Paul Kurtz: The Local Leader Who Happens to Be an Atheist

Ask yourself: What's the best way you can promote atheism in your community or on your campus?

Do you want to gain attention through polarizing attacks at your blog or in public statements, alienating even your moderately religious neighbors? Or do you want to be known as the community builder and leader who happens to also be an atheist?

The latter is a strategy for promoting atheism at the local and national level that I discussed in a previous episode of the Point of Inquiry podcast. I am reminded of that strategy by an article that appeared recently in the Buffalo News.

The article features a Q&A interview with University at Buffalo philosopher Paul Kurtz, who has lived and worked in Buffalo since 1966 and who has been a leading local businessman through his founding of the Center for Inquiry-International and Prometheus Books.

I grew up in Buffalo and worked for Kurtz at CFI for three years before graduate school. As a result I have first hand knowledge of the admiration that Kurtz has earned in a city that ranks as one of the most religious in the country.

While Kurtz has always been a respectful critic of religion, he has also been a brilliantly successful community leader. He has brought international attention and acclaim to the University of Buffalo, has built two thriving businesses that employ more than a hundred local citizens from a diversity of faiths, and he has mentored hundreds of young people as a professor and boss. In fact, I count Kurtz as one of my most influential mentors, and as someone who inspired me to go to graduate school to study the intersection of science, media, and politics.

Now notice the train of thought for readers in the Buffalo News article. The focus is on Kurtz as a community leader, someone who is dedicated to Buffalo and its people, and who has been successful locally and internationally. A secondary message is that he is a critic of faith but that he also stands for something else: living life to the fullest in an ethical manner. If every local newspaper in the country were to run a profile of a local atheist, the movement couldn't ask for better publicity than this type of message.

UPDATE: I've moved to the moderation version of Movable Type. I've had a comment policy in place for more than a year and I rarely enforce it, but a few commenters have forced me to apply the editorial policy. For more, see this post.