Tuesday, June 2, 2009


An European lectures' tour with Manuel Abraham Paz y Miño, a Peruvian lecturer, and humanist and skeptical activist

Presentation: "The paranormal claims in Peruvian mass media"
Hosting group: European Students' Forum-AEGEE-Linköping
Date: June 9 at 18.30 h.
Place: Auditorium Key 1, K house, Campus Valla, Linköping University.
Contact Person: Aslam Muhammad: mmaslamlali@gmail.com

Presentation: "The paranormal claims in Peruvian mass media"
Hosting group: Society for the Scientific Study of Parascience-Berlin Skeptics
Date: June 12 at 19.00 h.
Place: Leonhardt Restaurant, Stuttgarter Platz 21/corner to Windscheidstr., Berlin-Charlottenburg.
Contact Person: Angela and Thomas Andersen: andersen@gwup.org

Presentation: "Religion and Humanism in Peru"
Hosting group: South Place Ethical Society
Date: June 21 at 15.00 h.
Place: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury, London
Contact Person: Norman Bacrac: bacrac@fsmail.net

Presentation: "Is there any religious discrimination in Peru?"
Hosting group: Latinoamerican Encounters
Date: June 21 at 18.00 h.
Place: South Bank Centre, Royal Festival Hall Level 3, Blue Side, Door A, London.
Contact Person: Claudio Chipana: claudiochipana@yahoo.com


Under the auspices of:
More info:
Mobile: 0046-765827926

These lectures' tour is dedicated in loving memory of:
Markus Grimm
(1981 – 2009)

a German Humanist and Skeptic,
and extraordinary friend

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Speech by M. Paz y Mino at the Humanist House in Oslo (Sept. 1st., 2008)

Dear Norwegian Fellow Humanists from the Human-Etisk Forbund,

It is both a pleasure and a honour for me to be here in the Humanismens Hus for a second time. The first one was in 2001 [because a meeting of the IHEU].As a Humanist activist in Peru since 1994 I was able to found several Peruvian institutions including the Peruvian Journal of Applied Philosophy´s Publishing House Association (AERPFA), a member organization of the IHEU, the CIPSI-Peru or the Peruvian CSICOP, the Center for Inquiry-Peru, the Peruvian Non-Religious Humanist Movement, and the last and most important group, because of its goals, Rationalist Humanists in Peru (HURA-Peru).So far our Applied Philosophy Publishing House has published 34 books including Spanish versions of 13 works by Finngeir Hiorth, one by Ronnie Johanson, one by Haftor Viestad [all of them from Norway] and 3 by Paul Kurtz (USA), and a paper by Kjartan Selnes [Norway] in our Humanist magazine Eupraxophia.I left copies of some of our books in your library in 2001 and I am going to do the same today later including our latest publication, the Spanish edition of Paul Kurtz´s The Trascendental Temptation. A Criticism of Religion and the Paranormal.The main goal of Peruvian Rationalist Humanists is to have as their members people who is born, or lives or has any relationship to Peru, and want to meet and understand the reality with reason and science as the fundamental basis, and trying to live with positive values, and therefore trying to be both the least irrational and as realistic as possible.Since last June we are organizing video-forums with documentaries explaing the paranormal and religion with free attendance for the public. In the present month of September we are going to have 2 simultaneous video-forums in 2 different cultural centers belonging to friend institutions because so far we have not our own facilities for that.

Takk for meg!

Lic. Manuel A. Paz-y-Mino, Executive Director, HURA-Peru.

Paul Kurtz: A Worldwide Champion of Secular Humanism & Skepticism

Paul Kurtz was born into a family with relatively recent memories of Russia and with a great enthusiasm for American society and what it could offer those who worked hard. Martin Kurtz, a businessman, and his wife Anna, lived in Newark, New Jersey when their son Paul was born on December 21 1925. The value of education was well understood and Paul was destined for a university education. But soon after enrolling at Washington Square College at New York University, he volunteered for military service. Not quite 19, his unit was rushed to the front during the height of the Battle of the Bulge. A few months later he was among the forces that liberated Dachau concentration camp. He stayed with the American forces in Germany for eighteen months after the war before being demobilized.

Once again a civilian, Kurtz resumed his studies at New York University before moving on to Columbia University, where he took his PhD in 1952. He was a student of Sidney Hook and retained a lifelong relationship with the older philosopher. And through Hook, Kurtz stands in direct line from John Dewey. It is not overstating things to say that Kurtz’s work cannot be understood without appreciating how comprehensive the influence of Dewey and Hook has been. Like Hook, Kurtz has always been keen to distance humanism from dogmatic interpretations and unsavoury allies. And like Dewey, Kurtz has wanted to emphasize the positive elements of nonreligious living. Having said this he has also been more willing to criticize religion than either of his mentors. Originally he was willing to use religious language to articulate humanist concepts and values, but after the 1970s he turned against this. In the tradition of Dewey and Hook, Kurtz has devoted his career to outlining a naturalistic and optimistic philosophy of life. But it was Kurtz’s fate to be prominent at a time of resurgent fundamentalism on the one hand and postmodernism on the other, which required a whole new approach to problems his mentors thought long dealt with.

Kurtz’s doctoral dissertation was called “The Problem of Value Theory.” His academic career was devoted to justifying the methods of objective inquiry, although he was also very interested in the history of American philosophy. This was reflected in his contribution to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy that Paul Edwards edited in the 1960s, and which has long been regarded as uniquely authoritative. As well as entries on Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776) and Elihu Palmer (1764-1806), Kurtz was entrusted with the important article on American Philosophy. He developed this interest by editing two extensive anthologies of American philosophy. He also continued to work in value theory and decision theory, his principal contribution being Decision and the Condition of Man.

But Kurtz was as much of a public intellectual as he was a cloistered academic. In the manner of Dewey and Hook, Kurtz was actively involved in political and social issues of the day. So when he was offered the editorship of The Humanist, the magazine of the American Humanist Association (AHA) in 1967, he took it. On assuming the editorship, Kurtz gave every impression of being a young man in a hurry. Shortly after taking the editorship, he wrote:

A person who leaves the traditional church in revolt does not want a warmed over dish of platitudes as a weak substitute, as he has been often served by organised humanism in the United States. If one reads what many professional humanists write about, one often finds the same old clichés and slogans. Humanism should be concerned with moral choice and social change, and not just theorize about them. (1967a, 151)

Kurtz’s organizations

Dewey and Hook lived their public lives through various organizations and committees. Kurtz carried this tradition on but with the important addition of having a real facility in building sustainable organizations, a rare phenomenon among philosophers. The important caveat to this is that, in the end, the organizations needed to be his creations. He worked for many years in the AHA and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), among others. But in the end Kurtz has been at his best when he can fashion an organization in his own image. Among the organizations he founded or co-founded include: CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (1976); Council for Secular Humanism (1980); International Academy of Humanism (1983); Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (1983); Secular Organizations for Sobriety (1988); African-Americans for Humanism (1989); Center for Inquiry (1991); Society of Humanist Philosophers (1997); and the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health (2003).

Since 1991, Kurtz’s flagship has been the Center for Inquiry (CFI), which works as an umbrella for all the other organizations. The CFI aims at being the premier humanist think-tank for the world, combining skeptical inquiries into paranormal phenomena, undertaken by CSICOP, and articulation of the humanist outlook by the Council of Secular Humanism, as well as the work of the smaller organizations.

The stated goal of the CFI is “to promote and defend science, reason, and free inquiry in all aspects of human endeavor.” It sees its purpose as contributing to the public understanding of science and reason, with particular reference to their applications to human conduct, ethics and society. The principal CFI is located in Amherst, New York, adjacent to the State University of New York at Buffalo and is known as the Center for Inquiry–Transnational. The Amherst Center is a complex of buildings which includes the largest library of skeptical, humanist and rationalist material in the world, along with seminar, conference and media facilities. Substantial CFI offices exist in New York, Los Angeles, St. Petersburg, Florida, and with branch offices in Russia, Germany, France, Nigeria, India, Peru, Poland, Egypt, Spain, Uganda, and Nepal.

