I never met Paul Kurtz – never even spoke with him – yet he has had a profound impact on my life. Through the institutions he founded and/or led – the Center for Inquiry, Free Inquiry Magazine, The Humanist, and many more – he became the single most important figure in creating the Humanist movement of which I am a part today (Hemant Mehta has written a fantastic post on Kurtz’s accomplishments).
Without Kurtz, there would be no Humanist Manifesto II – the statement of Humanist values I stumbled across one day in my dorm room at Cambridge which helped me understand what I believe about ethics, life, and our place in the world. Without him, I would never have been able to present on the topic of Humanist Service at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference a couple of years back – the event which kick-started my Humanist speaking career and which cemented my commitment to the movement. Without him, there would be no Humanist movement like we have today – it’s that simple.
As such, I feel a debt to Paul Kurtz – a debt I will never now repay. His death, at 86, has robbed the movement of one of its most eloquent spokespeople, its most prolific philosopher, and it most effective modern-day institution-builder. In memory of him, and in late payment of this debt, I offer three perspectives on his life which, I think, should be remembered.
He Was the Hitchens of His Day
Those just entering the movement might get the impression that Kurtz was opposed to staunch criticism of religion. Not so. In his day Kurtz was the standard-bearer of the Secular movement, taking religion to task for its failings and flaws. I love the below video because it shows Kurtz in his prime debating, at enormous length, theologian Norman Geisler. This is how they did it back in the day!
He Was Committed to an International Humanism
Throughout his career Kurtz was dedicated to the idea that Humanists need to be internationally-conscious and attempt to develop the capacity to think for the whole world. He was a vigorous supporter of Humanist movements outside the USA, establishing the Center for Inquiry as a “Transnational” organization and working as co-chair of the International Humanist and Ethical Union from 1986-1994. He held positions with the International Academy of Humanism and Rationalist International, and won the International Humanist Award and the International Rationalist Award.
In a movement which is often US-centric, we should seek to be inspired by Kurtz’s international vision and look to how we can inculcate a greater world community of Humanists – in Kurtz’s words, a “planetary Humanism”.
Courage, Cognition, and Caring
Whenever I talk on Humanism I speak about the three core virtues being Reason, Compassion, and Hope. Kurtz was convinced that three values underpinned Humanism as a lifestance: Courage (Hope), Cognition (Reason), and Caring (Compassion). I never knew until today that I had been plagiarizing Kurtz all this time.
There are few better people to steal ideas from: long may his ideas continue.
“Every life and every career is a work of art. You only have one life to live, it’s your life…live it.” – Paul Kurtz, 1925-2012