Paul Kurtz – A Kinder, Gentler Secularism

August 14, 2009

Paul Kurtz is founder and chair emeritus of the Center for Inquiry and founder of 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 Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and Prometheus Books. He is the author or editor of almost fifty books, including The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge. Throughout the last four decades, Kurtz has been a leading defender of science and reason against the prevailing cults of irrationality in our society, and has been interviewed widely in the media on a wide range of subjects, including alternative medicine and communication with the dead, to the historicity of Jesus and parapsychology.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Paul Kurtz argues against associating secular humanism with atheism and explains whether or not he himself is an atheist. He reviews the history of the word “agnostic,” and shows how it “is not a creed but a method.” He explains why he is skeptical of the claims of theism. He denies that atheism is a necessary condition of secular humanism. He describes what he considers as the third “categorical imperative.” He explains why he considers some atheist activists to be “fundamentalist atheists,” arguing that their anti-religious stance stems from “being bruised” by religion. He talks about why he is against CFI’s support of the International Blasphemy Day, and why it is “blasphemous to the whole humanist outlook” and is contrary to the “civic virtues of democracy.”

This is point of inquiry for Friday, August 14th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point to 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. Every week on this show, we try to look at some of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture through the lens of scientific naturalism, focusing mostly on three research areas. We look at pseudoscience and the paranormal, also alternative medicine occasionally, and of course, secularism and religion. We look at these various fields by drawing on the Center for Inquiry’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers. I think we have all kinds of fun guests. My guest this week is Paul Kurtz. He’s the founder of the Center for Inquiry and he’s joining me on the show to talk about some of his ideas and thoughts about recent developments at the Center for Inquiry. He is 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 also founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism and of Prometheus Books. He’s the author or editor of almost 50 books, including The New Skepticism, Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge. And really, throughout the last four decades, he’s been a leading defender of science and reason against the prevailing cults of irrationality in our society, never afraid to speak up. And he’s been interviewed widely in the media on all sorts of topics that are interesting to people at the Center for Inquiry, everything from alternative medicine to communication with the dead, the historicity of Jesus, parapsychology, UFOs, you name it. Paul Kurtz, welcome back to the show. 

Well, I’m delighted with the with Douglas James growth. I just found that. Found that. What a sense for. 

Yeah. And just as we rehearsed, you said you wouldn’t say it on the air. 

Okay. Okay. 

Paul, you and I speak almost every week, sometimes more frequently. In one of our recent conversations, we were talking about Tom Flynn recent appearance on Point of inquiry. You know, his show about Athie ism, its relationship to secular humanism. You had a bone or two to pick with some of the things he said. So we thought maybe we might get into the subject from your perspective. I’d also like to talk about Blasphemy Day CFS International move, the pushback against the blasphemy laws to start off, Paul. I just want to ask you a simple question. Are you an atheist? 

Well, I don’t like to go by that name. I consider myself primarily a secular humanist. And I think it’s a profound mistake to identify secular humanism with atheists. That’s too narrowly construed. And this notion that you must be an atheist and a secular humanist is very narrow and you simply could be non-religious and indifferent, as you know, of course. 

And many other people also know, you’re one of my closest friends. I feel like, therefore, I can challenge you a little on this point. Please do. Paul, of course, you are an atheist. You lack belief in God. And that’s what Athie is a means, right? 

No, it means many things. I’m a non theist. I’m an agnostic. I do not believe in God. But I think it’s a terrible mistake to identify our whole movement with atheists. Because that is negative. What you don’t believe in and what is important is what we affirm. We believe in the fulfillment of human life and social justice and creativity. And that’s why I refuse to be defined simply as an atheist. 

You just said you’re an agnostic as well. 

Well, even though Thomas Huxley invented the term agnosticism in the 19th century and there are different senses of agnosticism. But for him, agnosticism is not a creed, but a method. The essence of which is a rigorous application of the quest for reason and experience to justify a belief. This is known as rationalism. And in the 19th century, briefly, we’re committed to reason and evidence as a basis of belief. And so the question of God, whether or not God exists, is whether or not there’s sufficient evidence and reasons for that claim. 

Okay, so everything you just said, I can get behind. I think most of our listeners can, too, if they’re atheist or agnostic or secular humanist. Look, I’m an atheist. I’m also an agnostic. Of course, I’m a secular humanist. One word refers to Faith Athie ism. You lack faith in God. One refers to knowledge, agnosticism. You lack knowledge of God. Right. You’re open minded, but you you haven’t found knowledge to compel belief. So you’re both an atheist and an agnostic at the same time. Also, of course, a secular humanist, right? 

