Paul Kurtz Interview

Paul Kurtz is a legendary figure among American humanists, atheists, and skeptics. For more than half a century he has been indefatigable in advancing a secular vision of life and society. Although he sees no ultimate validity to religious belief, he has always been open to dialogue with religious believers, even counting many as friends. Born in 1925, he is now eighty-five, but gives no evidence of slowing down. He sees humanism not as a negation of life but as an invitation to live life fully. Kurtz’s legacy can be felt throughout the American intellectual scene. SuperScholar is delighted to present this interview, which is a transcription of a phone interview. We are grateful for Dr. Kurtz’s time and candor.

Dr. Kurtz, thank you so much for being willing to take the time to do this interview with SuperScholar.

I’m very delighted to do so.

Can you tell us something about your early education? What thinkers and ideas most excited you in your late teens and early twenties?

Yes, well, I come from North Jersey, actually the town is Irvington, a suburb of Newark. I took my BA at New York University. Among my first courses was a course with Sidney Hook (who is a very influential philosopher, a student of John Dewey) and that sparked my interest in philosophy early in my twenties. In my late teens and twenties, I was an idealist. I believed in democracy and world federalism. I then went off to the war. I enlisted at the age of seventeen and a half and fought on the front in Europe. I helped to liberate the French, went all the way through Germany, and then stayed in the army of occupation. In a sense, my two years in the army was equivalent to my entire college education … Yes, I became interested in philosophy while young, intrigued by the questions of philosophy and then decided to become a professional philosopher.

Were there any particular thinkers and ideas that excited you most in those early days?

Well, like so many other people, I was interested in Marxism. That dominated in the 30s and the 40s the intellectual life of a large part of this country. But I became disenchanted with Marxism, having seen the repressive regimes, the communist regimes. I remained a kind of a democrat with a small “d” and a social democrat, always hoping and interested in an improving world. I think I’ve been an idealist since the earliest with a belief that you can improve human life and society on the global basis by use of science and reason and humanist ethics.

From those early years, what has stayed with you throughout your life?

Well actually, one doesn’t change — one learns and expands, surely. It’s interesting that I’ve always had a commitment to the notion of an ideal future — the improvement of human culture — and I’ve been impressed by the continued progress everywhere in the world. I mean the battle with fascism, the Second World War, totalitarian communism, and then moving on beyond that. Seeing the world interested in and spreading democracy everywhere was very important, in my view. I’ve believed in planetary humanism from the very earliest, and I remain inspired by that.

You’ve touched on this a little, but what role did World War II play in your intellectual formation? How did you spend the war years and what were some of the pivotal incidents that you experienced during that time?

World War II I found very exciting. I found it adventurous, although I was appalled by the suffering and the destruction. Nonetheless, it expanded my horizons. I met fascists, Nazis in concentration camps, communists from Eastern Europe, and refugees from it. I saw the barbarism and also remained hopeful that the world would improve. And indeed that has been my main interest, the amelioration of the human condition and particularly on the planetary level since the earliest. So I still am encouraged by the constant improvement of the human condition.

Was there a time when you were simply a standard sort of academic? How did you transition from being a professor to becoming …

No, I’ve never been a standard academic. I studied philosophy, which is my first passion, and I studied at New York University with Sidney Hook and then at Columbia with many of the disciples, so-called, of John Dewey, such as Ernest Nagel, Herbert W. Schneider, John Herman Randall Jr., and others. But Dewey, I think, as the commanding figure in American philosophy, believed in pragmatism and naturalism. He believed that by means of a creative intelligence and science you could improve human beings by education and legislation. So I continue to remain a kind of quasi-utopianist in realistic terms.

How did you transition from being a professor to becoming a public intellectual actively promoting humanism?

Well, I’ve never confined myself to the classroom. From the earliest, I began teaching at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, which was an Episcopal school, very conservative Republican. When I was there, I was invited to do a radio show in Hartford, Connecticut, and I would get all sorts of radical, liberal, conservative points of view on the radio, which were challenging. So from the earliest I was an activist. I’ve never thought that the classroom walls were the end of learning, and my interest spilled out into the public sphere from the earliest. I was interviewed by the press on the radio. From the beginning I was, you might say, provocative — for some people, too much so, and for other people, they applauded it.

