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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
Paul Kurtz (1925–2012 CE)
by Ed Buckner
Paul Kurtz was an incredible man: brilliant, creative, and energetic well into his declining years. He accomplished far more than any ordinary man (see obituaries in the New York Times(easily his favorite newspaper)
and in the Washington Post
for a good summary of the breadth and depth of what he accomplished and to learn of the numerous organizations he set in motion that are continuing to contribute to improved odds for progress, happiness, and even survival for our species. I did not know Kurtz nearly as well as others, but I did know him for a dozen years and worked for him for about three, and I want to write of him from my personal knowledge rather than try to compete with the fine accounts of his life given in the press.
He was by all accounts imperfect, but this is not the place and there will likely never again be a good time to go into all that. Suffice it to say that sometimes it can be ambiguous whether a decision demonstrates obsessive control tendencies or a remarkable attention to detail; that disagreements that seem at the time to be crucially rooted in important philosophical matters can, with perspective, be interpreted as merely differences about strategy. But however important the flaws of Paul Kurtz, the sweeping, deep, great good of the man easily outweighed them.
Those of us fortunate to spend time with him knew that he practiced what he preached in very important ways. His coinage of the word eupraxophy seems destined to fail as an enduring philosophical label, but what it referred to he embraced. He did practice the good life, with exuberance, joy, and personal generosity. He relished life, worked long and hard with great passion, enjoyed good food, good conversation, telling stories, and educating, stirring people up. He adored Buffalo and the Buffalo Bills and tried to attend as many of their pro football games, in Buffalo or on the road, as he could. He was corny and relished that, too. Only Paul Kurtz could offer up a lame line and declare that doing so made him a sexual humorist instead of a secular humanist. Only he could convulse a Sunday morning meeting of secular humanists, expecting perhaps a dry disquisition on the importance of emotion, with a tale of what his passion for the Buffalo Bills led him to shouting at a Miami Dolphins football game—in Miami (amazing himself at the time). Only Kurtz could give you (more than once) a line about his support for, not compassionate death with dignity, but for the “youth in Asia.”
He was not a modest man—it was he who assured me that he was “an entrepreneurial genius” (a comment that would have been laughable in a lesser man but verged on understatement for him). But no one who knew him—friend or enemy—could reasonably have thought that he should have been modest. (See those newspaper obituaries if you’re in doubt.)
He felt deep compassion for the poor and the suffering, and not just for those hurt or destroyed by religion, much as that enraged him. He let his compassion infuse his political and personal ideas. I saw him, more than a few times, reach into his pocket and hand an apparently miserable street person some folding money. He was certainly wise enough, skeptical enough, to know that some of these recipients may, in some sense, not have deserved his handout. But he was unwilling to take the chance that the pitiable person before him might in fact greatly need a small bit of help. Paul bought innumerable meals for people who were with him when it was time to eat and drink. When I served as executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism (one of those fine organizations he created), many was the time that someone said or at least implied that Kurtz was getting rich off his organizations. I knew better, knew that he never drew a salary, despite long hours devoted to the Council, often under-claimed reimbursement for his travel, and that he gave, frequently and generously, to support it. (I was in charge of writing the thank you letters, or I might not have known this, for he refused most public recognition of his financial support.)
When I invited him to speak to an American Atheist conference (in his native Newark, NJ), I wasn’t sure he’d accept. I knew that he had known Madalyn Murray O’Hair and had worked with her on at least one board, but I also knew—from him (I never knew her)—that their relationship had soured before she was murdered. But not only did he accept, he gave American Atheists a generous contribution—and a well-received and stimulating (not all his listeners were equally happy about what he said) talk.
He was unfailingly gracious, courtly in fact, to my wife and son, as was his wife, Claudine, his daughter Annie, and his son Jonathan, and I know this was true for many others he knew. I loved the man and I miss him. Humanity needs him still; fortunately his writings and those many organizations he started will help.