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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2002 > Jun > Jun 19

Kurtz: A Vigorous Skeptic Of Everything But Fact

From: Mike Briggs <mbriggs@ku.edu>
Date: Wed, 19 Jun 2002 10:12:54 -0400 (EDT)
Fwd Date: Wed, 19 Jun 2002 13:33:52 -0400
Subject: Kurtz: A Vigorous Skeptic Of Everything But Fact


No doubt many on the UpDates List have already seen this article
from today's NY Times. But many others may not have. In any
case, I thought it would be useful to pass it along.

Mike Briggs

mbriggs@ku.edu

-----

Source: The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/19/arts/television/19SKEP.html?ex=3D102549597=
3&ei=3D1&en=3D8fc63718a4160f01

A Vigorous Skeptic of Everything but Fact

June 19, 2002
By DINITIA SMITH


These are some of the things that Paul Kurtz, chairman of
the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of
the Paranormal and publisher of the magazine Skeptical
Inquirer, does not believe in: parapsychology, holistic
cures for animal illnesses, the universal effectiveness of
chiropractic, extraterrestrial beings, alternative
medicine, Bigfoot and organized religion.

For 35 years Mr. Kurtz has kept up a drumbeat of opposition
to all kinds of this nonsense, as he calls it. And now he
is turning his attention to the proliferation of the
paranormal in movies and on television. Although movies are
obviously fiction, Mr. Kurtz said, their power and
influence are enormous. Meanwhile some television shows are
presenting extraterrestrial conversations as a real thing.

"The television networks are selling communication with
the dead with abandon," Mr. Kurtz complained as he sat in
the headquarters of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst,
N.Y., near Buffalo, the secular humanist organization that
is the umbrella group for all his interests. Mr. Kurtz
pointed to John Edward's show, "Crossing Over," and to
James Van Praagh and George Anderson, mediums who also
appear regularly on television claiming to talk to the
dead.

Then "there are the increasing number of scenes in soap
operas that are set in heaven," Mr. Kurtz said, adding that
movies are also gross offenders. For instance, on Aug. 2,
Touchstone is scheduled to release "Signs," starring Mel
Gibson, about the mysterious appearance of crop circles on
a family farm. Another example is "The Mothman Prophecies"
with Richard Gere, released in January, in which the
characters are terrified by an otherworldly creature in the
form of a giant moth.

To monitor these trends his investigating committee, which
its members call Csicop (pronounced SY-cop), has opened a
National Media Center on Hollywood Boulevard in Los
Angeles. And tomorrow Mr. Kurtz and some 400 other skeptics
from around the world are to convene in Los Angeles at the
World Skeptics Congress at the Hilton Burbank Airport and
Convention Center to discuss these and other concerns.

"We are all concerned with this media distortion," he said.
"We consider this area of pseudoscience to be critical."

"We are the heroic defenders of science and reason," said
Mr. Kurtz, 76, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the
State University of New York at Buffalo and author or
editor of 35 books, including the "Secular Humanist
Manifesto II." And he is not above a touch of humor in his
crusade.

The March-April issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, for
instance, gave a special "Foot in Mouth Disease Award" to
the Rev. Jerry Falwell for holding pagans, abortionists and
feminists partly responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks. And to another minister, Jack Brock, and the
Christ Community Church of Alamogordo, N.M., the magazine
gave a Pagan Pride Award for sponsoring "a Harry Potter
book burning."

"Our kind of saints are magicians and comedians," Mr. Kurtz
said. "They show by sleight of hand how you can deceive."
Magicians often perform at his group's conventions.

Mr. Kurtz's operations have an annual budget of $11
million. The center has small branches in Los Angeles and
Montclair, N.J., and has about 40 employees overall. There
are affiliated groups in Russia, France, Peru, Germany,
Africa and other locations.

In an effort to dispel the notion that paranormal powers
exist and to debunk its other targets, like organized
religion, Mr. Kurtz publishes magazines and newsletters,
including The Skeptical Inquirer, which Mr. Kurtz said had
a circulation of about 50,000. Other magazines include Free
Inquiry, The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine,
Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice and a few
others. Mr. Kurtz also operates a publishing house,
Prometheus Books, which brings out about 100 books a year.
In addition the center sponsors a student organization, the
Campus Freethought Alliance, and S.O.S. (for Save
Ourselves), a secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous.
"You don't need a higher spiritual power to get rid of
alcohol addiction," he said.

The struggle against organized religion is lonely. Religion
exerts a tyranny over society, he said, and for an American
politician "the worst crime is to be an agnostic." In
France, Fran=E7ois Mitterrand and former Prime Minister
Lionel Jospin reported they were agnostics. "They could not
get away with that here."

