Humanism: A Brief History
The earliest record of the discussion of Humanist philosophy is found in Greek manuscripts around 600 BCE when some Greek scholars questioned the purpose of life and the influence of supernatural forces on life. The Greek philosopher, Protagoras, (490-420 BCE) wrote “Man is the measure of all things.” Then, as now, the majority of thinkers postulated that gods had an interest-in and an influence-on the affairs of the human race and the workings of nature. A few thinkers questioned the majority concept and proposed that humans should accept responsibility for what happens in life and that death is neither a reward nor a punishment, but simply a natural event. The Greek philosopher Epicures (342-270 BCE) summarized this attitude writing, “Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consist in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality.”
In Western Europe and the Middle East an atmosphere of free and open discussion about the meaning of life and death, about science, philosophy and religion continued for about 800 years. During that period in history a magnificent library was constructed in Alexandria, Egypt. It became the repository of all the recorded knowledge the intelligentsia could gather. Around 500 CE. the library and its contents were destroyed, thus began the era we have come to refer to as the Dark Ages, a period when the only people permitted to read and write were residents of Catholic monasteries. For nearly a thousand years the Christian Religion controlled the major sources of knowledge in Europe and the Middle East, consequently it also controlled the political climate.
The Humanist philosophy was revived in the 14th century Renaissance. Freedom of the human spirit from a thousand years of bondage to oppressive ecclesiastical and political orthodoxy emerged. The printing press was developed about the same time and the thoughts of those rebelling against authoritarian controls were widely distributed. Once again knowledge became public property and increasing numbers of people began to think about human relationships, the purpose of life and the meaning of death. A French philosopher, Pierre Charron (1541-1603) may have summarized the dominant theme of the Renaissance when he wrote in his Book of Wisdom, “The proper science and subject for man’s contemplation is man himself.”
Free thinkers continued to challenge secular and religious authority leading up to the period of Enlightenment when the English philosopher John Locke (1532-1704) wrote his essays on human nature and the right to think freely and express one’s views without public censorship or fear of repression. Another Englishman, poet and philosopher Alexander Pope (1686-1744), in his Essay on Man wrote: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.”
John Locke’s writings were a major influence on Thomas Jefferson who put Humanist principles into a revolutionary document, “The Declaration of Independence”, and later an orderly public document establishing a humanistic form of popular government, the “Constitution of the United States.”
Public interest in Humanism as a philosophy of life in the United States increased in the early 1930’s with the publication of “A Humanist Manifesto” a declaration of Humanist principles endorsed and signed by 33 prominent scholars and theologians. Dr. Corliss Lamont, philosopher and professor, published “The Illusion of Immortality,” a humanist explanation of life and death in 1935. Fourteen years later Dr. Lamont wrote and published The Philosophy of Humanism still considered the definitive work of the Humanist movement.
A Unitarian Minister, Dr. Edwin H. Wilson, one of the 33 signers of the “Humanist Manifesto”, founded the American Humanist Association (AHA) in 1941 and in 1980 Paul Kurtz, author of Humanist Manifesto II and Professor of History, NYSU, Buffalo, established the “Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism” (CODESH). Today the AHA and CODESH are the major Humanist Organizations in the United States.
Humanism today emphasizes the personal worth of the individual, the importance of human values and freedom from secular and religious authoritarianism. Humanism is a moral life style, a realistic basis for ethical decisions and a valid explanation of the human experience. Humanism is a positive attitude toward life and living and death.
For an understanding of Humanism I recommend the following books: The Philosophy of Humanism and The Illusion of Immortality by Corliss Lamont; The Humanist Alternative by Paul Kurtz; and Humanist Anthology by Margaret Knight. A Humanist adversary, James Hitchcock, opposes humanism but gives an accurate historical and social impact perspective of the philosophy in his book What is Secular Humanism?
What Happened To The Promise Of A Humanist Manifesto?
Has The American Humanist Association Lost The Vision? An examination of the history of the writing of A Humanist Manifesto and recommendations to restore its meaning and mission
In the time since I became a member of the AHA and this Chapter, I have continued to research and explore the meaning and definition of humanism and how to apply that to the organization that is the Humanists of Utah.
