Paul KurtzThere are few figures in the history of organised humanism likely to evoke such strong emotions as Paul Kurtz. An unabashed empire builder who came to believe reason could be bottled and sold as Parnassus Dew through his "centres for inquiry" in the US and abroad, Kurtz at the age of 84 was dismissed by his handpicked board of directors on 2 June after a bitter battle for control of the organisation he founded in the 1980s.

Like many events that seem cataclysmic only because there is so little at stake - in this case, neither treasure nor ideas - Kurtz's sacking by an exasperated board will not be news outside the small humanist community he established. In real terms, it is the corporate equivalent of a daughter taking grandpa's keys away.

Reactions will be mixed. The young Kurtz was a humanist lion who had embraced a leftist form of Deweyism as a Columbia graduate student of Sidney Hook. Never an intellectual giant nor much known beyond the Jewish leftist circles of Manhattan, Hook was a "typical" socialist intellectual, hired by New York University just out of graduate school. It became his perch for the rest of his career, with 20 years spent as head of its philosophy department. A Marxist early on and an enthusiastic champion of Soviet-style communism, Hook's biography became a story of disillusionment with all forms of totalitarianism and a press toward conservatism, especially in intellectual matters. He became a fellow of the Hoover Institution in later life and a critic of the New Left.

Kurtz's intellectual biography was shaped by Hook's idealism, and he became an idealist himself, if not precisely in the philosophical sense. Yet the pragmatic strain was always secondary. The search for lasting or "normative" models of behaviour appealing to a generation appalled and disgusted by the rival totalising imperatives of Communism and National Socialism was foremost. Kurtz, like Dewey and the mature Hook, saw democracy as a tonic for the world's ills. It was one of their failures that they ignored history to a large extent and hence the complexity that makes democracy, as an export, unsuited to whole nations and cultures.

Like many small-"p" pragmatists, Kurtz thought history was bunk but compensated for this deficiency by focusing almost entirely on the present, and the wide open future. He was not a scientist, but he found science a way of "affirming" and demythologising a world made (he thought) sick by religion. His idol was the Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan - the smart guy who could speak science to a wide audience and make himself understood. He developed a similar affection for the comedian Steve Allen, whose PBS series Meeting of Minds he regarded as the pinnacle of educationally rich programming.

It is the nature of an idealist to risk disappointment. While Paul Kurtz praised exuberance and the importance of a positive world view to replace the dour religious legacy of the Dark Ages, his whole project was based on the insatiable hunger of human beings for the unexplained, the mysterious and the merely bogus. By 1980 he had tapped into the then trendy fascination with the paranormal - Big Foot, Roswell, Nancy Reagan astrology, Amityville - and founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, known by a totally meaningless acronym, CSICOP, and its journal, Skeptical Inquirer. On the humanist side, he established the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism and its journal Free Inquiry. Both managed to survive the vicissitudes of print media and ageing readerships, but their days, like the trends that brought them into being, were clearly numbered. Kurtz sensed this as he began to withdraw from the "intellectual" side of his organisation to focus more and more on sheer growth.

Kurtz thought he had discovered a way around, or perhaps above, disappointment in the movement he called "secular humanism". This was not the soft humanism of the intellectually uncomfortable but an active, largely atheistic and stubbornly American version of humanism that placed science and reason - words that became definitive for his cause - at the centre of humanist discussion. Many found it abrasive and out of step with the kinder, gentler humanism that ethical culturalists and Unitarians tried to purvey. But Kurtz was never an inclusivist: humanism was secular or it was undeserving of the name. He made enemies far more easily than he made friends.

Kurtz was as tireless in the promotion of his brand of secularism as America was unready for its promulgation. He was reticent, often inarticulate, artless, rude, charismatic - but above all a self-promoter. He founded the publishing house Prometheus Books on borrowed money in the late '60s, modelled on the British Pemberton Books, an imprint of the revered and unprofitable Rationalist Press Association (the original publishers of New Humanist). Kurtz began by printing inexpensive copies of titles from the RPA in order to grow his new house. After years of operating on a shoestring, and still considered a niche publishing house, Prometheus was a fixture in the publication of humanist titles, critiques of the paranormal, and books critical of religious fundamentalism and religion in general. Many of the titles were by unknown writers; the press could not count on sales generated by a stable of names. It was considered a blow to the movement and to Kurtz personally that when a spate of atheist titles by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens became bestsellers, Prometheus books had published none of them.

