Paul Kurtz – The New Atheism and Secular Humanism

September 14, 2007

Paul Kurtz, considered by many the father of the secular humanist 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, humanistic 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 discussion with D.J. Grothe, Paul Kurtz draws distinctions between the New Atheism and secular humanism, and explores commonalities that the nonreligious have with liberal religionists when it comes to environmentalism, gay rights, and other issues of concern. He also defines and defends certain conceptions of the good life without God.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 14th, 2007. 

Welcome again to a point of inquiry I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science and reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Professor Paul Kurts, the founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry and its other organizations. Here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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 pair 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. Four 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six. Or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

I’m delighted to have back on point of inquiry Professor Paul Kurtz. He’s considered the father of the secular humanist movement and also very influential in the worldwide skeptic’s movement. He’s Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo and as chair of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Well, now it’s called CSI. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and also of the Council for Secular Humanism and also of Prometheus Books has advanced a critical, humanistic inquiry into the biggest questions facing society for over the last 40 years. He’s 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 and ethics. UFO abduction. Communication with the dead. Questions as to whether or not Jesus Christ actually existed. He’s the author of over 45 books, and his most recent is Affirmations. Joyful and Creative Exuberance. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. Paul Kurtz. 

Delighted to be here. Deejay Paul, it’s funny, you recently had heart surgery. I know a lot of people all over the world were really concerned, but you’re through the thick of it right now. 

Yes, I had that about six months ago. I had a valve replace an aneurysm and very serious. And I was operated on at the Cleveland Clinic. And things have turned out fine. I feel better than ever. And you’re back in the saddle. You’re at work before everybody. You stay later than everybody. You have stamina. You’re going at it. Yeah, I have a lot of energy. I don’t know that. Maybe glandular or genetic, but whatever it is, I have a lot of energy today. 

Paul, I want to talk about the new atheists and the new humanists and all that. A lot of news stories out over the past year or so on these topics. There are a lot of kinds of unbelievers in America today. Every few months, it seems like there’s new research showing that the number of nonbelievers, people who don’t believe in the supernatural or God or something, it’s growing. So the question to start off our discussion, I take it that you wonder about how effective evangelical atheists are if all they’re talking about is atheists? 

Well, I look, I think they’ve had a positive impact. And I know most of the leaders and they’ve published in free inquiry. And so they’ve had positive impact, Chris, that criticizing religion. However, that is not enough. One has to go beyond that. You can’t talk about abstract atheists more. Merely a negative attitude is what are you for that count? Now, what are you against? And so I think on that point, one has to affirm a positive humanist morality. But Dawkins book, it sold more than a million copies, they say. 

Isn’t it a dream come true that so many people are finally talking about atheists when they haven’t been for the last 30 years? Yes. And they’re wrestling with these questions. Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens. Others have brought these questions into the spotlight. 

Yes, that’s very important. We’ve been trying to do that for years and now some of the major publishers of published books on that. And that contributes to the dialog. And why is that happen now? Well, one, I think the war in Iraq. And I think there’s great battle with the Muslims on both sides. And is it a Christian crusade vs. Islam? And people are worried and then begin to think, well, what about religion? You say where fundamentalism grows, as it did in the U.S. at one time. People become concerned. And I think that’s why you have the new atheists today. 

You’re saying that we need to go farther than just a crying belief in the supernatural. New atheists, though, they haven’t written books about ethics. They’re writing books against God. So you don’t fault them for not talking about morality? 

Well, but I think that one has to make it. Clear that all, though one is critical of religion. There is a positive agenda. I call it the new secularism or neo humanism or if you will. Secular humanism. So there’s a positive morality. And if if God is dead for the new atheists, humans are alive. And that’s a point that has been made today. 

Paul, before we start talking about some of these distinctions, let me ask you point blank. Do you think these new atheists, Hitchens, Dawkins, others? Have they gotten kind of a bad rap by commentators in the press? I mean, it’s a media frenzy when people are speaking out against God and they’re doing it in bestselling books. 

Yes. Well, they’ve had adverse criticism in certain areas, but also an important impact on others. And the adverse criticism is an distinction for what we do at the Center for Inquiry. We are not antireligious. We’re non-religious. We criticize religion, but we don’t simply blame everything on religions of the world. 

