Paul Kurtz – World War and World Religions

September 08, 2006

Paul Kurtz is founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry and a number of other organizations. A Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the Council for Secular Humanism, and Prometheus Books. He is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry. He is the author or editor of over forty five books, including the recent Science and Religion: Are They Compatible. Throughout the last almost 40 years, Paul has been a leading defender of science and reason against the prevailing cults of irrationality in our society. He has been interviewed widely in the media on subjects ranging from alternative medicine and communication with the dead, to the historicity of Jesus.

In this discussion with D. J. Grothe, Kurtz talks about the what he calls “creedal fascism,” the connection between religion and violence, why it is so vital for humanity’s future to critically examine religion, and also recounts his first published fears about Islamic extremism leading to world-wide violence over ten years ago in Free Inquiry.

Also in this episode, David Koepsell, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, shares “An Open Letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.”

This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 8th, 2006. Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think 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, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., in addition to 11 cities around the world. Every week on this show, we look at some of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture, focusing mostly on three research areas. First, Pseudo-Science on the paranormal. Second, we look at alternative medicine. Third, we examined the intersection of secularism and religion in our society, science and nonbelief. We look at these areas by drawing on SIFIs relationship with the leading minds of the day, including public intellectuals, Nobel Prize winning scientists, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s point of inquiry. I will be joined again by Paul Kurtz, founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry. We’ll be talking about World War and World Religions. But first, an opinion editorial from David Capsule, executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism. He recorded it on his I-Max from Yale University, where he is serving this next year as Donahue visiting scholar and research ethics. This is an open letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. 

Dear Secretary Rumsfeld, the other day, you accused a majority of us of, quote, moral and intellectual confusion regarding the war in Iraq, the war on terror and who our enemies are. I admit I am now confused, but not morally. I think it is you who are confused about morality. I’m confused about your comparisons between the current threats of terrorism and it’s opposed linked to the war you and your administration started in Iraq and the threats posed by fascism in the late 1930s that led us into World War Two. Terrorism is a tactic and I don’t see how we are fighting it in Iraq. Increasingly, Iraq’s violence is sectarian. Up now to about 90 percent of the violence there, fueled by religious hatred among different sects of Islam. It is a civil war, as some of your former generals now disheartened by your leadership, have warned. What is our moral justification for involving ourselves with an internal sectarian civil war? The only moral justification I can see for it is the one you won’t admit. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn doctrine. Since we broken, we own it. 

Sectarian strife was not a problem under the fascist regime of Saddam Hussein. It is a problem, however, in modern democratic Iraq, where the lack of security we created by disbanding the secular Baathist army and regime left a vacuum for age old religious hatred to fill. Are we morally obliged now to see that a secure state emerges? If you said, then I might agree. 

Instead, you claim that Islamofascism is the new world threat that we must fight just as we fought actual fascism in World War Two. Firstly, there is no analogy between the tactic of terrorism employed admittedly mostly by Islamic extremists and the corporatist nationalist, authoritarian, fascist states we fought in the 1940s. In fact, the democracies of Lebanon and Iran are breeding fundamentalist extremism. They fed no definition of fascism. I’m also unclear as to what moral high ground you can now claim from which you can accuse the majority of Americans of being morally confused. Given that we entered the current war under a facade built on lies, fear and deceit, even our commander in chief now admits there was no link between the 9/11 terrorists and Iraq. So if our reasons for entering Iraq were never honestly explained to us and shifted with the wind as old justifications proved baseless or false. What entitles you to judge us as morally confused when you lied and continue to do so? Is an honesty as clear a moral concept as any? As I admit, I’m confused, but not morally. It is you and your administration that lied us into a war, have increased our insecurity, debased our image and stature in the world, send our troops into harm’s way without adequate forethought or protection, and now use fear in name calling. An instant critics. The terrorists have won. Secretary Rumsfeld, if we set aside our moral duty to call you a liar because we fear Hurm more than we do losing our ideals, democracy truly loses if we cower from our own sense of injustice in the name of immediate security. You are in no position to call us morally confused, and you should be ashamed. Better yet, Mr. Rumsfeld, resign. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

