Paul Kurtz dies at 86; secular humanist philosopher

Paul Kurtz in 2004.
Paul Kurtz in 2004.
(Don Heupel / Associated Press)

Philosopher Paul Kurtz was called many unflattering names during his long career, including “Satanic free-thinker” and “dangerous corrupter of young minds.”

But the name some of his critics considered most damning was the one he most prized.

They called him a secular humanist.

“You can call me a skeptic, a non-theist, an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptical, agnostic atheist, but the best term,” Kurtz, a champion of science and debunker of religions and the supernatural, told the Associated Press years ago, “is secular humanist. I have a philosophy, a point of view, and I express it.”

Kurtz, a forceful leader of the secular humanism movement that holds human freedom and creativity supreme, died Oct. 20 at his home in Amherst, N.Y. He was 86.

An earlier version of this obituary said Paul Kurtz died Nov. 20. He died Oct. 20.

His son Jonathan said Kurtz had heart problems but declined to give an exact cause of death.

Kurtz taught philosophy at State University of New York at Buffalo for 26 years but was not an ivory tower recluse. An admirer of pragmatist John Dewey, he “wanted to bring philosophy from the ivory tower and deliver it to people,” his son said. This stance led Kurtz to create the magazines Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry, the journal Human Prospect and the publishing company Prometheus Books.

He also founded several organizations, the most prominent being the 21-year-old Center for Inquiry, a New York-based group dedicated to fostering a society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry and humanist values.

Kurtz, who grew up with a Jewish background, criticized religion but was more than an atheist. He viewed secular humanism as a positive philosophy that encourages people to find wisdom, happiness and moral awareness without God, by improving life for oneself and others in the here and now. He coined the term Eupraxsophy to describe a nonreligious approach to life.

“No god will save us,” he declared as principal author of the Humanist Manifesto II, a 1973 document signed by such prominent thinkers as philosopher Sidney Hook, writer Isaac Asimov and scientist Francis Crick, “we must save ourselves.”

Nor did Kurtz believe in parapsychology, extraterrestrials, the effectiveness of chiropractic, Bigfoot or other phenomena that seem to defy scientific explanation. He assembled panels of experts to submit the most mystifying claims to critical scrutiny through the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which he founded in 1976 with magician James Randi and others. It reports on its investigations in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

“He was the greatest free thought leader in America since the passing of John Dewey,” said Stuart Jordan, a former NASA scientist and president of the Institute for Science and Human Values, which Kurtz launched in 2010 after resigning his positions at the Center for Inquiry because of irreconcilable differences with its leadership.

In 2008, when he was nearing 82, he supported the decision of the Center for Inquiry board to hire Washington, D.C., attorney Ronald A. Lindsay as chief executive. Kurtz clashed with the new chief over personnel changes and what he perceived as a wrong-headed turn away from humanism to “angry atheism.”

Although he wasn’t above such antics as Skeptical Inquirer’s “Foot in Mouth Disease Award” (which went to the Rev. Jerry Falwell in 2002 for blaming the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in part on feminists, pagans and abortionists), Kurtz was dismayed by Lindsay’s leadership, citing in particular his support of International Blasphemy Rights Day with contests for cartoons and slogans illustrating forms of blasphemy. Kurtz found the whole affair sophomoric and gimmicky.

“Paul was very tolerant and open-minded,” said Jordan, who also has served as the center’s science advisor, “but because he raised the money, once the dialogue was over he acted a little more like a field marshal.... There aren’t many entrepreneurs who have not been a little like that — intense, passionate people who have good ideas and an understandable tendency to say, ‘Let’s do it my way.’”

Kurtz was born in Newark, N.J., on Dec. 31, 1925, the son of a free-thinking businessman and a homemaker. He was not raised Jewish and for a time affiliated with the Unitarian Church. He left when he realized “you can lead a good life without being a member of a church,” according to a 1987 Chicago Tribune interview.

He enlisted in the Army at 17 and fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. Later he met survivors of Nazi brutality at the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, a searing experience. Throughout the war he carried a copy of Plato’s Republic, the classic dialogue on the meaning of justice.

After the war he studied philosophy at New York University under Hook, a student of Dewey who became a prominent philosopher of the pragmatist school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1948 before obtaining his master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy at Columbia, in 1949 and 1952. He taught at Trinity College in Connecticut before returning to New York for appointments at Vassar College and Union College. He joined SUNY Buffalo in 1965 and retired in 1991.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Claudine; three daughters and five grandchildren.

He wrote or edited more than 45 books, the last of which is a work on planetary ethics scheduled to be released by Prometheus next year.

Jonathan Kurtz said his father was not afraid of death and spent a “joyful” final day telling jokes and discussing his favorite football team. “His true religion,” his son said, “was the NFL and the Buffalo Bills.”

He took, not surprisingly, a philosophical approach to death.

“If I went to heaven or hell,” he once said, “I’d try to create a revolution. I’d immediately pass out pamphlets, asking God to change the furniture in the universe and reorder it in a more just way.

“This is hypothetical, of course.”