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On Entering the Third Decade:
Personal Reminiscences

A Humanistic Journey

by Paul Kurtz

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 2.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Free Inquiry magazine and its sponsoring organization, the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH). This is a propitious time to reflect on the circumstances that led to the founding of Free Inquiry, to touch on some exciting highlights of the past two decades, and to project ahead to our third decade. I say this in light of the fact that the Council has become the leading humanist organization in North America, and its umbrella organization, the Center for Inquiry (CFI), now represents the largest freethought movement in the history of this country and one of the strongest in the world-over 100,000 readers and supporters of our various publications and activities.

The Creation of Free Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism

Free Inquiry was founded in 1980-at a time when secular humanism was under heavy attack in the United States from the so-called Moral Majority. Indeed, Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign was sparked by the unremitting demonization of secular humanists. The religious Right claimed that there was a "secular humanist conspiracy" and that the public schools and universities, the courts, the media, labor unions, and liberal organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Education Association, were all dominated by the secular humanist outlook; and its detractors insisted that this influence had to be rooted out. At that time almost no one on the national scene was prepared to admit that he or she was a secular humanist, let alone to defend or even define secular humanism.

I had just come off of ten provocative years as editor of The Humanist magazine. I had quadrupled the circulation, but I had resolved never again to edit a magazine run by an organization (the American Humanist Association). I was reluctant to leap into the fray again, because I found humanist board politics debilitating to the creative process and to free expression; though I am sure that this was unintended and that board members believed in free inquiry, in principle at least.[1]

In view of the serious threat that the intemperate attacks on secular humanism posed to our democracy, I had been urged by dozens and dozens of colleagues to create a new magazine forthrightly defending the secular humanist viewpoint, one that was nonreligious and secular and made no bones about it. I should add that I was accustomed to controversy, for I had founded Prometheus Books in 1969-now the leading publisher of humanist, skeptical, and atheist literature in the world-and I was also instrumental in founding the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in 1976, devoted to critically exposing claims of the paranormal. Its magazine, the Skeptical Inquirer, edited by the distinguished science writer Kendrick Frazier, did not deal with religious claims per se unless empirical facts were at issue, and it was not concerned with ethical and social issues. Unfortunately, all of the humanist organizations and publications in the United States considered themselves to be "religious," even though nontheistic. Religious humanists were hesitant of openly criticizing religion (or the paranormal), for they feared it would expose humanism to the charge of atheism. Madalyn Murray O'Hair's American Atheists organization was one of the rare exceptions in criticizing religion; but she had so discredited atheism by intemperate attacks on believers and unbelievers alike that unbelief had few responsible defenders on the national scene.[2]

Three people in particular persuaded me to found Free Inquiry: George and Virginia Olincy, who headed the Andrew Norman Foundation in Los Angeles and were stalwart defenders of the ACLU and the rights of atheists in America (they journeyed to Buffalo to urge me to enter into the fray), and Gordon Stein, editor of The American Rationalist and a staunch exponent of freethought and atheism. A fourth person whose judgment I valued most highly was my former professor at New York University, the philosopher Sidney Hook, a defender of human freedom and a critic of totalitarianism. He thought that this project was eminently worthy of pursuing and he urged me to proceed.

Accordingly, I agreed to go ahead with this new venture and to devote my time and energy to it. I was primarily interested at that time in creating a new journal of opinion, not in creating an organization-this attitude of mine would change over the years.

And so both the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (in 1996 renamed to the simpler Council for Secular Humanism)[3] and Free Inquiry were launched. We adopted the neutral term free inquiry for the magazine because we were committed first and foremost to the need to defend free inquiry into all areas of human interest; and we believed that, even though religion had a powerful influence in the public square, free inquiry into its claims was largely verboten in America (and still is).

I should also add that we started this venture from scratch with almost no capital, except for a modest three-year grant from the Olincys, later extended another two years. This was supplemented by a grant from another foundation, which fortunately has made our survival possible. I wished to serve as editor of FI without any compensation whatsoever, but George Olincy insisted that I receive a salary, however small ($12,000 per year), which I accepted reluctantly the first few years, then began donating it back; and in the last 13 years I have received no compensation whatever. This was primarily a labor of love.

The first issue of Free Inquiry was published in the fall of 1980. It contained A Secular Humanist Declaration, which I drafted and which was endorsed by 58 leaders in thought and action worldwide, including Isaac Asimov (the famous science-fiction writer), Francis Crick (DNA discoverer), the eminent philosophers A. J. Ayer and Sidney Hook, Albert Ellis (noted psychologist), Joseph Fletcher, B. F. Skinner (the Harvard psychologist), Barbara Wootton (member of the British House of Lords), and others.

