Date: Thu Jun 16 1994 00:00:24
From: Sheppard Gordon
Subj: Paul Kurtz
DR. DEBUNKER PHILOSOPHER PAUL KURTZ HAS BUILT AN EMPIRE ON SKEPTICAL INQUIRY
06/12/94 BUFFALO NEWS
At a Buffalo dinner party, Paul Kurtz became a hotter topic of debate than
the main course.
"One woman exclaimed that Paul Kurtz was 'the devil incarnate,' 'the most
evil man in Buffalo,' 'the pope of the unbelievers.' She said she could not
(keep) from hissing every time she drove by his house," recalls Vern L.
Bullough, Buffalo State College distinguished professor emeritus.
There's nothing to suggest the devil exists, Kurtz might have told that
The pope of the unbelievers?
Well, the world-renowned philosopher is an unbeliever.
"Third-generation freethinker," boasts Kurtz, who has debunked everyone
from the Abominable Snowman to Jimmy Swaggart. From his offices in Buffalo
and Amherst, Kurtz has created an internationally known philosophy industry
as the dominant voice of secular humanism. He's always on call to investigate
claims of paranormal phenomena. He runs a major book publishing house.
And after 30 years of preaching skepticism, he's finding that more people
are willing to listen to his message.
Attacks from right-wing fundamentalists have gone the way of Jim and Tammy
Bakker's ministry. One reason, perhaps, is that Kurtz and other humanist
leaders met with representatives of the Vatican hierarchy several years ago
in an effort to find common ground.
"We got along with the Vatican," he reports. "We had an interesting
dialogue with the Mormons last September out in Salt Lake City. And we have a
very interesting dialogue emerging between the Baptists and the humanists.
"Humanism is growing worldwide. It's one of the most powerful streams of
Powerful enough to spur construction in Amherst of the $4 million Center
for Inquiry, to be completed by early '95.
The more than 14,000-square-foot center is a joint project of two non-
profit organizations: the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, which
Kurtz chairs; and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of
the Paranormal, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which he founded
and which is now read in 72 countries.
The committee acts as a clearinghouse for examinations of fringe science
and paranormal claims.
Many scientists, philosophers and writers are associated with the two
groups, including Nobel Prize winners, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, astronomer
Carl Sagan, entertainer Steve Allen and, before his death, science fiction
master Isaac Asimov. As a result, the Wall Street Journal has dubbed Amherst
the skeptics' capital of the world.
"We are literally besieged by the media every day from all over the world -
- explain this or explain that," Kurtz says. You might catch him on the tube
chatting with Phil Donahue or Larry King.
Though the word "skeptic" is linked to "pessimist" in the thesaurus, Kurtz
explains that "skepticism focuses on inquiry, to understand nature and life.
It seeks evidence and reasons for belief."
But in the realm of the supernatural, he says, there is much reason for
They gathered in Akron, Ohio, before the altar podium of Ernest Angley,
the TV faith healer with the preternatural brown hair. Among the infirm,
blind and sickly, Angley administered his ceremonial thump with his customary
cry, "Hee-ea-ul!" And each of the "treated" fell back, faint with his touch
to the forehead.
That is, until Mr. Angley approached Paul Kurtz. Tape recorder in hand,
Kurtz refused to join the theatrics.
"I stood my ground and did not fall back," notes Kurtz in his 1986 study
"Does Faith Healing Work?"
"He put his arm behind me and forcibly tried to push me down, but I
steadfastly refused to fall. We were eyeball to eyeball, and I thought to
myself, 'Look, you son-of-a-gun, don't try anything on me.' . . . Angley
tarried a bit and then left me, moving on to the next victim. . . .
"One got the impression that he could have commanded them to do almost
anything and that they would have obeyed. I was reminded of Jim Jones'
hypnotic power over his flock in Guyana."
The Akron investigation exemplifies Kurtz's commitment to examine
paranormal claims by reaching outside the scholarly world -- willing to
venture everywhere from faith healing services to allegedly haunted houses.
Former Kurtz student Timothy J. Madigan writes of the necessity "to apply
the humanist and skeptical philosophies outside of the classroom," in his new
compilation "Toward a New Enlightenment: The Philosophy of Paul Kurtz"
(Transaction Publishers), co-edited with Vern Bullough.
"People are taken in by charlatans and hoaxers, people who read the future
or give you a magical cure, and any other sensational claims," Kurtz says. "I
think it's unfortunate."
Self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller lost a multimillion-dollar libel suit
against the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
Paranormal. A federal court in Washington, D.C., last year ordered Geller to
pay the organization tens of thousands of dollars in sanctions. Geller, Kurtz
reports, still hasn't paid up.
Madigan remembers a faith-healing service his professor invited him to in
"It was the first time I had ever attended such an event, and I found it
literally overwhelming," Madigan notes in his book.
