The Center For Inquiry on the “Ground Zero mosque”: Incompetent satire or abandonment of principles?

I hadn’t planned on blogging at all today, much about on this particular topic. As some of you may have noticed, I’m trying to cut back on the blog habit, particularly on the weekends. Gone are the days when I’d foolishly try to emulate P.Z. Myers and have several posts up in a day; lately most days there is only one post up. Moreover, over the years, I’ve drifted away from writing about religion, except when it explicitly intersects with science, in particular medical science. In fact, the whole creationism/evolution kerfuffle, which I used to write about quite frequently, has become an increasingly less frequent topic. And, of course, I’ve never been a political blogger, except only on rare occasions. However, sometimes something happens that irritates me to the point where I throw out those good intentions because it pisses me off so much.

This is one of those times.

I never thought I’d ever be aiming a heapin’ helpin’ of not-so-Respectful Insolence at the Center For Inquiry (CFI), one of the premier secularist organizations in existence, but yesterday I found in my e-mail a mind-meltingly moronic press release that came from an organization that should never, ever produce anything this mind-meltingly moronic. On Friday, the CFI released a press release entitled The Center for Inquiry Urges That Ground Zero Be Kept Religion-Free. In it, CFI tries to go one up on the protestors trying to prevent the construction of an center named Cordoba House at a location two blocks from Ground Zero, a project that its opponents have dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque,” even though it’s not primarily a mosque, nor is it at Ground Zero, by proposing not just that no new mosques be built near Ground Zero, but that no new religious buildings or facilities of any kind be built near Ground Zero. Seriously. It’s that silly and stupid.

On the one hand, CFI states:

The Center for Inquiry is troubled by the rhetoric of some of those protesting the proposed Islamic religious center and mosque near Ground Zero, and it especially deplores the growing politicization of the dispute. CFI also holds that the focus of the protests is too narrow; it would be inappropriate to build any new house of worship in the area immediately around Ground Zero, not just mosques. “The 9/11 attacks were an example of faith-based terrorism, and any institution that privileges faith above reason is an affront to those who were killed and injured in those attacks,” observes Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of CFI.

At first, I thought that this might be some sort of attempt at satire, a way of tweaking the opponents of the Cordoba House by taking their complaint and kicking it up a notch, a form of reductio ad absurdum, if you will. Done by a talented satirist, such a satire could have been a highly effective ploy. I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, though. If the CFI press release is satire, it’s the most incompetently executed satire I’ve seen in a long time. There are no winks or nods that let the audience know it’s satire. It’s all dead serious, and I conclude that Ronald Lindsay is dead serious. So did pretty much everyone with whom I’ve communicated who read it. If satire the CFI press release was, it is an utter failure.

Satire or not, though, the rest of the press release uses “reasoning” (if you can call it that) that brings eternal shame on CFI. For example, later in the press release, CFI asserts that Muslims should have the same religious rights as any other people in this country, be they believers or religious. Then, instead of using that statement as a spearhead to drive home the argument that the First Amendment protects the rights of the Muslims building the Islamic center to build it on property they own, particularly given that the project meets all local zoning ordinances, the local zoning board has approved it, and the mayor backs it, CFI apparently thinks that the way to equalize the field is not to let the Muslims build their center, but rather to advocate preventing all religions from building houses of worship near Ground Zero. Nice.

Perhaps the most offensive part of the CFI press release comes near the end, but I have to set it up first with this passage:

Further, CFI laments the effort by some to turn the proposed Islamic religious center into a political issue. Government officials and candidates for office should not intervene in disputes over the alleged offensiveness of a place of worship. Such conduct violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Establishment Clause. Government officials should not be deciding who is a “moderate” Muslim any more than they should be deciding who is a “moderate” Christian or Jew.

A number of private individuals have protested the proposed Islamic religious center. The tone and substance of these protests covers a wide range. Some protesting the Islamic center have raised legitimate questions, but to the extent the objections to the Islamic center mistakenly equate all Muslims with Muslim extremists, CFI condemns them.

