Meaning and Value in a Secular Age: Why Eupraxsophy Matters—The Writings of Paul Kurtz, edited by Nathan Bupp (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2012, ISBN 13: 9781616143215) 265 pp. Paper, $19.00.
It may be difficult to recall nowadays, but there was a time when the greatest atheists were philosophical giants. They matched their metaphysical, theological, and political opposition with the kind of constructive argument and systematic philosophizing that they expected from rival thinkers in return. These giants never got wide respect, but they built comprehensive worldviews built to last for the ages nonetheless. Always outnumbered, they were never outmatched, for wisdom and well as wit.
Today’s “popular” atheism is just as likely to dismiss philosophy as irrelevant as it is to invoke Epicurus, Hume, Diderot, or Russell. This odd contradiction, hopefully a temporary aberration, narrows the unbelief reading list at the worst possible moment. Atheism’s greatest visibility arrives at a time when its intellectual challenges couldn’t be greater, and its answers are widely sought. The religious are intensely interested in the way atheists would run things. The nonreligious are wondering that themselves, just as they wonder about the biggest questions of life, which have a way of outlasting every school of thought. Even if religion had never been invented, people would share wisdom and ethics of proven worth, ensuring that meaning and value accumulates for improving the human condition. Mere negativity is not an answer, for anyone.
Can an authentic secular stance consist of more than recitations of religion’s failures? Meaning and Value in a Secular Age: Why Eupraxsophy Matters, a volume of Paul Kurtz’s essays masterfully selected and introduced by Nathan Bupp, affirmatively answers that question. Kurtz’s philosophizing has never been just about negativity. If the limitations of faith can be charted, it is because the finest achievements of human reason have brought us farther and higher. In fourteen chapters, chosen from ten books and Free Inquiry magazine, Kurtz shows how his perceptive insights extend as far as any thinker today. These essays explain eupraxsophy, Kurtz’s term for the practical thinking that modern times demands of every person, and together they present the essentials of Kurtz’s entire philosophy. Chapters devoted to reflections on democracy, the moral decencies, and ethical excellencies are followed by chapters about love and friendship, caring, liberal education, hope, life’s meaning, and the human condition. At the center of it all is the Enlightenment principle of autonomy. The ideal of autonomy, or self-rule, is just an ideal unless citizens know how to civilly live together and smartly control their own societies. First they must be convinced they can succeed. Too many seductive voices have whispered in humanity’s ear to suggest that it could never go it alone and make decisions for itself.
We stand at the brink of a truly secular and humanistic age, and the bold confidence celebrated by Kurtz should be ours as well. A secular age free from priestly control was only a visionary dream for even the boldest freethinkers of the past. Our age is one of fast-rising secularity, of material wealth and democratic freedom for many (but not enough), and fast access to ideas on an unprecedented scale. Science is changing everything, especially our sense of our place in the universe and our conceptions of ourselves as human. And when these core self-understandings change so much, little else about us could stay the same. The ethos of generations past couldn’t stay workable forever. As rapid the pace of scientific and technological change continues to be, the last thing that could be taken for granted is civil society and customary culture. Yet atheism too often appeals to principles and power structures from centuries ago, only forceful because they sound so familiar. Is the struggle against religion advanced by sleeping in late on weekends or more shopping? Religion is hardly the only conservative ideological force in the world.
Over the period of the past fifty years, no academic philosopher had more direct contact with the American public than Paul Kurtz. Standards have admittedly slipped, but it can be fairly said that not since John Dewey’s time have as many ordinary citizens encountered the name of an American philosopher. There have been more “famous” philosophers (known to academics, anyway), but Paul Kurtz undertook serious public philosophy and succeeded at extraordinary levels. Success couldn’t have been predicted. His chosen message—that people are better off without faith and rigorous humanistic activism is urgently needed— was not designed for telling the masses what they wanted to hear.
Kurtz boldly began a second career outside the ivory tower in the late 1960s to lead a secular movement in the real world. The secular world desperately needed that sane leadership. It was an era when public discourse branded atheism as communism or hedonism. It was a time when numerous prime-time radio and television talk shows still wanted an atheist voice offering something more than strident antireligious bombast, and Kurtz was that voice. Three magazines from three organizations, available at newsstands across the country, carried his name at the top of the masthead: the Humanist (American Humanist Association), Skeptical Inquirer (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), and Free Inquiry (Council for Secular Humanism).
It is debatable whether the number of alarmed Christians who encountered Kurtz’s his name in churchly denunciations–both Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell singled out secular humanism as public enemy number one–outnumbered the nonreligious who actually read an article of his. Still, it was the affirmative agenda he championed that was deemed worthy of the sort of high honor usually reserved for the (still coming) Antichrist. Nonbelievers walking out of churches was bad enough–humanists leading civilization for next thousand years was a thought too horrible to bear.
While taking full advantage of the media spotlight, Kurtz didn’t outsource the generational job of updating the positive humanist worldview to anyone else. Over a fifty-year (and counting) career, his many books and hundreds of articles, written for the widest possible readership, patiently explained what nonbelievers can still believe in. Kurtz’s message, distilled to its essentials, is that a richly rewarding and ennobling life is waiting for any secular person. For Kurtz, disbelief was never the end point–disbelief, by itself, is just as disabling as any religion. Agreeing with religion on this point–a simple anthropological point about humanity– his humanism expects civilized peoples to live life with conviction and fidelity to principle and promise. A GI-generation soldier in Patton’s Third Army who walked through liberated concentration camps, he exemplifies that greatest generation’s moral certainty about big ideals standing up to big evils and building powerful institutions of peace and prosperity for all.