"The pounding organ music, the non-stop clapping and singing, and the
incessant haranguing by (W.V.) Grant to fill up his coffers with money were
more than I had expected. The whole affair had an air of farce to it, except
for one thing: Many of the people there were seriously ill, and desperate for
any hope of a cure. I was appalled when Grant told everyone to toss their
medication at the stage, because they didn't need it anymore. . . . But even
more saddening was the look on the faces of several individuals at the end of
the service, when they realized that they had not been cured. No doubt they
attributed this to their own insufficient faith. . . .
"As Paul explained to me afterward, one could only truly criticize such
chicanery by going into the field and witnessing it firsthand. . . . He has
time and again broken down the distinction between town and gown,
enlightening and infuriating many in both camps who'd prefer that never the
twain should meet. And in doing so, he has enjoyed himself immensely."
So what does humanism have to do with debunking astrologers and tales of
UFOs? Skeptical inquiry and humanism are both "based, in the modern world,
upon reason and science," explains Kurtz, a UB philosophy professor emeritus.
"Humanism is an effort to interpret science and technology, and to develop
values that will enhance life. It's forward-looking, futuristic."
Vern Bullough, in an interview, calls Kurtz "an intense, dedicated man."
In "Toward a New Enlightenment," the sociologist gives his response to the
dinner guest who attacked the philosopher:
"I indicated that I had known Kurtz before I moved to Buffalo and he was
really a good father to his children, a loving husband and a dedicated
scholar, all of which she refused to believe."
The humanist, he adds, "is regarded by many people in the United States as
Bullough says that atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair may have received more
publicity than Kurtz, in part because she seeks it out. However, Bullough
continues, "Kurtz is far more respected and far more feared, because his
approach is fundamentally different from O'Hair's. He investigates,
criticizes and debunks, but on the basis of the data, not from some emotional
Even Christian Century magazine called Kurtz "one of the rare
intellectuals of our time, the most energetic and best-informed of the
UFO landing pad
With Socrates as his hero, Kurtz says he became a philosopher because "I
wanted to go to the roots of things, why people believe the way they do, what
they believe. I want to ask the difficult questions."
Born the year evolution theory went to trial, 1925, Paul Kurtz grew up in
a family where science, politics and the arts were discussed at the dinner
table, as well as sports. A native of Newark, N.J., young Kurtz was oriented
toward Marxism in his undergraduate years at New York University. Madigan
writes: "He argued long and hard with his philosophy instructor Sidney Hook
over the virtues of that position. Infuriated by Hook's combative anti-
communism, Kurtz initially dismissed him as a voice from the past, out of
touch with the glorious revolution to come."
When the Vietnam War years came, Madigan adds, Kurtz "found himself on the
barricades, arguing against students and radical professors who sought to
protest the Vietnam War by closing down the college campuses" -- including
his own. The philosopher, who received his Ph.D. from Columbia University,
feared that these actions "led to a disrespect for the fabric of education."
Today, Kurtz calls himself a moderate liberal.
"Anyone who's not radical when he's young, and a conservative when he's
older, has not lived a full life," he quips with characteristic good humor.
This "ghostbuster" is no dour academic killjoy trying to wring the fun out
of life. In the completed portion of the Center for Inquiry, he cheerfully
brings out a model of the finished project that includes a "UFO landing pad."
"Magic is fun," he concedes. "If you know it's a magician performing feats,
it's entertaining -- but things don't go bump in the night." Kurtz was an
early advocate, Bullough notes, of seeking the help of magicians, such as
James "The Amazing" Randi, to help detect frauds.
"Life is very adventurous -- space voyages out in the cosmos, sending back
photographs of Jupiter and Saturn; the effort to cure disease and probe the
biosphere. The real world is exciting in its own terms without inventing
fictions," Kurtz says.
"I'm fascinated with mystery and the unknown. I think we ought to use the
best tools that we have, of logic, science and reason."
But science has its limits, some people argue. James Likoudis, president
of the conservative organization Catholics United for the Faith, contends
that "it's a mistake to look to science" when dealing with the supernatural,
"because science is descriptive of material matter."
The new Center for Inquiry will house the world's largest skeptics' and
humanists' library, up to 50,000 volumes. It also will have audio and video
It's separate from Kurtz's other major enterprise, Prometheus Books, which
celebrated its 25th anniversary during the American Booksellers Association
convention recently in Los Angeles. With more than 800 titles, Prometheus has
published such authors as Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and its books have won praise
from newspapers including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los
Angeles Times. Named after the Titan who defied the gods, Prometheus offers
readers an alternative, often dissenting point of view. With offices in
Buffalo and Amherst, it's the largest publisher of its kind.
"We're part of the knowledge industry," Kurtz says. "Our products are
conceptual and intellectual.
"We're rapidly developing. We have ambitious plans to develop media
productions," he says. "We do produce radio and television programs. Our
radio series is carried on over 200 stations."
A colleague says that one secret of Kurtz's indefatigable energy is his
daily two-to-three-mile run.
"Apparently," says Madigan, "he simply doesn't have time to be exhausted."