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Organized Humanism in the United States

Stephen P. Weldon

The humanist movement, though small in numbers, has persisted in America for over a century now. Some humanists consider it to be a religious movement, while others see it as strictly non-religious. Both types of humanism are represented in different ways in the country in different institutional forms. The development of this outlook as a coherent social movement in America depended upon a very particular interaction between religious and secular institutions that arose historically in ways unique to American culture. This essay seeks to explore that landscape in its ideological and social aspects and illuminate how the movement flourished and changed over the years.

Prehistory of American Humanism

The American humanist movement originated in the second decade of the twentieth century among Unitarian ministers who sought to create a new form of religion that worked within the denominational order, that paralleled existing practices within the churches, but that was based on an entirely different philosophical framework. Theirs was to be a naturalistic religion without a God or any supernatural force of any kind, one based on the ideals of Western democratic culture and modern scientific knowledge. The movement originated in Unitarianism as a result of the peculiarities of the American religious environment, which opened up a space for organized non-theism. The groundwork for that early religious humanism – both intellectual and organizational – was laid much earlier in radical religious and irreligious movements that sprouted in America over the course of the nineteenth century.

The precursors to humanism included both irreligion (outright rejection of God and religion) as well as radical religion (embrace of unorthodox and non-Christian religious forms). One can go back to Thomas Paine – one of the country’s most well-known and, for some contemporaries, most notorious deists – to see the pervasive and prominent role of radical religion in early America. He and Thomas Jefferson, both among the leading lights of the American Revolution, were noted for their deist views. Paine was especially radical, promoting strongly anti-clerical and anti-Christian ideas in his widely read book Age of Reason. Deism posited a rational creator who had created a world that was understandable to mankind. Reason and physical evidence, not miraculously revealed texts, were the paths to understanding both the world around us and our morality. Paine channeled the ideals of the new nation in his view of religion with a radically individualistic outlook: ‘My own mind is my own church,’ he said. Jefferson was just as radical in some respects but believed there was value in salvaging some of the Christian faith, and illustrated this by editing the Christian Bible, removing all of the supernatural and irrational elements. Less an organizational movement than an intellectual one, deism represented an idealism that pervaded American religious radicals.1

Deism was only one form of freethought that flourished in nineteenth century America. Although they remained a relatively small minority in this predominantly Christian population, freethinkers offered a panoply of unorthodox ideas on religion and belief, and they were scattered across continent as the country expanded over the century. Some simply held un-Christian ideas, but others were outright unbelievers and atheists. As a group they tended to be radical in other ways as well, and it was not uncommon to find a freethinker who also advocated for such causes as anti-slavery and women’s rights. Some of them went further in their social radicalism, advocating socialism, sexual liberation, anti-monogamy, and the like. The freethinkers were driven by a sense of moral outrage against the injustice and hypocrisy perpetrated by “the Church” on all manner of political and social matters.2 All in all, American freethinkers tied their religious and irreligious ideals to the country’s core ideals and thereby embedded a strongly American idealism into their views.

At the same time that popular freethought and unbelief was springing up around the nation, in the more secluded halls of America’s seminaries, a different kind of radicalism began to spread among the educated classes who were training for the clergy. Science and history were challenging the traditional orthodoxy, and young American men found that the road to God led in a very different direction than they had expected. Those who went to Europe for a deeper education often came back espousing the radical ideas of their German teachers. A new method of theological study called higher criticism combined with historical and archaeological discoveries that transformed Biblical studies encouraged students to embrace ideas that were considered heretical by traditionalists. The new naturalistic methodology, inspired by research in the natural sciences, called into question such bedrock beliefs as supernatural miracles. At the same time, revolutions in the natural sciences, most notably evolution, further challenged the traditional interpretations of Scripture.3 One ramification of this shift was critically important to the rise of humanism: namely, Protestant modernism, a widespread theological movement that crossed denominations. Protestant modernism was often centered in the seminaries, where these ideas were most influential among the scholars of religion and the newly minted ministers. The most influential of these seminaries was the ultra-liberal Chicago Divinity School, a Baptist school associated with the University of Chicago. It was made possible by the deep pockets of American industrial magnate John D. Rockefeller.4 The University and the Divinity School would play a key role in the rise of American humanism.

It was the Unitarian church, however, that served as the movement’s birthplace. The history of Unitarianism in America explains a lot about why it turned out to be such a good home for humanism. This church became a national denomination early in the nineteenth century, emerging from a bruising battle with conservative Trinitarian theologians in Massachusetts over a series of issues centered on the extent to which human reason should be applied to theological questions. Fundamentally, the Unitarians embraced an individualistic and rationalistic theology, while their Trinitarian opponents sided with tradition and revelation. When the Harvard Divinity School and most of the wealthiest churches in Boston went over to the Unitarian camp, the liberals inherited the wealth and prestige of one of the oldest and most important churches in the country. The denomination was born with great fortune. As Unitarians moved West, they brought their wealth, education, and independent theological heritage with them, maintaining their status and respectability wherever they went.5

By the end of the nineteenth century, the denomination had gone through uccessive battles over the nature of their theology. The Western Unitarian Conference had split with the main denomination for a period of time over the nature of fellowship. In the West, in particular, the churches joined forces with other free religionists who objected to the demand that all members be forced to accept a fixed creedal statement of belief. In the end, the conservatives capitulated, and the denomination entered the new century creedless and not necessarily even Christian, welcoming theological diversity and individual liberty in all matters religious.6 That embrace of theological liberty opened the door to humanism by allowing theological innovation beyond the possibilities of any other denomination.

