Toward a Kinder and Gentler Humanism

Paul Kurtz

May I reaffirm the convictions that have guided the editorial policies ofFree Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism in the first thirty years of our existence?

Religious dissent is a noble tradition in democratic societies that needs to be respected and honored. Critics of religious claims have every right to be heard. In fact, America was founded by religious dissenters (such as the Puritans) who fled Europe for these shores; wave after wave of immigrants followed them, bringing their own fanciful faiths.

Given the great number of voices who loudly proclaim the role of God in human history and offer their own particular religion as the road to salvation, it is important that those who do not share these faiths be heard. The problem with theistic religion is that there are so many contradictory voices. Thus we have asked, “WhoseGod?” “Which books are sacred?” and “Who are the prophets to be followed?” We have the advantage of biblical and Qur’anic criticism that earlier generations did not possess. And we have the evidence of science and the critiques of philosophy to provide naturalistic explanations for what appeared mysterious or miraculous to our forebears.

There are no doubt strong differences of opinion about how to proceed with criticism. Some atheists advocate “in-your-face atheism,” as Madalyn Murray O’Hair did for years and as some strident atheists such as P.Z. Meyers still proclaim today. For a long time, antireligious sentiments were virtually verboten in America. Fortunately, that time seems to be behind us; the public increasingly recognizes the right of dissenters to express strong views against religion, given the din of discordant voices heard from every corner church, temple, and mosque.

There is a more balanced approach to theism that we at the Council, and in more recent years at the Center for Inquiry, have chosen to take, and that is our commitment to rational discourse. We believe that there is a need in our society to present carefully and dispassionately the case against God. As a professor of philosophy for four decades, I taught courses on the philosophy of religion at many colleges and universities. I would present the case, pro and con. I would never think of indoctrinating students. Of course, since the pro case is everywhere around us, someone ought to defend the case against God. And that has been our task. Some of my colleagues think that this approach has been too restrained and that we should hit religion hard. Clearly, we have the right to blaspheme, in spite of the fact that true believers object to any criticism of religion that they consider illegitimate; but it is how we do it that is important.

Newer readers of Free Inquiry may be unaware that over many years we have enlisted numerous top scholars to participate in conferences on biblical criticism, including Van Harvey, R. Joseph Hoffmann, Gerd Ludemann, and Gerald Larue; also, we have sponsored seminars critical of the Qur’an led by Ibn Warraq and the eminent scholars he has recruited. Thus we have chosen to take “the high road” and fill an important role in contemporary society. Our voices are not shrill, but they are on the mark, demonstrating that the Bible and Qur’an are not divinely inspired. Were we to resort to ridicule as our strategy of criticism, we might as well say goodbye to the scientists and scholars who agree with our approach. Buffoonery has no place in a university committed to free inquiry, and it has no place, in my view, at the Center for Inquiry.

I must say, though some colleagues at the Center may disagree, that I have serious misgivings about recent programs undertaken by the Center and the Council that laid heavy stress on blasphemy. Although I agree that it is vitally important to defend the right to blaspheme, I am displeased with the Center’s decision last year to celebrate Blasphemy Day as such. Similarly, although cartoons make a point and can be used, I am disturbed about poking fun at our fellow citizens in the public square. Speaking personally, I am particularly offended by the cartoon that won the Council’s Free Expression Cartoon Contest this year (see page 57). I think that it is in poor taste. I do not object to others in society doing this, but I do not think that it is the role of the Council for Secular Humanism or the Center for Inquiry to engage in such forms of lampooning.

I sometimes fear that the ridicule of religion is primarily negative and that many of our colleagues are so intent on refuting religious pomposity that they ignore the positive dimensions of secular humanism and the real purpose of Centers for Inquiry. By this I mean that it is one thing to refute religious theism and quite another to know what to put in its place. And here we have consistently proposed a set of normative ethical values and principles—such as the statement below sets forth. We need a kinder and gentler form of secular humanism that recognizes the potentialities for achieving the good life for each individual, attempts to develop an empathetic concern for the well-being of others, and seeks to cultivate a devotion to a new planetary humanism that transcends the religious, racial, ethnic, and national boundaries of the past.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


May I reaffirm the convictions that have guided the editorial policies ofFree Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism in the first thirty years of our existence? Religious dissent is a noble tradition in democratic societies that needs to be respected and honored. Critics of religious claims have every right to be heard. In fact, …

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