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Chapter 9: The American Humanist Association

The American Humanist Association

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One of the founding organizations of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, is sufficiently important as an example in the development of organized humanism that its individual history is worth recalling.

By the beginning of 1935, the Humanist Fellowship had evolved into the Humanist Press Association. In 1936, however, its publication, The New Humanist, folded. So a newsletter, The Humanist Bulletin, under the editorship of Edwin H. Wilson, was launched by the same organization. That was discontinued in 1941 to make way for a new journal, The Humanist, and a new name, the American Humanist Association. This Association’s first four presidents were all signers of “A Humanist Manifesto.” One of these, Curtis W. Reese, had, with John H. Dietrich, started the humanist movement within the United States in 1917.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, humanists, many of whom did not know of the AHA or care to belong to an organization, were involved in numerous civil liberty, birth control, and environmental protection cases often tried in court. The most prominent of these humanists was Corliss Lamont, philosopher and author of The Philosophy of Humanism, who successfully stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Another was Vashti McCollum, a housewife who later became president of the AHA. Her U.S. Supreme Court victory in McCollum v. Board of Education established that American public schools must be religiously neutral. On the environmental front, there was interest in the value of restraint and the damage done by runaway population growth—matters which are still insufficiently acted upon around the world.

During the middle 1950s, Hermann J. Muller, a Nobel Laureate in genetics, served as president. He, together with Chauncey Leake and Anatol Rapoport, approached the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggesting that the AHA could appropriately be its philosophical branch. The AAAS declined the proposal on the basis that the AHA’s membership did not include a high enough percentage of PhDs.

Psychologists and psychiatrists including Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Albert Ellis, B.F. Skinner, Carl Rogers, and Rudolph Dreikers all wrote extensively on humanism. One might call it their basic philosophy. Collectively their efforts gave a naturalistic slant to understanding and improving mental health and social well-being.

Mid-century, the AHA worked internationally through Karl Sax, Margaret Sanger, and William Vogt to slow population growth and became the first national membership organization to stand up for the right of a woman to have an abortion. Many of the leading abortion-law reform groups of the time had a significant humanist leadership—in particular, the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (now the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice) and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now NARAL Pro-Choice America). Also during this period, the AHA worked with the American Ethical Union to establish the rights of nontheistic conscientious objectors to opt out of combat service.

Ernest Morgan, humanist co-founder of the Arthur Morgan School, published A Manual of Simple Burial that soon inspired the development of memorial and cooperative burial societies nationwide—alternatives to the traditional mortuary-controlled system of burial.

Edwin H. Wilson, executive director of the AHA, as a side endeavor established the Fellowship of Religious Humanists (now the HUUmanists) to keep humanism alive and thriving within the newly merged Unitarian and Universalist denominations. In 1970, philosopher Paul Kurtz, editor of The Humanist, launched Prometheus Books as a humanist publishing house. It has grown to become the world’s leading publisher of freethought, humanist, and skeptical books.

“Humanist Manifesto II,” with the editorial guidance of Edwin H. Wilson, Roy Fairfield, and Paul Kurtz, was issued by the AHA in 1973, receiving front-page coverage in the New York Times. This new declaration modified the optimism of the earlier document, acknowledging that “Nazism has shown the depths of brutality of which humanity is capable,” and expanded the application of humanist ideas, including commenting on a broad range of social concerns.

The next year, the AHA established the National Commission for Beneficent Euthanasia which issued the groundbreaking statement, “A Plea for Beneficent Euthanasia.” This position paper, signed by medical, legal, and religious leaders, called for “a more enlightened public opinion to transcend traditional taboos and move in the direction of a compassionate view toward needless suffering in dying.” Today these ideas are a part of public discussion.

In 1975, the AHA solidified its position regarding the pseudoscience of astrology and again earned media attention with the publication of “Objections to Astrology.” This humanist consumer-advocacy statement was signed by 186 scientists, including eighteen Nobel Prize winners.

Early in 1976, under the guidance of sexologists Lester A. Kirkendall and Sol Gordon, the AHA issued “A New Bill of Sexual Rights and Responsibilities,” prompting Time magazine to remark that humanists celebrate responsible sexual freedom after centuries of bondage to church and state. Today most traditional religious denominations continue to grapple with the sexual issues humanists came to terms with decades ago.

In the wake of articles in The Humanist which were critical of pseudoscience, the AHA established in May of 1976 the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Through its membership of humanist leaders and scientists, CSICOP launched the Skeptical Inquirer, challenged pseudoscientific claims, and exposed much of the faulty experimentation, frauds, and fallacies of “psychic research.” Now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, it is a dynamic, independent consumer-information organization.

Early the next year, the AHA established itself as a major force in the creation-evolution controversy by issuing “A Statement Affirming Evolution as a Principle of Science” and sending copies of it to every major school district in the country.

In September 1977, the AHA took a vigorous stand against age discrimination in matters of employment and retirement. “A Declaration for Older Persons” was signed by members of Congress, labor leaders, housewives, business executives, and religious leaders, stirring further media attention. Many of the principles expressed in this statement have since become codified into law.

