Chapter 8: The Development Of Organization
The Development of Organization
Although many humanists throughout the world do not belong to any organization with the humanist name, groups have formed on six continents. The International Humanist and Ethical Union, based in London, represents upwards of four million humanists organized in over 100 national organizations in forty countries. It is an international non-governmental organization with Special Consultative Status at the United Nations, General Consultative Status at the UN International Children’s Educational Fund (UNICEF) and the Council of Europe, and maintains operational relations with the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The organization also has offices in New York City for the IHEU-Appignani Center for Bioethics and works closely with the European Union. The IHEU celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2002 by conferring the International Humanist Award on Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen at its World Humanist Congress in Amsterdam.
Forerunners of Modern Humanist Organizations
Around 1850, Auguste Comte, a pioneer French sociologist formulated a “religion of humanity” based on his intellectual philosophy of Positivism. He wrote: “Every subversive scheme now afloat has either originated in Monotheism or has received its sanction” and “there are now but two camps: the camp of reaction and anarchy, which acknowledges more or less distinctly the direction of God; the camp of construction and progress, which is wholly devoted to Humanity.” Positivist clubs and congregations were formed in Europe and the Americas. In 1881 the Church of Positivism was established in Brazil. It continues to this day and Comte’s slogan, “Order and Progress,” is part of the Brazilian national flag. Comte’s humanistic religion was warmly regarded by William James and F. C. S. Schiller.
Apparently independent of Comte, in London, England, the Humanistic Religious Association was formed in 1853. Declaring, “We have emancipated ourselves from the ancient compulsory dogmas, myths and ceremonies borrowed of old from Asia and still pervading the ruling churches of our age,” these early religious humanists gathered democratically for cultural and social meetings and provided for the education of their children and assistance to members in need. Then, more than a decade later, in 1866, freethinking social reformers united under the leadership of Charles Bradlaugh to form the National Secular Society, a more activist organization that would, within a century
become fully identified with humanism. Meanwhile, in Germany in 1859, a new liberal Christian denomination, the Bund Freireligioser Gemeinden Deutschlands (Federation of Free Religious Congregations of Germany) was established. It, too, would become humanist a century later.
In 1867, in response to a temporary turn toward Christian creedalism in the American Unitarian Association, dissenters founded the Free Religious Association. Organized in Boston, Massachusetts, under the leadership of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it appealed not only to theological radicals among Unitarians, but also to non-Christian religious liberals. Among its later luminaries were Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, organizer of Reform Judaism, and Felix Adler, founder of Ethical Culture. The association, however, never moved beyond what it would eventually call humanistic theism, and it ceased to exist by the outbreak of World War I.
During the late nineteenth century the brilliant works of Robert Green Ingersoll and Mark Twain loosened the hold of religion for millions of people.
In 1876, Felix Adler established the New York Society for Ethical Culture as an organization devoted to ethical behavior of individuals, rather than to creedal statements. Both ritual and prayer were excluded from meetings and social service became a central focus. Its underlying philosophy was a neo-Kantian, transcendental idealism. Soon other ethical societies were set up in Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Together with Unitarians, settlement houses were established. Such activities gave emphasis to the development of social work as a profession. The movement later inspired the development of the Legal Aid Society, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and other major American reform efforts.
Influenced by Ethical Culture, Moncure Conway, an American minister of a Unitarian chapel in London, England, began guiding his congregation in a specifically ethical direction until, in 1887, his church became the South Place Ethical Society. In 1896, the International Ethical Union was established and, for over four decades, it united Ethical Culturists in the United States with those in the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and New Zealand.
Though Ethical Culture did not fully identify itself with a non-transcendental humanism until the 1950s, it was indirectly involved in the adoption of humanism as a modern term.
In 1915, a Positivist, Frederick James Gould, writing in a magazine published by the British Ethical Societies, used the word to denote a belief and trust in human effort. Reading the article, John H. Dietrich, a Unitarian minister in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was influenced to view humanism as the best name for his new, fully naturalistic, religious outlook.
This came at a time when dissent was strong within American Unitarianism—a struggle between ministers, on one side, who wanted a creed that would exclude both nontheists and other post-Christian dissenters from the denomination and ministers, on the other side, who opposed such creedalism. Among the dissenters were two others who had used the term humanism in a modern sense: Edward Howard Griggs, author of The New Humanism: Studies in Personal and Social Development, published in 1899, and Frank Carleton Doan, author of Religion and the Modern Mind, published in 1909. But it wasn’t until Dietrich and another forthright nontheist, Curtis W. Reese, combined their efforts at the Western Unitarian Conference of 1917, that the humanist movement got underway in both name and substance. A year later, academic philosopher Roy Wood Sellars published The Next Step in Religion, a book that added vitality to religious humanism.
As other philosophers (particularly John Dewey, Charles Morris, Max Otto, Oliver L. Reiser, and later Sidney Hook and Corliss Lamont) fed the growing stream of ideas, humanism became more widely accepted as a term in Unitarian, Universalist, Ethical Culture, and Quaker congregations, as well as among freethinkers and thoughtful academics.
Simultaneously, literary humanism, with a different emphasis as featured by Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt, was widely discussed early in the twentieth century.
Early Humanist Groups
With interest in the philosophy aroused, a number of Unitarian professors and seminarians at the University of Chicago and Meadville Seminary came together in 1927 to form the Humanist Fellowship. The next year they launched The New Humanist, the first journal devoted exclusively to serving the young movement. That same year, evolutionary scientist Julian Huxley, in Religion Without Revelation, set forth the principles of humanism in a popular fashion.