Did your life change at all through this transition as you became world-renowned?

Well, I don’t know if I’m world-renowned, maybe notorious. I was a critic of religion when people feared to tread in that area. I thought it shocking that religious claims were unexamined, so I constantly critically examined the claims of religion and it didn’t bother me. I began teaching at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, as I mentioned, which I loved. But this was the high church, and some of my best friends are Episcopalians. I never held it against them that they were Episcopalians, and we agreed about so many things. I love Trinity. I appreciated the conservative mind because I came from a radical background, always questioning, a radical critic of social institutions. But nonetheless I appreciated the position of a conservative. That’s why I’ve always been willing to engage in dialogue with conservatives, reactionaries.

I sponsored a one-time initiative, the Vatican-humanist dialogue. It was very exciting when we brought together the leaders from Rome. I think we met in Belgium. We met in Europe and then we met in New York — that was challenging. There were many liberal voices of the church at that time. Similarly, although I was very critical of Marxist tyranny, we had Marxist-on-Marxist dialogues in Eastern Europe and I invited many of the leading Marxist intellectuals. So I believe in engagement, in dialogue. I’ve never wanted to build fences, just cooperate. Some of my allies in many of the battles that I had developed a kind of defensive or offensive hatred of their critics, but I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve tried to extend a helping hand, and I really, truly love people on all sides of the confrontation. Yes.

Various humanist manifestos have been written over the years, can you describe…

Those manifestos proved to be very influential and provocative. The Humanist Manifesto I was issued in 1933. My friend Ed Wilson and the humanist world suggested I update it, so in 1973 I penned a revision, Humanist Manifesto II, and sent it out to maybe a hundred distinguished humanists from all over the world. East, West, North, South, people behind the iron curtain, liberals, democrats, to see if we could end up more moderate humanists, if we could find common ground. The Humanist Manifesto II is probably my most influential writing. It has been translated into maybe fifty, sixty, seventy languages and published everywhere. It was an effort to find principles which, in a rapidly changing world, we could agree upon. And I think the first principle was the preciousness and dignity of every human person on the planet earth, no matter what his political, ethnic, racial, religious background.

What was the role of religion in your early formative years?

Well, I was a skeptic from the start. My parents were not religious, and from the earliest I doubted religion. It didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t understand how and why people would be so committed to that. So, I did criticize religion, made no bones about it. But I always tried to be polite, not nasty, have goodwill.

The basis of morality has always concerned you. What do you see as the basis of ethical humanism?

My central interest has been with ethics, but not simply of the individual but of social ethics and of planetary ethics. I think ethics should not be derived from some alleged transcendental divine source. That’s mere wishful thinking. There’s no evidence for that. Ethics is related to human needs and interests and are relative to the human species. I very quickly oppose the emotivists. I studied at New York University with A. J. Ayer, the great English logical positivist, and at that time with Rudolf Carnap, who was also influential. As an undergraduate, the positivists seemed to dominate. Ayer was visiting New York University, so I took a course with him. But I disagreed with the emotivists. Although I thought ethical values were always related to human-interest needs, desires, and passions, I nonetheless thought there were certain ethical principles that could be developed based upon evidence of the sciences and tested by their consequences. So I remained a meliorist, namely, if you can’t get the ultimate good (I don’t know what that means), at least we could get better and avoid the worst. I have great confidence in the capacity of human intelligence and human goodwill to constantly improve the human condition. And I’ve always been an optimist not a pessimist. I’m surrounded by pessimists. People that moan and groan, wring their hands, Ohhhh, and I say, “Come on now, for Christ’s sake, life is good, can be good; let’s do what we can to improve it.” I’ve been impressed by the slow but constant progress of human institutions. Of course, there have been terrible setbacks — the world wars, depressions — but barriers are being broken down by reason and goodwill.

You’ve recently been through a painful time with the humanist organization you founded in the 1970s.