So what does CFI do after condemning the opponents of Cordoba House who either explicitly or implicitly “mistakenly equate all Muslims with Muslim extremists”? It mistakenly equates all religious people with religious extremists:

The Bible and the Koran have been used to justify almost everything, from mass slaughter of those with other beliefs, to slavery, to oppression of women and gays and lesbians, to the throttling of scientific research–as evidenced by the recent halt to stem-cell research. Faith will continue to harm and kill, whether it is in Oklahoma City or New York City, until people stop basing their conduct on imaginary divine commands and accept their responsibility to reason together. 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.

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Again, unless this is satire (hell, even if it is satire, given how incompetent a satire it would be), I find it incomprehensible that CFI doesn’t realize that what it’s done is no different than what it condemned earlier in its press release and is, in essence, no different than the demagoguery served up by the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich. Also, even though the press release unequivocally states that government should not interfere with the building of Cordoba House (perhaps the only good thing about this press release), it’s still also of the same cloth as the disappointing and contorted argument by the ADL that, although noting that the government should not stop the “Ground Zero mosque” because to do so would be unconstitutional, argues that the Muslims building it should be “sensitive” and build it somewhere else, jettisoning its support for religious freedom in the process and provoking the opposition of many Jews.

I realize that Cordoba House stirs up strong emotions among some New Yorkers who lost relatives. At the time it happened, I lived and worked in New Jersey, less than 35 miles away from the Twin Towers. There were a couple of people at my place of work who lost friends and relatives, and many of the physicians in our department traveled at their own expense to Ground Zero to help out in the immediate aftermath of the attack. At our hospital itself, the entire medical staff was asked to stay on duty on 9/11 after the attacks in anticipation of mass casualties being flown from the site by helicopter and brought by ambulance, given that we were less than 35 miles away. Late that night, when it became clear that we would be receiving no casualties, we were finally allowed to go home, dejected that we would not have the opportunity to help. Even despite all that, in my mind objecting to the construction of an Islamic center “too close” to Ground Zero (whatever that means) can only be viewed as offensive to the survivors and those killed if you equate all Muslims with the terrorists who hijacked planes and flew them into the Twin Towers nine years ago, killing nearly 3,000 people. The anger, as understandable and legitimate as it is, is misdirected when turned towards the Muslims building Cordoba House because the Muslims who are building Cordoba House are not the Muslims who flew those planes into the Twin Towers. To demonize them as such requires accepting a frame in which all Muslims are viewed as al Qaeda supporters and therefore complicit in the attacks. In its press release, by going one up on the opponents of the mosque, CFI has not only accepted that very frame, the one being promoted by the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, but it has “kicked it up a notch,” extending the frame to all religious people.

Yes, CFI has equated all religious people with religious fanatic terrorists.

All I can say now is that I am very, very disappointed in CFI, which, for all its protestations of supporting religious freedom and condemning forces of hatred like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, has now jumped in bed with them, as much as it might wish to deny it. In fact, thinking about it a bit more overnight, I consider this this ill thought out, misguided, and offensive press release a transparent attempt by CFI to attach itself to the whole controversy and gain some publicity for itself. I suppose I should have seen this coming, given that CFI President Ronald Lindsay expressed a similar view to that in this press release a couple of weeks ago on his CFI blog.

This press release is bad enough to make me seriously reconsider whether I still wish to continue my membership in CFI or be affiliated with the national organization in any way. (I like the local organization and am sorry to see it tarred with this nonsense from the mothership.) I will wait until my anger resolves before making a decision. It may take some time, though, because this press release really did infuriate me, all the more so because it is a betrayal of the commitment to reason and critical thinking that CFI stands for. I joined CFI because I respected its commitment to critical thinking and promoting reason and secular values, admired its work, and wanted to be a part of it, even if only with financial support. I did not join CFI to attack religion, and I most certainly did not join it to be associated with folly such as this. I can only hope that CFI comes to see reason and admits its mistake.

The sooner the better.

ADDENDUM: DuWayne Brayton agrees with me, but is not yet ready to cut his ties with CFI. Neither am I. Yet. But I’m close.