Paul Kurtz: In Contrast to the New Atheists, We Must Emphasize Shared Values with the Moderately Religious

Philosopher Paul Kurtz has been an influential mentor to me and he remains a major inspiration. Back in 1997, Kurtz hired me to work at the Center for Inquiry-Transnational as Skeptical Inquirer's media relations director. Three years later he strongly supported my decision to go to graduate school.

In my time at CFI, I learned from Kurtz the importance of framing messages in ways that affirm shared common values and that go beyond just attacks. When I arrived at graduate school, I began to research how to turn Kurtz's philosophy and practice into a systematic approach to public engagement. To this day, his thinking informs my work.

Kurtz has always been a major critic of the most extreme versions of religion. Yet, he has also maintained that criticism must never compete with the need to work together with moderately religious publics, emphasizing shared goals, dialogue, and trust.

As he notes, most of his writings have been in the area of this positive message, rather than focused on negative attacks. What Kurtz advocates is a critical mind but an even more tender heart.

Compared to the New Atheists, Kurtz stands as a candle in the dark. Indeed, it has been Kurtz's three decade focus on an affirmative and inclusive message that has made his organization one of the central catalysts behind the modern day secularist movement.

This past weekend, Kurtz was interviewed by host DJ Grothe on the popular Point of Inquiry podcast. Below I have tried to reproduce as best I can a rough transcript of some of the key points made by Kurtz in the interview.

To sum up, Kurtz repeatedly emphasizes that it is wrong to draw a line in the sand between the godless and the religious. Instead secularists desperately need to reach out to moderately religious allies on pressing issues such as poverty and the environment. As we do at Science, he names EO Wilson as a shining example of such efforts.

Moreover, he strongly rejects the arguments advanced by Hitchens and Harris that the moderately religious are just as deserving of attacks as extremists.

I can only offer excerpts from the interview since the transcription takes some time. I encourage all readers to download and listen to the full podcast after reading these excerpts.

GROTHE: ...I take it that you wonder how effective evangelical atheists are if all they are talking about is atheism?

KURTZ: I think they have had a positive impact, and I know most of the leaders, and they publish in Free they have had positive impact, of course they are criticizing religion.

However, that is not enough. One has to go beyond that! You can't talk about abstract atheism, or merely a negative attitude. It is what you are for that counts, not what you are against! So I think on that point, one must affirm a positive humanist morality.

The interview later continues...

GROTHE: Do you think these New Atheists... have they gotten a bad rap by the press....?

KURTZ: Yes well they have had adverse criticism in some areas and important impact on others. And the adverse criticism relates to a distinction that we do at the Center for Inquiry.

We are not anti-religious, we are non-religious. We criticize religion, but we don't simply blame everything on the religions of the world. I mean that will get us nowhere.

So we live in a secular modern society with great opportunities, and we want to talk about that, not any kind of poisonous attitude about religion.

GROTHE: So humanism, secular humanism, especially the kind that the Center for Inquiry advances, it's not just the rejection of religion, it's advancing a set of humane values based on reason. In that way there is not a whole lot of difference between you Paul Kurtz and some liberal religionists at least when it comes to ethics.

KURTZ: Well I think we have a lot in common with the liberal denominations. As a matter of fact DJ, if we look at contemporary modern society, a large sector of people agree fully with our agenda...

Kurtz then goes on to say, for example, that many liberal denominations affirm the human dignity and individual choice of gays and bisexuals. Humanism, he says, means tolerance for alternative lifestyles.

GROTHE: And you are saying that the secular humanist values that we adopt, that we advance, we should engage our liberal religionist colleagues in pushing for this kind of tolerance?

KURTZ: Of course, you know, America is a great liberal pluralistic democracy and we have common ground not only with liberal religionists but even conservative people who believe in human freedom. So we need to make, if you will, coalitions, we need to work together with others to make this a greater democracy. We need a kind of unity, if possible, about the basic framework of this country.

GROTHE: And I take it if some of these people decrying God belief, as true as you think they are, you are saying that they limit coalitions. That they turn off people who might be able to work with us around certain issues of concern?

KURTZ: I think that is true, so we have to put another step forward. But I think I should point out that we have been attacked, very much so, people have condemned us and blamed us, for all the ills of America. But I think we really go beyond that, if we can, and I think we can. For example, and on this point, EO Wilson has led the way, and he is a secular humanist.

GROTHE: In terms of environmentalism, he has reached out to people that secularists would not normally be in coalition with.

KURTZ: Yes.. in his book The Creation, he says, look the planet earth, that we love, our abode, we all share that habitat, and we have to work together, how can we not do so. So that is building, finding common values in that which we can stand. Improving the environment is part of that.


GROTHE: Let's get back to the liberal religious. You have been more interested I think lately in reaching out to the liberal religious. Not just drawing a line in the sand and saying if you believe in the supernatural, you are my enemy. You're not fighting that fight. We need to reach out to more liberal religious allies on issues of concern. Number one, how do we reach out to them and tell me what some of these issues are.

Kurtz replies in detail, naming poverty and the basic principle of democracy and human rights. He also names environmentalism and climate change as issues where collaboration between the religious and non-religious are absolutely necessary.

GROTHE: What about the critics that say that the liberal religious are part of the problem, that they give room for fundamentalists to grow?....They make it harder for reason and science to prevail against the cults of unreason?

KURTZ: I realize that many people have said that. Hitchens says that religion poisons everything. Well some religions have poisoned many things. And Harris says that we need to attack the liberal religionists at the same time. And I think many of the religionists overlook these problems.

But nevertheless, I think that [liberal religionists] are well meaning, good natured, honest, moral people in the churches, and they want to enter into the modern scientific world. So it is the scientific extremes of religion that need to be attacked.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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