Paul Kurtz – The Transnational Center for Inquiry

May 16, 2008

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 conversation with D.J. Grothe, Paul Kurtz describes the Center for Inquiry’s transnational efforts, detailing its activities to advance science and secular values in the Netherlands, Romania, Germany, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, Canada and various countries in Africa, the Middle East and South America. He shares some of the history of the worldwide skeptical and humanist movements, and shows how the recent worldwide expansion of the Center for Inquiry is a result of its commitment to what he calls “planetary humanism.”

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 16th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values and public affairs. And before we get to this week’s guest, Professor Paul Kurtz, here’s a word from this show’s sponsor, Free Inquiry magazine. 

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I’m happy to have Paul Kurtz back on point of inquiry. He’s founder and chair of CFI and a number of other organizations. He’s a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He’s chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Well, now it’s CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Also the Council for Secular Humanism and Prometheus Books. He’s editor in chief of Free Inquirer magazine and the author of over 45 books, including the recent title Science and Religion. Are they compatible throughout really the last 30 years, he’s been a leading defender of science and reason against the prevailing cult of irrationality in our society. And he’s been interviewed widely in the media on subjects ranging from alternative medicine and communication with the dead to the historicity of Jesus. He joins me today to talk about the Center for Inquiry’s worldwide efforts. Paul, thanks for joining me. Back on point of inquiry. 

I’m delighted to be with you again, D.J. 

Paul, I asked you to be on point of inquiry. Not so we can have an infomercial about CFI, but indeed, I’m proud of the work we do and I want to share that with our listeners. I asked you to be on point requires so we can talk about our international impact. We’re not just a U.S. based organization. 

No, we’re not. And in fact, it’s a transnational impact. 

That’s our subtitle. We go beyond national frontiers, ethnic, racial, religious barriers. So we are truly global in character. 

Why the word Trans National, CFI, Trans National, not CFI International? 

Because so many organizations are international and involve states and countries and nation states. Nation states. Yes, indeed. But the Center for Inquiry does not belong to any one country, although we are at the moment headquartered in Amherst, New York. From the very start, we’ve been planetree in our focus and people everywhere have welcomed us. 

So your point is that the mission of the Center for Inquiry is something that you think is important in all of these countries, not just the United States. 

Indeed, because, you know, science is universal. Philosophy aims to be universal and some of the arts as well. And so in the sense that we are global and part of a world community, we are not limited to any geographical or national center. 

But the situation in various countries around the world, while it’s different on the ground in each of those countries. So in the United States, the Center for Inquiry concerns itself with science and secularism, but it cashes out in different ways in other countries. So it does. 

And we try to adapt to different countries. 

We we now have something like 43 centers and communities worldwide, most of them centers. And and though we share a certain common values and principles, nonetheless, these centers are autonomous. They deal with their own setting and concrete problems. 

I think I remember a couple years back and we’ll talk more about our work in African a moment. But in Africa, our centers launched a campaign against which burning because indeed there was still witch burning in Africa. The Center for Inquiry, the United States doesn’t have to do public campaigns against well, they have the witches as well. 

But I think in the sense that so in Africa, it’s very real as it was in the Nepal as well. 

So that ancient phobia against certain women who were supposed to be haunted or taken over by witches continues. Mm hmm. 

Our international presence poll really began something like 32 years ago with Cyclops. Now it’s the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry at CFI. 

Yes. In 1976, we began the Skeptical Inquirer and that organization sponsoring it. And that immediately we heard from everywhere from London and Paris and Australia, people said, oh, we want to do the same thing. We really need to defend science and reason and a critically examine the paranormal. So the paranormal is really very popular in the media. 32 years ago. 

And that was kind of the launch of our international presence. Yes, it was. 

And what gratified us was that so many scientists, scholars and people in the university said the public do not know the difference between astrology and astronomy. And. And you have pseudosciences and we need someone to objectively examine these in the critical way PSI cop or now CSI started with these world skeptic’s conferences. 

Yes. We began meeting. 

We were invited to Paris and London and in time. Went on to Australia. Heidelberg, Germany. To Los Angeles. Is that the remote edge of the universe? No. Had Buffalo, New York. 

And the attendees were skeptics in those countries and also dignitaries. The leading lights in the sciences and the humanities and skepticism from around the world. 

And we’re very pleased that people like Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov were very intrigued. They were popularizes of science, Stephen Jay Gould. And they immediately enlisted under our banner. 

So it all started with PSI Cop, in a sense. Yes. 

And now we’ve begun holding, in addition to these world skeptics conferences, also world’s humanist conferences, world conferences in which we combine both secularism and science, humanism and scientific rationalism. And the most recent one was held in Beijing, China. We’ve had connections and relations with them for over 20 years. And they invited us to convene. And we call that the 12th World Congress. 