Kurtz’s secular humanism wasn’t a simple declaration of war on religion, a manifesto of hatred against the religious, or a utopian scheme for aloof atheists. His vision was a peaceful planet hospitable to both conscience and reason, cultural difference and participatory democracy. It was this powerful vision that proved to be so captivating for so many. One might label his ethos as “cosmopolitan” because modern human rights are central, as long as his confirmation of traditional virtues isn’t overlooked. What connects these views together is K
urtz’s broad naturalistic perspective on our shared human capacity for thoughtful control over our lives. Naturalism, not supernaturalism, is the only reliable foundation for the freedoms and opportunities necessary for becoming morally responsible and ethically intelligent. Kurtz couldn’t find any pragmatic use for deterministic materialism, not merely because that “ism” cannot be lived, but also because the sciences can no longer confirm it. Kurtz relies on the unity of the sciences–not a unity achieved by letting any single science monarchically rule the rest, but a unity forged from a democratic coalition of the social, life, and natural sciences together.
Kurtz’s living naturalism, described in two chapters, is a philosophical achievement of stitching together into a cohesive worldview what all of the sciences are telling us, yielding an optimistic outlook for growing meaning and value. We aren’t genetic automatons, because our genes permit culture for creating better ways of life that we imagine and make real using dynamic education, not DNA transcription. We aren’t psychological robots, because entire networked brains permit foresight and deliberation, which no discrete neural module provides. We aren’t social clones, trapped within permitted thought patterns and behavioral habits, unable to view matters for ourselves. What are we? We remain what we have always been: primates molding our own brains with our stories–stories of ennobling deeds and intrepid discoveries. What is unstoppable is our open curiosity. What is unforgivable is blind conformity. Intelligence must never be halted, and inquiry can never rest.
Our secular age is still fragile and unstable, fraught with fault lines where truths collide and societies quake. The dark worry of religion is that a world without God can only be a world without harmony, a life of endless contests over whose greater might shall make right. Armies bearing flags representing their truths, truths to beat down on every head, are all the more monstrous for the certainties they advance. Stuffed full of truths, sick of so much truth, we are trapped by a suffocating crush of all-too-human truth. Freedom from God, as religions know well, isn’t the same as freedom from each other.
Scientific imperialism and secularism can be no less dogmatic and militaristic than any religion or ideology, as the world well sees. Only a humanistic and cosmopolitan secularism, like Paul Kurtz’s, staunchly defending constitutions that protect expression of conscience no less than freedom of speech, can stand before the whole world without hypocrisy or shame. For what are the foundations of this humble secularism but expressions of conscientious conviction and fidelity to the equal dignity and worth of every human being? Rights are just inert rights at the end of it all, unless you know why people deserve them and need even more of them. Genuine democracy can’t rest content with the rights prized by generations past, since new kinds of social oppression and denials of opportunity are endlessly rationalized by the powerful to stay comfortable.
Liberty and rationality is never enough to protect real opportunity, as Kurtz’s progressivism explains, following the lessons learned from escaping religion’s prisons. For if liberty of mind were enough, each atheist could stoically contemplate the cold, material universe in the private cell of his or her own construction and let religions run the public world. Yet, as a GI-generation warrior could tell you, your freedoms aren’t secure until everyone’s are respected and justice prevails. If we must fight, we fight for all of humanity in humanity’s name for humanity’s enlightenment, and not for some new form of enslavement. As other prophetic reformers of the twentieth century also had to declare, you can’t be worthy to join the cause until you are joining with the right heart. Ethics is for everyone.
In the middle of what feels like a costly war, philosophy can seem like a silly luxury. Yet the one who loudly says “No philosophy needed” is the one who dogmatically wields yesterday’s philosophy. Have you asked whether it is good enough? The old adage says, don’t start a war without a plan for peace. Don’t get trapped by the iron bars of your own convictions or presume that everyone would be happy in cages like yours. A pronouncement of scientific knowledge here, or a declaration of human rights there, might appear to suffice for truth’s victory over religion’s mirage. Yet real victories are won over hearts, not minds. Neither textbook science nor constitutional politics can say what replaces religion, what answers the perennial questions, or what people should live for.
Religion fogs the intellect, but its de-installation from the mind isn’t a release of inner wisdom or goodness. Religion can make good people do bad things, but good people are made, not born. They say every child is born an atheist, which is only to say that society will handle things from there. There are better and worse societies, but their avowed truths are only part of what can make them great, so look to their philosophies of life if you would play the role of judge over their lives on earth. And we’d all best start, as Paul Kurtz has insisted for fifty years, with carefully judging our own philosophy of life.
John Shook is director of education and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He also serves as visiting assistant professor of science education at the University at Buffalo, teaching for the joint CFI-UB Science and the Public online master’s program. His most recent books are The God Debates: A 21st Guide for Atheists and Believers (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) and, as editor, The Essential William James (Prometheus Books, 2011).