I follow and receive newsletters from a fair few organizations, pertaining to my varying interests. One of these organizations is the Center For Inquiry, which usually does good things like foster a secular society and all that. Organizations like these can bother me sometimes though, when they focus too much on the atheism and the anti-religionism and not enough on the curiosity, the rationalism and the inquiry. Usually, though, I can trust them not to go too far out of line.
So imagine my surprise when I get this delightful piece of news in my inbox: a press release, written by the CEO of CFI, Ron Lindsay, that includes this sentence.
“To honor those killed by faith fanatics, Ground Zero and its immediate vicinity should be kept free of any newly constructed house of worship — of any religion.”
The rest of the press release can be found here.
To summarize: it’s awful. Absolutely idiotic. Demonstrably so, for many many reasons. I saw no reason why such simplemindedness perpetrated by a prominent and ostensibly influential figure ought to go unchallenged, so I wrote to him, detailing my objections. After all, a free marketplace of ideas means nothing if ideas are not up for criticism once in the public sphere. My email went as follows:
“Dear Mr. Bupp,
I am afraid I must wholeheartedly denounce your statements in the recent press release regard the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center. I have supported CFI for many years, but your values seem to have been compromised by your vision for a perfect world.
CFI describes itself as a secular organization, one committed to a variety of social goods including, no doubt, secularism. As you no doubt know, secularism refers not to disbelief in gods or non-religiosity, but simply the removal of religion from public life. As it currently exists in the American consciousness, secularism has taken the tack of ensuring that there is as little government sponsorship of religion as possible. This, in contrast to, for example, the French laïcité, preserves individual freedom of action, thought and conscience. As such, I support this type of secularism.
However, this system of thought would demand that we respect the rights of any group to build whatever structure they deem appropriate on private property. To treat Ground Zero as hallowed is to buy into the false narrative of the Religious Right. I would not have expected you to support such a nebulous and vaguely religious view of sacredness. If two blocks is too close, what about three? Or ten? Or 18,000, as in the mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee?
I was also surprised to see you employ the argument of sensitivity. As secularists, we anger many who claim the shield of offendedness and sensitivity, but we decry their claims as cheap attempts to shift the focus of debate, as we should. We must apply the same reasoning in this case. New Yorkers, Americans and others may feel sensitivity towards Ground Zero, but that cannot affect the way others choose to live. There are churches and coat factories and porn stores right around Ground Zero. Oughtn't this to trigger sensitivity as well?
Furthermore, your view as a secularist seems to blind you to the political motivations behind Islamic fundamentalism. I would advise you to read Dying to Win, by Robert Pape. It is clear that terrorism is a strategically motivated political act, and has been employed throughout history by religious and nonreligious groups alike. Should we then ban any political groups from building around Ground Zero? To ignore this motivation is to dangerously oversimplify the role of Islamic terrorism in the current political arena.
Finally, you seem to forget that it is not the job of any person, or of CFI, to forcibly make America less religious. That is not the goal of progressive social change. We must simply change the context of the America in which we all must live. You seem to feel however, that if we simply reduce the number of religious buildings, that religiosity will decrease. This is absurd reasoning. Religion must be a part of public life because it is important to people, and they have the freedom to express their values. We must appreciate that it is in the public square so that it is open to critique and public pressure. Driving it underground will cultivate groupthink, group polarization and general antipathy towards secularists, as if we needed any more of that.
I appreciate all that you and your organization have done to create a better America. However, I ask you to consult your humanist understanding of the world when you unthinkingly politicize, as you accuse others of doing, the controversy surrounding the Park51 Center in order to create a less religious America. Your press release supports intolerance, harms religious and nonreligious secularists alike and undermines the work of your own organization.
I ask you then, to please retract your statements.
There are many other arguments I could have brought to bear, but I didn’t want it to get too long. Now I wait and see what happens. I hope he lives up to the values he espouses and sees the error in his ways.
CORRECTION: As the email I received noted that the piece had been written by the CEO of CFI, and the contact was listed as Nathan Bupp, I assumed that they were one and the same. I erred in this, and I take full responsibility for not doing my research. I received an email from Mr. Bupp asking me to correct myself in this blog post, and so I have.