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Secular Humanist Takes On New Atheism

Richard Dawkins

Huffington Post   First Posted: 05/24/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 12:55 PM ET

March 23, 2010 -- Concerned that his positive vision of humanism is being threatened and perhaps eclipsed with a new brand of acerbic atheism, Paul Kurtz has drafted and released just this week a new "Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Values and Principles." The lengthy document has been endorsed by close to 70 distinguished men and women, incorporating many of their suggestions. Kurtz was previously responsible for drafting three highly influential statements, including Humanist Manifesto 2 in 1973, A Secular Humanist Declaration in 1980, and Humanist Manifesto 2000, released the same year.

Kurtz has been the leading intellectual and organizational figure in the atheist/freethought/humanist movement for over 40 years. Throughout his long career Kurtz has sought to develop a positive alternative to the reigning theological orthodoxies of the day. While Kurtz has spent much of his life critically examining religion, he believes that secular humanists need to emphasize and build positive alternatives to religion. For Kurtz, it is not enough to reject God. He has always maintained that secular humanism and atheism are not identical. Throughout the years this put Kurtz at odds with atheist firebrand Madalyn Murray O'Hair. For many years both Kurtz and O'Hair were the leading foes of leaders of the religious right such as Pat Robinson, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, David Noebel and others. Now with the emergence of "the new atheism" Kurtz finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being the elder statesman and founder of a movement tempted by tactics he has warned against before.

"I hope this statement will help reorient the humanist movement in a positive and constructive direction by emphasizing what we are for rather than against," said Kurtz, who founded the Council for Secular Humanism in 1980 and the Center for Inquiry in 1991. He now serves as chair emeritus for both organizations.

Among the signers of this new statement, coming ten years after Humanist Manifesto 2000, are heavyweights Rebecca Goldstein, Colin McGinn, Steven Pinker, Lionel Tiger, Patricia Schroeder, Phillip Kitcher, Owen Flanagan, and Ann Druyan (the widow of Carl Sagan). Also included are movement insiders such as R Joseph Hoffmann, Joe Nickell, James Randi, DJ Grothe, Carleton Coon, Edd Doerr, Terry O'Neill, Dale McGowan, Anthony B. Pinn, along with many others.

Writing in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of Free Inquiry, the magazine he founded, Kurtz declared "militant atheism is often truncated and narrow-minded...it is not concerned with the humanist values that ought to accompany the rejection of theism. The New Atheists, in my view, have made an important contribution to the contemporary cultural scene because they have opened religious claims to public examination...What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly."

"While I certainly don't believe that we ought to abandon our criticism of religious fanaticism or allow religious doctrine to dictate public policy, the future of the secular humanist and scientific rationalist movements depends upon appealing to a wider base of support," continued Kurtz. Some 16 percent of the American population is not affiliated with any church, temple, or mosque--approximately 50 million Americans--whereas only 2 to 3 percent are estimated to be out-and-out atheists. Hence, Neo-Humanism wishes to address its message to a broader public who we believe should be sympathetic."

Kurtz says that his new manifesto advances a new form of humanism that is not antireligious per se, nor avowedly atheist. "There are various forms of religious and non-religious beliefs in the world. On the one end of the spectrum are traditional religious beliefs; on the other 'the new atheism.' Not enough attention is paid to humanism as an alternative," declares the statement.

"This statement aims to be more inclusive by appealing to both non-religious and religious humanists and to moderate religious believers who share common goals. It seeks to foster moderation rather than divisiveness and to spark a genuine conversation about meaning and value and the common problems that confront us all as a nation and inhabitants of planet Earth," added Kurtz.

The "Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Values and Principles" is available online at www.paulkurtz.us.

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