Interview with Paul Kurtz

What is secular humanism? Why is the Moral Majority up-in-arms over it? What tactics do they resort to to counter it? The leading defender of secular humanism speaks his mind.


"Secular humanism places trust in human intelligence rather than in divine guidance," says a "Secular Humanist Declaration" signed by scores of leading intellectuals in 1980. "Humanists…are the mortal enemy of all pro-moral Americans, and the most serious threat to our nation in our entire history," says a leading member of the fundamentalist right. And so goes the latest round in a controversy that dates at least to 1933, when 33 eminent thinkers joined in issuing a "Humanist Manifesto."

Coming out of the corner for the secular humanists is Paul Kurtz, author of the latest manifesto of humanist beliefs; editor of the Humanist magazine from 1967 to 1978, when he was ousted for fostering too much controversy in the magazine's pages; and founder and editor of a new humanist magazine, Free Inquiry, which promises not to shrink from "vigorous exchanges of opinion." True to its word, its first-issue feature of the "Declaration" was followed in the second by a four-bout card matching defenders of conservatism and humanist notables.

The son of a businessman, Kurtz learned the moves in philosophy. Working toward a B.A. at New York University, he took a course from Sidney Hook"the major intellectual influence of my life," says Kurtz. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia in 1950.

Dr. Kurtz the philosophy professor settled at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1965. Dr. Kurtz the champion of skepticism sees action in many arenas: in addition to the Humanist and now Free Inquiry, there is Prometheus Books, which he founded in 1971; the Skeptical Inquirer, begun in 1977; 18 books and hundreds of articles and lectures; and numerous radio and television interviews and discussions.

Interviewers Tibor Machan and Lansing Pollock, philosophers both, sparred with Dr. Kurtz in his office at Prometheus Books.

REASON: You've been generating some heat from members of the Moral Majority. Could you tell us a little bit about the idea behind your magazine, Free Inquiry?

KURTZ: Well, the Moral Majority and the fundamentalist right, if that is the word to use, have been attacking secular humanism for several years now. This has built up an intensity, and I was dismayed at the fact that there did not seem to be an adequate response. I thought they were attacking certain central values in Western civilization, in particular, the value of freedom, which is my basic commitment, and also the idea of a secular society and the separation of church and State. It seemed to me that it was important that there be a response, so that is what prompted me and others associated with me to found Free Inquiry—as an intellectual, serious magazine concerned with exploring and debating issues, pro and con, concerning freedom and the secular society, and with a commitment also to democracy.

REASON: What is the history of secular humanism in the United States, and what are its essential features?

KURTZ: Secular humanism is a fairly recent term, and we have been trying to trace where it came from. Apparently it appeared in a footnote in the '60s in a Supreme Court decision, cited, I believe, by Justice BlackI'm not certain. It has been taken up ever since by the fundamentalists, who claim that secular humanism has been established as a religion in the United States. I'm willing to use that term, but I consider the basic term to be humanism. And of course humanism is the oldest philosophical, ethical, and scientific tradition of Western civilization. I trace humanism to Socrates, Aristotleto the Greeksand through classical Roman civilization.

Humanism, as I view it, is first a commitment to free inquiry, to the free mind. It's a philosophical and ethical point of view that is opposed to any kind of repression by social institutionsthe State, the church, or other dominating institutions. So the central value of humanism is the freedom of the individual. Now the secularist aspect, of course, was prominent in ancient Athens when Socrates was condemned to death by the Athenians for irreligion and in the Euthyphro—a very important dialogue in which Plato tries to distinguish morality from religion. But there is this whole notion that morality can be independent of religious foundations, that there's an autonomy about moral judgment and you do not have to deduce moral principles and values from either a metaphysical or a theological principle.

Secularism and secular values appeared in the Renaissance as people rediscovered the great classics. And the scientific revolution, as I view it, as well as modern literature, are all part of the secular development of independence of thought and art and of an effort to find the good life here and now for human beings in their own terms.

REASON: It has been suggested that leaders of the fundamentalist right and the Moral Majority are hostile toward secular humanism because humanism is associated with Karl Marx, who wanted it to replace religion as an ethical mode.