This article is a continuation of several previously published articles: Report to the Membership, of last April; and 60 Years of A Humanist Manifesto, in the May issue. The Humanist Manifesto And The Future, by Sterling M. McMurrin, published in December, 1992, serves as a reference as well.
What is the AHA?
The foundation document of the American Humanist Association, A Humanist Manifesto, was published in 1933 in The New Humanist, a little known publication with a limited circulation among Unitarian Ministers and students. However, very little is heard of it anymore, and the message which it carried seems to have been lost. Why?
In 1941, The AHA was established to support the Humanist magazine (formerly The New Humanist). At this point, it was an organization of individual subscriber members. Thereafter, the organizational structure becomes confusing, because there is a curious disorganization to it which I will try to describe.
As AHA membership grew, home study groups formed and became Chapters. The Chapter Assembly (CA) with the Grassroots News was begun to support the Chapters, with its own by-laws and finances separate from the AHA. It encourages each Chapter to join the CA and receive the News, but it isn’t required and many Chapters do not belong. Then the Free Mind publication was started for AHA members; it shares some personnel with the Humanist but is not a part of the Chapter Assembly. Neither the AHA nor the CA give direction to Chapters; they are independent. Chapter members do not have to belong to the AHA and AHA members aren’t required to belong to a Chapter. (It is estimated that about half have a ‘dual’ membership.) Dues paid to one doesn’t carry membership to another.
Over time, other changes occurred. The Fellowship of Religious Humanists and its magazine began with a membership primarily of Unitarian Ministers, academics and others interested in the religious side of humanism. As each challenge occurred (such as Creationism), a new periodical or body was created (I don’t know all of them). The greatest schism was the organization of the Committee For Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) and its magazine, Free Inquiry. The AHA just keeps dividing itself into smaller, separate periodical entities.
The Humanists of Utah is an AHA Chapter, and we operate under a charter given by the AHA. What happens in the AHA imposes itself upon this Chapter. We have a responsibility to represent to the membership of this Chapter the goals and purposes of the AHA. At least in normal organizational structure it would seem that it should work that way. In reality, it is quite different, as I will attempt to show, and that might be one of the reasons for the present confusion.
The Present Problems of the AHA
The AHA has recently had to reorganize because the immediate past President resigned and it took more than several months and a number of ballots to choose another. Board members resigned who were just elected, and more had to be chosen. Then the new Editor of the Humanist resigned after beginning what many hoped would an improvement in the editing and content of the magazine.
In the June issue of the Grassroots News the new AHA President, Mike Werner, and CA (Chapter Assembly) Secretary, Lloyd Kumely, outlined their programs for improving the AHA. They are ambitious programs and examples of good organizational programming. Unfortunately, both are based on the assumption that an organization exists which can respond to direction and submit to some kind of group discipline. With the above described fractionalization has come a weakening of authority. After 52 years, the AHA has a membership of only about 5,300. It has marginalized itself into an ineffective, quarreling group of entities with little impact, publishing a second-rate magazine, and showing questionable concern for its membership. I know this is harsh criticism, and I wouldn’t make it if it didn’t seem so apparent to me and if I didn’t have some suggestions for its improvement.
The Chapters of the AHA
There are about 76 Chapters of the AHA across the U.S.A. Each one is led by volunteer lay-leaders. In the nature of such organizations, leadership devolves upon those willing to do the work. Each Chapter therefore represents the idiosyncrasies and orientation of the local leadership.
There is often no single focus to Chapter activities. If there is one, it is a militant anti-religionism, a rejection (approaching hatred) of supernaturalism, which is encouraged by the Humanist. I receive a number of Chapter newsletters and some of them set my teeth on edge. They are a newspaper’s “Letters to the Editor” gone mad! They celebrate all manner of religious atrocities, stupidities and anything else they can glean from news far and wide, cataloguing them with glee and black humor (seemingly justifying their heresy over and over again). Not to mention the radical positions they take concerning political, economic and social problems.
Of course, not all Chapters are this way. Many work to educate and inform their members on current issues of concern. The Humanist Community based in San Jose has an entirely new approach which could well be the model for all Chapters in the future. The Humanists of Utah is also different. This is what results from the built-in independence of the chapters and lack of direction from the AHA.
The question remains: Is this chaos what the framers of A Manifesto intended? There may be an answer to that question which could lead to an organization of humanists which would grow and be a force for the philosophy of humanism.
