NEW: The Humanist Special Collection at Meadville Lombard: the Humanist Special Collection houses archival materials that document the growth and impact of humanism within both Unitarian Universalism and the larger world. The Humanist Special Collection contains personal papers of major humanists, the records of humanist organizations and congregations, and collections centered around specific themes and events tied to humanism.
The following is an excerpt from former AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt’s Creating Change Through Humanism (Humanist Press, 2015):
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 continued to develop throughout the Reformation, Enlightenment, and scientific revolution and began to take its present shape in the late nineteenth century.
Beginning in 1927, a number of Unitarian professors and students at the University of Chicago who had moved away from theism organized the Humanist Fellowship. Soon they launched the New Humanist magazine, offering a path forward for the Unitarian movement. But most of the other church members were still thinking in terms of a capital “G” God as the glue necessary to bind ideas to people and people to each other.
Around the same time, Charles Francis Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York. Formerly a Baptist and then a Unitarian minister, Potter began the society with the intent of it being a religious organization, calling humanism “a new faith for a new age.” Prominent members of this community included John Dewey, Julian Huxley, and Albert Einstein. Potter wrote a book entitled Humanism: A New Religion, outlining the basic premise and points of what he termed religious humanism. His philosophy openly rejected traditional Christian beliefs and replaced them with a humanist philosophy that incorporated various aspects of naturalism, materialism, rationalism, and socialism. And unlike common religious ideas of the time, Potter’s intent was to offer an ever-evolving philosophy that would update itself as new knowledge was gained.
A major humanist milestone was achieved in 1933 when A Humanist Manifesto was written through the collaboration and agreement of thirty-four national leaders, including philosopher psychologist John Dewey and Unitarian author Lester Mondale. This was a publicly signed document detailing the basic tenets of humanism. By 1935 the Humanist Fellowship was supplanted by the Humanist Press Association, publisher of the New Humanist and the Humanist Bulletin.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) was formed in 1941, when Curtis W. Reese and John H. Dietrich, two well-known Unitarian ministers and humanists, reorganized the Humanist Press Association in Chicago, into the American Humanist Association.
The goal was not to establish a religion as Potter had originally intended but instead to recognize the nontheistic and secular nature of humanism, organize its advocates, and align the organization for the mutual education of both its religious and nonreligious members. This makes the American Humanist Association the oldest organization addressing the breadth of humanism in the United States. The AHA began publishing the Humanist magazine as the successor to the earlier publications, setting out to explore modern philosophical, cultural, social, and political issues from a humanist point of view.
At the end of the 1940s, the organization was supportive of Vashti McCollum in her fight against religious instruction in public schools. The mother of two boys, McCollum argued that religious instruction in public education violated the principle of separation of church and state. Her case traveled all the way to the US Supreme Court where, in 1948, she achieved a watershed ruling in her favor. In 1962, McCollum became the first woman to serve as AHA president—long before a number of Christian denominations began to ordain women.
Running parallel with this localizing and personalizing of the humanist philosophy was the empowerment of women within the organization. The second editor of the Humanist was Priscilla Robertson, whose work began in 1956. One of the earliest of the AHA’s Humanists of the Year was Margaret Sanger who received that award in 1957, honored for her activism for birth control and sex education. But Sanger was just the first of many of the leading feminist and reproductive rights activists to work closely with the AHA. Just among those in this category who received the AHA’s top award were 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 2012.
In the 1960s, the AHA was active in challenging the illegality of abortion. It was the first national membership organization to support abortion rights, even before Planned Parenthood expanded to address the issue. Humanists were instrumental in the founding of leading pro-choice organizations such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and NARAL Pro-Choice America. These organizations continue to defend and support elective abortion rights.
Humanism and the AHA reached another milestone during the 1970s when the AHA released a major new humanist text, Humanist Manifesto II. Drafted by Edwin H. Wilson and Paul Kurtz, the work was released during Labor Day weekend in 1973 to unprecedented media fanfare. The New York Times interviewed Kurtz after the AHA submitted a pre-publication press release announcing the new work. Following the interview, the Times published an in-depth, front-page article exploring humanist philosophy and the new manifesto. This article created a deluge of coverage in major publications around the world. Welcomed by many commentators, the manifesto was denounced by the religious conservatives as anti-religious and anti-God. Regardless, Humanist Manifesto II was a monumental achievement for the AHA in its goal to spread humanism to the public.
Following this release, the AHA continued on its energized path of starting new endeavors and publishing major statements on death with dignity, objections to astrology, support of sexual rights, evolution, and discrimination in the workplace.
The 1980s saw the beginning of an onslaught of attacks by the Religious Right against secular humanism and the AHA. In an attempt to counter the smears, the AHA began its own campaign, which included media appearances, public debates, nationally published articles, press conferences, lobbying, and legal action. Interested in this debate, world-renowned author Isaac Asimov joined in as the elected president of the AHA in 1985.