And there’s a new center for inquiry in China. 

Yes, there’s a new center for inquiry in Beijing. And Prometheus Books has donated a library of all of its publications to them. And they have part of a building that’s supported by the Association for Science and Technology, which is similar to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other such associations in other countries. 

So let’s talk about how it became CFI. Is international expansion now? How many countries are we in worldwide? 

You mentioned this, I think approximately 43 that we keep adding them. 

We just added we’re in the process of veining Denmark and we’ve launched one in Romania. In fact, I just got back from Romania, I think 10 days ago, and also one than the Netherlands and Belgium. So we keep ahead in country, right. 

In Europe, we have rather large footprint in Poland, Romania. You mentioned the Netherlands, new center in the United Kingdom. 

Yes, the one in Poland is interesting because that goes back 12 years and their main interest is separation of church and state. They want to defend science and reason, but they’re also an interest in defending secularism. And they they fight vigorously. And in fact, we help them create a new magazine against dogmatism, which is enjoys some influence in Polish circles. 

What about the new center in the Netherlands, CFI low country? 

Yes, they call it the low countries, but they’re also tall above six foot low countries because it involves Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. 

And that that, in one sense, was the center of humanism. If you go back to Erasmus, the land of tolerance, and we are very thrilled. Again, about 10 days ago, we had a grand kick off at the University of Utrecht, the new center for Quarrie Low Countries. 

And we had an auspicious launch of the Center for Inquiry in London recently. 

Yes, we did. And you participated? He qei that was in January of this year. We went to London to Conway Hall, which is one of the oldest Freethought halls on Red Lion Square in London, and that we worked out an arrangement with them where we have meetings and we had a great number of people. So over 150 people came to the first meeting and then two lectures on the Sunday, another one hundred and one hundred again. So it was very thrilling to meet in London and to share with them the need for the scientific outlook. Public appreciation of science and our commitment to secular society. 

And in every one of these countries were the Center for Inquiry is investing considerable resources to advance its mission. We’re working as closely as we can with the existing organizations there when our missions overlap, when we share the same values. 

Oh, indeed. And what we’re so thrilled about is that many of the leading lights at Oxford and other universities in England or even in the Netherlands, the academies of science, often in many countries they’re concerned with explaining to the public the nature of the scientific outlook and to appreciate the method by which scientific claims are tested. 

But it’s not just about science. It’s not just about thinking critically. You’re really advancing a humanistic effort. 

Yes, in many of these countries, you have the persistence of orthodox or fundamentalist religions of the past kind of cultural lag. And so we believe we need a new ethic. And this is humanistic. It cuts across cultures. So I do think that there are these planetary ethical principles that are emerging. 

I want to survey some of our activities in other countries around the world. Let’s take Russia. We have a center for inquiry in Moscow, a relationship with the University of Moscow. 

Yes, as a matter of fact, they went there 12 years ago as the Soviet Union was breaking up and they were in a state of confusion. You’ve been back many times. Yes. And so they developed what they called a humanist society and also magazine. And we helped to support this magazine called Common Sense. It’s also supported by the Russian Academy of Sciences cooperatively that this includes are leading lights in Russia and at the University of Moscow. And we’ve had conferences there many times. And there’s something like 14 branches throughout Russia from St. Petersburg to the Urals to Siberia. 

It has been very thrilling to see that these are local community organizations of the Russian Humanist Society. Also show Yafai Russia. 

Yeah, they’re branches or and or communities. And they’re interested in defending democracy. And as the Soviet Union was breaking up and the remains of the totalitarian state were still there, they began to say, well, what about the open democratic society? Yes, that is basic in our ethical position. But now we’re having problems, as everyone realizes, because Putin, who just became the premier giving up the presidency, has reinstituted the Russian Orthodox Church as a kind of official or semiofficial religion of a state. And this appalls the humanists who believe in the right to not believe as well as believe. 

When we were talking about Europe earlier, one of our centers we forgot to mention that was Germany, which primarily has a focus on skepticism. 

Yes. In Rostov, Germany, near Frankfurt. We have a set her headed up by armored day Osama. And they go and there’s a European Council of Skeptical Societies. So they focused primarily on the application of science, homeopathy, water with chains of paranormal claims and do not deal with religion directly, though they do defend the naturalistic outlook. 

Why is it you think that they don’t zero in on religion? Is it because Europe is largely already secular? 

Well, Europe has become secular. It’s post religious and post Christian, though there are a new Muslim minorities that are growing and disturb a lot of people. And also there are other humanist organizations and they’re not interested in competing with them. So they focus on these fringe alternative medicine, claimed psychics, UFOs, things of that sort. Mm hmm. 

Something I’m especially proud of is our recent success in Canada, our neighbor to the north. We’ve recently had expansion into Calgary. Even with the new Center for inquiry in Ontario, just being about a year old. 