Drafting Manifesto I
I found some most significant information in the May, 1953 issue of the Humanist. This issue carried a symposium on the twenty-year anniversary of A Humanist Manifesto (Please see The Utah Humanist of May, 1993). In it, there is an article by Roy Wood Sellars (the Philosopher who wrote the first draft of the Manifesto), entitled “Naturalistic Humanism, A Framework for Belief and Values.” It throws an important light on what really happened back in 1933.
I was not aware of the important part that two philosophers had in the drafting of that work. I had attributed it to the commonly mentioned Unitarian ministers: Bragg, Reese, and Wilson. Sellars wrote the original draft or outline, which the three ministers and Professor Eustace Haydon of the University of Chicago revised and edited, returning it to Sellars for approval. The document was the result of the work of a committee. But since it was to Professor Sellars that the four editors went for the beginning draft, he is due a great deal of credit. This is an important distinction because of what he wrote twenty years later.
Sellars’ 1953 article explains his reasons for writing the draft of the original Manifesto and gives his hopes for its future. In my opinion, he makes two points which are of vital importance. First:
“…religion…has become a symbol for answers to that basic interrogation of human life, the human situation, and the nature of things–which every human being in some degree and in some fashion, makes.” He calls the Manifesto a “…new framework, more consonant with wider and deeper knowledge about man and his world. The humanist movement is engaged in formulating answers, with what wisdom it can achieve, to these basic questions.”
Sellars’ second point is just as important. In contrasting humanism with rationalism:
“The older rationalism was on the defensive. And so it expressed itself too often in negative terms: not this; not that; not God; not revelation; not personal immortality. What humanism signified was a shift from negation to construction. There came a time when naturalism no longer felt on the defensive. Rather, supernaturalism began, in its eyes, to grow dim and fade out despite all the blustering and rationalizations of its advocates.”
He then emphasizes: “Now this was a change in dominance…”
Humanism, having most importantly now defined itself with the Humanist Manifesto, no longer needed to defend itself against supernaturalism. Sellars continues:
“…Instead of feeling that he had to disprove the existence of a God, special revelation and the general mystique of a supernatural realm, the naturalist [humanist] simply began with good reason to feel that the job of proving these pivotal assumptions rested with the supernaturalist…There were now two competing frames of reference for both belief and values…”
To summarize, Sellars states:
- Every human being seeks answers to a basic interrogation of human life.
- The humanist movement, a new framework, is engaged in formulating new answers.
- The old rationalism was negative, stressing what it was not. Now there is a shift, and supernaturalism is on the defensive.
- This was a change in dominance. Humanism, in the Manifesto, has defined itself.
- There are now two competing frames of reference, supernaturalism and humanism.
Contrast this with what the AHA is doing now, and the conclusion is obvious that something changed.
After the Publication of A Manifesto
What happened after the publication of A Manifesto? Perhaps the answer is helped by reference to those five men who were there at the beginning: Sellars and Haydon, Professors of Philosophy; and Bragg, Reese and Wilson, Unitarian ministers. All except Wilson, who was then 35, were over 50 years of age and well established in their professions which they continued; there was apparently no need for them to do anything more: the Manifesto had been written and published.
The responsibility for continuing the “good news” of A Humanist Manifesto fell to Ed Wilson, the Editor of The Humanist since its beginning and for many years after. It went with him in his Ministry. The magazine had a limited subscription and seems to have been an exclusive journal for liberal Unitarian ministers and University professors who wanted to counter theism in the Unitarian church and exchange views on humanism. The good news of A Humanist Manifesto did not reach the general populace.
Edwin Wilson, who is much respected as a Minister and an administrator, was not a theologian or a philosopher. He was educated as a Minister, and first and foremost, and always a Unitarian. The point needs to be made that Unitarianism does not answer that “basic interrogation” emphasized by Sellars. It is not part of its tradition. In addition, the Unitarian church is not a crusading missionary church, so Unitarian ministers could hardly be expected to mount an effort to capitalize on the innovation of Sellars’ “new framework” and “change in dominance.” (Who else was there to do it?)
I don’t know what happened in the interim to bring about the present situation. I’m not sure it is all that important to know the details. There does seem to be one common factor throughout the history of the AHA: almost all of those in the leadership were Unitarians. What there is about that I’ll leave to others, but it has to be very significant. What is important is that the AHA does not now follow the direction set forth by the framers of A Humanist Manifesto.