In all, both the intellectual and institutional foundation of twentieth-century humanism was laid in the religious institutions of the nineteenth century and in the country’s scattered and vocal groups of freethinkers. Both moral and scientific concerns motivated these thinkers as they came to believe that the modern world was not suited to the ancient beliefs of traditional religion. The outcome of the various nineteenth century struggles was an educated and rather wealthy class of religious radicals that were ready for a new message that humanism would bring.

Origins: the first few decades of the movement

Two Unitarian ministers frequently hailed as the founders of religious humanism, John Dietrich and Curtis Reese, were both latecomers to Unitarianism. Dietrich had been expelled from the Reformed Church, and Reese left the Southern Baptist denomination, both because their beliefs had been radicalized by Protestant modernism and they could no longer conscientiously preach the orthodox theology that their denominations required. Like many other excommunicated ministers, the two men found themselves at the Unitarians’ doorstep looking for a job and, as young enthusiastic minsters, were soon back in the pulpit. By the time that they met each other in 1916, they discovered that they both were preaching sermons that elevated humanity and human civilization and ignored all supernatural talk. The humanism that emerged from their sermonizing and that of a few other ultraliberal ministers in Unitarian churches gradually made its way into the Unitarian’s Meadville seminary, where the students, over the faculty’s objections, began their own humanist club.7

When Meadville moved from Pennsylvania to Chicago, Illinois, in the 1920s and set down roots right next to the University of Chicago, the Meadville students were able to interact with some of the most radical Protestant modernists in the country. This was the same school whose faculty produced the radical texts that were so influential for Dietrich, Reese, and the other Unitarian humanists. The vibrant intellectual atmosphere in Chicago resulted in a faculty-student interaction across institutions (including Meadville, the Chicago Divinity School, and the University of Chicago proper). The location was propitious for another reason as well. Chicago was a hub in the Unitarian humanist network, linking humanist preachers across the Midwest, especially in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan where some of the leading lights in the humanist movement were working.8

New York City was the other main hub of the early religious humanist movement, largely because of similarly close ties between the church and the academy there. Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was a stone’s throw from the Ethical Culture Society of New York, a large, well-funded, and elite non-theistic religious group that had been started by the son of one of New York’s most prominent rabbis, Felix Adler, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Adler, in addition to founding the Ethical Culture Society, was a faculty member in the Columbia philosophy department. He was a critical nexus linking the department with its secular academic agenda to the ministry with its broader social ideals and agendas. Young philosophy students (many of whom were sons and grandsons of ministers themselves) found the department a congenial place to explore the intersection of religion and philosophy in a modern framework, not so different from the humanist club at Chicago. The presence of John Dewey at Columbia would also turn out to be critically important, since his philosophical agenda was remarkably well-suited to the humanist outlook, and he and his students would become critical players in the movements first few decades.9

The organized humanist movement, thus, emerged from this complex interaction of ministers, professors, and students that thrived in the space between academic culture and the wealthy, educated denominational churches and meeting halls of the Unitarians, Ethical Culture Societies, and the occasional radical congregation of Christians or Jews. Professors were frequently ordained and acted as service ministers for churches without a full-time clergy. It was not uncommon even for unordained philosophers to give lectures at temples or churches in lieu of sermons. The graduate and seminary students also had integral functions that abetted the growth of the movement, spearheading activities that helped maintain the community. The students in the Humanist Fellowship at Chicago started a bulletin, the New Humanist, that eventually morphed into a full-fledged national magazine maintained later by graduates of Meadville. In these ways, the religious agenda was continually enriched by a secular academic environment.10

The clearest example of this mixing of the academic and the religious was the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, which did much more than simply define the humanist outlook. The text itself was written by the prominent American philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, and only half of the signatories were ministers, which demonstrates that already the group had a broader ambition than religious reformation. Behind it was a larger secular agenda of defending modern scientific knowledge and promoting the democratic order.11

Early Institutionalized Humanism

For a while in the 1930s the humanist movement was active and thriving, but as the depression wore on, it took its toll. The Humanist Fellowship at Chicago had given way to the Humanist Press Association that published a magazine, the New Humanist, which lasted for several years before it ceased for financial reasons. So by 1941 the humanist movement existed as a collection of distinct but interconnected congregations of churches, meeting houses and synagogues with humanist leaders, and the community was held together informally without any coherent institutional form. That year, however, a group of humanists came together to establish the American Humanist Association (AHA) along with a new magazine called simply the Humanist, and this institution would be what would carry the movement forward in the postwar years.12

The postwar humanism was especially indebted to the work of the Unitarian minister Edwin Wilson. Over the course of over three decades from the 1930s through the early 1960s, Wilson functioned variously as member, editor, and director of various humanist initiatives. A graduate of the Meadville seminary and a practicing Unitarian minister, Wilson was always conscious of the how humanist activities were reflected within Unitarianism. He understood that for humanism to be effective, it had to work for two very different constituencies: the religious humanists, who saw humanism as an ecumenical movement, and a growing group of non-religious men and women, who saw humanism as a life-stance and worldview. Reluctant to create humanist groups that competed with Unitarian churches, Wilson resisted calls for the AHA to create local chapters affiliated with the group. In lieu of this kind of local organizing, Wilson helped to promote special events that brought together experts outside of the humanist network to promote and advocate humanist ideals.