Kurtz’s other main creation has been Prometheus Books, which he began in 1969. Earlier freethought leaders had established publishing operations, but with the exception of Watts & Co. in Britain, none lasted for long. Kurtz understood, where his predecessors did not, that a publishing house could not survive if it confined all its publishing activity to freethought alone. Certainly, humanism around the world would be immeasurably poorer had Prometheus not been around.

The extent of this achievement is remarkable. Few other significant humanists have made such significant and lasting contributions in this way. The only two who invite comparison would be Charles Albert Watts and the Venerable Master Xingyun. Watts founded Watts & Co. publishers, the Rationalist Press Association, and its journal, now called the New Humanist in Britain. And Xingyun is the founder of the worldwide Buddhist organization Foguangshan, which teaches what it calls Humanistic Buddhism.

Kurtz’s Writings

Paul Kurtz is certainly one of the most prolific humanist authors of the last hundred years, being matched only by Isaac Asimov, Bertrand Russell or Joseph McCabe. The published bibliography of his writings between 1952 and 2003 runs to 79 pages. For our purposes we can distinguish four main categories of work. There are (i) the academic books and collections of essays; (ii) his shorter, more popular works; (iii) the edited collections of essays; and finally (iv) his articles.

Among the academic works of humanist philosophy one would count Decision and the Condition of Man (1965); The Fullness of Life (1974); The Transcendental Temptation (1986); Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism (1988); Eupraxophy: Living without Religion (1989); and Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge (1992). The collections of his essays include In Defense of Secular Humanism (1983); Philosophical Essays in Pragmatic Naturalism (1990); Embracing the Power of Humanism (2000); and Skepticism and Humanism: The New Paradigm (2001).

His shorter, more popular works include Exuberance (1978); The Courage to Become (1996); Affirmations (2004); and What is Secular Humanism? (2007). These works are the simplest introductions into Kurtz’s humanism and spend relatively little time discussing religion. Similar in purpose to these shorter works are the three manifestoes Kurtz has written and guided to publication: The Humanist Manifesto II (1973); The Secular Humanist Declaration (1980); and Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism (2000).

Kurtz has also edited or co-edited several collections of essays on various topics. These include Moral Problems in Contemporary Society (1969); The Humanist Alternative (1973); A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology (1985); Building a World Community: Humanism in the Twenty-first Century (1989); Challenges to the Enlightenment (1994); Skeptical Odysseys (2001); Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?(2003); and Science and Ethics (2007).

Kurtz’s academic books have had a mixed career, having been largely ignored by the academic community. In part this can be put down to being out of step when academic fashions have moved to other questions. And, though these are described as his “academic books,” Kurtz hoped for a wider readership for them, an ambition often fatal to achieving scholarly acclaim. Ironically, these books have not enjoyed the influence he hoped they might have among the general humanist readership, particularly outside the United States, where Kurtz’s writing style has found less favor. They have fallen into the trap of being not academic enough for the specialists but too academic for the non-specialists. The most successful of them was Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, his main contribution toward articulating a genuinely non-religious ethics, and which has been translated into many languages.

In some ways, his shorter books have been the most successful. They have flown below the radar-screen of the academics and have gone straight to the non-specialist reader. With the exception of Hector Hawton, and, more recently, Richard Norman in the United Kingdom and Corliss Lamont in the United States, there had been a shortage of good outlines of humanism for the non-specialist.

But in many ways the most useful of Kurtz’s published works are the edited collections of essays on various topics. The essays, brought together in works from Moral Problems in Contemporary Society, published in the late 1960s, to Science and Ethics, published forty years later, are an impressive collection of the variety of opinions that can plausibly be called humanist.

Kurtz’s exuberant humanism

In the field of ideas, Kurtz’s single greatest contribution has been as the articulator and defender of naturalistic humanism. As with anyone who has written extensively over a long period of time, one can see continuities and changes, but in most respects the core of his humanism has remained the same. What has changed every now and then has been his preferred packaging. He has always been aware of the dangers of an unduly dogmatic reading of humanism. “I am wary,” he said at a conference in 1980, “of any ism (including humanism) that sets itself up as a doctrine or creed, seeks uniform agreement among its proponents, or attempts to legislate a moral code.” (Storer, 11)

Perhaps the most important area where Kurtz has shifted course has been in his willingness to offer a substantive definition of humanism. Broadly, he has followed two contrasting approaches. On the one hand he has been largely content to see humanism as a “general outlook, a method of inquiry, an ethic of freedom…” (Storer, 13). But at other times he has been more of a mind to offer a definition

Although humanists share many principles, there are two basic and minimal principles which especially seem to characterise humanism. First, there is a rejection of any supernatural conception of the universe and a denial that man has a privileged place within nature. Second, there is an affirmation that ethical values are human and have no meaning independent of human experience; thus humanism is an ethical philosophy in which man is central. (1973a, 2)

This passage reflects the ambivalence in, on the one hand, acknowledging that humanity has no privileged place in nature while, on the other hand, appearing to place humanity back on center stage. In fact, there is no actual contradiction here because Kurtz is placing humanity at center stage only in the sense that Protagoras understood when he said humanity is the measure of all things. In the absence of any objective supernatural set of standards, we can do no more than operate according to our own lights, with all the flaws implied by that.

In the end, Kurtz has preferred not to define humanism in the sense of articulating a creed, preferring to speak instead of its characteristics. “Humanism includes at least four main characteristics: (1) it is a method of inquiry; (2) it presents a cosmic world view; (3) it contains a concrete set of ethical recommendations for the individual’s life stance; and (4) it expresses a number of social and political ideals.” (1989, 24) The main advantage of this approach is that it doesn’t tie humanism down to any one set of beliefs. Confucian humanism will be at odds with Benthamite utilitarianism, just as American religious humanism will have relatively little in common with Indian materialism or British atheism. But what unites these and other humanist approaches is possession of a world view and a range of ethical, political and social views arrived at through consistent application of a skeptical, reasoning method of inquiry, complete with its willingness to keep an open mind, based in turn on an understanding of the limitations of our present knowledge. This open-ended definition of humanism emphasizes the ongoing, the dialogical and the transcultural.

The strength of this approach is also its principal weakness. One is left uncertain as to what a humanist believes. We could replace “humanism” with “Islam,” for instance, and, with due changes to the preferred method of inquiry, continue merrily on our way. So a process understanding such as Kurtz’s is less a problem for those who already count themselves humanists, but for those inquiring from without, it can seem altogether too insubstantial.

This core dilemma has shown itself in Kurtz’s writing, which has see-sawed between criticizing some element of religious or paranormal behaviour and articulating some aspect of the humanist world view. The single most effective phrase in Kurtz’s critical works was when he spoke of the transcendental temptation, which he used toward the end of his 1986 book by that title to refer to the temptation to look to the consolations of magic and religion rather than take responsibility for one’s life and face reality. (1986, 449-461) The transcendental temptation is the clearest form of anthropocentric conceit we are prone to. Unfortunately, Kurtz has not developed this insightful phrase, the job being taken up by the Russian philosopher, Valerii Kuvakin.

Kurtz sees humanism as what we can become if we dare to reject the transcendental temptation. Rejecting temptation takes courage and a mood of affirmation. Here Kurtz often retells the Prometheus story, where the titan heroically stands up to Zeus’s tyranny on behalf of humanity. His short books (Exuberance, The Courage to Become, Affirmations and What is Secular Humanism?) all outline in various ways this picture of a life-affirming, exuberant humanism.

