Paul Kurtz criticizes fundamentalist atheists

October 17, 2009 | By | 17 Replies More

Paul Kurtz is not one of the “new atheists,”but he is a first-rate skeptic, having published 50 books on various topics, many of them relating to religion and skepticism. I wrote a rather detailed post about him last month. Kurtz is founder and chair emeritus of the Center for Inquiry.

In this 30-minute CFI interview with DJ Grothe, Kurtz expressed that he is not “an atheist,” and that one can be a secular humanist without being in “atheist.” Kurtz describes himself as a “non-theist,” an “agnostic,” and a “skeptic.” He stresses that people should define themselves by what they do believe, yet to call oneself an atheist is to attempt to define oneself by what one does not believe. He mentioned that while 3% of Americans are atheists, almost 9% of Americans are agnostic, while yet others are skeptical or “religiously indifferent.”

Kurtz indicates that as a skeptic, he is always willing to look at the evidence, and this is an important part of who he is. He also believes we should all be grounded by a genuine concern for fellow humans. In fact, he suggested that he’s thinking about abandoning the term “secular humanism,” and replacing it with “empathic humanism.” Good will toward others should be the starting point of any ethical system. We should be focusing our efforts on affirming life, and achieving social justice.

Image: creative commons

Image: creative commons

Kurtz points out that there are such things as “fundamentalist atheists,” who he describes as “embittered atheists,” people who were “bruised” by religion. These people “bore me now.” He is tired of “nasty, in-your-face atheists.” These are people who spend too much energy rejecting mythologies of other people. They often engage in intolerant ridicule that borders on “pornographic.” According to Kurtz, we can disagree with each other, but we must always do so respectfully. To the extent that we engage in sharp parody and prejudice, this will not further our goals. In fact, Kurtz expressed that he was appalled that CFI supported “blasphemy day.” This amounts to “ridiculing” many sincere people. It is not a civilized mode of discussion.

Kurtz went out of his way to acknowledge that he had many friends who were practicing members of various religious faiths. He believes in engaging people of other faiths with respectful and reasoned dialogue. “We don’t want to be religious bigots.”


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Category: Community, Culture, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (17)

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  1. Pat Whalen says:

    I find this idea from Paul Kurtz boring. Its from a class of non thinking that I call "radical moderate". Its a compulsion to split the difference between strongly held opposing views irregardless of the merits of either.

    I don't know where I first heard this but the idea is expressed as:

    If a significant and vocal group asserted that 2 + 2 = 4 and a second group also significant in numbers and vocal held that 2 + 2 = 6 then inevitably a third and more vocal group than either would maintain that 2 + 2 = 6.

    Yes it would be rude of me to go into a Baptist service and start shouting that they are all a bunch or morons for believing in god. But for me to make the case for no god in a book or on a blog where such discussion is appropriate then the act of making that case is above criticism although of course my arguments are not.

    Accepting the label "atheist" in its narrowest sense just declares what I believe on a narrow question. It implies nothing else about what I might believe otherwise.

    We have to believe that the truth always lives in the middle somewhere.


  2. Ebonmuse says:

    "According to Kurtz, we can disagree with each other, but we must always do so respectfully."

    Always? Really?

    When religious zealots bomb abortion clinics and threaten the lives of doctors and patients, must we be respectful in criticizing them? When Islamist theocracies oppress and subjugate women? When messianic fanatics cheer on the end-times and encourage Israeli settlers to move deeper into occupied territory? Do these beliefs call for patient, respectful disagreement, taking pains not to offend or anger the people who hold them?

    Paul Kurtz ought to know better than this. Religious believers deserve our respect to the degree that they're willing to behave morally and to give our arguments fair consideration. To the degree that they're not willing to do this, they do indeed deserve to be ridiculed and denounced. And I, for one, would rather see too much criticism of religion than too little.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ebonmuse: D.J. Grothe pushed Kurtz on this point, reminding Kurtz that Kurtz himself has engaged in behaviors that constituted ridicule of those holding religious positions he considered absurd.

