Throughout 2010, Free Inquiry is publishing special features to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Council for Secular Humanism. In the pages that follow, Timothy J. Madigan and David Koepsell, two figures who were instrumental in the growth and development of the Council, reminisce. —The Editors
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, in the 1960s and ’70s, I was very aware of Paul Kurtz. He was constantly in the local (as well as national) news. Whenever there was a claim about a haunted house, a religious miracle, or a UFO or Bigfoot sighting, he could be counted on for a colorful comment. He was often referred to as “the original Ghostbuster.” It seemed to me that he was having a lot of fun, but I never imagined that I would end up working for him, especially since I was devoutly religious—at least until I went to college in 1980.
It was while attending the State University of New York at Buffalo (as it was then called) that I took courses with Professor Kurtz, who was one of the most prominent members of its Department of Philosophy, and got to know him as a person rather than a media figure. I enjoyed his Socratic style of teaching and his obvious love for argumentation. It was clear that the expression “Nothing is sacred” was literally true in his case. Through discussions with him and my other professors, as well as my own independent reading in philosophy, I learned about secular humanism and came to see that it best matched my developing beliefs about the world. I also came to appreciate how Kurtz was able to combine intellectual rigor with social activism, for the early 1980s marked the beginning of the Reagan Revolution and the growth of aggressive, organized religious fundamentalism. The sort of pragmatic naturalism that John Dewey had advocated, and which I found most amenable to my own worldview, was under increasing attack, and Free Inquiry was one of its few defenders.
While in college, I took an independent study with Kurtz on the history and theory of humanism, and as part of this I began to visit him at his office for the then-called Council for Democratic Secular Humanism (CODESH) on Kensington Avenue in Buffalo (the headquarters of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, as well). I met many of his staff members there and attended various events with them, including faith healing and fortune-telling events—some of which Kurtz had to attend in disguise, because his face was by then well known and he would not have been welcome. At one such faith-healing service, his fake moustache fell off, which he attributed to miraculous intervention—namely Miracle Whip, for it was on a sandwich he had eaten earlier and caused, as we joked, the moustache’s “Fall.”
While enjoying my interactions with Kurtz and his comrades, I hadn’t considered the possibility of joining them full time. My hopes, instead, were that I could get a PhD in philosophy and become a professor myself. But employment prospects in the academic world were poor, and I had to think hard about more realistic possibilities after graduation. In 1986, my dissertation advisor (and Kurtz’s longtime colleague) Peter Hare suggested that I ask Kurtz if there were any jobs available in his organization. With some fear and trembling, I inquired and was delighted when told that there was indeed an immediate opening, doing public-relations work for Free Inquiry.
I was not exactly sure what I was getting myself into. While I was a reader of Free Inquiry, I had little knowledge about its inner workings. It was a time of literal expansion for the magazine—a new office was being opened in an abandoned clothing store next door to Prometheus Books. On my first day of work, I watched as sledgehammers pounded through a wall and wondered if that was a good or bad omen.
I initially shared an office with Barry Karr, now the chief financial officer of the Center for Inquiry and the longtime executive director of what is now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. At that time, Barry was doing public relations work for the Skeptical Inquirer. Like the blind sisters in Greek mythology who shared one eye between them, Barry and I initially had to share a single phone—no easy feat when both our jobs involved making media contacts throughout the day. Even more perturbing was the lack of heat in the office, which presented quite a trial during that first Buffalo winter of my employ. And although I had not taken a formal vow of poverty, I quickly discovered that the wages I was receiving were pretty close to a functional equivalent of the same. Being a missionary for humanism definitely involved more sacrifices than I had anticipated. The deteriorating neighborhood around the office—which was situated near a pornographic theater and a bona-fide crack house—added to the sense of adventure. I was never certain my car would still be there when I left work each evening.
But the travails were more than compensated by the rewards of the job, which included hobnobbing with noted academics, many of them legends in their field, such as Robert Alley, Joe Barnhart, Vern and Bonnie Bullough, Paul Edwards, Antony Flew (before his conversion to deism), Adolf Grünbaum, Kai Nielsen, and Richard Taylor. Shortly thereafter, as we began to found groups of supporters in many cities, I came to know many dedicated humanists throughout the United States (several of whom would become my lifelong friends), such as Myrna and Dick Becker, Jan Eisler, Dave Henehan, Joe Levee, Ken Marsalek, Molleen Matsumura, and Warren Allen Smith. Warren was at the time running a recording studio in New York’s Times Square, and I was able to experience the world of 42nd Street before the Giuliani regime cleaned it up—the details of which are better left unsaid.
