Secular Humanism in the United States

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Secular Humanism in the United States

The philosophy and ideology of secular humanism has its roots in Enlightenment thought and is based in large part on the Western tradition of liberalism and notions about the status and role of science in the modern world. At base it is a nontheistic belief system that upholds the prime importance of rationality, human autonomy, and democracy. The term secular humanism has come to be widely used in the United States to indicate both an explicitly worked-out humanistic worldview as well as a more ambiguous irreligious or nonreligious secularism with which it is often confused.

Influences on Humanism

The groundwork for modern humanism was laid during the Enlightenment by those philosophers who sought to purge religion of most of its superstitious elements and replace them with a deistic or atheistic rationalism. Thomas Paine's Age of Reason (17941796), which argues for a religion based on a belief that the world was created by a rational God, was one of the most important such works in this period.

In the nineteenth century, two major influences were important. First, at an institutional level, the Unitarian Church came into existence and by century's end had developed a commitment to toleration and a disavowal of any type of creedalism. This development, combined with the Unitarians' progressive, liberal ideology, created a framework that would accept the kind of religious radicalism that humanists came to espouse in the early twentieth century. The fact that humanism came to be institutionalized in the Unitarian Church would be both fortunate and problematic.

One of the most significant intellectual transformations of the nineteenth century was the widespread acceptance of a developmental view of the past. This revolution in thought had a profound effect on modern religious history. Although many people found ways to reconcile biological evolution and traditional religion, naturalistic evolution gave ammunition to critics of Christianity who branded it as intellectually stagnant and naïve. More important, however, developmentalism also made it possible to see human history as in flux; indeed when applied to religious history, it had the effect of relativizing religion. Humanism drew on both aspects of evolutionary thinking.

Religious Humanism

Humanism as a distinct intellectual movement arose in early-twentieth-century America among self-described religious humanists. It arose first among radical theologians, especially Unitarian clergymen, who saw religious humanism as anything but an irreligious movement; although these men entirely rejected the "God language" of their colleagues, they felt it essential to retain the institution of religion. Religion was a historical construction, they believed, which developed and changed over time to accommodate new social forms, and it would have to remake itself dramatically in order to continue to exist in the modern world. Already many Protestant modernist theologians were arguing that traditional religion was outdated, based as it was on views of God as a king or lord over creation, and that religion must change and embrace a democratic ethos. The humanists went further, rejecting all discussion of God as unjustified in a scientific age. And yet, they argued, religion itself was not defunct; it fulfilled certain social and psychological urges of human beings. The challenge for moderns was to find ways to integrate current scientific knowledge and democratic social values with the institutions of religion. This is largely what early religious humanism was designed to do.

Progress and Science

Liberal theologians were not the sole architects of twentieth-century humanism. These religionists were also joined by a number of well-respected academic philosophers in the Deweyan tradition, who were either fellow pragmatists or scientific naturalists. The influential Columbia University school of philosophy as well as a number of professors in mid-Western universities actively participated in the humanist movement.

Humanists by and large rejected teleology even as many other early-twentieth-century thinkers, philosophers and religionists alike, embraced it. No deity, the humanists argued, was responsible for the direction of the cosmos, nor did nature and human history have a direction apart from human effort and human will. Mankind, they said, should not look outside of humanity for assistance to their problems; our fate was entirely in our own hands. Although some thinkers who espoused these ideas came to be called futilitarians because of the somewhat pessimistic outlook that this notion of "man alone in the cosmos" seemed to connote, most humanists were not pessimistic. Indeed, one might characterize the humanist movement as driven by a powerful optimism concerning the ability of human beings to make their own future.

