New Directions: Centers for Inquiry and Human Enrichment

By Kurtz, Paul | Free Inquiry, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview

New Directions: Centers for Inquiry and Human Enrichment


Kurtz, Paul, Free Inquiry


The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is the newest star on the cultural horizon. Readers of this magazine should by now be familiar with its existence. The Center for Inquiry-International in Amherst, New York, is headquarters of the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of FREE INQUIRY. Since there are now over a dozen Centers for Inquiry worldwide, and many new CFI Communities now in the process of formation, it is part of a rapidly growing constellation of Centers.

What is the purpose of each Center for Inquiry? Its first focus is on inquiry. We wish "to promote and defend reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor"; and, in particular, to critically examine and, if need be, change the basic beliefs and values of society, its unexamined "sacred cows." Our second focus is on human enrichment. We endeavor to cultivate values that enhance the realization of human happiness.

Recently some of us participated at a grand-opening celebration of the Center for Inquiry-Community Long Island. We met in a restaurant in a place with the unlikely name of Hicksville, Long Island--which turns out to be centrally located and near a Long Island Railroad station! Gerry Dantone, the energetic coordinator of the new CFI-Community, welcomed everyone by remarking that there were 4,004 churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques on Long Island, but until the CFI-Community was created there was no explicitly secular institution devoted to beliefs and values that did not depend upon religious faith!

If, according to a City University of New York Graduate School poll, 14 percent of the American public are nonreligious, this would mean that some 385,000 of the 2,750,000 inhabitants of Long Island need to be served. The same thing is true in most communities in the United States. Granted that there are numerous secular institutions in American society--schools and colleges, museums and sports stadiums, factories and offices, cafes and restaurants, libraries and hospitals--nowhere are there institutions explicitly entrusted with espousing a naturalistic outlook and humanist values. Nor are there many communities where nonreligious folk can meet other like-minded individuals. In other words, we are surrounded by a culture that is steeped in religiosity and in which a nontheistic scientific, philosophical, and ethical life-stance is all too rarely appreciated, much less encouraged.

Who champions the concerns of people who construct their values and make moral choices without seeking guidance from some faith tradition? Who speaks for the hundreds of millions of humans on the planet who are fed up with religious intolerance? Who speaks for scientists and skeptics, naturalists, and humanists, who are concerned with a realistic appraisal of world problems and wish to progress to a new level of understanding and cooperation? Ever since the Renaissance, the democratic and scientific revolutions of the modern world, and the secularization of values, religion seems increasingly an obstacle to solving the problems of the world. Yet we are ever in danger of slipping back to a premodern era dominated by religious conflicts, as is happening today in the Middle East.

Granted that religions have over the long history of the human civilization performed many worthy deeds: they have provided consolation for those who grieve, charity for those in need, and hope for those who despair. Yet at the same time they have often censored truth, engendered hatred not love, intensified violence not peace, and they differ profoundly on which of them provides the legitimate road to salvation. ("You believe in your religion, and I'll believe in God's!" says the militant believer.)

Humankind today possesses powerful secular methods of science, technology, and education that can continue to contribute to the progressive amelioration of the human condition. Medicine and the helping professions, schools and universities, art and music, poetry and philosophy, and other cultural institutions are all avenues for seeking human enrichment, independent of religion.

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