Well, it’s primarily the best term. I should use a skeptic. I’m a skeptic about religious claims. And that’s a very noble term. Right. 

That defines our movement. I’m skeptical of the claim that there is a theistic there is a being who created the universe and to whom human beings must pray for salvation. But I’m always willing to look at the evidence. It’s not a closed argument. For example, intelligent design or tuning Jim Underdown. 

You mean fine tuning stuff? Fine tuning. Yes. 

I examine those arguments. So that’s why I think it’s a mistake that they find us as my colleague at Francois Tom Flynn does. He says that ageism is a necessary condition of secular humanism. I deny that you can be a secular humanist and not an atheist. You can be an agnostic or a skeptic or a nonpracticing person. So I’m saying that our appeal is much wider. Atheists only make up two or three percent of the population. Agnostics are maybe eight or nine percent. But there are many, many more people are non-religious, are indifferent to religion, are nonpracticing, and yet want to lead the good life. And those people are interested in humanism as an alternative. 

It sounds like you’re really making, you know, of course, this ethical push, but it’s a strategic argument. You’re saying Athie ism is not enough. It’s too limited what you’ve promoted all these years. And this is the real point. It’s not a theism. It’s secular humanism. You once told me how Madalyn Murray O’Hair, she’d always kind of give you grief for not aggressively promoting a ism, but for advancing secular humanism instead. So for you, Athie ism, it’s not enough. It’s not sufficient. You can be a secular humanist and, you know, not even really identify as an atheist, not an atheist. 

Indeed, you may be. And most people I know are agnostics or a skeptic or indifferent. And certainly I’m at the point maybe of abandoning secular humanism gone through. 

That’s another topic. I’ve gone through a terrible internal battle myself on this. Why? Yes. 

Because what I want to affirm is not simply the secularism, but the ethical aspects of humanism. So I am primarily an ethical humanist. Going back to the Renaissance and indeed there is a categorical imperative, which I consider the third category of comparative. The second is courts treat every person as an end and never as a means. But the third is to have a genuine concern for the well-being of other human beings at beneficence and a kind of goodwill. 

So you talk about a kinder, gentler, kinder, gentler humanism. 

Yes. And I must say that I am dismayed by the atheists. I consider many of them fundamentalists, atheists. There are fundamentalists, atheists, and they are the ones who are purists. They want to begin with the premise. God does not exist and affirm that as the first principle. And I want to begin with the premise that life, human life exists. And I’m concerned with leading the good life, finding meaning in life. That’s where I begin. 

In other words, your posture shouldn’t be a.. It should be what you’re for. I get the impression. Yes. We’ve talked about this many times, not on point of inquiry, but just in our conversations that what you really resist is when people are all for Athie ism. But you think they’re kind of mean spirited, kind of nasty atheists not taking the high road, right? 

Yes, because they begin with they’ve been bruised. They’re either they were devout Roman Catholics or fundamentalist or Orthodox Jews or committed Muslims, and they abandoned it. And then the whole life begins and ends in denying God. Well, I never had that to worry about. So I begin with a nature in life and the beginning there. That’s my premise. I’m not going to begin my life by rejecting the mythologies of other people. I’m going to begin my life by appealing to the natural world in which we live. And the tremendous possibilities of a good life. And that’s why the third. Imperative is empathetic humanism, namely beneficence towards myself and goodwill towards others, to kindlier, kinder and gentler humanism. Not a nasty in your face Athie ism. 

OK, so that’s what you’re resisting, the kind of nasty atheist’s fine. But Paul, if you look at the history of American religion, the out and loud atheists, even if they were controversial, they’ve had so much influence. Look at what Madalyn Murray O’Hair did in the courts, for instance, should our goal be kind of influence for our cognitive minority? You know, science types, atheist agnostics. Yes. Secular humanist skeptics, if you want to call yourself that. Or should it be to fit in at cocktail parties and not rock the boat and not offend people? It’s a question of what our goal is. 

I don’t mind being offensive. I don’t mind proclaiming a point of view. I don’t mind persuading or educating others. But education is not to reject the gods of the past or, you know, the present, but to affirm the potentialities of the good life of the president for myself and other human beings. In my view, it is goodwill. That is the starting point towards others empathy, altruism and the creative realization of the joyful life. And I am surrounded by negative, often bitter people who have been so wounded by religion. That’s all they want to talk about. They bore me now, right? They’re kind of what you know, we’ve chuckled about as village atheists, even though they were called the Village Atheists and I think be the village hated, prematurely maligned too much because it was independent. But they would say it’s the embittered atheist. 

