Memories of Paul Kurtz

October 21, 2012

I heard with a heavy heart that CFI founder Paul Kurtz has died.

A statement issued by the American Humanist Association said, in part, “Humanists and atheists are mourning the death of humanist Dr. Paul Kurtz, former editor of the American Humanist Association’s Humanist magazine and founder of the Council for Secular Humanism, who died on Oct. 21, 2012 at the age of 86. His death means the loss of one of secular humanism’s most prominent advocates. 

“Paul Kurtz worked tirelessly for decades to see secular humanism become accepted as an alternative philosophy to traditional religion,” said Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association. “The attention and guidance he gave to the humanist movement had an unmistakable global impact.”
Paul Kurtz served on the American Humanist Association Board of Directors from 1968-1981 and as editor of Humanist magazine from 1967-1978 before establishing the Council for Secular Humanism. 

In 1973 he worked with Edwin H. Wilson and the American Humanist Association to create the draft of what would become the Humanist Manifesto II (an updated Humanist Manifesto III was adopted in 2003). 

”Humanism has been shaped by many people since the beginning of the 20th century, and Paul Kurtz was one of the greatest contributors to the development of our nontheistic philosophy,” Speckhardt said. 

Kurtz published over 800 articles and authored more than 40 books, many of which have been translated into scores of languages.

In Neo-Humanism Statement of Secular Principles and Values: Personal, Progressive, and Planetary, published in 2010, Kurtz offered 16 detailed recommendations for a humanistic world. 

”These are the vital principles and values that a secular, personal, progressive, and planetary humanism proposes for humanity,” Kurtz wrote about his statement. “Today the campaign for equal rights and for a better life for everyone knows no boundaries. This is a common goal for the people of the world, worthy of our highest aspirations.”

In 2007 the American Humanist Association presented Kurtz with the Humanist Lifetime Achievement Award. During his acceptance speech, he stated, “I am a secular humanist because I am not religious. I draw my inspiration not from religion or spirituality, but from science, ethics, philosophy, and the arts.”

While this sketches the outlines of Kurtz’s life, there is much to be filled in. I worked with Paul for nearly a decade, sometimes attending his weekly “inner circle” meetings discussing the guidance of the organization, other times just plugging away putting out a magazine at the other end of the building. But PK’s presence was always keenly felt.

Just two days ago when I visited James “The Amazing” Randi at his home outside of Miami, he and I shared memories of PK. Randi and I agreed that PK’s strength was organization-he had an uncanny ability to herd cats, both of the humanist and skeptical variety. It was an often thankless job-as I saw first-hand-but it had to be done, and there was no one better than PK to do it.

In truth PK and I didn’t always see eye to eye: on more than one occasion (in fact dozens of times) he told me “there’s no interest in the paranormal,” which seemed to suggest that Skeptical Inquirer had no purpose-or that nobody was watching all those high-rated paranormal cable TV shows. But overall PK was a warm man who genuinely and passionately cared about people, the environment, and humanity. Without PK it is unlikely that there would be anything like the skeptic culture we have today, and without him and his tireless work on skepticism and CSICOP, I wouldn’t be able to make whatever changes and efforts we do through the organization. PK was only one of several prominent CSICOP founders, but he was in many ways the cement that held it together.

In the coming days and weeks others will offer their memories and eulogies to PK, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts of my own.