A Living Obituary Of Paul Kurtz June 2, 2009

A Living Obituary Of Paul Kurtz

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.

Kurtz will continue to serve as “chair emeritus” of CFI… I’m not sure what that entails. It could just be a title without much influence.

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.

(via R. Joseph Hoffmann, Hys Blogge)

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  • This really saddens me. It was Kurtz who brought me around to the idea of humanism when I was still a hurt and angry newly minted atheist.

    I understand that he’s 84 and that organizations need to grow and change, but I don’t see the need for such a catty and snipey living obituary.

  • Vic

    I think the tone of Hoffmann’s article is really unnecessary. Whatever problems they may have with Kurtz is theirs. There is no need to drag it out into the streets (or blogosphere).

  • Tom

    Kurtz is an asshole. I make no buts about it. The tone of the article is blunt, but authentic. He himself is a blunt man, lacking the sensitivity to adjust his own views and the direction his organization was taking.

    Arrogance is the greatest enemy of cooperation amongst atheist groups today, I believe. This is the story of a man who was full of it, and of the people who won over it.

  • Amanda

    What is all this!?

    I’ve never heard about any of this political stuff going in within CFI or Paul Kurtz!

    Can anyone fill me in here? An ‘asshole’!? Really?

    I don’t understand what is going on… I was under the impression CFI was strong, growing, and presided by well-cooperating and intelligent leaders–including Hoffman, Lindsay, and Kurtz.


  • Epistaxis

    Living obit indeed. It’s all in the past tense, and one paragraph even starts with “Toward the end of his career…”

  • Gabemik

    There may be more info here: Point of Inquiry podcast. It’s an interview done with Kurtz released on April 24th. From the synopsis:

    In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Paul Kurtz discusses the rationale for changing the name of CSICOP to the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry. He argues that the organized skeptical movement should apply the methods of scientific and skeptical inquiry to religion, and not just to paranormal claims, and he contrasts this approach with a direct atheistic assault on belief in God. He argues that while skepticism is essential to science, that the skeptical movement should promote the application of the methods of scientific inquiry into politics and economics, and talks about how divisive this may be within the skeptical movement. He considers whether political and economic questions are as amenable to critical thinking and skeptical inquiry as are paranormal claims. He talks about global warming and the extent to which the scientific community should be attentive to “global warming skeptics.” He explains why he is cautious of certainty, contrasting certain knowledge with reliable knowledge, and recounts examples in the history of science when widely believed scientific theories were overturned by a small minority of new theorists. He talks about political and economic views he once held that he no longer holds. He contrasts skeptical inquiry with the classical skepticism of ancient Greece and Rome. And he argues that the new skepticism is not negative nor nay-saying, but rather is an affirmative and constructive philosophical worldview.

  • Don

    Well if had known Kurtz was an asshole I might have been more interested in joining up. I always thought humanists were a bit too namby-pamby for me.

    I’ll definitely have to listen to that podcast though. Thanks for the link Gabemik.

  • Paine

    Not quite accurate either, as Kurtz remains a voting member of the board according to the press release. So tales of his complete demise seem premature (not to mention mean-spirited).

  • Hoffman compares Kurtz to Ted Haggard?!?

    Remind me never to read anything else he ever writes.

  • Juan Bernal

    Kurtz has been an energetic, effective spokesman for the secularist perspective. His publication, “Free Inquiry,” is first rate. Although he was not as political and accommodating, as some would like, Kurtz contributes much to the secular cause. We should recognize and appreciate his organizing skill and courage in speaking and writing tirelessly on behalf of rationalism and humanism.
    Hoffman’s blog struck me as the expression of a man who had some issues to settle with Kurtz and Kurtz’s brand of secular humanism.

  • Anonymous

    Not quite accurate either, as Kurtz remains a voting member of the board according to the press release. So tales of his complete demise seem premature (not to mention mean-spirited).

    I’m trying to decide what’s worse: Hoffman’s commentary, or volunteer atheist rumor mills spreading it around the internet. It comes off like the atheists spreading the word are almost gloating about it.

    I agree about Free Inquiry. I don’t know jack about organizational politics, but I like Kurtz’s brand of humanism (with some exceptions) much better than the alternatives, at least as far as their magazines go. Free Inquiry actually talks about why religious beliefs make no sense, and why arguments from religious people are bogus, like those crappy arguments that faith & science are really the best of friends. Much better than the alternative mags. From the articles you can hardly tell that The Humanist is supposed to be for people who think that theology is a load of crap.

  • Larry Huffman

    To be fair…Hoffman was not comparing Kurtz to Haggard…he was pointing out that hypocrissy is hypocrissy and both sides have it. I do not know enough about any of these men to comment on the actual issues or people, but I am astute enough to know he was not making a direct comparison of the actual men…just that integrity issues can be present on the humanist side just as it can be on the religous right’s side.

    One more thing…I have been a businessman myself my entire life. I have seen good people part ways with organization in really ugly situations. Often it is not at all about the individual…it is about the direction of an organization or some other business matter. So, when someone is ousted by an organization, sometimes it looks like this…and it is all corporate or organizational politics…and not something that casual observers outside can ever really understand or draw sides about. Just pointing this out.

  • George

    Hoffman is an old crony of Paul Kurtz with an obvious agenda. Who cares what he has to say.