The 1980s was a period of vicious attacks on humanism by the religious right. Humanists responded with public debates, media appearances, articles, press conferences, lobbying, and in a few instances legal action. The high profile of these attacks has lessened, given the scandals that later rocked televangelism, but the skills honed during these turbulent years continue to help humanist leaders actively thwart new radical-right initiatives. Bringing new vigor to this effort was another AHA spin-off, the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (now the Council for Secular Humanism), founded in 1980 by Paul Kurtz. Meanwhile, the journal Creation/Evolution—the only periodical in the world devoted exclusively to answering the religious right’s creationist arguments—was launched by AHA executive director Fred Edwords. (Seventeen years later it would become part of a newer publication, Reports of the National Center for Science Education, still published today.) In 1985, world-renowned author Isaac Asimov became president of the AHA, serving until his death in 1992.

As humanists and the general public expressed a growing need for a nontheistic alternative in addiction care, the AHA made Rational Recovery a corporate division and launched it into the national limelight. Lois and Jack Trimpey had originated this unique substance-abuse program, originally based on the rational-emotive behavior therapy of Albert Ellis. Later, that effort branched into two independent humanistic programs, Rational Recovery and SMART Recovery.

In 1990 the AHA, with the inspired leadership of Maxine Negri, arranged a friendly merging with the Humanist Society of Friends, thereby reinvigorating the humanist counselor and celebrant program that makes humanist weddings, memorial services, and personal counseling available to a wide range of people seeking alternatives to traditional ceremonies and pastoral care. In that same year, humanist counselor James T. McCollum, son of Vashti McCollum, performed the first humanist wedding service ever conducted at West Point Military Academy.

The AHA returned to Chicago, the city of its roots, to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1991. Lester R. Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, and Werner Fornos, president of the Population Institute, were honored there as humanists of the year. Star Trek creator and longtime humanist Gene Roddenberry was recognized with the Humanist Arts Award.

In 1994 the AHA began blazing new trails in cyberspace. Humanist bulletin boards, chat rooms, e-mail lists, newsgroups, special interest groups, and websites began springing up, introducing humanism to a wider audience.

In 1995 the AHA, with the creative efforts of its president Edd Doerr, joined with a variety of secular organizations and religious groups in issuing “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law,” which influenced policy decisions nationwide and prompted favorable comment by then President of the United States Bill Clinton.

In 2000 the AHA moved its headquarters to Washington DC and began building its influence among political leaders and the nation’s leading activist organizations. A boost in its media outreach led to widespread awareness of humanist opinions on the critical issues of the day. And the release in 2003 of “Humanism and its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III” led to wider awareness of basic humanist principles. The document has been signed by twenty-two Nobel Laureates, among numerous other luminaries. More recently, through the leadership of Executive Director Roy Speckhardt, the AHA has expanded its operations, creating the Appignani Humanist Legal Center and the Kochhar Humanist Education Center.

Over the years the Association has stimulated the founding of chapters, alliances, and conferences to bring together people who share viewpoints and interests. Leaders of groups with innovative activities have included Arthur Jackson in San Jose and Tom Ferrick and Greg Epstein at Harvard University. The AHA is a member organization of the Secular Coalition for America, managed by Executive Director Lori Lipman Brown.

Among the Association’s programs have been essay contests for those under thirty. In the 1950s both Harper’s magazine and Galaxy were co-sponsors. Many winners are having socially significant careers. Two of these, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Timothy J. Madigan, are leaders in their fields. The contest continues today in The Humanist.

The Association’s Feminist Caucus has benefited from the unique efforts of Meg Bowman, Rosemary Matson, and Patricia Willis. Many others have in varying capacities shown by their lifestance how to make effective contributions to society: Barbara Dority, Beverley Earles, Gloria Steinem, and Carol Wintermute.

The Association has enjoyed the intellectual leadership of unique and capable individuals. Over the years Edd Doerr, a past president and student of religious liberty in crisis, has maintained accurate reporting of moves to destroy the separation of church and state. Gerald Larue and Robert Price have been depended on to provide understanding of archeological findings relevant to biblical and other religious texts. From the Ozarks Lester Mondale provided stimulating musings on living simply. Ethelbert Haskins opened new understanding of how the crises in Afro-American leadership could be constructively resolved. Delos McKown, Konstantin Kolenda, Paul Edwards, Anthony Flew, Roger Greeley, and Joseph E. Barnhart have highlighted philosophical insights and understanding. Philosophical explorations have recently expanded through the AHA’s philosophical journal, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, edited by Marian Hillar.

Throughout its history the association’s primary publication, The Humanist, has served as a major periodical, bringing humanist viewpoints and interpretations to bear on leading issues of personal and social concern. In the 1940s and 50s, for example, it carved intellectual frontiers by publishing material that showed how perceptions clinging to verbal bases limit common sense. Alfred Korzybski, Anatol Rapoport, Harry Lee Maynard, Allen Walker Read, and S.I. Hayakawa have been the leading humanists giving attention to this revolutionary approach in thinking and understanding known as general semantics.

