The Best of Best: Paul Kurtz's Philosophy of Humanism


Review of Paul Kurtz, Multisecularism. A New Agenda, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, USA, 2010, 263 pgs

Humanism is, like religion, a human-made concept; humanists are aware of this and appreciate this fact. Books on humanism can be analyzed in three categories: 1) a descriptive (historical or systematical) outline of what humanism is (e.g. Richard Normans, On humanism, or Peter Cave’s Humanism), 2) a critique on humanism (e.g. John Gray’s Straw Dogs), or 3) a forward looking agenda setting philosophy of humanism (e.g. Corliss Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism). Kurtz’ book Multisecularism – actually his whole voluminous oeuvre – falls in this third category.
     Multisecularism is a collection of essays by philosopher Paul Kurtz (1925), mainly editorials from Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquiry from 2000-2008, plus some essays that have been published in others journals or books. In this book these editorials and essays form a coherent humanist philosophy. Kurtz attempts to create a comprehensive philosophy and practice of humanism, and keeps adapting and updating humanism. At present, it is no longer communism that is a 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. The power of Kurtz does not primarily lie in focusing on each of the building blocks of humanism but in combining all these blocks into ‘a public temple of reason’. Kurtz creates a new philosophy of humanism, which is more than the sum of its constituent parts. Kurtz thinks humanism through. He creates a humanist philosophy and at the same time he humanizes philosophy. The word ‘new’ is often used by Kurtz, because that is what he aspires: adapting humanism to the changing world. Some people find it hard to see that what Kurtz has created is something new. But that would be the same as telling an architect that she didn’t do anything new, because she used building material that was available. It is like people who look at your finger when you point to the moon, and complain they don’t see it. Kurtz’s secular humanism is a comprehensive well-rounded philosophical stance. Kurtz uses the best of human achievements – science, human rights, and philosophical concepts of reason, liberty, individuality, democracy and tolerance – and so he has created the best of best. Shopping in the ‘alley of Reason’ Kurtz has put together the best of human achievements. Kurtz project stands in the tradition of the Enlightenment. Philosophy –like science - is (or should be) dynamic and striving for improvement. Kurtz has called for a New Enlightenment (Toward a New Enlightenment (1994) is the title of one of his books).
     Kurtz has coined many new term in his long career, ‘multisecularism’ is the latest. He also issued humanist manifestos, all of which have been endorsed by a long series 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 the 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.
Multisecularism 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 in so far as it celebrates human ideals and values. Neo-humanists do not believe in God, yet they wish to do good. (p. 73).
     Secularism, humanism, naturalism, skepticism, pragmatism, rationalism, atheism can form a coherent package. Reading Paul Kurtz book Multisecularism one would think that to be obvious. Kurtz has managed to create a comprehensive life stance and worldview, a secular alternative to religion, a secular philosophy, an inspiring philosophy of life. Unfortunately, humanism isn’t obvious at all: most people, at all times have given in to the transcendental temptation, believing in supernatural powers upon insufficient or nonexistent evidence. Kurtz wrote a monograph called The Transcendental Temptation. A   Critique of Religion and the Paranormal (1986) about the tendency of humans to belief too easily upon insufficient evidence. We clearly have an innate tendency to be deluded – to borrow the term from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006). It is hard not to be deluded. We seem to be hard-wired to be deluded by supernatural and other delusions. In his In Praise of Folly (1509) Erasmus wrote already that: ‘Man’s mind is so formed that it is far more susceptible to falsehood that to truth.’ – this included Erasmus himself who, though critical of the clergy, remained a roman catholic. Kurtz does a much better job in creating a coherent and consistent philosophy.
