Onward and Upward Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

Andrea Szalanski during her time at CFI.

Tom Flynn didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the Center for Inquiry (CFI). When he died in August 2021, he planned to retire in a few years and had begun to hand off some of his many tasks to very capable successors. But the editorship of Free Inquiry would have been the last to go. What would he have said about life after CFI? It’s hard to imagine that the leading champion of secular humanism for the past two decades would have been silent and uninvolved.

For most, working at what is now called the Center for Inquiry has always been more than a job. People don’t stay if their beliefs don’t mesh. An employee may not want to be an activist, but they are at least sympathetic to the cause. Take myself: I had never heard of Paul Kurtz and his enterprises when I moved back to Buffalo in 1982. Looking for a job in publishing, I started freelance editing and proofreading for Prometheus Books and was hired as managing editor of FI in 1983. What a find in my hometown—a place of commendable principles with national and international connections—and a viewpoint totally opposite to how I was raised. A great aunt was a Catholic nun, and my mother regularly visited a convent to donate. My mother dedicated my life to the Virgin Mary in the hope that I would survive a necessary operation shortly after birth. I was baptized and went through First Communion and Confirmation. I would have gone to Catholic School like my parents, but when they found out there were sixty kids in a classroom, they enrolled me in public school and settled for Sunday school religious instruction.

But I felt an inability to embrace my family’s faith, and the chasm widened over time. In high school, a couple of teachers selected a few students who met in the evening to consider matters that I thought were settled—such as the origin of Earth and God’s existence, or not. (Imagine that happening these days.) The notion that there could be doubts and questioning rang true. After leaving for college, I only went to church when I visited home. My husband and I were married in the Church to avoid upsetting my mother but again were not observant.

And so, with a couple of interruptions, I found CFI and stayed for more than thirty years until 2017. (My mother never did find out exactly what I did. My closest shave came two months into my new job, when my father died. To my horror, I learned that Dr. Kurtz planned to come to my father’s wake. But I needn’t have worried. Kurtz was a gentleman and communicated only concern for the deceased’s family.)

In September 2021, I was asked to temporarily assume Tom Flynn’s role as editor of FI—a daunting but invigorating project. It was like a homecoming to return to working with many of the same staff and writers. The issues hadn’t much changed and still required thoughtful discussion and action. But with new Editor Paul Fidalgo in place, my time as interim editor and a bridge between the past and future of FI comes to an end.

It amazes me at times that one philosophy professor’s grand vision of a publishing and advocacy organization continues and flourishes. How things have changed since I started in 1983, and at that time the precursors to CFI—the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal—had already been operating for a few years.  Business was conducted in a former storefront by a small staff who each wore many hats. In addition to managing editor of FI, I was assistant editor for Skeptical Inquirer and public relations director for both organizations.

As such, I had many memorable experiences over the years. In addition to working with well-known and talented writers (Mikhail Gorbachev submitted an article in Russian for one issue), I did PR for conferences locally and out of town and met scholars, statesmen, entertainers, and journalists. There were times when the work felt dangerous. When the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue came to the Buffalo area in 1992, the Federal Bureau of Investigation screened our office mail and package delivery for bombs (it seemed to me that could have happened anytime). When Flynn decided to publish the Danish cartoons of Mohammad in 2005 and 2006, some of us wished we had used pseudonyms on our masthead.

The technological changes in publishing have been great. In the beginning, we outsourced typesetting; galleys were printed on special paper that could be waxed and affixed to cardstock with grids. Corrections would be made by typesetting new lines, then cutting the strips and pressing them into place—and hoping they wouldn’t fall off. We sometimes had to race to the airport FedEx before it closed to get the issue to the printer on time.

A lot has been accomplished in the past forty years of activism in promoting secular humanist ideals. The tricks of faith healers have been exposed, in many parts of the country secular celebrants have won the right to officiate at events marking life’s milestones, and we have given minorities in oppressive societies safety and support, to name just a few achievements. But there is still a lot of work to do. Kurtz’s impetus for our founding was the threat by the religious Right, which has changed but is more dangerous than ever. Also alarming are increases in religious beliefs influencing public policy, prejudice and discrimination, and mistrust and outright rejection of science. People turning away from traditional religions are not necessarily embracing secular humanism. But they are still searching for meaning, and there is the danger that they will turn to damaging and perhaps dangerous ideologies to fill that void.

On a practical, daily basis, what would a secular humanist society look like? A major cancer-care center at which I recently spent time (I’m fine now) struck me as a good model. Of all the medical, administrative, and operations staff, no one ever asked me about my beliefs or shared theirs, or offered to pray for me. Their focus was on applying science and professional expertise to assess the problem and develop and carry out the best treatment plan, all the while making the process as easy, efficient, and compassionate as possible.

Tom Flynn did not tolerate or let go unanswered threats or challenges to secular humanism. I look forward to seeing how Paul Fidalgo inhabits the role of FI editor and executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and moves us forward. Carry on, everybody.

Tom Flynn didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the Center for Inquiry (CFI). When he died in August 2021, he planned to retire in a few years and had begun to hand off some of his many tasks to very capable successors. But the editorship of Free Inquiry would have been the last …