I hate waking up to bad news. We have lost a pillar of the skeptical community.
Paul Kurtz died Saturday at the age of 86.
A prolific author and organizer, Kurtz also founded the not-for-profit Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Council for Secular Humanism, as well as the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which takes on such topics as alien sightings, paranormal claims and homeopathic remedies. Most recently, he formed the Institute for Science and Human Values.
“He was without question a remarkable visionary and the scope of his accomplishments is truly staggering,” said Nathan Bupp, who was mentored by Kurtz before going on to work for him, currently at the ISHV. “His lasting legacy will be as a builder of institutions and a purveyor of ideas. … He had an intense interest in the power of ideas and how ideas came to permeate and influence the culture at large.”
Other than Michael Shermer, no one had as much of an effect on my outlook and worldview as Paul Kurtz had through his writings and his magazines. While Shermer got me started on the skeptical road with “Why People Believe Weird Things,” it was really Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer that allowed me to explore the world of humanism and skepticism and develop my evidence-based approach to life. It is in the pages of his magazines that I first was introduced to Dawkins, Hitchens, Radford, Flynn, Kaminer, and Price, and that is just the beginnings of a practically endless list. My stack of back issues grows as time moves on, over twelve years of issues now populating my bookshelf, always there when I need something to read between books. I didn’t always agree with what was in the pages, but it always made me think. I have no idea who I would be without the work Paul Kurtz put into the skeptical community.
And it was much more than just his magazines. Kurtz had a gift with words and was willing to stray from the skeptical mainstays and venture into politics and social issues, with an eye that could pierce the facade, and a voice that spoke truth, uncomfortable as it may have been. Writing in the Fall 2000 issue of Free Inquiry on the then upcoming election, Kurtz’s piece rings as true today as it did when I first held the issue:
A plutocracy is defined as “government by the wealthy.” The critical question that should concern us is whether the United States is already a plutocracy, and what can be done to limit its power. This question, unfortunately, will not be taken seriously by most voters-but it damned well ought to be.
Ancient Greek democracy lasted only a century; the Roman republic survived for four, though it was increasingly weakened as time went on. As America enters its third century we may well ask whether our democratic institutions will survive and if so in what form.
As readers of these pages know, I have been concerned by the virtually unchallenged growth of corporate power. Mergers and acquisitions continue at a dizzying pace, as small and mid-sized businesses and farms disappear; independent doctors, lawyers, and accountants are gobbled up by larger firms; and working men and women are at the mercy of huge global conglomerates, which downsize as they export jobs overseas.
I have also deplored the emergence of the global media-ocracy, whereby a handful of powerful media conglomerates virtually dominate the means of communication. A functioning democratic society depends upon a free exchange of ideas; today fewer dissenting views are heard in the public square, as diversity is narrowed or muffled.
Corporate domination of the democratic process by means of campaign contributions blocks the emergence of independent voices willing to defend the public interest. Lobbyists subvert the integrity of the Congress and of state legislatures throughout the land by buying influences and votes. Big oil, media, pharmaceutical, tobacco, gambling, insurance, and financial companies thus dominate the legislative process. For example, the banks and credit card companies charge usurious rates and use deceptive marketing practices, fleecing millions of unwary consumers and forcing them into bankruptcy, yet effective legislation to protect consumers was blocked in Congress by the banking industry. Surreptitiously, large companies are now reducing retirement benefits with nary any political opposition. Corporations today-such as General Electric and Exxon-Mobil-are earning huge profits.
Some may say that my appraisal is too pessimistic, for stock ownership is widely distributed, and that corporate efficiency contributes to the current American prosperity. Granted, we do not wish to undermine our economic prosperity, but much of this is also due to new scientific and technological discoveries and to an educated labor force, not simply corporate oligopolies.
We need to ask the questions: should corporations be the primary arbiters of the public will, and should “market forces” alone determine the conditions of social justice? Unfortunately, a relatively small number of corporate managers and stockholders of the new plutocracy control the corporate state, and it is the incestuous relationship between corporate economic power and politics that is most disturbing. For example, Dick Cheney departed from Haliburton, the large oil exploratory company, according to the New York Times, with a $20 million package of stock options and other benefits. Today a corporate-military plutocracy rules virtually unchallenged, manipulating and manufacturing the news and safeguarding its position of power.
A century ago Teddy Roosevelt helped enact and enforce the Sherman Anti-Trust Law, and later Woodrow Wilson introduced the progressive income tax. Where are the political leaders today, willing to restrain corporate trusts and the new plutocracy? Who will speak out for the ordinary citizen? Who will defend the humanistic principles of equity and fairness?
Paul Kurtz will be missed greatly, but his ideas will never die. He planted the seeds of skepticism and humanism in many a mind, and those seeds have borne fruit. The skeptical community will continue to grow with each passing year, and we will never forget the debt we owe to Dr. Kurtz.
Thank you, Paul.