The following excerpt from Roy Speckhardt’s “Creating Change Through Humanism” (Humanist Press, 2015) is part of Humanist.com’s month-long celebration of the AHA’s 80th anniversary in April.
Humanism has an impressive history. With deep roots in the early Greek philosophers and in Eastern thinkers well before them, humanism grew during the Renaissance. It evolved during the Reformation, Enlightenment, and Scientific Revolution, and took its current form in the late nineteenth century. As it took its present form, it drew knowledge and wisdom from even more sources – from Jawaharlal Nehru to Nelson Mandela and more.
Beginning in 1927, a number of University of Chicago Unitarian professors and students who had departed from theism organized the Humanist Fellowship. Soon they started New Humanist Magazine, which provided a way forward for the Unitarian Movement. But most other members of the Church still thought of a “G” god as the glue necessary to bind ideas about people and people together.
At about the same time, Charles Francis Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York. Potter was a former Baptist and then a Unitarian Minister. He founded the society with the intention of being a religious organization and called humanism “a new belief for a new age”. Prominent members of this community were John Dewey, Julian Huxley, and Albert Einstein. Potter wrote a book called Humanism: A New Religion, in which he set out the basic requirements and points of what he termed religious humanism. His philosophy openly rejected traditional Christian beliefs and replaced them with a humanistic philosophy that encompassed various aspects of naturalism, materialism, rationalism, and socialism. Potter’s intention was to offer an ever evolving philosophy that updates itself as new knowledge is gained.
A major humanist milestone was reached in 1933 when a humanist manifesto was drafted with the collaboration and approval of 34 national leaders. This was a publicly signed document that outlined the basic principles of humanism. By 1935, the Humanist Fellowship was replaced by the Humanist Press Association.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) was founded in 1941 when Curtis W. Reese and John H. Dietrich, two prominent Unitarian ministers and humanists, restructured the Chicago Humanist Press Association into the American Humanist Association.
The aim was not to found a religion as Potter had originally intended, but rather to recognize the non-theistic and secular nature of humanism, organize its proponents, and orient the organization towards the mutual education of both its religious and non-religious members. This makes the American Humanist Association the oldest organization dealing with the breadth of humanism in the United States. The AHA began with the publication of the humanist magazine as a successor to the earlier publications to examine modern philosophical, cultural, social and political issues from a humanist point of view.
In the late 1940s, the organization supported Vashti McCollum in their fight against religious education in public schools. McCollum, mother of two boys, argued that religious education in public education violated the principle of the separation of church and state. Her case traveled to the US Supreme Court, where it ruled in her favor in 1948. In 1962, McCollum became the first woman to serve as AHA president, long before a number of Christian denominations began to ordain women.
In parallel to this localization and personalization of the humanistic philosophy, the empowerment of women within the organization took place. The humanist’s second editor was Priscilla Robertson, whose work began in 1956. One of the AHA’s earliest humanists of the year was Margaret Sanger, who received the award in 1957 and was honored for her dedication to birth control and sex education. But Sanger was only the first of many leading feminist and reproductive rights activists who worked closely with the AHA. Those in this category who received the AHA’s top honors included Mary Calderone and Betty Friedan in the 1970s, Faye Wattleton and Margaret Atwood in the 1980s, Kurt Vonnegut and Barbara Ehrenreich in the 1990s, and most recently Gloria Steinem in the year 2012.
In the 1960s, the AHA actively campaigned against the illegality of abortion. It was the first national affiliate to support abortion rights even before planned parenting was expanded to address the problem. Humanists have been instrumental in founding leading pro-choice organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice America, which continue to defend and support abortion voting rights.
Humanism and the AHA reached another milestone in the 1970s when the AHA published an important new humanist text, the Humanist Manifesto II. Designed by Edwin H. Wilson and Paul Kurtz, the work was published in 1973 for unprecedented media fanfare, including one detailed article on the front page of the New York Times dealing with humanist philosophy and the new manifesto. The manifesto was welcomed by many commentators and denounced as anti-religious and anti-godly by religious conservatives.
Following this release, the AHA continued on its energetic journey of renewed efforts and releasing key statements on death with dignity, objections to astrology, support for sexual rights, evolution and discrimination in the workplace.
In the 1980s, a rush of attacks by religious law began against secular humanism and the AHA. To counteract the trade-offs, the AHA launched its own campaign that included media appearances, public debates, nationally published articles, press conferences, lobbying and legal action. The world-famous author Isaac Asimov, who was interested in this debate, joined the AHA in 1985 as elected President.
When the AHA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1991, the humanist became an important alternative medium for social and political commentary. Through such efforts, the magazine has attracted and published the writing of greats like Alice Walker, Lester R. Brown, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, Noam Chomsky, Ted Turner, and many other leading journalists, writers, political leaders, and activists.
Kurt Vonnegut was named Humanist of the Year in 1992 and later became Honorary President of the AHA. Vonnegut, always true to his character, wrote to the AHA offices a decade later: “Here is my permission for you to quote every damn fool’s game I have ever said or written, for all eternity and without further notice or compensation to me. ”
The AHA was one of the first organizations to go fully online with the launch of its website in 1995. She continues to lead in online and social media communication with hundreds of thousands of followers during her active presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
One of the biggest decisions the AHA leadership made was to move the organization to Washington DC. Previously, the AHA had moved from Yellow Springs, Ohio, to San Francisco, California, to Amherst, New York. Convenience and economy issues had dictated the choice of each of these locations. But now the organization was making a strategic decision: moving to Washington DC would put humanism at the center of power and influence.
This would not have been possible without the support of the AHA Endowment Fund, now known as the Humanist Foundation, and a start-up grant from Lloyd Morain for a building in the country’s capital. The move to the new Humanist Center was completed in 2002 under the direction of Executive Director Tony Hileman. By taking this step, the AHA was empowered to significantly strengthen the humanist voice in public debate. [In 2017, the AHA made another move to an upgraded national headquarters in the heart of Washington, DC.]
The philosophy of humanism itself took a major evolutionary step in 2003 with the publication of Humanism and Its Aspirations, the Third Humanist Manifesto, signed by two dozen Nobel Prize winners. The third manifesto was more succinct than its two predecessors and was intended to continue the trend of clarifying humanistic philosophy in such a way that it honors core humanistic values and encourages humanists to take action to make this world a better place.
In DC, the AHA began leveraging best nonprofit practices and receiving full reviews from nonprofit organizations like the Better Business Bureau, Charity Navigator, and GuideStar. The AHA maintained and improved Humanist magazine, created the weekly digital newsletter theHumanist.com, and included the essays in the peer-reviewed journal Philosophy of Humanism.
The gradual changeover of the organization from a purely philosophical future-oriented organization to its current ability to actually bring about humanistic changes created a new environment in which advocacy for humanistic values was at the center of the AHA.
Looking ahead, the American Humanist Association, its members, chapters, affiliates, and publications vow not only to support and defend core humanistic values, but also to urge the public to examine and discuss humanistic and social issues. Guided by reason and humanity’s rapidly growing knowledge of the world, by ethics and compassion, and in the pursuit of a fuller, more meaningful life that contributes to the good of society and humanity, the members of the AHA envision a world of mutual care before concern about where the humanist way of life is known and respected and where people take responsibility for the world in which they live.