Yes. I’m very pleased that you’ve done a lot of work. And I’ve been up to Toronto, Ontario, the new center for inquiry in Ontario, under a dynamic young man, Justin Trottier. I think he’s only in his early 20s in many, many student groups. And they moved on to Calgary and talking about Vancouver and other parts of Canada, both skepticism, but especially humanism, is growing strong in Canada. 

Right? Something like 26 new campus groups, CFI campus groups in the last year. It’s not enough to start these groups going, but we’re really investing in providing the support to keep them going. 

Exactly. And the cutting edge of the young people on campuses everywhere and I know in the United States are a great number of groups in Africa. They’re great numbers, student groups. But in Canada, there’s great vitality with the young people who are critical of the old time religion, who look to science and particularly the new morality of humanism. 

Mm hmm. You mentioned Africa. That’s an outreach program that is spearheaded really by Norm Allen, who directs the Council for Secular Humanism, is African Americans for Humanism program in Africa. It’s largely a student movement, right? 

Well, it is primarily. There are six the humanist groups in Africa. I think there is only one 12 years ago and there are six centers in Africa and they are at many of the major universities in the country. And why are they interested? Well, you say that we should pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. You tell us to think critically. You you say we should tolerate alternative lifestyles. No one else is doing that. And so they’re very, very eager to support the agenda of the Center for Inquiry. 

They’re really responding to the ethical values of the Center for Inquiry. And in fact, they hold up magazines like Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer as almost a passport teacher, as it’s known as flawed as they travel. 

Love is gonna be a conference there. And Gambia coming up. And as they move around to Kenya or Uganda, they can locate their colleagues by holding up particularly free inquiry. But also the Skeptical Inquirer. And so there is a new vitality, the kind of scientific, rationalistic outlook, the approach to values which depend on the civic virtues of democracy, the right of privacy of the individual. Very revolutionary in Africa talking about individual freedom. And so they cherish. 

I think this new forest as were skipping around the globe here. Let’s talk about South America, our skeptical activities in Central and South America. 

Yes, we publish a magazine Pense SA to think of Spanish language magazine. There are 13 editors from various countries, Chile and Colombia. But it’s edited in Argentina and we have a center in Argentina. And their attempt. And that doesn’t exist anywhere in Argentina. This commitment to the scientific outlook on the application of science to ethical and social questions. And also in Peru is a great center in Peru as well, where they are publishing many books in this area. 

And you’re getting ready just in days to take it. CFI Adventure Cruise into South America. Into the Amazon. 

Yes. The center of inquiry does sponsor these cruises. They went to Galapagos last year, and this year they’re going up to the Amazon River, to the rainforest, the disappearing ray virus. As tragically, we are concerned with the environment. Very much so. So it will be very exciting and interesting. We’re leaving from and out flying into that and then going up. 

And eventually we’ll go on foot into the jungle, into the rainforest. So we’ll see what happens. We have a lot of mosquito nets and malaria pills and so on. But I think we’ll take about 50 people with us on this cruise. 

Yeah, it’s a very exciting adventure. In India, we’ve experienced dramatic growth over the last couple years. 

And India is going to outstrip China someday. 

Most population control becomes part of a serious social policy. We have a center in Hyderabad and other centers, satellites in New Delhi, in Mumbai. And this great Firmat, they began by issuing two two statements. And they’re only a little more than a year old. First, the need for population policies in India. They had them. They no longer really applied in a vigorous way the need to contain population growth. And that’s very, very important. And to provide contraceptive information to women so they can do so. And then the second one and very thrilled about that is a declaration of the rights of children, the rights of children as we affirm. 

Right. How religion following Dawkins argument, religion is a form of child abuse, especially in India, says our activism in India. 

In other words, children should not be indoctrinated in one point of view. 

And the madrassa schools, for example, they memorize the Koran in other schools, Hindu schools, they are committed to a religious tradition. And we say we need to expose children to all points of view, including exposure to science to expand their horizons. And of course, India is developing not as rapidly as China, which is unbelievable. I was in China last October, but it’s developing. Its growth rate is increasing. And there’s great interest in science in Bangladesh and other cities. And that’s very, very important. But education becomes crucial. 

And we’ve had activities, all kinds of other places around the world in Nepal and Mexico at one point. 

Yes. Mexico had a great skeptical center and we published a magazine. We need to reinvest our interests in Mexico again. We have a center in Nepal and they have been campaigning for democracy and democratic. Right. Human rights. And they had some impact on the changes that have occurred in that in Nepal. They also launched a campaign to protect women from witchcraft. Does the same thing as in Nigeria. 

Yeah, well, not to protect them from witchcraft, but to protect them from the misuses abusers. 

