Last week, on the anniversary of September 11, religious organizations all over the United States commemorated the events of last year with prayer services. But in a modern building in a suburb of Buffalo, a small group gathered for a secular commemoration.
The Center for Inquiry in Amherst, with its multiple offshoot organizations and publishing arms, is dedicated to the idea that belief in God is not a prerequisite to being a moral person and living a good life. The center also crusades against beliefs in nonsensical claims --- from Bigfoot to crop circles --- all over the world. This bastion of free thinking is the brainchild of one man, the organization's founder and chairman, Paul Kurtz.
Kurtz, who is in his mid 70s, launched the Center for Inquiry in 1976 while a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He now presides over an empire that includes Prometheus Books, which publishes about 100 volumes a year, and eight magazines with a combined circulation of 100,000 worldwide. Aside from its spacious, modern headquarters across from the University of Buffalo's Amherst Campus, the organization has a branch in the New York City area and has recently opened a media center in Hollywood, California. Kurtz's enterprise has an annual budget of $11 million and 75 employees in the U.S.
Most visible among Kurtz's publications are Free Inquiry (circulation: 35,000), a quarterly magazine published by the Council for Secular Humanism, and The Skeptical Inquirer (circulation: 50,000), a bi-monthly published by The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, known as CSICOP. "Free Inquiry is interested in examining religion and dealing with ethical alternatives," says Kurtz, who has written or edited 35 books. "The Skeptical Inquirer is concerned with defending science and examining paranormal and fringe science claims."
Just before leaving for Buffalo to interview Kurtz, I sat down for lunch and turned on the television. There, on 10 NBC, was Crossing Over with John Edward, an hour-long, nationally syndicated program hosted by a "medium" who claims to communicate with the deceased loved ones of audience members. I began by asking Kurtz about the increasing popularity of such shows.
Kurtz: John Edward is going to be on Larry King Live tonight. I've been on that show three times and Larry King should know better. But he's only concerned with ratings. John Edward claims to communicate with the dead --- with your aunt, your uncle --- and there's no evidence that he does that.
City:It seemed to me he was going on a fishing expedition in the audience.
Kurtz: That's right. It's called a cold reading and anyone can do it. Particularly in a big audience, it will match someone. He'll say, "I'm getting the letter H, is anyone H?" "Oh yes, my uncle Harry." "Oh, your uncle Harry, he died?" "Yes." "Something in the chest or the stomach?" "Oh, yes!" Well, most people either have heart, lung, or stomach problems, so that's a good hit. "He's on the other side and he wishes you well." The person is brought to tears, but that is really an immoral misuse of film-flam.
City:I know that one of your concerns is popular culture's preoccupation with angels, ghosts, crop circles...
Kurtz: Signs is the new movie with Mel Gibson about crop circles --- crap circles, I call them. They're fabrications that have been disproven, but they're like unsinkable rubber ducks. No matter how many times you disprove something, it keeps coming back. Given our media, there are so many things going on all the time. The parade passes everybody by and there's no historical memory.
I think one of the real problems with the United States is the pace of life is so frantic, so frenetic, everyone's on kind of a roller coaster. With the Internet, and especially cable television, we're overloaded by misinformation, constant misinformation. This is the age of razzmatazz, the age of entertainment, so people are titillated.
City:Do you think these things are done just to make money, or do you think they're a reflection of a deep desire people have for something spiritual?
Kurtz: Obviously there are deep desires and people are concerned about death and the meaning of life, but there are different ways you can respond to that. The way the mass media responds is to play up every hokum and to play to the galleries. The basic problem that we face in this area is that the media are controlled by the conglomerates. They're owned by huge global corporations. Their main interest is the quarterly report, the bottom line, what's the stock going to do on Wall Street? The standards of careful journalism have been lost.
That's why I think we need an alternative press in the United States desperately. We need a dissenting point of view, because it's all pre-packaged, sold by hucksters and advertisers. The paranormal and spirituality is packaged --- it could be books or bricks or breakfast cereal --- and sold in public. The defenses are down. I think this country's in great danger today.
City: Is it getting worse? There have been times in history when people's beliefs in the supernatural got completely out of hand --- the Salem witch trials. Do you think we're headed in that direction?
Kurtz: Yes, I think we are indeed. The danger to our democracy is that the public would be so overwhelmed by junk that it cannot distinguish the true from the false. Science fiction dominates the imagination and that is dangerous because, politically, we will be overcome by a man in the White House who will make outrageous decisions. I think that's where we are today.
City: So this has repercussions beyond popular culture.
Kurtz: Yes. An educated public is the best guarantee of a viable democracy, and it presupposes a free market of ideas and a critical give-and-take with some ability of the ordinary person to discern hokum and falsity. Once you break this down in area after area then, politically, people make unwise decisions.
In the current situation, as this country is ready to attack Iraq if it can get away with it, I think in one sense the country is politically illiterate. The American public has been so bludgeoned by the misinformation of the media that it cannot make wise decisions. Why does Bush have such high ratings? It boggles the mind. Why do so many people support him when he is totally incapable --- him and his administration --- of making wise decisions? Practically everybody in the world sees that, but the American public does not.