Human life has no meaning independent of itself. There is no cosmic force or deity to give it meaning or significance. There is no ultimate destiny for man. Such a belief is an illusion of humankind’s infancy. The meaning of life is what we choose to give it. Meaning grows out of human purposes alone. (1985, 174)

This passage, and the many others like it, has been ignored by the American fundamentalists, determined to prove, against all odds, that humanism is a religion. But it has also been overlooked by those in the academic community who contrived to see secular humanists as the opposite side of the coin as fundamentalists.

The Humanist Manifesto II

The best way, in the space available, to follow Kurtz’s evolving conceptions of humanism is to examine each of the public manifestoes he has been involved with. It was in the spirit of engaged philosophy that Kurtz led the campaign in 1973 for a revised humanist manifesto. The original Humanist Manifesto was by this time four decades old and was in many respects unsatisfactory and obsolete. Over several issues of the Humanist, he ran features from leading thinkers as to what the Humanist Manifesto had achieved forty years previously, and what aspects of it now needed reworking. Most people agreed that the manifesto needed updating, including several of the signatories of the original.

The Humanist Manifesto II was a great improvement on the original. It was better prepared and marketed than its predecessor. Kurtz had gathered 114 signatories by the time of publication and altogether 261 prominent thinkers from around the world put their name to it. It was also better thought out, being more specific about what humanism actually is and what it is not. And it canvassed a wider range of issues than its predecessor. And while the Humanist Manifesto II was a more consistently secular document, it was not antireligious in an unhelpful way. It acknowledged that religion can inspire dedication to commendable ethical ideals. And finally, the Humanist Manifesto II was careful not to set itself up as a rival creed. “These affirmations are not a final credo or dogma but an expression of a living and growing faith. We invite other in all lands to join us in further developing and working for these goals.” (1973, 24)

While the Humanist Manifesto II made plain its rejection of traditional monotheistic religion, it also distanced itself from religious humanism:

Some humanists believe we should reinterpret traditional religions and reinvest them with meanings appropriate to the current situation. Such redefinitions, however, often perpetuate old dependencies and escapisms; they easily become obscurantist, impeding the free use of the intellect. We need, instead, radically new human purposes and goals. (1973, p 16)

This unambiguous rejection of religious humanism went on to have important and unhelpful consequences for the unity of the humanist movement in the United States. Some religious humanists have accused Humanist Manifesto II of being too rigidly secular. Ironically, these criticisms coincided with American fundamentalists accusing humanism of being “just another religion.”

In recognition of the mixed record of the previous four decades, the Humanist Manifesto II, was careful to avoid the facile optimism that been a feature of its predecessor. It spoke of Nazism, totalitarianism, the harmful as well as the good products of science. Other contemporary evils listed included abuse of power by military and industrial elites, racism and sexism. So the second manifesto set an altogether darker scene than its predecessor.

Against this backdrop, the Humanist Manifesto II made eighteen main points, grouped into the fields of religion, ethics, the individual, democratic society, humanity as a whole. The main points were:

• moral values derive from human experience;
• reason and intelligence are humanity’s most effective instruments;
• economic systems should be judged by how they help humanity, rather than along ideological lines;
• affirming the moral equality of all;
• a call to transcend the limits of national sovereignty; and
• adopting planetary solutions to planetary problems.

Without using the phrase, the Humanist Manifesto II was a call for planetary humanism. “What more daring a goal for humankind,” the Manifesto concluded, “than for each person to become, in ideal as well as in practice, a citizen of a world community. It is a classical vision; we can now give it new vitality.” (1973, 23)

Ever the public intellectual, Kurtz also saw to publication a collection of essays which was designed to complement the manifesto. The two previous attempts to put a book of this sort together had not been particularly successful. Julian Huxley’s Humanist Frame (1961) was too technical, even technocratic, while A. J. Ayer’s Humanist Outlook (1968) was too diffuse. The essays in The Humanist Alternative were shorter, snappier, and conveyed more attractively what humanism actually meant to each contributor. While less transnational than would now be seen as adequate, The Humanist Alternative made some effort to include humanists from outside the Anglo-American world. The Indian campaigner, Gora, got his first major international exposure in this book.

The overriding impression of this collection is of the variety of viewpoints from people who called themselves humanists. Kurtz addressed this issue in his essay, which he used as a conclusion to The Humanist Alternative. Under the title “Is Everyone a Humanist?,” he welcomed the apparent trends toward openness in both the Catholic Church and the Marxist countries, both of which used the word humanism, though suitably prefixed by “Christian” and “Socialist” respectively. But, he added, “we should surely insist that a theistic or totalitarian ideology cannot be considered humanistic in its essential nature if one of the most basic of human rights–the right of individuals to the free use of knowledge–is ignored.” (1973b, 185-6)

The Secular Humanist Declaration

The decade after the Humanist Manifesto II was a gloomy one for humanism. Inside the movement, relations between Kurtz and the AHA deteriorated until he left in 1977. And in society at large, religious fundamentalism, which had been simmering below the surface since the Scopes Trial of 1925 burst into a new phase of angry assertiveness. It was against this background of growing irrationalism and paranoia in public discourse that Kurtz set about creating his own humanist organization, with its own distinctive brand of humanism. In 1980 he established the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH), “democratic” to distinguish it from Marxist humanism, and “secular” to distinguish it from the religious humanism preferred by the AHA. In 1996, once the danger of association with Marxism was over, CODESH became the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH). Coincident with this, Kurtz established Free Inquiry, which quickly established itself as a leading humanist journal. And, to help launch CODESH and Free Inquiry, Kurtz wrote the Secular Humanist Declaration to act as the flagship document of the movement.

Only seven years previously, the Humanist Manifesto II had been widely praised. Even the New York Times called it a philosophy for survival. But in seven short years the climate had changed considerably. In 1973 Kurtz could plausibly ask if everyone was a humanist, but in 1980 humanism looked, even to its friends, more like a battered relic of the past, or, to its enemies, a vicious plot to undermine all that was best in America. Many sections of society were anxious about the growing fundamentalist threat, but few seemed able or willing to organize any coherent response. And many in the academic community were pleased to dismiss humanists as no more than the opposite side of the same coin as fundamentalists.

So, with a backdrop of his own estrangement from the AHA and the defeat of Jimmy Carter at the hands of a Republican Party on a sharp rightward trajectory, Kurtz felt the need for a new voice. The major change, of course, was adding “secular” to “humanism.” This coupling was relatively recent, going back only to 1958, but it was naming an increasingly identifiable humanist position: one that did not see value in simply repackaging a non-religious life-stance in the language of religion shorn only of supernaturalism. Kurtz was just as keen to articulate this non-religious life-stance, but he was no longer prepared to use religious language to make his point.

Kurtz was anxious that secular humanism should not simply be a reaction to Christian fundamentalism and took care to identify threats posed by fanatical Islamic sects, cults and the paranormal. But he was no less critical of authoritarian ideologies such as Marxism-Leninism and Nazism. He criticized the traditional leftist orientation of the humanist movement, arguing that conventional distinctions between “right” and “left” were rapidly becoming anachronistic. He called for a broad coalition of left and right, neo-liberals and social democrats to defend the free society.
In stark contrast to the line adopted by the fundamentalists, the Secular Humanist Declaration was specifically inclusive:

We are apprehensive that modern civilization is threatened by forces antithetical to reason, democracy, and freedom. Many religious believers will no doubt share with us a belief in many secular humanist and democratic values, and we welcome their joining with us in the defense of these ideals. (1980, 10)

The Declaration went on to itemize these ideals. They were four main types of ideals mentioned:

• free inquiry, reason;
• ethics based on critical intelligence, education, including moral education;
• a commitment to science and technology and the findings of science such as evolution;
• separation of church and state, the ideal of freedom, religious skepticism.

