A Tribute to Paul Kurtz, Secular Philosopher

October 23, 2012

It may be difficult to recall nowadays, but there was a time when the greatest atheists were philosophical giants.

They matched their metaphysical, theological, and political opposition with the kind of constructive argument and systematic philosophizing that they expected from rival thinkers in return. These giants never got wide respect, but they built comprehensive worldviews built to last for the ages nonetheless. Always outnumbered, they were never outmatched, for wisdom and well as wit.

Today’s ‘popular’ atheism is just as likely to dismiss philosophy as irrelevant as it is to invoke Epicurus, Hume, Diderot, or Russell. This odd contradiction, hopefully just a temporary aberration, narrows the unbelief reading list at the worst possible moment. Atheism’s greatest visibility arrives at a time when its intellectual challenges couldn’t be greater, and its answers are so widely sought. The religious are intensely interested in the way atheists would run things. The nonreligious are wondering that themselves, just as they wonder about the biggest questions of life, which have a way of outlasting every school of thought.

Even if religion had never been invented, people would share wisdom and ethics of proven worth, ensuring that meaning and value accumulates for improving the human condition. Mere negativity is not an answer, for anyone. Can an authentic secular stance consist of more than recitations of religion’s failures?

Paul Kurtz’s philosophizing has never been just about negativity. If the limitations of faith can be charted, it is because the finest achievements of human reason have brought us farther and higher. Kurtz’s living naturalism is a philosophical achievement to stitch together a cohesive worldview from what all of the sciences are telling us, yielding an optimistic outlook for growing meaning and value, and a fulfilling ethical life for every person.

Scientific imperialism and secularism can be no less dogmatic and militaristic than any religion or ideology, as the world well sees. Only a humanistic and cosmopolitan secularism, like Paul Kurtz’s, staunchly defending constitutions that protect expression of conscience no less than freedom of speech, can stand before the whole world without hypocrisy or shame. For what are the foundations of this humble secularism but expressions of conscientious conviction and fidelity to the equal dignity and worth of every human being?

Kurtz did not rest content with a list of fundamental rights. Genuine democracy can’t rest content with the rights prized by generations past, since new kinds of social oppression and denials of opportunity are endlessly rationalized by the powerful to stay comfortable. Liberty and rationality is never enough to protect real opportunity, as Kurtz’s humanistic progressivism explains, following out the lessons learned from escaping religion’s prisons. For if liberty of mind were enough, each atheist could stoically contemplate the cold material universe in the private cell of their own construction and let religions run amok in the public world. Yet, as a GI generation warrior like Kurtz could tell you, your freedoms aren’t secure until everyone’s are respected and justice prevails. If we must fight, we fight for all of humanity in humanity’s name for humanity’s enlightenment and freedom, and not for some new form of enslavement.

In the middle of what feels like a culture war, or seems like a war between civilizations, philosophy can look like a silly luxury. Yet the one who loudly says “No philosophy needed” is the one who uncritically and dogmatically wields yesterday’s philosophy. And religion already knows how to criticize and circumvent yesterday’s philosophy, upholding vital truths about life, values, and ethics that won’t be coming out of a laboratory. Scientists shouting from the rooftops won’t do the job, any more than naive atheists will. Do you imagine that only just now is religion realizing how science presents a cultural challenge? If the power of the word of science were enough, religion would have evaporated by now. Evidently real people are more complicated than just passive receptors of Truth’s mighty power. And most people remain naturally wary of any would-be dictator over the human mind. 

Only a comprehensive philosophy of the head and the heart, persuasively showing people how they can be not just everything they naturally are, but everything they humanly ought to be, will be able to replace religion in the long run. So long as there are freethinking people as proud of their ethical principles as they are proud of their technical power, Kurtz’s philosophical worldview will be read, appreciated, and lived.

Paul Kurtz’s organization of the secular movement using the affirmative cause of humanism won’t be soon forgotten. His organization of a positive philosophical worldview to forever replace religion won’t be forgotten by the ages.


[Portions of this blog are excerpted from my soon-to-be-published review in Free Inquiry of Kurtz’s new book Meaning and Value in a Secular Age.]