I’ll be that will get us nowhere. So we live in a secular, modern society with great opportunities and we want to talk about that. Not any kind of poisonous attitude about religion. 

So humanism, the secularism that the Center for Inquiry advances, especially through the Council for Secular Humanism, it’s not just the rejection of religion, but it’s advancing a set of humane values based on reason. In this way, there’s not a whole lot of difference between you. Paul Kurtz and some liberal religionists, at least when it comes to ethics. 

Well, I think we have much in common with the liberal denominations. As a matter of fact, a D.J., if you look at contemporary American society, a large sector of people agree fully with our agenda. I mean, we believe first and the civic virtues of democracy. I mean, that’s a humanistic. But how uncontroversial is that? I don’t hear anybody saying down with civic virtues. Well, but what are the civic virtue of democracy? Believes in individual freedom, the right of individuals to have self-determination. 

And you have these negative religionists, some maybe even secular humanist in the past, who attacked, for example, homosexuality of the gay life, not recognizing the fact that a large sector of people are bisexual, maybe even a majority, and male bonding and sisterly love is very important. So this narrow, destructive criticism of freedom of choice, collaring different lifestyles, that has gone overboard. So we need to affirm that every human person has equal dignity and value. You know, many political leaders and many theologians rail against same sex marriage. But, you know, Abraham Lincoln was probably bisexual. He had affairs in the White House. This has been well-documented. And some of the leading people in the world, Socrates, Plato, Alexander the Great Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, all the way down through history. So humanism is tolerance for alternative lifestyles. That’s and that’s. But a lot of conservatives have not drawn that. 

And you’re saying that the secular humanist values that we adopt, that we advance should engage our liberal religious colleagues in in pushing for this kind of tolerance? 

Of course, you know, America’s a great pluralistic democracy. And we have common ground not only with liberal religions, but even conservative people who believe in human freedom. So we need to make, if you will, coalitions. We need to work together with others to make this a greater democracy. We need a kind of unity, if possible, about the basic framework of this country. 

And I take it that that some of these books decrying God belief as true as we think they are. You’re saying that they limit the ability to build coalition because they turn off people who might be able to work with us around certain issues of concern? 

I think that’s true. So we have to put another step forward. But I should point out that we’ve been attacked very, very much so. People have condemned us. Some blame us for all of the ills of America. I think we really go beyond that if we can. 

And I think we can, for example, on this point and E.O. Wilson has led the way and he’s a secular humanist in terms of environmental environment, reached out to people that secularists would normally not be in coalition. Yes, yes. Yes. He in his book Creation, he said, look, the planet Earth, that we love our abode. 

We all share that habitat and we have to work together. How can we not do so? So that is building, finding common values and one which we can stand and. Improving the environment. As part of that. 

All this talk about the positive affirmative message of our perspective, kind of drawing a distinction between that and people who you might describe as just atheists, people who are just decrying belief in God. Well, our upcoming major conference in Manhattan is the only one of any national conference coming up that’s framed, I think, in negative terms. It’s called the secular society and its enemies. It seems to kind of go against all the stuff you’re saying about having a positive and affirming message. 

Well, that conference, which will be held in New York in November at the New York Academy of Sciences overlooking 9/11 site, is the first new building that’s gone up that that has a positive agenda. There are the enemies of the secular society and we need to deal with that. I mean, the fundamentalists of the world are still dangerous and they still threaten. And we need to persuade people to move beyond that. 

So you’re saying even though the theme of the conference is the secular society and its enemies, it’s a positive, affirming message. 

It’s it’s a play on Karl Popper’s book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, which was very important because he criticized it as day, that classic work that totalitarians or against democracy. And so there are people are against cycler ism in Europe, in Asia and Africa, in our country as well. And so we have to affirm the secular outlook. And the secular outlook is that human values are a human, that they grow out of human experience and human need, and that we need to reaffirm them and build an open, pluralistic, democratic society in which we can flower creatively as persons that you don’t need God to be good. 

But, Paul, how many people really believe that you are rotten if you don’t believe in God? 

Well, you have a doctrine. However, the original sin and I hear everywhere I go and I’ve always heard that from my students in philosophy courses over the years. 

