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04-19-2010, 10:59 PM
Redirecting a long life of godlessness
A skeptic in twilight, Paul Kurtz confronts an awkward crossroads
By Jay Tokasz
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Updated: April 19, 2010, 11:31 am /
Published: April 19, 2010, 7:03 am

Paul Kurtz isn't quite finished preaching the gospel of secular humanism.

The retired University at Buffalo philosophy professor built a mini-empire in Amherst two magazines, a publishing house and an internationally recognized nonprofit known as the Center for Inquiry around the premise that secularism and skepticism are good for society.

All of it, in addition to his writing and editing of more than 50 books, has made Kurtz a household name in a splintered community of atheists, agnostics and other nonbelieving types.

But at age 84, Kurtz has arrived at an awkward crossroads.

He was removed last year as chairman of the Center for Inquiry in a showdown with his successor as chief executive officer, Ronald A. Lindsay.

Kurtz remains on the center's board, holds the honorary title of chair emeritus and continues to serve as editor in chief of Free Inquiry magazine. Still, he described his removal as chairman as "a shattering blow," and his supporters are questioning how the center a small island of unbelief in heavily religious Western New York will fare under its current leadership.

Kurtz worries that, even worse, the momentum he helped build toward a less faith-bound world is now overly focused on attacking religion, at the expense of other goals.

"It's become fixated in recent years on atheism, the criticism of religion," he said. "And I think that's a strategic blunder. Not just a strategic blunder, but a philosophical and ethical one, as well."

Don't misunderstand Kurtz, who hasn't had a change of heart in his advanced years. He has always viewed religions skeptically. "They were spawned during an agricultural, rural time," he said. "They don't apply to the modern world."

He still doesn't believe in a god or an afterlife, because "there's no evidence for that."

At the same time, he sees a place for believers in the broad spectrum of secular humanism in large part because, without them, any movement toward societies based on principles of humanism, rather than faith, will go nowhere.

"Let's say the atheists are successful, and religion continues to decline, so what do you have, a vacuum?" he said. "That's really the burning issue in America today: How shall I live? What should I strive for?"

Atheism "not enough'

By force of personality and a seemingly endless supply of energy, Kurtz has for decades carried the torch for a movement that appealed largely to a niche crowd of academics and intellectuals.

In the world of unbelief, Kurtz set himself apart from other activists, most notably the tough-talking Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who founded American Atheists in 1963 as an outpost for anyone averse to religion.

"Atheism, by itself, is not enough," Kurtz said. "The fact that you do believe in [a] god is not enough. The fact that you don't believe in [a] god is not enough."

He has sounded many of the same notes for more than 30 years, when he began the Council for Secular Humanism, helping overcome a national reluctance to say anything critical of religion.

Nowadays, criticism of religion in the United States has become far more accepted as evidenced by a recent spate of best-selling books by atheist authors taking faith and organized belief to task.

The new generation of atheist writers and thinkers appears to be reaching a broader audience than Kurtz ever did, if book sales and media attention are any indication.

Kurtz appreciates the no-punches-pulled approach of writers such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, firebrands of what has been dubbed the "new atheism," an especially uncompromising critique of religion.

But it's not what secular humanism and the Center for Inquiry that Kurtz envisioned are all about, he added.

Kurtz and his supporters cited the center's "Blasphemy Day" last fall as evidence that it is headed in a direction more in line with the new atheism.

The event included contests calling for cartoons and slogans that illustrated the best forms of blasphemy a gimmick that Kurtz termed "sophomoric."

"That's his greatest fear, that it's becoming an outright atheist organization," said Kurtz's son, Jonathan, who runs the publishing company, Prometheus Books, that Kurtz founded in 1969. "There's plenty of atheist organizations out there. There doesn't need to be another one."

The younger Kurtz, who served on the center's board until last year, was also critical of Blasphemy Day and has some doubts about how the organization will carry on with his father playing a diminished role.

"I'm concerned about where they're going and the kind of name recognition or lack thereof to try and raise money and grow the organization," Jonathan Kurtz said.

Lindsay defended the contest as a way to generate interest and enthusiasm among supporters of the center, and he said Blasphemy Day was part of a larger effort called the Campaign for Free Expression.

The mission of the center hasn't changed at all, said Richard Schroeder, the board chairman who succeeded Kurtz.

"There's been no change in our direction, focus or anything," Schroeder said. "I know he's been upset, and I think some of it is just the difficulty of stepping back."

Clash over direction

Schroeder noted that Kurtz handpicked all of the current board members and hired staff for the center. Kurtz even recommended that Lindsay take over the day-to-day operations.

But the two men clashed over how the organization ought to be run, and the board ultimately sided with Lindsay, moving last June to make Kurtz chair emeritus and designate the chairmanship as a non-executive post.

"Everybody would have been happier if it could have worked out with Paul as chairman," Schroeder said.

Nonetheless, the organization's growth over the years it now has about 40 employees made it impossible for one man to do everything on Kurtz's agenda, anyway, according to leaders of the organization.

The move gives Kurtz time to concentrate on writing, speaking and being Paul Kurtz.

Being an administrator is "not the appropriate role for somebody with the mind of Paul Kurtz," Schroeder said. "He's our public face. He's a leading philosopher, and he's got books to write and speeches to give."

And Kurtz has certainly been doing that. His latest book, "Multi-Secularism: A New Agenda," was published in March, and he has another one coming out soon. He gave a talk earlier this month at the most recent national conference of the American Atheists.

Also in March, he sent out on his own a 10-page "Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Values and Principles" to confront what he termed "a new brand of acerbic atheism."

Some days, Kurtz will sit down and write for as long as 15 hours. "It's an addiction," he said, "but it's not a bad addiction."

Despite his disagreements with center leadership and disappointment over the direction of the humanist effort, Kurtz has shown no signs of slowing down. "His intellectual capacities certainly haven't dulled," said Lee Nisbet, a longtime friend who is professor of humanities at Medaille College.

"A very sharp mind'

No one at the center has questioned Kurtz's acuity, Lindsay said.

"I think he still has a very sharp mind," Lindsay said. "He still writes well, speaks well. He's clear in his reasoning."

Kurtz often sleeps for only a few hours a night and sometimes wakes up early to scribble down thoughts racing through his head. He takes daily walks, when he can often be seen flapping his arms like a bird to work out his upper body.

His friends hope that the rift with the center can be healed quickly, as much for the organization's sake as his.

"He knows the who's who of the world's intelligentsia," Nisbet said. "He's always managed to bring in, in terms of the scientific community, the top people in the world."

Kurtz also has been an accomplished fundraiser.

Fallout over the rift has included the suspension of giving from a handful of smaller donors, and the center is weathering the recession in the same way as most nonprofit organizations, Lindsay said.

The difficulties between Kurtz and the center have become well-known in atheist and humanist circles with Kurtz sometimes trading barbed e-mails on blogs with Lindsay and others.

But Schroeder insists it's much ado about nothing.

Besides himself, Schroeder said, Kurtz remains the most active member of the board.

"He's still very engaged in the important things," Schroeder said. "I don't think there is a problem. I think it's just difficult to make the transition. ... He's built an organization that's one of a kind. We are recognized as a leader, and that's all due to his work."

Current leadership, he added, wants to make sure that work continues at least 100 years from now.

One thing's for certain: Paul Kurtz isn't done preaching.

"I always felt he's trying to change the world," Jonathan Kurtz said. "Until everybody has listened, I don't think he's going to stop."

Buffalo News (http://www.buffalonews.com/2010/04/18/1023513/redirecting-a-long-life-of-godlessness.html)

jtokasz@buffnews.com