Paul Kurtz on the "Strategic Blunder" of the New Atheists

i-dddeb34c256a5b077d2d775115a4e4d0-PaulKurtz.jpg

In 2007, I called attention to a Point of Inquiry interview with philosopher Paul Kurtz in which he expressed concern over the direction of the New Atheist movement while asserting the commonly shared values between secular humanists and many world religions. Kurtz at the time was not the only prominent humanist to voice such concern, as Philip Kitcher in a POI interview expressed dismay over the "unremittingly negative" rhetoric of New Atheist authors.

The interview was one of the first volleys in an ever louder critique by Kurtz of the New Atheist movement, affirmed earlier this month in his release of a new statement on secular humanist principles and values. Yesterday, the Buffalo News ran a feature offering more insight on Kurtz's criticism of the New Atheist movement.

The full article should be read, but below I have pasted a few key excerpts. This summer, I am hoping to return to this subject, elaborating on a blueprint for how secular humanists and the non-religious can engage with their local communities on commonly shared values and goals, promoting mutual learning and dialogue while improving the image of non-believers.

From the Buffalo News:

Kurtz worries that, even worse, the momentum he helped build toward a less faith-bound world is now overly focused on attacking religion, at the expense of other goals.

"It's become fixated in recent years on atheism, the criticism of religion," he said. "And I think that's a strategic blunder. Not just a strategic blunder, but a philosophical and ethical one, as well."

Don't misunderstand Kurtz, who hasn't had a change of heart in his advanced years. He has always viewed religions skeptically. "They were spawned during an agricultural, rural time," he said. "They don't apply to the modern world."

He still doesn't believe in a god or an afterlife, because "there's no evidence for that."

At the same time, he sees a place for believers in the broad spectrum of secular humanism -- in large part because, without them, any movement toward societies based on principles of humanism, rather than faith, will go nowhere.

"Let's say the atheists are successful, and religion continues to decline, so what do you have, a vacuum?" he said. "That's really the burning issue in America today: How shall I live? What should I strive for?"

[Note: A native of Buffalo, I worked at the Center for Inquiry between 1997-1999 before heading to graduate school. Lee Nisbet, quoted in the Buffalo News article, is my uncle.]

More like this

The philosopher Paul Kurtz has published a new position booklet that addresses much of what I have been arguing is missing--and so deeply troubling--about the New Atheist movement. Below is a press release from the Council for Secular Humanism. Secular Humanism's Elder Statesman Responds to "The…
Philosopher Paul Kurtz has been an influential mentor to me and he remains a major inspiration. Back in 1997, Kurtz hired me to work at the Center for Inquiry-Transnational as Skeptical Inquirer's media relations director. Three years later he strongly supported my decision to go to graduate…
Ask yourself: What's the best way you can promote atheism in your community or on your campus? Do you want to gain attention through polarizing attacks at your blog or in public statements, alienating even your moderately religious neighbors? Or do you want to be known as the community builder and…
In a report on the 2007 activities of the Center for Inquiry, chair Paul Kurtz adds further to how he differentiates a positive and life affirming secular view of the world from the arguments of the so-called New Atheists. Here's what Kurtz writes: The new atheism, so-called, provoked widespread…

Paul Kurtz seems to be a particularly sloppy thinker.

... atheism, the criticism of religion ...

Er no, atheism is not the criticism of religion, it's a belief in the non-existence of gods. Aren't "philosophers" supposed to be good at understanding and using terms?

[Kurtz] sees a place for believers in the broad spectrum of secular humanism -- in large part because, without them, any movement toward societies based on principles of humanism, rather than faith, will go nowhere.

What does this burble mean?

There is no place for believers in humanism by definition. Any more than there is a place for atheists in the Christian church.

The whole point of humanism is that it tries to provide rational moral or ethical principles which individuals and a society can live by without any claims to divine inspiration. It aims to fill the vacuum that some feel comes without divinely given principles. By definition, if humanism succeeds, there is no vacuum.

If everybody is simply atheist, yes, maybe there's a vacuum in that being atheist is purely a negative (a lack of belief in gods); in itself it does not lead to any deeper principles. That's precisely what humanism tries to do.

Humanism tries to answer the question: how should I live my life without invoking the supernatural?

Sounds like Paul Kurtz wants to be religious but can't bring himself to have faith!

This summer, I am hoping to return to this subject, elaborating on a blueprint for how secular humanists and the non-religious can engage with their local communities on commonly shared values and goals, promoting mutual learning and dialogue while improving the image of non-believers.

Will you be speaking ex cathedra your omniscienceness?

"Let's say the atheists are successful, and religion continues to decline, so what do you have, a vacuum?"

I don't think that a 'vacuum' is really an apt description. What seems to happen is that you have the absence of a barrier. As religion declines, the barriers to adopting real humanist values go away. Superstitious beliefs pervert humanist values.

