Now What? Storytelling and Free Inquiry’s Next Chapter Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

I am a humanist, in both senses of the word. As you would expect from the new editor of this magazine (hello, by the way) I ascribe to the values of secular humanism. I am also a humanist in the sense that my background is in the humanities. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in theatre and politics, respectively. I write essays and songs, I direct and act in plays, I sing and play musical instruments, I love literature and history, and learning about philosophy, science, religion, and all the things that Homo sapiens get up to when we’re doing more than just surviving. In other words, my entire life has been spent storytelling.

In my first career as a stage actor, I told stories written by brilliant people by embodying characters that otherwise existed only in the form of text. As much as I loved performing, I felt the good I was doing through theatre was too nebulous, too unquantifiable; I needed to feel that I was having a more direct impact on the world. So I left the arts and leapt into nonprofit do-goodery, eventually becoming the communications director for the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Free Inquiry, for the last ten years. I was once again telling other people’s stories, but through prose rather than performance.

That’s a little bit of my story. The next chapter starts right now. It’s also a new chapter for Free Inquiry. In other words, it’s time to tell new stories.

Dramatis Personae

Tom Flynn, the beloved previous editor of Free Inquiry and former executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, died suddenly on August 23, 2021. Free Inquiry’s former Managing Editor, Andrea Szalanski, then stepped in to run the magazine as Interim Editor until a permanent Editor was found, ensuring that the publication continued to operate without even a hiccup.

Thanks to Tom’s meticulousness and Andrea’s able stewardship, Free Inquiry has had no shortage of excellent material for publication throughout this transitional period. Tom was nothing if not prolific with his own writing, and it wasn’t even until the June-July issue of this year, almost a year after his death, that Free Inquiry published an issue without Tom’s byline. Were it not for an issue dedicated to his memory published in December of 2021, you could be forgiven for thinking he had been running the show the whole time. But the credit for Free Inquiry’s uninterrupted streak truly belongs to Andrea and current Managing Editor Nicole Scott.

I could not have asked for better guides than Andrea and Nicole. No one alive knows the character and history of Free Inquiry better than Andrea, who began her work with us in 1983, just three years after the magazine was launched. While I didn’t have the opportunity to be “mentored” in editorship by Tom, Andrea has been incredibly generous with her time and help. She has been the keeper of Free Inquiry’s flame, and through her example and instruction, I feel I am benefiting simultaneously from her wisdom and Tom’s.

Nicole has kept me sane. (Relatively speaking.) You will not be surprised to know that there’s a lot that goes into publishing a magazine, and Nicole has been exceedingly kind and exquisitely patient with me as I have learned, forgotten, confused, and learned again Free Inquiry’s internal processes. The significance of Nicole’s efforts for Free Inquiry cannot be overstated, and as I begin this new adventure, she is the best partner I could have hoped for.

I must also mention Julia Lavarnway, Managing Editor of Skeptical Inquirer, who has not only been a valuable part of my “onboarding process,” but has also leapt at opportunities to make my transition from my previous role as smooth as possible. Andrea, Nicole, and Julia all have my thanks, and Free Inquiry, its readers, and I are lucky to have them.

‘Secularly Yours’

When I was first introduced to Tom Flynn, I was a little afraid of him. He was already something of a celebrity to me when I first joined the secular movement in a professional capacity, and I perceived in him an air of impatience, a sense that many of us simply weren’t keeping up with him.

We probably weren’t. After a decade as his co-worker and colleague, I learned just how busy his mind was and the swirl of ideas he was constantly processing. Look at how many articles in Free Inquiry bear his byline. Look at the breadth of the scholarship he has brought to the Freethought Trail and the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. Look at the fiction and nonfiction books he’s authored and edited, the numerous speeches he’s delivered, his decades of work in film, video, and audio production, and (if you ever knew him in person), all the jokes of wildly varying quality he’s told.

He literally signed off all his emails with “secularly yours.”

Tom engaged in all these projects because he loved them. He was a man of numerous deep and insatiable enthusiasms. I can only aspire to Tom’s level of wit, perceptiveness, and raw output. But what I truly hope to “inherit” from Tom is his passion, his sheer delight in the pursuit and exchange of wisdom and knowledge that is at the heart of Free Inquiry.

Two Houses

As a reader of Free Inquiry, you may be familiar with the general distinction made between atheism (which for our purposes includes secularism, freethought, nonreligion, etc.) and skepticism—the critical examination of extraordinary claims. Broadly, this magazine has focused on the former, and its sibling publication Skeptical Inquirer upon the latter.

