Robyn E. Blumner, J.D. is the President & CEO of the Center for Inquiry & the Executive Director for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. Here we talk about her life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Robyn E. Blumner: I grew up in Glen Cove, New York on Long Island. My parents were both Jewish and we were members of a conservative synagogue.
My paternal grandparents kept kosher in the home and both my grandmothers spoke Yiddish as well as English. My maternal grandmother was even president of the local Hadassah.
My parents were public school teachers, though my mother stayed at home during my formative years. I declared my atheism at 11 or 12 years of age, quit Hebrew school, and thereafter generally objected to participating in religious practices.
When at synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services with my family I would assist in the nursery taking care of young children, steering clear of the sanctuary and prayer services.
All things considered my parents took it pretty well. Eventually everyone in my nuclear family declared their atheism and broke with religion. But there was a time when I was the only atheist I knew.
I just didn’t understand how everyone could believe such outlandish claims without evidence. I thought everyone around me was crazy, and I presume they thought I was — or that I’d outgrow my resistance to belief.
I knew my Dad had come full circle when I notice he subscribed to Free Inquiry magazine, the periodical that CFI publishes on secular humanism and atheism.
This was long before I became the organization’s CEO. Although Dad’s been dead for years, it’s a very nice memory to know he was a supporter of CFI way back when.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Blumner: I have a B.S. from Cornell University and a J.D. from NYU School of Law. I’m a voracious reader with typically about five books going at once. There is never enough time for all the reading I hope to do.
Jacobsen: You hold two positions of high prominence in the freethought and secular communities. This may make you among the most prominent secular women with an authority position in the world.
You are the President & CEO of the Center for Inquiry as well as the Executive Director for Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science.
What is the current state of these organizations now? How did you become involved in them? What tasks and responsibilities come with the positions?
Blumner: The Center for Inquiry merged with the Richard Dawkins Foundation at the end of 2016. The marriage was a perfect alignment of interests. Both organizations have as their mission the promotion of reason, science, and secular values.
The Center for Inquiry has two flagship magazines, Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry, along with a long history of scholarship and connecting preeminent scientists, philosophers, social scientists, and historians to the promotion of skepticism and secular humanism.
The Richard Dawkins Foundation has a high-profile social media presence, a commitment to promoting science in general and the teaching of evolution in particular, and the backing of a great celebrity scientist and outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins.
After the merger the two entities still exist but the Richard Dawkins Foundation is a division of CFI. That means expenses such as administration, accounting, and legal work can be combined leaving more resources to put toward the substantive work of the organization.
As to my varied responsibilities, I wear many hats, but ultimately I am responsible for implementing the board’s vision for CFI and making sure we have the resources to carry it out.
Lucky for me I have an incredible staff of committed professionals who contribute mightily to the ongoing success and growth of CFI. Some staff members have been with CFI more than 30 years.
I have attached a brochure on CFI’s activities. That should give readers a full understanding of our history and ongoing work.
Among my favorite programs are 1) the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, which teaches middle school science teachers across the United States how to teach evolution; and 2) Secular Rescue, that saves the lives of atheist activists overseas in places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Secular Rescue is an underground railroad for secular bloggers who find themselves subjected to violence or prosecution due to nonbelief. The program helps them get safe passage to other countries.
Our legal program is also doing a lot to promote scientific skepticism, including suing the pharmacy chain CVS for the fraudulent way it markets homeopathic products alongside evidence-based medicine.
This shelf placement suggests that homeopathic products address medical symptoms when in fact they have no active ingredients and cannot work beyond a placebo effect. Homeopathy is a $3 billion annual consumer fraud that CFI is taking on in the courts.
Jacobsen: Within the tenure of leadership in the organizations, what have been the emotional difficulties? What, also, have been the heartwarming stories and experiences while in the organizations? Have any mentors been integral to the work there?
Blumner: Richard Dawkins is an extraordinary mentor. He is both brilliant and kind. I have been honored over these years to work alongside him and see the impact he has on audiences — young and old alike.
The long lines Richard attracts during book signings are filled with people who tell him that his books changed their life.
They say they are no longer blinkered by religion or they chose a career in science because of Richard’s books on evolutionary biology. I can’t imagine a more gratifying legacy.
Jacobsen: In terms of the current moment with the rise in know-nothing, ultra-patriarchal male leaders who tend to be religious, and, subsequently or concomitantly, the emergence of the authoritarian base upon which they depend, what are the main threats to human rights, science as process and knowledge, and secularism?
How are the secular organizations working to combat this, including the Center for Inquiry and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science?
Blumner: We fight daily against the religious Right. Currently the Trump administration is attacking secular society from many angles, including pushing for school vouchers, seeking to defeat the Johnson Amendment and its limits on clergy electioneering for political candidates, and promoting discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.
It’s ugly out there, and we have a legal and advocacy department that works independently and in coalitions of other groups to push back against these dangerous incursions.
Jacobsen: This brings something to mind. What if there was an unofficial coalition of the formal non-religious from secular and freethinker organizations to humanist communities and ethical societies to online agnostics and atheists, and so on?
A common stance of no tolerance and proactive, assertive formal non-religious activism against fundamentalist encroachment into civic and political life, including into the current battlegrounds over the rights to bodily autonomy of women with reproductive health rights, i.e., individuals who openly and with little metacognitive insight want religious rights for themselves but not reproductive rights for women. Could this be done? If so, how?
It seems necessary in the current moment with Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in America, Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Orbán in Hungary, and so on.
Blumner: We work closely with a host of secular groups as a means of amplifying our voice for church-state separation, the rights of atheists here and abroad, and the end to pseudoscience wherever it arises.
Unfortunately, most secular and ethical groups are small relative to the size, strength and resources of our ideological opponents.
For instance, CFI’s annual budget of $5 million is large compared to other groups within the secular community but we are tiny relative to the religious Right group Focus on the Family and its annual budget of $78 million. And that’s just one group among many of that size.
Jacobsen: What are the exciting new projects coming in 2019 for the Center for Inquiry as well as the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science? How can people find out more about them?
Blumner: Please check out the website: “centerforinquiry.org” and sign up for our free digital newsletters. Cause & Effect comes out every other week, as does the Richard Dawkins Foundation newsletter.
And you can subscribe for free to The Morning Heresy, our hilarious daily synopsis of the day’s news by CFI’s communications director, Paul Fidalgo.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved with Center for Inquiry as well as the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?
Blumner: Again, please check out our website for opportunities to join and become active.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Blumner: We need everyone who cares about a secular government to become active. We need you to join organizations and respond to Action Alerts.
We need you to tell your lawmakers that you are a nonbeliever and support the separation of church and state, and will vote on those grounds in annual elections.
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma surrounding atheism and the only way to combat it is for us to organize into groups and make ourselves known. Please see the attached video that features Abby telling her story:
It shows what we are still up against.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Robyn.
Blumner: Thank you, Scott.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.
Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.