Remembering Paul Kurtz

AP In a July 20, 2004 file photo, Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Center for Inquiry, responds to a question … Continued


In a July 20, 2004 file photo, Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Center for Inquiry, responds to a question during an interview in his office in Amherst, N.Y.

Paul Kurtz was a founder and a leader, more so than anyone else I have ever known. Before there were the new atheists and their best-selling books, there was Paul Kurtz promoting humanism and skepticism through his many publications and institutions.

When I first met Paul Kurtz in the early 1990s at a meeting of the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH), I was enthralled by his presentation in support of living a good and reasoned life without religion. Paul presented thoughtful arguments that described why such a philosophy would benefit humankind. As a skeptic, I pride myself in finding reasons to disagree at least on minor points with any speaker, so I was a little scared that I found none. I had thought that only religious people accepted 100 percent of what they hear from a leader. As a consequence, I became a strong supporter of Kurtz—and a regional director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

CSH was the only nontheistic organization I had known about, and its fine magazine Free Inquiry was the only such publication I had encountered. Prometheus Books, another creation of Paul Kurtz, was the only publisher I knew that was devoted to books about Freethought.

As I became more engaged in the secular movement, I began to agree with Paul Kurtz less than 100 percent of the time (a sign that I’m not religious, perhaps), and Kurtz became upset with me when I joined the board of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Both CSH and AHA seemed to be fine organizations worthy of my support, but I soon learned about their divisive history. Kurtz had been on the board of AHA and was the editor of the Humanist magazine, which was published by AHA. After Kurtz and the AHA parted ways in 1978 on less than friendly terms, Kurtz founded the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry.

Unfortunately, relations got worse before they got better. Kurtz had been a major contributor to Humanist Manifesto II in 1973, a better and more secular document than the Humanist Manifesto of 1933. Around 2000, both Kurtz and the AHA thought it was about time for Humanist Manifesto III, but who had the right to write it? Both sides threatened lawsuits, and I urged both Kurtz and the AHA to consider how damaging such a lawsuit would be to our movement—regardless of who was in the right.

Fortunately, Paul Kurtz wrote instead a document called Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism, and he asked me to be one of the signers. I happily agreed, and was listed seventh.

The AHA came out with Humanist Manifesto III in 2003.

Paul Kurtz’s greatest strengths were his ability to found and grow organizations. A true visionary, he gave meaning, substance, and a philosophical grounding to the importance of advancing ideas of reason and science over religion. He will be remembered as a significant, and perhaps the most significant, force in the second half of the 20th century in support of secular humanism and living a good life without religion.

In my mind, Paul’s greatest weakness was his less than enthusiastic willingness to play well with others. When I helped found the Secular Coalition for America in 2002, Kurtz wanted no part of it. He tended to view with suspicion organizations he didn’t lead or create, but shortly after Kurtz left CSH, the organization joined the Secular Coalition. Like CSH, the AHA also declined at first to be one of the original member organizations, but sometimes it takes changes in leadership to emphasize cooperation over competition. The Secular Coalition now has 11 cooperative nontheistic member organizations.

In 2007, I was thrilled when the AHA, at its annual conference, presented Kurtz with its Humanist Lifetime Achievement Award, richly deserved. There, Paul Kurtz and I chatted amiably, and I treasure the memory of that time with Paul, whose brush with immortality will be his good works, his influence, and the fine organizations he created and left behind.

Herb Silverman is founder and president of the Secular Coalition for America and author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt

Herb Silverman
Written by

  • EddDoerr

    As someone who knew and worked with Paul Kurtz for 45 years, as a signer of the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II, as former VP and president of the American Humanist Association forf 14 years between 1984 and 2003, as a columnist in The Humanist for 35 years and in Kurtz.s Free Inquiry magazibe for several years, I think I have a greater aeciateion of Kurtz”s contributions to humanism and loberalism than Herb Silverman. Kurtz did not want to support Siverman’s Secular Coalition idea because Silverman’s stress was too negarive than Kurtz’s broader vision. And Kurtz was right.

    Paul Kurtz will be remembered as the foremst exponent of a broader, more positive humanism in his many books, articles, organizations he founded, ettc, than the negative and fragmented anti-religiius groups.

    Edd Doerr

  • maggieardiente

    Great article, Herb, on Paul Kurtz’s legacy and contributions to humanism. Though he may have disagreed with the American Humanist Association on many issues, it’s great that in later years there were opportunities for AHA and other secular organizations not just to co-exist, but to work together toward a broad, positive mission of raising the profile of secular Americans.

  • Tonivp

    The family has requested that gifts or donations in honor of Dr. Kurtz be given to the Institute for Science and Human Values, the latest organization he founded, A public celebration of his life will be held at a future date.

  • Dave Brown 709

    A fitting tribute to an outstanding human being and to a life well lived. All thinking individuals, and surely all humanists, celebrate his legacy and mourn his passing.

  • RobertTapp

    The old Latin phrasing was to say “nihil nisi bonum” about the dead — “none but good things.” My overlaps with Paul Kurtz stretch back over more than 50 years. I never worked for him but was privileged to be with him on many projects, including his latest. Paul was with 45 of us from many humanist persuasions when we founded The Humanist Institute, a program designed to create a more cooperative future by joint training of tomorrow’s leaders. We were Unitarian Universalists, Ethical Culturists, Humanistic Jews, secular humanists. As with many activists, his private causes were much broader than his public stances. But he surpassed us all in intellectual breadth and output and in organizational brilliance. His shortcoming? Dying far too young.