KURTZ: There are many different kinds of humanists, of course. Marx was a humanist in the sense that he was critical of religionhe was an atheist, it's true. He also had a concern with the human condition and improvement of the human lot. But I think that certain forms of Marxism are a betrayal of humanism and that Marxism as it has developed is the enemy of humanism. I consider Marxism and some of its variationsStalinism, Leninismthe major opposition to humanism in the world, not fundamentalism or Christianity, which is another problem. The early Marx was perhaps not totally unappreciative of the role of freedom, but those forms of Marxism that emphasize the principle of equality and the collective betray humanism in the deeper sense. Any humanism that ignores freedom of the individual in its analysis is antihumanism.

REASON: Has there been an evolution in your political thinking?

KURTZ: At the moment I am a libertarian democratic secular humanistthat's an awkward combination of terms, I know. At one time I was a democratic socialist. In the '30s and particularly the '40s, the influence of Marx was very strong. But I soon abandoned that, and it seems to me that Marxism is predicated on a basic fallacy about the nature of man and the nature of the good society. So I moved from democratic socialism, which I no longer accept, and I now believe that economic freedom is an essential condition of the good society. So that's why I'm a libertarian, or a modified libertarian. So many people in my generation did not appreciate the need for economic freedom and freedom of the marketplace. Political freedom is central, of course, and this is why I'm so opposed to Marxist communism. But political freedom is not enough without economic freedom, in my view. And surely we have empirical evidence in the past 60 or 70 years that where a society abandons economic liberty, where there is a monopoly not only of political power but of economic power, then you have no freedom. You don't have intellectual freedom, or religious freedom, or any other. If we don't learn from experience, how else do we learn? We have to test theories by how they work out in practice.

REASON: This brings to mind a rather different topic, this issue of the teaching of evolution versus creationism in the public schools. One of the charges that has been leveled at you and secular humanism in general by members of the New Right is that in fact the promulgation of the evolutionist theory is just as dogmatic as any kind of creationism. There is, according to them, no evidence that fully sustains the evolutionist thesis. How would you respond to this charge?

KURTZ: Oh, I think that there have been dogmatists on both sides. I'm surely not going to defend everyone who has taken a position in this controversy. My argument is that what is taught in biology courses should be a matter of peer review, should be determined by the biology teacher and scientists in general. I am disturbed about vigilante parents' groups or the use of the State to compel scientists to use certain textbooks and to develop a certain kind of curriculum. What I find most paradoxical about the fundamentalist right is their abandonment of freedom. They are contradictory. Do they believe in freedom or not? They are the ones who want to use the legislature to dictate to the schools.

Now if biologists decide, on the basis of scientific inquiry, that the creationists' hypothesis is meaningful, and they decide to introduce it in the textbooks, I'm certainly not going to oppose that. But biologists do not do that. And that's why I think that it's a kind of censorship and a very dangerous assault on the process of free inquiry within the sciences. Darwin's explanations of how evolution occurred are open to criticism. I don't know that anyone accepts the complete Darwinian theory. But evolution seems to be strongly supported by many of the sciencesnot simply biology but geology, astronomy, the life sciences. So there's a whole range of evidence, and if you want to question or assault the basic principle of science, you undermine not only biology but all these other sciences, as well.

I have no objection, incidentally, to creationism being taught in history of ideas courses or history courses if the historians decide to do it. I think that's part of human culture to learn about attitudes and beliefs that people have held. What I'm objecting to is the imposition on science by extra-scientific methods and by the power of the State.

REASON: A Secular Humanist Declaration, which you authored, states that it is the duty of public education to deal with moral values. Whose moral values should be taught in public schools?

KURTZ: That's a very good question. I think all education is moral. Even if you're teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, you teach neatness, punctuality, politeness, honesty; and these are values. I don't see how you can have any educational program without values. What I had in mind there, of course, is Aristotle and his Nichomachean Ethics, that it is essential in any society to develop character and virtue and certain principles of excellence. And I think the schools have a role to play in thisprivate schools as well as public schools. To say that the schools should not teach morality would be to rob the schools of any kind of education. So you teach morality; there's no question about that. What kind of morality? It seems to me the common, human values shared by people; the common human decencies; the virtues. It seems to me that one of the great tasks of education is not only to get children to think criticallythat seems to be a common human valuebut also to grow, and to appreciate the needs of others to grow, morally, by cultivating independence of moral judgment.

