This article, written before Paul Kurtz’s death in October 2012, recounts my last face to face meeting with him. It is a sad personal reflection on a friendship that lasted thirty years–from my graduate school days until the end of his life and the ruin of the work he started at the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism, after 2009. rjh
I had dinner with Paul Kurtz recently. As many of you know, he is the founder of a number of organizations that were brought together in the early 1990’s under the somewhat mysterious moniker “Center for Inquiry.” What was a Center is now a Crisis.
The name was an attempt to stitch together his two pet projects and their respective publications, The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine and organization devoted, basically, to investigating pseudoscience and the paranormal, and Free Inquiry, a magazine and organization devoted to the promotion of Kurtz’s ideas about secular humanism–a name not coined by him, but one intended to connote that humanism to be humanism needed to be non-theistic.
For many readers of the magazines, the difference between secular humanism and atheism was a difference without distinction. And in fact, the Council for Secular Humanism, one of the parents of the Center, was never totally interested in driving home the difference.
Between 1982 and 1992 robust atheists were drawn into the mix along with a fairly loyal cadre of skeptics, agnostics, perennial doubters, former fundamentalists, hopelessly lapsed Catholics and secularized Jews. Even though these groups had nothing conspicuously in common, they were bound together by a vague and sometimes outspoken antipathy toward religion, dogma, and the nibbling away of first amendment rights and protections by the churches and church-loving politicians.
The Center, when it became the Center in the early 90’s was an amalgam of two or three loosely confederated organizations and publications. On the skeptical side, readers of the Skeptical Inquirer were treated to a steady diet of articles about crop circles, weird medicine, weeping statues, spontaneous combustion (of people), Bigfoot, apparitions of the Virgin to impoverished Mexicans, the shroud of Turin, and ESP. (Remember ESP?). On the humanist side, Kurtz pursued his philosophical interest in finding moral alternatives to the dogmatic ethics of organized religion. He refused to believe that nihilism—the cliff of free choice where atheism gets you—was the only possible outcome of unbelief, and he opposed the use of ridicule as a means of argumentation. In fact, I learned from Paul that there is no need to be unkind to people who disagree with you, even if they are a bit slow.
The Center for Inquiry was always a work in progress and at the time of Kurtz’s very public ouster from the organization in 2008 was far from being a finished portrait of his thinking. Kurtz had visions of making it a “think tank” for the principles of secular humanism. The problem with such a plan was that few of his closest associates and co-workers and not all readers of the publications signed on, in a strict sense, to the vision—which (after all) was a rejection of dogma, which (after all) is what makes religions cohere at the level of belief and action. “Free-thought,” however you designate it, is not a system that leads to baptism, marriage vows, or fidelity.
CFI specialized in conferences featuring “big name” speakers. The Center developed a formula that involved, basically, appealing to the readership and a modicum of outsiders through the star-power of participants, then incorporating the “talks” from the gatherings in Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer. The conferences were themed and ranged from public discussions of biblical ethics to the war on science—a theme CFI patented long before the issue became a hot button under George W. Bush.
The advantage to the organization of these magazine-based events was a steady supply of articles by important voices, not all of whom agreed with each other and (certainly) not all of whom were atheists. The advantage to secular humanism was in being able to claim that the conference participants either endorsed the humanist stance of the Center or were apostles for for secularism. The advantage for the readers was that it validated their antipathy towards religion (“If Isaac Asimov and Steve Allen are atheists, I must be pretty smart, too”) and encouraged the belief that the Center for Inquiry was populated by free-thought heroes, public intellectuals, and top notch scientists.
To shore up this belief, Kurtz created the “Academy of Humanism” – a list of significant intellectuals and public figures who had made outstanding contributions to humanistic learning. The Academy was an important “concept”—not least because it called attention to the fact that there is a link between human progress in the sciences, arts and professions and the system of belief (or unbelief) that formed a crucial part of the biographies of illustrious, straight-thinking women and men.
But Paul Kurtz’s mission was always about education. He recognized that humanism was really the intellectual legacy of the western world and that while—in its fragmented, departmentalized and highly specialized form–this legacy is foundational in our best universities–there was no organization that saw “humanism” as a subject matter in it own right, one that both promoted the values associated with the intellectual tradition and existed to protect it through outreach and education.
The tricky bit in turning this vision into reality was in urging the “atheist believers” to understand that secular humanism was not an endpoint on an intellectual path to being bright and right, but a process. It included discipline, thinking, skepticism (not just about religion, but value in general). It was surprising—to me at least–how few atheists were prepared to move beyond the cul de sac of full-frontal unbelief to the questions of meaning and value. And how many found atheism a self-authenticating philosophy that evoked no further questions.
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. It wasn’t seen that way at first: the language of Dawkins seemed, at one level , entirely comportable with some of what CFI had been saying for decades. 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.
