Paul Kurtz – The Courage to Become

July 07, 2006

Paul Kurtz, considered the father of the secular humanist movement and a founder of the worldwide skeptic movement, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As chair of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the Council for Secular Humanism, and Prometheus Books, and as editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry magazine, he has advanced a critical, skeptical inquiry into many of the most cherished beliefs of society for the last forty years. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has been featured very widely in the media, on topics as diverse as reincarnation, UFO abduction, secular versus religious ethics, communication with the dead, and the historicity of Jesus.

In this interview with DJ Grothe, Paul Kurtz discusses the meaning of life from a scientific point of view, and expounds on the secular humanistic, stoical, skeptical perspective on questions regarding life after death and morality without belief in the soul, or heaven and hell.

Also in this episode DJ talks with Amanda Chesworth, educational director for CSICOP, about CFI’s new summer camp promoting the scientific outlook to youngsters, Camp Inquiry.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 7th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe key point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Also now in Washington, D.C., and 11 other cities around the world. Every week on point of inquiry, we examine some of the central beliefs of our society. And we focus mostly on three research areas. First, we look at pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, we examine alternative medicine. Third, we explore the intersection of religion and science in our society. The implications of the scientific outlook for ethics and belief in God. We do all this by drawing on CFI, his relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. I’m pleased that this week I’ll be joined with Professor Paul Kurtz. He’s the founder of CFI and all the other organizations here, like the Council for Secular Humanism, PSI, up and on and on. We’re going to be talking about what he calls the courage to become. But first, I’m joined here in the studio with my old friend Amanda Chesworth on Point of Inquiry. Amanda Chesworth is educational director for Saika, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. She runs Inquiring Minds, which is a Web based program of resources for educators and parents to inculcate the scientific spirit in youngsters. She’s involved with many other projects and programs at the Center for Inquiry. And today we’re going to talk about a new project of the Center for Inquiry Camp Inquiry. You can tell that we like inquiry around this place. Thanks for being on point of inquiry, Amanda. Thank you for having me. So camp inquiry. It is a secular pro science summer camp for kids without religion. 

Right. Camp inquiry is largely promoting skepticism. And so a lot of our activities have to do with investigating the paranormal. We are doing a few inquiries into religion and we’re looking at the affirmations of humanism. 

So this is a secular pro science alternative to all the religious summer camps. Families often send their kids to. 

Right. And of course, there aren’t very many science camps. And so that, too, is unique. 

There are hands on experiments and activities for the children this summer. 

Yeah, we’re doing a lot of natural history. We’re doing some interesting cryptozoology experiments. We’re doing quite a lot of fortune-telling and psychic phenomena experiments. 

So you’ve designed this so that the children learn the methods of science by investigating the paranormal? Exactly. They’re turned on by investigating these paranormal questions. And in the process, they learn how to do science. 

Right. And of course, we’re not going to be telling them what the outcome should be. They’ll find that out for themselves and they’ll draw their own conclusions. What are some of the other activities you’ll be doing? We have, of course, a magic day. All right. 

I think I know I’m going to be involved in that. That sounds right. Yeah. Magic like investigating the paranormal teaches both creative and critical thinking. We’re actually going to. I’m going to teach the campers how to do some magic this summer. I’m really looking forward to that. 

And of course, kids love magic. We’re going to be looking at a lot of illusions. We’re having the think, Kathleen. Which which bank? Kathy laughing Kathy Allen. So they’re going to be using their brains, but also doing a lot of physical activity. And of course, we have quite a large age group from seven years old to 17. So we’re splitting up the activities between four age groups. How many campers are going to have. We have 25, 25. And let me backtrack. 

I guess I should have begun with all the pertinent details. Where’s the summer camp? What are its dates this summer? 

The camp is starting off in Holland, New York, which is 20 miles south of Buffalo. So it’s very close to our headquarters. And the dates are July 12th through the 17th. So that’s five days. And we’re hoping, based on what we see at this camp and our our registration has been larger than we expected. We want to offer two sessions next year and we also eventually want to offer them at our branches in Florida and California. 