REASON: In a recent column in REASON [Sept. 1981], Murray Rothbard commented on the controversy involving secular humanism and the Moral Majority. One of the things that he pointed out is that, once you do have a public education system, it is somewhat odd to be surprised that the overwhelming majoritywhich in this country does happen to be Christian or in the Judeo-Christian traditionshould then wish to have its values taught in public schools rather than the values of an intellectual elite, which the secular humanist group is identified as. What is your response to this?

KURTZ: I don't think that secular humanism is being taught in the schools. I think that's a conspiracy theory. What is being taught in the schools is modern science, literature, the arts; the whole curriculum is the curriculum of the modern world. And what the Moral Majority want to do, as I see it, is repeal the modern world and return to a kind of simplistic view of the universe. So this notion of a group of conspirators that have taken over the schools seems to me to be completely false.

REASON: In all fairness, it doesn't have to be a conspiracy in the sense of a consciously designed program perpetrated by a few people. It could be simply that, by natural accretion, intellectuals who have gotten their education from sophisticated thinkers in various universities have come to dominate what is taught in the schools. And for a while, they could maintain that they were the experts at this, and people would tolerate it. But now the rank and file are saying, "No, get rid of this bunch of kooks and get us back to fundamental Christian values."

KURTZ: Yes, and now what they want to do, as we know, is burn books in a campaign to purify the libraries and the schools of literature that they consider to be offensive or obscene or immoral. They want to impose creationism as an alternative theory, with equal time, in the science courses. They are opposed to philosophyand this is a very deep, essential point. They are opposed to the teaching of courses in morals and ethics in colleges, universities, and public schools because this is independent of religious tradition. So really the critique is of the whole modern curriculum. Now, look, I don't agree with many libertarians who want to get rid of the public schools. I believe in freedom and pluralism, and I think there ought to be a diversity of institutions.

REASON: But if you do have this public institution, isn't it then up to a democratic assembly to dictate its content?

KURTZ: No. It seems to me that the appropriate authorities, experts, people qualified in the field, should determine what ought to be taught. A large percentage of people in the United States believe that astrology is true, so astrology should be in the curriculum in every school? If Christian Scientists make up a predominant part of American society, should the medical schools teach Christian Science? I mean, where do you draw the line? You break down all professional standards. I'm a philosopher; I teach at a university. Should people then in the community examine my textbooks and say, "No, no, no, you should not teach Aristotle"? Tim LaHaye [founder of Christian Heritage College, president of Californians for Biblical Morality, chairman of the Conservative Council (Washington, D.C.)] is opposed to the teaching of Aristotle. Aristotle is one of the most wicked men of the history of thought, in this battle of the mind. You can't teach Aristotle; you have to teach who they want, you see. So it seems to me that there are institutions that exist and they have a role and function to play, and I would allow the qualified people within a field to be the best judge of what is to be taught.

REASON: Aren't you confronted, as a secular humanist committed to democracy, with a dilemma? This is what Murray Rothbard was trying to get at. The dilemma is: either you have public education and then you have democracy invading the classroom; or you have free inquiry but you don't have public education, because the public domain is in fact under democratic control. You cannot be for both unlimited democracy and free inquiry, because unlimited democracy, as even Aristotle taught, would ultimately overrun free inquiry.

KURTZ: I'm not for unlimited democracy. What would unlimited democracy mean in the university? The janitors and secretaries would outvote the faculty? That's mobocracy.

I'm a little bit disturbed about what I would consider the tyranny of principles. The great danger in the world today, I see, is rampant egalitarianism, collectivismthe effort to take a principle and to drive it all the way, destroying initiative and freedom and any sense of justice and fairness. On the other hand, it seems to me that the extreme libertarianism, which takes the freedom principle and is not willing to recognize the application of principle in context, equally may lead to a kind of tyranny.

Should we get rid of the public schools? It seems to me that something should be said in defense of the public school. It was the melting pot of democracy, and people learned from different ethnic, religious, racial backgrounds.

REASON: Actually, did you know that public schools started in New England in response to the fact that some private schools started to admit blacks into their classes, whereupon the civil community got so upset that they instituted their own public education system, which kept blacks out of the system? This is documented very early back in the 1600s in New England. This is how public education started.