If you don’t believe in God, how can you be moral? And my answer is indeed you can. And there are millions of people who are skeptical about belief. God, you know, DJ Grothe not only the atheists, the agnostics, and there are more agnostics in this country than atheists or the backsliders. The people in the churches agree with us. 

People in the churches who who don’t really buy it, but they go to church. They’re part of that community. Well, isn’t that part of the audience that these atheist books are trying to reach people who are on the fence? 

Well, I think that we have every right to be critical of repressive, fundamentalist, authoritarian, theocratic religion. Yes, but there are nuances. There are religions and religions and some of them are open and we ought to recognize that and appeal to them. In fact, I think perhaps the non-religious sanctuaries, number one hundred million in this country, at least one third and maybe more. It’s a huge and they include the atheists and agnostics, but it include the nominal people, the bags, collectors. The people may be a member of a church, but don’t participate. And the people who don’t even belong to a church or a temple or a mosque. Yes. Said that very large number. 

And do you think these people, by and large, agree with the secular values, the humanist values that you’ve been promoting for 30 years? 

You know, America is a secular country. We have a secular, capitalist consumer culture. But you’ve actually called America’s values secular humanist felt. Yes. I think. Any further. Yeah. Because we cultivate the good life. I mean, I haven’t heard any of my conservative religious friends not to want to take vacations and enjoy literature and enjoy entertainment and go to Broadway shows or movies and cultivate all of fineries than luxuries, the good life. And that’s what we’re talking about. Is that the secular humanist agenda, the fineries of life, as you just. Yes, that’s part of it. Yes. Living the good life in terms of not the morally good life only, but living a good and abundant life. Well, I think, yes, affluent, abundant society leaving leaving the good and abundant life. I don’t know that our people are ascetic, that they want their salaries cut. 

They wanted to spend all that time and self mortification. They want to go out and enrich life. Yes. But also altruism. Let’s not we are altruists contrary to an rat. We are empathetic. 

That’s going to really get the e-mails flowing. OK. Those those objectivists like to rail against all the altruism we spout before we talk about altruism. And that’s something I do want to touch on. Get back to this notion of the good life being the abundant life. You know, I’m all for riches and material goods, but you’ve called for planetary humanism. And when you look at the incredible disparities between the West and Third World countries. Does that gel with, well, with living the good life? 

Very good question. Well, I think we have a moral obligation to be concerned with the good of others. When I talk about the good life. Every individual wants to lead a happy, exuberant, creative life. Yes. And enrich it. But that also involves esthetic and moral dimensions. I mean, the arts, poetry as well as science, but morally concerned about other human beings and try to lend a helping hand. 

By all means, let’s get back to the liberal religious. You’ve been more interested, I think, lately in reaching out to the liberal religionists, not just drawing a line in the sand and saying, if you believe in any of the supernatural, you know you are my enemy. You’re you’re not fighting that fight. You say that we should reach out to more religious allies around issues of concern. Yes. So, number one, how do we reach out to them? And tell me what some of these common causes, some of these issues of concern are? 

Well, on the global level, clearly the disparities in wealth are very serious poverty, disease, AIDS. We have a moral obligation. 

It seems to me as human persons to do what we can, where we can’t help other people flesh that out for me rather than just wringing our hands and saying, isn’t it horrible how poor people are in other parts of the world? What do we do? 

Well, in the U.S., I think we are aid was only about 14 billion a year. That’s minuscule. 

We really need aid aid, not military aid, aid to give people the tools so that they can improve their own lives. I think the leader of Britain has. The British have advocated that, but that has not come out of the United States. And at this, it can be charitable work, but also political social work on the behalf of government. 

What are some other issues that we could reach out to our liberal religious brethren to work toward? 

I think that we ought to take this basic principle of democracy, that every human person has equal dignity and value anywhere on the planet. We’re not only talking about Americans. The universal culture, but anywhere on the planet. We ought to be concerned about human rights, human needs, and do what we can to help these countries, to help themselves. And that’s happening. I mean, look what’s happening in India. And China marvels to behold. They’re not our enemies. I see that President Bush is in China. They’ve invited him to the Olympics, which is wonderful. So we ought to cooperate and work with them. And I applaud the growth of the Chinese economy, the growth of the Indian economy. And people say, aren’t the Chinese going to be our enemy? Well, let’s not look at the world in those terms. Let’s talk about a cooperative world civilization in which we all participate. 