      I have come the position that not all things that look like arguments deserve responses, because some things that look like arguments are not really arguments. They are oral pacifiers and badges of group membership (e.g., "Mary was a virgin"). No one really believes wild religious claims, in my opinion. Many Catholics with whom I've discussed Mary's "virginity" are embarrassed by this article of faith. I think that Daniel Dennett has it right that such people don't believe their own claims, but rather than they "believe in belief."

      But what do you do about the person who INSISTS that Mary was a virgin? At a minimum, I tell such people that there is no evidence for this claim, and it is not even worth discussing because I consider this claim to be totally lacking in evidence. I agree with Kurtz that it is counter-productive to the cause of skeptics to up the ante by then calling the people making these claims "stupid" or "absurd." That doesn't lead to any further engagement. It just makes believers mad.

      I try to put this approach into practice when people knock on my door to preach to me. I tell them right away that I cannot believe what they are preaching. They often then tell me that I MUST believe because it is "in the Bible." I then give them a dose of Bart Ehrman's research regarding the Bible, and a dose of Earl Dougherty's research regarding the utter lack of mention of the Jesus of Nazareth in any Christian literature for 40 years after the alleged death of Jesus. I challenge them to read the Epistles and to find where the writers discussed Jesus of Nazareth. I challenge them that they need to take a deep breath and take a look at the huge gaps in their own evidence, which are as big as the gaps that they clearly see in the supernatural claims of all other religions.

      But I don't call them stupid, even when they tell me that I am evil, ignorant, hell-bound, or whatever. My job (as I see it) is to plant seeds to someday make these people skeptical. My routine is to also give my preaching visitors a copy of a business card to this website. I ask them to tell me how they understand "evolution," and not one preaching person has yet got that right. I challenge them to read and understand Darwin before criticizing his ideas. I tell them to read the research and they will see that there is no evidence suggesting that having an abortion causes women to get cancer. Etc etc.

      But I don't call them stupid or any other name. Absurd ideas don't deserve any respect, but the people uttering them are human beings who I strive to treat with some respect. Not that this distinction is always clear or easy in practice.

      I've had probably 5-10 preaching people per year leave my house with a smile on their face every year, knowing that although we disagreed about many things, we had a civil conversation. I can't say that even one of those person has renounced any of the beliefs that I consider to be absurd, but I've planted lots of seeds. I suspect that I've made a lot of those people stop and think. At my door, I've also worked hard to show these people that I'm not one of those condescending "atheists" that they have encountered before. Like Kurtz, I avoid the wildly confusing word "atheist," because it means "immoral" to many believers, and using it is a conversation-stopper. I explain that I don't believe their religious claims, but that I DO believe that ALL of us need to work to make the world a better place for all of those who inhabit the planet. We often find issues on which we agree whole-heartedly.

      I know that my approach won't work in all situations for all people. But this is the approach I prefer. I think that this gentle approach is more likely to help me with my agenda, which is to get religious people to quit pre-judging non-believers–to quit being bigots. Much like Kurtz, I am not out to disabuse believers of their world views, no matter how crazy those views might seem to me. They can claim to believe whatever they want, as long as they are kind and decent to all other people, not just those in their religious in-group. I have taken this view for many reasons, one of which is my repeated encounter with religious people who are inspired (by being a member of their religious community) to do extraordinarily self-less things, such as building houses for poor people.

  3. Pat Whalen says:

    What "radical" mainstream aethist are calling believers "stupid"? A few links might be helpful.


