The Best of the Best: Paul Kurtz’s Philosophy of Humanism

Floris van den Berg

Multi-Secularism: A New Agenda, by Paul Kurtz (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2010, ISBN 9781412814195) 263 pp. Cloth $39.95.

Humanism, like religion, is a human-made concept, and humanists are aware of and appreciate this fact. Books on humanism can be separated into three categories: (1) a descriptive (historical or systematic) outline of humanism (e.g., Richard Norman’s On Humanism or Peter Cave’s Humanism); (2) a critique of humanism (e.g., John Gray’s Straw Dogs); or (3) a forward-looking, agenda-setting philosophy of humanism (e.g., Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism). Multi-Secularism: A New Agenda by philosopher Paul Kurtz—actually the whole voluminous oeuvre of this author—falls into this third category.

Multi-Secularism is a collection of essays—mainly his editorials from Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer from 2000 to 2008, plus some essays that have been published in other journals or books. In this book, they combine to form a coherent humanist philosophy. Kurtz attempts to create a comprehensive philosophy and practice of humanism while always adapting and updating it. At present, it is no longer communism that is its rival; religion is back on the cultural, social, and political stage, and there are many new urgent problems (e.g., population growth and environmental degradation) that humanism must consider. Kurtz’s power does not lie primarily in focusing on each of the building blocks of humanism but in combining them into “a public temple of reason.” Kurtz thinks humanism through and creates a new humanist philosophy, at the same time humanizing philosophy.

The word new is often used by Kurtz, because that is to what he aspires: adapting humanism to the changing world. Some people do not appreciate that accomplishment—this is similar to telling an architect that he or she didn’t do anything new because he or she used building materials that were already available. Kurtz’s secular humanism is a comprehensive, well-rounded philosophical stance. He uses the best of human achievements—in science, human rights, and philosophical concepts of reason, liberty, individuality, democracy, and tolerance—to create the best of the best. His work is in the best tradition of Enlightenment philosophy, which, like science, strives to be dynamic and improve. (In fact, Kurtz has called for a new Enlightenment in his 1994 book Toward a New Enlightenment.

Kurtz has coined many new terms in his long career; multi-secularism is the latest. He has also issued several humanist manifestos, all of which have been endorsed by a long list of prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers. In these manifestos, he sets the agenda for what humanism is and how it relates to current world affairs. In 2010, Kurtz issued a “Neo-Humanist Statement”: “Our planetary community is facing serious problems that can only be solved by cooperative global action. Fresh thinking is required. Humanity needs to reconstruct human values in the light of scientific knowledge. We introduce the term ‘Neo-Humanism’ to present a daring new approach.

“There are various forms of religious and non-religious beliefs in the world. On the one end of the spectrum are traditional religious beliefs; on the other ‘the new atheism.’ Not enough attention is paid to humanism as an alternative. This Statement advocates non-religious secular Neo-Humanism.”

Multi-Secularism includes the essay “Neo-Humanism,” in which Kurtz elucidates this new concept: “Neo-humanism rejects theism and affirms the secular outlook. It is broad enough to encompass atheism, agnosticism, and humanist ethical values. It is a large enough mansion to include both nonreligious humanists and those who consider humanism to function religiously insofar as it celebrates human ideals and values. Neo-humanists do not believe in God, yet they wish to do good” (73).

Kurtz has managed to create a comprehensive lifestance and worldview that is a secular alternative to religion and an inspiring philosophy of life. Unfortunately, humanism isn’t obvious to all. Kurtz wrote a monograph titled The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal (1986) about the tendency to too easily believe based upon insufficient evidence. We clearly have an innate tendency to be deluded—to borrow the term from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006). We seem to be hardwired to do so. In his In Praise of Folly (1509), Erasmus wrote that: “Man’s mind is so formed that it is far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth.” This observation described Erasmus himself, who, though critical of the clergy, remained a Roman Catholic. Kurtz does a much better job of creating a coherent and consistent philosophy.