I am joined in the studio again by Paul Kurtz, founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry and a number of other organizations, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Also Chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal that psyched up the Council for Secular Humanism and Prometheus Books. He’s editor in chief of Free Inquiry magazine, which I’d like to let our listeners know that you can request a sample copy through our Web site Point of inquiry dork. Paul Kurtz is the author or editor of over 45 books, including the recent title Science and Religion. Are they compatible? Throughout almost the last 40 years, Paul has been a leading defender of science and reason in our society against the prevailing cults of irrationality that are everywhere. He’s been interviewed 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 the possible relationship between religion and violence, about world war and world religions. Paul, welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

D.J., I’m delighted to be here. I’m particularly thrilled at the enormous number of mail that we received from all over the world of people who are reacting to point of inquiry generally favorably, generally favorably, except the odd email we get from someone who believes in the NASCAR lines, let’s say. 

But yes, very positive response. We love it. Thanks again for being on the show, Paul. By all accounts, you’ve made amazing contributions to the examination of the biggest problems facing us in our society, not just belief in untested claims about ghosts and faith, healing things that go bump in the night, but also about many religious claims having to do with Jesus Muhammad, even belief in God. You’ve spearheaded what’s called chronic criticism by publishing books such as Ebon Works Why I’m Not a Muslim. Let me ask you, why have you set yourself up against all of these central beliefs of our society, beliefs that are so important to so many people? Why not just live and let live? If someone wants to believe in something that you think is nonsense, why not just let them believe it? 

Well, I do believe in the right of belief. And there are many, many different kinds of belief systems in the world. 

But beliefs have consequences and they impinge upon us. And in the present context, one of the great failures is the failure to examine religious claims critically. I think we need an open market of ideas and we need a free inquiry. And particularly sense of religious claims often lead to violence. And many of the tremendous conflicts in the world today are religiously inspired. 

So you’re saying the reason that you’ve spent decades examining these sacred cows is because of the consequences of those beliefs? 

Yes, indeed. And internally, I have no objection to religion, per say. And people have a right to to believe what they want. On the other hand, not in so far as it impinges on others. What I’m particularly concerned with is absolute to stick systems of belief where people are confident that they are certain and have no doubt about that. And when you have an absolute commitment to a set of basic values and when these say kill these other people or impose my views upon everyone else, then we have a right to criticize and we have an obligation to do so. 

For millions of people, billions of people around the world, religion is the single most important thing in their lives. It’s central to the way they raise their children at central to their marriage, even to the sense of purpose that they have and the way they look at themselves in the universe. But what you’ve been saying cuts at the role of religion. You’re even saying that religion is responsible for many the ills in the world, maybe even war itself. 

Oh, surely today I think the war that’s occurring in the flashpoint throughout the world are inspired by religious convictions that they are they are absolutely true and that other people ought to be exterminated because of it. But I think what I’m saying is that a commitment to freedom of inquiry, critical thinking, the examination of claims is vital, particularly since these absolute systems of religion, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism often are based upon unexamined assumptions that go back centuries, tens of centuries. For example, the conflict between Islam and Christianity is a conflict of revelations, and these revelations are questionable. We don’t know that Muhammad received a direct pipeline from God in the caves north of Mecca, nor that the followers of Jesus did, or even the followers of Moses did, so that the grounds of these religious claims held with such intensity are shaky grounds and can lead to war. Well, they do lead to war. Indeed they do. I mean, you take jihad or as suicide bombers, killing innocent people, Sunnis and Shiites, slaughtering each other in the name of God or Jews and Christians or Hindus or Muslims engage in war constantly. And that’s why I think that this conviction that I am certain and that I have this road to Allah or God or Jehovah, that is very dangerous. 

I think a kind of humility and the recognition that you may be mistaken and some sense of fallible ism. These are all important virtues that we need to annunciate. 