Yes, indeed it has been. I’ve been a humanist since the youngest days, and I joined the American Humanist Association in the early days. I drafted Humanist Manifesto II, which got widespread attention and made the front page of the New York Times. I say, “Oh, look at that, front page of the New York Times, that’s a sacred newspaper.” It seemed to spark widespread interest … What I wanted were common principals, moral values based upon science and common human nature that would apply on the global basis. And so that’s what happened with Humanist Manifesto II. Of course, there were the enemies. The fundamentalists rejected it and indeed I think I’m partially responsible for this. In the 70s they said that secular humanism — I called it sexual humorism, to be witty — they said secular humanism was the most dangerous religion in America and in the world, and that it’s corrupted the world. I said, “Oh come on, this has to be a joke.” I mean, we’ve influenced intellectuals, the media, educated people. Secular humanism, in one sense, is equivalent to modernism. It is positive, authentic, constructive, and entirely ethical. So, I have always applauded the narrow criticisms from transcendentalists or reactionaries. I’ve always felt that there would be a gradual improvement of the human condition, and that is happening. Since World War II, I think there’s less rancor, less hatred in the world. Of course, that can always change at any time. But nonetheless, there has been a progressive growth of humanism, and I think humanism is the dominant theme of the modern world. It is truly global and it is attractive to a wide range of thinkers, non-religious and even religions. It’s the basis for amity and progress.

Dr. Kurtz, could you outline what happened recently?

They fired me. They threw me out. I founded the Center for Inquiry in 1970. CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation Claims for the Paranormal, I founded in 1976. CSICOP applied skepticism to claims of the paranormal. And then I founded the Counsel for Secular Humanism in 1980 to deal with religious claims. There was great reluctance to do that. Many people were very reticent, fearful. And then I combined them into the Center for Inquiry in 1991 and we began progressing. We had the Skeptical Inquirer, which had a circulation up to 60,000, I believe; Free Inquiry, which had a circulation over 30,000. Prometheus books has always been separate and never been endangered by rancor or dissension.

Various issues emerged. First, I never took a salary — this is a labor of love. I hired people who had salaries. I was glad to pay them. But I think the first major issue was that they wanted to be hard on religion. Now, I don’t like God. I think she’s a myth. I don’t think there’s evidence for her. But, on the other hand, many people believe in religion. Although I believe in criticizing them, I don’t hate them. I’m not nasty towards them. So there’s a difference in how you deal with religion. Many of my colleagues, I call them former altar boys, so hated religion that they couldn’t help expressing that. Now, I don’t like religion, but I don’t hate religious people in any sense. It was a difference of tone. I said, we live in a pluralistic, democratic society. Some of my best friends are Baptists, Catholics, devout Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. Well, we can criticize them, but only in a constructive way.

I think they thought I was soft on religion … so there was a revolt. Yes. And I was thrown out. I never received a salary. I raised the largest endowment fund ever. I raised up to $50 million for the Center, totally. And I fought for them to get high salaries. It was a revolt against their fathers, maybe. So they threw me out. Quite a shock to me. Yeah. I’m a big boy, so I said what the hell. I went on.

When, in the 1970s, you branched beyond straight academics to become the public intellectual defending humanism, what were your aspirations?

I thought that inquiry should be taken into the public square, that the universities and even the schools should spill out into the community. I was influenced by John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and many other great thinkers who were in the public square. Many of my colleagues where reticent to do that. I wasn’t. I always spoke out anywhere and everywhere. So, we differed about how to do dialogue. Now, as I said, I helped initiate the Vatican-humanist dialogues. I think we had three great dialogues in cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church. I surely didn’t agree with them. My wife was a former Catholic. But nonetheless, I was going to be positive. And suddenly many of our people are Southern Baptists, they turn against religion and I can understand that, extremes of religion. It seems to me that humanism should be constructive, positive, and try to persuade, not denigrate, influence, not condemn, try to modify views and not excoriate them. So that’s the difference in tone. But I’ve got a lot of young Turks around me. I understand that. They got piss and vinegar, and I have mild honey, you know, flowing through my veins.

Never one to retire from public life, you remain active in advancing …

Well, yeah sure, because I can’t keep quiet. No, I’ve always been active, that’s true. And so some of my colleagues would disagree with me. But I guess that’s healthy. So we’re not a unified point of view — we have dissent and we should welcome dissent. It’s out of dissent that new ideas emerge, so that’s never bothered me, as long as its friendly dissent.