And I’m talking about what we’re really talking about. You look around the kind of the fledgling atheist movement. You’re talking about those who are in our ranks who don’t take the high road. And that makes me think about some of the things you’ve said about Blasphemy Day. You are not in support of CFI being behind. 

I ask for my appalled by supporting Bless the Day. It seems to me rather a juvenile effort today to gain attention. I plus seem all the time, depending on what you mean by that. I’m critical of religious claims, so some religious people might consider that blasphemous. 

Yes, you do, kind of publicly. But when you’re in a coterie of your fellow nonbelievers, even if you don’t want to call them atheists are yourself an atheist. You know, you and I have enjoyed jokes at religion’s expense. It’s kind of par for the course when you’re a secular person in this overly religious culture. I remember being at a restaurant with you in Manhattan once and you raised a toast and you said something that I won’t repeat, but I’ll just say was emphatically blasphemous. And we all got a good chuckle. 

And I remember what I said, but the good drink was it was a good drink. Yes. 

My point is there’s room for both approaches, I think. And wouldn’t you at least concede? 

Yes, my mansion has many rooms. 

But I feel that a narrow point of view, which is what I reject and philosophy, is too narrow and too mean spirited. And I think we have to open up our philosophical outlook to science, the arts, morality, a kinder, gentler life. 

So Center for Inquiry historically has, in quotes taken the high road, were kind of the academic types we put on conferences. Are folks write books. Other times, though, isn’t there room for an approach where we kind of have fun with the criticism? We puncture the pretensions of those who say their religion should be immune from privacy. 

I think you I think your point that taking the high road Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a woman in new and died a tragic death, terrible. What happened? Years, unfair and brutal. She was murdered, but she was in your face. Athie is an embittered. And when I found at the Center for Inquiry and only organizations connected to it, I invited the leading thinkers in America, the leading scientists and philosophers in the world, and they joined. I almost never had a declination and I promise to them that we would be interested in inquiry. We would critically examine claims in a dignified way. And that is what I object to in blasphemy, and that is to ridicule your opponents. We live in an open, pluralistic, democratic society. 

I have Mormon friends and Baptist friends and Jewish friends and Catholic friends and Hindu friends. I don’t want to insult them because I disagree with their point of view. I want to engage in reasoned dialog. And that’s what I deplore about blasphemy. De. I think it’s a blessing to the whole human, Estelle. Look at blaspheme humanism, which is the kinder, gentler, more humane view towards life. 

Paul, I don’t want to put you on the spot. I can get behind what you’re saying. Look, if if the point of blasphemy, bay, is just to offend. I’m not behind it. I don’t think that that’s the only point of it, however. And I said I didn’t want to put you on the spot, but I guess I’m going to when I point out that you, at least to my reading, seem to contradict just now something you said a few years ago when free inquiry published the Muslim cartoons. 

The Danish Muslim cartoons. Yes. When we were the only magazine in the U.S. to do so. You wrote something like that. You’re defending the right to blaspheme by engaging in blasphemy. Have you changed your mind on all the right to defend that? 

And when these Danish cartoons were published, they were making a political statement. They were. They were rejecting the suicide bombers who in the name of Allah, were willing to kill and maim people. And so when there were riots in the streets, I said, I believe in freedom of the press. And the Danish newspaper. And then finally, the man who wrote the cartoons are threatened with death, that they have a right to publish. But I don’t think necessarily that the Center for Inquiry should be engaged in blasphemy itself. 

In that sense, you say you mean just to rock the boat. What’s the point you’re saying? 

Well, I’ve written a thousand articles and 50 books and different articles are for different purpose, right purposes. They referring to an editorial, I think, in 2006 in which I defended the right of the Danish newspapers to publish those cartoons. Yes, I believe in freedom of the press. And if that’s what they want to do, go ahead and do it. I don’t think that we should necessarily do that. That’s my point. I don’t believe in caricaturing are our opponents. And I’ve you know, I want to enter into dialog and appreciate them. 

Are we just debating that old kind of movement debate about what’s strategic versus what’s justified according to our values and teaching is what’s morally permissible. 

Look, I sponsored three great dialogs with the Vatican and the Vatican humanist dialogs, and we met our bad our colleagues in Amsterdam and New York and elsewhere. And these refined debates. But to vulgarized that debate by obscene drawings of Jesus, I mean that or of the pope. That’s hardly civilized conduct. So some forms of blasphemy are uncivilized. And that’s why I’m I’m opposed to those cartoons. For us to do it, I didn’t create the center for inquiry so that we would get down into the gutter. I want to deal critically with these ideas in dialog, not in a disrespectful way. And that’s why I object. I believe civilized and civilized discourse can work with me on this. 