Environmentalism is another topic that can unite both the religious and the non-religious. 

Environmentalism is crucial. The melting of the glaciers. We were in Alaska. We took a cruise last year that Alaska and we had to see firsthand how tragic that is. The depletion of the ice sheets. The ice sheets. 

Yes. And that what that will portend is very, very serious. For a long time, many people denied that there were skeptics about global warming. But it is happening and some of it a good deal of it may be due to human intervention. And so we have to consider there’s a problem for the entire world beyond frontiers. Yes. Now, maybe it’s a truism to say it, but it has to be said, and that’s a humanistic principle on the planetary scale. 

What do you say about the critics who say that the liberal religious are part of the problem, that they give room for the fundamentalists to grow, that by not speaking out against the worst aspects of each of their faiths? And I’m talking primarily the monotheisms right now that they actually make it harder for reason and science to prevail against the cult of unreason in society. 

I realize that many people have said that. And Hitchens says that religion poisons everything. Well, some religions have poisoned many things. And Harris says that we need to attack the liberal religionists at the same time. And I think that many of the religion is overlooked, these problems. But nonetheless, I think they’re well-meaning, good natured, honest, morally concerned people in the churches. And I think that they want to enter into the modern scientific world. So the scientific criticism of the extremes of religion need to be attacked. Yes. 

So that should be the bull’s eye, the extremist religionists. Not just religion in general. Look, I really believe that God belief in God is a delusion. Is there anything wrong with Richard Dawkins eminent scientists that he is actually saying that if he really believes he has a good argument? 

I agree that it’s a delusion. And I think Dawkins is to be applauded for that. But only one shoe is dropped. We need to truck to the show with. So where do you stand out? One foot? No, we need to put both feet up and move out. 

I want to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of Paul Curtsies, affirmations, joyful and creative exuberance through our Web site. Point of inquiry. Gheorghe Paul in affirmations, you talk about some of these positive aspects. 

Yes, I think we ought to express an affirmative attitude towards others on ourselves. And that is what I call goodwill. So I consider it a goodwill to be a basic moral principle that both Christians and Jews and Muslims and humanists accept. 

Yes, two things come to my mind just now. One, that doesn’t seem very controversial. I mean, any religious person or non-religious person, anyone can look at that and say, well, yeah, I’m I’m all for being positive and affirmative. 

Often there’s great negativity. People wring their hands and complain all the world’s going to hell. And, oh, look, these people are sinful and wicked and they’re going to go to hell. No. 

So this positive perspective is fundamental to your outlook. 

Yes. I think we should try to find the best in individuals, not their fault or shortcomings. We should applaud people’s achievements, appreciate their creativity, respect, their uniqueness. Now, a dogmatic mind set tells you want to do that if they don’t fulfill their model of virtue. Vandar condemned. I think we ought to live to forgive and forget, to heal and respect, to modify and improve. We shouldn’t return evil for evil. We shouldn’t be vengeful, vindictive or it’s spiteful. We should make exceptions and be. Flexible. That seems to me the added the air you a truly humanistic attitude that we share with others. And they can share with us. And we have to make that point. We attack religion. But we affirm moral empathy and altruism towards others. We ought to help others if we can. We ought to be pleased if they succeed. We ought to abandon jealousy, hatred, cynicism, revenge and the greed and greed. 

And we ought to enjoy life. A lot of what you’re saying you could if you were so inclined. Read that into, you know, sacred texts of the world’s religions. Wonder about that. The whole emphasis is that you have to believe in God and worry about salvation or the next life or else you’ll be condemned. Now you can find passages in the Old New Testament and liberal religionists. 

In fact, look to the Bible and get out of the Bible. Many of these these humanistic virtues that you’re talking about. 

Well, these humanistic virtues. Well, you know, the democratic revolutions of the modern world change the whole outlook. 

Every person had dignity and value politically before the law. And that wasn’t respected necessarily by traditional religions. And that’s kind of hard to find in the Bible. It’s hard to you can’t find in the Bible, as far as I could say, the Bible is not a document of democracy. It is a democracy. A book that accepted slavery in a hierarchical society and demeaned women and gays and condemned them. Yes. So I say we ought to try to better the human condition to be constructive. And instead of bemoaning your fate and blaming others, pitchin and trying to improve the human condition, the human situation. 