We stated that "the first principle of democratic secular humanism is its commitment to free inquiry. . . . This applies not only to science and everyday life, but to politics, economics, morality, and religion." We observed that "countless millions of thoughtful persons have espoused secular humanist ideals." We deplored "the growth of intolerant sectarian creeds that foster hatred." "It is possible," we maintained, "for human beings to lead meaningful and wholesome lives without the need of religious commandments or the benefit of clergy. . . . Secular humanism places trust in human intelligence rather than divine guidance."

We were pleased by the immediate positive reception that Free Inquiry received. The Declaration made the front page of the New York Times, and it was covered by hundreds of newspapers and magazines worldwide. In the second and third issues of Free Inquiry we carried excerpts of columns of some of our critics, including Patrick Buchanan (he later called me "Mr. Secular Humanist" and invited me on "Crossfire" on two occasions), Phyllis Schlafly, Roscoe Drummond, John P. Roche, Edwin P. Morgan (who was complimentary), and other well-known commentators.

Secular Humanism Is Not a Religion

The first decade of Free Inquiry examined a wide range of topics, but our primary focus was threefold: First, we dealt with what had become a controversial political/legal issue in the United States during the first half of the 80s. This was the charge that "the religion of secular humanism" dominated the major institutions of the United States, and that this was a violation of the First Amendment because it constituted the establishment of a religion. Included in this chorus of denunciation were well-known preachers such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Tim LaHaye, and a wide range of politicians who echoed the same refrain. For example, Senator Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism) declared that what we were about was "an unAmerican and unconstitutional drive to establish secular humanism as the state religion."[4]

These preposterous charges were to be tested many times in subsequent years in the courts and school districts across the land. It was based in part on a footnote to the Supreme Court decision in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961) written by Justice Hugo Black which stated that secular humanism and Ethical Culture should have the same rights as religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. This was not a ruling by the Court, only a footnote.

One especially serious challenge to secular humanism occurred when Federal District Court Judge Brevard Hand in Mobile, Alabama, ordered some 45 books (by Daniel Boorstin, A. H. Maslow, John Dewey, and others) to be removed from the public schools because they expressed "the religion of secular humanism." He was responding to a suit brought by 624 parents against the school board. I was asked to appear in court in Mobile by 12 parents who disagreed with his ruling. People for the American Way and the ACLU brought me to defend secular humanism. I labeled this charade as "The New Inquisition in the Schools."[5] Attorney Ronald Lindsay, on behalf of the Council, entered an amicus brief. We argued that secularism was embodied in the Constitution and that humanism pervaded all aspects of modern intellectual and cultural life. To seek to extirpate it is to repeal the modern world. The ruling by Judge Hand (we called him the "Unlearned Hand") was subsequently overturned by an appeals court.

There were numerous other challenges to secular humanism; for example, those who wished to teach creationism alongside of evolution in the schools often changed that to teach evolution alone was "to establish the religion of secular humanism." Interestingly, John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, who later emerged as a key figure in the Paula Jones case against President Clinton, played a key role in pursuing this legal challenge.

This issue has lessened in recent years. We maintained throughout that humanism was an ethical, philosophical, and scientific viewpoint, and not a religion. This posed a legal difficulty in one sense, because although the Council held a 501(c)(3) educational exemption from the start, all other humanist organizations in America hold a religious exemption.

During this first decade we entered into several other legal challenges. Ronald Lindsay sued the House and the Senate chaplaincies on our behalf because we requested that a secular humanist (myself) be allowed to open the Congress. We would provide some moral instruction to the Congress (which we thought was of need of it!), but since we refused to engage in prayer we were denied that right. We took this up to the First Federal Appeals Court. But our petition was turned down by a vote of 2 to 1, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, later appointed to the Supreme Court, supporting our position.

Free Inquiry began sponsoring national conferences on this theme. We met at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in 1983 to commemorate James Madison's birthday, and we established the James Madison Memorial Committee.[6] This conference defended liberty of thought and conscience and the separation of church and state. Many distinguished personalities contributed: Daniel Boorstin (librarian of Congress), Henry Steele Commager (noted historian), Senators Sam Ervin, Lowell Weicker, and others. Another conference was held at the State University of New York at Buffalo campus in Amherst, New York, on "Science, the Bible, and Darwin" in 1982.[7] Interestingly, the president of the university, Steven Sample, recounted to me that he had received more letters and telephone calls of complaint about our meeting on campus than anything he could remember. His response was to defend academic freedom: we had every right to meet on campus.