One question, though, if if we weren’t talking about religion, you wouldn’t object to parody or ridicule or some. Look, there are editorial cartoons caricaturing politicians all the time and we don’t get up in arms. It’s only this special category of religion that you seem to go know place. True. 

I mean, you take anti Semitic cartoons. If you look at the STURMER. The Nazis did in the 30s when they caricature as Jews. Right. Or racist cartoons that you may get in the south that you did during the days of Jim Crow. So we don’t want to be racists or ethnic bigots and nor religious bigots either. 

All of that’s true. And I agree. But and it’s a complex issue. I think some of the complexity centers around the issue of when you’re criticizing religion, you’re criticizing a prevailing view when you’re ridiculing someone’s race or kind of you’re being anti-Semitic, that’s a minority view. 

No, that’s not true. Anti-Semitism and anti black prejudice was very widespread in this country at one time. 

Indeed. But what I what I meant was that you’re you’re ridiculing or criticizing a minority. And when a minority like blasphemers, you know, we’re the we’re the minority. We are standing proud and standing up and and puncturing the pretensions of those who say religion should be off limits. 

It seems to me apples and oranges, T.J., there are over 2000 religious sects, more or less in the United States. I have Mormon friends in Seventh Day Adventists and Baptists and that Orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics and we live in a pluralistic society. And that’s why I’m offended. By sticking in their face, poking fun, you know, discuss this intelligently to blaspheme in that sense, I’ve considered a form of it braced for civic virtues of democracy, which involves toleration of the other point of view. You can disagree with them without poking fun. That’s the point I was making. And these cartoons that are being displayed in Washington, D.C. at the Center for Inquiry, that is on September 30, Jim Underdown. 

Right. That seems to me to be uncivilized. 

So your beef is with the undignified way that we’re engaging in criticism. So your objection is not criticism of religion. 

Don’t let anyone, you know, kind of misunderstand what you’re saying. But you’re saying that you don’t want religion to be unduly or unfairly made fun of. What what happens when you criticize religion in a seeming dignified way and someone accuses you of blasphemy because you criticize religion? 

Well, I you know, I think in the open, free, pluralistic, democratic society, we have a right to raise criticisms and there’s a kind of civilized discourse. What I was objecting to is the use of ridicule, which is out of place. Can you imagine a debate in the floor of the Senate when someone gets up and says, well, you’re a baptism look that you believe in and this is funny, you know, that would have no place in the U.S. Senate. And I don’t think it has a place in the free, open market of ideas that there are limits to civilized discourse. I think some forms of blasphemy, pornographic, it’s obscene. I think, you know, all of senator pornography need not be sexual so that there is this a civilized society is civilized discourse. 

And I am appalled that the Center for Inquiry, which is committed to reason and science and the dialog with colleagues in an effort to persuade them has degenerated into in your face the kind of atheist attack. 

You’re saying, yes, criticize religion. No, don’t offend just for the sake of of offending, but celebrate. You’re fine with celebrating the right to blaspheme as a way to make sure religion should never be off limits to criticism. 

Oh, yes. 

I mean, Voltaire, I will defend the right of someone to express a point of view, even though I may disagree with it. So religious people have every right to proclaim from the pews and from the rafters their point of view. And critics have every right to do so at the same time. Atheists, agnostics and skeptics. What I do recently is parody prejudice. A caricature poking fun. Embarrassment. It seems to me to be in very bad taste. 

Well, you know, listening to you on this and we’ve had many other conversations off the air kind of going on back and forth and really trying to explore the topic. You seem rather pessimistic, and that’s not the Paul Kurtz I’ve known over all these years. Where do you see all this going on, this atheist movement? 

I mean, while I’m pessimistic about certain things, but basically I’m an optimist and I believe in the great potentialities for achieving the good life in a democratic society. 

I’m merely saying there is civilized modes of discourse. And I think to attack your opponents in a vulgar way, I think is a mistake. And that’s my point. And there’s certain kinds of blasphemy. And now people have a right to blaspheme and they would not want a band that. But there are certain kinds of blasphemy that I would not do and I would not offend people. And I don’t think we should do that. 

I really appreciate the discussion, Paul, and and look forward to continuing it. Thank you for joining me again on point of inquiry. 

Thank you for having me as a guest. 

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. 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, thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. If you want to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode. Join the discussion at point of inquiry dot org for updates throughout the week. Find me on Facebook and on Twitter. And I want to let you know that the views on today’s show aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry or its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri, Point of inquiries. Music is composed for by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. 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.