Paul Kurtz – Forbidden Fruit

December 19, 2008

Paul Kurtz is the leading figure in the humanist and skeptical movements over the last four decades. He 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 decades. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has been featured 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.

During this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Paul Kurtz discusses the importance of creativity in terms of outreach for the skeptical and secular humanist movements. He talks about his book Forbidden Fruit, which focuses on the application of science and reason to the Good Life and to normative ethics. He argues that ethics need not have religious foundations, and that ethics should instead have purely secular and humanist sources. He explores the secular meanings of stories about the mythical Garden of Eden, and actually celebrates the eating of the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and of the fruit of the Tree of Life. He argues that the universalistic ethics within the world’s religions in fact stem from secular humanism. He details what it is to live a life of excellence and defends against the charge that his ethics is self-centered and self-absorbed, arguing for good will in a secular context, and that the common good is not alien to enlightened self-interest. He touches on the secular position on controversial social issues, such as abortion and sexual ethics, including gay rights and gay marriage. He expounds on what he calls the “common moral decencies,” which he argues are a product of evolution. He finishes by discussing the myth of Sisyphus and what it portends for the scientific secularist today, arguing against nihilistic atheism.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 19th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. With today’s show, we’re beginning our fourth year of weekly broadcasts. And before we get to our guest this week, here’s a word from Free Inquiry magazine. 

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It is honestly a pleasure to have my next guests back on point of inquiry as we begin our fourth year of weekly episodes. Paul Kurtz started it all at the Center for Inquiry, founding the Council for Secular Humanism almost 30 years ago. PSI cop, along with Carl Sagan and James Randi and others before that, many other organizations. He’s really the leading figure in the organized humanist and skeptic’s movements. He’s tireless in his defense of Reason and Humanism, author of over 40 books. His newest is Forbidden Fruit The Ethics of Secularism. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Paul Kurtz. And Happy Birthday in a couple days. 

Well, thank you. Sunday I’ll be 83. I hate to admit it because I feel that young get as optimistic as ever. 

But time marches on. 

I’m delighted to be here and also to congratulate you as you add to the fourth year of point of inquiry. What an achievement. And the many radio stations that pickup point of inquiry. So very happy to begin with you the fourth year. 

Well, yes, it’s exciting that increasingly campus and community radio stations are rebroadcasting the show and and we’re getting a lot of support from college students in that regard. You know, to my way of thinking, point of inquiry is an example of you encouraging your staff that we really have the best and the brightest in the humanists and skeptics movements working at the center of her inquiry. Well, you encouraged that to be creative in the way that they reach out to advance these kind of beloved causes. 

Yes, by all means that indeed I find creativity to be the spark of life. What is distinctive of human beings is that we’re not only here to chew our code, if you will, but to achieve, to attain, to aspire to new heights. The only way we can build a kind of secular movement is by allowing creative individuals within it to help discover new possibilities and break new frontiers. And I think your point of inquiry is one of those frontiers Jim Underdown. 

You know, on that point, I really need to say that I have almost nothing to do with the show. All I do is have, you know, an interesting conversation once a week about something I’m already fascinated by. 

Yeah, but you’re a great gadfly and moderator. That’s important. 

The point I’m making, though, is that Thomas Donnelly does all the work for the show. Producing it. And yet he’s doing this while he’s in law school. Yeah. 

He does a great job. And I appreciate both of you wanted to get that out there. 

Paul, you’re on this show to talk about the republication of four bedin fruit, the ethics of secularism. In a way, this book summarizes the point of the Center for Inquiry more than any of your other books. 

Oh, thank you for saying that. What I’m trying to do is to apply science and reason to the good life, to normative ethics and to show its practical consequences in living. And I think secular can and should do that so that ethics need not have religious foundations. It can have purely secular and human sources for inspiration, you know, for some people out there listening. 

That’s a controversial claim. For others, it’s a given. Let’s get into what you see in the book. First, you take the story of the Garden of Eden and turn it on its head. You actually celebrate the notion of eating of the tree, of the knowledge of good and evil, which for the Christian is considered the fall of man. 