Paul, isn’t that kind of cherry picking? Aren’t most religious people peace loving, motivated by their religion to be anti-war? Isn’t war? Isn’t violence just something that our species does, whether or not we’re religious? 

Well, that’s true. And I remember in the Second World War of the song Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. And in the First World War, the German troops went off singing, got Middletown’s got Mitt wounds and the French moaned pneumonia. And the English doughboys and the American soldiers also fought this war and millions of people were lost. I remember the wars between Protestants and Catholics, but they’re not all just religious war. 

Secular, non-religious people are just as violent. 

Well, true human beings tend towards violence under certain conditions. And their second religious. But what many people don’t realize is many of the wars are religiously inspired. Well, Stalin ism Naziism. Well, Naziism was a Sechler areas where ideology solin is the most secular. But Naziism was impregnated with religious ideas at the same time. Yeah. So there’ve been secular, violent confrontations. But what is a surprise, and particularly now in the 21st century, as we begin this century, the violent conflicts religiously inspired as Sunnis kill Shiites, kill Christians, kill Jews. And so why does that happened? No, I said I think it happens when you’re convinced that you have the absolute truth, that you have the absolute revelation passed on high from God and that anyone who disagrees with you can be destroyed. So it’s that absolute certainty that’s dangerous and needs to be questioned. 

Would you say it’s only the Western monotheisms, Christianity, Islam, Judaism or even in India when when there are Jains and Buddhists? Is the violence there, too? 

Well, the three great monotheistic religions from the Book of Abraham. Yes. As you alluded to, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But no, there been other religious inspirations for war. The top meal battle in Sri Lanka, for example. Tamil Tiger. Yes. And the and the Buddhists as well. So that this is ongoing factor. And the question is, what is the antidote to this? 

Paul, about 15, what, 16 years ago in spring 1993, 13 years ago, 13 years ago in Free Inquiry magazine, you wrote that Islam may start the Third World War. 

And now everybody’s talking about just that. What about Islam in particular? Seems to make it such a violent religion? Let me say it another way. Seems to give it such a propensity toward war. 

Well, the name of that Torah was has a third world war with Islam begun. And I said between Islam and other countries of the world, the democratic world. And I pointed to what was happening between the Hindus and Muslims in the communal riots, the outbreaks in Somalia and Sudan, the battles in Algeria, Palestine, Egypt, the conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo and Yugoslavia. So these flashpoints have been continuing now for a considerable period of time. And today, when Newt Gingrich and others say a third world war has begun. 

I asked. Has it begun? And looking back 13, 14, 15 years ago when you had these flashpoints. So it’s very dangerous and it’s dangerous when you allow it to intensify. It’s dangerous where you say, well, we ought to be tolerant of all religions. Everyone has a right to believe. Yes, but absolutists, ideologies need to be criticized. And today we heard very little critical examination of the foundations of these claims. These religions are based on revelation, but they’re unexamined claims. Should we believe Moses? Should we believe Abraham? Should we believe Jesus? Should we believe Paul and Mohammed? Or should we have some kind of critical, thoughtful examination of these claims at the Center for Inquiry, one of the organizations you helped found many years ago. 

It’s the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. One of the most important things that we do here at CFI last year, they had a conference at Cornell, Just War and Jihad. A book came out of that. I’d like to let our listeners know that you can receive a copy of that book through our website point of inquiry dot org. Just war and jihad. Paul, what was that conference about? 

It was about the fact that so many wars had been inspired by alternative absolutist, intransigent religious convictions. Historically, when you go back through the whole history and we need to recognize that fact now is true. Many people are peaceful and many religions are peaceful. On the other hand, you have that violent incendiary aspect and that has flashed up today in the conflict in the Middle East. And the peaceful religions that say not only give peace a chance, but don’t criticize because that doesn’t seem peaceful. That actually lends to war and violence because it stamps out criticism of the violent strains. DJ Grothe are correct. We need the willingness to tolerate a critical examinations of the foundations of belief so that one doesn’t become fanatic and say, these are my beliefs. And then the only true beliefs and the derived directly from God by revelation. I think that is unsupportable. So we need dialog and we need critical examination. And that’s what we lack today. 