Programmatically, it was possible to feature them at conferences. Name-value is name-value. Educationally it was impossible to factor their proselytizing, self-promoting and sometimes academically weak approach to matters of belief into the growing academic and intellectual work of the Center. For CFI to endorse their message and mission wholesale was essentially to abandon any pretense that the Center was involved in “free inquiry” or serious intellectual pursuit in favor of playing the role of the Village Atheist loudly and proudly.
The delicate task of arguing the academic bona fides of humanism, especially its commitment to rational objectivity, was negatively offset by “a bevy of loudmouthed amateurs who simply want to see the end of religion and consider all religious persons morons.” I am quoting myself; but the quote serves to illustrate the dilemma. The gospel preached by the new atheists was not a lesson that could be taught in any secular classroom in the United States. Not because religious bigots control the classrooms, but because the classroom, in a democracy,is a value neutral place with respect to religion and irreligion. It was not religion, ironically, that brought CFI into crisis but the unkind and ungentle Unbelief of the atheist bigots.
My own sense two years beyond the flood is that the organization had no way out. There is a fine distinction between a message that’s muddy and a message that’s nuanced. For all the chatter about what CFI stood for and being “honest” about “who we are,” the ones most prone to invoke the challenge about identity—the Outists, if you will– were stolid atheists who had mounted an insurgency within the organization, despised nuance, found intellectuals useful only insofar as they could draw a crowd (most cannot) and were determined to drive the organization away from the academy and intellectualism.
In 2008 I resigned as a senior vice president and academic “czar” of CFI. At that point CFI had five PhDs on its payroll, not including Kurtz himself. It possessed an educational entity called the Institute, a growing summer educational program, several research projects, an articulation agreement for offering an Ed.M. degree in conjunction with the University at Buffalo, the country’s largest free-thought library, a strong evening lecture series, a summer camp program, a Sunday Platform series, a significant array of non-stipendiary fellows, and an advanced plan for a permanent MA program in humanist studies on the drafting table. It was a primary, if not the only, non-university resource for subjects it had made its own: secular ethics, religion in the public square, pseudoscience, and even controversial subjects such as the historical Jesus and the origins of the Quran. It was enthusiastically invited to hold its conferences on University campuses (an important index of the growing legitimacy with which its programs were being received): Between 1984 and 2007, it had held meetings at, among other places, the Universities of Michigan, Southern California, Richmond, Oxford, Cornell, UC Davis. As its academic visibility increased its intellectual capital grew proportionally.
It had become, painfully slowly but surely, not just another secular or church-state separation advocacy group (plenty of those begging for time and money) but the only organization committed to the preservation of humanist values through research and education.
There were two problems with this picture, rosy as it seems. First, it was expensive, and had to compete for attention and funding with CFI’s other priority: expansion and outreach. Second, none of the long-timers associated with Kurtz from the hand-to-mouth days of CFI’s Buffalo beginnings bought into the “educational model.” From the “business model” that had evolved over time, only established projects could be defended. The charge was always that education and academic pursuits were luxuries, did not represent the core values of CFI (not true), did not bring home the bacon (partly true) and needed to be subsidized by magazine sales and conferences (entirely true) which were diminishing. Vision is far more expensive than diamonds.
I left CFI in a bad mood, with a good conscience, but also with the conviction that the organization had become unmanageable, confused, incoherent and headed for disaster. Tom Flynn, the editor of Free Inquiry and a full frontal atheist, was committed to making the Center and its magazines a beacon of atheist thought. Barry Karr, the chief operations officer, was determined to keep investigation of the paranormal at the top of the Center’s to-do list, despite the fact that magazine sales had plummeted in tandem with loss of public interest in freak psychology.
Paul Kurtz himself, at some point along the way, became diverted by expansion and left it to his lieutenants to call the shots while he focused on a mission and message that had not quite come together. He was unaware, as only a founder can be, that he had become a thorn in the side of a movement that was trying to outlast him and intent on driving programs in a different direction.
In 2008, by decree of a fumbling board of directors, a Washington, DC lawyer named Ronald A. Lindsay was named CEO of the Center for Inquiry. While Lindsay initially professed to share Kurtz’s interest in humanism, he was mainly interested in First Amendment issues and public policy.
Effectively, he took on an agenda that had suffered the predations of time and tide—the remains of a leader who was not going to be successful in achieving coherence and outreach at the same time—and scuttled it. The position toward religion became not investigative but adversarial. Educational programs were curtailed, threatened with obliteration. Research projects were put on indefinite hold. An organization that stood for the First-Amendment right for blasphemy to occur became a sponsor of “Blasphemy Day” and puerile anti-religion Cartoon Contests.
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.
The old star-power had its purpose: to create something of radiance, put it at the center of the humanist universe and let it shine. The “New” Center for Inquiry will have to trade on the words and wisdom of people whose vision need not correspond to much of anything and hope to bask in its glory. It’s the difference between sunlight and moon-glow.