Best of all, I was able to meet and get to know my own personal hero, comedian and Renaissance man Steve Allen, whose wit and wisdom I had long appreciated. I interviewed him for Free Inquiry and watched him perform several times at Council-related events, including the 1988 World Humanist Congress, which I had helped to organize and which was held in Amherst, New York, near the site of what would later become the new headquarters for the Council. A gathering of humanist leaders and activists from across the world, the Congress was my first real opportunity to meet a broad spectrum of freethinkers, and it enabled me to put humanism into a global perspective. Until then, I had seldom traveled far from my native city, but shortly thereafter I was visiting many of these people in their home countries and attending conferences in places such as Cairo, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Madrid, Berlin, Moscow, Prague, and Brussels—not bad for someone who previously considered a trip to Rochester (one hour from Buffalo) a big deal.
Clawing my way to the top of the greasy pole, I eventually became second-in-command at the magazine and was able to travel extensively with Kurtz both nationally and internationally— a modern-day Paul and Timothy, trying our best to undo what the first two had wrought. (Just call me “Second Timothy.”) I well recall our attending a conference together in Delphi, Greece (where we hoped to get advice from the Oracle who, alas, remained silent) and also visiting Athens. Walking the same streets where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle once trod was the closest I’ve ever come to the secular equivalent of a religious experience. I particularly remember attending the Humanist-Vatican Dialogue in 1989, held in Amsterdam (close to the Red-Light District, during which Vern and Bonnie Bullough—authors of Prostitution: An Illustrated Social History—fondly reminisced about doing research there years before). The discussion between humanist leaders and Vatican representatives—including two cardinals—was heated but respectful, and it occurred to me that if I hadn’t joined the humanist movement, in all likelihood I would never have met a cardinal in my entire life, let alone sat down to discuss secularism with two of them.
I had many more such adventures during my twelve years at Free Inquiry. Although I was never executive director, I did work closely with the founding executive director, Jean Millholland, and with Matt Cherry, who held that title during my time there. On many occasions, the entire staff was called upon to pitch in and work on whatever was most pressing, including stuffing envelopes, talking with subscribers, and giving tours to visitors. Free Inquiry was a quarterly publication then, and what I most dreaded was the four times per year when a huge truck would pull up, and we’d have to help unload the cartons of new magazines. When later in life I had to have two hernia operations, I blamed it on those days, since I’m not otherwise noted for doing much heavy lifting.
After the Iron Curtain’s fall, the organization changed its name from the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (Democratic was included to show that we were not communists) to the easier-to-remember Council for Secular Humanism. Emphasizing that secular humanism was not synonymous with communism had been one of the principal goals of the organization at its founding in 1980, when the cold war was still going strong. In 1989, Free Inquiry published the last interview given by Sidney Hook— John Dewey’s protégé, Kurtz’s mentor, and a longtime foe of the Soviet Union, who sadly died just shortly before the end of the cold war. A few years later, I was amazed to be given a tour of Red Square by Valerii Kuvakin and Alexander Razin, two philosophers who headed up the newly constituted Center for Inquiry/Moscow. I wondered what Hook would have thought about that.
What I found most satisfying during my years at Free Inquiry was watching the growth of the Center for Inquiry. The campaign to build a new headquarters in Amherst, near the University at Buffalo’s north campus, was a cause I firmly believed in—not least because I was finally able to get my own office, with heat to boot. Other projects I enjoyed included helping to build a substantial freethought library, working first with Gordon Stein and, after his untimely death, his successor Tim Binga; being involved with starting the Secular Student Alliance (now Center for Inquiry/On Campus) and speaking on many college campuses across the United States and Canada; and helping Tom Flynn in his quixotic efforts to preserve and protect the birthplace of Robert Ingersoll in Dresden, New York. Tom and I drove the two-and-a-half hours from Buffalo to Dresden far more times than either of us care to remember—those surreal days no doubt contributed to his writing a science-fiction trilogy. I never did share Tom’s fondness for bashing Santa Claus, though, as I looked forward to having Christmas Day off from work. I would have taken the month of Ramadan off if that were offered—my humanism was always trumped by my pragmatism. While the size of our annual bonuses did make me feel akin to Bob Cratchit each year, at every Winter Solstice party I thoughtfully refrained from yelling out my namesake Tiny Tim’s retort “God bless us, every one” in protest.
In late 1998, I moved on, accepting a position as editorial director of the academic press at the University of Rochester, where I had done graduate studies. A few years later, I became a professor of philosophy, my longtime desire. I was sorry to leave the Center for Inquiry, but regarding my colleagues and friends at the Center, as Jack Kerouac had once phrased it (on The Steve Allen Show, in fact): “We were still great friends but we had to go into later phases of our lives.”
Although there were and are other freethought organizations in existence, I am grateful to have been affiliated with the one specifically dedicated to secular humanism, a worldview that continues to deserve defense. Although not a believer in fate, I can’t help but reflect that I was fortunate that such an organization existed in the city of my birth, and I thank my lucky stars (in a purely metaphorical sense) that Paul Kurtz—that master builder extraordinaire—took a job at the University at Buffalo rather than elsewhere, and that the mecca of humanism was, and continues to be, my hometown.