You’ve argued that religion is immune to free inquiry, but it shouldn’t be. Let me ask you. Don’t you think that free inquiry into religion, critical examination of religion. Won’t that just inflame things? Why not just make it worse? 

No, I don’t think it’ll make it worse. You know, I think in an open, free, democratic society and a world in which knowledge and science are prized and appreciated, we ought to be willing to apply critical intelligence to any claims. 

And what bothers us especially is the fact that people say, well, this is immune to criticism. Look, there are 3000 sex in the United States, 3000 denominations. Every point of view is represented. And it seems to me in a peaceful way, we ought to discuss them and question them. Very important. 

For many years, you were known as a Ghostbuster. You would cast a critical eye on the Bermuda Triangle or the healing power of crystals or pyramids, allergy or if Bigfoot existed and all of those kinds of paranormal claims. You don’t do that as much anymore. Now you’re concentrating on religion. Is that because. Well, why? 

Well, we do have colleagues who still examine the claims of the paranormal. But I think religion is far more potent today. And many of the basic beliefs of religion are paranormal and are cold. And they ought to be examined. Yes, they ought to be examined because they clash. You say I mean, take Sharia, which Islamic law, which says that a man can have four wives. That this is the place of a woman in society. That they’re limited to, that they must wear a scarf for a veil. And that is supposed to be supported by revelation in the Koran that I don’t have to examine. The question of woman’s rights is at issue. Similarly, in Christianity, the prohibitions on birth control and extreme orthodox or conservative views that ought to be examined or the fear of gays, for example, vividly inspired. So there are many claims in these religious texts that have powerful consequences in society and that we need to critically examine. 

You’re saying the consequences of belief in Bigfoot are less important for society than the consequences of belief in Sharia? 

Oh, of course. Yes. By all means. I mean, in one sense, the paranormal Lowitt can have an important role in some people’s lives is the sideshow. The main act now is religion. And this is a worrying some because of this great fear that we are entering into a war phase, the clash of civilizations. 

And I’m horrified by that. I hope that it’s possible to calm these waters, not intensify this march towards war and try to work out a co-operative and negotiated way, some kinds of compromises. 

We’ve talked a lot about Islam today. And your article in 1983 is about Islam possibly beginning the Third World War. Do you think it’s just about Islam? If you look across the American religious political landscape, you see those whose eschatology, those whose theory of time events say that Jesus is coming back very soon. And for that to happen, a world war needs to occur. 

Well, I think in the United States, we’ve worked out a kind of modus vivendi. We have a kind of live and let live. And that’s very, very important because we have a settler’s state that the First Amendment, on the other hand, there are powerful voices in our country who take extremists points of view, the fact that 40 percent of Americans believe in the rapture. His really stunning. This is similar to the Muslims who believe in the in the jihad and the fact that all who are not a Muslim will go to hell. The Rapture says that the Jesus will appear and that those who truly believe him will be saved and everyone else condemned to death. 

Those who truly believe him will vanish in the clouds. I think I read somewhere maybe it was in Rolling Stone a few years ago somewhere else that Tim LaHaye, the author of that bestselling series, Left Behind Apocalyptic Fiction, I’d call it that he got the idea when he was traveling coast to coast in the plane and he imagined what would happen if the pilot went up in the clouds and the rapture while the plane would plummet to the demise of everybody on it. Yes. 