Kurtz ended the Declaration with this rallying cry:

We believe that it is possible to bring about a more humane world, one based upon the methods of reason and the principles of tolerance, compromise, and the negotiations of difference. We recognize the need for intellectual modesty and the willingness to revise beliefs in the light of criticism. Thus consensus is sometimes attainable. While emotions are important, we need not resort to the panaceas of salvation, to escape through illusion, or to some desperate leap toward passion and violence. We deplore the growth of intolerant sectarian creeds that foster hatred. In a world engulfed by obscurantism and irrationalism it is vital that the ideals of the secular city not be lost. (1980, 24)

The Declaration got some worthwhile coverage on the front page of New York Times, but the article’s title “Secular Humanists Attack a Rise in Fundamentalism,” helped reinforce the perception of secular humanism’s negative bent. In fact the Declaration was relatively inclusive and displayed few of the faults its critics regularly accuse it of, being neither arrogant, nor speciesist, dogmatic, or hegemonic. It was certainly not unduly optimistic. It was rather, a renewed call on behalf the traditional humanist values of toleration, free inquiry and open-mindedness. But the gloomy picture painted in the introduction gave the rest of the Declaration too strong a sense of being on the defensive. Many people, allies and opponents of humanism, objected to religion being exposed to criticism. To this Kurtz replied:

We share with many religionists their commitment to the values of a free society. But some dogmatic religionists are intolerant and wish to impose their views on others. Part of their growing influence may be attributed to the fact that the views they express often go unchallenged. Some skeptics ask, “Why take them seriously?” Others behave ostrich-like, hoping that they will go away. But doctrinaire religions must be taken seriously, for they have a powerful influence on the lives of countless people. That is why we believe that religions should not be immune to free inquiry or critical scrutiny.’ (1981, 1)

This has remained a central element of the secular humanist worldview. Secular humanists are often attacked for criticizing religion, the implication being that such behavior implies lack of respect. The paradox is that secular humanists show religions the courtesy of taking their truth claims seriously, and seeing it as a worthwhile exercise to expose those truth claims to scrutiny. The problem is that respect shown in this way seems to please neither the religious people being criticized nor humanist allies anxious not to criticize at all.

The Debate over Eupraxsophy

As Free Inquiry approached its tenth anniversary, Kurtz felt the need for a new direction. This restlessness has been a feature of his career, combining the entrepreneur’s dissatisfaction with things as they are with the philosopher’s temptation to coin new words. None of which have been particularly successful. He tried the term “igtheism” at one stage, to denote not outright rejection so much as our ignorance of what theologians really mean when they employ grand phrases like “ground of being” or “maker and ruler of the universe.” (1992, 196-7) He has also been tempted on occasions to speak of neohumanism.

The most ambitious term Kurtz coined, and the one he persevered with the longest, was “eupraxsophy.” Certainly, the criticism of religion would continue, but, he announced “secular humanism must go beyond criticism and affirm a positive outlook.” (1989/90, 64) It is important to recall that America’s best-known atheist at the time was Madalyn Murray-O’Hair, whose abusive antics served to confirm people’s worst fears about non-believers. Secular humanism is atheistic, but Kurtz didn’t want to limit it in that way. But he was just as anxious not to make the AHA’s mistake, as he saw it, of employing religious vocabulary while speaking of humanism. And this was more than quibbling over words, because the religious right was making it a central part of the their campaign that teaching evolution in schools was unconstitutional by virtue of being a principal tenet of what they called the religion of secular humanism. Kurtz saw the need to forge a line between the Scylla of abusive atheism on the one hand and the Charybdis of the “me-too” substitutionism from religious humanists on the other.

It was partly to circumvent this impasse that Kurtz developed the term “eupraxsophy.” He wanted to unite the unambiguous naturalism of the atheists with the social compassion of the religious humanists. And he wanted to do this while simplifying the message, by condensing it the humanist ethic into one word. All without employing a religious vocabulary. It was a very ambitious plan. With that in mind he wrote Eupraxophy: Living without Religion (1989) to launch the word, and returned to it at the end of The New Skepticism three years later.

Eupraxsophy owes an intellectual debt to Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, and yet it goes further in one crucial sense. Aristotle saw the final goal as the contemplative life, whereas eupraxsophy seeks a dynamic fusion of contemplation and action. The nub of the question, Kurtz wrote, is not just to love wisdom, but the practice of it. Here is where the debt to Dewey is a positive one, because eupraxsophy owes a lot to Dewey’s slogan of intelligent action. Eupraxsophy is an amalgam of eu (good, well), praxis (conduct, practice), and sophia (scientific and philosophic wisdom). Brought together, eupraxsophy stands for “good wisdom and practice in conduct.” The word was initially spelled “eupraxophy,” but after some confusion about how the word should be pronounced, an “s” was added after the “x.” It is unlikely that this helped.

Eupraxsophy was a commendable idea, based on a perceptive reading of the divisions within the humanist movement. But it would be naïve not to see its faults. Two objections have dogged eupraxsophy since its inception. One line of criticism asked: Why bother with a new term at all? Tim Madigan, at the time editor of Free Inquiry, offered in response the historical parallel of T. H. Huxley who, in 1869, felt the need for a new term. Being unable to identify with any of the theological or philosophical titles then on offer, he coined the word “agnostic,” which has remained in use to this day. (Madigan, 9) What this attempted parallel did not address, however, was whether “eupraxsophy” did actually fill a need in the way that “agnostic” did.

A second line of criticism asked; why that term? One perceptive critic said that, whatever the faults of humanism as a label, it is at least accessible. “Better stay on the ground (and, if necessary, in the mud) struggling to retain clarity with other people than to retreat to the stratosphere with a dictionary.” (Matsumura, 3) Outside the United States, which didn’t properly appreciate Kurtz’s motivations, the reaction was one of blinking incomprehension. In Britain, in the context of a generally supportive review of the word, the reviewer was skeptical about what he saw as an “ungainly neologism.” (O’Hara, 24)

Another, less commented upon, problem with eupraxsophy was Kurtz’s anxiety to put as much distance between his new concept and religion. He did this by way of a robust critique of functionalist approaches to religion, stressing instead the differences in what humanists and religionists believe. But at the same time, he wanted eupraxsophy to get beyond the squabbling over details he felt atheists and evangelicals were engaged in. But by insisting the “positive outlook” of eupraxsophy could arise only from a naturalistic perspective, he shut down the possibility of forging common ground with like-minded religious progressives while also rendering the term unnecessary to those already within the humanist movement. Despite Kurtz’s efforts, eupraxsophy has not been taken up by the humanist community.

Kurtz as Prophet of Planetary Humanism

The other significant aspect of Kurtz’s work, and one which has grown in importance through the second half of his career, is his work as a prophet for planetary humanism. Speaking to a conference in Canada in 1991, Kurtz spoke of the need “to build an ethical commitment to the world community as our highest moral devotion.” (Goicoechea, 324) While plenty of humanists have spoken in these terms, Kurtz has worked more consistently toward this aim than anyone else. He first wrote about this in The Fullness of Life (1974) but it is characteristic of Kurtz that he then devoted time and effort toward realizing this goal. The first significant milestone was the Declaration of Interdependence, which he drafted for the occasion of the Tenth World Congress of the IHEU, held in Buffalo, New York, in August 1988. The Declaration was signed by some very prominent humanist scholars like E. O. Wilson and Isaac Asimov.