A second major issue that concerned us in the first decade of Free Inquiry was our call for the critical examination of religion. Because the Bible was being used as a political weapon, it was important that it be open to critical public scrutiny. Thus Free Inquiry brought to its pages a great number of distinguished biblical scholars, and it devoted several conferences to the theme. Indeed, we eventually founded the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion in 1984 under the consummate chairmanship of Professor Gerald Larue (of the University of Southern California) who directed this line of research. Among the distinguished scholars who participated were John Robinson, Randel Helms, John Priest, Morton Smith, Carl Meyers, Vern Bullough, Robert Alley, Joe Barnhart, David Noel Freedman, R. Joseph Hoffmann, John Allegro, Van Harvey, John Hick, and later Hector Avalos and Robert Price. George D. Smith wrote a series of important articles on the Mormon Church. Among the popular themes that were discussed in the pages of Free Inquiry were the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, how the Bible was written, etc. Many of the conferences we convened were immensely significant, such as the conference on "Armageddon and Biblical Apocalyptic" at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles in 1984; "Jesus in Myth and History" at the University of Michigan in 1985 (where we were picketed by Lyndon La Rouche's US Labor Party); the discussion of "Ethics in Conflict: Biblical vs. Secular Morality" at the University of Richmond in 1986; and the conference on "The Vatican and Catholic Doctrine" at American University in Washington, D.C., in 1987.[8]

Free Inquiry devoted several issues to examining claims of the faith healers. James Randi played a key role here, exposing deception and outright chicanery. Among those investigated were W. T. Grant, Pat Robertson, Ernest Angley, David Paul, Peter Popoff, and later Morris Cerullo. This received considerable national media attention, for it was the first time that the blatant excesses of religion were exposed in this way. A high point was when Randi demonstrated on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" how Peter Popoff bilked the public.[9] Popoff's so-called messages from God were communicated backstage by his wife via a secret radio receiver in his ear! This entire faith-healing charade later inspired Steve Martin's satirical movie, Leap of Faith.

The third basic issue that Free Inquiry examined was the question of whether or not it is possible to be moral without a belief in God. This was in response to the irresponsible charges leveled against secular humanists that we were "pernicious," "immoral," and allowed "anything to go."[10] We tried to make it clear that, though secular humanists may be agnostics, atheists, or skeptics about the God question, they are deeply committed to ethical values and moral responsibility.

These early years were most exciting, for we were able to bring to our pages many of the intellectual leaders of thought and action. The International Academy of Humanism was founded in 1983 on the 500th anniversary of the Inquisition and the 350th anniversary of the trial of Galileo, and it included in its fold many of the leading humanist thinkers of the world. Sidney Hook appeared in many issues of Free Inquiry, consistently defending democracy and attacking totalitarianism. The famous philosopher Karl Popper criticized B. F. Skinner's endorsement of the Secular Humanist Declaration and would not sign it because of that. His reasons were that Skinner did not believe in freedom. In the same issue B. F. Skinner replied. Similarly, Sidney Hook and Corliss Lamont engaged in debate about the relationship of humanism to communism. The noted Harvard professor E. O. Wilson appeared in Free Inquiry several times defending sociobiology and biodiversity. There was a significant debate on the return of the sacred among Daniel Bell, Joseph Fletcher, William Bainbridge, and myself. Many distinguished authors were represented over the years in our pages: Ernest Nagel, Albert Ellis, Thomas Szasz, Carl Sagan, Brand Blanshard, Richard Kostelanetz, Marvin Kohl, Garrett Hardin, Paul MacCready, Daniel Maguire, Jan Narveson, H.J. Blackham, Robert Rimmer, and others. In the first decade we ran interviews with important authors: Isaac Asimov, Francis Crick, B.F. Skinner, Corliss Lamont, Steve Allen, and Jayne Meadows. Free Inquiry attempted to remain on the cutting edge of moral issues. We consistently defended the need to stabilize world population; we defended abortion and gay rights. Vern and Bonnie Bullough, veteran editors of Free Inquiry, were supporters of Free Inquiry from the start. They contributed a series of articles on responsible sexual morality and invited John Money, Robert Francoeur, Rob Tielman, Sol Gordon, and others to contribute. Also noteworthy is the fact that Free Inquiry was the first magazine to open its pages to Dr. Jack Kevorkian (and Derek Humphry), who defended assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia; and it issued the "Case for Active Voluntary Euthanasia," drafted by Gerald Larue.[11]

