Remembering Paul Kurtz 1925-2012
Posted by Ethan Clow on October 22, 2012
Yesterday I got the news of the passing of one of the founders of the modern skeptical and humanist movements. Paul Kurtz, who was instrumental in not only in leading the freethought movement, but of creating it, passed away on the 20th. He was 86.
Paul Kurtz was an impressive man. He was a renown philosopher who basically created much of the literature on secular humanism, his writing as an academic is considered to be some of the most important work ever written on the subject of secular humanism. The concept of humanism in general, which Kurtz wrote the most about, was in many ways modernized by him. He stripped out the superstition, the religious rhetoric and created a truly secular frame work to build an ethical and moral system of which our movement relies upon today.
One of the quotes I’ve heard recently that I rather like is that Kurtz was a feared name by religious apologists when names like Dawkins or Hitchens were unknown.
The Centre for Inquiry Transnational has a nice obituary for Kurtz up and I encourage you to check it out.
Kurtz was personally responsible for the founding of several important organizations over the years, including the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, known as CSICOP (currently known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (currently known as the Council for Secular Humanism) and the Center for Inquiry.
Kurtz was also the founder of the free thought magazine Free Inquiry. He was also the founder of Prometheus Books, a publishing company that was the main supplier of humanist and skeptic literature long before the internet. Later in life, he founded the Institute for Science and Human Values.
I only met Kurtz a handful of times. The first time was at a CFI conference in Toronto. I remember it well, there was a pseudo-anthropologist giving a talk about how the Out-of-Africa theory of human migration was wrong; obviously a rather extreme claim given the amount of evidence that supports that theory. In addition, this fellow was also asserting that human culture was about 10,000 years older than mainstream science would have us believe. During the Q and A, Kurtz stood up and basically said “how can you say that the out of Africa theory is wrong given all the evidence that theory has?” Only he said it with more force and yes, even a little bit of derision. It was pretty cool.
When I introduced myself he was very friendly and told me how important skeptical activism was how he was happy to see me at the conference.
My next few encounters weren’t as fun. Shortly after that conference in Toronto, Kurtz left CFI under frustrating circumstances (for everyone involved) CFI appointed Ron Lindsay as CEO of CFI and Kurtz was asked to take on the role of Chair Emeritus for the three organizations of CFI, CSI, and CSH. However; on May 18, 2010 Kurtz resigned. What followed was something of a war of words between Kurtz and Lindsay, and it got pretty ugly at the time.
When I attended the CFI leadership conference in Amherst, which occurred in the middle of all this, there was palpable tension in the air. When Kurtz showed up, people held their breath in trepidation. Fortunately there weren’t any scenes and everything was okay. And at that conference Kurtz was his usual friendly self, I saw him talking with the student leaders, offering encouragement and thanking them for coming to the conference.
It was at the Secular Humanism Conference in Los Angeles that I attended where Kurtz and Lindsay had a public confrontation. In front of a crowded audience, Kurtz and Lindsay argued over the removal of Kurtz from his positions at CFI all the while the audience members groaned and booed. The panel, which included James Randi, Jennifer Michael Hecht and others, walked off the stage and Randi left the room. It was just a horrible moment and I sat there shaking my head.
During this difficult period Kurtz wrote articles attacking CFI and its direction under Lindsay and it seemed that Kurtz’ legacy was going to be rather depressing.
However, the next TAM that I attended, I was amazed by what I saw (no pun intended) It seemed that Kurtz and Lindsay had buried the hatchet. I saw them talking cordially and apparently they even shook hands.
Looking back on Kurtz and his impact on the skeptic/humanist movement, I hope all his work and accomplishments overshadow the brief time of difficulty he had with his removal from CFI. It’s important to keep in mind that everything that he did accomplish, he did in a time before the internet, he didn’t have the benefit of podcasts and blogs.
His efforts will be remembered and he will be missed.