I want to ask you directly about something. Over the last 30 years, you’ve been kind of spearheading you’ve been the one of the principal figures out there as number one, one of society’s most vocal critics of religion, of the paranormal, of the supernatural, but also number two of advancing this alternative point of view. You’re talking about this ethical point of view and that is often forgotten. 

The second thing is forgotten. That’s the first thing that’s remembered. 

Right. You always talk about humanist values. That’s how I came to the Center for Inquiry, not because of your anti religious work or let’s say you’re were critical of the paranormal or the supernatural. But because of the humanist values, seem to me I could sink my teeth into that after I left religion, which no longer did it for me, but. So you’ve talked about these humanist values for decades about how life can be overflowing with passion, joy, significance, despite the fact that, you know, you’re going to die. Everyone’s going to die. We’re going to become worm food that there’s no ultimate meaning in the universe. So here’s the question. What do you say to the atheist voices over the last 30 years who have said that all this talk about morality and the good life and secular humanist values, that that it’s really you just not having the courage to stand up and say your, you know, gosh darn atheist. 

I’ve did nothing that I didn’t believe in God. I’ve always affirmed that. Yes, but I. But I. I don’t stop there. And that’s what bothers me. You simply can’t stop there. You’ve got to. Then what? Well, what do you believe then? And we do believe and think and atheists do believe in things and positive things, but they’ve not spelled that out. 

You say in a constructive way, you can’t rip the rug out from under someone without having something else there. 

You of course, you have to do that. Otherwise, they become demoralized and may become Nicolelis or cynical about life and that. Or bitter. Embittered. Yes. So we say life is beautiful. Life is wonderful. Creatively, realize your potentialities, work with others, live a wholesome, good life. All of that. Without God. Yes, without God. In other words, without the ancient Bible and the ancient Koran, which express the attitudes of those cultures of thirteen hundred or nineteen hundred years ago or twenty five hundred years ago. But we’re talking about the modern world in which we live. 

Paul, let’s finish up by talking about this question of meaning, which is something you concentrate more on, I think, than, you know, another reason why God or Bigfoot does not exist. Lots of people, both atheistic scientists and religious fundamentalists alike. You know, on each extreme, they say that those people who only look to science and reason as their guide in finding things out can’t really speak to these other questions like the meaning of life or how to be good. That if you only use science and reason as your guide, that you’ll have tunnel vision and block out all these other more existential questions that you, in fact, have spent, you know, decades concentrating. 

Yes. Most of my writings have been in this area. They’ve been largely ignored. And as what I criticize, that people accept, not what I affirm. Well, I don’t think we draw only on reason and science. 

I never said that. I said. You’re going to have a if you want knowledge, if you want to make claims, then you need to test them empirically and use reason and the science has to do so. However, I have faith in human experience, human vitality, human joy. The passions are crucial. So it’s reason and passion. It would be a negative, narrow life. It was only rational. I mean, you want to make love. You want to go to a good restaurant. You want to go to a concert. You want to hold hands with others and stamp out poverty. You want to travel. It’s a richness of life. It’s the blood and guts of living. And we share. We can’t deny that, can’t we? 

So it’s kind of an impoverished life if you’re only top-heavy. Tough mind. Yes, we need. But also a tender heart. 

You need a tender hurt. You have to be open to the nuances of experience. You need an open and open life receptive to new discoveries, new joys, new experiences ongoing. And that’s the meaning of life. 

So to put a finer point on the meaning of life. You’re saying that relying on reason and science, rationality, it does not have to close doors? No. Let’s go exploring these other. 

That’s a necessary condition, but it’s not sufficient. The meaning life depends on what you do and upon what we do. The meaning life is always changing creatively. So we we we develop plans and projects as individuals, goals and ideals. And as a society. And they’re there in are the meanings of life. There are many meanings. And that’s why life is so exciting. No ultimate meaning. But there is meaning. No ultimate meeting. But meaning is constantly overflowing. Life often flows with meaning and the people can find meaning. A rather narrow and not creative. Thank you very much for joining me again on point of inquiry, Paul Kurtz. Thank you, D.J., for your interesting questions. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And 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.