     Intellectually the fight over the truth claims of religion has been won in the Enlightenment. After Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) in which he refuted all the arguments for the existence of god, religion is no longer an intellectual feasible stance. However, religion and other delusions continue to have a firm grip on many human earthlings, and this influence is a frustration in the search for truth, and an obstacle for morality. Under the cloak of religion many evils are being performed. Criticizing religion and claims of the supernatural have been tasks many philosophers since the Enlightenment have taken upon them. Humanism, as an umbrella concept for a well-rounded worldview and life stance, has been around for about 150 years and is continually adapted. Kurtz is an avowed atheist. But he is somewhat reluctant to use that as a primary label for his philosophy. Kurtz wants much more than criticizing nonsense; he wants to create a better world. Humanism, according to Kurtz, has two dimensions. On the one hand, the critical, negative dimension, the free thinking tradition of atheism and criticizing paranormal, pseudoscientific and other nonsensical and false claims. This is the Nietzschean side of humanism, which is now taken up by the so-called New Atheists, such as Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Grayling. But humanism, according to Kurtz is more than critique of nonsense (though it is a necessary constituent) and thus, on the other hand, Kurtz wants to create a philosophy of life, and ethic and 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.’ (p. 234)
     What is, according to Paul Kurtz, humanism, and why didn’t he put humanism in the title of this book? To start with the last question, firstly, ‘humanism’ has many meanings and, secondly, humanism might scare of potential friends among (liberal) believers, who agree with most of the humanist agenda. Borrowing a term from Paul Cliteur: Kurtz strives for a ‘moral Esperanto’, he want to communicate humanist ideas to an audience as wide as possible. It seems Kurtz’s choice to advertize multisecularism instead of humanism, is pragmatic. In a world were there are deep clashes of worldviews and ideologies it is hard to find common ground. Secularism, adapted to cultural differences, i.e. multisecularism, might be a more viable strategy to strive for than outspoken atheistic humanism. In a secular society people can enjoy their personal delusions, as long as they don’t harm others. The problem with Kurtz’ term multisecularism could be that it has a ring of multiculturalism, and multiculturalism too often turns a blind eye to in-group intolerance, and thus tolerates intolerances in name of cultural diversity. This is different with multisecularism, but how exactly is not clear. Kurtz could have elaborated on how Chinese secularism differs from Indian, American or Dutch secularism. A possible answer might be that like there are many different forms of democracy – the Netherlands have a different democratic system than the US for examples, both being secular democracies – there can also be different models of secularism, which still have as basic function the separation of state and religion.
     Humanism can be broad or it can be small. Small humanism is fore mostly criticizing religion and the paranormal and pleading for political secularism. Broad humanism is about how we should live the good live, of course without religion. Kurtz emphasizes the importance of broad humanism. Humanism is positive, about how we humans can make the best of it, of our lives, our society, our world, our future.   Humanism is about striving for to good live, on an individual level and on the social level.
     Humanism according to Kurtz is firstly a method of critical inquiry. This method of critical inquiry has to application. On the one hand, humanism is about criticizing mistakes and misconceptions; criticizing religion and claims of the paranormal. On the other hand critical inquiry should be applied in order to find the best possible knowledge, and to look for the best moral guidance and theories.
      ‘The best guarantee of morality is to cultivate within human beings concern for other human beings.’ (p. 40) Kurtz elaborates on what kind people moral people are: ‘Such people are well-intentioned and well-meaning, striving to be cooperative, beneficent, empathetic, and altruistic.’ (p. 41) Kurtz makes an important remark about the scope of our moral circle: ‘’[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 Kurtz seems to move away from the anthropocentric speciesism of humanism towards sentientism. For sentientists, like Peter Singer, the criterion if an entity has moral value, is its capacity for suffering. Humanists have a tendency to care for fellows humans in the here and now. A fundamental question is, can humanism be expanded from anthropocentrism towards sentientism, or should the concept of humanism not be stretched that much?   One could argue: ‘Humanism, as the word makes clear, is about humans, so if you want a worldview and ethics which is broader than that, don’t call it humanism.’ But as I started out, humanism is a human-made concept and it can be reinvented all the time, in the light of reason. Paul Kurtz seems also to take this stance, that it is possible to expand the moral circle within humanism. However, Kurtz does not elaborate this point, he only indicates towards this new direction. This is a direction that probably will alienate some of those who call themselves humanists. The problem with organized humanism and humanism as an intellectual movement is that when you take it seriously and thus include (new) atheism and sentientism, the people who are sympathetic towards humanism will decline. If you want to market humanism, it is better to mind your language. It seems Paul Kurtz is concerned about the marketing, but at the same time, he is too much a philosopher as to water down humanism. This tension between ideas and pragmatic concerns is visible in many of the essays in Multisecularism. One that is hard to solve. With the title Kurtz seems to have been chosen for the marketing strategy, but his fierce critique on religion, unreason and his widening of the moral circle, show his reluctance to submit to a marketing strategy.