During its first decade Free Inquiry helped initiate several important debates, often in cooperation with the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). There was an important dialogue, for example, between the Vatican and humanists held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in the fall of 1988.[12] Beginning with the IHEU World Congress held in Amherst in 1988 (which over 1,000 people attended), we began to initiate dialogues between Soviet atheists and humanists. At that Congress "A Declaration of Interdependence: A New Global Ethics" was issued by the International Academy of Humanism.[13] I subsequently visited Moscow four times as communism was breaking up, in an effort to establish a new Center for Inquiry and a new humanist organization. Throughout this decade we defended Andreĺ Sakharov (the noted Soviet dissident), and in 1988 I had the honor to present him with the International Humanist Award on his first trip to New York.[14]

Eupraxsophy: Converting a Magazine to a Movement

As the first decade of publishing Free Inquiry began to draw to a close, it became clear that we needed to enlarge our focus and to transform ourselves from a magazine to a movement, national and worldwide in scope. New issues were emerging on the horizons. Reagan and Thatcher had dominated the political process in both the U.S. and Britain in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, communism in Russia and Eastern Europe had collapsed. Fundamentalism was growing worldwide. At the same time global capitalism and American triumphalism were on the ascendancy.

In the 1990s, although the attacks on secular humanism were restrained, the influence of the Christian Coalition and the religious Right became stronger than ever, particularly in the conservative wing of the Republican party. And much to our surprise, new levels of spirituality entered into the public square; this was everywhere heralded by the mass media. Professions of piety became a commonplace synonym for American patriotism. Even liberal democrats sang in the hallelujah choir; as belief in angels and miracles grew, religion seemed to be gaining added momentum. The principles of the Enlightenment, which FI represented, seemed beleaguered by the attacks of both religionists and postmodernists.

A key question unsettled us: In the face of the virtually uncontested growth of religiosity and the apparent marginalization of religious dissent, what role could the estimated 8 to 13% of the American public who identify themselves as religious dissenters-including many of the leading scientists and intellectuals-play in the future? The challenge was hurled at us: Could a person who did not believe in God play a significant role in society, be morally responsible and a good citizen; could he or she find life meaningful in a naturalistic universe? Our answers, of course, were in the affirmative.

Already in the late 1980s there were calls from our readers to help organize an opposition, or at least to organize local grass-roots secular humanist groups. As we traveled around the country we heard similar complaints-from Mobile and Atlanta to Salt Lake City and Cincinnati, from Colorado Springs to Dallas-"We feel isolated and alone. Every other street corner has a church or a temple. We find this oppressive. Why can't the humanists organize effective communities where like-minded secularists, humanists, agnostics, and atheists meet together in fellowship?"

The courageous village atheist often stood alone in proclaiming his iconoclasm; but it is difficult for most individuals to do so without some supporting system. Thus we decided to encourage and assist the organization of secular humanist communities. We did this first in Western New York (the Amherst/Buffalo area); and then in Albany, New York; Fort Lauderdale; Kansas City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and elsewhere. A new movement was forming. Though we often lacked sufficient financial resources, we were creating a network of nonreligious humanists who were committed to working cooperatively together. Today there are now some 90 secular humanist groups in North America and they are growing rapidly.

An immediate charge was heard from within: Are you becoming a religion, something you declared you would not do? Are our critics correct about that? With this challenge in mind I set about to draft a blueprint for an alternative, nonreligious, secular, and humanist movement. Thus I published the book Eupraxophy: Living without Religion.[15] We later devoted a special issue of Free Inquiry magazine to the same theme.[16] Here Tim Madigan, the new executive editor of Free Inquiry, and myself argued that secular humanists need to be involved in face-to-face communication, and that human beings need to belong to congenial communities. Vern Bullough aptly called these "Friendship Centers."

I decided to see if I could come up with a new term, and so I introduced eupraxophy, made from the Greek roots eu- "good, well"; praxis-"conduct, practice"; sophia-"scientific and philosophical wisdom." Eupraxophy refers to a set of convictions and practices that provided a cosmic outlook (naturalistic and nontheistic) and ethical guidance to life (drawn from human experience, not from ancient religious documents), and I argued that we need to fulfill many of the functions of traditional religion. I received more mail on that issue than anything else before or after. Many people loved the new term. Others complained that they had difficulty in pronouncing it. I replied that we needed a new term, and that new terms are being coined every day in the Information Age; after all, Christianity and Marxism were in their own day neologisms. In deference to this concern about pronunciation, however, I have since added an s; so it is now eupraxsophy (pronounced u-prax-sophie).[17] The point is that we need to go beyond philosophy, "the love of wisdom," to the practice of wisdom; and beyond the specialized sciences, to draw the implications of the scientific outlook to life. Although secular humanism is ethical, it seeks to address the meaning question and to provide an existential alternative to theism. In any case, eupraxsophy is not a religion, for it does not worship a deity, emphasize piety, or have a dogmatic creed.