His help in instigating a series of conferences in New York City in the 1940s on ‘The Scientific Spirit and the Democratic Faith’ were an example of this. As with earlier humanist endeavors, it relied heavily on the involvement of academic experts in philosophy, education, and other fields to discuss pressing issues of the day. The conference series also pointed to the close collaboration between the humanists and the Ethical Culture leaders, for the project ended up being led by Jerome Nathanson, leader of the New York society for Ethical Culture.13

The establishment of the AHA signaled a sea change in the movement. Whereas humanism had been conceived as a religious movement, it was now something significantly broader, and the leadership began to change. The executive board of the organization was initially dominated by ministers and religious leaders like Wilson, but within a decade the leadership (which was selected through periodic elections by members) had become mostly secular. Apart from Wilson, who continued to run the executive office for nearly two decades, the presidents, editors, and most of the board members after about 1950 were not clergymen. The organization was by this time run by laymen and women whose interest in humanism varied, and included many people who did not believe humanism should be considered religious at all, and certainly should not be yoked to a religious organization like the Unitarian Church. One of the men who embraced this non-religious outlook was the wealthy socialist Corliss Lamont, who became a major donor to the group. The articles in the journal were much more eclectic than they had been in the early days when the purpose of the publication was focused on ecclesiastical matters of special concern to humanist ministers. The religious roots of humanism, however, can still be seen in the humanist movement today, and periodic symposia in humanist periodicals feature debates over whether humanism is a religion or not.14

Cold War Humanism

One reason for the rapid shift away from the religious model had to do with shifts in agenda and membership during the Cold War. Ideological concerns of humanists at the end of the Second World War deeply influenced the movement, as new issues outside of religious concerns took center stage. Internationalism became a central ideological agenda for American humanists. In the immediate post-war years Edwin Wilson and the British humanist Julian Huxley had been in correspondence and discussed the need for an international group that would promote humanism globally. After several years of planning, several American humanists along with leaders in the American Ethical Union (AEU) travelled to Amsterdam in 1952 to participate with five other humanist groups from Great Britain, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and India in the establishment of this new group, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU, later Humanists International) with Huxley as its prospected first chairman. He fell ill however and was replaced by the Dutch Jaap Van Praag, who subsequently became IHEU’s first president. American Humanists have been especially active in this international group over the years since its founding.15

American humanists had long spoken of humanism in universalistic terms, but the new language of internationalism and the problems it addressed were of a different sort than what the religious humanists had dealt with. Post-war humanists tended to address practical issues related to building of an integrated global community rather than broad metaphysical defenses of naturalism. Internationalism appealed to humanists because of its optimistic view of the emerging international political order: the United Nations and the network of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. The agenda of the new order was to build a more peaceful and prosperous world, and humanists embraced the sentiment, finding it consonant with their democratic and science-based worldview. International governance under the guidance of technical expertise would provide a path toward a bright future for humanity. This technocratic outlook resonated well with the humanists as it pointed to a world governed by reason and moral ideals.16

This scientific internationalism gained a particularly strong foothold in humanism when a number of world-renowned scientists, themselves deeply engaged in international concerns, identified themselves as humanists. Among these scientists, one finds prominent men who assumed leadership roles in important international agencies: Julian Huxley became director general of UNESCO, Brock Chisholm (a Canadian psychiatrist) director of World Health Organization, and Gerald Wendt (an American science writer) head of the UNESCO division of teaching. Huxley and Chisholm were honored as ‘Humanists of the Year’ by the AHA, and Wendt assumed editorship of the Humanist after his time at UNESCO. Further evidence of the ideological direction of the AHA can be seen in the list of resolutions that the group voted on at their annual board meetings. These resolutions consistently show strong support for internationalist causes such as disarmament, population control, universal calendar reform, and even Esperanto. This same period saw article after article in the Humanist discussing these international agencies and their activities.17 In all, humanists affirmed their hope that this new technocratic international order would guide humanity toward a more rational and enduring future.

The promise of the new international order was offset by the very real peril of the Cold War and the danger that nuclear weapons posed for the very existence of life on Earth. Several humanists assumed leading roles in anti-proliferation activism. The genesis of this activism was the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which called for an urgent meeting of nuclear scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain ‘to appraise the perils... of weapons of mass destruction, and to discuss a resolution’.18 Out of this grew the so-called Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which had critical support from humanists active in the AHA. One of the eleven signers of the Russell-Einstein manifesto was Hermann Muller, for example, who held the AHA presidency at the time of the first conference. Even more significant was Cyrus Eaton, a wealthy Canadian industrialist who was one of the AHA’s most important donors. It was Eaton’s financial support of the meetings that helped make them possible when he furnished his vast estate in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, as the location for the meeting.19

The role and nature of science in post-war humanism also differed significantly from what it was in the pre-war period. This difference manifests in a few ways that allow us to clearly distinguish this new “scientific humanism” from the earlier “religious humanism”. First of all, scientists themselves were more important to the movement than they had been before. It was they, not clergymen or philosophers, who were often held up as the ideological leaders of the movement – a look at the AHA’s top honor, the ‘Humanist of the Year’ award, testifies to the extraordinary importance of socially conscious scientists to the group. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a de-emphasis on the religious aspects of humanism that had been so crucial to the earlier religious humanists. The scientists who joined the movement in the 1930s and 1940s all tended to be churchgoers who found their way into humanism through Unitarian congregations, but by the 1950s, this was no longer true. The humanism espoused by the scientists was largely secular.20

Second, even though humanists of all backgrounds embraced science and considered a scientific epistemology central to the humanist mission, the religious and scientific humanists differed crucially on what they believed science was and how it operated. The scientific humanists were indebted to science and scientific method as the central framework for their thinking, and they were more utilitarian about it than their predecessors. It was the philosophical framework, however, that was most strikingly different. The early religious humanists adopted a strongly anti-determinist and anti-reductionist mode of thought, looking to the pragmatism of John Dewey and the critical realism of Roy Wood Sellars. The scientific humanists, by contrast, found more in common with the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle and their followers, a framework that was far more reductionistic than anything Dewey or Sellars promoted. This philosophical shift was responsible for a third major difference between religious and scientific humanism that resulted in a major ideological battle that was played out over a couple of decades. The opposition to reductionism by the early humanists was driven by their understanding of the nature of humanity; in particular, they found eductionism and determinism when applied to human beings antithetical to their beliefs. This was not a problem for the positivists. Thus, although science was central in both worldviews, the way that it was expressed differed greatly.21

