By Steve Wolfgang
A problem encountered by many who have attempted to discuss “humanism” is agreement upon a definition of exactly what it is. Is it simply interest in (or devotion to) a study of “humanities”? A concept of inherent dignity of humans? A distinction between “man” as opposed to animals and/or “nature”? Or a “secular” humanism which seeks to enthrone man and his will at the expense of faith in God? Is it membership in some “organization”? Or something quite different?
Due to constraints of space, and for the limited purposes of this article, it shall be necessary for us to confine our discussion to those who endorse the concepts of Humanist Manifestos I and II; or, even more specifically, those who are “card-carrying” humanists, that is, those with some affiliation with the American Humanist Association. Thus, while it is possible to identify as “humanists” a wide variety of thinkers (Darwin and Marx, Nietsche and Sartre, Freud, Fromm, and Skinner, Bultmann and Kung, as well as others), we are concerned here with a more specific set of individuals.
As we shall see, however, these individuals span the whole scope of human thought – not only philosophy, religion, and ethics, but history, psychology, sociology, political science, literature, music, and other art forms, to say nothing of the natural sciences. Thus, this humanistic way of seeing the world has seeped into every area of study and thought.
Beginning with Humanist Manifesto I, it is logical to begin with John Dewey, reputed to be a major author of the document. Partly due to his long tenure at Columbia University’s School of Education, Dewey had as much or more influence as anyone on the course of American educational philosophy. James, Hitchcock, history professor at St. Louis University and author of What Is Secular Humanism? (an excellent book) notes that “the manifesto certainly represented Dewey’s personal beliefs, and through it he was able to disseminate them widely and strategically.”(1)
Also a signatory of Manifesto I was Harry Elmer Barnes, an historian who also taught for many years at Columbia University in New York City. In his History of Historical Writing, Barnes applauds “a notable and healthy secularization of supernaturalism enormously declined,” but that “the findings of modern have . . . undermined the older dogmatics and apologetics,” making it “woefully apparent how inadequate are the orthodox conceptions of the extent, nature, and control of the cosmos.”(2)
Besides Lester Mondale, whole half-brother became vice-President in 1977, other signatories included men such as Charles Francis Potter, author of The Lost Years of Jesus Revisited, a book that attempted to portray Christ as a sort of re-made mythical desert Essene.(3) Attempting to capitalize on the furor over the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it has been described by a respected bibliographer of the Scrolls as a book that “from front cover to last word was clearly sensationalism” and whose author was characterized as a “pulp writer” without “the slightest degree of Qumran scholarship.” This same scholar further remarked that Potter wrote “with one obvious purpose: to attack historic Christianity.”(4)
Also signing Manifesto I was Edwin Arthur Burtt, sage Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University. In a lengthy and informative chapter on “Humanism” in his book, Types of Religious Philosophy, Burtt identifies at least one strain of humanism as “a further development of modernism.”(5) The chapter contains a number of revealing statements such as: “Jesus had no appreciation of the value of intelligence as the most dependable human faculty for analyzing the perplexities into which men fall . . . His theory of the world . . . is squarely opposed to the scientific naturalism that a frank assessment of experience increasingly compels modern man to accept.”(6)
Also affixing his signature to Manifesto I (and II as well) was John Herman Randall, Jr., philosophy professor at Columbia University. In his book, The Making of the Modern Mind (published not long after Humanist Manifesto I was distributed), he includes a chapter on “The Religion of Reason: The Spread of the Humanistic Spirit.” Included in that chapter are the following comments: “a careful examination of [Old Testament] prophecy, taken in a literal and not a highly figurative sense, makes it quite impossible to believe that Jesus ever fulfilled a single one.”(7) Furthermore, “the great philosopher Hume” in Randall’s opinion “so demolished [the value of miracles] that to this day apologists have had their greatest difficulties, not in proving Christianity by miracles, but in explaining how such impossible ideas ever crept into the record.”(8)
Thirty years later, not long before signing Humanist Manifesto II, Randall wrote that although it is “an unacceptable conclusion” that Jesus never actually existed, he allowed that critics had “thrown doubts on all the positive evidence for his existence” and that even so elementary a belief “that Jesus of Nazareth did live on earth” is something that “seems to rest on . . . faith rather than on any evidence.”(9) Furthermore, according to Randall, “Christianity, at the hands of Paul, became a mystical system of redemption, much like the cult of Isis, and the other . . . mystery religions of the day.”(10)
Other signers of Manifesto I included David Rhys Williams (minister of First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY for more than thirty years), Rabbi Joseph Jacob Weinstein, and Roy Wood Sellars, philosophy professor at the University of Michigan for more than fifty years.
Humanist Manifesto II
The number of individuals signing Humanist Manifesto II is much greater than for the first Manifesto. Many of the signees are “humanist counselors” or individuals connected in some official capacity with various humanist organizations. Several are psychologists or medical doctors, and there are a significant number of Unitarians on the list. One of the most numerically significant groups, as might be expected, are college professors. These professors come from various universities on several continents, and span the range of disciplines from philosophy to anthropology, mathematics to education, religion to psychology, and others.
An overview of some of the better-known individuals endorsing Manifesto II is provided by Hitchcock:
The list of signers for the second manifesto was considerably longer than for the first, indicating that Humanism had become more respectable in the intervening forty years. It included:
– influential philosophers Brand Blanshard, Antony Flew, Sidney Hook, John Herman Randall, Jr., and Sir Alfred Ayer;
– authors Isaac Asimov and John Ciardi;
– Paul Blanshard, for many years the most prominent anti-Catholic writer in the United States;
– prominent scientists Francis Crick, Andrei Sakharov’ Zhores Medvedev, and Herbert Muller (Sakharov and Medvedev are Soviet dissidents);
– Edd Doerr, director of the organization Americans United For Separation of Church and State (formerly Protestants and Other Americans United), which played a major role in the secularizing of public education in the United States after World War II;
– leading “sexologists” Albert Ellis, Lester A. Kirkendall, and Sol Gordon;
– influential psychologists H.J. Eysenck and B.F. Skinner;
– Allen F. Guttmacher, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America;
– Lawrence Lader, chairman of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws;
– Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal clergyman and the leading proponent of “situation ethics” in the United States;
– Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization of Women; – Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist with worldwide influence;
– A. Philip Randolph, a long-time leader in both the labor and civil-rights movements in the United States.(11)
Those perhaps most readily recognized by readers of this journal might be Joseph Fletcher, of 1960’s “situation ethics” fame, Antony Flew (whose 1975 debate with Thomas B. Warren on the existence of God is still in print), and rabid anti-creationist writer Isaac Asimov.
With the number and diversity of those openly advocating the views explicitly stated in these documents (as well as the less obvious “hidden agendas” implicit in the writings of many of these individuals), is it any wonder that our society is heading so rapidly toward an open hostility to anything remotely resembling Christianity? Unless this trend is reversed by believers bravely and willingly standing up and speaking out, we may see in our lifetime the sort of open hostility that was present in the first century. Of course, the Christianity will survive, even as it did then, but it may prove to be a time of trial beyond the wildest imaginations of twentieth-century American Christians. Truly it is a time to watch and pray.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 14, pp. 417, 434-435
July 19, 1984