One reason that humanists remained optimistic about human progress in the face of an impersonal cosmos was that they held great faith in the ability of human beings to learn and apply their knowledge in rational and ethical ways. Scientific knowledge and technological control of nature gave human beings the power to identify problems and find solutions to them. Democracy and respect for human rights gave people the ethical framework within which to apply this knowledge. As a result, humanists have not been averse to considering technologies that claim to offer solutions to major social issues even when those technologies might otherwise challenge core beliefs about human nature and freedom. In recent years, for example, humanists have advocated psychological conditioning and genetic engineering as solutions to social problems. These ideas have not been unanimously or uncritically accepted by all who consider themselves humanists, but in general, scientific faith and technological optimism lie at the root of humanist thought, in contrast to a more skeptical and restrained approach to science and technology typical among more traditional religionists.

Humanism in American Culture

In the last third of the twentieth century, American humanism went through a variety of transitions, and the movement diversified and grew, although still remaining quite small in absolute terms. It was in this period that the term secular humanism came into currency, popularized by conservative Christians who saw humanism as a nascent secular religion. These religious conservatives argued that the extensive secularization of America in the second half of the century was largely a result of the influence of secular humanists in control of American social and cultural institutions.

They portrayed the issue as a constitutional problem. Since the late 1940s the federal judiciary had issued a series of landmark rulings strictly enforcing church-state separation and removing traditional religious influence on public institutions. This was especially true for public schools, where morning prayer and religious instruction were banned. At the same time, secular modernity strongly influenced those same institutions, and ideas opposed to traditional religious tenets were introduced. Evolution and sex education, for example, were integrated into the school curriculum. These changes seemed to many Christian critics to be tantamount to the establishment of a competing religion, which they identified with humanism.

The existence of the American Humanist Association (AHA), which was founded by Unitarian and Ethical Culture ministers, gave fodder to the critics' charges that humanism was a religion in its own right. A 1933 document, "A Humanist Manifesto," published by some of these early humanists and signed by such notable scholars as John Dewey, was frequently cited as evidence of the religious dogma of humanism. By tying this "religion without God" to secularization in general, the conservative Christians argued that the government was in many ways abetting the establishment of a humanist religion in flagrant violation of the First Amendment. And indeed, similar arguments underlay court challenges to the teaching of evolution in the public schools in this same period. This argument proved ineffective in Supreme Court battles in the United States, but it was effective in marshaling grassroots political support among conservative religious activists. Humanists for their part attacked the rise of Christian fundamentalism and defended their stance as truly secular; in fact, many humanists in the 1970s and 1980s explicitly rejected the "religious humanist" label as misleading.

In contrast to the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the decades after 1970 were not a comfortable time for humanists, who found their ideas under attack not only by conservative Christians but also in other areas of popular and elite culture. Humanists declaimed against the irrationality of superstitions and paranormal beliefs such as UFOs, haunted houses, and many alternative medical practices. Furthermore, they worried about growing irrationalism in the academy as postmodern philosophy gained popularity. In all of these arenas, it appeared to humanists that rational thought and scientific authority were endangered. Because of their long-held views that democracy and fundamental human rights were inseparable from modern, rational, scientific thought, humanists also worried about growing authoritarian tendencies and the decline of political liberalism.

The philosophy of humanism at the beginning of the twenty-first century is fostered by several membership organizations in North America, many of which publish nationally circulated magazines and newsletters; there is a successful publishing house directed by a major humanist leader; and the various organizations collaborate to support an institute for training humanist leaders. The movement is small but has established a stable and influential presence in American culture.

See also Religion and the State: United States ; Secularization and Secularism .


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Ehrenfeld, David W. The Arrogance of Humanism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Kurtz, Paul, ed. The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1973.

LaHaye, Tim. The Battle for the Mind. Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1980.

Lamont, Corliss. The Philosophy of Humanism. 7th ed. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Meyer, Donald H. "Secular Transcendence: The American Religious Humanists." American Quarterly 5 (winter 1982): 524542.

Radest, Howard B. The Devil and Secular Humanism: The Children of the Enlightenment. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Stephen Weldon

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Secular Humanism in the United States

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