These philosophical differences among humanists became dramatically visible in the way different humanists looked at the field of psychology. During the 1950s and 1960s, psychology began to replace philosophy as the discipline that provided the most important conceptual framework for the movement. It was this area of study that seemed to best define humanity and that could help guide us in reshaping the future. On the one side, religious humanists found that they had much in common with what came to be called third force psychology (also known, coincidentally, as humanist psychology) led by maverick thinkers Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Eric Fromm, and these authors began to appear in the pages of the Humanist. The new positivistically minded humanists, on the other hand, were more comfortable with the methodology and thinking of behaviorism whose figurehead was B.F. Skinner. The political struggle within the discipline of psychology between these two schools was fierce, and the antagonism that developed between them spilled over into humanism. Skinner was considered anathema to the humanist psychologists, and that conflict created both intellectual and institutional tension and acrimony. After several years of strong promotion of humanist psychologists – in which Rogers, Maslow, and Fromm were all named ‘Humanist of the Year’ – the behaviorists in the group managed to prevail, and the award went to Skinner in 1972, immediately after he had published his enormously controversial book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, where he outlined his starkly determinist account of human nature.22

The influence of positivism can be seen in another way as well. Soon after the Skinner award, a new humanist endeavor emerged that sought to defend science and scientific method against perceived attacks on it in the popular culture. The philosopher Paul Kurtz was the leader of this new enterprise of self-declared skeptics. As editor of the Humanist, Kurtz initiated a series of attacks on astrology and pseudoscientific ideas espoused by popular New Age thinkers. It was a surprising popular move, and it spawned a new organization devoted to debunking occult and pseudoscientific claims. This group, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal, published a small quarterly magazine, Skeptical Inquirer that took on everything from UFO’s to bigfoot to alternative medicine. The link to this more hardnosed positivist understanding of science was clear from the outset, even in the tone of the journal. In sharp contrast to the humanist psychologists, who celebrated the diversity of human experience and fostered techniques to enhance individual human potential, the psychological outlook of the skeptics focused on the extraordinary fallibility of the individual human mind with its limited powers of observation and extraordinary gullibility in the face of incredible claims.23

All in all, Cold War-era humanism pointed to a series of radical changes in direction in the organization both institutionally and intellectually. The internationalism that the organization promoted was frequently tied to a technocratic sensibility that elevated science and scientists to areas of prominence and concomitantly deemphasized the role that ministers and philosophers played in the movement. Furthermore, this brought about ideological changes that opened up the movement to a more utilitarian and positivistic understanding of science, a change that prompted much internal conflict over the intellectual foundations of humanism.

Humanism and Church-State Constitutional Law

Religion is a singularly important legal concept in the United States of America. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution begins ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....’ Its placement as the first declaration in this crucial document serves to enshrine the principle of religious freedom and the principle of church-state separation as the country’s most fundamental legal imperative and gives enormous cultural weight to the ideas. One can probably trace most religious struggles during the twentieth century in one way or another to these two notions. The history of humanism bears witness to this.

The shape and character of humanism over the years was directly influenced by U.S. Constitutional law, and during the second half of the twentieth century, America witnessed a sea change in the way that the law was interpreted with respect to religion in the public sphere. This change had enormous impact on the humanist movement. Despite their historical connections to the American liberal religious tradition, humanists were always marginal in American society since they had abandoned not only Christianity but also belief in God, and of course, many of them increasingly ceased to consider themselves religious at all. That minority status was reinforced insofar as many humanists were ethnically Jewish and had little attachment to the majority Christian culture. As a result, humanists were very sensitive to areas in the culture where they believed that the law was being abused or where religious institutions were corrupting the political system.

This was especially evident in the case of Catholicism. Anti-Catholic prejudice had long been common in American society, but by the 1950s that prejudice was declining. Humanists, however, remained as critical as ever of the deleterious influence of Catholic institutions. The lawyer and author Paul Blanshard, who wrote a column on church-state separation in the Humanist, was one of the most vocal in this regard. He published a scathing attack on Catholicism in 1948, and this book, American Freedom and Catholic Power, became a bestseller. His attacks on Catholicism ranged from the hierarchy’s extensive censorship of books to its staunch opposition to birth control.24

It was during this same period that several Supreme Court decisions were placing severe limits on religious activity in public institutions, especially in the public schools. From 1948 to 1968, the Court declared prayer, Bible reading, and religious instruction during school hours unconstitutional. They also asserted that religious tests for public office were illegal and lifted a state ban on the teaching of evolution. Although the AHA itself was never an instigator of suits, eventually it commissioned and submitted amicus curiae briefs to provide the lawyers and judges involved in the cases with legal arguments supporting the humanist point of view. The atheists and agnostics who did initiate the legal battles often became celebrities and were brought into the organization in the aftermath of the court cases.25 Women began to rise to prominence in the humanist movement in this area of activism – mothers who opposed their children’s participation in religious practices were at the center of several of these suits. Madelyn Murray (later Madelyn Murray O’Hair) and Vashti McCullum both later held leadership positions in the AHA as a result of their role in church-state cases, and later, for similar reasons, the long-time humanist activist Bette Chambers made a name for herself by spearheading support for teaching evolution in the schools.