The Declaration called for the creation of a world community built upon shared transnational values. It began with the recognition that we need a new global consensus, the core of which was the understanding of our common humanity and of the moral truisms shared by us all. “It is time that we clearly enunciate these ethical principles so that they may be extended toward all members of the human family living on this planet.” The Declaration then itemized a range of rights and responsibilities which are common to us all and ended with a set of aims that would constitute a program for planetary humanism:

• The need to develop a worldwide awareness of our mutual interdependence.
• The challenge to develop scientific education on a global scale along with an appreciation for critical intelligence and reason as ways to enhance human welfare.
• The need to create new democratic and pluralistic institutions on a global scale.
• A new global economic system based on economic cooperation and international solidarity needs to emerge.
• The requirement of an international environmental monitoring agency which can oversee the appropriate standards for the disposal of industrial waste and the control of toxic emissions.
• The duty to curtail excessive population growth, to maintain a healthy environment, and to preserve the earth’s resources.
(1988a, 4-7)

Five years after the Declaration, a remarkably similar document was issued by the dissident Catholic theologian Hans Küng, and endorsed by the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1993. He went on to write the widely acclaimed Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic. Nowhere was the priority of the Declaration of Interdependence acknowledged.

Ten years further on, Kurtz revisited the global interdependence theme with the third of his major manifesto projects, The Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism. The core insight of planetary humanism is that no major problems can be solved on anything less than a planetary scale. Climate change, preservation of resources, the maintenance of clean air, population pressure, technological change, globalization; these are all planet-wide problems that cannot be solved by this or that legislature working in isolation. And all the old tribalisms and antagonisms, whether of race, religion, creed, class or culture, are–at best–incidental to the overriding fact of our common dependence on the Earth. It is now imperative that humans see themselves as humans first and that all more local and trivial affiliations be either jettisoned or consigned to some harmless category for our leisure hours. And, related to this is the other core insight of planetary humanism: any proper understanding of planet-wide interdependence means that Homo sapiens aren’t the only species to be taken into account. All species on the planet are inextricably interwoven in complex webs of interdependence. As part of outlining a new global agenda, the manifesto called for:

• backing the United Nations as the principal coercive agency of the world;
• support for the existing international conventions regarding human rights;
• fighting tax avoidance among the largest multinational corporations;
• developing a suitably transnational system of international law; and
• greater effort to raise awareness of and to combat environmental deterioration.

In order to put this agenda into effect, the Humanist Manifesto 2000 advocated:

• an effective global governance based on popular elections;
• a workable international security system and greater powers for the World Court;
• the creation of an effective planetary environmental monitoring body;
• planning an international system of taxation for the sole purpose of assisting the underdeveloped nations;
• development of global institutions to monitor and regulate the behavior of multinational corporations; and
• keep alive the free market of ideas.

Humanist Manifesto 2000 is the fullest humanist expression of the need for rationality, common effort, and global governance. As with the previous documents, Humanist Manifesto 2000 was signed by a wide variety of some of the most reputable academic and other leaders in the world at the time, including many from outside the United States.

As if choreographed, the Humanist Manifesto 2000 appeared only shortly before the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan announced the Millennium Development Goals, an ambitious program for the eradication of poverty. The Millennium Development Goals are clearly compatible with the principles of planetary humanism and the vision outlined in Humanist Manifesto 2000, so that working toward their successful implementation is one of the best ways to give practical expression to twenty-first century humanism.

Evaluating Kurtz’s legacy

Paul Kurtz’s work has not received the sort of attention it deserves. Hopefully this will change in the years to come. There remains a pressing need for a biography of him as well. It’s too early to evaluate Kurtz’s legacy, but a few comments can be made. One of the most significant successes of his career has been his work promoting a skeptical attitude toward paranormal claims. CSICOP has spawned a worldwide movement and deserves much of the praise for consigning many paranormal movements–think of crop circles and UFOs–to the realm of quaint relics, alongside phrenology and divination.

In the area of humanist thinking, which this chapter has focused on, Kurtz deserves recognition for his career-long efforts to reorient humanism as a positive naturalistic world view. He understood better than most that humanism cannot operate as an immovable creed when he spoke of humanism as first and foremost a method of inquiry. He also understood the need to articulate a simple, attractive humanism, capable of being understood outside the academy. It is inevitable that this has meant he has skirted close to outlining the very creed he knows humanism cannot legitimately offer. His career can be seen as an ongoing series of attempts to square this particular circle. In this sense, therefore, Kurtz has lived and breathed his humanism consistently.

A second point is that Kurtz has understood the pressing need for institutions and means of communication for a program to have an ongoing impact. His very success in creating these has been a major reason for his unpopularity among some American humanists, who have shown less energy and single-mindedness in this respect, and have been less successful in attracting lucrative donations.

A more intractable weakness of Kurtz’s humanism is the specifically American confidence in plenty which underpins and bankrolls his exuberance. While speaking on the meaning of life in one of his books he says: “For the humanist the great folly is to squander his life, to miss what it affords, not to play it out.” (1974, 88) Elsewhere he describes the “first humanist virtue” as “the development of one’s own sense of power–of the belief that we can succeed, that our own preparations and efforts will pay off.” (1985, 175) This is all very well, so long as one can take for granted the arrival of the next meal and pay check. But millions of people do not have this luxury, and humanism needs to speak to them as well.

A similar weakness is the entrepreneurial quality of his humanism. Later in the same book, he declares: “The full life in the last analysis is not one of quiet contentment, but the active display of my powers and of their development and expansion.” (1974, 102) To succeed, he went on, is not simply to fulfil one’s aims, but to exceed them. Without doubt, these are the qualities that drove Kurtz to achieve so many valuable things. But as a model for everyone–as he maintained it was–is to limit the appeal of his humanism to ambitious go-getters. As the Marxist philosopher Mihailo Marković, noted, while anyone can have the potential to communicate meaningfully and to act creatively, it is a different matter what someone “crushed by the misery of the whole social environment” might actually choose to do. (Storer, 32) It certainly need not be directed toward something as abstract as self-realization.

The paradox with all this is Kurtz’s undeniable record of practical aid and support for humanism outside the United States, notwithstanding a certain blindness to the restricted appeal of his brand of humanism outside of the prosperous West. He was a leading figure in re-orienting the IHEU to look beyond the confines of Northern Europe. And since founding the Center for Inquiry in 1991, he has consistently worked to build viable humanist organizations around the world. Thousands of Prometheus Books titles have been donated to impecunious humanist groups in developing countries. It is worth repeating: nobody has done more to build and support humanism outside the United States than Paul Kurtz. As the leading spokesman for planetary humanism, that seems to qualify as his most impressive achievement.

Sidebar 1: Quotation

“Humanists begin with the realisation that the universe is a vast, impersonal system, impervious to their interests and needs, yet regard it as full of wonderful challenges and opportunities that enable them to create their own life-worlds.”
(Paul Kurtz, “Secular Humanism and Eupraxophy,” in Goicoechea, David, Luik, John & Madigan, Tim (eds, 1991) The Question of Humanism: Challenges and Possibilities, Amherst, NY: Prometheus, p 319)

Sidebar 2: Anecdote

While still a young man, taking Sidney Hook’s “Philosophy of Democracy” course at New York University, Kurtz read everything his teacher wrote, so that, when Hook posed Socratic questions to his class, he could give him the answer he wanted. To his surprise, Hook found this annoying, preferring independent thought to received formulae, even his own. Once Kurtz understood this, the prime value of free inquiry was also understood. The two remained friends until Hook’s death forty years later.

Sidebar 3: Contemporary Relevance

The most pressing challenge for all human beings in the twenty-first century is to adapt to the serious challenges faced by climate change and the growth of intolerance. Kurtz’s essentially straight-forward message that science, reason and free inquiry can and should play an important role in these difficult circumstances remains as relevant today as it has ever been.