Who are your allies now and with what organizations will you be coordinating your efforts?

Today I think, without being unduly immodest, my impact has been worldwide, and I’m very pleased by that. I’ve traveled all over the world. I went to Europe, major countries, Britain, Netherlands, France. My wife is French, j’aime beaucoup la France, la belle France. I love France, citoyen du monde, citizen of the world. But I’ve been to Eastern Europe and I went to Russia 7 times. I first began to dialogue with the communists and ex-communists, who were deeply bruised by what they’ve been through. Then I met with the Chinese colleagues, and I’ve been to India seven times. I’ve been abroad maybe a hundred times and I’m pleased by the impact of humanism worldwide. I feel that often in this country the focus is too parochial and too narrow. I’ve always considered humanism to be trans-national in character and my books have been translated into dozens and dozens of languages published all over the world, maybe eighty or ninety languages published all over the world, and that pleases me enormously.

How important has publishing been to the advance of secular humanism?

Well, you know I founded Prometheus Books in 1969. I said, “God damn it, you have all these books published by the major publishers and they don’t publish books critical of religion.” So I founded Prometheus. Remember, he stole fire from the gods and gifted the arts and sciences to humankind. It took off right away. I put $2,000.00 into it, my investment, as an independent company. I couldn’t do it as a non-profit because that would limit the kind of books that we would publish. And so Prometheus is an independent company. It’s probably one of the largest of its kind in the world. I think we’ve published over 3,500 books by outstanding authors. I’m very thrilled by that, and our books have been translated in so many languages. There are branches of Prometheus Books in various countries of the world. In Russia, so many of our books have been published. In Africa, in Asia, in Latin America. So Prometheus continues. And it’s not involved in this kind of internal warfare for power and control. It never bothered me. I was only interested in ideas and these independent companies worldwide are very pleased that they want to publish Prometheus Books.

How important to secular humanism’s advance is the worldwide web?

The web is something new and it’s very important of course. It’s hit all of us in the last 20 years, and its impact is incalculable. It wasn’t there when I came on the scene. We had magazines, and I had founded or was involved in many magazines. But there’s been a decline of magazines. That’s one astounding change, the impact of magazines. The print media’s declined as the electronic media, television, radio and the web has replaced it. So, yes, it’s very central. The problem with the web, very frankly, it’s too rapid, it’s overwhelmed by process. We’re publishing books — I consider books the most “sacred” invention to the human species — because “a book is a book is a book” said Gertrude Stein. I think she said it. She should have if she didn’t. So books are noble creations and what’s so important, they can be translated to any language, have a kind of permanence. They can be kept on your shelf, or in your computer, and can be enjoyed forever, no matter what their form. They’re so important that some people think they are sacred. Can you imagine, they worship the Bible and the Koran? Crazy. That reveals the sacred character in books at one point in human history. Yes, I’ve been addicted to books. I’m a bookaphile.

At SuperScholar, we’re interested especially in college and university education.

Ah, oh, wonderful. My first love actually was teaching in colleges. I began to teach at twenty-three. I was a graduate student at Columbia University and began teaching courses at Queens College when I was a student at the University of New York. The first day I walked into the classroom (it was an adult class at Queens College, out in Queens, a borough of New York), one of the students, an adult, says, what do you want kid, and I said I’m the professor. I was the youngest one in the class. I find the most exciting thing is to have to teach a course. You’ve got to work like hell. You learn more by having to learn what to teach than any other way, so that’s always been a delight. I love the students of all age groups, the give and take, the Socratic method, the way Socrates engaged his students and ideas. Yes. So I’ve always loved teaching. I began at Queens College in New York and then my first job was at Trinity College, as I mentioned in Hartford Connecticut. Wow, fiscal Republican bastion, and I learned to love the conservative mind and appreciate it. And then I went on from there, from Trinity, to Vassar College. All these beautiful girls. I had Miss Rockefeller and Miss Irving Berlin. They were the granddaughters of Nelson Rockefeller and Irving Berlin at Vassar, and I said, “Wow.” And then I went from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie to Trinity College, which was really something, as I mentioned. And then on to Union College in Schenectady, and from there to the State University of New York in Buffalo, where I’ve been ever since. But the colleges were great. I’ve always loved the colleges — direct contact with students.