If we are to succeed, I maintained, we need to take new directions for secular humanism. Heretofore, most humanist organizations developed chapters or societies, where people would typically gather once a month and hear a learned discourse, usually criticizing God or immortality. This is no doubt important. But we need to address the central question: If God is dead (there is no evidence that He ever lived), the key option for us is the fact that humans are alive, and the great challenge is for each and every person to live a full life, enriched, creative, and exuberant. We need a positive and affirmative message. And we need also to deal with needs that emerge for all age groups and at all stages of life: moral education (without religion) for children; programs for high school and college students, for families, for singles, retirees, and seniors. We need to provide a place to celebrate the rites of passage, to offer rational-emotive therapy counseling, to cultivate an appreciation for the sciences and the arts, and above all to provide a support system and offer a congenial meeting place for shared experiences.

Secular humanist eupraxsophers share a common core of basic beliefs: (1) we are committed to using critical thinking and scientific methods to test claims to truth; (2) we reject the ancient mythological tales of theists, for they do not satisfy the criteria of evidence and reason; (3) we interpret both nature and human nature in naturalistic and evolutionary terms; (4) we cherish affirmative ethical values: we wish to maximize individual freedom and autonomy, we believe in the common moral decencies, and ethical excellencies; and (5) our social philosophy emphasizes our commitment to democracy and the need to develop a genuine planetary community that transcends divisive ancient, ethnic, religious, and racial loyalties.

Thus, the original effort to publish simply a magazine had been transformed into an organization in which CSH plays a vital role. Although Free Inquiry is basic to our entire effort, since it defines issues of concern to humanists, we have gone beyond that; we have brought humanism to the public square where people actually live and work.

Building Centers for Inquiry

As our original focus was being reformulated, it became apparent to us that, if we are really to achieve our goals, namely to provide an alternative for secularists and humanists in our society, we would need to build institutions that would last, and this entailed the building of actual centers where people could meet. Thus, in cooperation with CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer magazine, we announced at the beginning of the second decade our goal to create the first Center for Inquiry (CFI) in Western New York. The skeptical movement now has 100 groups worldwide. Its goals are not the same as the goals of CSH-it is concerned primarily with examining claims of the paranormal, in criticizing fringe science, and in educating the public to appreciate the nature of the sciences. Moreover, it does not deal with religion or seek to provide an ethical alternative. Nevertheless, both CSH and CSICOP share some common premises, namely our commitment to science and reason.

The second decade of CSH thus has been devoted to further building the secular humanist movement. It has been extremely active in hosting regional institutes and seminars throughout North America. In the last decade the CFI Institute (a joint project of CSICOP and CSH) was developed in order to train secular humanist mentors, skeptical leaders, and to develop a "think tank."

Our plans to build a unique freethought, humanist, and skeptical library were announced earlier in the decade; and I am happy to say it is now the strongest such library in the world, with over 30,000 volumes and journals.

During this period the Alliance for Secular Humanist Societies evolved to coordinate the growing number of secular humanist groups. The Secular Humanist Bulletin (edited by Tom Flynn) became the newsletter of the Council, which was opened to Associate Membership.

We also initiated African-Americans for Humanism, under the leadership of Norm Allen, in 1989, and developed it during the second decade. This is devoted to enhancing an awareness of humanism, critical thinking and self-reliance among African Americans, the most religious minority in America.

Similarly, in the late 1980s we also created Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) under Jim Christopher, and continued to support its growth throughout the second decade. This unique self-help group is interested in coping with alcohol and drug addiction. It is an alternative to AA, for it does not require belief in a "higher power." SOS has led to the formation of hundreds of groups all over the United States and across the world.

During this period we also opened the Robert G. Ingersoll Museum in Dresden, New York. Ingersoll (1833-1899) was the leading agnostic of the nineteenth century. The Council purchased the home where he was born in 1986 and refurbished and opened it as a freethought museum in 1993.

