Paul Kurtz Gives an Answer to This Question: Is There Such a Thing as an Atheist Fundamentalist?

Curiously, in the most recent dead tree edition of Free Inquiry (Dec. 2009/Jan. 2010), the 84 year old Paul Kurtz, the kindly rational father of Prometheus Books and the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, doesn’t exactly say no to the question, “Is there such a thing as an atheist fundamentalist?” In a brief editorial on pages 4 and 5 of the magazine (titled “The True Unbeliever”), Kurtz defines fundamentalism this way:

A fundamentalist is a person who is committed to a set of basic beliefs or doctrines with dogmatic and inflexible loyalty.

And Kurtz, working from this definition, observes of some contemporary atheists:

[T]here still lingers among some true unbelievers  an unflinching conviction toward atheism—God does not exist, period ; they are convinced of that! This kind of dogmatic attitude holds that this and only this is true  and that anyone who deviates from it is a fool.

Kurtz then quotes the famed Pragmatist, John Dewey, as saying:

The aggressive atheist seems to have something in common with traditional superstition. . . . The exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism is with man in isolation from nature. [A Common Faith ]

By this Kurtz interprets Dewey to mean that the militant atheist is not properly cognizant of history or the problems of epistemology and ethics. Then Kurtz observes of the Dewey quote, “This form of militant atheism is often truncated and narrow-minded”, and, at the conclusion of his article, suggests another way:

Atheism, like agnosticism and skepticism, can be a dignified posture when it is based on careful reflection and civilly expressed. It should not be mean-spirited. Many of us prefer a kinder and gentler form of secular humanism. 

Back in the late 1980s, I had lunch with Paul Kurtz near LAX in Los Angeles. As a young person who had abandoned Christian fundamentalism for atheism, I had written to Kurtz, and when he was in California for a secularist gathering, he invited me to attend the event and join his party for lunch. I’ve never picked up from Kurtz anything but an open—I might even say, Christian—spirit, and I hope that his dignified and open form of humanism, after the tide of the New Atheism runs its heated course and becomes passe, reasserts itself. Of course, it’s also possible that Kurtz is part of a dying breed—the WWII, Camus-style atheist—sobered, not just by religious irrationality, but by the clash of 20th century nationalist and secular ideologies as well (as in William Butler Yeats’s 1921 poem, “The Second Coming”):

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


Here’s an image of Paul Kurtz (from Wikipedia Commons):


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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