Paul Kurtz, “an extraordinary proponent of Humanism” and former co-chair of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has died aged 86.

Kurtz was a leading Humanist, a prominent American skeptic, and philosophical author. He founded many well-known skeptical and Humanist organisations, in particular in the United States. He was Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo and was chair of Humanist think tank the Institute for Science and Human Values at the time of his death.

Paul Kurtz (1925-2012)

Paul Kurtz (21 December, 1925 – 20 October, 2012)

Humanism

Kurtz was co-chair of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) from 1986 to 1994, having already been on the IHEU board from 1969, at first representing the American Humanist Association, then Prometheus Books and the Council for Secular Humanism. He was awarded the IHEU International Humanist Award in 1999 (Mumbai).

Kurtz was the author of hundreds of articles and dozens of books on Humanist issues, including Exuberance: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life (1978), Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism (1988), Living Without Religion: Eupraxophy (1994), Humanist Manifesto 2000 (2000), Skepticism and Humanism: The New Paradigm (2001), and What Is Secular Humanism? (2006).

He emphasised the inclusivity and globalism of Humanism, referring in later years to “planetary ethics” or “planetary Humanism” under which the importance of the environment and long-term future of humanity are primary concerns. As an author he often emphasised the need to balance intellectualism with action, or practical wisdom.

According to the New York Times obituary, in March 2013 Prometheus Books will publish Kurtz’s final book, The Turbulent Universe, “a treatise on how nations and people can come together as one world”.

Tributes

Sonja Eggerickx, the current president of IHEU, said: “We are saddened to learn of the death of Paul Kurtz, a former co-chair of IHEU and an extraordinary proponent of Humanism across so many organisations, and in so many books, articles, and lectures. Those of us involved in national and international associations representing secular and ethical views are sometimes referred to as ‘organised Humanism’, and in many ways he was the organiser: a founder and prime mover of so much that has characterised the Humanist movement over half a century.

“Humanism may be referred to as a worldview or a lifestance; Paul offered the term ‘eupraxophy‘, underscoring the practical and doing element of Humanism, and he certainly bore that out in his own life. He was a doer, an achiever; making things happen. We will still be picking the fruits of his labors for many years. We cannot underestimate his achievements in Humanism, science, and critical thinking.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said: “Paul Kurtz worked tirelessly for decades to see secular humanism become accepted as an alternative philosophy to traditional religion. The attention and guidance he gave to the humanist movement had an unmistakable global impact… Humanism has been shaped by many people since the beginning of the 20th century, and Paul Kurtz was one of the greatest contributors to the development of our nontheistic philosophy.”

Matt Cherry, IHEU International Representative in North America and Executive Director of Council for Secular Humanism 1995-2000, said: “Paul had a strong commitment to international Humanism – a commitment to Humanism beyond US borders never seen matched by another American. He did a lot to expand IHEU as a member of the IHEU Growth and Development Committee (with Levi Fragell and Rob Tielman) and then when he was co-chair, also with Rob and Levi. He always pushed IHEU to be bigger and bolder.”

Benjamin Radford of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry,  said: “…PK’s strength was organization – he had an uncanny ability to herd cats, both of the humanist and skeptical variety. It was an often thankless job – as I saw first-hand – but it had to be done, and there was no one better than PK to do it. … [O]verall PK was a warm man who genuinely and passionately cared about people, the environment, and humanity. Without PK it is unlikely that there would be anything like the skeptic culture we have today, and without him and his tireless work on skepticism and CSICOP, I wouldn’t be able to make whatever changes and efforts we do through the organization.”

A statement from the Center for Inquiry said: “We at the Center for Inquiry and our affiliate organizations the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry express our sincere condolences to the family of Paul Kurtz, as we recommit ourselves to carrying on with determination the causes Kurtz helped bring to global prominence.”