Last but not least is the creation in 1996 of the Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) under the leadership of Derek Araujo, Amanda Chesworth, Austin Dacey, and others. The purpose of CFA is to develop secular humanist groups on various college and university campuses throughout the United States. Allied with the CFA is the Young Freethinkers Alliance (YFA), an organization devoted to developing secular humanist groups in high schools and secondary schools throughout the country.

More on Free Inquiry's Second Decade

Free Inquiry, the key battleship in the humanist flotilla, continued to provide the intellectual case for secular humanism all during our second decade. Although we were not being challenged directly on the barricades, as in the first decade, nonetheless the so-called culture wars continued, and the values that secular humanists cherish were bitterly contested. This involved a continued assault on the "right to choose." We have consistently defended the right of privacy, autonomy, and personal self-determination. We have defended abortion, euthanasia, feminism, sexual freedom, and homosexuality, which were all under attack. But we also stated our support of family values, though we wished to enlarge the idea of the family so that it was more inclusive.

During this decade, the Council convened two important dialogues-between Mormons and humanists in Salt Lake City, and Baptists and humanists in Richmond, Virginia. They were the first such dialogues ever held.[18]

We also dealt with a number of issues on the frontiers of scientific research such as bioethics, transplants, and cloning. We also dealt with cosmology: Does a big bang imply a first creator? Astronomers Alan Hale, Victor Stenger, and Jean-Claude Pecker, and philosophers Adolf Grčnbaum and Quentin Smith, debated the issue. The attacks on Darwinism intensified during the decade and we devoted space to examining the idea of "intelligent design." This thesis was criticized by Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse, and others. We also analyzed the meaning of "consciousness." Adam Carley, Patricia Churchland, Daniel Dennett, and others offered naturalistic theories based on the latest scientific research.

Free Inquiry continued to provide a forum for many of the best-known authors in America. In the second decade we brought to our pages interviews with Peter Ustinov, Barbara Ehrenreich, Arthur C. Clarke, John Searle, Svetozar Stojanovic, Robert Muller, Wole Soyinka, Camille Paglia, Patricia Churchland, Daniel Dennett, and others. We also attempted to present some of the leading scientists and thinkers of the day, including Antony Flew, Paul Edwards, Adolf Grčnbaum, Mario Bunge, Richard Taylor, Albert Ellis, E.O. Wilson, Arthur Caplan, Tad Clements, Thelma Lavine, and Richard Rorty; as well as well-known writers such as Nat Hentoff, Wendy Kaminer, Steve Allen, Alan Dershowitz, and Christopher Hitchens.

In our judgment, Free Inquiry has emerged as the leading humanist journal in the world. Our focus has been international. We have presented articles about belief and unbelief in various countries: Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Israel and the Middle East, Egypt, Slovakia, Russia, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Ghana, Nigeria, and China. Of special interest were our articles dealing with the defenders of human rights in post-Marxist Eastern Europe, such as Alexander Dubcek (Czechoslovakia) and Mikhail GorbachĹv (Russia). And we brought to our pages the views of humanist leaders from throughout the world: Rob Tielman (Netherlands), Levi Fragell (Norway), Mrs. Indumati Parikh and V. M. Tarkunde (India), Jean-Claude Pecker and Yves Galifret (France), Harry Stopes-Roe and Jim Herrick (Britain), Henry Morgentaler (Canada), and from the United States Warren Allen Smith, Khoren Arisian, Howard Radest, Robert Tapp, Edd Doerr, and others. One area of considerable significance today is the resurgence of Islam. We devoted many articles to this issue to the critical examination of the Koran and Islam, with the help of well-known Muslim dissenters: Ibn Warraq, Marvin Zayed, Armen Saginian, and Taslima Nasrin.

In the late 1990s we supplemented our publication with Family Matters, a newsletter edited by Jan Eisler, and Philo, edited by Lewis Vaughn, a theoretical journal published by the Society of Humanist Philosophers. All during the 90s we made great strides in building CSH. The Center for Inquiry International was opened in 1995 in Amherst, New York (in cooperation with CSICOP) in magnificent new quarters. Plans were announced to open new Centers in Los Angeles (Center for Inquiry West) and Kansas City (Center for Inquiry Midwest). Plans for other Centers are in various stages of development in other cities across North America, including Tampa Bay; Albany, New York; Toronto; New Jersey/New York; and elsewhere. In addition, we supported the launching of Camp Quest (under the Kagins), a secular camp for adolescents and teenagers.

Another exciting new development was the launching of a new public-access television series, The Humanist Perspective, moderated by Joe Beck and produced by Tom Flynn, which is now airing in a dozen cities across the continent.