He added: "Years ago you never met anyone who believed in
Satan. Now it's common." By his count there are "1,350
cults and sects in the United States, from the Church of
Scientology to Hasidic Judaism," he said, speaking of
offshoots of mainstream religions.

Still Mr. Kurtz insists he is not anti-religion. "Some of
my best friends are Christians," he said with a twinkle in
his eye.

Not only does mainstream religion constitute a tyranny, but
beliefs like "Astrology and U.F.O.-ology have become major
religions of our day," he said.

"Among our strongest supporters are astronomers, because
they are confused with astrologers and U.F.O.-ologists and
Scientologists." The International Astronomical Union,
which names newly discovered bodies in the skies, have
named asteroid No. 6,629 Kurtz for him.

The bland, modernist headquarters of the center is a
virtual temple to reason. In the main reading room is a
bust of Mr. Kurtz's great hero, Charles Darwin, whose
theories of natural selection as the basis of evolution run
counter to some conservative Christians' belief system.
Every Feb. 12 the center celebrates his birthday with
lectures, films and a birthday cake.

On the walls are paintings to illustrate some of the
center's precepts. One, called "The Ascent of Reason,"
shows the figures of Hypatia, Democritus, Aristotle,
Socrates, Epicurus and Protagoras, who said, "Man is the
measure of all things." Another, "Prometheus Bound," is a
homage to Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and
bequeathed it to humankind and taught humans arts and
sciences. There is also a strange painting based on "The
Last Supper," with Susan B. Anthony, Sidney Hook, Charles
Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, Bertrand Russell, Voltaire and
other atheists and humanists seated around the table
instead of the apostles.

In addition there is a picture of Mr. Kurtz's friend the
comedian Steve Allen. Over the years Prometheus published
15 of Mr. Allen's books, including "Steve Allen on the
Bible, Religion and Morality."

Another room at the center is the Academy of Humanism, with
busts of Aristotle, Socrates and great humanists. The
basement holds the center's collection of some 35,000 books
and pamphlets relating to evolution, secular humanism,
atheism and skepticism.

Mr. Kurtz, who was born in Newark, the son of a
businessman, was left-wing in his youth, he said. But
serving in the Army in World War II taught him the dangers
of ideology. He entered the Dachau and Buchenwald camps
after they were liberated. He also became disillusioned
with Communism when he encountered Russian slave laborers
who had been taken to Germany forcibly and refused to
return to the Soviet Union at the end of the war.

As an undergraduate at New York University in the 1940's
Mr. Kurtz came under the influence of the philosopher
Sidney Hook and pragmatism. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis at
Columbia University on value theory, on whether there can
be a science of ethics. He is married to Claudine Vial, a
retired French teacher. They have four children, including
Jonathan, 33, a vice president of Prometheus Books.

Mr. Kurtz founded the Committee for the Scientific
Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal when he was
teaching at Buffalo in the 1970's. He said he had noticed
that students were suddenly saying that they believed in
astrology, U.F.O.'s and other mystical systems. In 1973 he
published "The Humanist Manifesto II." It set forth his
philosophy of pragmatic skepticism, which he saw as a
continuation of John Dewey's philosophy of pragmatism.

Today one of Mr. Kurtz's biggest challenges, in addition to
the proliferation of people talking to the dead in movies
and on television, is Islam. "Islam is a great religion, a
great culture," he said. "It contributed to the
preservation of science in the 8th, 9th and 10th
centuries." But there is a need for a scientific analysis
of Islam's claims, such as the belief of some Muslims that
religious martyrs are greeted by 72 virgins in Paradise.

"There is a rich tradition of inquiry into Islam dating
back to the 19th-century French and German scholarly
critiques," Mr. Kurtz said. "There are many versions of the
Koran. We don't know if we have the authentic one. Muhammad
never wrote anything down. Some of it was written 150 years
later." As in the Bible, the prophet's words in the Koran
and the Hadith, his collected sayings, were recorded by
followers.

"Islam desperately needs a Protestant-like Reformation," he
continued. The Islamic system is the product of "a nomadic,
agrarian society, pre-modern and pre-urban, which they are
trying to apply to the contemporary world."

Mr. Kurtz is well aware of the dangers of criticizing
Islam. "Anything critical of Islam, you can get a fatwa,"
he said. But no matter, he said. "My main interest is
defending humanism as an alternative morality, of happiness
here and now, of autonomy and individual freedom and
dignity, and of the value of the exuberance of this life."

He concluded, "Islam and Judaism and Christianity are
false."






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