The Court’s removal of religious activity in the public schools prompted a widespread reaction among deeply conservative Christians around the country. Whereas humanists saw the Court as simply defending the religious rights of unbelievers by creating a strict “wall of separation” (in the words of Thomas Jefferson) between the state and religious institutions, many Christians saw it otherwise. From their perspective, the Court seemed to be brazenly attacking Christianity and the moral underpinning of the nation.26 Thus, these ground-breaking cases did much more than remove discrimination against non-Christians by normalizing unbelief and marginal religious views; they also stimulated a backlash that put humanism in the crosshairs of a vocal and politically active Christian conservatism.

Secular Humanism and Christian Fundamentalism

This direct challenge to humanism arose out of a newly politicized network of Christian activists. Since the British colonies first set down roots in North America, the country had been home to devout Christian traditionalism of one form or another; and after two waves of revivalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, evangelical Christianity became a fixture of the American religious landscape that spanned geography and crossed denominations. That history makes the rise of the Christian right in the twentieth century unsurprising in some respects. This recent event was distinctive, however, in its strikingly political nature.

The main theological framework of these right-wing Christians was evangelical Protestantism, and especially fundamentalism, a position founded on belief in the Bible’s inerrancy that emerged in the early twentieth century. Fundamentalists argued that all attempts to subordinate ancient Scripture to modern knowledge were antithetical to true Christianity. One of the most notable examples of early fundamentalist activism was the sensational 1925 Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial over the teaching of evolution. Apart from the politicized anti-evolution movement of this period, Christian fundamentalism remained a predominantly apolitical religious community over the first half of the century.27

Anti-communist hysteria in the wake of the Cold War changed that outlook, however. With America setting itself up as a leader of the Free World against Russian and Chinese communism, Protestant fundamentalists – as well as many conservative Catholics – began to embrace a nationalist political agenda that was based on both patriotism and religious traditionalism. In this new view, freedom to practice one’s religion came to be seen as a pillar of American democracy. Not only that, but belief in God was considered a foundation upon which American freedom rested. In this view, atheism came to be seen as synonymous with communism and therefore anti-American. These ideas gained crucial support from groups like the John Birch Society, an anti-communist populist movement that promoted a hard-right conservatism.28 Humanists would have found right-wing populism inimical under any circumstances (with its antimodern fundamentalist epistemology and its angry McCarthyite propaganda), but some of these groups explicitly targeted humanists. The leaders of this new politicized fundamentalism promoted a conspiracy theory claiming that ‘the religion of secular humanism’ was a direct threat to the country. This secular humanist conspiracy theory held that a small cabal of atheistic global elites were in control of all major institutions of the country – from education to the press to the halls of government – and that they sought to undermine individual freedom, establish communism, and pervert the morality of the youth. As evidence of this conspiracy, the fundamentalists cited instances where self-declared humanists held prominent offices in liberal organizations around the country. The pro-sex education group Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), for example, had a few long-time humanists on their board. Reading the humanist manifesto of 1933, the fundamentalists asserted that humanism was a de facto religion in spite of its professed atheism. That conspiracy theory and many of the ideas that informed it helped define fundamentalism’s political agenda during this period: take back the schools, the law, and the government.29

This aggressive anti-humanist agenda had a powerful effect on humanism as well. Humanists, despite their various disagreements, found themselves embracing a common agenda against the fundamentalists’ efforts. They worked to debunk the conspiracy theory when it cropped up, arguing that the fundamentalists were using humanism as a scapegoat for all of America’s ills, few of which could be traced back to any intentional humanist agenda. The humanists made alliances with liberal religionists as well as other secularists to combat the right-wing political and legal efforts that were being pushed in local school boards, in the courts around the country, and even in the United States Congress (where an evangelical legislator had proposed legislation that would exclude any funding to explicitly ‘secular humanist’ ideas in the public schools). In other words, they worked on many fronts to combat the fundamentalist assault. The teaching of Biblical creationism in the schools was one area in which humanist groups became leaders in the effort to combat fundamentalist ideas. They did so in several ways: by keeping each other informed through their newsletter and magazine, by attending school board meetings, by publicizing the problem through manifestos, declarations, and magazine articles, and by offering legal opinions and support in court cases revolving about the issue.30

The other major effect that the secular humanist attack had on humanism was to further alienate humanists from religion. Though the movement originated as a religious movement, it was gradually secularizing over the years, becoming less and less tied to any religious institutions. With the rising tide of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, humanists were ever more willing to dissociate themselves from anything that was considered religious. The culmination of this tendency was the founding of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism by Paul Kurtz in 1980. Kurtz, one of the most aggressive humanist leaders in the second half of the twentieth century, had been fired from his position as editor of the Humanist a few years earlier and was looking for a new project. A philosopher by training, he had little interest in promoting religious humanism and believed that the events leading up to the presidential election of 1980 demanded a strong and forceful response. It was at that point that Kurtz embraced the mantel of “secular humanism” and began defending it through this new organization and a new magazine, Free Inquiry. That more aggressive, in-your-face style of humanism appealed to people who were not only disillusioned with religion, but also frightened by its power to undermine democratic and progressive institutions worldwide. The threat came not only from American Christian fundamentalism but also from the Middle East where Islamic fundamentalists in Iran waged a successful revolution against the American-backed secular government, offering a strikingly authoritarian response to Western-style democracy.31

Two decades of battling fundamentalism hardened humanism, causing its ideology to shift toward a more aggressive antireligious agenda. Religious humanism still existed in the Unitarian church and the Ethical Culture Societies continued to promote a humanist outlook, but the secularization that had arisen in the humanist movement in the 1940s came to dominate the movement, which now had three very different kinds of organizations promoting it, one of which was explicitly secular in its outlook.


