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A Tribute to Steve Allen

By Dr. Paul Kurtz

With the death of Steve Allen, American culture has lost a unique Leonardo, an exceptional man of thought and action - and the humanist and skeptical movements in particular have suffered the grievous loss of an heroic supporter.

Steve Allen's talents were many-dimensional. He has been heralded by the entertainment industry as a gifted raconteur, comedian, performer, television pioneer, author of songs, plays, short stories, and novels, among other achievements.

But Steve Allen had a serious side that has been largely overlooked in the many commentaries and obituaries following his death. He was a man deeply interested in ideas, and he stands out as one of the few intellectuals who could survive in the mass media - he occupied a paradoxical position, for show business is too often fixated on the glitz and glamour of the passing parade of celebrities. Although Steve Allen was highly regarded by the entertainment industry for his many creative attainments as a performer, he was possessed of a keen inquiring mind and deep humanitarian impulses. Indeed, those who knew him appreciated the encyclopedic range of his interests. Steve Allen was willing to defend often unpopular causes - he was a consistent liberal in politics, a humanist and skeptic in religion, an exponent of rationality, and a severe critic of raunch in TV and radio. This latter position provoked criticism from his liberal friends because he seemed to have allied himself with conservatives. He was a courageous man, willing to defend causes that he thought worthwhile.

His award-winning TV series Meeting of Minds that he wrote and produced in cooperation with Jayne Meadows, his wife, stands out in sharp contrast with the mundane wasteland of TV fare. This series pitted Socrates, Marie Antoinette, Sir Thomas More, Tom Paine, Karl Marx, Attila the Hun, Emily Dickinson, Galileo, Charles Darwin, and other historical figures in dialogue and disputation. The nation's television critics lauded its script as "the best TV writing of 1976-1977" (along with James Costigan's Eleanor and Franklin). When efforts were made in the late 80s by Prometheus Books (which had published four volumes of the scripts of Meeting of Minds) to relaunch the series, it was difficult to find syndicators, because many in the television industry felt that series was "too thoughtful" for the American public - a sad commentary on the decline of taste and intelligence.

My own acquaintance with Steve Allen goes back thirty years, when I first met him at a humanist awards ceremony at the Los Angeles Sheraton Hotel. I was chairman and he was MC. We were tendering an Arts Award to Norman Lear in recognition of his contributions to television. (My cousin Louise Lasser later was the star of Lear's series, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.) Steve was witty and eloquent as usual. Sitting next to me on the dais, he confided that he had spent an inordinate amount of time in hotel rooms as he traveled about lecturing and entertaining, and that he took up reading the Bible and was surprised, indeed appalled, by many of its passages. And so he began to write critical commentaries.

I urged him to consider publication, and he replied, "No, not now. Perhaps posthumously!" Every time I ran into Steve I asked him how the Bible manuscript was doing, and he invariably smiled and said that "it was growing." Finally, in the late 1980s, at a time when fundamentalists of the "Moral Majority" were speaking out strongly, I persisted in asking him to send me what he had written. This he finally did, some 1,200 pages of commentaries on various aspects of the Bible, religion, and morality. I immediately tried to persuade him to publish these reflections, since I found them both important and provocative. And he agreed.

In the preface to the volume that was published in 1990 as Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion and Morality, he says that although it had been his original intention to publish his studies after death, he decided to permit the publication "because an element of emergency has entered the public dialogue." He requested that the manuscript be carefully edited by biblical scholars before publication. And so we invited Professor Joe Barnhart of North Texas University and Professor Randel Helms of Arizona State to critically examine the manuscript. They were impressed by what they read, made several minor suggestions, and observed that Steve's scholarship was sound. Evidently Steve had read widely in biblical criticism. Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion and Morality is a unique study that, I submit, will survive, as perhaps the only one of its kind - a commentary on the Bible by a leading media celebrity, one that did not simply praise Jesus, but provided thoughtful criticisms, pointing out its many factual errors, inconsistencies, and moral limitations. To illustrate from Allen:

"The proposition that the entire human race - consisting of enormous hordes of humanity - would be placed seriously in danger of a fiery eternity characterized by unspeakable torments purely because a man disobeyed a deity by eating a piece of fruit offered him by his wife is inherently incredible."

Martin Gardner, in the preface to that book, said, "No other work by an American can be likened more favorably to Tom Paine's classic, The Age of Reason than Steve Allen's book" - a compliment of the highest order coming from one of America's leading critical essayists. Indeed, Steve's volume could also be likened to the writings of Robert Ingersoll, America's leading orator and agnostic of the nineteenth century. Martin Gardner continued further that he had no doubt that the resentment against this book would arise. "It will not surprise me to hear," he said, "that some congregations plan to burn it, as they once burned Paine's Age of Reason." But here I dare to hope "that people will have the courage to study all of this book's well-reasoned arguments with at least half an open mind."

Actually, Steve's book was fairly well received, so much so that he was invited to address a national convention sponsored by the Jesuits. Steve made it clear that he was not an atheist, but he was a freethinker in the best sense of the word; for he attacked throughout his book fanatic and dogmatic religion at a time when he felt that this kind of criticism was necessary. There were, of course, its critics. On one occasion he has been invited to address a national convention of evangelicals; but after the organizers read the book they de-invited him. After the book was published, Steve told me that he had so much additional material left over from the early manuscript, that we decided to bring out a second volume called More Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion and Morality, which continues his pointed commentaries.

