What ever happened to Paul Kurtz?

The Paul Kurtz I remember was the serious, scholarly fellow at the forefront of the atheist movement, who wasn’t shy about saying it the way it was. The New Kurtz is a more timid observer, who wants to criticize religion mildly without giving offense, and is more concerned about policing his fellow humanists and atheists than actually working to overcome the folly of religious belief.

In the latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine, Kurtz has an editorial that is all about tone rather than content; it de-emphasizes what we say and wants to make how we say it the most important criterion. It’s titled “Toward a Kinder and Gentler Humanism”, and it makes me wonder who chopped Kurtz’s balls off. (To be fair, I should say upfront that it briefly mentions me — or rather, my jerkwad alter ego, P.Z. Meyers — to accuse me of being “strident”.)

He lays out his plan. They are going to take the “high road”, they are not “shrill”, they will not “resort to ridicule”, yadda yadda yadda. Again, tone, tone, tone. Who cares? The low point for me, though, was this bit:

I must say, though some colleagues at the Center may disagree, that I have serious misgivings about recent programs undertaken by the Center and the Council that laid heavy stress on blasphemy. Although I agree that it is vitally important to defend the right to blaspheme, I am displeased with the Center’s decision last year to celebrate Blasphemy Day as such. Similarly, although cartoons make a point and can be used, I am disturbed about poking fun at our fellow citizens in the public square. Speaking personally, I am particularly offended by the cartoon that won the Council’s Free Expression Cartoon Contest this year. I think that it is in poor taste. I do not object to others in society doing this, but I do not think that is is the role of the Council for Secular Humanism or the Center for Inquiry to engage in such forms of lampooning.

So, we’re going to reserve the right to blaspheme, but we’re not actually going to do it, out of respect for the beliefs of others. When some religious nut demands our obeisance to something he regards as holy, we’re going to say that we could disagree, but instead we’re going to self-censor and bend a knee to his gods…have no fear, though, while we’re busy kowtowing, we’ll be sure to declare that we could stop any time.

You have not protected the right to blaspheme if you also gag yourself and say you won’t; you are particularly in the wrong if you are a respected leader of a godless institution and you use your influence to insist that we should not blaspheme at all. It is our responsibility as the opposition to poke fun at our fellow citizens in the public square; what good is an opposition that muzzles itself and insists on giving religion the privilege of not even being laughed at?


By the way, here is that cartoon that won the contest he referred to above. I share some of Kurtz’s disappointment, because I don’t care for it much. However, it’s not because it’s offensive or in poor taste — please, a cartoon cannot possibly be as offensive as the child-raping behavior it targets — but because it’s not particularly funny. I have higher expectations of one of the premiere organizations for secular humanism than this!

What Kurtz fails to appreciate is that we must offend. We are rejecting the power of invisible gods and refusing the promise of eternal life in paradise, and further, we’re in the business of telling believers that their most cherished fantasies are lies. If we aren’t offending them, we are hiding the implications of our ideas and are not doing our job.

Fortunately, as the editorial reveals throughout, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry are defying their founder’s demands that they hobble themselves (and there is definitely a note of resentment coming through, too). It’s a shame that Kurtz is willingly trapped in an ineffectual past, but at the same time, I think he has built a solid foundation for those organizations, and there is hope that they, if not their former leader, are working to advance.