Oh, fantastic. So before we wrap up, what else is going on at the camp this summer? 

We’re having a superstition fair where we’ll look at a variety of superstitions and the kids will go through a superstition obstacle course. We’re going to look at, of course, evolution versus creationism and intelligent design. Hot button issue these days, right? Right. And something, of course, that’s relevant because the kids might be learning this in school, unfortunately. And the last day we’re having a diversity day, which is where we’re going to be promoting the idea of tolerance and of course, not being prejudiced towards people for their beliefs, for their lifestyles, for their ethnicity. 

This sounds like the summer camp that families all over the country have been waiting for. And now it’s here. So if. We want more information about this. What do they do? 

They can, of course, go to the Web site, Camp Inquiry dot org, which has all of our emails and phone numbers. They can, of course, e-mail me at Web at Inquiring Minds dot org. And that, of course, they can go to the main site for the Inquiring Minds program, which is Inquiring Minds, Dawg. Fantastic. Thanks for being on point of inquiry member. Thank you for having me. 

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It’s a great pleasure for me to have back on point of inquiry. The founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry, Paul Kurtz. He’s also the founder of a number of other organizations. He’s a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York and chair of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He’s also chair of Council for Secular Humanism in previous books. The point is the man is very busy. He’s editor in chief of Free Inquiry magazine. He’s the author or editor of over 45 books, including the recent titles Science and Religion. Are they compatible, which I’d like to let our listeners know is available through our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. Throughout the last 40 years, Paul Kurtz has been a leading defender of science and reason against the prevailing cults of irrationality in our society. He’s been interviewed very widely in the media on subjects ranging from alternative medicine and communication with the dead to the historicity of Jesus. Today, we’re going to talk about what he calls simply the courage to become what I think is an inspiring view about our place in the universe that’s informed by science instead of superstition. Paul, welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

I’m delighted to be here. D.J., never too busy to be interviewed by you, Paul. 

Today, we’re going to talk about the courage to become. Seems to me that skeptics of religion, secular people, people who are informed by science instead of religion or superstition, that in some sense we have a harder sales pitch. Look, evangelical Christians, I’m not only going to pick on Christians, but Christians go door to door and they say, you know, knock, knock. I want to sell you something immortal life. When you die, you’re not going to die. You’re gonna live forever. You’ll live in eternal bliss in paradise. Secular people, skeptical people. What are we going to go door to door and say? Knock, knock. Guess what? When you die, your dad and the world is ultimately meaningless. And it’s a great void without hope. That’s a hard sales pitch. 

But as truthful, I don’t think there’s any evidence for immortality of the soul or salvation of the next life. And the whole basis of science has shown that when you die, there’s those soul who exists of another round. There’s no evidence for that at all. And all the efforts to do that. And we’ve attempted that at the committee for the Scientific Investigation of claims of the paranormal. And people have always sought, in my view, in vain for a life beyond this life. Therefore, what has to face this life here and now? And that is known, D.J., as the existential dilemma that we face. And for many people, you build up angst, anxiety, dread about the end of life. And I’ve had thousands of students, even young students, who say, well, life has no meaning because you die. What then? And it seems to me that’s that doesn’t follow. 

A lot of people conclude that if you don’t live forever, the amount of time that you do live is meaningless. 

Well, it’s meaningless only if you make it meaningless if you don’t discover. If you don’t put into life. If you don’t invest life. If you’re not charged by life. If you don’t respond to the challenges, it’s what you make of your life. So the meaning of life. Yes, life can be very meaningful. And as has always been in the history of the human species on the planet. Though they faced great tragedies, it’s meaningful because we enter into the world to change it. We enter in to the world to live a full life. So it’s the fullness of life that we want. And that’s our answer to the existential question of death and of tragedy. 

You’ve talked about the theologies of salvation, which you’ve argued are actually theologies of despair. The theologies that say you’ll live forever. Well, they’re kind of otherworldly and they don’t concentrate on the here and now. 

