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Praise for Obama’s Science choices December 31, 2008

Posted by Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy in Annoucements, Commentary.
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The Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy is devoted to science and reason as the basis of public policy. We were delighted by President-Elect Obama’s choice of a science team, both in his cabinet and the higher reaches of his administration.The Office of Public Policy sent this letter to the Obama transition team congratulating the president-elect on his choices.

Dear President-elect Obama:

The Center for Inquiry/Office of Public Policy, which was created to further the application of science and reasoned dialogue to science-based public policies, commends you on your excellent choices for high-level executive positions in science-based areas. Drs. Steven Chu, John P. Holdren, and Jane Lubchenco will form a powerful team to face the combined challenges of providing adequate energy for the nation and minimizing the clear threat of global warming to the world’s climate.

Dr. Steven Chu, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997, is dedicated to your stated policy of addressing the global warming problem. Dr Chu’s current position as Director of the Berkeley Lawrence National Laboratory, where he supervised eleven other Nobel laureates, has led to an aggressive program to both improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases. Dr. Chu is the ideal person to counter the questionable arguments of the carefully assembled group of global warming skeptics, a large number of whom are not climate scientists and many of whom exhibit little understanding of the problem.

In his efforts to provide the nation with a sensible program for providing relatively clean energy while reducing carbon dioxide emissions, Dr. Chu will be supported in the Obama administration by an excellent group of experienced professionals. You have selected Harvard physicist John Holdren for the position of presidential science advisor. As chairman of the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, Holdren in 2007 oversaw the AAAS Board’s first statement on global warming, in which it is recommended that the nation “muster the political will for concerted action.” The science team includes marine biologist Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Both Holdren and Lubchenco have encouraged scientists to play a more active role in science-related policy discussions. Lubchenco in particular founded the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program to teach scientists how to participate in public policy debates.

We would like to point out that addressing the combined energy-climate change issues will be further advanced by Representative Henry Waxman, designated to become the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. As current chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Waxman has already established his credentials as a strong supporter of action on global warming by taking to task the Bush administration appointees who tried to muzzle climate scientist James Hansen.

We look forward to active government under this administration, and stand ready to support the kind of strong science-based program we believe your chosen leadership will produce.



Radio program: Because Equality Does Matter December 31, 2008

Posted by Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy in Annoucements.
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This is the link to hear the radio address given in Florida by Toni Van Pelt, director of the CFI Office of Public Policy on December 2. Toni spoke as a guest on the program Women Matters, broadcast on Tuesdays by WSLR 96.5 LPFM in Sarasota FL.
She will be speaking in Florida–in person–on Monday January 5 in Orlando. See the post earlier on this blog for details.

Paul Kurtz, CFI’s Inspiring Leader December 2, 2008

Posted by Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy in Commentary.
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Many of you who read this blog know that it ‘s about the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and especially about the Office of Public Policy (OPP).  But you may not know about Paul Kurtz, the founder and leader of CFI.  Recently, Derek Araujo, executive director of CFI/New York City, introduced Dr. Kurtz and in the course of his introduction, gave a brief summary of his life and work.  We present it here with pride.

Paul Kurtz: An Introduction*

by Derek Araujo,

Executive Director, CfI/New York City


All of us in this room, and most particularly those who know him well, have grown to admire and respect Paul Kurtz — for his towering intellect, for his inspiring leadership, and for his love of all that is good in humanity. But while none of us needs reminding that we are in the presence of a truly remarkable man, some of us might benefit from being reminded of the astonishing number of ways in which he is remarkable.

Before taking his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, Paul served among the brave young men who helped liberate Europe from the bonds of Nazi fascism. Having participated in the Battle of the Bulge, he disproved conclusively and for all time the old canard that there are no nonbelievers in foxholes. Paul witnessed the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps after they were liberated, and saw firsthand the evils of Communism when he encountered Russian slave laborers who had been taken to Nazi Germany by force, but refused to return to the Soviet Union at the end of the war. And as he himself has told us, these experiences had a formative influence on his worldview.

Upon returning to the United States, he took his doctorate, as I said earlier, at Columbia University. He then embarked on a brilliant career in the academy that yielded appointments at some of the finest institutions of higher learning in the country, and scores of books and countless articles that have touched lives and inspired minds across the entire globe. But in the course of his brilliant career, let us not forget that he made the conscious and deliberate choice to do what would be unthinkable to most of his fellow philosophers and academic peers. Paul Kurtz made the courageous decision to join the extraordinary company of the likes of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, by forsaking technical philosophy in favor of by giving his fellow men and women practical advice about how to live better lives, and how to build a better future for our common humanity.

From then on, his life has been a constant and stirring example of standing courageously against the tides of superstition, anti-science, and religious dogma. Many of us remember a time when that struggle seemed hopeless, and when voices of reason sounded like cries in the wilderness. We all have Paul Kurtz to thank for helping to turn that tide.

When widespread paranormalism, psychic frauds, and the hucksters of so-called alternative medicine threatened our intellectual well being and our health and safety, he established CSICOP, now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, to seek truth and proclaim it loudly over the din some voices of irrationalism. When the Religious Right threatened to demolish the wall of separation between church and state and to overwhelm our politics and our public discourse, Paul Kurtz established the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the only publication in broad circulation that dares to question the malicious influence of religious dogma on public policy and human affairs. When traditional, profit-driven book publishers refused to publish authors that criticized religion or spoke for reason, he founded his own publishing house, Prometheus Press, still the only major publishing house of its kind. And when everyone said that growing an international movement to promote Enlightenment values and humanist communities just couldn’t be done, Paul Kurtz spearheaded the Center for Inquiry movement, which now counts representatives on five continents and in dozens of cities and communities, and continues to flourish and grow every year.