We also have developed cooperative working relationships with humanist groups in other countries of the world: Russia (where we established a Center for Inquiry in Moscow), Mexico (we helped to found the Humanist Society there), Peru, China, Serbia, Poland, Nepal, India, and elsewhere.

We closed the decade by issuing Humanist Manifesto 2000, which provided a planetary bill of rights and responsibilities for the twenty-first century. This document, which has been widely discussed in the press, already has been translated into ten languages and has been endorsed by many distinguished humanists, including 16 Nobel Prize-winners.

A basic scientific question that has concerned us is, Why do people believe in religion? The Council has devoted two national conferences to this theme. The first was held at the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City in December 1998,[19] and the second, "Why Does Religion Persist?," was held in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1999.[20] In my view there may be a genetic predisposition (the transcendental temptation) in some people for religiosity-though it is absent or muted in others. In any case, reason and cognition are the best instruments for moderating or deflating the excesses of overbelief. In the last analysis our best hope is critical intelligence, which nourishes science and philosophy. But we need also to provide a genuine secular and humanist alternative.

We have been troubled throughout the decade by the question, "What is the future of secularism in America and the world?" In 1994 we issued a statement defending the separation of church and state.[21] Humanism draws its vitality from the First Amendment. We have within the past year established a new First Amendment Task Force under the leadership of Tom Flynn to defend the rights of unbelievers. We deplore the constant efforts to drive secular humanism from the public square. We are concerned that the rights of religious dissenters are again threatened throughout the world by zealous disciples of the Parties of God. These concerns were found in the first issue of Free Inquiry in 1980, and they are felt again as we enter our twentieth year in the year 2000.

Looking Ahead

I wish to conclude this overview by reflecting on the challenges that Free Inquiry and the Council will face in the coming decade. The first question that needs to be addressed is whether or not Free Inquiry will survive. I do not mean to be a Jeremiah of doom. Indeed, I very much hope and expect that we will survive. Nevertheless, we need to ask whether there will be a role for small dissenting magazines in the future.

We face two challenges: First, the growth of vast media conglomerates make it very difficult for niche magazines to compete in the present economic climate. Five global media conglomerates in the United States now control 80% of the book business (two of these are foreign). Similar concerns apply to the magazine business. Newsstand sales are declining as independent bookstores and newsstands are rapidly disappearing. It is very difficult to afford the heavy promotion costs necessary to maintain, let alone increase, circulation. Substantial advertising revenues are limited. Most serious magazines such as ours today run at a deficit. Added to this is the emergence of the Internet, which siphons off circulation. There are numerous apocalyptic prophecies about the fate of publications in the next decade. Are they exaggerated or will they undermine dissenting magazines such as ours? I first raised these questions in Free Inquiry in 1995, "Is This the Beginning of the End of the Age of Books?"[22] The trends that I anticipated seem to be intensifying. Increasingly the mass media panders to the lowest common denominator. Today it is willing to devote the lion's share of its time to selling spirituality and the paranormal, rather than promoting scientific rationalism and humanism.

If the secular humanist movement is to survive we have to go back to the drawing boards, as I have suggested. We cannot depend on the vicissitudes of media sensationalism. That is why I have argued that it is urgent that we develop local and regional grass-roots eupraxsophy Centers for Inquiry and Human Enrichment, which will appeal to the hearts and minds of men and women who reject theistic religions yet wish to lead an affirmative life.

The freethought movement until now has not been able to build a viable mass base of support. If it is to do so, it must have sufficient dramatic appeal, it must be able to inspire people, and it must generate a deep-felt commitment. We need to criticize the dominant sacred cows of our culture and to cultivate critical intelligence, but, more, we need to provide meaningful alternatives. This, I believe, we can do-for humanism in one sense expresses the deepest stream of modern culture: it focuses on science, reason, freedom, and democracy, which grew out of the Enlightenment. And it expresses values that are profoundly relevant to the present human condition. It is time that humanism translates its high ideals to the concrete experiences of ordinary men and women. The secular humanist says: Each person has one life to live; the option is not to escape from life but to live it fully. Life can be exciting, rewarding, a source of exuberance and happiness here and now. But we need to create a truly open society, in which the conditions of social justice can prevail. We need to extend the possibilities for the good life to all members of the planetary community.

That is our challenge: Can we together build a powerful new movement, directly involving individuals? Can we help them to shed the chains of illusion and enter into a new glorious humanist future?

