An Interview with Paul Kurtz
The short version of Paul Kurtz's official biography usually goes something like this: "Kurtz is State University of New York at Buffalo Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, chairman and founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism, Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry magazine, and founder and chairman of Prometheus Books. A noted author and philosopher, he has written more than thirty books and 650 articles on philosophy, humanism, and skepticism.
For most of his career, Kurtz believed he could play a major role in making the people of the world more rational -- less credulous, less religious, less pseudoscientific. Kurtz is less sanguine about these hopes now.
Admission: I worked for Kurtz's organizations in Buffalo, New York, for two relatively short periods at the turn of the decade-times that coincided with the thinning and graying of my hair, by the way. The experience was both thrilling and harrowing; Hallways resonated with shouting: "It's a baptism of fire!" "Run with the ball!" "They're all full of s***!" It was often very fun. My last official act as a Kurtz employee was debating — on Canadian television — four articulate and attractive women on the existence of angels; they believed, I didn't; they won, I lost, and thereafter I moved away from the North American center of all-things-skeptic, pretty much correct in my prediction that most of my future jobs would seem like pieces of cake.
Bob Basil: I've always thought that your organizations set out to analyze the reptilian brain of American culture.
Paul Kurtz: . . . or non-culture.
Basil: If it's going to happen and if it's going to hurt, you and your cohorts feel it first.
Kurtz: Yes, we do.
Basil: What makes America so different from Europe and Canada in terms of its zealous religiosity, its belief in the paranormal?
Kurtz: The pace of change. It is a frenetic culture. You can't step into the same cultural stream twice. It's moment-to-moment-from the sound-byte to the glance. All the parameters are constantly changing, and that's why American life is so stressful, in my view. The anchors are no longer holding, so we have a *frenzy* -- which encourages people to latch onto religious and paranormal beliefs. And you can also see this frenzy in the media, which washes over everything. America has become an entertainment society.
Basil: Thinking of the entertainment industry, can't you also say that America has become a *more* secular society in some ways?
Kurtz: No, at the present moment, America is being desecularized, and I can remember no time in which spirituality has been as strong as it is now, and that is utterly amazing, because this is a highly educated scientific and technological culture — on the one hand — with enormous breakthroughs being announced weekly — and at the same time you have this spirituality everywhere present.
Basil: Don't you feel a bit like Don Quixote tilting at windmills? Wouldn't you rather be doing something more relaxing at this point?
Kurtz: No, I'm ready to face the paradox. You have this vast stream of progress and the growth of a multicultural society, and on the other hand you have this reversion to primitive spirituality and the paranormal as maybe a release from the strain of ordinary life.
Basil: You see this as an American phenomenon primarily. Should we Canadians be getting worried?
Kurtz: It is an American phenomenon, but the media is now world-wide, so whatever happens here is exported everywhere -- which has its good sides as well, of course — improvements of nutrition, health, and technology can reach the far corners of the world very quickly. But it almost too much to face, so there is a retreat to this other world.
Basil: While I often remember my professional skeptic days with warmth, I must say that I am glad that I no longer have to keep up with — and become an expert on — the latest wackos. So, what is the latest thing?
Kurtz: About seven or eight months ago, it was UFOlogy — yet again — because it was the fiftieth anniversary of the so-called Roswell Incident. It's quiet on that front at the present moment — people have been plumb tuckered out by it. But that was absolutely amazing to us, because the unbelievable was believed and the unthinkable accepted. We did our best to discredit it — and got a lot of attention. Actually, last year was pretty good on that front -- the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park 2 gave The Skeptical Inquirer a good plug!
But to answer your question about the most popular thing *now* — it's angels again, Bob. Your articulate attacks on the TV talk shows notwithstanding, belief in angels is more popular than ever. And communicating with the dead is coming up fast.
Basil: *shakes head*
Kurtz: It *is* very odd-that something so bizarre and outlandish suddenly becomes mainstream. Books on angels top best-seller lists. "Touched by an Angel" becomes a hit television series. In this razzamatazz society, whatever is sensational, whatever fascinates or shocks, becomes normalized by the media. You can see it in the Monica Lewinsky matter — the prurient American fascination with this is much more obscene than whatever Clinton might have done. You Canadians must think we're all daft.
