher Hitchens was a Marxist longer than he was a liberal, he should really be considered a Marxist, and we shouldn’t give too much credit to his relatively late conversion to liberalism (or neoconservativism, as some might put it).

Of course, Paul Kurtz had every right to change his views; moreover, as author of the lead editorial in each issue of Free Inquiry, he had ample opportunity to announce when and why he did so if he chose. LeDrew rightly cites Hitchens, who wrote reams of self-analysis when he abandoned Marxism—and again when he broke from the Left to champion U.S. involvement in George W. Bush’s Iraq War. Arguably, this is the most responsible course for a public intellectual: if you change your mind on a significant issue, acknowledge the change and share with your public the analysis that compelled your adjustment in views. The problem is that Kurtz did not do that. He seldom, if ever, acknowledged that his views had changed; surely he never shared the process Hitchens-style.

LeDrew is correct that the public tends to judge public figures by their statements. Nonetheless, historians may take interest in the testimony of those inside CFI at the time. Starting in 2000, when I assumed the editorship, I did the initial edits on most of Kurtz’s editorials. It was a very interactive process, and often I would flag a particular statement with a margin note along the lines of “In XYZ issue five years ago, you took a different view on this. Care to add a sentence about why the change?” Obviously, he seldom acceded to these requests; moreover, when I engaged him in discussion he usually minimized the disjunct between his old views and his new ones. I came away with the strong impression that Kurtz was either unaware or, at best, hugely reluctant to articulate how profoundly some of his opinions had shifted.

I think LeDrew misstates my argument when he summarizes, “Whether Kurtz had a genuine change of heart or adopted his new anti-atheism position for strategic reasons is actually not terribly relevant.” I was not questioning Kurtz’s motives but rather—and I say this with all due respect for his enormous contributions in creating the organizations that became CFI and shaped late twentieth-century American humanism—the quality of the thinking underlying his opinions in 2004 and later. In my review, I asked whether Kurtz’s newer views represented

… his best and most representative thinking? Or should we interpret it as a miscalculation by an aging titan whose mind was beginning to be overwhelmed by events? …

Whatever the reasons, Kurtz’s attitude toward atheism during hs final five years at the helm of Free Inquiry—which LeDrew mistakes for “Kurtz’s vision of secular humanism,” full stop—seems anomalous and unrepresentative of his oeuvre.

I stand by that.

Regarding History

I found LeDrew’s discussion of the “implicit classism” in the Atheist Bus Campaign, and by extension in the movement generally, surprising. LeDrew is mystified that others commenting on the Bus Campaign did not call this out; I’m puzzled that LeDrew scents an issue here. Of course atheism is “classist,” in the limited sense that those compelled to pursue mere subsistence generally don’t have the luxury to inquire deeply into God’s nonexistence. The same can be said regarding religion, or at least conscious efforts to innovate in religion. In his classic 1950 account of West-Central New York State’s Burned-Over District, historian Whitney R. Cross took it as a given that early in the nineteenth century, it would be the second-generation settlers of New York’s western frontier, not the pioneers who preceded them, who would engage in bold religious and social experimentation: “The second wave of Yankee migrants,” he noted, “had become more accomplished and substantial … than their predecessors.” Those “who had achieved a degree of worldly position could well look to their eternal welfare.”* In other words, it is hardly news that either adopting new religious views or renouncing them altogether is a cognitively and emotionally costly process largely unavailable to individuals confronting the starkest levels of adversity. (Though, given the rigors of frontier life circa 1830 or so, the level of material comfort required to make exuberant flights of metaphysical inquiry possible is apparently flexible.)

Neither atheism nor freethought nor secular humanism is a live option for those trapped at the bottom of the Maslovian hierarchy of needs. As LeDrew observes, “Rent comes before metaphysics.” Critics such as Sikivu Hutchinson, whom LeDrew cites approvingly, see this as a problem; I view it as simply a fact.