There is a second major threat to humanism. And that is the effort expended by fundamentalist and orthodox religions to turn the clock back. Religions possess enormous economic and political power and they exert their influence on many fronts, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Thus we must be prepared to do battle for humanism by building a new grass-roots organization, and by convincing tens of millions of people about the viability of the humanist message. Although humanists may support different political candidates and party platforms, we need to organize a new secular coalition to defend the pluralistic secular state.[23] Neohumanists will need to undertake in the future the political action necessary in order to preserve and enhance our democratic society.

A Personal Note: 
The Changing of the Guard

I have been deeply involved in the humanist movement for over 35 years. I have done battle gladly and willingly; but I recognize that eventually there will have to be a changing of the guard. My efforts in the past decade have been to build and strengthen the new institutions that we have created. In the past three years, I have gradually reduced my daily involvement in Free Inquiry and the Council and we have tried to secure younger leaders for the movement. We have a talented and enterprising new editor, Lewis Vaughn, who (working with the editorial board) selects what goes into the magazine. They have been able to draw upon the skills of the managing editor, Andrea Szalanski. The Council is also now in the capable hands of its dynamic new executive director, Matt Cherry, who is responsible for overseeing its programs. These individuals work closely with other members of the staff, and especially with Thomas Flynn, a key leader of the movement, and Anthony Battaglia, director of development. I plan to continue working for humanism, Free Inquiry, and the Council, but I wish to concentrate on basic long-range policy questions, the overall editorial direction of FI, and resolving our continuing financial deficits. I am pleased to report that we also have a dedicated Board of Directors concerned with ensuring our future.

It has been a great 20 years. I have enjoyed every moment of it. It has been a pleasure and an honor to serve the cause. It is the continuous encouragement and support of our readers that has made this work exhilarating.

Ideas can be powerful; they do have consequences. We need to convince people that they should embrace the power of humanism and that this can be liberating for both the individual and the society. If we move in this direction, I believe that humanism can grow in the next century and become truly global in impact. 


1. My dear friend and colleague Joseph Fletcher, the venerable Episcopal theologian-turned-humanist, urged me to leave the board of "humanist bishops," as he called them, which I eventually did.
2. In my judgment, Madalyn Murray had made a great contribution in her early years in defending and criticizing the hypocrisy of religion, but she became in her latter years embittered, and she turned against her erstwhile colleagues on the freethought front. What a tragedy that she and her family have apparently been murdered.
3. The term democratic was used only to contrast it sharply with totalitarian forms of humanism.
4. Free Inquiry 1, no. 3 (Summer 1981): 
5. FI 7, no. 1 (Winter 1986/1987).
6. Under the leadership of Professor Robert Alley and A.E. Dick Howard, we convened several other meetings over the years in honor of the Bill of Rights. We were especially proud in being instrumental in having the Madison homestead in Montpelier, Virginia, gifted to the United States as a national monument. Members of the committee included former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. See FI 3, no. 3 (Summer 1983).
7. See FI 2, no. 3 (Summer 1982).
8. See FI 4, no. 3 (Summer 1984); 3, no. 3 (Summer 1985); 7, no. 1 (Winter 1986/87); 8, no. 1 (Winter 1987/88).
9. FI 6, no. 2 (Spring 1986); 6, no. 3 (Summer 1986); 14, no. 1 (Winter 1993/94).
10. At one point Pat Robertson's "700 Club" sent a television crew to interview me on secular humanism for a 30-minute special. The attack was so vicious that the producer, Larry Quesenberry, who did the original footage, resigned in protest. FI Vol. 1, no. 3 (Summer 1981): 38-39.
11. FI 9, no. 1 (Winter 1988/89).
12. FI 9, no. 1 (Winter 1988/89).
13. FI 8, no. 4 (Fall 1988).
14. FI 9, no. 1 (Winter 1988/89); 10, no. 2 (Spring 1990).
15. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989. Paperback edition issued in 1994 as Living without Religion: Eupraxophy.
16. FI 9, no. 2 (Spring 1989).
17. Or better yet, you-PRACKS-a-fee!
18. FI 9, no. 1 (Winter 1988/9); 10, no. 2 (Spring 1990).
19. FI 19, no. 3 (Summer 1999).
20. FI 19, no. 3 (Summer 1999).
21. FI 14, no. 2 (Spring 1994).
22. FI 14, no. 1 (Winter 1993/94).
23. FI 18, no. 4 (Fall 1998); 19, no. 2 (Spring 1999); 19, no. 3 (Summer 1999); 20, no. 1 (Winter 1999/2000).

Paul Kurtz is Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry magazine.

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