Deconstructing Paul Kurtz’s ‘True Unbeliever’

Gary Whittenberger

In his article “The ‘True Unbeliever’” in the December 2009/January 2010 Free Inquiry, Paul Kurtz offers a misleadin g and unfair analysis of the so-called New Atheists. Kurtz uses such labels as “fundamentalist” and “true believer” to refer to persons who hold strong beliefs and are determined not to change them. He then generalizes the “true believer” concept to apply to atheists and speculates about “true unbelievers.” By way of bashing this subgroup, he writes: “Nonetheless, there still lingers among some true unbelievers an unflinching conviction toward atheism—God does not exist, period; they are convinced of that!” Kurtz seems to be criticizing the belief that God certainly does not exist, and this is probably a justified and helpful criticism. Atheists who hold this view should be more humble and conclude that God very probably does not exist or almost certainly does not exist. Kurtz confuses certainty with inflexibility. Even if an atheist believes that God certainly does not exist, this does not necessarily mean that he or she is unwilling to change that belief. Most atheists I know are scientific about God’s existence; if shown plentiful unequivocal evidence that God exists, they would abandon atheism.

Kurtz then says: “This kind of dogmatic attitude holds that this and only this is true and that anyone who deviates from it is a fool.” Kurtz seems to mean either that some atheists consider “God does not exist” to be the only true proposition among all propositions, a preposterous claim, or that some atheists consider “God does not exist” to be true and “God does exist” to be false, a trivial claim. Either way, Kurtz’s point is superfluous. Even if an atheist believes that God certainly does not exist and is inflexible in holding this belief, this does not necessarily mean that he or she thinks that persons who disagree are fools. If Kurtz is merely advising atheists against classifying theists as fools, he is correct. A person is not a fool on account of a single mistaken belief. He may be foolish in his belief about God but unfoolish about other beliefs. As the late Albert Ellis cautioned, we must not generalize from a behavior or belief to the person as a whole. But Kurtz goes beyond giving good advice to create a straw man. He invents a hypothetical kind of atheist who is certain that God does not exist, will never change this belief no matter what, and considers theists “fools.” This describes neither the atheists I know nor, based on their writings, the so-called New Atheists. If Kurtz thinks that “true unbelievers” exist, then he should present evidence to support that claim. How about some survey results? How about specifying which New Atheists are the “true unbelievers” and backing up this classification with quotations from their works?

Using a quote from John Dewey—taken out of context, as I will explain below—Kurtz concludes that militant atheism “is not concerned with the humanist values that ought to accompany the rejection of theism.” This accusation has several problems. First, Kurtz has misapplied Dewey’s conclusion: Although in A Common Faith Dewey indicts “aggressive atheism” along with “traditional supernaturalism” for what he considers to be their “preoccupation with man in isolation” from nature, Kurtz mistakenly thinks this applies to the New Atheists. It certainly does not apply to Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, who understand and respect humanity’s place in nature. Second, Kurtz overgeneralizes Dewey’s conclusion, transforming a “lack of natural piety” into a “lack of concern about humanist values.” One simply does not necessarily imply the other. Third, Kurtz fails to appreciate that the vigorous promotion of atheism in itself advances some humanist values, among them love of truth, honesty, integrity, and skepticism. And finally, Kurtz is too loose with the terms aggressive and militant. The Black Panthers of the 1960s were aggressive and militant; they advocated and engaged in violence. Stalin was aggressive, militant, and an atheist at the same time. However, the New Atheists are not like that. They neither participate in nor advocate any form of physical harm to others or the abridgment of anyone’s civil rights on account of religious beliefs. It is sad to see Kurtz foster guilt by association. He links the aggression of Christian fundamentalists during “the Puritan heresy trials, inquisitions, witch hunts, and various fierce campaigns against sin” to the “gulags” and “doctrinal terror” of Stalin, Stalinism to “militant atheism,” and that to the New Atheists. Although more subtle, Kurtz’s association here is just as misleading as Ben Stein’s linkage of evolution to Nazism in his film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

I encourage Kurtz and others to stop calling the New Atheists “militant” or “aggressive.” Call them “assertive” or “outspoken” and disagree with their boldness if you must, but please watch your adjectives.

After briefly commending the New Atheists for their openness in examining religious beliefs, Kurtz declares: “What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly.” With this innuendo, Kurtz adds another attribute to his new style of atheist. Now they are “narrow-minded about religious persons.” Might some narrowness be healthy? Atheists are narrow enough in their minds to think that religious persons are mistaken about their supernatural beliefs, especially their belief in God. So? All people who hold any belief whatsoever are narrow-minded if they think that people holding the opposite or converse belief are in error. If Kurtz means more than this, then he should explain himself. Furthermore, what does he mean by his claim that some atheists are having “nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion”? Are the former ostracizing the latter? Are they refusing to appear in public with them? Are they refusing to cooperate with them on projects? I don’t see the New Atheists doing this, but if Kurtz does, he should be more specific. Did the New Atheists actually call people “cowardly”? If so, were they referring to behavior in a specific circumstance or to the person as a whole? And most important, was their evaluation correct? Those who display cowardly behavior often get angry with those who call them out. If a charge of cowardice was made, ought not Kurtz first investigate for himself whether or not the charge was justified before he pontificates about form over substance?

Finally, in an ironic twist (since an excerpt from Dawkins’s new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, is featured in the same issue of Free Inquiry), Kurtz quotes Nicholas Wade, who charged in his New York Times book review of The Greatest Show that Dawkins was “being as dogmatic as his opponents.” Although Kurtz quickly retreats behind a commendation of the New Atheists and says Wade “overstated his case,” he does not say how and leaves the accusation to stand basically unscathed. Kurtz seems to be using Wade as a mouthpiece to say more forcefully what he wants to say about Dawkins, then glosses over the issue by saying “one should exercise restraint in
attacking one’s opponents.” That’s a good idea, but the issue is much more complex and controversial than Kurtz represents. How should one criticize one’s opponents in a civil way? This topic deserves a whole article or maybe a book. I do not think that Kurtz’s name-calling (“fundamentalist atheist” or “militant atheist”), use of innuendo, implication of guilt by association, and use of proxy attackers fit well with the “kinder and gentler form of secular humanism” that Kurtz says he prefers. In my opinion, in this one article and also in his interview with National Public Radio on October 19, 2009 (“A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists”), Kurtz sadly stepped on his own principles.

Gary Whittenberger

Gary J. Whittenberger, PhD, is a retired psychologist, a longtime member of the Center for Inquiry, codirector of the Tallahassee Freethinkers’ Forum, and author of the book God Wants You to Be an Atheist.


In his article “The ‘True Unbeliever’” in the December 2009/January 2010 Free Inquiry, Paul Kurtz offers a misleadin g and unfair analysis of the so-called New Atheists. Kurtz uses such labels as “fundamentalist” and “true believer” to refer to persons who hold strong beliefs and are determined not to change them. He then generalizes the …

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