Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism, by Paul Kurtz (Amherst: N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2008, ISBN 978-1-59102-666-2) 280 pp. Cloth $17.98.
Paul Kurtz is professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the author or editor of forty-eight books, including The Transcendental Temptation, The Courage to Become, and Embracing the Power of Humanism plus nine hundred articles and reviews. He is currently the editor in chief of Free Inquiry. In addition, he is the founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
He has appeared on many major television and radio talk-shows, such as Larry King Live, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, and National Public Radio (NPR) programs. He has lectured at universities worldwide and his books have been translated into many languages.
In a choice of terms unexpected from this author, a nonbeliever whom I see as an icon of humanism and the functional godfather of disbelief, has issued another edition of Forbidden Fruit, a book based on the belief that we, in order to progress to a maximum level of creative development and enjoy the good life, must eat of the fruit of the second tree of the Garden of Eden, the tree of life. We must acquire the knowledge of good and evil, then fulfill our secular obligation to make proper choices.
Kurtz’s book includes sections discussing the failure of theistic morality, the significance of ethical inquiry, moral and ethical principles, objective relativism, integrity, truthfulness, promise-keeping, sincerity, honesty, fidelity, dependability, goodwill, nonmalfeasance as applied to persons, nonmalfeasance as applied to private and public property, sexual consent, fairness, tolerance, cooperation, standards of excellence, excellence in regard to oneself and others, responsibilities to oneself, and others (parental, filial, marital, extended family, friends, small groups), the world community, ethical education for children, human and animal rights, privacy issues, and living in the universe without God.
Now in his ninth decade of life, I believe Kurtz deserves great respect, especially from the world community of nonbelievers, for his consistent and valuable contributions to secularists and those formerly imprisoned by theistic confusion, free of the gibberish of “God-intoxicated Christians.” I personally owe him respect and gratitude for a favor he performed for me some thirteen years ago. Holding a bachelor’s degree from a state university, I approached him for an academic letter of recommendation to continue in a graduate program at that university. I offered him a copy of my own essay on humanism, which I had submitted for evaluation to one of my undergraduate humanities professors. He replied quickly and offered his full support.
Forbidden Fruit concludes masterfully with contrasting sections titled “The Tragic Sense” and “The Bountiful Joys” (pp. 298–305), offering examples in the negative, then the redeeming positive, that life is what we make of it. Sour input yields sour output, and sweet input yields sweet output. Granted, nothing is ever quite that simple, but the contrasting points of view are thoughtfully written and can easily be applied to daily living, just as the entire book can.
This is not a do-gooder manual—although who would deny that we can never have enough do-gooders on planet Earth? This book lays the foundation for a morally upright, intelligent, fulfilling, and relatively peaceful life in the absence of a higher power.
The original version of Forbidden Fruit was released in 1988; this edition, ready for a new generation of nonbelievers, contains a new prologue. At the time Forbidden Fruit was first written, secularists were regularly mauled by conservatives, our bitter ideological enemies. To some degree, the adversarial relationship is still alive and well today, but as I see it, conservatives are no longer a threat. Having been mostly stripped of their power by American voters who have witnessed their lack of sense after a mid-1990s heyday, we the people have grown weary of their incessant claims that commingling church and state, integrating them financially, will benefit us all. We the people have grown weary of their consistent claims that the federal government, with which we aggressively seek to partner under the leadership of President Barack Obama, is the root of all evil. When conservatives had power, they served themselves.
However, I cannot discount the possibility that the pendulum will swing to the right again, since history has verified our propensity to look beyond political party affiliation when searching for solutions that work. On the other hand, with our troubled economy and the needless casualties of an unnecessary war, I think the political gear shift is going to stay stuck on “L” for quite some time to come.
This book is not a federalist rally, in spite of its left-leaning tone. No, it goes one step beyond, perhaps into a place where conservatives fear to tread. Believers call us beastly for encouraging one world government, a world bank, a world currency, and a world order. Yet maybe those things will bring about world peace.
John Lennon imagined it, as did countless others. Kurtz imagines it. And while it may take centuries to work the bugs out of a worldwide system of existence, especially one in which there’s no transcendental being by any name to worship and obey, perhaps our descendants will find a way to make it all happen harmoniously.