KURTZ: I realize that, yes. But it was early in the 19th century that the public school movement really developed. And the idea was universal education. So, should we get rid of the public schools? But in any case the assault on secular humanism is an assault also on the private schools, because then you have the same thing happen. And the question is, don't we want to give our children the best education, and should one narrow ideological section of the society dictate what should be in the curriculum, as they are intending to do?

REASON: One of the complaints of people like Jerry Falwell is "Look, you have got this view of what a modern education should be, but we don't believe all that." In other words, you are saying, "They want to impose their values on us. We're not going to stand for it." Falwell and his crowd are saying, "You're imposing your values on us, and we're not going to stand for it." What's the difference between them and you?

KURTZ: There's a real difference. I don't want to impose my values on anyone. I want historians and philosophers and scientists and critics and artists, all participating in the schools, qualified in their fields, to teach the subject matter they think is appropriate. What I'm raising a question about is this effort to denude the curriculum and to impoverish education in the modern world.

REASON: We heard that you have had some rather peculiar experiences with your opponents on the right. When some people said they wanted to give a fair shake to secular humanism, you consented and you were video-taped and there was some strange development…

KURTZ: Yes. You are referring to the fact that the CBN Network, which is one of the largest religious enterprises in the country, contacted me. Pat Robertson and his colleagues have been attacking secular humanism vigorously, and I was surprised and really appalled at the fact that they never presented the other point of view. Then one day I was called by one of the producers down there, who asked me if I would consent to do a documentary on humanism. He said they thought that secular humanism was being attacked unfairly and their viewers ought to have a chance to hear the other point of view. So they came up here to the State University of New York in Buffalo and spent eight hours, and he said it would be a fair documentary, pro and con. And I had a very good rapport with the crew that came up. So I was absolutely flabbergasted when I began hearing from all over the country that this tape was playing over and over again, and they had apparently sold thousands, and it was playing in many churches throughout the country. Finally I got a chance to see one. It seemed to me a blatant distortion and unfair caricature of my position.

REASON: What sort of thing did they do?

KURTZ: You know, what they are really doingthis is a point that I think readers of REASON should be aware ofis attacking the libertarian aspect of secular humanism, where the secular humanists believe in moral freedom of choice and the right of an individual to lead his own life as he sees fit so long as he doesn't harm others. That's the basic principle I was defending, along with the need to cultivate moral growth and development and the use of critical reason.

But in any case, I said that there is a great moral tradition that goes back to the Greeks that you can lead a noble life without necessarily going to church or adopting a specific religious code. But they began to saddle me with situation ethics. I said that I think there are general moral principlessincerity, truth, honesty, trustthat I'm prepared to accept based on human experience.

"Are there no exceptions?"

And I said, "There are exceptions, of course."

"Do you think you should always tell the truth?"

And I said to them, "Yes, I believe truth telling is the general principle. However, there are exceptions. Sometimes you should lie. A man is in a hospital. He has had a heart attack, and you visit him, and he asks you how serious it is. If you tell him the truth, then he is liable to have another heart attack, so you withhold the information from him."

And they took these statements out of context. Do I believe in abortion? I said I believe in the right of freedom of choice of the individual and that the State ought not to regulate that. "However," I said, "abortion should not be used as a method of birth control, and in my view women ought not have it after the fourth month." But they cut all that. I said, "I believe in the right of abortion," and they showed dead fetuses in the can.

REASON: They showed this on film?

KURTZ: On film, yes. And I said, "I believe in freedom, moral freedom of the individual to his own life," and then they showed gay disco bars and a kid dead of an overdose of drugs.

REASON: So fairness is not a Judeo-Christian virtue, accepted by the Moral Majority?

KURTZ: Apparently not. I thought it was an immoral use of the media.

REASON: If you look at the people who have endorsed the Secular Humanist Declaration, you see people like B.F. Skinner and Antony Flew, and it can give the impression that there really are no clear tenets here. Is this a grouping of people who really don't share much in common?

KURTZ: No, there are certain principles, it seems to me, that secular humanists are willing to defend. And the first principle is a commitment to freedom, to freedom of inquiry, the free mind, and against all the efforts to repress that. And the other is a commitment to a rational process of inquiry. If REASON hadn't used that title I would have used it maybe for Free Inquiry. And the third principle is the view that ethical values in some sense are related to human experience and human needs and do not have to be derived either from an ideology or from a theological foundation. There are these three principles. Now we may disagree on many others, but it's a commitment to a free society and to democracy.