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[Published originally as "Paul Kurtz" by Bill Cooke in S.T. Joshi (editor): Icons of Unbelief. Greenwood Press, 2008]

Friday, March 20, 2009

Two Norgewean Champions of Skepticism:

Asbjørn Dyrendal & Ole Eivind Siggerud

Interview by Manuel A. Paz y Miño (Trondheim-Norway, Sept., 2008)

Dr. Asbjørn Dyrendal is Associate Professor of History of Religion at Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU) in the city of Trondheim (Norway), author of two monographs, many articles and chapters of books (the next ones to be published in books on Satanism), and editor of the web page of the Norwegian group "Skepsis. Critical examination of the unexplained, the extraordinary and the marginal."
The group was founded in 1989--by several Norwegian journalists--and published in the 1990s (until 2001) a magazine with the same name". Also Skepsis has published 3 books Fyrster i Tåkeland (Rulers in the Fog Land), Konspiranoia (Conspiranoia), and Åpent sinn eller høl i huet? (Open mind or Hole in the Head? Dyrendal explains this title: “The last one is a pun on a Norwegian expression, a pun we used as a slogan for many years: ‘There's a difference between an open mind and a hole in the head.’ The English version reads something like this: ‘You should keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out.’").

1. Dr. Dyrendal, were you reared as a Lutheran? If so, how did you harmonize that with your skeptical views?

I grew up in the church, became an atheist and left the church in my teens, and have been a member of the Norwegian Humanist association (Human-Etisk Forbund) since then. Obviously, I am somewhat shaped by a cultural background in a Lutheran country, and for my own part,that means I find it difficult to reconcile religion and skepticism. Many of our members, however, do not, and I have no particular problem with that.Norwegian skeptics come from many kinds of background, and that is made easier by the fact that we are not an organization which focuses on criticism of religion generally. We deal as much as we can with empirical claims and leave more abstract questions to the side. The Humanist and Heathen associations (of which several of us are also members) can deal with that debate, and may then meet members from the several religions in a different debate.

2. How did you know the Skeptical movement?

I has just finished with my Master's thesis when I became academically interested in a subject that Norwegian Skeptic's had been dealing with ("the Satanism scare"), met up with and discussed that and other subjects with the editors and writers. We saw eye to eye on most things, and shared the same ideals.

3. How would you describe the Skepticism in Norway in the present?

With the rise of the Internet, everything once marginal and difficult to access has become available at a moments notice. This means that conspiracy theories, "alternative history", all things pseudoscientific, claims of the miraculous and other kinds of fraud skeptic's have been fighting or writing about for years has become better known. One part of that equation is that large parts of what we have been arguing against has moved from the margin to become an "alternative mainstream." Another part of it is that as the alternative moves into the mainstream, more people not only become aware and critical; theyalso take it serious as something to criticize. So a self-aware skepticism is becoming more mainstream in parallel with the growth of the alternative.However, most of this skepticism is as disorganized and individual-cum-network based as the alternative is. If we look at the organizational landscape, the picture is more or less the same as it was when I joined Skepsis some 15 years ago. We still have around 700 members, I think, and we still depend on a very small number of unpaid activists to keep the organization going. However, if we dropped out of the picture, there would be skeptical bloggers, web pages, boards and other concerned academics who I believe would fill many of the positions we now hold. 15 years ago, that was less likely.

4. What are the main paranormal themes of interest for Norwegians?

To Norwegian skeptics, or to the Norwegian population? Both are fairly secular, but if we start with the latter, I think something involving religious healing of disease would be at the top. Most would never depend on that alone, but they are curious and open minded about it. Another concern at the top is a relative newcomer: psychics. Mass media have fanned the flame of popular belief in psychics, engendering both more skepticism and more strongly held belief. And probably much more of the latter. There is now a large cottage industry of self-declared psychics--who are, however, often combining their work with "healing" as such are wont to. Otherwise, much fewer could make a living from it.Norwegian skeptics are perhaps not as focused on the old paranormalisms as we used to. We are, for instance, interested in unproven "medical" treatments and diagnoses, both from the inside of medicine and from the alternative movement. I would say that counts as a concern. We are also somewhat concerned about how "psychics" are becoming more legitimate, but so far that has not been a major issue.Conspiracy theories is another topic of interest, although it may be overreaching to call it a concern. They may have a cultural impact factor to be concerned with, but so far seem to harm none but their proponents. As an American commentator noted, they seem to raise a few eyebrows, but make few clench their fists.

5. What are the most important challenges for Norwegian Skeptics?

If by that you mean which topics we focus on for the most part, it would be alternative treatments and diagnoses. Daily, it would be coming up with quick corrections of false claims on "our" issues in the media, and getting heard doing it. More strategically, it would be involving more people as active. The challenge here is tough, because we need people with high qualifications. We (or the situation) ever raise the bar on how much you need to know on a given topic, and on the ability to communicate that knowledge out to people.

6. What has been the answer from public to your work?

Some people like us, others hate us. Many don't know we exist. But those who are interested in information about such topics generally know who we are, and may listen to what we say. We sell out our books, our web pages get read, and we are fairly well respected in the relevant communities, both academic and media.

7. What about the response from your students?

Well, my students are a mixed bunch. Some like and some dislike my take on these subjects. Since I teach History of Religions, many of them come with an existential interest in the subject and vague belief in many paranormal and alternative theories. Many show a mixture of skepticism and belief. They are there to learn, and generally we manage to teach them some of the reasons to be skeptical of unfounded claims.I teach one course which deals with many of Norwegian skeptic's traditional subjects (apocalyptic movements, conspiracy theories, cults, conspiracy culture, alternative medicine etc.), and the course is generally well received by the students. Again, they are confronted with their own preconceived notions about the matter and some take it less well than others, but generally, they seem satisfied and interested.

8. What about your own work?

I write a lot, mostly popular stuff. Some of my academic work deals with subjects related to skeptical inquiry into "claims of the paranormal", but most, I hope, is infused with a general ethos of skepticism. I do fairly little debunking in my academic papers, but I have done some of that as well. (My academic work centers on western religion in the 20th and 21st Century, especially Christian Fundamentalism, Satanism, apocalypticism and conspiracy culture).9. What about the future of the Norwegian skepticism?Hmm. My crystal ball is in the shop–it didn't seem to work properly–and my prophetic abilities have never impressed anyone. The immediate future includes marketing our brand new book on apocalyptic movements and apocalypticism through the ages. The next challenge, I believe, will be to get together a broader ensemble of academics to deal with the infusion of alternative treatments into mainstream in a responsible, balanced manner.Further on, in "crystall ball"-time: We have existed for almost 20 years on a basis of "labor of love", but that can only go so far. My basic knowledge of social movement history says that unless we can recruit new activists to take things further, perhaps reorganize and find a better financial and organizational base for an organized skepticism, skepticism will be dependent on unorganized, but capable individuals dealing with their choice areas.That may come in ten years time - or never. We'll cross that bridge when we get there. As long as we find the time, energy, and enough fun in what we do, we'll keep going.

Photo by Hilde Haugen

Ole Eivind Siggerud is both a chemistry student and the first President of the Students' Skeptics Society (SSS), founded in January (2008), at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU). SSS organizes at NTNU biweekly activities including documentaries screenings and lectures with guest speakers, and also "Skeptical Pizza" gatherings in downtown where its members can get to know each other better."

1. Ole, were you reared as a Lutheran? If so, how did you harmonize that with your skeptical views?

To answer that question I feel I should give some background information on the current religious climate here in Norway, since it's quite different from a lot of other countries.About 82% of the population belongs to the Church of Norway, which is the state church. Despite this, less than 50% believes in the existence of gods, and only about 3% attend church or religious meetings more than once a month.I was brought up in the Church of Norway, and called myself a Christian. However I have never believed in miracles, or the virgin birth, or any Old Testament story, or Jesus' divinity or the Holy Spirit etc. In other words I was basically an atheist with a poor grasp of definitions, or what one can call a "cultural Christian".Since this is perfectly normal within the Church of Norway, I didn't really question my reasoning before I went to High School. When I started to question my beliefs, I quickly realized I was an atheist.