The groundwork for American humanism was set not only in the vibrant and rowdy freethought tradition of the nineteenth century, but also – and probably more importantly – in the genteel, yet radical, liberal Protestantism of that same period. Major American Protestant seminaries, widely dispersed Unitarian churches, Ethical Culture Societies, and a host of independent religious groups created places where religious radicalism could thrive. Many of these were well-funded and stable institutions; indeed, the leading school of Protestant modernism in the country, the University of Chicago Divinity School, was financed with Rockefeller money. These institutions provided spaces where religious radicals could formulate, teach, and preach the ideologies and agendas that would form the core foundation of humanism, and humanists found a home in these liberal, wealthy, learned – and explicitly religious – places.

One overarching goal of the early religious humanists was to extend the reach and influence of humanist thought by nurturing relationships to prominent scholars and scientists outside of religious institutions, particularly those who embraced progressive political and scientific ideals. In so doing, the movement gained the cultural capital of secular, liberal American higher-education. This association brought prestige to the movement, but it also created impetus for change. In particular, the demographics of the movement from its founding throughout much of the twentieth century was shaped by this alliance between wealthy liberal religion and the institutions of higher education. Humanist leadership was characteristically a white, upper-middleclass, educated male group – the same demographic characteristics that dominated academic and scientific institutions of the period.32 Reform Rabbis and Jewish institutions also informed the movement in important ways, and the Jewish influence only increased in the second half of the century when secular Jewish scholars and activists joined.

One of the most prominent features of humanism that distinguished it from many other forms of non-theism (including a large contingent of Ethical Culturists) was the humanists’ frequent appeal to science and a rationalistic epistemology. This made humanism stand out from other groups whose progressive ideals were based less on epistemology and more on moral and political thinking.33 This science-based agenda increased significantly toward the end of the century, especially in response to Christian fundamentalism and the fear of an occult revival in the American counterculture. Once again, demography played an important role. As old-style religious humanists with Protestant roots were joined by secular scientists and academics, including a large number of non-religious Jewish intellectuals, the agenda of humanism in the twentieth century changed. After the Second World War, that agenda incorporated some of the distinctive elements common among secular Jews: in particular, their uncompromising demand for religious neutrality in the public sphere, their embrace of scientific inquiry as a cosmopolitan and open endeavor, and their separation of ethics from religious dogma.34 In other words, a growing recognition within humanism that religiosity in America too often came with Christian overtones, and it was important to establish an entirely secular public sphere.

Humanists throughout much of the twentieth century were strikingly optimistic in their belief that progress was on their side and that American society could be remolded in a humanist form. That faith wavered toward the end of the twentieth century with the increasing political power of right-wing evangelicals and the recognition that American conservatism and traditionalism was more deeply embedded than they had believed. Recent observers have suggested that this shift in outlook has reoriented the nature of American humanism’s outreach in the culture in the twenty-first century. Sociological literature on the ways in which religious groups in America have marketed themselves indicate that humanists have come to use outreach strategies that are common among typical religious organizations, especially Christian evangelicals, even as many of them embrace secularism and denounce religion. Indeed, it is suggested that the secular humanist and atheist subculture in America has enough resemblance to the evangelical subculture that similar techniques for gaining adherents are useful.35

While this may be true now, my own research into humanism suggests that the main thrust of humanist proselytizing in the twentieth century resulted from their connection to the cultural institutions of the country and their success in pushing forward an agenda that was in line with liberal political and cultural institutions. While card-carrying humanists themselves seldom held powerful social or political roles, they did exert a force in the culture by coopting the missions of influential institutions and high-profile public intellectuals. Humanists honored Nobel laureates and other major cultural figures, they embraced the freethinkers who won landmark legal cases in Supreme Court, they issued manifestos that garnered front-page attention in major media outlets like the New York Times. In other words, by making their agenda identical with that of secular liberalism, they were able to elevate their visibility and influence in the American religious marketplace out of proportion to their relatively tiny size.

There have been several recent efforts to classify humanism in America’s marketplace of religion. Some have stressed the differences between religious humanism and contemporary scientific humanism, while others contrast humanists with other contemporary non-theists.36 Differentiating humanisms in this way can be helpful for some kinds of analysis, but I find that to understand religious and secular humanism as part of a single larger movement helps to make sense of the intertwined history of these different strands of non-theism as well as helping to explain both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement in American culture.

In its first decades, humanism was made possible by the extremely close interaction between academic and religious institutions. That network of scholars and ministers proved to be a fertile ground for the movement. Later, as the group secularized, religious humanism did not disappear but rather moved outside of the main organization. Indeed, humanists still form a major faction within the Unitarian church; Ethical Culture still has societies around the country; Jewish humanism exists; and new humanist religious groups have arisen in recent years, such as the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. Non-religious humanism remains largely centered on publishing. The two main organizations in this regard are the American Humanist Association, which still publishes the Humanist, and the Center for Inquiry, which produces both the Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry. They all have annual conferences, and there are many local groups that are officially or unofficially affiliated with them spread around the country.

Ideological changes over its history occurred in large measure due to shifts in America’s cultural landscape. Humanists responded to contemporary events – wars, judicial decisions, cultural change, philosophical differences, and religious transformation – and as they did so, the idea of what it meant to be a humanist changed as well. These changes influenced the way that humanists were able to thrive and grow because they influenced the institutions that made humanism a viable social movement. In all, the organization of humanism in America has become much more complex over the years as different forms of humanism developed. It has come a long way since its inception one hundred years ago.