They are an escape from life in to a kind of fantasy. And these fantasies are so powerful that human institutions have been built around them. And Eric Frome at one time said it’s the escape from freedom and reason. You have autonomy. You have one life to live here now. And so the great challenge of for let us save a scientific skeptic who can find no basis for an afterlife. The great challenge is to find this life pregnant and bring it to fruition to you. Who’s that metaphore? And then life can be exciting and thrilling and and full of meaning. It’s what you make of it that counts. 

So if there’s no ultimate purpose in the universe, humankind is alone. What’s the point? Let’s get into that little more detail. 

Yeah. Well, then life is more exciting. Someone does not give you a purpose from without and you have to obey and submit and and resign yourself to that and advocate yourself from your own freedom. It’s the courage to become who and what you want. And you have some power over that. 

So in other words, it’s the recognition of the things within your power and that things not within your power. And dying apparently befalls everyone. Harris said that pale death with impartial step knocks at the poor man’s cottage and the palaces of kings, this great ancient poet reflected upon the condition of death. No one is too young to die. Did anyone. But should the fact of death overwhelm us? Or should it inspire us than life? Life itself is beautiful. Life is what you make of it. Life is intrinsically good in its own terms. 

As my response, as the apostle Paul says, it’s appointed for all men to die at least once. You’re saying life is actually more meaningful because it’s limited? 

Yes. And Shakespeare said cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death. But once this place truly has safe sex. But. But I. So I think that’s true. So that I think courage is a great virtue. I mean, we emphasize as scientific skeptics and secular humanist, we emphasize intelligence, reason, knowledge, cognition. But maybe the price of virtue is for courage to persist and to take the tragedies of life. And don’t let them destroy you. Don’t be pushed down by negativity. Whether that term that the Spiro Agnew used, nattering nabobs of negativism, nattering nabobs of negativity, the nay sayers in our armpits, and I say we need to affirm life. That’s the first option to firm up. 

And most people have. Well, you’re one of the happiest people that I’ve ever known. And maybe it’s glandular, neurochemical, whatever it is, you’re happy. Despite all the obstacles, you’re in the office before everyone. You stay later than everyone and you’re 80. Maybe I should. I not mentioned your age. 

Well, 80 years old. Yeah. That’s quite an achievement, I suppose. But, you know, I was out from my hour walk every day and I do aerobics, walking in, aerobics, trotting, and I felt exultant panic, soup for it. And this walk. That’s a high point of the day. In one sense. But every moment of life is precious. So it seems to me we need to attitudes. What attitude does the person who has no illusions about death develop? Two attitudes. First, the courage to become and to overcome problems. And there are tragedies and people die. Your loved one. Your pets. You yourself. What then? Well, life has to go on for as you see that other people die. But the second attitude is some stoicism. And that’s a noble attitude as well. So what is stoicism? 

Well, the great poet Epictetus said, no, the things that are within your power at many things you can control in your daily life or as you make plans for the future and know the things not in within your power. And if you can’t control them, then do not develop despair, depression. So it’s a stoicism is a noble attitude. And the great emperor, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, author of End Ceridian, was a Roman slave. And Marcus Aurelius was a great emperor. And yet he said, look at all these panels. I have to face all these political disputes. I have to persevere. So you need some attitude of equanimity. 

So two great Stoics. One was a slave. One was emperor. But they were both steeped in this world view that you were advancing right now. This kind of acceptance of our ultimate faith and cherishing the responsibility to change the things we can change. 

And of course, I emphasize the courage to become because we can change things, but when we encounter difficulties, then develop historical attitude. I had a dear colleague and friend who died only recently. Vern Bullough. He was a great historian, sexologist, secular humanists. And he was dying in Newitt. And we were taking a cruise to Alaska, an educational cruise to look at the melting glaciers, global warming. 

And he knew he didn’t have much time to live. And he said, I will live every moment I can as best I can. It was difficult for him. He died two weeks later. All right. So that he had the stoeckle attitude and the sense that life is precious. And while it’s while you still have it, live it, drink deeply at the well of life and live it. Yes, indeed. 