  • This is hilarious! Darnit, I could have told everyone that this was coming. I need to start posting my predictions so I can say I told you so! later on. 🙂

    This sort of silly psy-cop drama, along with continuing reports of incidents such as Albinos having their body parts harvested for magic potions in Africa, demonstrates why I believe the skeptical movement overall is a massive, embarrassing failure. When will we learn?

  • Mriana

    I find this sad news too. I never got to meet him, but I enjoyed listening to him on PoI.

  • Jason

    Who cares if Paul Kurtz is an asshole. I think that the organization that he helped build is wonderful but not without flaws. By the way, I know lots of assholes who’ve done nothing with their lives except perfect the art of being an asshole.

    I hope that we (atheists) don’t go the way of religious groups and develop cults around personalities such as Jesus, Mohammad, Abraham, Paul Kurtz, etc.

    This one organism (called Paul Kurtz) is 84 years old. He will be dead soon (ceasing to exist). However, I hope that his institution and ideas that we love survive and are appreciated.

    I personally have never met the dude so I really don’t care about Hoffmann’s whiny rant about Kurtz any more than I cared about Clinton putting his dick in Monica’s mouth. Talk about stuff that is relevant to my life or society. And people argue and disagree. Just ask anyone who is a member of an extended family (or any group) and maintained contact with them. So what is the big deal?

  • Jason

    Just another note:

    In business, you sometimes have board meetings about a business in which people invested fortunes and a lifetime of work. With major directional changes (that nobody really knows the outcome for certain), you have emotions that run high and very heated arguments (aka, shouting matches). However, the ultimate goal is the organization instead of one individual of the many individuals that form the organization.

    Most people want the organization to succeed but just have conflicting visions of achieving that success. Remember that reviewing diverse viewpoints is NOT bad.

  • Hugh Giblin

    Paul Kurtz has been removed as leader of his organizations by his Board and CEO
    Ron Lindsay. He has effectively been summarily ousted from his position of Chairman (although he was given a token vote on the Board and relegated to Chairman Emeritus) of the three organizations (the Council for Secular Humanism, the Center of Inquiry and CISCOP) he founded and devoted 33 years of his life to making them the successful groups they are today. He drew no salary during that time. No one has been more committed to the Humanist movement than Paul Kurtz.

    I’ve read the statements by Paul and Lindsay which are quite
    different. Paul feels he was the victim of a “palace coup”. Lindsay
    disputes this, posted a reply but gives no details and won’t discuss it further.
    The Board itself is almost mute on the big change except for a carefully
    worded press release. One wonders why? Where is the transparency here?

    I feel it is a very serious mistake for the organizations and a grave disservice, to
    say the least, to Paul Kurtz. Paul has been the driving, creative force and
    personality in these organizations building an International presence and
    establishing himself as one of the leading, if not the leading, secular
    humanist in the world. He started with a storefront and built it into
    the most influential humanist organization in North America.

    This move seems clearly about power. Paul has, at times, been
    charged with being autocratic (although I never experienced this
    in the Board meetings I sat in on) or personally. I found Paul, while
    decisive, listened to disagreements (I disagreed with him myself at one
    meeting and he deferred to my view) and was open to other approaches to
    issues. It is conceivable, however, that his personality and the Board’s
    clashed and led to this misguided decision.

    The point is this: Paul is 83, although he is still is intellectually astute and physically active, he clearly has a limited time with the organizations. Why couldn’t the Board have respected this fact and dealt with any differences in a humanistic manner?
    I am perennially baffled and dismayed by people who preach humanism on
    societal issues so eloquently but fail to practice what they preach in personal relationships.

    I believe that the Board should have handled this much more gracefully
    not only avoiding a tragic ending for Paul’s life’s work but in the best interests of the organizations. Paul is an icon in the humanist world. This divisive action will not only hurt our organizations but the Humanist movement as a whole. Those of us who respect and admire Paul will not react favorably to this devious decision. I predict this will
    undermine the respective missions of each organizations, their membership and their financial support.

    Paul has tremendous prestige and connections in the world of Humanism and no one on the Board or staff comes close to his stature. His fundraising and organizational abilities along with his vision were critical to the ongoing success of all three organizations. I might also add this reckless move also gives great joy to the Religious Right who hate Paul and will welcome this ugly split in the Humanist movement.

    Ron Lindsay seems to be trying to wash his hands of the whole affair leaving
    the responsibility solely on the Board and painting himself as a reluctant player, however, I understand that he led this effort and as an attorney provided the legal maneuvers to the Board for the action. This despite the fact that Paul had placed his trust in him by appointing him Executive Director and later CEO. In my opinion, If Paul had any shortcoming it was selecting and trusting the wrong people as colleagues

    If Lindsay and the Board truly “respected” Paul’s contributions they would
    not at this late juncture humiliate him in this way. There is the strong odor of
    betrayal in this whole affair.

    . Those of you who feel the way I do should express themselves and act accordingly.

    The Board:
    kendrickfrazier@comcast.net, rschroeder@centerforinquiry.net,

    and Paul’s: paulkurtz@aol.com

    Hugh Giblin
    Mr. Hoffman makes a serious charge when he
    declares Paul’s life was dramatically different from his pronounced ethics and then compares him with Ted Haggard. While it is true none of us live perfect ethical lives I think he he need to support that general statement with some precise facts.
    How, when and where did Paul fail?

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