As the AHA celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1991, the Humanist became a major alternative medium for social and political commentary. Through such efforts, the magazine has attracted and published the writing of such luminaries as Alice Walker, Lester R. Brown, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, Noam Chomsky, Kate Michelman, Dan Rather, Ted Turner, and many other leading journalists, writers, political leaders, and activists.
Kurt Vonnegut was named Humanist of the Year in 1992 and went on to become the AHA’s honorary president. Always true to his character, Vonnegut wrote a decade later to the AHA offices: “Find here my permission for you to quote any damn fool thing I’ve ever said or written, through all eternity, and without further notice or compensation to me.”
The AHA was one of the first organizations to become fully active online with the introduction of its website in 1995. It remains a leader in online and social media communications with hundreds of thousands of followers throughout its active presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+.
One of the AHA leadership’s biggest decisions 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. Matters of convenience and economy had dictated the selection of each of these locations. But now the organization made a strategic choice: A move to Washington DC would take humanism to the center of power and influence.
This wouldn’t have been possible without the full agreement of the trustees of the AHA’s endowment fund, now called the Humanist Foundation, since they provided the funding, along with a seed grant from Lloyd Morain, for a building in the heart of the nation’s capital. Relocation to the new Humanist Center was completed in 2002 under the leadership of Executive Director Tony Hileman. Through this move, the AHA was empowered to substantially increase the humanist voice in the public debate.
The philosophy of humanism itself took a major evolutionary step in 2003 with the release of Humanism and its Aspirations, the third humanist manifesto, signed by two dozen Nobel Prize winners. More concise than its two predecessors, the third manifesto set out to continue the trend of clarifying the humanist philosophy in a way that paid tribute to core humanist values while challenging humanists to take action toward making this world a better place.
It was in DC where the AHA began to take advantage of best non-profit practices, achieving full ratings by charitable accountability organizations such as the Better Business Bureau, Charity Navigator, and GuideStar. The AHA maintained and improved the Humanist magazine, created the Free Mind newsletter for its members, and added the Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism peer-reviewed journal.
The AHA then got ahead of the curve online again by first taking over the Institute for Humanist Studies’ (a humanist organization founded by philanthropist Larry Jones and based in Albany, New York) podcast and e-zine and then launching TheHumanist.com as the first daily original content online news site for the movement. The Humanist Press publishing arm, founded in 1995, was re-launched in 2012 with a focus on bringing humanist voices to a larger market online by adding multiple well-reviewed titles every year.
In 2005, AHA board members had the creative concept of attempting the first movement-coordinated advertising campaign. Highlighting the benefits of mass media advertising as a way to reach people, no one initially realized how big an idea this would become. The first campaign ran in a series of progressive magazines, such as The Nation and the American Prospect, and had a mild message where everyday people cited their good values and concluded with, “I’m a humanist!” What was unexpected was that the campaign attracted some modest press attention that doubled the number of people who saw the ads.
From there it wasn’t long before we fully took advantage of how many people we could reach through advertising. In November 2008 came the AHA’s holiday ad campaign, the first of this kind of approach in the United States, where we labeled the sides of buses with slogans like, “Why Believe in a God? Just Be Good for Goodness’ Sake.” This brought in media attention worth millions of dollars and its success ignited annual holiday campaigns by multiple movement organizations from that day forward.
That same year, AHA’s billboard message “Don’t Believe in God? You are Not Alone” generated ten times the visibility that a typical billboard would attract. Soon it was expanded through a new program, launched in March 2009, called the United Coalition of Reason, founded by Steve Rade, AHA’s 2014 Humanist Business Leader. This funded ads in scores of media markets to help bring together the local secular, atheist, humanist, ethical, and freethought groups that already existed. It was a boon for all levels of the movement, stimulating attention, organization, and coordination as never before.
While more strident ads received attention, it was the simplest that seemed best. Just “One Nation Indivisible” on a flag background (instead of the Pledge of Allegiance’s “one nation, under God, indivisible”) yielded international press coverage for the North Carolina Secular Association in 2010. And the ads continued with the first coordinated radio effort and then the AHA’s “Consider Humanism” campaign in 2008, which compared Bible quotes with humanist quotes to emphasize a more inclusive, progressive morality. This included the first-ever nationwide network TV commercial from the nontheist movement.
Ads weren’t the only big changes in the AHA. The gradual conversion of the organization, from a merely philosophically forward-looking organization to its current capability to actually accomplish humanistic change, created a new environment. Two leading investors in humanism, each coming from different but compatible perspectives, jumpstarted these new capabilities. Lou Appignani took the perspective of a humanism stepping forward with a clear atheist perspective, whereas Pritpal Kochhar envisioned humanists leading the way even within religious communities.