This delineation sets the stage for a sort of bicameral movement; two houses of doubt, both alike in dignity, more or less. One, the House of Skepticism, tackling claims of the paranormal (ghosts, aliens, Bigfoot, psychics, etc.), pseudoscience (alternative medicine, whatever a guru is attaching the word “quantum” to), and conspiracy theories (QAnon, Flat-Eartherism, etc.). The other, the House of Atheism, tackles One Big Claim: God.

Overlap is inevitable. For example, does an investigation of exorcisms count as an exercise in skepticism or atheism? What about an alien-worshiping UFO cult? I don’t particularly subscribe to these boundaries between what constitutes skeptics’ and atheists’ respective “territories,” wherein skepticism challenges all extraordinary claims except those that are religiously based, and atheism and humanism stick squarely to God-talk.

But if there’s no distinction to be made, why even have Free Inquiry at all? Why not fold it all into Skeptical Inquirer and call it a day? We are all skeptics now!

Did I just talk myself out of a job?

How to Think, How to Live

Skepticism is vital. The promotion of skepticism—critical thinking, reason, science, and evidence—may be more crucial at this point in history than at any time since the Enlightenment. Civilization is being upended by a warming planet, a seemingly endless pandemic, exponentially advancing technology, and throngs of zealous adherents to conspiracy theories and anti-scientific beliefs. A skeptical worldview is the only bulwark against all of the irrationality and superstition, and it is the means by which societies can make the best decisions possible for people and the planet, based on reason and evidence. I am convinced that it is the advancement of skepticism that will make or break the future of our global human civilization, and I very much include skepticism of the claims of religion.

But that will only get us so far. The problem with having a planet full of humans is that, well, we’re all so damn human. We can be influenced, but we cannot be programmed like robots. We may have deeply ingrained imperatives and needs, but we also have hopes and wishes and dreams. We have basic needs we must satisfy for survival, but our needs for fulfillment, belonging, and purpose are just as real. We may be meat-based machines, but we are machines that thirst for meaning.

That’s where we come in. Free Inquiry is not merely “an atheist magazine.” It is driven by something bigger, something deeper: the values and principles of secular humanism.

Here’s one way to think about it, boiled down to something that might almost fit on a generously sized bumper sticker:

Skepticism is about how to think. Secular humanism is about how to live.

Science and reason show us the world as it is, allowing us to understand the consequences of ecological decimation, mass adoption of technology and automation, life-lengthening medical advances, and climate change run amok. Okay, now what?

Science and reason tell us that we need never invoke the supernatural to explain any phenomena or justify any behavior. Yet religious fundamentalism and extremism continue to run rampant, manifesting as mob violence; science denial; the suppression of speech and criticism; and the persecution of atheists, religious minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and racial and ethnic minorities. From Nigeria to Tennessee, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, people are still being accused of witchcraft.

Now what?

Skepticism gives us the tools we need to evaluate the information the world presents to us. Secular humanism provides us with the values, the guidance we need to take what we’ve learned and decide what to do about it.

Note that I say “guidance” and not “commandments.” For if there is anything “sacred” to the secular humanist, it is the mind and conscience of the human individual. Secular humanism asks that we act with compassion, it encourages us to strive for empathy, to be our best selves. But it does not issue orders. One must want to do good of one’s own accord, not because they were commanded to by a state, leader, or deity. The pursuit of a freer, more prosperous world for all human beings must be an act of one’s own will.

And honestly, isn’t that better?

Exemplars of Inquiry

“If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions,” wrote sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne. Alas for poor Michel, he wrote that his mind was “always in apprenticeship and on trial.” Well, so is mine. I think that’s true for very many of us. Because after all the necessary skeptical investigation has been done, we humans are left with our imperfect, individual selves to choose what to do with what we’ve learned.

So until we feel sufficiently firm-footed to make those big decisions, we can make essays. We can tell stories.

This is a time of disillusionment. Beset by a cascade of crises, the moral arc of the universe that we expected to bend toward justice appears to be having some second thoughts about its trajectory. Also an exemplar of inquiry, Tom Flynn recognized all of this. He harbored no illusions, so he had none to lose. What he did have in abundance were hopes, ideas, and questions.

That’s the good thing about disillusionment. After we recover from the shock and grief of having our myths shattered, we can then look upon the world as it truly is. We can learn from Tom’s example and get to the business of inquiring freely. We can turn disillusion into enlightenment.

I am a humanist, in both senses of the word. As you would expect from the new editor of this magazine (hello, by the way) I ascribe to the values of secular humanism. I am also a humanist in the sense that my background is in the humanities. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in …