Michael De Dora is the Director of Public Policy for the Center for Inquiry, a non-profit secular organization that “does not promote any political party or political ideology.” He graduated with a master’s degree in political theory from Brooklyn College, as well as a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric and communication from the University at Albany.
As reported by Iowa Free Press, “For the last couple of years secular organizations such as Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers and Iowa Skeptics have been working with AtheistVoter, American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and SecularityUSA to help spread the message of secularism in American politics.”
On January 21, CFI and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science Inquiry announced that the two organizations are merging to become “the largest secularist organization in the United States.”
A former journalist for FOXNEWS.com and the City University of New York, De Dora “previously spent three years as executive director of CFI’s office in New York City,” according to the CFI. In addition to these responsibilities, he serves as the CFI Representative to the United Nations.
In an interview with Iowa Free Press, De Dora shared his thoughts on the grassroots efforts of secular voters in the build-up to the 2016 election.
What is the Center for Inquiry’s opinion on the grassroots campaign efforts to promote secularism in American institutions, enforcing the notion of “Separation of Church and State,” during the political season?
The Center for Inquiry strongly supports efforts to promote secularism in American political institutions — at least secularism as we see it. Our view is that the government and its various institutions should remain neutral on matters of theology: that they should not favor one religion over others, or favor religion over non-religion. We are not necessarily opposed to individual elected officials and political candidates expressing their religious values in public; doing so is their right. However, we stress that elected officials and political candidates must realize that they represent pluralistic states and districts, which include citizens of all different opinions on religion. Our public policies should reflect and respect this fact, and be based on broader concerns than sectarian inspiration.
But, CFI advances more than just secular government. If laws should not be based on religion, what should they be based on? We hold that reason, empirical evidence, and humanist moral values are reliable guides.
What has your organization done to spread its message to voters in the last 2-3 years?
As a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, CFI is restricted in its capacity to directly address political candidates and their campaigns. However, over the past couple years we have worked in a variety of ways to spread our message to Americans.
At the grassroots — the local and state levels — we issue regular advocacy alerts on bills and other political and legal proposals. In some places we have staff and volunteers who spread awareness and take action on policy issues. At the national level, we are a registered lobby organization, and engage in direct lobbying with Congress and the Administration. All of our efforts are regularly communicated back to the public. In addition, we issue regular advocacy alerts on bills before Congress and rules and regulations under considered by federal agencies. Further, we often issue press releases and statements on pressing political issues. So, there are a variety of ways we seek to spread our message.
What are some of the biggest contributions your organization is responsible for in pursuit of such goals?
One of our most significant contributions in advancing secular government happened in 2014. We had sued the state of Indiana claiming that the state’s law excluding certified secular humanist celebrants from the list of individuals who can solemnize marriages in Indiana was unconstitutional. After an initial loss, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in CFI’s favor, and ordered the State to allow our celebrants to conduct weddings. The Supreme Court denied appeal, so the case is now binding. We continue to work in several other states to gain equality for secular celebrants.
At the federal level, we have focused a significant amount of our lobbying efforts to protecting public education, mainly by opposing attempts to funnel taxpayer money from public school systems to private and religious schools (often called “school voucher” or “portability” programs). We oppose government support for schools which are completely unaccountable, free to discriminate, and advance sectarian doctrines.
For instance, this past fall Congress worked on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Some members of Congress sought to turn the $14 billion in federal funds dedicated to the nation’s poorest schools into a portability program. We worked with our allies in the National Coalition for Public Education and helped defeat this effort. Additionally, we helped keep reauthorization of the District of Columbia school voucher program from being tucked into the Fiscal Year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations measure — although this program’s reauthorization remains alive in Congress as a standalone bill. We have had similar successes in the past and will continue to defend public education as a common good, and oppose attempts to publicly fund unaccountable private and religious schools.
What have some of the obstacles been in promoting the message of Secularism in American politics?
I think the biggest obstacle to promoting secularism in American politics is the misconception that secularism is the same thing as atheism. This is not true: atheism is a position on theology — and secularism is a way of thinking about the relationship between religion, morality, and government. CFI does not try to convert elected officials or political candidates. We try to stress the importance of pluralistic, secular, science-based policymaking. One need not be an atheist to agree with us.
Do you think that most people have the wrong impression of your organization and its work? If so, can you explain what is misunderstood and how this affects your work?
Sadly I do think that many, though perhaps not most, people misunderstand our organization and its work. For example, many people believe the Center for Inquiry is an “atheist organization.” This is true insofar as the majority of our members are atheists, or else humanists or agnostics; and as one of our goals is to end the stigma attached to being non-religious. But we are much more than an atheist organization.
This problem affects our work because if people believe we are just an “atheist organization,” then they might operate under the assumption that we are out to simply criticize their beliefs rather than find ways to engage in constructive dialogue centered [on] shared values. To be clear, there are times at which we do directly criticize an elected official’s beliefs, if we find said beliefs are at odds with science or reason. But our policy focus is not debating theology; it is advancing secular principles.
What are the CFI’s thoughts on what is at stake for the 2016?
Obviously the result of the 2016 presidential election will have implications for the relationship between religion and government. Some candidates will be more inclined to base public policies on their religious beliefs; others will be more inclined to pursue a secular, pluralistic agenda.
Aside from the election, however, there are several cases before the Supreme Court which will impact the state of secularism in America. In Zubik v. Burwell, the Court could massively expand the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act; in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, the Court could eviscerate Roe by allowing states to work around it with bogus restrictions; and in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley, the Court could allow or even require states to funnel money to religious schools and social program providers.
And, of course, as it is an election year, statehouses and Congress will consider a flurry of measures designed to rally members’ political bases. Citizens should be alert to this and use this as an opportunity to engage with and possibly even create positive relationships elected officials and political candidates.
Has there been a lot of progress, in your view, in the last few years due in part to the efforts of organizations such as yours?
There certainly has been progress in the last few years due to CFI’s efforts. Beyond some of the aforementioned issues, I think we have been able to increase the visibility and acceptance of the non-religious in policy and advocacy. For instance, just a few weeks ago I spoke on a panel discussion at the White House, as part of the launch of a new inter-religious initiative called Know Your Neighbor. CFI was asked to represent the secular community on this initiative, and I was asked to speak briefly on secularism and atheism. I have also know colleagues who have been invited to speak by religious groups in many respectable forums. I consider it a step forward that the non-religious are being included in such conversations. It has not always been the case.
More specifically to my work, there is no doubt that on Capitol Hill the non-religious are better represented than ever before. In the past year there have been several Congressional briefings sponsored by atheist and humanist organizations, including CFI. Additionally, two resolutions in the House of Representatives — H. Res 290 and H. Res 396 — explicitly mention attacks on atheists for exercising their right to free expression. This is in part due to CFI and other groups going to Congressional offices and talking about these cases, and calling for policies which better reflect all the facts.
Is there anything else you would like the readers of Iowa Free Press to know?
I would stress to voters that they must not only realize, but embrace the fact that elected officials and political candidates work for us — and will only listen to us if we speak up. So often I meet people who have issues with their elected official’s vote or position on a particular policy, and I ask “Have you communicated your views to this person?” Rarely have they — and this is a problem. We live in a democracy, and it is essential in a democracy that citizens be both informed and engaged. Whatever a voter’s views, I would encourage them to learn more about the issues and engage with their elected officials and political candidates. It’s the only way anything will every change.