     Kurtz points out the dangers of religious ethics, which are heteronomous. Answering the question ‘What is good?’ believers ultimately refer to a supernatural entity, god. Humanists want to have good reasons for what is good and what is evil. Kurtz looks for inspiration at the western philosophical tradition. He finds many theories, which he finds useful: virtue ethics, utilitarianism, Kantianism, pragmatism, liberalism. Though, at first sight, this moral eclecticism seems like Kurtz has not made up his mind, he acknowledges that there might be more than one good theory and that we should try to make use of them as best as we can. The moral axiom Kurtz uses to calibrate ethical theories is: does it help to make the word a better place, including me?
     Multisecularism is a political term, coined by Kurtz. As Paul Cliteur in The Secular Outlook, and myself in Philosophy for a Better World, point out, there is a distinction to be made between political secularism (to separate state & religion) and moral secularism (liberating ethics from religion). Kurtz addresses both: separation of church and state (political secularism), and the secularization of values (moral secularism). Religion regretfully still has political and social power in many parts of the world and hampers individual liberty and, often, social and penal justice. ‘Secularism needs to be adapted to diverse cultural conditions if it is to gain ground. […] Multisecularism seems to be the best way to pursue: that is, adapting secular ideas and values to the societies in which they arise.’ (p. 1). Kurtz points out that there are many ways ‘away from Rome’, away from religion. Perhaps, but this is speculative, Kurtz utters an indirect critique on USA attempts to spread one model of democracy in those countries that have a special relation with the USA.
     In the last section of essays ‘Personal Reflections’ Kurtz reflects on his life. The book is thus also somewhat an intellectual autobiography and a memoir. Center for Inquiry (the transnational secular humanist organization established by Paul Kurtz) organizes educational cruises. One of these cruises went to Alaska to see the melting ice (for the ‘disbelieving Thomas’ kind of humanists’). A board ship Kurtz started to revisit his edifice of humanism, adapting it to the environmental problems. Though it seems humanism can and should urgently rephrase itself toward eco-humanism, being more aware of the fact how fragile we are when we trespass the biophysical limits of our habitat, planet Earth. Kurtz ponders: ‘It is difficult to deny the reality of global warming, though some scientists and politicians, financed by powerful oil companies, have attempted to do just that.’ (p. 135). ‘While aboard ship, we read aloud the following pledge of allegiance, which sets forth our ethical obligations to our planetary abode:
Planetary Allegiance
     We pledge allegiance to the planetary community of which we’re all part: one planet, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We recognize that all persons are equal in dignity and value. We defend human rights and cherish human freedom. We vow to honor and protect the global ecology and biodiversity, not only for ourselves but for generations yet unborn.’
     It seems to me that a problem with Kurtz’ humanism as he defines it, is that it is too anthropocentric. Well, it is in the name: human-ism. In contrast to any other life stances, humanism is cosmopolitan, and, as noted in the ‘Planetary Allegiance’ it also takes future generation humans into account. Philosopher Peter Singer has taken the lead in trying to expand the circle of morality by moving away from anthropocentrism towards sentientism, taking as criterion for moral standing (not being a living member of the homo sapiens), the capacity for suffering. This goes back to the famous adagio by Jeremy Bentham: ‘Can they suffer?’ It seems that despite its name, humanism can be adapted and expanded away from anthropocentrism towards sentientism or even biocentrism.
            Humanism is not just an intellectual position; humanism is humane. It is about being friendly, living the good life. This is what Kurtz ponders 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.’ (p. 254)
Floris van den Berg is a philosopher and co-executive director of Center for Inquiry Low Countries. In 2011 his book ‘Philosophy for a Better World’ will be published at Prometheus Books.










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