I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of American philosopher Paul Kurtz, the father of secular humanism, on October 20, 2012. Kurtz was my friend and mentor. I came to know him when I was a seminarian in the 1990s. A colleague of mine used to receive copies of his magazine, Free Inquiry, and other publications. I found Kurtz’s thoughts and writings to be quite fascinating. His publications and initiatives inspired me to found the Nigerian Humanist Movement in 1996. I formally contacted Kurtz in 1997, as I was building local and international partnerships with likeminded groups. Since then, we, partners, have been in touch working together to promote humanism, skepticism and free-thought in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
I saw Paul Kurtz for the first time in 1999 at the World Humanist Congress in Mumbai, India. In spite of his very busy schedule, he created time to discuss the situation of humanism in Africa with me. At the end of our talk, he encouraged me by quoting a philosopher who said: “Whatever is difficult is important.” I have always drawn strength from this maxim, particularly in the following years, as I have grappled with growing the humanist movement in the region.
In 2001, Paul Kurtz, through his Council for Secular Humanism, sponsored the first international humanist conference in Sub-Saharan Africa, of which I was the main organizer. He later established the Center for Inquiry (CFI) in Nigeria, the first in Sub-Saharan Africa, which I directed until 2010.
Like every other human being, Kurtz had his shortcomings. However, I found him to be an extraordinary humanist leader. Paul Kurtz was unique in his approach, and he played a key role in transforming the humanist movement around the globe. He was such a pragmatic fellow, and he was ready to test and try new ideas and ways of organizing.
Paul was a great visionary and motivator. I enjoyed working with him because he gave me the opportunity to test and try my own ideas and initiatives for organizing humanism. He never imposed his own organizational ideas on me. This is one of the reasons why, under his leadership, CFI established contacts, centers and a presence in many countries, in Africa for example, where contacts were unknown and unthinkable. In Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Senegal, Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Egypt, South Africa, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Swaziland, etc., I have encountered humanists and skeptics who were inspired by the thoughts and writings of Paul Kurtz. My African free-thought activists were emboldened by the initiatives at the Center for Inquiry.
I hope the contemporary humanist and free-thought movement could learn or draw insights from his success stories and best practices. We humanists and skeptics in Africa will miss him a lot. However, we will continue to draw strength and inspiration from Kurtz’s writings and publications, from the institutions he founded, and other legacies he left behind for humanists/skeptics, and for humanity at large.
Adieu, Paul Kurtz.
Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement.