CFI has learned nothing

After the embarrassment of firing Kavin Senapathy and removing all of her previous contributions, it finally got through to the board that that was unethical and they have restored her articles. This being CFI, though, they couldn’t let it go and sent out a memo insulting Senapathy and asserting that they were not a racist organization because they knew some brown people.


So of course Senapathy has fired back.

Speaking of caricatures, they boast that they work alongside “a vast array” of non-white people. As someone who has been committed to learning about the legacies of white supremacy, slavery, colonialism, and imperialism over the past few years, I quickly saw the dehumanization in this statement — whether or not it was intentional, this is tokenism. Do not refer to minorities as “a vast array.” And do not parade associations with non-white people as if it’s praiseworthy. Period. (Not to mention that this is a gross exaggeration; they don’t actually work with many non-white folks.)

Where has CFI used its platform to expose these fallacies? How? Evidence suggests otherwise. For instance, CFI let the African Americans for Humanism domain expire. As I observed in Undark, their magazine Skeptical Inquirer published a one-off “race issue” with articles written exclusively by white men. Contrary to their claim that they are “committed to diversity and to bring more people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds into its community of secular people and skeptics” they have refused several generous and well-referenced attempts to convince them to take the basic step of adopting a formal Diversity & Inclusion policy.

Some of the influential white men who shape the policies of CFI get serious criticism.

Dawkins does not remotely confine his criticism of Islam to sexism, homophobia, or any other injustice that might plausibly demonstrate altruistic intent. Instead, it is often frivolous, gratuitous, and designed to insult rather than reform. Dawkins’ shallow argument that he isn’t stoking Islamophobia and racism because “Islam is not a race” is a reductionist and disingenuous argument that has been thoroughly refuted time and again. As a brown American who was raised Atheist, I know firsthand the effects of people like Dawkins labeling Islam as “evil” — Islam is not a race, but I’ve been called slurs due to the assumption that my brown skin and dark hair mean I could be Muslim. I can only imagine what it’s like to be a hijabi woman in America. Based on hate crimes against Muslims alone (and racist hate crimes that wrongly target non-Muslims, like the Sikh temple shooting), it’s clear that Islamophobia stokes racism. And it’s frankly nauseating that the so-called “Center for Inquiry” continues to defend this.

Then let’s get into the consequences of CFI’s long-term neglect of social justice issues. We’re in a crisis situation right now, where American racism has made the problems worse, and you would have thought a leading organization dedicated to scientific skepticism would appreciate the importance of the issues…but all they provide is a few token statements while firing one of the few writers they had who had taken race seriously.

We agree on one thing — scientific thinking is crucial during this pandemic. It’s too bad that CFI’s efforts to help address this pandemic will be hindered by its dire lack of understanding of how Black communities and other non-white communities in the U.S. were already been dealing with epidemic levels of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and a slew of other conditions, beginning at birth. They don’t try to understand the sociopolitical factors that will influence the development and deployment of treatment and prevention strategies, including vaccines. They haven’t begun to understand the legacies of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery, and the history of racist pseudoscience that’s alive and well today — a history that runs a direct line to how the pandemic has run its course. Gestures like Skeptical Inquirer deputy editor Ben Radford writing that “it’s important to recognize that the measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus in America and around the world — while necessary and effective — have taken a disproportionate toll on minorities” hardly make a dent.

CFI has simply lost all credibility.


  1. rgmani says

    Not that I ever want to defend Dawkins’ boneheaded statements but I don’t think there is a way for any influential person to make a critical comment about any highly sensitive topic (no matter how nuanced it may be) without out it being misconstrued by people on both sides of the issue. There are always going to be people who treat it as some kind of racist attack and others who use the comment as some kind of license for their own racism.