Well, that’s a supernatural Clinton’s a supernatural claim. It’s mythological. I don’t know that it’s properly biblically based, although they say it is. And so I think it’s open to the criticism. That’s what I call a form of credal fascism. Now, fascism has been bandied around. People talk about Islamic fascism. And I can appreciate that point of view. Fascism, as we knew it in the West. Fascist inspired by the Germans, let us say, or the Nazis was racial. But creedal fascism is this. We are the chosen people. We have these beliefs. We’ll be saved by God. Everyone else will be destroyed. And what bothers me, I’m among many friends who believe the rapture. You mean everyone who’s not an evangelical Protestant? All Jews and Muslims and the Roman Catholics and atheists and agnostics will be killed? Yes, apparently. So that is puzzling, you say. And that’s why it’s important that we examine those claims critically with an open mind. And if we cannot find a basis for it, criticize it. If he can’t find a basis for it, dismiss it. Don’t hold it as a belief. Don’t hold that as a belief and question those who do hold it. Yes. So either this commitment to freedom of inquiry, open minded, critical intelligence, willing to question these claims and above all, an effort to develop a sense of humility and fallible ism, namely, look, we’re only fallible human beings. Why should we say that we alone have God’s truth and that no one else does? And anyone who does not will be condemned to hell. 

And Druyun, Carl Sagan’s widow. She’ll be as a guest on Pointier inquiry in the weeks ahead. Incidentally, Andrew Yian says to humanity in a soft spoken voice, she says, hey, guess what, everyone? We’re new to this. We’ve only been around a little while. We could be wrong. And that’s the humility that appears to me you’re talking about. 

Yes. The ability to doubt and to question and not be so puffed up with pride that one thinks that one has a monopoly on truth and virtue. And then everyone else is condemned to death and therefore everyone else can be killed. Every sacrifice in a jihad or holy war. That’s that is a great problem that we face today, even with all the things you’ve said today. 

And they’re kind of a downer if if I’ve ever heard any. You’re still incessantly upbeat and optimistic. 

Well, I. We have to be. I mean, what’s the alternative? I’m not a naysayer. I’m a. Yes, Seher. Yay! In other words, we have to solve our problems. The remedy would be first, develop the capacity to question even your own thoughts. 

You have convictions, but do not impose of upon others. Second, we need a democratic society in which we can tolerate other points of view. The ability to tolerate is very, very important. Criticize but tolerate in a civilized way. 

UNESCO’s charter. We were talking about this before, I love it. Beautiful charter. United Nations UNESCO charter says one line. We believe that problems created by people can best be solved by people. You said in the Humanist Manifesto, too. There is no deity. We must save ourselves. 

Yes, indeed. If we don’t lend our best intelligence, goodwill and courage to solve our problems, who will? So I remain an optimist because I think the long term progress of of humankind is continuing and can continue. Barring some apocalyptic calamity or some terrible war that may happen. And therefore, we have to work against it. 

Look, what’s essential is for us to say to fellow Islamic believers, Christians, Jews, nonbelievers, atheists, everyone on the planet. This is our planet. And we share it in common. Let’s not destroy our planet with pollution and less not destroy it with war. And the great danger today, as I predicted. Nineteen ninety three. That the dangers of a Third World War. They come back again today. We have to comment and try to reason together, break bread together and reason together. That becomes very, very important. 

As the prophet in the Old Testament says, come, let us reason together. One last question, Paul. You’ve talked today about the possible relationship between war and religion. What’s the best antidote to this world warring among the religions? 

I think a sense of your own fallible ism that you may be mistaken and that only though you may believe something, you ought to listen to others and listen to criticisms. Yes. That that that is the point. And I think that’s a religious virtue as well as a secular virtue. And then the other thing, if I can add to this, T.J., the need for a secular state. The great problem is when religion is tied up with government and can use the power of government to wage war. This is true of the United States, which is a secular society, but in which many religious folk want to turn it to more of a theocratic society. But it’s particularly true in the Islamic world. And that’s why we have to say democracy, human rights, critical inquiry. Yes, but also secularism, that they want to be a secular state in which all points of view are open to criticism. 

Thanks again for joining me on point of inquiry, Paul. Thank you very much, D.J.. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for another discussion with a leading mind on an important question facing us today. To get involved with an online conversation about the topic of today’s episode, World War and World Religions go to w w w dot CFI dash forums dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of CFI, 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 inquiry is produced by Thomas Dunn and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry. His music is written and composed for us by Michael. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan, David Capsule Debbie Goddard and Thomas Donnel. 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.