Bill Cooke responds to R Joseph Hoffmann on the legacy of Paul Kurtz
This is a response to Prometheus Bound by R Joseph Hoffman
There is a range of styles one can adopt when writing a hatchet job. The style chosen by R Joseph Hoffmann is that of the slickly-written show-and-tell, where the open accusation is often merely a cover for darker insinuations. He claims to have worked "inside and outside" Kurtz's organisations for 25 years, overlooking the fact that it's been a lot more outside than inside. In this way, factual errors and innuendo nestle alongside, and draw plausibility from, the scattered truths to create a grossly distorting effect.
I too have worked at the Center for Inquiry (CFI), only for two years. My wife and I returned to New Zealand, not because of any dissatisfaction with the Center or with Paul Kurtz, but because we did not enjoy living in the United States. I was there at the time Hoffmann returned after his second long absence. I have no idea what brought on this outburst. My own dealings with Hoffmann have been entirely positive.
While purporting to offer an account of Kurtz's recent ousting from the CFI executive, Hoffmann's article quickly turns into an attack on everything Kurtz has worked for. He sneers at the CFIs two flagship magazines, Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry, noting that their days are "clearly numbered". All magazines are in trouble, so it would be odd if these two were immune. He hints at a dinosaur quality to them, overlooking that both magazines have adapted to changing times, altering their format and approach, and actually retain quite high levels of readership. And if some of the fads that Skeptical Inquirer made its name combating have come and gone, maybe that journal can take some credit in seeing them off.
Next in his sights is Prometheus Books, Kurtz's publishing company. Without mentioning that six of his own books were published there, Hoffmann dismisses it as a refuge of no-names, adding that the firm secured none of the new atheists' works. This is untrue: the American physicist Victor Stenger is usually cited as one of the prominent new atheists and his book God:The Failed Hypothesis was published by Prometheus in 2007. And neither is Prometheus quite the niche publisher he makes it out to be. It also publishes material quite unrelated to humanism.
But it is about Kurtz himself that Hoffmann is at his most vindictive. He sniffs that Kurtz's appeal was always to the "village atheists and grumps of small-town America". Quite apart from the unattractive elitism lurking behind this charge, Hoffmann is simply mistaken. The village atheist - let's just run with the caricature for the moment - was catered for by Madalyn Murray O'Hair and the American Atheists. A more accurate worry about a lot of CFI material is that it is too high-brow, catering adequately only for the well-educated. Hoffmann compounds this error by claiming Joseph McCabe as one of Kurtz's "local heroes". I don't know what he means by local hero, as McCabe was born in Cheshire. But this also is simply not true. McCabe was quite uninterested in articulating an ethical alternative to religion, yet this has always been Kurtz's main project.
Turning to Kurtz's various declarations and manifestoes, Hoffmann once again resorts to rhetorical put-downs when he likens them to papal bulls. It is true that the manifestoes and declarations have largely fallen flat with humanists outside the United States. There are two things British readers need to appreciate about them: one is the genuine and pervasive threat the Religious Right posed to secular values in the United States and the need to offer some sort of alternative programme rather than simply sniping at religion from the sidelines. And the second point to remember is the need to gain some media traction if one is to look out beyond the humanist ghetto and reach the general population. Whether Kurtz has succeeded in that aim is a question that can reasonably be asked. But he has at least understood the problem, and deserves some recognition for that.
When we look at the content of the declarations and manifestoes, Hoffmann's jibe about papal bulls quickly evaporates, as does his other claim that Kurtz portrayed his brand of humanism as a new normative standard. Throughout his career, Kurtz has been careful to include very unpapal caveats that it is only a stimulus to further conversation and that each signatory might not endorse every detail. The Declaration of Interdependence (1988) and the later Humanist Manifesto 2000 emphasise global interdependence and the need to think globally. Neither even mention religion, let alone lambaste them as the enemy, as one would expect of a document pandering to village atheists. The real dangers, they warn, are overpopulation, corruption, weakness of global governance and antiquated tribalisms. This strikes me as a reasonable thing to say, and a fair point for a humanist to be concerned about.
While at one point Hoffmann concedes that Kurtz's work does not lack depth, elsewhere he accuses Kurtz of being bereft of ideas. In fact, Kurtz has produced a range of new approaches. None of them have become widely accepted as he hoped they would, but philosophy is full of people who are valued for ideas despite their not entering the mainstream. Let's look briefly at eupraxsophy, his most lasting attempt to refashion humanism as a living option where thought, compassion and action come together. It is true that the word has failed to gain traction; it's an ungainly neologism, and all the rest of it. But it, and Kurtz's various other attempts to articulate a positive, active and compassionate humanism should, in my view, at least be recognised as a constructive contribution to the debate. It's always easier to scoff from the sidelines.
And finally, Hoffmann resorts to simple abuse, writing Kurtz off as inarticulate, rancorous and self-promoting. Elsewhere, he hints at hypocrisy and even darker crimes. No, Paul Kurtz is not perfect, as he himself acknowledged often enough. He has faults and has made mistakes; who has not? I am saddened by the unseemly squabble at the Center now. Kurtz is paying the price for not putting in place a meaningful succession plan and can reasonably be held to account for that oversight. But I can't help feeling that at this difficult time little is served by giving voice to old grievances such as we've just seen.