Yeah, but people who used witchcraft. Yeah. There were actually we are from the belief in witchcraft which has suppressed these women. And that’s unfortunate. 

On the horizon, we’re looking at possible expansion elsewhere in the world. Maybe Israel is on the list. 

That is on the list. Yes. But it’s the Middle East as it is very important. We do have a center in Cairo, Egypt, and I’ve been to it. I’ve been to many or most of the centers. And me, I’m pumped, tuckered out from traveling so much. 

But I think as I went to Egypt and we did establish a center in Cairo and there two wonderful vigourous people who now have columns in the press defending secularism, very, very courageous. And we’re talking about a center in the Emirates. 

We’ve even done outreach into Iraq. 

Yes, we have. We do have a a a center. It’s clandestine. Is very under great, terrible conditions. In fact, two of the leaders were murdered. Unfortunately, they’re there. They’re busy translating books, humanist literature, scientific literature. And we’re providing funding, though we’re stretched to the limit. But they say we want to do. What we wanted to do now is provide a literature for people in Arabic. And they point out that Cuba, a small country, has translated and published more books from foreign countries than the whole Middle East. It’s hard to believe, but the need, the desperate need for a new literature, that point bears repeating. 

You see in China, in Russia, in India, in Iraq, the Arab world, actually. That there’s really a publishing effort. CFI is spearheading a publishing effort to put in those languages the great works of the sciences and the humanities. 

Yes. Yes, there were threats to the limits. What I’ve done as the former president and the founder of Prometheus Books, I’ve as we’ve established libraries in Beijing. So I sent to China something like 3000 books that meet his is published. We establish them in in Russia. We’ve also established them in India. And we’ve sent the books to Russia and they have a key place in their library and to India. Also tonight, Powell to many, many countries, to Uganda, to Nigeria. We can only do so much. And the Prometheus donates these books. But the shipping costs are so expensive. But they they say we need to translate. Jon Stewart Bill’s on Liberty, for example, the Federalist Papers. But over and beyond that. Other books on humanism, Jim Underdown. 

Many of your books have been translated 40 languages worldwide. 

My books have been translated into many languages. And I just returned from Romania. They’re interested in translating my book on forbidden fruit into the Romanian language. 

So the point is, Center for Inquiry to advance its mission has been investing considerable resources in this transnational effort. And I think that goes underreported. Frankly, most people don’t know how much we’re doing worldwide. 

Yes, France, we’ve been too modest about this and restraining as we can. And we do have people at these centers worldwide that we support. And in Europe we have to chair co persons one Hugo Estrella’s in Italy and he’s established a new center in Italy. And the other co-director is Norman Allen in the United States. He just returned from Europe with me. He’s going on to Africa and in another week to Gambia and Senegal. And then again, Orson Dacey, who has got a doctorate in philosophy. Is there a United Nations representative? And so he’s waging an important effort to bring the secular humanist view to the United Nations. 

So that’s the point. The underlying values that motivate CFIUS, trans national expansion are really the values that you’ve called planetary humanists. Yes, they are indeed. 

And let me say something about Orson Dacy. He and I attended a conference at the United Nations within the past year talking about the differences between cultures and the need to have dialog between them and all they were. Talking about was religious cultures, multiculturalism, and so he got up from the floor and said, well, what about the secular outlook that’s been powerful the last 500 years with the scientific and the democratic revolutions ahead? So we’re trying. And most people, many people at the U.N. agree with us. But we are represented there. But there’s insufficient representation of the general scientific outlook of the planetary humanist set of values. 

OK, define for our listeners. Define for me again what you mean by planetary humanism. It’s not just a philosophy for the Western world. 

Well, in two senses. First, and everyone I think is coming to appreciate this. We all live on the same planet Earth, that blue green dot, Carl Sagan said as seen from afar. And so we should have a loving commitment to protect this planet and global warming and the DeGroot get dacian of the natural environment. But second and over beyond that, in our view, every person on the planet, a member of the human species, is equal in dignity, worth and value. And we should consider that person as such. We should transcend the fact that we may be Frenchmen or Indians or Argentinians or Afghanistans or Englishmen or Americans or Chinese. Bruce Swiftian du Mon. We’re citizens of the world. And we have an obligation, a moral obligation. And so the new planetary ethics is to go beyond. Not in the celery, Jack, but go beyond the ancient religious traditions and develop a new tradition in which we can share human values. And given the Internet, iPod, intercommunication, travel, commerce, this is now a reality. We have to appreciate every person on the planet as a person. And forget about his racial, religious, ethnic, national origin. That’s the new planetary vision for the future. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Paul Kurtz. 

Thank you very much, D.J.. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. What one adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry Magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine or Center for Inquiry on Campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting WW w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode. Go to our online discussion forums at Center for Inquiry dot net slash forums. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily 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, dawg. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

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