2. How did you know the Skeptical movement?

I've always been very interested in science, and after my older sister introduced me to The X-Files I became interested in all sorts of paranormal stuff as well. I never really believed in any of it, but I found the topics fascinating. Many years later I started watching "documentaries" promoting conspiracy theories and other pseudoscience as a fun exercise in criticalthinking.It was when googling for conspiracy theories, back in 2005, that I stumbled upon The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Before this I didn't know there was an organized skeptical movement. I was instantly hooked, and soon subscribed to a long list of podcasts and blogs.

3. What has been the College's public’s answer to your work?

The Students' Skeptics Society's first event was held in February 2008, and we now have 57 members. The feedback we've gotten has been very positive so far, we have yet to receive any negative comments. We've even received funding from the student services organization here in town. So the public's response has really exceeded all our expectations.

4. What about the future of skepticism in the NTNU?

We'll keep on hosting lectures and screen documentaries, and try to make the local skeptics community more sociable. We're having two great lectures this semester, and hopefully we'll have a lot more in the future. We'll probably start having regular "skeptics in the pub" events as well.I'm also thinking of contacting student skeptic groups in other countries to exchange ideas and experiences.

Massimo Polidoro: An Italian Champion of Skepticism

Interview by Bernd Harder

-The Skeptical Inquirer calls you a „professional skeptic“: How did you turn skepticism into a profession? (A few biographical remarks.)

I am not sure I would call myself a “professional skeptic”, thus meaning that I make my living by being skeptical. What I do is investigate mysterious happenings and then tell about what I discover. And that’s from my “telling” that I mainly earn my living. Through my books, articles, TV shows and lectures. So, maybe I should say that I am a professional storyteller… with a skeptical outlook.

-Ok, but how did you start this odd career?

First of all I was very lucky. And secondly I took my childhood dreams very seriously. I must explain. I grew up as a kid with a strong fascination for all that was magical and mysterious. The first movie that I can remember playing a strong part in my imagination was “The Great Houdini” with Tony Curtis, which I saw around the age of five. When I saw that fantastic superhero, with all his magical techniques, his ability to escape from anything and his cavalier like qualities in fighting bogus mediums taking advantage of people in need, I fell in love. My first thought was: “I want to be like him”.

-And so what did you do to be like Houdini?

Well, it is not like I was thinking each day how to become like him. I had my school, my passion for music, and The Beatles in particular, which led me when I was twelve to create an Italian Beatles fan club and publish a fanzine that had a circulation of over 100 subscribers (in the days when the Internet did not exist). So, with the little money I got from this I was able to foster my other great interests: magic and the paranormal. I bought books, mainly from the USA (I learned my English thanks to Beatles songs, rather then from my teachers), and read anything on the subject that I could put my eyes on. I also performed magic quite early at birthday parties and for friends. Luckily I got sidetracked.


Yes. Making a career as a magician is very hard, and if you don’t become a superstar like Copperfield or Sigfried & Roy (which is not that simple, as you can imagine), you could very well end up performing at weddings and restaurants for the rest of your life. Which can be great fun, don’t get me wrong, but wasn’t really what I was aiming for.

-So you got sidetracked.

I was about 15 when I read a book by Italian science journalist Piero Angela titled “Journey into the world of the paranormal” and, for the first time, I was exposed to a skeptical point of view on parapsychology. The book was a thourough examination of parapsychology, which answered many questions that had been hanging in my mind. It revealed to me that America had a great thing called CSICOP, the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now CSI, Center for Skpetical Inquiry), founded by philosopher Paul Kurtz. Furthermore, it had a few chapters dealing with Uri Geller and other similar subjects, all discussed from the point of view of James “The Amazing” Randi, another co-founder of CSICOP. I had never heard of Randi and to read here, for the first time, about the adventures of this very clever and astute magician, that not only rivaled but surpassed in many ways those of Houdini, was a revelation for me.

-In the sense that now you wanted to be like Randi?

Exactly! So I immediately subscribed to the Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine of CSICOP, and wrote both to Piero Angela and to Randi. To Angela I said that I would have loved to see the birth, in Italy, of a Committee like CSICOP that could investigate paranormal claims, and to Randi that I very much admired his worked and that hoped to meet him one day. To my great surprise both answered me. Angela, which is one of the most popular and respected TV personalities in Italy, told me that he too wanted to create such a Committee, but that there were very few people in Italy interested in helping, so he was putting them all together and asked me to join. Can you imagine how excited I was? And then the ice on the cake: Randi wrote that he would come to Italy in order to help is friend Piero Angela start the Italian Committee and that he would gladly meet me. I was on top of the world. And it was only the beginning.

-What happened next?

Well, to make a long story short, we all met in Italy, and this was in October of 1988. Piero invited me and Randi to Rome, where he lived. Thus I had a wonderful chance to bombard Randi with the million questions I had in my mind about Houdini (on which he was an authority), on magic, on the paranormal and so on. I even got to play as his hidden accomplice during a TV show. To me this was more than I could ask for, but after a couple of days, during a dinner at Piero’s house, with all his family, they dropped the bomb. Piero had discussed this before with Randi and was eager to make a proposal to me: was I interested in going to study with Randi in America, sponsored by him, in order to learn how to be an investigator of mysteries and then come back to Italy and run the Italian Committee? You can easily guess my answer!

-So that’s how it all started. And then, when you returned to Italy you started CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and, at the same time, studied Psychology at the University of Padua.

Yes, I felt I needed a formal education and Psychology looked to me as the best answer to my thirst of understanding. Because I feel that I have always been driven by a sincere need to understand, rather than simply debunk or dismiss incredible claims. I like to approach a claim with an open mind, as much as this is possible; try to see things from the point of view of the claimant and try to understand what is really happening there, if the person is deluding him or herself or if there’s really something that deserves further analysis. The most satisfying experience for me, at the end of an investigation, is not just to find a solution to a mystery but to understand the mechanisms by which one or more persons were lead, in good faith, to see the extraordinary in something that, maybe, turned out to be quite ordinary.

-How do you avoid, both in public and in private, that people perceive you as an odd eccentric, who may be somehow interesting and fun but who isn’t taken seriously?

I am not one that constantly talks about his interests and passions, and I certainly don’t get into quarrels with people I meet that strongly believe in the unbelievable. I respect all positions, and if asked I express mine, without trying to convince everybody that I am right. Furthermore, many of my friends don’t even know about my work as an investigator of mysteries, until they see me on TV or read about me in some magazine. To most I am mainly a writer and a journalist.

-Do you regard yourself as some kind of modern Houdini, who is known to have enjoyed debunking mediums, clairvoyants and charlatans of all kind?

No. As much as I love Houdini, and I have written two books about him and keep on studying his fascinating figure, I don’t seek to be recognized as a modern version of himself. In his own time, probably, his aggressive approach was what was needed to fight Spiritualist frauds, taking advantage of the huge demand for reassurance of an afterlife after the bereavement brought on by World War I. I prefer a different approach. I don’t engage in fist fights with charlatans. I try to be as friendly and open to those who claim psychic powers as I can. Most of the time, these people are sincere and truly believe in what they do, they truly think they can bring some help or consolation to others. Of course, if I see there’s even a hint of fraud in their practices I go ahead and publicly reveal what I found. In some cases, like that of a cruel fraud by a philippino healer, we even brought in the police to pursue the matter.

-Why is all this still necessary? Why do people still believe in the supernatural, despite all the debunking and despite all the scientific education we have in our time?

I don’t think that people will ever stop believing in the supernatural or avoid falling into the traps of superstition. I fear that these traits belong to the human nature. However, I think that the role of people like you and me can be very important. As the Chinese used to say: “it is better to light a candle, than to curse darkness”. And with all our work, our investigations and debunking of frauds, we actually help keep the light of reason alive. So that any wayfarer, lost in the dark forest of the irrational, can see it and use it as a guide to get free and leave the darkness of ignorance behind. If he or she wants, of course. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Today, it is true that the Internet can spread all kinds of poisonous ideas everywhere, but it is also true that our voice can be a lot easier to find than it has ever been possible. So maybe we should learn from our opposition and make a better and more effective use of this wonderful and powerful instrument.

