Friday, August 24, 2012

Considering Some of Paul Kurtz's Thoughts

by Gary Berg-Cross
Paul Kurtz has had a long and remarkable career as a public intellectual which includes major contributor to secular humanism but also to critical thinking, ethics, skepticism and American philosophy in general. From a perspective that started in the 50s by 1980 he could look at 30s years of struggle to advance the humanist community against the rising power of fundamentalism and still has perhaps good advice for our current struggle. There is some backlast, fundamentalist similarity

As James A. Haught noted in Fundamentalist Political Power in America

The historic U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1962 and 1963 against government-led school prayer, plus the 1973 opinion legalizing a woman’s right to choose abortion, along with the easing of social stigmas against gays and the like, all convinced them that Satan was gaining control of America.
Evangelist Jerry Falwell coalesced this group by forming the Moral Majority.
What to do as fundamentalism tipped the ballot balance to conservative hero Ronald Reagan and the 80s and 90s saw growing politicio-religious influence of groups like the moral majority? It was the issue facing the humanists, secularists (and the country) at the turn of the century and we feel it surging again.
Writing in the 80s Paul Kurtz drew up analysis of the problems and added some reasonable strategic ideas. These have sometimes been simplified down to an accomodationist label and contrasted with the New Atheists’ strong anti-religious stances and statements. As one might expect from a strategic and philosophical thinker the Kurtz position is, I think, more complicated than can be covered by the passivism evoked by the accomodationist tag. Here is a very small bit of the advice he offered the Humanist Movement back in the 8Os:
“First it is vital that we offer strong negative criticism of false religions and ideologies. All the great religions have grown by attacking those about them. As secular humanists, we need to defend skepticism, nontheism, agnosticism, atheism, and we need to question false doctrines found in Judaism, Christianity,, Islam and Marxist ideology, as well as the newer cults of unreason. Moreover, we need to guard against the intrusion of religion into our secular institutions.
Second, we need to enunciate the positive thrust of humanism. That is why humanism is more than atheism, for humanism is committed to an alternative set of ethical values. We are not simply negative naysayers; we have a constructive, alternative perspective full of meaning and significance.
Third, we should not clothe our message solely in rational terms but must make it eloquent and dramatic, appealing to the whole person, including his emotions, and expressing both the tragic and numerous elements of the human condition. This means we are committed to the expansion of the creative dimensions of humanism.
From “The Future of the Humanist Movement”, Free Inquiry, Fall, 1983, reproduced In Defense of Secular Humanism. By Paul Kurtz(1983)
I take this argument to subsume some of the strategy of the New Atheists. Point one is supportive of that effort and Paul has said that New Atheists have had a positive impact. People are talking about the issues.. But point 2 adds an important aspect to a strategy. You need to be positive as well as negative and go farther into discussion of things like ethics and how we live. As Kurtz said in interview speaking of the New Atheist writings:
“But for the secular humanist, it is not so much the stridency of these books that is at issue, as it is what’s missing from these books. Are there any ethical values and principles that nonreligious individuals can live by?"
I would add that point 3 shows Kurtz’s a John Dewey-like psychological sophistication of human understanding of factors, as discussed in earlier blogs on associative thought, cognitive biases and the role of emotions in holding on to beliefs.
In my opinion Kurtz has lead a noble life. His many ideas  span a long period of time are deep and remain contemporary.  Many would profit from hearing considering them. 
To this end WASH’s MDC chapter has invited a panel of 4 people who know him well. The will be on hand Saturday, Sept 8th, 2 -4 p.m. at the Wheaton Regional Public Library, 11701 Georgia Ave to discuss this and his effects to build a constructive secular alternative to religion.
The Panel: Edd Doerr, Stuart Jordan, Margeret Downey and Nathan Bupp

Please come and invite your friends. The meeting if free and open to the public.

Image credits:
Margaret Downey and Nathan Bupp: Provided by them
Stuart Jordan:
Wordle graphic at the top was created by Gary Berg-Cross from the Kurtz quote used above and is publically available online.


Michael R said...

... point 3 shows Kurtz’s psychological sophistication of human understanding ... on associative thought and the role of emotions in holding on to beliefs.

Kurtz is probably also referring to the motivational role of emotion, since it is our feelings that choose our goals in life. Reason has a vital informative role, but ultimately it is emotion that chooses the ends to which we strive. Happiness/humanism is thus about balancing our various emotional desires, with reason being a means to those ends.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Michael I pretty much agree with the idea that "emotion ...chooses the ends to which we strive." This is not only the common sense perspective of Paul Kurtz but now an empirically studies topic in cognitive and developmental psychology. Attention plays a role in this and one gets a small sense of this from research summaries such as below published in Science 298, 1191 (2002)and called "Emotion, Cognition, and Behavior" (R. J. Dolan, et al.):

"Within philosophy there is a long tradition that views emotion and reason in direct opposition.
Such an oppositional relation has been questioned on the basis that, under certain circumstances,
emotion-related processes can advantageously bias judgment and reason. This biasing effect appears to reflect influences of
perceptual emotional mechanisms on the one hand and feeling states on the other. In terms of
the former, neuropsychology and functional neuroimaging evidence indicate that the amygdala
contributes to perceptual value judgments as, for example, making trustworthy decisions
in relation to the facial appearance of others".. etc.