He was stoical. He didn’t have any illusions about the afterlife yet. He still kept going. Yes. Right. Until he will do it. 

Yes. Right into the. And actually gave a talk. Very painful for him to do it, he gave talk to this educational group that we have aboard the cruise and wrote an article, one of his last statements. And in that time, Dylan Thomas is a great poet. And he said, do not go gentle into that good night rage, rage against the dying of the light. And surely one doesn’t accept death in that sense of as a way of being cured, of becoming healthy. One should do everything possible. But when finally the end is near and you can say it, then some kind of stoicism is the mark of an educated and reflective person. 

So a skeptic about salvation or immortality accepts death ultimately. But many people seem to believe their religion out of a fear of death. They are religious precisely because they don’t want to die. What do you have to say about that? 

I think that’s true. And you see that with Kirkegaard fear and trembling. He believes because his up it is absurd. So this is the existential dilemma where people are confronted with none being or nothingness than death. And so it’s a leap of faith and a scientific skeptic cannot take a leap of faith. You you live in this world here and now. You try to understand it by using the methods of science and you develop your ethic based upon what is realistic and what is possible. 

And so you’ve developed an ethic kind of in the scientific spirit. You look at the consequences of behavior. You’re not behaving good or the way that you’re not advancing a certain ethic in order to get immortality in order to go to heaven. 

Well, that seems to be the behere model and have God exists. He will find out that that is the case. You said in more immoral, as you say, I believe that human beings are altruistic and they’re capable of caring for others, loving others, being kind and generous. And these impulses are deep within us as human animals, and they need to be developed and cultivated. But some people say unless you believe in salvation and their mortality and a divine lawgiver, an ultimate justice, you cannot be good or virtuous. I think that’s I think that’s wrong and that’s immoral. It’s a mark that. Yeah. Yeah. To do it because of reward. I do it because I realized the consequences of not behaving morally on our fellow human beings. But also there is a kind of internalized sense of empathy that develops. And most people find this to be true in life. I mean, parents love their children. You kind and friendly to your friend. You love your mates. And you have affection for others in the world. And that’s moral impulses. 

So you’re not motivated at all by an expectation of the afterlife. And at the same time, you’re not discouraged at all by the lack of an afterlife. 

You know, an afterlife makes no sense. You have a disembodied soul. Doing what? Singing hymns throughout. He turned today on clouds and cloud. Well, wherever. But I mean, the notion of a soul makes no sense because it’s the mind. Consciousness is related to the body and the nervous system. The mind is what the brain does. It’s a function of the the brain and the physiological system. And once that is dead, then you’re dead. There’s no soul that haunts and lurks. So we’re taking a realistic view of the universe. And there are tens and millions of people who hold that view. 

They most of you modern scientists hold it. So it’s a scientific view and there’s an ethical implication that follows from that. Well, that’s the fact of life and death. And you accept death. You rage against it and try to be healthy. You exercise every day and hour, every morning. Good nutrition. And you take care of your health and extend life. But on the other hand, at some point, death awaits everybody. And you accept it as a fact of the universe. 

Would you say that this acceptance of this fact of the universe actually makes life more precious to you? 

Indeed, there is. Every moment counts. And there’s so many things that are insignificant and you pale in indifference. My daughter happens to be a clinical psychologist and she has one patient. They won’t mention his name, who came to her in tears because his goldfish had died. And she said to him, What? Well, he says, I’m very, very fond of that goldfish. Well, I realize if you are a fish fancier, that is a great tragedy. But I don’t mean to minimize that. I mean, the loss of pets or anything that you cherish in life. But you put things in perspective. And I have another clinical psychologist who has a picture of a galaxy behind him, I think is Magellan. And when a patient comes and tells how they worry about trivial things, he says, look at the universe. That’s very large. It sounds a little like. 

Rational, emotive therapy. That kind of stoicism for the masses, Albert Ellis. 

Well, stoicism. Everybody, not only the best. All right. Everybody touches stoicism is essential to live life with equanimity and dignity and a sense of peace and harmony with nature. 