Are there five schools that you would particularly recommend …

I believe in the liberal arts college, and I believe the best education is from one of these great colleges, and there are so many. You have Williams College and Antioch College. And I taught at Vassar, Trinity, and Union College. But, there are many more of these colleges spread throughout the country. They are small. The damn trouble is they are too expensive. If you can afford it, I would send my child to a college, a liberal arts college, and have them take a wide range of courses in the humanities, the arts, and the sciences. And then they can major later. The first two years of college are crucial, in which you imbibe great teachers. To engage a young mind of seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty-three, that’s a great experience because that’s when the mind is sparkly and opening up to new ideas. I’ve always enjoyed that very much.

I think there are maybe 50 top liberal arts schools throughout the country, but I don’t have them on the tip of my fingers. But you know which they are. Undergraduate schools, not at universities, but just by themselves. You have these great women’s colleges, and I lectured there, and male colleges. But I think it best to have coed colleges. When I started teaching, the girls would work like hell all week. They wore jeans. Then on weekends they got dolled up. I didn’t recognize them. And they were going over to the next town to a boy’s school also dolled up for the weekend. So that was a great joy to watch that actually. What is this new film social … ?

Social Network.

Yeah, Social Network, that’s right. I enjoyed that film because it showed how lively and inventive the kids were in many schools.

Among the younger generation of humanist scholars, are there any five that stand out for you in particular?

It’s difficult for me to say, you see, I’m 85. I don’t feel 85, in fact, I feel the same as I was at 20, but I haven’t kept in touch with the younger generation of students and I’ve not been teaching in the university for at least 15 years, so I don’t know if I can say that. But I meet them at conventions, and I’m encouraged. They keep getting younger looking, more good-looking every year. I’m encouraged by the inventiveness, the quality and the inquisitiveness of youth. That is the saving grace, that every generation has to reinvent the wheel and has to learn. I remember teaching at undergraduate schools. I begin with Socrates. Wow, this would awaken the great students, only the great students. In the Republic, he asks “What is justice?” With the young people who were interested, their eyes would brighten up and they’d get intrigued. Yes, so, it is the dialectical method. My great teacher Sidney Hook used to challenge us with the hurling out questions and eliciting answers. The best kind of learning and the best kind of students are those that are open to new ideas. They are not memorizing and regurgitating material, but they are committed to inquiry for it’s own sake.

Among the younger generation of humanist scholars …

Yeah, who are they? I’m not prepared to say at the moment. I mean, I go to convention this and that. So many of them are great. I think the whole generation, I think that people coming out of universities and colleges are great — particularly if they go to a university where they can take liberal arts curriculum. I know there are many, many, many. I wish I could mention their names, I’d have to go back and look it up or something. I’ve not been in touch with them as much as I should.

What do you make of the “new atheists”?

Well, I’m perplexed by the new atheists because I’m an old atheist. I haven’t denied that, but the new atheists are rediscovering what we knew in the past. It’s much easier now to be an atheist than when I grew up, you know. It was hard to be an atheist in those days. So the only thing that bothers me about the new atheists is that atheism is not enough. You simply cannot begin with atheism. You can’t just say, “Well, I hate God, she’s dead or she never existed.” Alright, where do we go from here? So the fact is that God is dead — it seems to me to be apparent she never lived. But humans are alive! So my starting point is not with atheism, but with nature and life. We start in the world, the big, mean, buzzing confusion, as William James said it. The child looks up and cries when he sees the world outside him. So we’re living in the world, we’re immersed in the world. We are actors. We make choices in the world and that’s the starting point. And then you come across these myths, and one of the great myths is God. And of course that is without foundation and fact. I think that one needs to come to terms if one is surrounded by Jesus freaks or what have you. Well, you don’t see many of them today as we did when I grew up. You are surrounded by Muslim freaks, or Jesus freaks, or Jewish Rabbi students, alright, and then you criticize them and then they have to be done in if you live in a repressive religious society. But America today is relatively free, open, democratic. Maybe in the Deep South or other places it’s repressive, but I don’t think that applies in the same sense today.