Some critics belittle Free Inquiry into religion as inherently unjust because it—inherently, structurally—excludes the poorest. Some dismiss it as a “First World problem.” But never forget, First World problems are genuine problems for those who inhabit the First World. The fact that some lack the luxury of worrying about gods and creeds does not make such concerns less real or less pressing for those who do enjoy that luxury. Nor is it immoral for those whose life circumstances make metaphysical inquiry possible to engage in it when they find its questions compelling.

Once again, I wonder how thoroughly LeDrew understands our movement’s history prior to, say, the year 2000. Why? Because for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, atheism (and, for that matter, the various flavors of humanism) overwhelmingly recruited individuals who had grown up in a more-or-less traditional religious setting and had in the course of their own lives discarded that identity. Openly questioning one’s inherited beliefs often carried significant social cost; renouncing them altogether could be crushingly expensive. Moreover, the more oppressive and totalizing a particular individual’s religious upbringing happened to have been, the greater the burdens associated with thinking one’s way out of it. While the movement also included second- and third-generation atheists, they were never numerous; it could hardly be otherwise in a society where the religious majority was very large.

It followed that until about 2000 (in the United States) and 1970 or so (in Europe; a bit later in Canada and Oceania), Western atheism inevitably skewed in favor of what today might be denounced as “privilege.” Movement members tended to skew:

  • intellectual (for obvious reasons);
  • wealthier (partly because the hardheadedness required to examine and perhaps renounce one’s religion can incline also toward financial success, and partly because those too disadvantaged to undertake such an inquiry could not do so); and
  • older (owing mostly to a large number of individuals who didn’t have time for such an inquiry or felt unable to bear the negative social consequences it might bring until retirement).

We should not be surprised that one of Free Inquiry’s most popular cover features in recent years—so popular that it has become an ongoing staple in the magazine—is “The Faith I Left Behind,” a collection of often-harrowing first-person accounts of how a childhood faith was overturned.

In the United States, much has changed since the turn of this century. Atheism’s perceived social acceptability has grown. With the “rise of the Nones,” the number of potential recruits for our movement who hail from irreligious or religiously indifferent households—in other words, who have so much less to cast off—has vastly increased. Today, younger people enter the movement in larger numbers, many at little or no social cost. While veterans of the “bad old days” still dominate movement demographics, they are gradually being replaced by younger activists whose experiences of being an atheist or a humanist are hugely different from anything their elders knew.

LeDrew’s invocation of “classism” makes me wonder how deeply he understands this. In fairness, however, I must note that in becoming more atheist-friendly, the United States has been about a generation behind Canada and two or three generations behind Western Europe. LeDrew is Canadian-born and educated, pursued a postdoc in Sweden, and is now back in Canada as a visiting assistant professor. He has always lived where this sea-change in attitudes toward atheism is older news. Perhaps this influences his perspective.

Nonetheless, I think it is a significant aspect of the evolution of atheism that, at least in the United States, we’re moving so conclusively away from a model in which only those most willing and able to tolerate social opprobrium were likely to enter the movement. With increasingly rare exceptions, ours is no longer a refuge of the besieged. Amid LeDrew’s ample and sometimes quite valuable discussions of the movement’s implicit politics, I wish he’d explored these issues more deeply.

* Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 195.)

† It may, however, go some way toward explaining why so many atheists have felt that their atheism was not directly anchored in a specific commitment to social justice, much less to a particular blueprint of the just society toward which they should strive. Of course, many atheists supplement their rejection of the supernatural with various social, political, and ethical commitments that may—or may not—be wholly independent of the process that led them to reject supernaturalism. Secular humanists specifically can be understood as nonbelievers who have overlaid their atheism with humane value commitments, though even then, the kinds of commitments secular humanists embrace and the visions of the just society they uphold tend to be diverse.

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).

The editor responds to an author’s criticisms.

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