So this scientific view of the universe makes life more precious. It makes those who adopt that view of the universe more pro-life. Are you implying, then, that those who are living for an afterlife are life denying there? 

I think not as a pro-life. Well, I think that’s true and that maybe this illusion gives them consolation and a sense of comfort. But there’s a superstition that there are hidden causes out there and there is an ultimate purpose. I mean, that’s wishful thinking is the will to believe. And can you take a realistic view of nature? This is an expanding universe. Evolution is a fact. There’s the birth and death of species in the galaxies of various parts of the universe. Change is ongoing and the human species is part of nature. And like all other things, we operate in terms of causes. 

But on the other hand, we are capable of action, creative action, in spite of the fact that were caused. I think we have an element to freedom and autonomy, and our greatest and most precious gift is the capacity for knowledge, to know nature and understand it, and then have the courage to live in spite of this and then to change nature. 

I want to talk then about heaven and replacing heaven. You know, some people live for heaven. They deny the world right now. For that there. 

And then what an illusion. How sad. Heaven is here and now. Wherever you are, it’s what you make of it. 

That makes me think of the Enlightenment philosophy. Detro who said posterity is heaven for the man of science, for the man of the Enlightenment. We live for the future. We live to make the world better as opposed to denying this life for heaven. The supernatural round for all Tafawa. 

More religious people can’t deny this life. They have to live in within it and they have to cope. Well, there is a scientist lands their plans and project. But if the ultimate goal is an illusionary afterlife, then that is a sad tale told by someone signifying nothing. 

Well, you hear of some arguments that, you know, why should we be concerned about the environment or other world problems? Because Jesus will come back and sort it all out. 

Yes. I mean, and then there is no concern. Multiply and use the universe for your own purposes. That’s an ancient view based on an alien mind. All I have the ancient doctrine, pretty scientific. But we know that the universe exists and we know that we have power to change things. We can enter the world and change it. And by using science that we can understand the causes and act accordingly. So I’m talking about the free person, the autonomous person who’s capable of understanding how the universe operates and live a full life in the light of that. 

So skeptical pro science people, people who are secular, have this kind of world view that you’re expounding. 

What can they do to get involved, advancing it? Say someone listens to you and finds it is as inspiring as I’ve seen many audiences around the country find it. Is it enough to just say, well, yes, we’re in the universe, we live, we die, we’re gone? Ultimately, there’s no purpose. 

What more can you purpose are what we read into it? And that’s the human prospect that concerns us. So we do have beloved causes and that is to improve life for ourselves and for others. And people have a deep moral obligation about that. So the fact that we are free of illusion and superstition, the fact that we’re on our own, then the challenges is to make life as good as it become, make life better until that’s a great human project. They’ve been proving humiliating human conditions and achieving some kind of progressive society. No deity will save us. We must save ourselves. Save ourselves from what, Paul? Save ourselves from anything that happens from disease or accident or. Or failure and improve ourselves. It’s not to save ourselves, but improve ourselves. So we’re not the conditions of life. 

We’re not saving our souls were saving ourselves from all the problems that plague humankind. 

There are problems that plague human kind. But there are also opportunities and and for the good life and the opportunities that intrigue humans and not the. Negative failures. Where do those solutions come from, religion or science? I think the solutions come from human beings. I think religion has spun out of human imagination. Both religion and science are human. And I think religion provides consolation. But science provides an understanding of the causes and then rational ethics provide some solution to the problems of life. 

So it’s scientific reason that I would emphasize. Thanks for joining me again, Paul. Thank you for your challenging questions. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join me next week for my discussion with Thomas Kida about his incredible new book on the six mistakes we all make in thinking. This is a book everybody needs to read and all college and high school students should get in their hands to get involved as an online discussion about today’s episode. Go to w w w dot CFI dash forums dawg. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of is produced by the always energetic Thomas Donnelly in recorded here at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is written and composed worse by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalan. Contributors to today’s show. Thomas Donelli. Lauren Becker, Sarah Jordan and Amanda Chesworth. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.