Jdhuey,

I tend to disagree. I'll declare myself at the outset - I'm an atheist and highly critical of religion. I agree with Harris' crticisms about Moderates in principle. Whilst I think that the interaction between superstitious beliefs and humanist beliefs are ultimately pernicious in nature, I don't really see another viable strategy for combating the primary reason people hold on to faith in the western world - that is, a sense of community built around shared values.

Ultimately, you have to gradually ease people out of their old ways and into new ways by allowing them to maintain the common thread that ties both ideologies together. By identifying with religious moderates re: shared humanistic core values you can slowly start to erode the more frivolous elements of their ideology, the religious components, whilst retaining the solid footing that cements people into clinging to their beliefs in the long run.

If I had my way, there wouldn't be religion in the first place, but a gradual shift is really the only defendable strategy for change.

By Daniel Wright (not verified) on 20 Apr 2010 #permalink

Sorry Mr. Wright, but I have to disagree.

Viable strategy? The atheist community is pretty heterogenous and most of us are probably unaware of the strategy our platform entails. I must express ignorance of any platform, beyond denying deities.

I think the only strategy we have is for everyone to do their own thing. For most of us, that means going to work and trying to be good citizens and neighbors without the imagined help of supernatural forces. For some few of us that means engaging in public discourse, education, entertainment, etc. The enlightenment principles would not have had the impact they did without 18th century intellectuals selling them, hard. So it is with atheist and skeptical principles. In case you haven't noticed, Mr. Wright, atheist numbers continue growing fine under these conditions.

For many of us that have to work and live around openly, annoyingly religious people, it gets tiresome to continuously coddle their emotional states just to get along in conversation. It also gets tiresome to see the promotion of religiosity where inappropriate and, worse, the religious obstruction of human progress, as in the cases of stem cells, climate-change denial and the climate of fear that prevents high school biology teachers from effectively teaching the foundational theory of their discipline.

It also gets tiresome to hear a pack of cowards in our own ranks telling us to keep our lights under bushels, worse yet, telling us to lie to religious people to retain their favor. It's actually quite disgusting.

Are accommodationists pathologically dishonest, or just very insecure?

By cgauthier (not verified) on 20 Apr 2010 #permalink

Although he dresses it up as being inclusive, Kurtz has managed to create something even more divisive than New Atheism - a secular pseudo religion with even more arbitrary moralizing than the real ones.

Kurtz makes much of science and reason, but he's advancing a bundle of ethical propositions that cannot be derived from either. Kurtz's values aren't shared among non-theists, let alone between believers and non-believers. Indeed, it's such a specific version of progressivism that it's probably not even shared among non-believers who are registered Democrats. New Atheism may be limiting its own reach by its belligerence, but is based around a claim that is backed by strong empirical evidence.

"That's really the burning issue in America today: How shall I live? What should I strive for?"
***************
Don't think that really is the burning issue in the US. How about, how shall I provide for myself and my family so that I may live? Striving for something is a luxury for many.

By ponderingfool (not verified) on 21 Apr 2010 #permalink

I tend to think that the time factor gets overlooked in these debates. Change is inevitable, but it's the pace of change that can get people to act in reactionary ways. The "New Atheists" aren't really saying anything new, but the recent apparent "rush to atheism" has people going "whoa!" Conversely, we need to remember that real, substantive change will take time.

We need only look at history to see how many "unimaginable" eventualities did indeed come to pass. We don't have slaves, or horse buggies, or messenger boys. I can type this, and someone on the other side of the world can read it seconds later. We're 30 years in to the "PC revolution", so we're used to all this now, but imagine if it all landed on the lap of someone living a century ago: it's far beyond the science fiction of HG Wells or Jules Verne. So, I don't see why religion can't go the way of the buggy, if it happens slowly enough so as not to frighten the horses.

Unfortunately we do not have a historic discussion here. Secularization continues to progress, but not at the rate that sociologists predicted. Hence the Berger change on the matter. But secularization still continues and atheism is one of the fastest growing faiths.

Now lets look at a second dimension: Public image of disbelief? It's woefully bad as the Minnesota study has show. Yes it too has improved, but it has improved much less than other stigmatized groups in comparison.

Now what was the image and strategy? I think Paul Kurtz's secular humanism. Unbelievers were humanists, soft spoken, nice, hardly visible.

It got us the worst image imaginable. No leverage in the political arena and a supreme court that now rules 5-4 on issues where we used to have a wider margin.

I am for civility, but the lack of visibility was and is a major issue. I think the new visible atheism is great and the fact that it can be over the top has to be shown to hurt, rather than be postulated to do so.

I think we are short-selling New Atheism. It really is more like second wave feminism. Those too were labeled aggressive and not helping, but they did help. It's a movement towards self-esteme and public visibility that I think is not only badly needed but about 30 years late. It should have happened when the christian conservative movements emerged. They now had over 20 years to mature and we see the consequences now. That is the real problem. Not that a few books are perceived as too much.