  1. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology (Eighteenth Century Collections Online: Text Creation Partnership, 1794), quote on p. 3,; Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 13–65; Peter Byrne, Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion: The Legacy of Deism (New York: Routledge, 1989); Stephen P. Weldon, “Deism,” in The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia, ed. Gary B. Ferngren, Edward J. Larson and Darrel W. Amundsen (New York: Garland, 2000), 158-160.
  2. Jacoby, Freethinkers, 66-103, 149-85; Leigh Eric Schmidt, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 1-24, and see also 210-248.
  3. D.G. Hart, “Nineteenth-Century Biblical Criticism,” in The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (New York: Garland, 2000), 79-82; Claude Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), vol. 1, 57-189; Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, The Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburgh for 1973-4 (Cambridge Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 161-228; Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Divided Mind of Protestant America, 1880-1930 (University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1982), chaps. 1-3.
  4. Charles Harvey Arnold, Near the Edge of Battle: A Short History of the Divinity School and the Chicago School of Theology, 1866-1966 (Chicago: Divinity School Association University of Chicago, 1966); Bernard E. Meland, “Reflections on the Early Chicago School of Modernism,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 5, no. 1 (1984): 3-12 (Cambridge University Press).
  5. David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985), 25-46.
  6. Robinson, 107-41; for a general history of this period in Unitarian history, see Charles H. Lyttle, Freedom Moves West: A History of the Western Unitarian Conference, 1852-1952 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952).
  7. William F. Schulz, “Making the Manifesto,” Religious Humanism 17 (1983): 88-97, 102; Mason Olds, American Religious Humanism, rev. ed. (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fellowship of Religious Humanists, 2006), 33-38.
  8. Edwin H. Wilson, “The Origins of Modern Humanism,” The Humanist 51, no. 1 (1991): 9-11, 28; Robinson, Unitarians and Universalists, 143-58.
  9. Horace Leland Friess, Felix Adler and Ethical Culture: Memories and Studies, ed. Fannia Weingartner (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 121-37, 209-23; John Herman Randall, “Introduction,” in A History of the Faculty of Philosophy, Columbia University, ed. Jacques Barzun (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), 3-57; John Herman Randall, “The Department of Philosophy,” in A History of the Faculty of Philosophy, Columbia University, ed. Jacques Barzun (NY: Columbia University Press, 1957), 102-45.
  10. Edwin H. Wilson and Teresa Maciocha, The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanist Press, 1995), 4-22; Edwin H. Wilson, Interview at Coco Beach, Florida by Earles on March 6, 1987, interview by Beverley Margaret Earles, March 6, 1987, American Humanist Association Archives; on one of the most supportive University of Chicago faculty, see Creighton Peden, A Good Life in a World Made Good: Albert Eustace Haydon, 1880-1975 (Peter Lang, 2006).
  11. Wilson and Maciocha, The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto, 23-38; “A Humanist Manifesto,” The New Humanist 6, no. (May/June) (1933): 1-5.
  12. Wilson and Maciocha, The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto, 16-22.
  13. Wilson, Interview at Coco Beach, Florida by Earles on March 6, 1987; The Conference on the Scientific Spirit and Democratic Faith, vol. 1 (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1944).
  14. A. Eustace Haydon et al., “Inquiry: Is Humanism a Religion,” The Humanist 2 (1942): 104-12.
  15. The International Humanist and Ethical Union and Its Member Organizations (Utrecht: IHEU, 1959). On the Wilson- Huxley correspondence, see, for instance, Edwin H. Wilson, “News and Notes,” Humanist 11, no. 2 (1951): 96. The transcripts of the papers presented at the First International Congress on Humanism and Ethical Culture, Amsterdam, August 21-26, 1952 are in the AHA archives.
  16. On the rise of scientific internationalism see: E. Crawford, T. Shinn and Sverker Sörlin, eds., Denationalizing Science: The Contexts of International Scientific Practice (Springer, 1992); John Krige and Kai-Henrik Barth, “Introduction: Science, Technology, and International Affairs,” Osiris 21, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 1-21, A good expression of this post-war internationalism among humanists is Sir Richard Gregory, “Science as International Ethics,” in The Scientific Spirit and Democratic Faith (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1944).
  17. “Resolutions of the American Humanist Association,” n.d., AHA archives; for portraits of awardees up to 1991, see Mildred McCallister and Lloyd Kumley, The Humanist of the Year Book (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanist Press, 1992). Maurice Visscher’s column, “Science for Humanity,” in the Humanist from 1948 to 1951 exemplifies the kind of articles featuring the activities of the intergovernmental agencies UNESCO, WHO, and the like.
  18. The full text of the Manifesto can be found online at the Pugwash site, here: For a participant’s account of the history of that movement, see Joseph Rotblat, Pugwash – The First Ten Years: History of the Conferences of Science and World Affairs (New York: Humanities Press, 1967).
  19. Edwin H. Wilson, “The Editor’s Interview: The Other Cyrus Eaton,” Humanist 16, no. 2 (1956): 86-87.
  20. The contrast between the early scientists like A. J. Carlson, Bernard Fantus, and Charles Judson Herrick and later humanists like Muller are striking. Some of this history can be found in my dissertation, Stephen Prugh Weldon, “The Humanist Enterprise from John Dewey to Carl Sagan: A Study of Science and Religion in American Culture” (Ph. D., University of Wisconsin – Madison, 1997), chap. 4. I talk about this in more depth in my forthcoming book: Stephen P. Weldon, The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming). The dissertation and the forthcoming book include results from research in two humanist archives: that of the American Humanist Association in Washington, D.C. and that of what is now called Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, New York. Both organizations were welcoming to inquiries about their group’s history.
