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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I agree on all counts. I do nothing much, so I'm simply atheist.

My remarks addressed: Hehe, I like how he says "non-theist" as if the "non" is any less negative than the "a" in "atheist", posted by TheNerd.

I don't agree that atheism is negative. To me it is an absence of something. A mere absence isn't negative. Maybe to some it's negative but not to me. Words with the prefix "a" aren't negative. Asexual reproduction isn't negative reproduction.

I respect people who call themselves Secular Humanists - that is positive, (if they act according to what that terminology implies). However, I am a member of atheistnexus, not secularhumanistnexus. I'd say that if this forum was secularhumanistnexus, I wouldn't have joined. There are secular humanist sites elsewhere.
Humanism is a way to frame ethical choices and make a better world without any god or gods.

Humanism is a way to frame ethical choices and make a better world with or without any god or gods. Humanism puts the responsibility for ethical choices on the human. The "god" element is not only not necessary, it is not relevant. And thus Humanism is Non-theist.
DJ Grothe has written a thoughtful article on this subject. I have extracted this bit from the middle.

" Paul Kurtz is very worried that the "new atheists" will set the movement back. While I disagree with Kurtz here, he does genuinely feel that the New Atheists are not much different than the old atheists, such as the abrasive Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and that the way to really advance the secular agenda is to soft-peddle it somewhat, by working to try to avoid offending believers, unlike O'Hair did. Kurtz emphasizes secular ethics much more than religious skepticism these days. To hear him make these arguments himself, check out his appearances on Point of Inquiry: "A Kinder, Gentler Secularism," and "The New Atheism and Secular Humanism."

In my view, some of his appall at the New Atheism may be stemming from an understandable sense of hurt pride that after laboring in the vineyards after many years, he never had a best-seller like the "New Atheists" have had. (I feel like I noticed this same kind of envious or resentful posture in others, especially some secularist Biblical scholars who have been associated with CFI, who would often privately decry Dawkins' and Hitchens' and Harris' supposed lack of expertise in theology and Biblical criticism.) To be clear, I believe Paul Kurtz has done more than any other person in the last 50 years to create the secular and humanist movement as it has been until recently. I just think that it must be hard for him to see others come along and be so successful at reaching out to new people with a very similar message.

My views on some additional misunderstandings some folks may have:

1. CFI is in no sense moving away from its historical focus on fair-minded criticism of reigning mythologies (both religious, and paranormal), and on advancing science, humanism and reason. While only Ron Lindsay was quoted as much in the piece, in fact, the direction CFI has taken in recent months is only a re-emphasis of its core mission on science and reason. The new mission, adopted earlier this year under Lindsay's direction, is "to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values." The old mission, less focused in my view, was "to promote and defend science, reason, and freedom of inquiry in every area of human endeavor." Notice the stronger focus on secularism and humanism in CFI's new mission statement.

2. There is no "bitter rift" or "national debate" about Blasphemy Day or the future focus of CFI. There was near unanimity at CFI in support of Blasphemy Day. A small number of dissenters include Paul Kurtz, a couple staffers, and a volunteer or two. But again, no "bitter rift" nor "national debate."

3. There is room for multiple strategies to advance a shared skeptical, secular and humanist mission. CFI is the leading organization of its kind, and, as such, has adopted many different strategies to reach out to different publics: publishing, secularist and pro-science community centers, campus outreach, international programs, lobbying on Capitol Hill, digital media and outreach, educational programs and courses, etc., etc. There are many ways to skin a cat."
Unbelievers seem to have split into two distinctive camps since Sam Harris came out with the End Of Faith. Harris and the new atheists, want a brash, belligerent, in-your-face atheist movement that celebrates Blasphemy Day, scorns religious liberals and moderates, and generally think that religion and supernatural belief can be eradicated somehow.

The kind of atheist movement that Paul Kurtz has been fighting for, is one that wants to focus on the positive - establishing secular humanist values, and using scientific discoveries to base our beliefs on, and builds bridges with religious liberals who have adapted a lot of their doctrine to the new scientific understanding.

Harris is less negative than you seem to indicate, Ralph. He does believe that conversational tolerance, the tendency to suspend criticism of absurd ideas in the name of political correctness, is harmful to progress. I get the impression he's more interested in understanding the naturalistic causes of religious belief and spiritual experience, which he correctly notes are two very different things, than he is in eradicating "religion and supernatural belief".

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don’t tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.

There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.

8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.

Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an understanding of nature’s laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human atheists.

From the atheist point of view, the world’s religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn’t have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation.

I agree with Kurtz's reaction to what seems to be negative and reactionary atheist tactics. For this reason it's important to continue to highlight the value of the philosophy of metaphysical naturalism as a coherent worldview promoting compassion and understanding, in lieu of retribution and judgment.
One thing that always surprises me is that secular humanism is said to be broader and more inclusive than atheism. Isn't the opposite the case? Secular humanism is a quite specific philosophy. It excludes anyone who is not committed to the specifics of that philosophy. By contrast, atheism is extremely diverse: it covers anyone who lacks (or at least self-consciously lacks) God belief.

