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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