In 1929, Charles Francis Potter, a Unitarian minister who had served as Clarence Darrow’s biblical expert at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, left his denomination and founded the First Humanist Society of New York. There he and Sherman Wakefield offered humanism as “a new faith for a new age.” This stimulated wide interest.
Also that year, in Bangalore, India—apparently unconnected with similar activity in the West—a humanist club was established with Colonel Raja Jai Prithvi Bahadur Singh of Nepal as its first president. Rabindranath Tagore was among its members. Elsewhere in India, various rationalist and freethought groups had been functioning since the late 1800s. Out of this diverse effort grew Self-Respect, a highly influential social and political reform movement founded in Madras in 1925 by Periyar. Openly nontheistic, the Self-Respect movement opposed the caste system and Hindu beliefs, supported human rights, and promoted science. Periyar later identified his efforts with humanism.
The depression year 1933 was when thirty-four intellectual leaders formulated and signed a document called “A Humanist Manifesto,” which was first published in The New Humanist. Unitarian ministers Raymond B. Bragg and Edwin H. Wilson took the lead in this initiative. Today, that document, though not a creed, is sometimes considered dated, but its basic analysis and aspirations are acknowledged as appropriate for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
In California in 1939, a group of Quaker humanists, led by Lowell H. Coate, broke away from their denomination and, at a meeting of the First Universalist Church of Los Angeles, established the Humanist Society of Friends. Inspired by the Humanist Manifesto, they offered “a scientific religion for a scientific age and a universal ethics which shall end war.” Meanwhile, a similarly inspired intercollegiate science seminar, whose coordinators were H.G. Burns, J. T. Stockdale, Daniel Levinson, and one of the authors (Lloyd), became the Los Angeles Scientific Humanist Group. The writings of George Bernard Shaw had influenced some of the members. During this time humanist Bertrand Russell came to teach at the University of California at Los Angeles. Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley, also from England, as well as German novelist Thomas Mann and philosopher Hans Reichenbach, added to the rich humanist presence which is still felt in Southern California today.
Following World War II, three prominent humanists became the first directors of major divisions of the United Nations: Julian Huxley of UNESCO, Brock Chisholm of the World Health Organization, and John Boyd-Orr of the Food and Agricultural Organization.
Huxley, in particular, called for a global humanist vision. In his monograph, UNESCO: Its Purpose and Its Philosophy, he pointed out the necessity of transcending traditional philosophies, theologies, and political-economic doctrines and the importance of recognizing the evolutionary basis of culture. Science, he said, needs to be integrated with other human activities, and the general philosophy of UNESCO should be a scientific humanism, global in extent and evolutionary in background. But Huxley’s effort was only partially successful; representatives holding onto nationalistic and traditional views blocked and jettisoned the forthrightly humanist aspects of his proposal.
In postwar Europe, humanist secular organizations sprang up in a number of countries, particularly Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands. In India, M. N. Roy launched the politically focused Radical Humanist Movement, which for some years had a large impact; and Gora, an associate of Mohandas Gandhi, expanded the Atheist Centre, a humanistic social service institution he had established in 1940. Shortly thereafter Jawaharlal Nehru, a thoroughgoing humanist, became India’s leader.
Around this time a number of small beginnings were forming in Africa. The authors visited population workers and humanists in 1959 in Nigeria including Samuel Etu, an educator whose school library had a complete set of the published writings of Robert Ingersoll. One of the authors (Mary) was scheduled to speak to the humanist group in Lagos. Our automobile broke down in central Nigeria and we hitchhiked, arriving with only an hour to spare. To Mary’s surprise only three current members showed up with the explanation given that the majority of the members were in prison for advocating social changes.
In the United Kingdom, Harold Blackham of the British Ethical Union began discussing with humanists throughout the world the desirability of establishing closer international cooperation. Together with Professor Jaap van Praag of the Netherlands and others, meetings were held at the Municipal University of Amsterdam in August 1952. Chaired by Julian Huxley, it hosted over two hundred humanists from around the world, including Gilbert Murray of the United Kingdom, Jerome Nathanson from the United States, and V.M. Tarkunde of India. The authors were present and one (Mary) became a member of the board of directors of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the organization that emerged from the gathering.
Among the first actions of the IHEU were decisions to support the World Federation of Mental Health, meeting in Brussels, Belgium, and the World Conference on Planned Parenthood, meeting in Bombay, India. After considerable thoughtful discussion, a declaration setting forth the fundamentals of modern ethical humanism was adopted.
This declaration offers humanism as “a third way out of the present crisis of civilization,” being an alternative to revealed religion on the one hand and totalitarian systems on the other. Humanism supports democracy, not only in the political realm but in “all human relationships.” It “seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. . . . Science gives the means but science itself does not propose ends. . . . Humanism is ethical,” affirming human dignity and “the right of the individual to the greatest possible freedom of development compatible with the rights of others.” In so doing, humanism “rejects totalitarian attempts to perfect the machine in order to obtain immediate gains at the cost of human values.” It “insists that personal liberty is an end that must be combined with social responsibility in order that it shall not be sacrificed to the improvement of material conditions.” And it is “a way of life, aiming at the maximum possible fulfillment, through the cultivation of ethical and creative living.”