A statement from the Foundation Beyond Belief said: “It’s hard to think of anyone whose contribution to humanism approaches Paul’s… In addition to his intellectual vision, Paul Kurtz was a man of great heart and compassion. When he heard about FBB’s newly launched Humanist Crisis Response program, he immediately endorsed and promoted it through ISHV… Paul leaves behind a tremendous legacy, as well as a great example of a life lived to the fullest. He will be missed.”

James Randi, co-founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and founder of JREF, said: ““Along with my colleagues in the community of skeptics and rationalists, I will deeply miss Paul and our frequent exchanges over the decades. When our small group met in the 1970s to start the organized skeptics movement, little could we have predicted its worldwide growth. We largely have Paul’s genius to thank for that. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but I’ve always admired his vision. This is a sad day.” And D.J. Grothe, president of the JREF, said: “Paul Kurtz was not only my dear friend, but an inspiration… His humanity, his passion, his creativity and his organizational skills were the bedrock of a number of international organizations, and he worked tirelessly to grow the worldwide skeptics and humanist movements. In this respect, his impact remains unrivaled. His death is deeply felt and he will be sorely missed.”

Stuart Jordan, president of the Institute for Science and Human Values, said: “It is impossible to summarize in a few words all of Paul’s achievements as an international humanist leader. Many of these achievements will no doubt be noted when an appropriate memorial is held to honor his memory. It is not an exaggeration to say that Paul was the most prominent and effective leader of the global – Paul would have preferred “planetary” – secular humanist movement since the time of John Dewey; and Paul was a far more effective organizer than even Dewey.  People often fail to realize what a profound impact a great public figure has had until that figure is gone. The spontaneous outpouring of tributes to Paul during the first two days following his demise speak volumes to that. From us in ISHV we can now say, Thank you Paul for what you have done for us, for your vision and your passion, and for advancing the freethought movement that we all cherish.  We will always remember you, honor you, and stay true to the vision for a better, more humanistic world for people that you always defended.  You will be long remembered and greatly missed.”

Career

In 1973 Kurtz worked with Edwin H. Wilson and the American Humanist Association to create the draft of what would become the Humanist Manifesto II (an updated Humanist Manifesto III was adopted in 2003).

Kurtz founded Prometheus Books in 1969, which has been a huge influence within skeptical, Humanist, and philosophical publishing, with titles from Victor J. Stenger, Isaac Asimov, and many others. He served on the American Humanist Association Board of Directors from 1968-1981 and as editor of Humanist magazine from 1967-1978. In 1976 he founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI); and in 1980 he founded  the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) later renamed the the Council for Secular Humanism. CSI and the Council for Secular Humanism were brought together under the umbrella of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) in 1991. CFI’s obituary for Kurtz notes, “Ultimately, Paul Kurtz did much to shape the American and world humanist movements during the final third of the twentieth century. He was a prodigious organizer, responsible for much of the social landscape through which nonreligious Americans moved before the emergence of the so-called New Atheist movement in the middle 2000s.”

There was a widely publicised split with CFI in 2009, following what CFI called a “leadership transition” initiated by Kurtz himself, as the management phased from one iconic leader to a board-led organisation. Despite some hurt feelings over the final split, CFI management expressed gratitude in an open letter for “many decades of service to the causes of secular humanism and skepticism. Through his tireless efforts, Dr. Kurtz has been an inspiration for the entire secular and skeptic community.” In what would become his final years, Kurtz founded the Institute for Science and Human Values and was still actively shaping debates within Humanist thought well into 2012.

Describing his motivation in founding his first organisation, the publishing house Prometheus Books, Kurtz said the name ‘Prometheus’ was chosen, “because he was the symbol of achievement: he stole fire from the gods and he bequeathed fire and the arts and sciences to humankind, challenging the gods on high. He did so, according to legend, because he loved humankind, and felt that without the arts and sciences, humans would huddle in their caves in fear and ignorance.”

 


This page has been updated with some additional tributes in the hours since first published.

Contact: Bob Churchill, +44 207 636 4797, comms@iheu.org. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella organisation embracing Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, skeptic, laique, ethical cultural, freethought and similar organisations world-wide.

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