It is my thesis that for 60 years the whole “outfit” has been wandering in the Unitarian wilderness and now, like the dying man in the desert, will expire unless it reaches the oasis of the first Manifesto’s original intention, which is to answer the “basic interrogation” and bring about a “change of dominance” from attacking supernaturalism to explaining humanism within a “new framework.”
What needs to be done to change this? The combination of iconoclastic stubbornness and endemic individualism is probably intractable. However, I have some recommendations.
The Ubiquitous Humanist
I have been looking for a “key” to unlock this conundrum. First, it must be recognized that humanism can have many different meanings as applied to philosophy, religion, politics, sociology, science, etc. It usually refers to a naturalistic position which emphasizes human worth or concentrates on human issues. Most importantly, each has its own defenders and organizational structure. What is significant about A Humanist Manifesto is that it brings humanism to the individual level where its meaning relates to a life idea-system, or a personal philosophy. This was its intent, the purpose for which it was written.
This “key” to my understanding of the personal meaning of humanism was my own experience. Unknowingly, I have been a humanist since 1953 when I was a college student. Like many others, I had formed my own “life philosophy.” I believed that I was a free individual capable of improving myself, and that by using the scientific method to problem-solve and acquire knowledge of the material universe governed by natural law, I could bring about the progress of myself and contribute to the progress of society. I had the basic framework of answers to that “basic interrogation” or the existential questions of who I was, where I came from, and of the purpose of life. (Although there was the guide of a liberal theology, it was essentially based on my liberal education in the humanities.) This philosophy has served me well. Then, in early 1992, I met Ed Wilson and read the Manifestos.
Reading the first page of that document was akin to seeing the light on the road to Damascus! This was it; I had found a system of thought which coincided with my own that I had since college. I felt an exhilarating newfound freedom. I now knew I was a humanist. That is perhaps the only thing that the AHA has done for me: it gave me that identity. I have come to the conclusion that many thinking, reasoning, educated people do essentially the same thing I did.
When the Manifesto was published in The New Humanist in 1933, there was in that same issue an article entitled “Religious Humanism” in which the author states:
“In A Humanist Manifesto it will be seen that many of us have reached a common body of beliefs and attitudes, beliefs about man, his place in the universe, the general nature of that universe, and attitudes toward the great questions of life.”
This is humanism for the individual. Like myself, there are a great many individual humanists present in our society. They do not necessarily call themselves by that name, but they are humanists.
Some Characteristics of the Humanist
Before any organization sets out to represent and serve individual humanists, there needs to be an understanding of their unique individual character. The humanist, having answered that “basic interrogation” is now free from the problem of “salvation” which is the emphasis of the Christian religions. Humanists have saved themselves, not from their sins, but from their ignorance, and have reached that “state of grace” (emphasized in religion), in which everything can be known which is necessary to the good life. Very importantly, humanists have done this alone, without the intercession of an organization which would claim their allegiance. The humanist is free.
The humanist avoids mass movements. Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer, describes the “true believer” as those who are “frustrated” and “…driven by guilt, failure and self-disgust to bury their own identity in a cause oriented to some future goal…” because “…a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources.” Hoffer’s hero is “the autonomous [person],” those “confident [people] at peace with [themselves], engaged in the present.” These latter people are humanists, and need no organization except those considered by themselves as important.
Colin Wilson, in The Outsider, defines “…the Outsider’s fundamental attitude: non-acceptance of life, of human life lived by human beings in a human society.” Humanists are definitely not outsiders, because they see themselves as part of the natural world, living in it and actively engaged in life and society.
On the other hand, the militant anti-religionists, often calling themselves “humanists” qualify for both the “true believer” and as an “Outsider” because of their frustration with religion and non-acceptance of the religious life.
The ideal humanist is best described by Dr. Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology as the “actualized” person. Maslow lists a number of basic “needs” and states that once these needs are satisfied, or actualized, the person is then in full harmony with their reality. The purpose of an individual’s life is to achieve actualization. Living on the actualized level, the humanist has a natural ethic because only in maintaining a healthy environment is the sustaining of actualization possible. There could be no better goal of a humanist than reaching this “actualization.”