Yes. Well, do you know that myth of the Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is only a myth, but it is metaphorically or symbolically important? I think we need to eat of the fruit, of the tree, of knowledge of good and evil. That ethics is related to human interests and needs and that it can be based upon reason and empathy and that it does not need a divine source. So if Jehovah expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, I think that’s a good thing because we’re on our own living in the world and we can lead a good life as secularism. 

And even more important for you is the tree of life. 

Yes, there is another tree in the Garden of Eden and humans are expelled because they may eat of that. And I have. And we have. And what that says is that the fruit of the tree of life is succulent and good and wholesome in its own sense, and that our basic value is that human life is intrinsically good and hence we ought to realize it and fulfill that as best we can. 

So not only do you argue that ethics is possible without God, but that the celebration of human life is, you know, this living the good life is actually made difficult with gone. 

Well, often happens because religious ethics disagree and conflict and there are duties or commandments outside of the human being. And I think that ethics grows out of human experience and human culture, and it involves new discoveries and and progressive development of our ethical and moral values. And the main point is that for the secular. The risks and the human as it is, the realization and the fulfillment of life and the discovery of all of the possibilities of life, that is crucial. Some people call it happiness, you know, and many others, though I have called it creative exuberance, a life of joy and fulfillment in which we realize our talents and capacities as best we can. 

You’re talking about self fulfillment. And I want to get into this kind of individual ethics that you’re talking about. But before we do that, let’s let’s get into some of your critique of theistic morality. Tell me why you say it fails. 

Well, you know, it was created if you go back to the old sacred documents, it was created in premodern and pre urban pre scientific times and expressed the patriarchal, agrarian or nomadic societies of the ancient world. And although there are some metaphorical truths there, I don’t deny that literary value. We’ve gone far beyond that. And so we have to redevelop a new morality for the 21st century and beyond. It’s a conflict in religious morality. This is right or this is wrong and one religion and not on the other. And you can see that condemnation of divorce, the defense of polygamy by some of the great religions and so on, the condemnation of homosexuality and the conception that sex is evil or wicked. A whole number of painful applications of a stern religious morality has repressed human beings. So we need to move on to a new level. 

And not only is it repressive, but your litany of the disagreements over ethical issues here, religion just now kind of suggests that religious morality is inherently relativistic. You know, it depends on your religion, what morality you have. 

Exactly. It depends upon the culture and the creed. And if you don’t accept the creed, then you’re condemned to eternal hell or which holy book you hold authority. 


Whether it’s the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran. But over and beyond that, I do think that there is a universalistic element that has developed in the religions. And I think they’ve been influenced by humanistic and modern culture. And so the quest for the brotherhood or the sisterhood of human beings is implicit. There is intrinsic there. So that that is positive and that is a noble element. We have to draw from that. So this is not a total indictment, clearly, of all religions, because religion can inspire morality. 

But what you’re saying is the good in religious morality is actually humanistic morality? 

Well, I think so. It’s applied to humans. The conditions that they face on the planet and their use of reason and altruism to achieve a good life. So the content of ethics is human. It is not something remote and transcendental Jim Underdown the ethics that you’re pushing in forbidden fruit. 

They seem really practical there about consequences. As you just mentioned, they’re not about looking to the heavenly things. They’re not about appealing to divine authority. They’re about the here and now. Your book at times really reads very matter of fact, like here’s a list of common traits you think everyone should adopt. Here’s the question. Why should people adopt this humanistic ethics that you push in forbidden fruit? In other words, why is it just not a collection of one philosophers opinions? 

Well, I think in the long history of civilization, a whole number of ethical and moral principles have developed and we can appreciate them. And it’s shared by the religious and non-religious folk at the same time. But we cannot be bogged down in the past. We have to move ahead to the future. And so there are no principles. I mean, women’s rights, the suffrages movement, the growth of democracy and human rights. 

You say these are new principles. You mean in the steady march of human progress? I mean, today, everyone admits women should have the right to vote. 

