The Hand of Paul Kurtz

This year’s CSICon is dedicated, unsurprisingly, to the memory of Paul Kurtz. Many of the CSI/CFI/CSH staff here worked with Kurtz. They all work for organizations that he built, fulfilling missions he believed in. At the same time, those who worked with Kurtz lived through the difficult end of his tenure there. Listening to them, it’s hard to come away with anything but a complicated sense of the man and the effect he still has on the modern skeptic and atheist movements.

Ron Lindsay started the conference with a moving tribute to Kurtz. He was very open about the fact that Kurtz had been hard to deal with, but he focused on Kurtz’s accomplishments. They are legion and legend and well-documented by the organization he founded. They are also well-represented at this conference by the people who called Kurtz friend.

Kurtz’s legacy comes to us in ideas, organizations, and people. Almost everything about this movement bears the stamp of his hand. That includes us New Atheists, with whose tactics he disagreed vehemently. Speaking simply for myself, having identified as a skeptic long before I identified as an atheist (though I’ve always been an atheist), I can trace Kurtz’s influence through my bookshelf and old magazine reading habits. It was CSICOP (now CSI) that helped me fully understand the harms of nonsense and the need to oppose it. I’ve never identified as a humanist, but that hasn’t stopped me from being influenced by the ideas of the humanists around me, ideas Kurtz articulated for the first time. I carry his legacy as much as any of us.

I’ve also been dealing with some of the more difficult parts of his legacy recently. When a movement is built by and individual, it carries his stamp in even incidental things. Paul Kurtz came of age in a United States that was solving the problem of employing returning soldiers by pushing women out of the well-paying areas of the workforce and recreating their public image as mothers. The world around him defined women’s roles as domestic and men’s as public.

For all that Kurtz questioned the world, he didn’t appear to question this, and it shows in the movements he left behind. There are women in leadership roles in Kurtz’s organizations, but they are younger than the men. They also demonstrate full well the demands that women in these positions meet a higher standard of competence. (Great for me when I’m at a conference and looking for some good conversation, but unfair overall.) The world of professional skepticism and secularism has changed more slowly than the rest of the professional world in this respect, and Kurtz was not just one of the people from whom it took its cues, but often the person doing the hiring.

Kurtz was the person who hired many of today’s professional activists. This too is an important part of his legacy, both in the good and the…challenging. Kurtz had not just a vision but a single-minded determination to make this vision a reality. He couldn’t have accomplished what he did otherwise. This determination is reflected in his hires. Many of them, most of them still employed in the movement, share his passion and determination. They are often a pleasure to work with for just this reason.

Some small few of Kurtz hires and favored employees, however, appear to be better at communicating passion than making anything happen. Kurtz seems to have promoted based on agreement rather than results.

This can happen in any organization, but it makes a large difference in movements as small as these. We can’t afford to be treated to pleasant agreement with no action to back it up. Not from our leaders. Luckily, as the people Kurtz left behind continue to train new leaders, hire exceptional people, and are more free to listen to their constituents, I think the standards of the movement are changing for leaders.

I never know quite what to think about the multiple organizations that represent our movements. These are also Kurtz’s legacy and also due in part to his commitment to his vision. That’s a more pleasant way of saying he only accommodated so much disagreement, which we tend to think of as a bad thing. It divides us as people while the conflict goes on and divides our resources after the split.

At the same time, however, this strife created some vibrant organizations doing good work. I support that, and I support the fact that we have some redundancy in our movement. If one organization stops representing our interests, those of us not in leadership positions have somewhere else to go that doesn’t involve leaving the movement.

I don’t really know how to conclude this post, and I’m afraid it’s rambled. It’s just been impossible, as an outsider who has been granted access to the inside of an edifice I’d only ever read about, not to look around and poke into its more open corners. Kurtz’s influence can be seen everywhere, being slightly rewritten by those who are shaping this place for generations to come. It’s been a fascinating thing to explore, and it may never be as visible again as it is right now.

The Hand of Paul Kurtz

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