With both on board, the AHA was able to keep its tent big enough for the full breadth of humanism. To ensure that the constitutional rights of humanists would be represented in court, the AHA launched the Appignani Humanist Legal Center in 2007. Through amicus brief activity, litigation, and other legal advocacy, this legal arm is now actively involved in church-state separation cases, nontheistic equal protection lawsuits, and the full range of humanist issues. Utilizing a strategy of combining staff lawyers with scores of mobilized pro-bono attorneys nationwide, the Humanist Legal Center has racked up an impressive win/loss ratio where almost every involvement leads to success. In 2013 when the case against “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance reached the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the AHA’s caseload dramatically expanded as a result of the attention, and the Humanist Legal Center expanded to continue supporting the growing base of clients.
Efforts to remove “under God” stepped up another level when the AHA launched the Boycott the Pledge campaign to encourage folks to actively challenge the religious language in the Pledge by legally sitting it out in protest. With kids and adults across the nation opting out of the Pledge, the caseload and win rate of the legal center continued to rise. Teachers illegally admonished students for not participating in the Pledge. In one case in North Dakota, a six-year old boy was lifted out of his seat by the teacher to force his participation. In another case in Pennsylvania a middle school girl who opted out was refused medical treatment from the school nurse. While the experience for most participants in the boycott was empowering whether or not they had a situation to contend with, it’s shocking how many schools are unaware of the legal right to not participate in the Pledge that the Supreme Court made clear in the 1943 case West Virginia State Board of Ed. v. Barnette.
In 2008 humanist education got a boost with the AHA’s establishment of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center. After study and pilot efforts, it published guides for establishing humanist education programs for both children and adults. These guides, supplemented with more material online and offline, helped local groups set up their programming. The KHEC also brought together a Humanist Teacher Corps to develop curriculum, present on positive principles, and be advocates for well-rounded curricula and textbooks in the public schools. And the Paths to Humanism project was initiated to develop introductions to humanism from the perspective of the world’s various religious traditions. By this means, the AHA provides a bridge for those who are essentially humanists but identify with a traditional faith—if that sounds confusing, think of them as atheists who happen to go to church, and by the numbers, there’s a great deal of them.
Through the addition of The Humanist Institute as an affiliate, the AHA now has a graduate level program in humanism, increasing the preparation of future humanist leaders. The Humanist Institute also offers a plethora of online courses in humanism and trainings for Humanist Celebrants and activists called the Kochhar Online Humanist Education program. It also prepares in-person trainings for key humanist functions such as officiating weddings or conducting funerals. Those interested in expanding their involvement in the humanist movement might wish to participate in what The Humanist Institute has to offer.
The Center for Freethought Equality is the AHA’s lobbying arm and employs a full-time lobbyist who is active daily on Capitol Hill. In 2011, the Center helped write the first part of a bill from the humanist movement ever sponsored in the House—the Darwin Day resolution. With the help of the Secular Coalition for America, it was sponsored in the Senate as well in 2015. The Darwin Day resolution, which has attracted increasing numbers of co-sponsors, seeks to make Charles Darwin’s birthday a nationally-recognized observance and to emphasize the teaching of science over creationism and the so-called intelligent design movement. Parallel to this effort, AHA also administers the Darwin Day Foundation, which now provides resources for hundreds of local Darwin Day events.
The Center for Freethought Equality also has a political action committee called the Freethought Equality Fund (FEF PAC). Since it doesn’t take long in Washington to learn that those who have political action committees capable of making contributions to help elect sympathetic candidates get taken a lot more seriously than those who don’t, it was time to get involved in elections. The FEF PAC exists “to change the face of American politics and to achieve equality by increasing the number of open humanists and atheists in public office at all levels of government.” The FEF PAC provides nontheistic Americans the opportunity to make their voices heard in the political process by supporting candidates who identify as humanist, atheist, or agnostic—as well as supporting those who share the goals of protecting the separation of church and state and defending the civil liberties of secular Americans.
The AHA also launched and expanded other programs during this time. The LGBTQ Humanist Alliance boosted local LGBTQ activism among humanists and attracted AHA awardees Candace Gingrich-Jones, George Takei, Greta Christina, and Dan Savage to the organization. The AHA similarly reorganized the Feminist Humanist Alliance and launched the Black Humanist Alliance in 2016 to deepen the involvement on social justice issues. And the AHA participates in nontheistic coalitions like the Secular Coalition for America and the International Humanist and Ethical Union as well as several issue-based coalitions addressing everything from torture to reproductive rights.
Looking ahead, the American Humanist Association, its members, chapters, affiliates, and publications vow to not only support and defend core humanist values but also to press the public to consider and discuss humanist issues and social concerns. Guided by reason and humanity’s rapidly growing knowledge of the world, by ethics and compassion, and in the pursuit of fuller, more meaningful lives that add to the greater good of society and humanity, the members of the AHA envision a world of mutual care and concern where the lifestance of humanism is known and respected, and where people take responsibility for the world in which they live.