And but that was a long, long, hard struggle because the ancient religions were patriarchal and men dominated. So we’ve moved beyond that. So secular ethics deals with the reality of contemporary life. And it’s more appropriate to the human condition and to the great problems that we face. And it focuses on exuberant happiness here and now, and it focuses on light and self-interest. Every individual comes into the world has to worry about his or her health career. Family, lovers, friends. The development of his or her intellectual anesthetic capacities. And every individual can achieve a life of excellence in his or her own terms without depending upon command. Bids from the past. That’s my point. 

So in kind of making your life a work of art and and working toward achieving this life of excellence that you’re talking about. Well, all of it sounds positively self-centered to me. 

Like it’s not self-centered big. I call it that. Not simply self-interest or egoistic, but enlightened self-interest in which we use reason in order to achieve our ends. And we can develop temperance and moderation and prudence in how we live. Yes. So every individual is different and has different values, idiosyncratic needs. And one has to fulfill them. The ethics of secularism is the right of privacy of each individual to fulfill his or her own desires, goals, aspiration plans in his or her own terms. And we’re all different. But it’s enlightened in the sense that we are also concerned with the needs of others. And we have moral responsibilities to that. So it’s not simply selfish, as some people have charged. 

Even when you talk about enlightened self-interest, yet there’s a focus on self-interest, as in, you know, the best way to fulfill my own needs may be to fulfill other people’s needs, may be to care about the world community, cetera. But still, it’s in my own self-interest to do well. 

I wouldn’t only wouldn’t begin with self interests and stay fixated there because there’s such a thing as the common good. And we live in social communities and we relate to others. Therefore, my own self-interest is tied up with the interests of others, and we share values and share projects and can work together. One of the basic principles that I’ve advocated is a goodwill that’s reminiscent of a manual card. But I go beyond what he suggests. We ought to have a goodwill towards others, not for our own sake, but for their sake. So I disagree with self-interested libertarians who make everything egoistic and selfish. I think that we are altruistic or capable of that. And I think empathy is a tendency within human beings and we need to cultivate that. So I say enlightened self-interest. Yes, but responsibility to others at the same time. And the desire to help them, if we can, to fulfill their needs and interests. 

Let’s talk about where the rubber hits the road. You talked about enlightened self-interest. How does it really play out in figuring out the big ethical dilemmas people face day in, day out? 

Well, there are ethical dilemmas that we we have. Of course, not all of them are solved, hopefully. 

Let’s specifically talk about, say, gay rights. Big doozie. People debate out there, you know. Proposition eight passed in California in November, despite our best efforts at the Center for Inquiry and other organizations to raise awareness about privacy rights and, you know, our values, secular values, arguing that church should remain separate from the state and not push its view. So if a person’s motivated by this enlightened self-interest and the common moral decencies you’re talking about, why should in that instance he or she be for the right of his gay neighbor to marry? 

Well, the civic virtues of democracy are essential to the cycle outlook. And luckily, the democratic revolutions of our time of expanding human rights, abolished slavery, liberated women and in our century have liberated gay people, lesbians, transgendered people. And I think myself that the right of individuals to cohabit or live with others, to marry them, to have a civil union is a human right that the state should not interfere with that right. And should allow it to happen. 

Where do you derive that if if not from some kind of natural order or from God or something? In other words, where are you getting your ethics that say gay rights is good? 

Well, I think the principle of equality, equality of concern and equal treatment under the laws, and that is a product of a long democratic tradition, but also seems perfectly sensible today. At one time, there were laws against interracial marriage. For Asians to marry Anglos or for Africans to marry whites was illegal. We now recognize that there are a number of states had laws against that and that was unfair and immoral. And so that’s the kind of. Develop moral sensibility. Yes. If two people can find significant moral relationship, love and care even of the same sex, then they should have a right to set up a household and live together without it being considered illegal. It was illegal at one time. They would be arrested in certain states. But now it is perfectly understandable under the principle of toleration. 

So that is a humanist value, the toleration of the diversity of lifestyles. And so the toleration of activities of gay people in our society should be appreciated and recognized. 

So that’s one of the social issues that people debate out there. Another, when you’re talking about the ethics of secularism is, say, abortion. That’s another thing that riles people up. 

