The Center for Inquiry announced today that they will be going though some leadership changes.
It sounds like a natural progression — all groups change leaders — but this one is especially significant. The founder of the organization, Paul Kurtz, has effectively been ousted by his own board.
Kurtz is a legend in the world of Secular Humanism. Besides starting CFI, he established Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines and founded Prometheus Books (publishers of Victor Stenger‘s God: The Failed Hypothesis, which cracked The New York Times Best Sellers List a couple years ago). If you have a CFI center near you, you have Kurtz to thank for it.
R. Joseph Hoffmann is a former leader of CFI and today he wrote what amounts to a living obituary of Kurtz on his blog.
He has a lot to say about how Kurtz has shaped the movement (he affected you whether you heard of him or not) and how his vision never quite came to fruition. There are also several strong barbs in there. It’s a compelling read, though I still haven’t figured out how much of it is accurate, how much is speculation, and how much is just sheer frustration at how Kurtz operated:
Like many events that seem cataclysmic only because there is so little at stake — in this case, neither treasure nor ideas — Kurtz’s sacking by an exasperated board will not be news outside the small humanist community he established. In real terms, it is the corporate equivalent of daughter taking grandpa’s keys away.
But if I may, knowing this organization better than most, having worked inside and outside it for twenty five years, I would like to say this: It is not always the story we want to write that teaches us the lessons we need to learn. The story of Paul Kurtz when it is finally written — and not by me — will reveal a man of stunning complexity and simplicity, generosity and rancour, understanding and dark suspicion. Having given up on his recipe for the good life (or eupraxsophy as he once tried to market it) years ago, I have still learned a great deal from his life and his wars. Unsurprisingly, that life is an almost perfect contrast to the ethical principles he tried to package and distribute through his centers. It reminds us that just as we smirk at a Ted Haggard for his hypocritical views on gay sex, we also have no right to expect a higher standard from the humanist.
I had the opportunity to meet Kurtz years ago while interning at CFI. I was able to get to know him away from the business side of everything. He was gracious enough to take me and another intern out to dinner (at his own behest) — his stories were fascinating. I also was able to complete a project for him dealing with science education at certain colleges across the country — information he would later use to point out how students could graduate from college without necessarily being scientifically literate in society. The man wore his humanism on his sleeve.
Since leaving there, I’ve only heard of the business side of him. It’s doesn’t always match up with the exuberant personality I got to know (albeit temporarily).
If there was ever a leader of the “atheist movement” — prior to the best-selling books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — it was Kurtz. The Religious Right knew exactly who he was and they watched him then as carefully as we watch them now.
With Kurtz no longer at the helm, that era is over, for better or for worse.