In brief, Paul Kurtz is a man of extraordinary talent and singular vision. We count ourselves lucky to know him, and hope for our sake that we will have the benefit of his wisdom, his courage, and his guidance for many years to come. Paul Kurtz, thank you.

* Delivered at the 10th Anniversary of CFI Community of Long Island on November 21, 2008

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Paul Kurtz on Morality Without Religion December 2, 2008

Posted by Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy in Uncategorized.
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Guest Voices


Belief in God Essential for Moral Virtue?

A growing sector of world civilization is secular; that is, it emphasizes worldly rather than religious values. This is especially true of Europe, which is widely considered post-religious and post-Christian (with a small Islamic minority). Secularist winds are also blowing strong in Asia, notably in Japan and China. The United States has been an anomaly in this regard, for it has suffered a long dark night in which evangelical fundamentalism has overshadowed the public square, with its insistence that belief in God is essential for moral virtue. This is now changing and secularism is gaining ground.

The “new atheists” have attempted to balance the scales, for religious dissent until now has been largely muffled. They have appealed to science to criticize the unexamined claims of religion. This has shocked conservative religionists, who respond that atheists are “too negative.” Perhaps, but this overlooks the fact that there are varieties of unbelief and that secular humanists (the bete noire of fundamentalists during the Reagan years) define their outlook affirmatively in the light of positive ethical values, not by what they are against but what they are for.

Secular humanists are generally nonreligious, yet they are also good citizens, loving parents and decent people. They look to science, the secular arts and literature for their inspiration, not religion. They point out that religious belief is no guarantee of moral probity, that horrendous crimes have been committed in the name of God, and that religionists often disagree vehemently about concrete moral judgments (such as euthanasia, the rights of women, abortion, homosexuality, war and peace).

The ethics of secular humanism traces its roots back to the beginnings of Western civilization in Greece and Rome, through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the scientific and democratic revolutions of the modern world. Secular humanists today affirm that every person should be considered equal in dignity and value and that human freedom is precious. The civic virtues of democracy are essentially humanist, for they emphasize tolerance of the wide diversity of beliefs and lifestyles, and they are committed to defending human rights.

But, “how can you be ethical if you do not believe in God?” protests the believer. Perhaps such a person should enroll in an elementary course in ethics, where there is a rich philosophical literature dealing with this question. The good is usually defined as “happiness” though there are differences between the eudemonistic, emphasizing enriched self-development, and the hedonistic, particularly American, brand of intemperate consumption. Perhaps a harmonious integration of the two theories can be achieved. I would call it rational exuberance. Philosophers have emphasized the importance of self-restraint, temperance, rational prudence, a life in which satisfaction, excellence, and the creative fulfillment of a person’s talents is achieved. It does not mean that “anything goes.” Humanist ethics focuses on the good life here and now.

Secularists recognize the centrality of self-interest. Every individual needs to be concerned with his or her own health, well-being, and career. But self-interest can be enlightened. This involves recognition that we have responsibilities to others. There are principles of right and wrong that we should live by. No doubt there are differences about many moral issues. Often there may be difficulties in achieving a consensus. Negotiation and compromise are essential in a pluralistic society.

However, there is now substantial evidence drawn from evolutionary biology that humans possess a moral sense (see Marc Hauser, Steven Pinker, and David Sloan Wilson). Morality has its roots in group survival; the moral practices that evolved enabled tribes or clans to survive and function. This means that human beings are potentially moral. Whether or not this moral sense develops depends on social and environmental conditions. Some individuals may never fully develop morally–they may be morally handicapped, even sociopaths. That is one reason why society needs to enact laws to protect itself.

There is also of course cultural relativity, but there are, I submit, also a set of common moral decencies that cut across cultures–such as being truthful, honest, keeping promises, being dependable and responsible, avoiding cruelty, etc., and these in time become widely recognized as binding. Herein lie the roots of empathy and caring for other human and sentient beings. Such behavior needs to be nourished in the young by means of moral education. In any case, human beings are capable of both self-interested and altruistic behavior in varying degrees.

Secular humanists wish to test ethical principles in the light of their consequences, and they advise the use of rational inquiry to frame moral judgments. They also appreciate the fact that some principles are so important that they should not be easily sacrificed to achieve one’s ends.

To say that a person is moral only if he or she obeys God’s commandments–out of fear or love or God or a desire for salvation–is hardly adequate. Ethical principles need to be internalized, rooted in reason and compassion. The ethics of secularism is autonomous, in the sense that it need not be derived from theological grounds. Secular humanists are interested in enhancing the good life both for the individual and society.

Today, a new imperative has emerged: an awareness that our ethical concerns should extend to all members of the global community. This points to a new planetary ethics transcending the ancient religious, ethnic, racial, and national enmities of the past. It is an ethic that recognizes our common interests and needs as part of an interdependent world.

Professor Paul Kurtz is the chairman and founder of the Center for Inquiry-Transnational, Editor-in-Chief of FREE INQUIRY magazine, and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. For 40 years, Kurtz has remained the leading organizational and intellectual figure in the humanist and skeptical movement. His new book, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism is published by Prometheus Books.