Secular humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz passed away on October 2012. He was 86.
Philosophy was Paul Kurtz’s passion. Throughout World War II, the 19-year-old soldier carried a copy of Plato’s ‘The Republic’. He saw fascism and the brutality of the Nazi firsthand.
In its obituary, the New York Times described him a “philosopher whose advocacy of reason ahead of faith helped define contemporary secular humanism.”
At New York University, Paul Kurtz studied Philosophy under the famous pragmatic philosopher Sidney Hook, who remained a lifelong influence. Other “philosophical mentors” of Paul Kurtz were Socrates, Marx, John Dewey, and William James.
He received a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University in 1952.
Paul Kurtz is regarded as the father of “secular humanism”, which he defended as “the point of view that holds that it is possible to lead a good life and contribute significantly to human welfare and social justice without a belief in theistic religion or benefit.”
Despite teaching philosophy for decades, Paul Kurtz thought philosophy had lost its appeal. In an introduction (titled “Not for philosophers only”) to his famous book “The Transcendental Temptation,” Paul Kurtz stated, “The tragedy of contemporary philosophy is that it has been castrated; it is too often inconsequential to the larger issues of intellectual concern and social significance. ”
To champion science and reason Paul Kurtz founded the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry; to debunk pseudoscience & paranormal ideas, he established the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, later renamed, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) with fellow activist magician James Randi. These organizations brought together and provided platforms to nontheistic scientists, authors, activists to promote a world based on science and reason rather than blind faith.
Not long ago, the views of freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and skeptic were often censored in the mainstream media. Paul Kurt created the Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry magazines, founded Prometheus Books to publish humanist, secular and scientific views on wide range of topics. Later in life, he established the Institute for Science and Human Values and the journal The Human Prospect.
“No deity will save us; we must save ourselves,” declared Paul Kurtz in the Humanist Manifesto II, an update on the original Humanist Manifesto written in 1933. It drew the attention of intellectuals, scientists, and activists worldwide, including Francis Crick, (the scientist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA), and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who enthusiastically endorsed it.
I first met Paul Kurtz in 2001, in Buffalo, New York. I was invited to attend a conference of secularists and freethinkers from Muslim countries. The event was sponsored by SUNY-Buffalo (where Paul Kurtz taught philosophy for years and retired as professor emeritus in 1991) at the Paul Kurtz’s Center For Inquiry (CFI) International.
I was one of the youngest attendees, and Professor Paul Kurtz had noticed.
Following our first meeting, I met professor him in New York City and on nearby Long Island a few more times at events where he was the keynote speaker. He was in his late 70s, yet full of energy. It was amazing to see how a soft-spoken man of small stature could impact the minds of so many people within and outside the USA—so much so that evangelical Christians once called him a “satanist free-thinker.”
An ardent supporter of secular activists and freethinkers across the world, including Taslima Nasrin of Bangladesh, Paul Kurtz greeted us on many occasions when I was moderating Mukto-mona, an online forum run by freethinkers & bloggers of Bangladesh origin, with my friend Avijit Roy, the slain blogger and activist.
Professor Paul Kurtz was kind enough to permit us to translate a few of his articles into Bangla, including his famous essay “Why I Am a Skeptic about Religious Claims.”
In between sessions, at the 2001 conference, I would often chat with Paul Kurtz. “Professor, do you consider Karl Marx a humanist?” I asked him a question that I had been grappling with as a humanist. We were sitting in his CFI office, he signing me a copy of his classic book “The Transcendental Temptation.”
“Yes, I do,” raising his head he looked at me with a radiant smile. “Why are you then opposed to Communism?” I asked. “Marx was opposed to any authoritarianism; he voiced his opinion for individual’s freedom,” softly but firmly responded Paul Kurtz, “the communists were the exact opposite.”
On a personal note, I came from a science background, without any knowledge of philosophy. Philosophy, to me, remained mostly a subject too pedantic, suited for scholars. Philosopher Paul Kurtz in a sense dispelled that notion in me.
“I am a secular humanist because I am not religious. I draw my inspiration not from religion or spirituality, but from science, ethics, philosophy, and the arts,” commented Paul Kurtz while accepting the Humanist Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 from American Humanist Association.
Paul Kurtz doubtlessly was a man of philosophy and —more importantly—he lived a fulfilled life without compromising his philosophical ideals.
The terms “secular humanism” and “Paul Kurtz,” as far as I’m concerned, are synonymous.
2. The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal by Paul Kurtz (Prometheus Book)
3. In defense of secular humanism by Paul Kurtz (1983)