-In Germany, right now the second season of „The next Uri Geller“ suffers from a massive drop in ratings. Do you regard this as a good sign?

I think that it probably depends from the fact that second seasons of reality shows always see droppings in ratings. The novelty is lost on the viewers and fewer are interested in repeating the experience. If tomorrow there’s a new paranormal show, with something really exciting on it (maybe naked bodies and explosions!), it will very likely be another hit.

-What is the current state, in 2009, of the eternal battle between skeptics and obscurantists? Do the skeptics gain some ground? What is the direction of public opinion in this case, that is, the development of society in this regard?

It seems to me that beliefs go in cycles. In the 1970’s there was the explosion of the paranormal: Uri Geller, Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, the Age of Aquarius, biorhythms, the Bermuda Triangle, talking with plants… Then the 80’s saw a dropping of interest in the subject for many reasons. One was certainly the establishment of organized skepticism with CSICOP, and the subsequent debunking of many self claimed psychics and the discovery that many ideas, like biorhythms, simply didn’t work. Then in the 90’s there was a resurgence of beliefs in the occult, starting with New Age ideas and culminating with the magical notion that something major would happen on the year 2000. Well, nothing magical happened in the year 2000, while something terrible (foreseen by no one) took place in 2001. New Age is now old stuff, as are many beliefs linked to it, like channeling or crystal healing. So, it seems to go in decades: sometimes irrationality is high and the next decade is low. As much as we feel that irrationality never goes away, today we are probably around the end of a “low period”, and I am afraid that the new high cycle is currently building up and will probably explode around the fatidical 2012, that again some see as a turning point. We’ll see.

-How should skeptics react to the TV appearances of Geller & Co.? In other words: When and how should skeptics react? And in which cases/under which circumstances would it be better to simply ignore such frenzies in the media?

In Italy, with CICAP, when we were in the early stages and relatively unknown, we immediately reacted to every TV show that promoted the paranormal with no skeptical point of view present. Letters to TV station and to newspapers (there were no emails then) were helpful. They brought us attention and put the authors of such programs on guard. For they soon started to invite us as well and, today, we can say that, most of the time, when there is a TV show on the occult, or some journalist has to write about the paranormal, they contact us in order to have one of our members participate or to report our position. But this was a result brought about by creating strong links with the media, by becoming friends with many journalists, and not attacking them as irresponsible fools. Usually, an author of a program is not out to con the viewers and foster superstition. They just want to make an attractive show, gather as much viewers as possible, and thus have high ratings and consequently more publicity, that is to say more money. This is the final goal of commercial television: money. If skeptics find a way to appear as attractive, witty and interesting as psychics and astrologers they certainly get their share of TV exposure. But if all you can do is preach and condemn, then don’t be surprised if you are ignored.

-In Italy belief in miracles is still wide-spread. Don’t you make enemies in the „homeland“ of catholicism if you try to criticize figures like Padre Pio etc.?

Ours is certainly a singular situation. The fact is that Italy is the “home” of the Pope and, while this does not imply that Italians are more religious than people in other countries, as many polls show year after year, it certainly implies that the media gives enormous space and time to anything coming from the Vatican. As for our work, we notice that we are usually applauded by the Church when we investigate Astrology or the Occult in general, while we are criticized when the subject of our work is the Blood of St. Januarius or the Shroud of Turin. I have to admit, however, that this kind of criticism comes usually from some diehard fanatic or from a singular priest, never have we received an official reprimend from the high quarters. Another example of one the oldest strategies of the Church: ignoring criticism and just waiting for it to vanish. If they are still here after 2000 years it must mean that it works.

-What was your most interesting case?

It’s hard to say. It could very well be my first case, that of a poltergeist phenomena that centered around a kid who was just six years younger than me. The media made a big thing out of this poltergeist story. Furniture would fall on the ground, windows would brake, lamps would explode… The house of this family in Milano looked like it had been through a earthquake. And in the end, when through a stratagem I found that it was just the kid who threw and broke things when no one was looking, I felt like Houdini for a moment. “Ah-ah, I got you, you are a fraud!” But immediately after, I learned that true life is not a cartoon and that things can be more complex then they seem. The kid was passing through some difficult times, he felt neglected by his parents who worked too much, and by accident had found that, when he broke a lamp, instead of being scolded he attracted a lot of attention. He kept doing it and the attention mounted. Soon the press was on it and the house was invaded by all kinds of people, including many psychics who just wanted to exploit the kid for their own self promotion. Basically, he had started the Frankenstein monster and did not know how to get out of it. That’s why I never publicly debunked the kid. Instead, I talked to him, tried to understand him, and the whole thing just deflated itself. It was quite an eye opening lesson for me.

(This interview was published originally as "Detektiv des Übersinnlichen" (Detective of the Supernatural) in the German Society for the Scientific Study of Parascience's journal Skeptiker 1/09, p. 30-33).

Rob Tielman: A Champion of the European Humanism

Interview by M.A. Paz y Miño

Dr. Robert Tielman is a social sciences educator and he retired as a professor of Humanist Studies and head of the Gay and Lesbian Studies Department at the University of Utrecht. Among several positions he is President of the Public Schools in the Netherlands, President of the Humanist Archives, and Secretary of the Dutch Foundation of Gay and Lesbian Professors.
He was President of the Dutch Humanist Association (1977-1987) and of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (1986-1998). And he wrote Homosessualiteit in Nederland (1982) and Bisexuality and HIV/AIDS: A Global Perspective (1991).

-What specific circunstances in your life helped you to become a humanist?

Rob Tielman: My father was an atheist, my mother a catholic: it stimulated me to reflect upon giving meaning to my life. My university professor was a humanist and he introduced me in the humanist movement. I am now 40 years active as a humanist.

-Why is better for us to be called humanists rather than simply freethinkers, non-believers, atheists, skeptics, humanists or religious humanists?

Rob Tielman: It is better to call yourself what you are and not what you are not. Freethinkers, non-believers, atheists and skeptics are not necessarily humanists. The word religious is very confusing. In Dutch we have a clear distinction between theistic religions and non-theistic life stances like humanism.

-Do you think human beings are predisposed to have religious beliefs not only by social factors but natural ones, i.e. genetic ones?

Rob Tielman: I am a sociologist and I notice that there are many human beings who do not need to belief in things that do not exist so I see no biologic determinism. Ghosts do not exist where people don’t belief in them. Sociologists call this self fulfilling prophecy.

-What is needed to reach a successful humanist ethical life?

Rob Tielman: Education and identification with humanist role models.

-How do you explain the present religious fundamentalism around the world?

Rob Tielman: My social scientific outlook is: “Paradox as Paradigm” (the title of my inaugural lecture in 1987): things are not what they seem to be. There is no rise in religion or fundamentalism but the rise of secularism makes some religious people despairing.

-What do you think about the future of humanism, humankind and earth?

Rob Tielman: Everybody who knows about the horrors of the past is an optimist. Most human beings tend to ignore the progress that has been made.



PERUVIAN RATIONALIST HUMANISTS are people who were born and live in, or have a relationship to Peru.
We interpret reality based on reason and science, effort ouselves to live with positive values, and trying to be the least as irrational and the most realistic as possible, without both super-natural and paranormal beliefs.
We organize public activities like video-forums and lectures with a free entrance specially for young students.
Also we offer to make secular or non-religious ceremonies (child's namings, confirmations, marriages, funerals) for non-believers.

E-mail: humanarazon_peru@yahoo.com