  21. Two books that discuss the philosophical temper of this period in America are: Andrew Jewett, Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); and George A. Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (Cambridge University Press, 2005). I deal with this theme throughout in Weldon, “The Humanist Enterprise from John Dewey to Carl Sagan,” chap. 2.
  22. Carl R. Rogers and B.F. Skinner, “Some Issues Concerning the Control of Human Behavior,” Science 124, no. 3231 (1956): 1057-66; Carl Rogers, “Freedom and Commitment,” Humanist, 1964, 37-40; McCallister and Kumley, The Humanist of the Year Book; Weldon, “The Humanist Enterprise from John Dewey to Carl Sagan,” chap. 5.
  23. George P. Hansen, “CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview,” Journal for the American Society for Psychical Research 86 (1992): 19-63; Trevor Pinch and H.M. Collins, “Private Science and Public Knowledge: The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal and Its Use of the Literature,” Social Studies of Science 14, no. 521-546 (1984); Roy Wallis, “The Origins of CSICOP,” New Humanist, no. Summer (1985): 14-15; Weldon, “The Humanist Enterprise from John Dewey to Carl Sagan,” chap. 6.
  24. Paul Blanshard, American Freedom and Catholic Power, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958).
  25. James W. Fraser, Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America, 1st ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 137-40; Robert S. Alley, The Supreme Court on Church and State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 194-224; Joan Delfattore, The Fourth R: Conflicts Over Religion in America’s Public Schools (Yale University Press, 2004), 67-81; Edward J. Larson, Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution, 3d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 122-24.
  26. Two recent books that recount the complexity within the rise of fundamentalism in this form are Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  27. A couple of classic analyses of American Protestant Fundamentalism are Nancy T. Ammerman, “North American Protestant Fundamentalism,” in Fundamentalisms Observed, ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, vol. 1 (University of Chicago Press, 1991), 1-65; George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
  28. There is a lot of work done on the rise of the so-called new right in America during the Cold War and the link between anti-communism and Christian fundamentalism. See, for example, James A. Hijiya, “The Conservative 1960s,” Journal of American Studies 37, no. 2 (August 2003): 201-27,; Markku Ruotsila, “Carl McIntire and the Fundamentalist Origins of the Christian Right,” Church History 81, no. 2 (2012): 378-407; Hartman, A War for the Soul of America, 200-221.
  29. Petrzela, Classroom Wars; Claire Chambers, The SIECUS Circle: A Humanist Revolution (Belmont, Mass.: Western Islands, 1977); Weldon, “The Humanist Enterprise from John Dewey to Carl Sagan,” 243-56.
  30. Bette Chambers, “Why a Statement Affirming Evolution?,” Humanist 37, no. 1 (January/February) (1977): 23-24; Hee- Joo Park, “The Politics of Anti-Creationism: The Committees of Correspondence,” Journal Of The History Of Biology 33, no. 2 (2000): 349-70; Bette Chambers, “Bryan’s Ghost,” Free Mind 15, no. 6 (December 1972): 8; Paul Kurtz, “Secular Humanism Under Attack: Max Rafferty, God and Country,” Humanist 29, no. 5 (September/October) (1969): 1-2; Weldon, “The Humanist Enterprise from John Dewey to Carl Sagan,” 243-63.
  31. Paul Kurtz, “A Secular Humanist Declaration,” Free Inquiry 1, no. 1 (Winter) (81 1980): 3-7; Kenneth A. Briggs, “Secularists Attack ‘Absolutist’ Morals: 61 Scholars and Writers Denounce the Rise of Fundamentalism,” New York Times, October 15, 1980; Weldon, “The Humanist Enterprise from John Dewey to Carl Sagan,” 243-63.
  32. Joseph Langston et al., “Inside the Minds and Movement of America’s Nonbelievers: Organizational Functions, (Non) Participation, and Attitudes Toward Religion,” in Organized Secularism in the United States: New Directions in Research, ed. Ryan T. Cragun, Volume 6 (Boston: De Gruyter, 2017), 196.
  33. Howard B. Radest, “Ethical Culture and Humanism: A Cautionary Tale,” Religious Humanism 16, no. 2 (Spring 1982): 59-70; Edward L. Ericson, “Ethical Culture since Felix Adler: An Afterword,” in Felix Adler and Ethical Culture, by Horace Leland Friess (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 257-63; Horace Friess, “Needs of a Greater Humanity” (First International Congress on Humanism and Ethical Culture, Amsterdam, 1952).
  34. Noah J. Efron, A Chosen Calling: Jews in Science in the Twentieth Century, Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context; Variation: Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context, 2014, 12-38.
  35. Richard P. Cimino and Christopher Smith, “Secular Humanism and Atheism Beyond Progressive Secularism,” Sociology of Religion 68, no. 4 (2007): 407-24.
  36. Cimino and Smith, Lori L. Fazzino and Ryan T. Cragun, “‘Splitters!’: Lessons from Monty Python for Secular Organizations in the US,” in Organized Secularism in the United States: New Directions in Research, ed. Ryan T. Cragun, Volume 6 (Boston: De Gruyter, 2017), 57-86; John R. Shook, “Recognizing and Categorizing the Secular: Polysecularity and Agendas of Polysecularism,” in Organized Secularism in the United States: New Directions in Research, ed. Ryan T. Cragun, Volume 6 (Boston: De Gruyter, 2017), 87-112; Langston et al., “Inside the Minds and Movement of America’s Nonbelievers: Organizational Functions, (Non)Participation, and Attitudes Toward Religion.”


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Weldon, Stephen P. “Organized Humanism in the United States” In Looking Back to Look Forward, edited by Niels De Nutte and Bert Gasenbeek, 75-93. Brussels: VUBPress, 2019.

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