In the 1950s leading physicists, sociologists, psychologists, and historians confronted in the pages of The Humanist such theoretical issues as science and human values, global human rights, and the problems of traditional systems of faith. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, as America was undergoing major social change, the magazine turned to addressing justice, racism, ways to reduce poverty, student unrest, communes, war, abortion, women’s rights, changing moral values, and the new cults of unreason.

Attention was given to the criminal justice system and how the building and staffing of prisons has degenerated into an employment and construction growth industry. Years ago The Humanist described how the criminal justice system can be effectively humanized. Less than ten percent of prisoners are habitually incorrigible before incarceration and these individuals can be identified and should be separated from society. Keeping many offenders in prison breaks their ties with family and friends, throws them out of the mainstreams of education and employment, and leads to lives of underachievement and despair. This is not just costly to the individuals but to our whole society.

In the 1980s The Humanist brought new attention to the consequences of uncontrolled immigration whereby individuals from other lands with limited skills compete with American citizens for jobs. The magazine also exposed the problem that population pressures such as under-employment are linked to gender discrimination and the traditional worldwide subjugation of women.

Three individuals, who eventually will be looked back on as significant twentieth century pioneers, have had frequent access to the pages of The Humanist. Fran P. Hosken, perhaps more than any other person, has kept alive and intellectually cross-fertilized the situation of women throughout the world. Her publication WIN News (Women’s International Network) gives current news of women’s concerns ranging from slavery, genital mutilation, labor, and gender discrimination to childbirth and healthy children.

Another enlightening thrust has come from Riane Eisler, whose study of how societies have historically become dominated and hence limited by males. She is best known for her landmark bookThe Chalice and the Blade.

Almost as significant as the work of Margaret Sanger is that of Stephen Mumford, who has outlined how inappropriate practices can lead to lopsided surges in population and the quality of living. He has revealed how the World Health Organization has knuckled under to the Vatican and accordingly largely neglects birth control programs. Together with health professionals in several nations, his pioneering effort is making available quinicrine, a relatively simple, safe, inexpensive, non-surgical female contraceptive.

As the religious right began its attacks, The Humanist reassured readers of the value of common sense and self respect. An example of this was an exposé by Gerard Straub, former producer of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.

Articles also focused on the humanization of health care. Work concentrating on the endeavors of Nathan, Ilene, and Robert Pritikin and Linus Pauling in the 1980s were strongly denounced by editors of medical journals who have now come to recognize the need for and value of preventive medical practices, including lowering fat intake and increasing that of herbs, vitamins, and minerals; practicing meditation and adopting positive mental attitudes.

Then, in the 1990s, increased attention was given to applying humanism directly to urgent issues of civil liberties and human rights. Exposé articles appeared on such subjects as the drug war, federal crime policies, employer misuse of “honesty tests,” government attempts to censor the Internet, church-state issues affecting the Boy Scouts of America, religious influence on national elections, international prostitution, the global landmine problem, and even the use of sweatshops in the toy industry. Among the social commentators who wrote for The Humanist were Dan Rather, Noam Chomsky, Faye Wattleton, Barbara Trent, Justice Harry Blackmun, and Howard Zinn.

The Humanist carried articles showing how less materialistic addictions can lead to a better sense of well-being. The quality of life was shown to be more important than the clogging possession-accumulation habit. Attention was given to how housing for those in need is often blocked by bureaucratic rules and regulations and union restrictions.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, The Humanist has critiqued the nation’s wars as well as policies on torture and government surveillance, challenged World Trade Organization policies, was awarded for its coverage of the sweatshop scandal, educated readers on global warming, analyzed problems with electronic voting machines, exposed government aid to religion, debunked faith-based prison programs, demystified Islam, explored transhumanism, supported same-sex marriage, and introduced “Humanist Manifesto III.” Well-known contributors have included Ann Druyan, Amy Goodman, Jim Hightower, Wendy Kaminer, Kate Michelman, Jonathan Miller, Robin Morgan, Ralph Nader, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, William F. Schulz, Steven Weinberg, and Edward O. Wilson.

One of the roles of the AHA throughout its history has been to inject mainstream society with energizing ideas and stimulate the development of new endeavors. As such, the Association serves to some extent as a “pilot organization,” an institution that initiates pioneering social programs that sometimes take on a life of their own. This helps explain why humanism in the United States has an influence out of proportion to its number of organized adherents.

Overall the AHA helps to provide the satisfaction and even joy of having a philosophy which lets one adjust to change and is in tune with knowledge. It provides added power to the desire to do right. Humanists recognize that unkindnesses and iniquities toward other people will not be remedied in an afterlife by a supreme being.

Annually the Association recognizes artists, pioneers and heroines who have made significant contributions to human betterment. Starting in 1953 a Humanist of the Year was designated, with the first honor going to Anton J. Carlson, a physiologist and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Subsequent recipients of this prestigious award have been the following humanists:

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