One of Ralph Waldo Emerson's friends, William Furness, once complained that while Emerson wrote on a variety of subjects, he could write "only one book - the one I write over and over". The same can be said of Paul Kurtz, without meaning any particular harm. He was prolific in the way only a man with a single message can be, authoring humanist "manifestos" - and always much addicted to various sorts of "declarations" and "statements" whose closest literary cousins are Papal bulls. His 40 books are largely accessible to a popular audience, and while not lacking in depth are not prolific in insight. His appeal was always to the village atheists, the town sceptics, the debunkers and grumps of small-town America. His local heroes were men like Robert Ingersoll and Joseph McCabe, common sense unbelievers. He wrestled with other philosophies - especially with writers like Richard Rorty - and rejected postmodernism as a form of mystification. His commitment to common sense, revealed in a charming and sometimes irritating bluffness, often left him at a loss for words in academic discussion or when challenged. He soldiered on.

Toward the end of his career, Paul Kurtz left both philosophy and humanism behind him and focused on his legacy. The ideologically confused opposition to religious fundamentalism that had driven secular humanism through much of his career was finding fewer targets. Not only was Christianity not going away, it was proving remarkably able to adapt - better even than social theorists like Peter Berger had prophesied. The idea that the world was "going" secular had failed to take into account religion's unique ability to go humanistic. What was left to attack was the yahoos and nut cases who hardly required the resources of a New Enlightenment (Kurtz's final attempt to define what it was secular humanism represented) to make them look foolish. His attraction to popular scepticism, a thing of the '80s, or before, faded as Hollywood special effects explained everything. His interest in the two magazines that stood at the center of his world, Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer, waned in concert with loss of readership and the dawn of cheap information on the internet.

Secular humanism by the millennium had become a movement that needed to create enemies to stay in business. But as a succession of intellectually formidable books (none read) was showing, the country was changing rapidly - such that its religious temperature on any given day was a matter of opinion polls. He had become isolated, the only intellectual within the movement he had built around himself, and the Center for Inquiry itself became quaint, curious and ineffective - a small ship tossed in a sea of change. The boy stood on the burning deck.

Kurtz had a remarkable ability for convincing his auxiliaries that his Center for Inquiry was destined for greatness, that other humanist organisations were financial failures (especially his old nemesis the American Humanist Association), and that what was needed was not a new message but places to preach the old one. By 1999 he had become convinced by some of his younger acolytes that real estate in Los Angeles and other cities was the way to go. Rooms were rented and the blue CFI logo began to appear in cities from Chicago to Miami, along with a series of "executive directors" charged with building resources and programmes. Pins were stuck in a boardroom map (and displayed proudly to guests) of "CFI" locations - transnationally, resembling nothing so much as a Starbuck's planning session, but without real coffee. The centres ranged from rented space to real space, but each came at a cost. Few could be programmed, and each became more and more detached from the old lion's purview and care. On impatient days - more of them after he hit 80 - he expected it all to be in place before he died. On other days, the bad ones, he slumped in his chair and looked at bills.

As we watch corporate giants like GM and Chrysler submit themselves to the humiliation of bankruptcy, the fate of one small organisation in Buffalo, New York, and one man's dream of "rational ethical alternatives" to religion does not look significant. But if I may, knowing this organisation better than most, having worked inside and outside it for 25 years, I would like to say this: it is not always the story we want to write that teaches us the lessons we need to learn. The story of Paul Kurtz when it is finally written - and not by me - will reveal a man of stunning complexity and simplicity, generosity and rancour, understanding and dark suspicion. Having given up on his recipe for the good life (or eupraxsophy as he once tried to market it) years ago, I have still learned a great deal from his life and his wars. Unsurprisingly, that life is an almost perfect contrast to the ethical principles he tried to package and distribute through his centres. It reminds us that just as we smirk at a Ted Haggard for his hypocritical views on gay sex, we also have no right to expect a higher standard from the humanist.

Alas, many humanists still live under the spell that once they move beyond religion, they have become moral. This biography suggests otherwise. But it is not a finding of Shakespearean depth: more like the Wizard, caught out when Toto reveals him for what he is, saying "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." Ordinary people are made no bigger through magnification. It's a good lesson, but not one we'd wish for ourselves.

This article first appeared on R Joseph Hoffman's blog, 2 June 2009

Further reading

Read Bill Cooke's response to R Joseph Hoffman Hatchet Job

CFI press release: Leadership changes announced by the Center for Inquiry

Portland Skepticism Examiner: Leading Skeptic Paul Kurtz 'not ousted' says Center for Inquiry CEO

Friendly Atheist blog: Paul Kurtz answers back

Friendly Atheist blog: Paul Kurtz responds to R Joseph Hoffman