In the current issue of Scientific American (September 2007), Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, sends an "open letter" to four religious skeptics - Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. (1) Books by all four of these authors are currently on the New York Times best-seller list. In his letter Shermer warns the authors that the militant, in-your-face tone of their narratives is likely to be counterproductive. He writes: "It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind." (2) He counsels the authors against "passionate diatribes," urges them to be respectful and tolerant of religious moderates, and calls on them to supplement the case against religion with the case for humanism.
Is it possible to do what Shermer recommends? Is it possible for one to criticize religion without bashing people of faith? And is it possible to make a strong case that humanism is the path to morality, happiness, and social progress? If you reflect on the remarkable life and work of Paul Kurtz, the answer to both questions is a resounding "Yes!"
Paul Kurtz was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1925. (3) After high school he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in General Patton's army in Europe. He saw the horror of Dachau and Buchenwald with his own eyes and spent eighteen months in Germany in the army of occupation. After the war, Kurtz enrolled at New York University where he majored in philosophy, political science, and economics and took Sidney Hook's course entitled "Philosophy of Democracy" which had a powerful impact on him. Later he took his doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University where former students of John Dewey imbued him with Pragmatism, a philosophy that emphasizes the practical applications of ideas.
Kurtz then taught philosophy at a string of institutions and spent the last twenty-six years of his teaching career at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Along the way he published forty books and over six hundred articles and reviews. As a "public philosopher who refused to hibernate in his office," (4) Kurtz also edited the Humanist, a magazine for a general educated audience, appeared dozens of times on radio and television as a spokesperson for science and reason, established the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (1976) and the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (1980), and launched two successful magazines – Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer. What really sets Kurtz apart, though, is that, while he delivered a brilliant critique of religion in 1986 in his book The Transcendental Temptation, he simultaneously promoted dialogue between humanists and many religious groups, including Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, and others, and he published dozens of books outlining the moral and intellectual foundations of secular humanism. My favorite is Embracing the Power of Humanism. (5)
In his open letter Michael Shermer closes with this comment: "Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion." (6)Paul Kurtz's life and work embody the principle of freedom with unmatched success. Reflecting on his eighty plus years, Kurtz says that "I have tried to get along with everyone on the basis of our common humanity." (7) In this he is a model to all of us, religious and secular.
- "Rational Atheism, " p. 44, p. 46.
- Ibid., p. 46.
- This and other biographical material on Kurtz are from Brandon M. Stickney in Paul Kurtz, Embracing the Power of Humanism, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000, pp. ix-xvii
- Stickney, p. xiv.
- Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.
- Op. Cit., page 46.
- Personal Interview by Tom Shipka, August 17, 2007.
© Tom Shipka 2007