City:School systems in at least two states have insisted on putting creationism into the science curriculum on equal footing with evolution. Is this part of the dumbing-down of America?
Kurtz: A good friend of mine, Steve Allen, used the term "dumbth." It seems to be getting worse because of the decline of critical thinking skills, because of the mass media barrage we're getting. So-called "Intelligent Design" --- as I see the universe, it's unintelligible mis-design --- is a code name for creationism, and it's gaining ground. We're a super power and a scientific nation. At the same time, you have this scientific illiteracy, because the sources of information --- the media --- are dominated by interests in profits and entertainment, not information.
City: Another example would be the controversy over taking the words "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance. They'd been inserted there in the first place by Congress, but the uproar was unbelievable. No politician could get on that bandwagon fast enough.
Kurtz: Yes. I happened to be in Europe at the time. I was reading the [International] Herald Tribune and the French press and I couldn't get over all the shouting in Congress. And they went out on the Capitol steps and sang "God Bless America." We're a secular republic, but politicians are fearful. They met recently in New York City to remember 9/11. "Remember the Alamo." "Remember the Maine." 9/11 is the symbol of peerless power.
City:If an excellent politician admitted that he did not believe in God, could he be elected here?
Kurtz: No. An atheist could not be elected, not even an agnostic. That's really a shame, because there are a lot of atheists and agnostics in the United States. People who have no religious identification are the third largest minority.
City:What religion did you grow up with?
Kurtz: I was a free thinker. My parents were indifferent to religion. I grew up at a time when you had a lot of free thought in this country and there were a lot of people who were liberal and wanted to build a new world. I fought in the Second World War, and at one time was interested in pursuing spiritual inquiries, but I became a skeptic.
City:Did the war affect that?
Kurtz: The war affected it because I was part of the army that came to Dachau and Buchenwald right after they were liberated. I served at the Battle of the Bulge and I was troubled by this infamous fascist dictator [Hitler] and, having been left wing, I turned against Stalinism early. Having gone through World War II, having seen the bombing of London, the decimation of France and the German cities by daylight and evening bombing, and then the concentration camps, these things really seared something in my mind.
That's why 9/11, in comparison to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has to be seen in perspective. 9/11 is a terrible thing and I'm certainly critical of aspects of the Jihad and what we've suffered, but if you see it in a broader perspective, it should not be used as a symbol as it's now being used by the peerless power to wage wars.
City:How did your education prepare you for your work?
Kurtz: I was always interested in ethics, value theory, political and social theory. I studied under students of John Dewey and also at New York University with Sidney Hook, a very great influence in my life. I took my doctorate at Columbia.
Being a disciple of Socrates, you should ask the wrong questions at the wrong times and ask for definitions. It occurred to me it was not in the ivory tower, but in the marketplace where men and women were, that you really have to take your quest. In the 1960s, I became editor of The Humanist. I founded Prometheus Books in 1969. Then I began to get active in the open market of ideas, especially during the days of the student revolution, and I've been busy ever since. Philosophy should not be limited to the ivory tower.
When I founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, known as CSICOP, in 1976, it took off immediately. News of our event hit The New York Times, The Washington Post, and papers worldwide.
On the wall of the library in the Center for Inquiry is a secular version of The Last Supper. In place of Jesus and the apostles are free-thinking historical figures like Thomas Paine, John Dewey, Susan B. Anthony, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Jefferson. Display cases deal with herbal remedies, ESP, and fortune telling, all ripe for skepticism. Hallway cases salute free-thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, and Karl Popper.
Nearby is a wall holding dozens of photographs of members of the International Academy of Humanists, including well-known scholars and Nobel Prize winners. Among them are Elena Bonner, Andrei Sakharov, Sidney Hook, Francis Crick (who discovered DNA), Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Simone Veil, Betty Friedan, Sir Peter Ustinov, and Stephen J. Gould.
Free Inquiry, a magazine that challenges religious beliefs, boasts top intellectual columnists like Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, and Nat Hentoff. Over the last three decades, Prometheus Books (housed in another building three miles away) has published over 2,000 volumes by authors from Asimov to Zola. With titles like Atheism: The Case Against God, Rage Against the Veil, and The Trouble with Christmas, it's clear that Kurtz's organization does not pussyfoot around issues.
City:What is the purpose of religion? Is it to control us through heavenly rewards and the threat of Hell? Or is it to help us cope with the uncontrollable and explain the unexplainable?
Kurtz: There are many purposes and many functions to religion. The United States has at least 1,350 sects and cults, denominations; it depends which religion you're talking about. But I think religions began in the primal past of the species in an effort for humans to cope with the universe. Why did it thunder? Why did people die? Why is there suddenly a drought or a forest fire? So the inexplicable was attributed to hidden occult causes. Philosophy developed seeking reasons, and then science, five-and-a-half centuries ago, seeking causal explanations. So the early function of religion, I think, has largely been replaced by science.
City:In our country, if someone claims to have seen a ghost, they may be considered loony. But if they believe in the Resurrection, they are simply part of the mainstream.
