The Father of Secular Humanism Has Died

Though he preferred, albeit jokingly, the title “grandfather,” he is remembered as the “father” of secular humanism.

Preferences of generational titles aside, he was an important public intellectual and he is now dead. And I think the atheism/theism dialogue at large will suffer from the loss.

Before his death on October 20, 2012, Paul Kurtz served most recently as Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Kurtz is the author of many works including the  influential document the Humanist Manifesto II. He also founded Prometheus Books and multiple organizations promoting secular thought: Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry.

Richard Dawkins described him on Twitter as, “A great, if lately troubled, figure in the skeptic and secular humanist world.” Why does Dawkins call him troubled? It is likely because of the criticism Kurtz received for resigning in 2010 from the very organizations he founded (Prometheus Books excluded) due to his concern over the tone that the new atheists were taking. R. Joseph Hoffmann, a friend and colleague of Kurtz, describes the chasm from Kurtz’s vision for humanism verses the new atheist campaign:

When New Atheism was loosed upon the world, birthed by writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, the Center for Inquiry was plunged into a crisis . . . But Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens were not especially interested in humanism (or tolerance, or kindness) and as a “new generation” of ungentlemanly soldiers they were not especially interested, either, in doing business with religion, at any level.

CFI moved from being a beacon of sophisticated speculation about religion and secular values to becoming a support group for angry anti-religionists and college faddists. An organization that used its stable of worthies to fund worthy projects had chosen instead to become a celebrity booking agency for sideshow atheism. If atheism once had an ugly face (think Madalyn Murray O’Hair) this was its reincarnation.

Hoffman published a short reflection on Kurtz’ legacy at his website “The New Oxonian” where he laments the loss of Kurtz’ brand of humanism for what he calls “a simpler and more callous approach” that is taken by the authors of the new atheism. For those interested, here is a video interview of Kurtz reflecting on his life after he turned eighty.

Kurtz’ manner in talking about important, though highly controversial, topics should serve as a model for all who are interested in meaningful conversations. Kurtz once told the New York Times, “Angry atheism does not work. It has to be friendly, cooperative relations with people of other points of view.”

Though there are many points to be argued between atheists and theists, this particular one is well worth adopting universally. And in honor of Paul Kurtz, may we all enter into the kind of “friendly” conversations that he illustrated in his lifetime are entirely possible.