I'm not saying that atheism is therefore "better". Indeed, the effect of this is that many people with whom I have strong disagreements are atheists, while few such people are secular humanists. But I don't see how secular humanism is more "inclusive" or "broader". Perhaps it's "thicker" or "richer", but that's an entirely different concept. Since it includes philosophical naturalism as one component of its philosophy, secular humanism excludes everyone who is excluded by atheism. Yes? But it would appear to exclude a lot of other people as well.
"There are many things that an atheist can be, aside from believing in God, but claiming to uphold humanist ethics and values does limit the kinds of choices we can make on many issues."

That would depend on whether or not the "we" in that statement was truthful to the professed ethics and values. People often profess to be plenty. Some act and think differently when they think nobody's watching. Are you saying you hold the moral high ground as a fallible human being devoted to a particular purpose?
"One thing that always surprises me is that secular humanism is said to be broader and more inclusive than atheism. Isn't the opposite the case?"

A clarification: "His aim is to change the world from the tool of secular humanism, which is broader and more inclusive than simply being an Atheist!"

Broader as a tool to an end because Secular Humanism may include believers and non-believers both advancing towards the same common goal.

Broader in that sense. Sorry, if that was unclear.
You are missing a very key word in his statement: simply. He did not say that he refused to be defined as an atheist, he refused to be defined simply as an atheist. And he's entirely correct. Technically, he is an atheist, he doesn't believe any claim of the existence of gods. That makes him an atheist. However, as a secular humanist, he is making claims of his own, he's expressing that he is a member of a smaller subset. So while atheist is a valid label for him, as would human and male be valid labels, secular humanist is a more informative label that he wants people to use for him. Similarily, Thunderf00t is an atheist, but doesn't like the label, and wants people to use the label Pearlist instead, as it is more informative.

Atheist is not a negative label any more than abolitionist was a negative label. Both groups are formed strictly by their opposition to another position, but that doesn't make it negative.

The use of the term agnostic is, in my opinion, unfortunate. Gnosticism, in this context, speaks to knowledge, theism speaks to belief. Its a simple question: do you believe any known claim of the existence of one or more gods? If the answer is yes, you are a theist. If the answer is no, you are an atheist. And before you rebut, no, you can't not have a position, you either believe the claim or you don't. Your level of surety might be in doubt, that's where gnosticism comes into play. If you are know that there is a god (not that you have absolute knowledge, but 'know' in a normal human sense of the word 'know' (e.g. much as you 'know' that the sun will rise tomorrow)), you are a gnostic theist. If you don't know but believe that there is a god, you are an agnostic theist. If you know (and thus also believe) that the existing claims of the existence of gods are wrong, you are a gnostic atheist. If you don't know but believe that the existing claims of the existence of gods are wrong, you are an agnostic atheist.
I believe that ridiculing supernatural beliefs has a place in the arsenal of disseminating the cause of reason and rationalism. Will it deconvert hard-core theists? No. Will it give those who are prevaricating pause for thought? Yes.

However, I do not advocate ridiculing individuals. That gets us nowhere and only makes us look like bullies.

I do think a clear distinction can be made between the two.

Personally, I wouldn't have got involved in Blasphemy Day, but I can see that its aim was to show that supernatural ideas should not be protected from criticism and ridicule. Scientific hypotheses are routinely held up for criticism and ridicule - even within the scientific community. As science is not similarly protected why should religion have that advantage?

In a world-wide movement we cannot expect everyone to agree on appropriate strategies. Some strategies will alienate some but engage others. Mistakes will be made. But the biggest mistake we can make is to allow our differences to escalate into bitter in-fighting and dogmatic schisms. The one thing that atheism needs is unity - and unity can be achieved if everyone accepts that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
In a world-wide movement we cannot expect everyone to agree on appropriate strategies. Some strategies will alienate some but engage others. Mistakes will be made. But the biggest mistake we can make is to allow our differences to escalate into bitter in-fighting and dogmatic schisms. The one thing that atheism needs is unity - and unity can be achieved if everyone accepts that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Very nicely stated, Kristy.
I have seen something similar, where Atheists refuse to be defined as Atheists because they believe it should require no definition. Some are against the title because, in their view, if you call them a name that suggests they don't believe in god, you'd have to create hundreds of thousands of names that also suggest they don't believe in other superstitions, such as A-unicorns, A-leprechauns, etc.

However, I find that the belief in a god is a very common thing, and as such, a title defining me as not believing in one is a valid and worthwhile title.

To each their own though. If we all saw the world the same way, well... the world would be a pretty boring place indeed.
And just what does he thing a "kinder, gentler" secularism is going to get him? There are places in this country where being an open atheist is a very questionalble policy from a personal safety point of view. I live in the People's Republic of California and I've had people shout at me as I walk down the street.



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