Kurtz is an avowed atheist, but he is somewhat reluctant to use that as a primary label for his philosophy. He wants much more than to criticize nonsense; he wants to create a better world. Humanism, according to Kurtz, has two dimensions. On the one hand, there is the critical, negative dimension: the freethinking tradition of atheism and the critical approach to paranormal, pseudoscientific, and other nonsensical and false claims. This is the Nietzschean side of humanism, which has been taken up by the new atheists—Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Grayling. But humanism, according to Kurtz, is more than the critique of nonsense (though this is a necessary constituent). He wants to create a philosophy of life, an ethical, political, and social framework for a better and more just world in which individuals can flourish as individuals and be happy: “the main thrust of humanism is not to simply espouse the negative—what we do not believe in—but what we do. We should not begin with atheism or anti-supernaturalism but with humanism. I am a secular humanist because I am not religious. I draw my inspiration not from religion or spirituality but from science, ethics, philosophy, and the arts. I call it eupraxsophy; that is, the practice of wisdom as an alternative to religion. The convictions of a humanist involve both the head and the heart, cognition and emotion. These are our rational-passional core beliefs” (234).

Why didn’t Kurtz put humanism in the title of this book? Perhaps he thought using the word might scare off potential friends among (liberal) believers who actually agree with most of the humanist agenda. To borrow a phrase from Paul Cliteur, Kurtz strives for a “moral Esperanto”: he wants to communicate humanist ideas to as wide an audience as possible. It seems Kurtz’s choice to advertise multi-secularism, instead of humanism, is pragmatic. Secularism, adapted to cultural differences (i.e., multi-secularism), might be a more viable strategy to strive for than outspoken, atheistic humanism. In a secular society, people can enjoy their personal delusions, so long as they don’t harm others.

Kurtz writes: “[Persons of good will] are thus considerate, thoughtful, caring; every effort is made to reduce suffering and pain whenever they can; not only for other human beings but other sentient beings in the biosphere.” Here, he seems to move away from the anthropocentric speciesism of humanism toward sentientism. For sentientists, like Peter Singer, the criterion of whether an entity has moral value is found in its capacity for suffering. Humanists have a tendency to care for fellow humans in the here and now. A fundamental question is: Can humanism be expanded from anthropocentrism
toward sentientism, or should the concept of humanism not be stretched that much?

Kurtz seems also to take the stance that it is possible to expand the moral scope of humanism. However, he does not elaborate on this point; he only indicates this new direction, one that will probably alienate some of those who call themselves humanists. A tension between ideas and pragmatic concerns is visible in many of the essays in Multi-Secularism. Although the book’s title indicates that Kurtz seems to have opted for a promotional strategy, his fierce critique of religion and unreason and his willingness to consider widening the scope of humanism show his reluctance to completely submit to market concerns.

Humanism is not just an intellectual position; humanism is humane. It is about being friendly and living the good life. In the book’s last section, “Personal Reflections,” Kurtz writes about his life. Thus his book is also, in part, an intellectual autobiography and a memoir. Kurtz pondered when in the hospital with serious heart problems: “I say that I am a humanist, meaning by that, that we should strive as best we can to do good, to try to help where we can, to compliment other persons wherever possible. By this I mean that we should express an affirmative attitude all the time, to try to improve the situation, if we can, to look at the bright side” (254).

Floris van den Berg

Floris van den Berg studied philosophy and works at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, as a program maker for the Department of General Studies. He is completing a thesis on the incompatility of religion and morality. The author thanks Annemarieke Otten for her many useful comments in preparing this article.

Multi-Secularism: A New Agenda, by Paul Kurtz (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2010, ISBN 9781412814195) 263 pp. Cloth $39.95. Humanism, like religion, is a human-made concept, and humanists are aware of and appreciate this fact. Books on humanism can be separated into three categories: (1) a descriptive (historical or systematic) outline of humanism (e.g., Richard …

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