  4. I'm afraid that I've lost patience with it over the years. Partly this is a recognition that people engage in neurotic blackmail concerning bizarre beliefs. At parties, it is not uncommon to find someone holding forth on UFO sightings and the like and it is often done with personal anecdotes attached which lead one to the position of either accepting the nonsense spouted with some polite "Well, I suppose it's possible, yadda yadda" or looking like an ass when you call them on it. The thing is, they KNOW they've got you, because statistically they rely on public manners to foist b.s. on people. "Well, I SAW it with my own eyes!" Bullshit. That's usually a lie, but we're constrained from saying anything because it isn't "polite." They know that.

    Then there is of course being the spoiler at family gatherings sort of blackmail, in which grand dad goes off on the miracle he experienced etc etc and aren't all those scientists just a bunch of curmudgeons for wanting to take our superstitions away from us. Again, they rely on the fact that no one wants to fart at dinner to pull this off.

    And of course we have the ubiquitous mailings at holiday seasons where relatives and friends get roped into forwarding nonsense in the guise of the "Oh, we've turned our back on god so Katrina drowned a bunch of people" meme. And when you point out to them that it's a fraudulent claim, YOU'RE the asshole for not believing in god.

    It's all blackmail and they depend on our unwillingness to call them on it.

    As I've noted before, proselytes who knock on your door with "The Good News" have to make a basic assumption about you before they do—that you're stupid, ignorant, or evil. It's a de facto insult and to remedy your benighted condition they have this no-obligation free for a limited offer of salvation based on chanting, the giving of money, and the denial of reason.

    IT'S CRAP.

    And I'm convinced that either they know explicitly what they're doing or simply don't care because they've elevated their neuroses above any other consideration.

    Based on that assumption, being polite fixes nothing and simply justifies them in their continued purveyance of nonsense.

    But of course we, being reasonable and decent people, we're the ones left feeling guilty when we kick their puppies, and they rely on THAT, too.


  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Ebonmuse and Mark:

    I should clarify a few things.

    1. When I hear people claiming that the Earth is 6,000 old or that Jesus actually walked on water, I think to myself that these are absurdities and that these people either A) don’t really mean what they are saying or B) that they are severely disconnected from reality. For various reasons having to do with the critically important evolutionarily-honed function of social bonding I suspect that MOST of the people making these claims don’t really mean what they are saying. I have come to this tentative conclusion based many things, including my own observations, the Soloman Asch experiments regarding group conformity from the 50’s, Zahavi’s writings regarding the expensive signaling, Geoffrey Miller’s writings regarding the use of ideologies as social displays and many other sources.

    2. In my experience, believers have practiced the ability to click into “religion” mode and utter these sorts of fantastic claims to facilitate group bonding. Though the words they are saying are not literally true, they are not using these words to convey a literal truth; instead, they are using their words to navigate social space. In my mind, believers’ undisciplined thinking does not rise to the intentionality of lying. These are people who are uttering things that are important to them (in terms of group cohesiveness) but not literally true. Assisted by these displays of belief (which do not equate to actual belief—see Daniel Dennett’s claim that they believe in belief), kind-hearted groups of religious folks are more able to accomplish kind-hearted things, and hard-hearted groups of religious people attempt to accomplish terrible things.

    3. I’ve come to a position much like Paul Kurtz after repeatedly considering this question: “What is my end game?” When someone comes to my door and tells me that I’m going to go to hell unless I affirm the divinity of Jesus, I need to decide what to do about this person. Is it my job to destroy his or her religious beliefs? Or rather, would I get most of what I’m after by merely letting them know that their views are simplistic and unfair? What I mostly want to accomplish is to create a community that stops treating non-believers as per se immoral and dangerous. I want to stop the bigotry. I want people to stop stereotyping non-believers. I can survive quite well in a world where there are religious believers who don’t try to confiscate the power of government to enforce their supernatural world view on others and where they don’t try to exclude non-believers from full participation as citizens. In my view, believers should be free to believe whatever they want, and to practice whatever they want as private citizens and in private spaces like churches. Here’s one other thing I’d like to accomplish: while I’m trying to stop the bigotry, I also want to challenge believers to be self-critical when they consider the merits of their own religious claims; this is not so much to damage their religious beliefs but to soften their sense of certainty so that they are more willing to show tolerance toward non-believers.