If you had unlimited funds to promote humanism, what would you do?

It’s not funds, it’s ideas. I never thought funds were enough. It’s ideas, it’s new thought, it’s creativity. I mean, the greatest humanist quality is creativity. How do you untap the creative mind and the experience of the human person to explore, to invent, and to discover? That’s the key point, and that should be the key point in education, not simply to memorize and learn these facts and give it back to a professor on an exam, but to awake and instill, to get them to respond to the vitality of life and the mysteries and the opportunities of the universe. It’s that spirit of being alive that’s so important, and you don’t want to dampen students by shoveling facts into them. You want to stoke the flames that are there within the heart and the mind and develop true learning.

Realistically, how do you see humanism playing out over the next decade?

Well, that’s a good question, I’m not a prophet. I’m not a prophet. I’ve been accused of being that, but I’m not. I do think that in one real sense, humanism is the most appropriate response to the world because ancient barriers have broken down and the ancient divide between Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus is not as it was in the past. So we can be more flexible, we’re not locked in to our own social, cultural backgrounds, and that’s the great beauty of the universities worldwide. The university takes an innocent child, enables her or him to meet professors and other students, and challenge them. Yeah, that’s the point. The role of the universities and colleges is to challenge people to develop and grow in their own terms, to explore, invent, discover, to question knowledge, yes. Did I answer your question — I forgot where I started.

That’s fine. So, in humanism playing out over the next decade, what are the largest pitfalls to be avoided?

What are the largest pitfalls – you mean in the humanist movement?

In the humanist movement over the next decade, yes.

I think we need to avoid humanism becoming a doctrine. If it becomes doctrinaire, then it follows other “isms.” It should not be an “ism.” Humanism is the effort to realize the fullest of which we are capable as humans, to realize the potentialities, in my view. But if it’s converted into doctrines, then it stifles learning and discovery. It’s the quest for knowledge and widening human experience that should be a key aspiration of living. I think that hemming it in or trying to imprison it … It has to be open and flexible.

What positive signs appear on the horizon for secular humanism?

Well, the world is becoming secularized. That’s for sure. It’s amazing as I look back. Knowing Europe so well, I see the breakdown of the ancient barriers. I mean the Roman Catholic Church has become so liberal in Europe. So too the former Protestant Fundamentalists in the United States. The Hindus from India are open as far as I can see, although many of them are doctrinaire. The Muslims are reawakening. In my view, we need to engage in dialogues with Muslims. I initiated the Catholic-Humanist dialogue, the Marxist-on-Marxist/Humanist dialogue. I think that if I had the energy and the strength, I would like a Muslim/non-Muslim dialogue. I’ve known Muslims, particularly in France where I’ve lived off and on because my wife is French, and we’ve been there a hundred times at least. And I know Muslims there and they’re very French. They love French cheese and the French pleasures of the taste. They’re modernized. I think we need to enter into a dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters. We need to moderate and liberate them from the blind hold of religion. Islam should be metaphor, not the literal truth. I think religions are more like works of art. They don’t compete with science; they’re merely expressions of taste and art.

If our readers had to take one thing away from this interview, what should that be?

I think the main thing is to cultivate the potentiality to live fully. Life is short. I’m eighty-five and life is short. Every moment counts. I still enjoy every day that I get up. My wife says “Please, Paul, don’t wake up singing again.” I don’t wake up singing. I usually tap dance when I wake up. The best professors are kids — five, six, seven, eight — because they have the vitality of youth. I have a lot of grandchildren and I watch them. They drive us crazy with the noise. Adults lose that. So adults need to captivate, to express the vitality of living, of learning, of discovery, of openness to life. Yes. For me, for humans, the basic good is life, life itself, life for its own sake with all of it’s vitality. As a naturalist and a humanist, we object to those that want to limit life to the next life, to salvation. I say this life here and now, ourselves, our family, our friends, our fellow citizens, others in the human species, this life here and now, to cultivate and express it fully is a joy to behold. So that is the meaning of humanism and naturalism: live fully!

The best ideas in the world.© 2011