The question can be raised - Who else in the American media would dare to publish a thoughtful though critical book on the Bible, if not Steve Allen? All that we had on the national scene were professions of piety, almost never reflective dissent, a testament to the courageous character of the man.

All told, Steve published fourteen other books with Prometheus, not all of them serious. For example, we reissued How to Be Funny and Make 'Em Laugh, to give a more rounded picture. But it was Steve Allen's book, Dumbth: 81 Ways to Make Americans Smarter, published in 1990, that made the biggest impact. In this book he coined a new word, "dumbth," and he decried the level of intelligence that prevailed in the United States, the "dumbing down," as he characterized it. This book became a Prometheus best-seller and was widely acclaimed, so much so that we decided to reissue in 1998 a new edition of Dumbth, revised, with a new subtitle, The Lost Art of Thinking, which Steve described as "101 ways to reason better and improve your mind." Here the great master of comedy, entertainment and laughter, was saying strong and clear that the best therapy for nonsense is the cultivation of critical thinking. This book has been well received. Indeed, Reverend Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral one Sunday morning had Steve Allen deliver a sermon on "Dumbth and the Need for Critical Thought," which was heralded by Schuller. Steve Allen had the knack of presenting ideas in a persuasive yet thoughtful manner.

Other important books that Prometheus was pleased to publish were Reflections and But Seriously - all brought out by Steve Allen in his effort to say, "Look, I may be humorous, but I am serious. I may be a master of wit, but also, I hope, of some reflective wisdom."

My personal friendship and collegial relationship with Steve has continued through the years. Steve was tireless in promoting his books. We calculate that he did over 1,000 radio, TV, and press interviews and book signings over the years, rarely with any complaint and invariably punctual and enthusiastically! We would bring Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows to the American Booksellers Association year in and year out whether we launched a new book or not. They made a remarkably interesting and colorful couple as they walked down the aisle, surrounded by bees seeking honey - booksellers and bookbuyers as it were - asking them for autographs, overflowing with adulation and appreciation. I remember at one press conference in Chicago when we launched one of Steve's serious books, I introduced him by saying that I considered Steve Allen to be "one of the leading intellectuals in the media." He approached the podium and replied, "Thanks Paul, it's like introducing me as one of the leading automobile mechanics among brain surgeons!"

The book that Steve Allen most cherished was his last one, which unfortunately he did not live to see published, and which will appear in the spring of 2001. Apparently, Steve was still working on the final galleys the day before his death. It is called Vulgarians at the Gate - Trash TV and Raunch Radio: Raising the Standards of Popular Culture. Steve Allen had been deeply concerned about the coarsening of common culture, about the level of tastelessness, in particular the vulgarities and obscenities which seem to be increasing every year, and also the level of violence and bloodshed. He deplored the need for comedians to resort to four-letter words to get a laugh, and he resolved as Mr. Television to do what he could to help turn the tide, and to convince producers and writers, directors and owners, to do what they could to improve the quality of programming. It is one thing, he said, for vulgar or violent material to be seen in a movie theatre - where a person pays an admission to see an X-rated movie - it is another to have TV enter the home, as it were, with no safeguards at all: TV sets are like electric lightbulbs; they are on all the time in many households. He deplored the steady diet of bad taste, vulgarity, and violence that were beamed forth. We have bartered entire future generations of Americans to the cultural despoilers, to the media moguls who are more intent on ratings than on the quality of what is presented. It is not information, but entertainment, not education, but shock and horror that they are marketing. Steve made it clear that he was opposed to censorship of any form. But, he said, if those who produce these shows have the right of freedom of expression, then surely those who disagree, conservatives and liberals alike, have a right to criticize and to try to persuade them to program more uplifting and less degrading fare.

Why did Steve Allen take on this massive task? His response was because he felt a special responsibility to do what he could to improve the quality of the electronic media. It's not the bottom line that should be the sole criterion, but in some sense the content of the values and ideas that are presented.

Steve Allen has taken his concern about the decline of cognitive and moral values to other arenas. When the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) decided to establish a "Council for Media Integrity" in order to persuade television producers and writers to include more scientific content in their programs and to avoid confusing pseudoscience with genuine science, Steve Allen along with Nobel Prize-winner Glenn Seaborg became co-chairmen. It has been an uphill battle to try to get some balance in programming. CSICOP has argued - with Steve Allen as a stalwart ally - that the campaign for scientific literacy is crucial to the future of this country; for its scientific and technological development depends in part upon the public understanding of science.

Last but not least, Steve Allen identified himself as a humanist, in the finest sense of that term. He gladly participated in dozens of Humanist conferences and meetings - most recently at the twentieth anniversary Conference of the Council for Secular Humanism (the leading humanist organization in the United States) held in Los Angeles in May of 2000. It was at this latter event that Steve Allen launched his trial balloon, his forthcoming book attacking the "Vulgarians" in the media. At that conference he withstood both the withering criticism of civil libertarians and its grateful applause from those who deplored the level of violence and mayhem in national TV. He held his ground forcefully, expressing his deepest convictions.

Steve Allen was elected unanimously to the International Academy of Humanism as a Humanist Laureate. This Academy includes eighty of the leading men and women of the arts and sciences throughout the world, and includes several Nobel Prize-winners. His election was in recognition of his commitment to science, reason, the cultivation of free inquiry and humanist values. Who else in the mass media today would dare to admit that he was a humanist and be proud of it.

I am reminded of a question Steve Allen posed to an audience. "How many humanists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?," he asked. His response was "Ten: one to screw in the lightbulb and nine to fight for the right to do so!"