REASON: What about the secular humanists, or at least people who are secularists, who are maintaining nowadays that there are no widely valid methods for reaching truths, for reaching understanding? For example, the prominent philosopher Paul Feyerabend maintains that the Western rationalist position, coming down from Socrates, is just one of many, many equally valid approaches that human beings can take to their lives. So tea-leaf reading, astrology, turning to medicine men, or anything elseif it suits you, fine.

KURTZ: Yes. Of course, I disagree. But the fact that Feyerabend is or is not a secularist is independent. I think that one of the major problems that we face in the worldit's a worldwide problemis the retreat from reason. It's not simply the retreat from freedom, which we all deplore in our effort to cultivate and develop a free society, but the retreat from reason. Many commentators in the universities today are appalled by the fact that subjectivism is widespread and there seems to be a breakdown of any notion that there are standards of reason or of evidence to test hypotheses or to test judgments. The growth of the paranormal is illustrative of this immediacy and subjectivity as a foundation of belief. The growth of fundamentalism, in my view, and some of the cults of unreason are also symptomatic of this. And also the growth of ideological religions in the world.

REASON: One of the things that is difficult for many of the people who also value free inquiryand Feyerabend certainly does thatis to reconcile that commitment to freedom with what they would probably call the dogmatism of reason.

KURTZ: There certainly have been dogmatic rationalists. And although it seems to me that there are some objective criteria for judging truth claims, I shouldn't leave out the fact that skepticism ought to be a component of any objective method of inquiry. One has to be skeptical in a constructive, positive way of all things, including any dogmatic application of reason.

REASON: Is it in this general skeptical vein that you have been involved in efforts to debunk claims regarding phenomena like ESP, psychic powers, UFOs, astrology, and so on?

KURTZ: I think debunking is maybe too strong a term. What we want to do is provide a scientific investigation of the claims. I think it is unfortunate that the pro-paranormal point of view has been purveyed in the mass media without any criticism. The electronic media, particularly television and the movies, have led the way, and publishers and magazines and so on have been presenting this material, as true, without question. A great number of scientists in these fields who have looked at the evidence are very skeptical about it. We are trying to develop, in a very modest way, some appreciation for critical intelligence, which involves skepticism about things that have not been tested.

REASON: When you say "we"…

KURTZ: I founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. We are going into our sixth year, and we publish a journal, the Skeptical Inquirer. The committee includes about a hundred scientists.

REASON: Hasn't your group actually been able to explain some of this? You take somebody like Uri Geller, who has been on television supposedly displaying his extraordinary powers. Haven't you been able to expose exactly what he's up to and how he does it?

KURTZ: Well, there's so muchevery day there's something new. There are so many claims that it's hard to deal with them all. What we're trying to do is simply crystallize critical skepticism in the public. Members of our committee, and others, have attempted to examine, for example, does Uri Geller use psychokinesis to bend metal? We don't think there have been any objective tests where this has been proven. We have magicians on our committee who can bend metal when you're not looking, and we think that's what Uri Geller does.

REASON: One final question. You are a professor of philosophy and at the same time you have strongly expressed commitments in various areas of public life, personal morality, and so forth. The philosopher Leo Strauss once wrote a piece on the relationship between having a "subjective certainty," he called it, with respect to some issues and maintaining one's philosophical commitment to being open-minded and regarding every major issue as problematic, never to have the door quite closed on it. How, in your personal life, have you managed to live with these two things?

KURTZ: My model of philosophy is Socrates, and my mentor in the 20th century might be Dewey, but more particularly Sidney Hook. And I believe philosophy has a role in the marketplace of ideas. The thing that is interesting and unfortunate is that "the university" is no longer the sacred institution. Ideas, education, and the process of inquiry now have moved to other institutions in societythe media, the press. Philosophical inquiry is fundamental, an important activity, and it ought to be done in the larger market of ideas. So I try to apply philosophy to practice. But at the same time as I am committed to certain positions, I am committed to being skeptical. The role of the committee and Free Inquiry, in one sense, is to develop the appreciation for critical intelligence, for the skeptical attitude and outlook.