Kurtz: That's true. The United States is an anomaly in this regard. I think we have a kind of distemper, a disease. Because if you look at belief in the other democracies, it's declined enormously. I think Europe is post-religious. In France, something like 45 percent of the people are atheists or agnostics; only eight to 10 percent of people attend church on Sundays. In England, it's something like 25 to 30 percent non-believers. In the Netherlands, it's probably 50 percent. It depends on the country, but basically people are either indifferent to religion or these countries don't have widespread practicing of religion. This is true of Japan, too. Among the democracies, we are the highest, so the question is why is belief higher here, particularly in the last 10 years, than in other countries.
City:But many European countries are experiencing negative population growth, while countries where they believe strongly in religion are growing. Are they destined to take over?
Kurtz: There is a correlation, but I don't know if it's causal. The highest growth here is in Asian religions in the last decade --- a lot of Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in North America. I think the reason people in Europe are post-religious now is because they went through the Fascist and the Communist efforts to dominate, and I don't think they're suffering the same mass-media inundation we are. They don't have the sensationalism. They also lived through bloody religious wars.
City:It's often said that our country was founded by religious people.
Kurtz: The Founding Fathers were not religious believers, despite what you hear from the fundamentalists today. They were largely anti-clerical. They were deists, but they were skeptical of organized religion.
City:Would you say the current world situation is in some part due to people's blind faith?
Kurtz: I think that's true of this country today. I think there's a kind of blind faith that's taking over.
City:I was also thinking of Muslim countries and Israel, Ireland, India, Pakistan...
Kurtz: The conflicts between the Muslims, who believe in the Koran, and the strong minority of Orthodox Jews, who believe in the Old Testament, and the Christians, who want to build a temple and believe in the New Testament --- the battle between these points of view is very unfortunate. I think the real need is in the Muslim world. They desperately need an Enlightenment. Islam needs --- and it's not going to advance unless it develops --- a scientific critique or rational critique of claims that are unexamined.
City:Sometimes people seem to acknowledge that religion is soothing, but not real. I heard Bill O'Reilly ask a man whose daughter had been killed if he believed in heaven. When the man said he did, O'Reilly said, "Then at least you know she's in a better place." The implication was he could take comfort in his belief --- if he had it. It seemed transparent.
Kurtz: Religion does give people some comfort, there's no doubt about that. But it's also uncomfortable for some people. I find that free-thinkers are less fearful of death than believers, because who hasn't sinned? So a lot of believers really worry about death a great deal, that they'll meet their maker on the other side. I have no worry about death.
City: What do you say to people who say, "Look at this wondrous planet, its animal and plant life, the amazing human body --- how could there not be a higher force?"
Kurtz: Well, I want to use the best evidence to say how and why things happen, and I consider myself to be a scientific naturalist. My theory of the universe is based on the best scientific evidence. So evolution replaces creationism. Darwin is really radical in his assault on traditional explanations. Belief in God is a kind of anthropomorphic reading into the world. You can always ask the question: "Who caused God?" God created the universe --- who created God?
City: Science can only go so far. If you go back to the Big Bang, you have to ask: "What banged? Where did that come from?"
Kurtz: I take the role of the agnostic, the non-believer. I don't know how to answer all the questions, so I just suspend judgment. I can live with uncertainty.
City: I like to say there are two types of people in the world: those who don't know and those who don't know that they don't know.
Kurtz: That's well stated. We can live with uncertainty. The universe is exciting, enjoyable. It presents us with great opportunities to lead a good life and I don't spend the night worrying about the ultimate beginning or the inevitable end, if there is such a thing.
City: Would we be better off if people paid more attention to the here and now?
Kurtz: Yes, we should deal with the here and now, and I consider one of the key virtues to be courage, the courage to live a good life in spite of difficulties, tragedies, and adversities. People who I know have no problem with that. They're able to cope. They don't walk around wringing their hands, saying, "Oh, I'm so miserable. Life is so boring without an ultimate purpose." Take life for what it is. It's a great challenge.
City:You've been successful in spreading your message, but to a niche audience.
Kurtz: Yes, our readers are highly educated, scientists, professionals. They're also ordinary people who have common sense and want to think things through.
City:But do you sometimes feel like a man trying to hold back a tidal wave?
Kurtz: The better analogy is the Dutch boy putting his thumb in the dyke as the dyke is going to break. Nonetheless, I'm basically an optimist. I think we've come a long way. There are setbacks, but also advances. Look at the advances of modern life. Go back a century. The longevity has increased. Pain and suffering, at least in affluent countries, have decreased. You can live a richer life of leisure without drudgery and sorrow. Obviously, there are parts of the world that need to be improved, but I think the human species has made a lot of progress.
City: Some of your comments on religion must not be popular. Have you ever received death threats?
Kurtz: We have locks on our door. Not personally. I don't care anyway --- the hell with it. We have to do what we're doing, so we do it. Someone has to be the gadfly and provide criticism, and I think we're making a contribution to American life by presenting our point of view.
Next week: Paul Kurtz turns a skeptical eye toward UFOs, faith healers, exorcisms, Bigfoot, and more.