Sad/strange scenes at Council for Secular Humanism conference

Note: this post will be of limited interest to those readers who aren’t involved in secular movements, or who don’t keep up with the politics of such movements.

Some unpleasant scenes unfolded during the final session of the Council for Secular Humanism conference, that ended today. The last bit of today’s final session ended with questions from the audience, and first in line at the microphone was Paul Kurtz. The way things transpired left the audience feeling quite discomfited, and the same could be said for at least one panelist.

For context, all throughout the conference Ronald Lindsay had been extremely deferential and respectful to Kurtz, repeatedly mentioning what a debt the organisations – and the secular cause – had to Dr Kurtz decades of work. So while there were occasional moments where some of us feared this would flare up, it looked like a political decision had been made to keep the dirty laundry out of the public gaze.

But then came this session. Kurtz started by doing 2 things: appealing for donations for the CFI (and seeing as he’s now formed a “rival” group, this is notable), and then simply reading some of the press clippings related to his ousting/resignation (I’m not intending to take sides). These clippings included details of his allegedly being locked out of the CFI building, etc.

Lindsay responded, again expressing his debt and gratitude for Kurtz work. But he also took the opportunity to put his side of the story. Kurtz had delivered an ultimatum to the Board, where they had to either pursue the direction he recommended (in terms of the known issues, like Blasphemy Day and so forth), or he would resign. The Board did not side with Kurtz’s wishes, so he resigned. Lindsay also addressed the “locked-out” issues, and repeated all the things we’ve already heard.

Then, at the microphone was an ex-CFI staffer (didn’t catch the name – maybe Wendy?), who spoke of Kurtz being censored (again, what we’ve already heard regarding his letter of resignation not being published). But this was delivered in an emotive tone, and was quite accusatory against Lindsay. She is booed, and Tom Flynn chastises her for speaking out of turn (which she did).

Meanwhile, Paul Kurtz has come back to the microphone, jumping in line and grabbing the mike, and while Lindsay is suggesting that the moderator (Flynn) needs to decide whether to speak out of order, and then while Flynn is trying to tell Kurtz that he should get in line, Kurtz speaks over him and forces an audience.

Kurtz is by this stage clearly rather emotional, and also speaks of being censored when he tried to give his account of why he left. He then re-takes his seat, and Tom Flynn expresses the sentiment that he’s going to leave the last word to Kurtz, and leave the discussion there. Around 10 minutes later, Paul Kurtz left the room, and we didn’t see him for the rest of the conference (another hour or so).

It wasn’t pretty, and I’m sure it could have been handled better. For one, it was inappropriate for Kurtz to raise this particular issue. The conference session was on future directions and strategy, but Kurtz didn’t focus on that – he instead just aired a personal grievance without putting it in that general context. Then, Lindsay (and Flynn) should really have let him have that initial say, and then simply reminded everyone that their position on these issues has been made known, and can be read at our leisure.

All in all, it was a sad way to end what was a very good conference. Two of the highlights were streamed live, so any interested parties would have seen the “accommodationist” debate and the Harris/Wright dialogue.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.