Basil: In your career you've essentially divided one activity — offering a skeptical critique of incredible belief systems — into two enterprises: going after religious claims, and debunking paranormal ones. I know that you have tried to bring the two activities together, even though many have resisted this-in the paranormal-debunking movement especially, which at one time seemed to have a number of religious believers in it. What's the status now?
Kurtz: We do have some members in the anti-paranormal movement who are conventional religious believers, but they are a minority. More and more people are regarding Old Age religious beliefs the same way they do New Age religious and paranormal ones. It's all part of the same hodge-podge. That was the main argument of my book "The Transcendental Temptation" (Prometheus Books).
Basil: When I was in the debunking business, I always had a favorite fraud, like that guy who �
Kurtz: *Please*, Bob, we *don't* use the word "fraud." We say that certain people are making claims that are "highly questionable." Sometimes we'll use the phrase "hype artist." We don't want to invite lawsuits.
Basil: Oops. Of course. But you *have* caught some people red-handed in the past, like that faith-healer Peter Popoff.
Kurtz: He's back again, you know, but not as big as before.
Basil: No way!
Kurtz: Yes. I'm afraid so. We had shown that messages he was supposedly receiving from God during his prayer-healing meetings were really coming from his wife into a receiver he had hidden in his ear. She would give him information on the people he was diagnosing. We were able to figure out the radio band on which they were doing that. James Randi discredited him on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Basil: People need to believe in the power of prayer.
Kurtz: A big thing now is what's called "prayer at a distance." It's really a mixture of religious and paranormal belief, specifically telepathy and tekekinesis. You even have people like Herbert Benson, from Harvard, arguing that the patient doesn't know that you are praying for him-so there's no "placebo effect." You do so *secretly*, and the patient has a better chance being cured, according to their claims. We're quite skeptical, though. For example, how can you really tell when somebody is praying for someone else? It's hard to test.
Basil: Let's go back to avoiding litigation for a second. How do you get away with writing about people in any kind of critical way without spending all of your time fighting off lawsuits?
Kurtz: First of all, a lawyer reads anything that might be questionable. Second, when we *are* threatened, we fight back, and we've been successful. We've been threatened with at least forty suits over the years — I know that Prometheus, our book-publishing company — gets four or five a year, but we don't worry about them anymore. We're more hard-nosed, and we don't get frightened. In the past, if we got a letter, we'd collapse. [A bit of an exaggeration.-ed.] But now we just take these things in stride. It was very difficult for a number of years, though.
Basil: What's your most recent book about?
Kurtz: It's called "The Courage to Become" (Greenwood/Praeger), and its an attempt to reflect upon the basic humanist virtues. I always used to say that *reason* came first, but now I have decided that the courage of your conviction, and the courage to persist in spite of obstacles and adversities is the defining characteristic of the human person. Tillich talked about "courage to be," so I'm talking about the courage to *become*.
My next book will be about creating "centers for inquiry" — alternatives to churches. We've created, as you know, secular humanist groups all over the country; now we are raising funds to buy land and build buildings. The point, Bob, is that you have to do more than just debunk. You have to build something; we're trying to develop something positive.
Basil: The Unitarians used to provide a nondogmatic, relatively secularized meeting places.
Kurtz: Not anymore. The Unitarians are thinking very spiritually these days. They have abandoned humanism, most of them.
Basil: Are universities serving part of this function today?
Kurtz: Not anymore. They have become supermarkets. The students can buy whatever they like, and while that is a very significant freedom, the university no longer gives them a coherent structure or understanding of the world. The liberal arts education used to provide that. We *are* focusing on the universities, though -- an effort to introduce "free-thought" groups onto campuses of the United States. We created seventy groups, practically overnight, and we have contacts at two hundred other campuses. At the very least, it is a modest alternative to the Campus Crusade for Christ.
Basil: What's surprised you the most over the years?
Kurtz: That a system doesn't have to be true to be fervently believed in. *laughs* That the truth value is often inconsequential, and that systems of belief that are totally false persist in human culture. However fanciful they are, some group will become enamored of it — and live or die for it. What happened with the Heavens Gate group last April is a tragic illustration of what I'm talking about: in this case, a belief in the outer reaches of UFOlogy.
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Released: March 1, 1998