Paul Kurtz - "I refuse to be defined... as an Atheist"

A few days ago on NPR I heard about a growing schism in the atheist movement. I was surprised it made the news at all. But that evening I also heard the Center for Inquiry podcast pitting Paul Kurtz, its founder, against the present leadership and the direction CFI is currently taking. Here is a part of that podcast and the issues at stake.

The entire podcast is 26 minutes and is the tip of what might become a defining moment in both the Atheist and Secular Humanist movement. A divide might become inevitable.

In the podcast Paul explains why he refuses to be defined as simply an atheist and why he is against Blasphemy Day.

From the Point of Inquiry podcast: "Paul Kurtz - A kinder, Gentler Secularism"
Posted on 8-14-2009, 26:12min.

Link to CFI podcast:

Here is a short transcription between D.J. Grothe and Paul Kurtz:

DJ: Paul, of course you are an atheist, you lack belief in god, and that’s what atheism means, right?

PK: No! It means many things; I’m a non-theist, I’m an agnostic, I do not believe in god, but I think it’s a terrible mistake to identify our whole movement with atheism, because that is negative, its what you DON’T believe in, and what is important is what we affirm! We believe in the fulfillment of human life, and social justice, and creativity, and that’s why I refuse to be defined simply as an atheist.


My 2 cents: As a somewhat militant agnostic (I’m still trying to leave the door open for the "possibility" of a god -- in the spirit of a true scientist), I nevertheless agree with Paul’s perspective, though I admit I didn’t before I heard the podcast.

Paul’s vision reflects his wisdom gained from countless years of experience in dealing with the human condition regarding these subjects and his focus remains on the primary goal! He relegates to lesser importance the real or imagined beliefs people contrive for themselves about the world, but how we respect and treat each other!

In that context Paul is, and remains, the torchbearer of reason behind the inquiring mind; not just the truth, but the greater capacity for good that it brings.

Thank you Paul Kurtz.

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Well I see a bit of a difference in the flavor of the term. Atheist carries more of the sense of "I believe positively there is NOT a god" Where as Non-theist comes across as "I don't believe in gods or religion" There is a slight difference between there IS NOT and I DON'T BELIEVE IN.
My friend Ken - a scientist - tries to make this same point. I fail to see it. Atheist doesn't carry that sense. It might be read that way - but that is not what it means. And it is truly splitting hairs to try and draw a line between someone who gives no credence to the existence of a god and a person who says there is no god. I don't even see the slightest difference.
nor the "a" in "agnostic".
His objection does seem to be largely semantic in nature. Whether you like the term or not, if you believe that there is no god you are an atheist. He also seems to be caught up in some of the long standing myths and stereotypes about us. Yes, atheism is to some degree about what you don't believe but in the end labels mean what we say they do. I say atheism can be a positive label.
Kurtz is also partially right about being respectful. But, only partially. If you don't earn my respect I'm not giving it to you as a gift. Religions don't want to be attacked then they need to stop attacking us. I believe in being civil and backing up your opinions but beyond that I see no reason to pull punches when we are confronted on a daily basis by what other say we should or shouldn't believe.

That said I do have a great deal of respect for Kurtz and sincerely hope he continues to express his views.
The main thing I agree with Kurtz about this is not wanting to be defined simply by what you don't believe. That doesn't really say anything about you.

I embrace the lable "atheist" anyway though, partly because there's no getting around it. To a theist I could say I'm a Secular Humanist, and they won't get it it will always come back to "but you don't believe in God right? So you're an atheist." Also since there are so many negative stereotypes out there connected to atheist, I think it's important to go ahead and embrace the lable to dispell those stereotypes.

I also disagree with Kurtz about Blasphemy Day. The point is to show that even religion shouldn't be s topic immune from criticism. And blasphemous talk isn't always ridicule. Simply criticising religion can be considered blasphemy. So when it comes down to it, blasphemy day is really a free speech issue.

To be fair I have not yet listened to that PoI podcast, but did hear the NPR article.
That is AWESOME! Ouch - my petard is stretched to the limit!
Interesting. I am in agreement with mostly everyone here, as well as with Paul. But most everyone here (so far) is focused on something entirely different than what Paul is focused on. Paul founded the Center for Inquiry for the purpose of advancing Secular Humanism and its goals, not atheism. (Atheism doesn't have any goals, it's just a statement of non belief in a god.)

Most here are only looking at the atheism. Paul cannot be bound by the term for the simple fact that one can be a Secular Humanist and embrace its goals and still maintain a belief in a god! And he does not want a person to be relegated to being tagged an atheist by virtue of being a secular humanist.

Such a tag narrows the scope of secular humanism to the term "Atheist." And that's not even relevant to what secular humanism is! Paul is concerned with the good that secular humanism brings to the human condition. Atheism is not a statement of that condition; Human Secularism is.
How does the term non-theist say or imply any more or less than the term atheist? In my opinion it does not. In fact I am against the term non-theist, because, (for me), it makes for confusion. It leads to the question: "How are non-theists and atheists different?" The answer is : They aren't.
How does the term non-theist say or imply any more or less than the term atheist? In my opinion it does not.

Not much difference in my opinion, either. But that's not the subject matter, which is what Paul is trying to point out. You, for example, being an atheist does not make you a secular humanist. And a secular humanist does not make a person an atheist.

Do you see? You are talking about being an atheist. Paul is talking about being a secular humanist. They are not the same.

Once you start from that understanding, Paul's position becomes clear. His aim is to change the world from the tool of secular humanism, which is broader and more inclusive than simply being an Atheist! Being an atheist changes nothing. It's what you do!

And the philosophy that guides the good in us (the "what you do") is simply humanism, it's how we treat each other. The fact that it requires no supernatural power for that end makes it secular.




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