If you have touch on the hot button issues he has and the argument that the cycler is is a control of woman over her own body. 

So it’s a privacy rights issue. 

That their privacy right issue. Yes. And the state should not compel her to have a child forced the pregnancy to completion. And if she chooses to have an abortion in the first trimester, we would open the second trimester and only and urgent issues. Then she ought to have the right to do that. So that follows from the right of privacy. Yes. 

Which is why accepted in secular cultures today, not just talking about the right of privacy, but on the definition of human. Does the ethics of secularism have any implications for that? Like, what does it mean to be a person? 

Well, freedom of choice. I mean, the abortion follows on the right of a woman to choose whether or not to have it before it’s compelled to have a child that can be accidental births or contraception and so on. And so after the fact. Yes. To the right of of abortion should follow. Well, what does it mean to be a person, every person for this secular risk point of view? The democratic point of view is equal in dignity and value and ought to be respected. 

And so the argument goes that a fetus is a person and should be protected by the state. 

I don’t think that a fetus is a person. That’s the definition of a fetus. I think Roe vs. Wade was very sensible when that said that that was a metaphysical issue about which people can violently disagree. So, no, I don’t think that personhood applies to the fetus. It does apply in the last stages of pregnancy and surely it applies to an infant. So but every human person has different tastes and goals and free society and open democratic society will allow them to pursue them as long as they do not harm others or prevent others from doing the same. And therefore, so abortion follows from that as well as homosexuality or gay rights or gay rights. 

Yes, indeed. 

So we’ve talked about the ethics of excellence in in a very general way. But for you, the ethics about excellence in a specific way deals with becoming your best self kind of developing into your optimal person, right? 

Yes. That’s the first part of it, allowing individuals the latitude to fully achieve who and what they are in their own terms by creative fulfillment. But over and beyond that, we are part of social communities and we have responsibilities to others, to our children’s, to our sisters and brothers, to our friends, to even strangers in our community. And therefore, the common good is not alien to enlightened self-interest. And we are concerned with the common good. And therefore, I say certain common moral decencies, such as being trustworthy and having integrity, have the care, benevolence towards others and being fair. Broadly can see those common moral decencies. It’s important that is evolved over a long period of history. 

I think that ethics is rooted in one sense in group survival and that these ethical principles I cut across civilization and now we live in a global planetary community. And so there planetary in scope. 

Paul, let’s finish up our discussion today with where you finished up the book. And that’s what the discussion of the myth. 

Obsessiveness, yes. This office rolls this huge rock up the mountain and it comes down the canyon. And so there’s no final resting place in life. I mean, life involves striving in and working towards new ends. Always new problems. Someone once complained to me, you know, life would be wonderful. The only problem that there are other people, there are other people, and there always problems. And so it’s a quest for living itself. It’s the action of achieving our ends and goals. 

And this is not a utopian notion, but the myth of Sisyphus, isn’t it really about the ultimate futility of life that no matter what you do, you’re going to have to just roll that boulder? 

Well, again, the joys and the quest. It’s in the game. You work hard. You live fully. You deserve the best. And it’s in the act of living itself. So I say I disagree. We do get the rock over the hill. But there are new rocks and new hill. We do achieve and succeed, but often there are failures and that’s all part of the game of life. 

So, Paul, it may just be neurochemical about you, but I mean, you’re one of the few people I’ve met who just doesn’t have a tragic sense of life, you know? Oh, ultimately, when it gets down to it, you admit that we all die, that the universe is cold and without ultimate significance. 

Well, I don’t find the universe cold. I find it warm. 

It is on the planet Earth. Have a great opportunity to achieve life. 

But death is a fact of living and dying is a fact of life. I don’t deny that. What is the alternative? To wring our hands and pray to an unseen force or to do the best we can with life and live life fully and to try and do our best? And that that is a kind of heroic emphasis on the fortitude and the courage to live. But it is the main theme of human life. Life is an adventure. Live it fully. Enjoy it exuberantly. 

Thank, Diane. Don’t bemoan your fate. Thank you very much for this discussion. Paul Kurtz, thank you. D.J.. 

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Point of is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Playlet. 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.