Paul Kurtz, a philosopher and writer who advocated secular humanism over religion as a path to a productive, moral life, died Saturday in his Amherst home. He was 86.
Mr. Kurtz was known in Western New York primarily as a professor at the University at Buffalo and as founder and longtime CEO of the Center for Inquiry, an Amherst-based think tank that promotes skepticism and humanism.
Internationally, Mr. Kurtz was a towering figure in the humanist movement, relentlessly promoting the belief that morality should be rooted in human flourishing and happiness, not in supernatural revelation.
“He simply wanted to improve the human condition. He meant that on a grand scale and on a small scale. He just cared about people,” said his son, Jonathan.
While Mr. Kurtz surely could be critical of religion, he didn’t seek to antagonize people of faith. His son said that “he wanted to offer an alternative to religion and let people know you can live a full life, an ethical life, a moral life, with meaning and purpose, without being told to do so.”
Mr. Kurtz was the author or editor of more than 50 books, and he recently completed “The Turbulent Universe,” due to be published in March by Prometheus Books, the publishing company he launched in 1969.
Although trained in philosophy, Mr. Kurtz was well-versed in any manner of subjects and intellectually curious about everything. He used his vast knowledge and enthusiasm to bring together artists, writers, scientists, entertainers and others for lively discussions on issues of the day.
“He never approached anything from the perspective of just one discipline,” said Richard Schroeder, a member of the Center for Inquiry board of directors.
Mr. Kurtz persuaded the likes of comedian Steve Allen, astronomer Carl Sagan and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, among other notables, to participate in center forums. “He brought them together to promote this ideal of a new Enlightenment that involved rational thinking,” said Schroeder.
Born in 1925 in Newark, N.J., he enrolled briefly at Washington Square College of New York University before leaving to enlist in the Army at age 17. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and entered concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald shortly after they were liberated – an experience that stayed with him.
He resumed his studies at New York University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1948 and a doctorate from Columbia University in 1952. From 1952 to 1965, he taught at Trinity College, Vassar College and Union College and spent time as a visiting lecturer at the New School for Social Research.
He was a philosophy professor at UB from 1965 until his retirement in 1991. Mr. Kurtz founded Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 1976 to counter anti-science attitudes in society, such as belief in astrology and claims of Bigfoot sightings and faith healing. Four years later, in response to the Moral Majority’s heavy attacks on secular humanism, he started Free Inquiry magazine. Mr. Kurtz had a falling out with the Center for Inquiry in 2010 – prompting him to establish a new nonprofit, the Institute for Science and Human Values.
His books were translated into dozens of languages, making him a recognizable name around the globe.
In addition to his son, Mr. Kurtz is survived by his wife, Claudine, and three daughters, Valerie Fehrenback, Patricia and Anne. A public celebration of his life will be scheduled.
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