Tuesday, November 27, 2012

THE DEATH OF PAUL KURTZ---FATHER OF SECULAR HUMANISM

Emeritus Professor Paul Kurtz and Dr Ian Ellis-Jones


This, my 200th post on this blog site, is dedicated to the memory of a giant of a human being, a man I had the great pleasure and honour of knowing, the philosopher Dr Paul Kurtz (pictured above [with yours truly], as well as below).

During the time I was president of both the Humanist Society of New South Wales and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS), I met and came to know Paul Kurtz. (He was the leading keynote speaker at the Australis2000 IHEU/CAHS humanist congress we organized in Sydney which took place in November 2000, and there were other subsequent occasions in which we interacted and shared ideas.) I have never forgotten the good advice I received from Paul, namely, to always resist what Kurtz described as 'the transcendental temptation,' as well as to avoid engaging in 'magical thinking.'

Paul Kurtz---please see this online obituary---was Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he had taught philosophy for some 26 years, and one of the world's greatest apologists for secular humanism and freethought. He was the author of many seminal books on philosophy, religion, humanism and freethought, including, not so coincidentally, one entitled The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal.

I remember when I became a humanist, after coming to the conclusion that not only were there no good reasons for believing in the God of traditional theism, there were also very good reasons for not believing in such a God, I happened to mention the fact of my embracing humanism---something I still embrace, but not dogmatically or exclusively---to a rather illiberal Baptist friend of mine, who was not known for his critical thinking even though he taught psychology at a university in Sydney and had also been very successful in the business world. The friend said, ‘How can you possibly be a humanist, after the Holocaust and such like events?’ I said to him, ‘I am entitled to ask of you---How can you possibly believe in an all-loving, omnibenevolent, all-powerful personal God in the light of all that gratuitous suffering!’


As I see it, human beings are not totally depraved. They are certainly not evil beyond measure. However, they are also not good beyond credibility. My erstwhile friend seemed to think that humanists believe that human beings are inherently good or perfect. Not so. Humanists are certainly not blind to all the evil that human beings have caused over many centuries. What they do believe---or rather affirm---is that human and other problems can only be solved by human beings, working collaboratively and using reason. Secular humanism rejects supernaturalism and traditional theism, affirming instead the need for skepticism, reasonfree inquiry and critical thinking.

Now, back to Paul Kurtz. He was a very tolerant and open-minded man, except as regards such things as religious fundamentalism, New Age nonsense, and various bogus, non-evidence based forms of alternative medicine. He was not opposed to all religious thought and associated practices, and he often expressed the view that Buddhism, at least in the Theravāda tradition, was very humanistic in its ontology and ethical teachings.

Kurtz was no 'dry' rationalist, nor was he an ‘angry atheist.’ Indeed, he explicitly rejected the one-dimensional militant ‘new atheist’ stance so common today. In more recent years he spoke and wrote of a more universalistic and all-inclusive neo-humanism, emphasizing the positive and 'exuberant' dimensions of unbelief and highlighting the need to work together with religious people to solve common sociopolitical problems. Neo-humanists are not religious---‘surely not in the literal acceptance of the creed’---but neither are they avowedly antireligious,’ although they may be critical of religious claims, ‘especially those that are dogmatic or fundamentalist or impinge upon the freedom of others.’

Religion is not all bad. Far from it. Here are some of the things that make religion---any religion---bad: the belief that one particular religion is the only true religion, or the only way to  God, heaven or whatever; the belief in supernaturalism, and the assertion that there is more than one way of being, that is, that there are different (eg higher and lower) levels of reality; the belief that one’s God has spoken his or her final word in some one person (eg Jesus or Muhammad); the belief that one’s holy book and/or one’s leader are infallible and/or inerrant; the belief that ethical behaviour and morality require a religious underpinning; the belief that human beings are totally depraved; the belief that reason cannot be trusted, and that there are revelations and supposed truths that cannot be questioned and that must simple be accepted on faith and on the basis of religious authority.

Those who believe any of the foregoing are deluded---dangerously so, at times. I make no apology for saying that. None whatsoever. You may wish to accuse me of being dogmatic on that matter. If I am guilty of dogmatism as respects that matter, it is a dogmatism brought about by the exercise of reason, free rational inquiry and critical thinking, and I do not resile from it.


Paul Kurtz embraced and promulgated a humanism that was joyous, positive and life-affirming. He made it clear that humanists are---or at least ought to be---best defined by what they are for, not what they are against.

I am still a humanist. People like Paul Kurtz make you proud to be one. I fully and unashamedly embrace the sentiment in these words from Humanist Manifesto II: 'While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.' However, because---and not notwithstanding---I am a humanist, I will continue to affirm and expound all that is good and noble in the world’s religions and in spirituality. I will also continue to rail against the silly and the irrational, of which there is plenty in all organized religions (especially the monotheistic ones).

Thank you, Paul Kurtz. You taught us how to live joyously, fully and sensibly---without illusions.



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