    4. If I call proselytizers “idiots,” or ridicule them for the sport of it, this merely reinforces their stereotype of non-believers as angry and dangerous people; in my experience, attacking believers makes them dig in further and become even more certain of their beliefs. Thus, I think that Richard Dawkins was not furthering my end game in his 2006 interview published by Time Magazine, Dawkins (referring to fundamentalists, stated: “Why bother with these clowns?” (“God vs. Science, Nov 5, 2006. Web version at,9171,…. As much as it viscerally feels good to mutter the word “idiot” when people make unsupported claims, it doesn’t further my end game (not that I don’t sometimes silently utter ridicule at people in my own head when I hear far-fetched claims). I believe that non-believers need to conduct ourselves as good-will ambassadors for other non-believers. Therefore, I try to avoid ridicule for the sake of ridicule, but not just because I’m trying to be nice, but because in my opinion it is more likely to advance my end game. This is not to say that I won’t deliver hard blows to the supernatural claims themselves; I sometimes will. But I no longer feel the need to shoot down every religious claim I hear uttered in my presence. Just because I disagree with someone (including the claims of non-believers) doesn’t mean that I always feel compelled to speak up.

    5. Again, I don’t always have the patience to practice what I preach; there’s a huge gray area running from the believer and the supernatural claims he/she utters. To the extent that people strongly identify with the things they utter, they would like to claim that any attack on their ideas is a personal attack. I don’t buy that. Believers quite often claim that I am attacking THEM when I criticize their beliefs, but they will have to live with that, on those occasions when I choose to speak up (just like they will subject me to their own criticism when I speak out).

    6. My end game has this to offer: In terms of how to run our world, many believers have far more in common with me than some non-believers. I’m not going to mouth off an spoil an incredibly fruitful working relationship because I disagree with a believer’s world view. If we’re both out to achieve the same type of widespread social justice, I don’t feel compelled to always say something critical and questioning when I hear someone say “Thank God” or “I can’t make that appointment, because I will be going to church.” I think it’s often much better to letter some issues slide by in order to preserve what is highly functional working social relationship. I was thinking thoughts like these last week when the dozens of volunteers for Habitat for Humanity started their day with a prayer to their “God.”… I was thinking to myself, “These are good and decent people. They are not fundamentalists who are trying to divest me of my political rights. They are not intending to demean me by saying this prayer, even if I do feel a bit excluded. Let’s go build some houses!”

    7. Gandhi once said, “Hate the sin; love the sinner.” How about this as a paraphrase: “Hate the ignorance; love the ignorant.” Or at least don’t overlook that opportunity to work with good-hearted people to make the world a better place just because they believe in supernatural beings.

  6. Erich,

    It's a continuum, you're right, but the chips always seem to fall to their side of the table if we give them the benefit of the social doubt and I'm tired of it. It may be that they don't know what they're espousing is nonsense—that they "borrow" their opinions from some large pool of belief—but ask yourself how this plays out if someone were to start talking about the "fact" that [name your ethnic group] are all lazy and do nothing but make babies and draw welfare. The speaker may well believe that's true. Are you polite to them? Of course not, but the current zeitgeist is on your side if you call them on it. It doesn't make it any less the case when a believer spouts nonsense, but the zeitgeist is on their side.

    I sympathize with Kurtz and was making no prescriptions for anyone but myself. For me, I no longer believe patient persuasion is worth the effort when every interaction as already rigged to validate the bullshit because we aren't prepared to say as much.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: Whatever the cause (maybe it's a combination of patient explanation plus the heavy artillery fired by the anti-religion new atheists), we can see the winds of change.