How People Become Humanists
As stated in my article of last April, I believe that our educational systems create humanists all the time. There is a recent controversy in the Utah Schools about “outcome-based” education. This method of education teaches students to build self-esteem, be self-directed and show concern for others. They learn how to solve problems, communicate, make decisions and be accountable. Conservatives object to this, wanting their children to grow up with a chance to believe what they themselves do; that this “outcome-based” method destroys the family; that values, attitudes and opinions are the sole responsibility of parents and family. However, finances will dictate that out-come based education will continue, because once students learn how to think and solve problems, they comprehend more easily, requiring less time from teachers and use fewer scarce resources. These students are on the way to becoming the thinking, reasoning person who with education in the humanities will eventually become a humanist.
This humanistic reasoning has its effect on contemporary Christian religions. In the August 9, 1993 issue of Newsweek, in an article entitled “Dead End for the Mainline? Religion: The mightiest Protestants are running out of money, members and meaning”, the author explores the causes of a decline in the membership of the seven dominant Protestant churches. The article explains that these churches are gripped by crisis: of identity and loyalty, membership and money, leadership and organization, culture and belief, and there is a loss of denominational distinctiveness: the “differences between denominations are negligible.” One historian states “Many people now see no reason to be Christian.” Another observed: “We provided our children with a theological rationale for embracing secularism.” New television-based churches have the goal “to lure baby boomers back to church by welcoming all comers regardless of their beliefs and appealing to their lack of theological convictions.” The article concluded that theology is being rejected in favor of a ministry whose goal is to provide community and give some meaning to life.
Professor Sellars, in that 1953 article, foresaw this situation, when he wrote about a “change in dominance:”
“…Instead of feeling that he had to disprove the existence of a God, special revelation, and the general mystique of a supernatural realm, the naturalist simply began with good reason to feel that the job of proving these pivotal assumptions rested with the supernaturalist. And he knew that both theologians and philosophers in the past had never been able to develop satisfactory proofs. In short, the strategic situation had changed.”
The Need for Change
In my “Report to The Membership” of last April, I concluded that the purpose of an organization of humanists was to “facilitate the process of becoming a humanist.” It is a process which takes place over time. Most members of this Chapter became humanists not because an organization helped them; it was their own work, their own discoveries, which brought them to humanism. Rejection of supernaturalism was only one step, not necessarily the beginning, but occurs as a natural outcome of the search for truth. This is illustrated by an incident of two years ago in which I attended a meeting at the Unitarian Church in which a prominent Mormon dissident told of his “journey of faith.” Ed Wilson was also there and we talked about the meeting. Ed commented “it seemed more like a journey of accommodation, than a search for truth.”
If our target population is the thinking, reasoning, educated person, which is the best approach? Present information about why they should reject supernaturalism? Or, to present the naturalistic “new framework” of answers to that “basic interrogation of life” spoken of by Professor Sellars? Humanism has answers. In my two years as a member of AHA I haven’t received any.
It is my conclusion that any organization of humanists will only succeed if it stops trying to disprove supernaturalism and devotes itself to presenting that “new framework” provided by that first Manifesto. That is not happening now, and to my knowledge never was attempted.
Forget the insensate fight with the fundamentalists and the old bugaboo of “religion.” Stop the criticisms and esoteric nonsense in the Humanist, there is no value in that approach. The magazine and many Chapter newsletters have such a shrill, strident, critical and negative voice that it only drives more people away than it attracts.
The AHA must reorganize itself. Something drastic needs to be done if the AHA is to be what it was meant to be. Small changes can correct only the small problems. The problems of the AHA are large and require a great change.
Two interconnected changes are necessary:
- Publish one monthly membership magazine. Join the Humanist, Free Mind, and Grassroots News together and make it serve as the monthly communicator for every Chapter and each AHA member.
- Include all AHA members as part of a local Chapter, and all Chapter members as part of the AHA. This will require a unified dues and membership structure. The Chapters are where growth happens and new members are recruited. Other changes will come to mind once this one big step is taken.
There are thousands of unidentified humanists in our society who will welcome an organization which will give them identity and complete their already begun process of becoming a humanist. The need is apparent, and the organization which meets this challenge will grow and prosper. The AHA was organized to do just this. It is time for it to fulfill its mission.