      A closer look at the "Nones" — people who said "None" when asked their religious identity — shows that this group (now 15% of Americans, up from 8% in 1990) opts out of traditional religious rites of passage.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: You raise a good point about bigotry. I have very little tolerance for that. But there is a difference too. Bigotry is ALWAYS corrosive in these modern times. Religion, even though it has often been used to encourage bigotry, is often employed to rid the community of bigotry (e.g., consider the heroic acts of the REVEREND Martin Luther King). Good-hearted people often join religions to do good things. Therefore, I might be even encouraging bigotry by attacking some religions.

  8. Sasha Nyary says:

    If I understand you guys correctly you are lumping religion in with spirituality. You can't assume those 15 percent "nones" are now atheists, or even agnostics. I know many people who believe in god and/or have spiritual practices that have nothing to do with organized religion.

  9. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I think that there are some athiests who could be better described as anti-theistic, in that they are as bad as the evangelical about forcing their beliefs on others.

    The problem is that you can't legislate how people think. You can't force them to agree with you. It simply doesn't work.

    Consider the morning prayer that used to start the school day in public schools. The practice was stopped because it was said to promote religion on public schools. That I find a plausible argument. However, the minute of silence that many teachers started after the prayer ban to me seemed a good idea as it allowed the students a transition from socializing with their friends to a mental state that allowed them to be more focused on the class material that was about to be presented.

    The minute of silence was stricken down as also encouraging religion in public school.

    I don't buy into the second argument. In the first case, we had a government employee leading the class in a religion specific ritual, in the second case, any religious student had the freedom to pray silently as their own religion specified, and those that were not religious could look around contemplate their recess plans or whatever.

    You can't push someone in to a specific philosophy. You can only reason with them and let them decide. Your rights end where their rights begin, but the reverse is also true, and this is why religion has no place in government.

  10. Ben says:

    "But I no longer feel the need to shoot down every religious claim I hear uttered in my presence."

    You have publicly made a religious claim that is vague or has no trustworthy basis in fact. If I had remained silent, you might have erroneously assumed that I agreed with you. Because I value our relationship, though, I am hereby taking this moment to advise you of my disagreement.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ben: I think there's a time and a place to speak up. For instance, I recently volunteered alongside dozens of other people who were building houses for Habitat for Humanity. The group leader announced that we would start the day with a prayer. I don't believe in a sentient God, therefore I don't see prayer as communication. Do you really think I should speak up with the disclaimer you suggest after the group of volunteers said a short prayer? Keep in mind that HFH is a non-denominational Christian organization. Technically, you are correct that I should make my position known where I disagree and that my silence IS seen as acquiescence. I would consider it to be boorish to speak up in this situation, and many others, however. It would do social damage to a good-hearted endeavor. There are many other situations where it just goes too far, though, and I do feel compelled to speak and I do speak up.

  11. Ben says:

    I recently attended an AA meeting. The people were kind and welcoming and it was not nearly as bad as I had imagined it would be. However, I noticed that the overarching gist of the program was to give your life over to God (and of course stop drinking).

    I felt violated, as I have recently succeeded in quitting drinking without "God's" help. So, I picked the right moment and spoke up about the fact that the AA textbook was dated, and was using an old definition of atheism (namely that atheism is putting forward the positive claim that Gods do not exist, rather than the definition that I use — that atheism is simply not agreeing with the unproven claims of the various religions). The meetings are held in a rented church classroom, so I was sure to tread lightly. Nobody was offended, but one fellow was persistent in classifying me as "agnostic" so I told him that we probably are just using a different definition and gave him a firm handshake. Everyone thanked me for speaking up, and most agreed that it was fine to replace the word "god" for whatever I personally believe/disbelieve.

    Anyway, I think it would have been a perfect opportunity for you to speak up at the Habitat for Humanity event. I think people's response would have been positive. (choice of words, tone, and demeanor chosen carefully, as always).

    for example you could have just waited to the end of the prayer and said: "and I'd just like to add that nonbelievers are interested in helping too"

  12. Christine says:

    Here is a different perspective on "militant" atheistm:

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