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A History of the Humanist Manifesto

A History of the Humanist Manifesto

I wrote this paper in 2007 for a non-fiction writing class, in which we had to do a short research paper with documentation within the text. Since it was originally eleven pages long, I will make it into a three part series for this site. I have also edited it and updated it slightly from the original.

The Humanist Manifesto, found in Corliss Lamont's book titled The Philosophy of Humanism or on the American Humanist Association (AHA) website, is a written statement that declares publicly the intentions, motives, and views of Humanists, which are modified, improved, or reapplied as society changes, but the most basic ideas of modern Humanism have remained strikingly consistent and unwavering. It is a misunderstood and criticized document by many, especially the religious, who do not know what Humanism is. The Manifesto is an ever-evolving statement of a philosophy and lifestance, not a creed or doctrine of a religion. These misconceptions about Humanism have existed since 1933 when the first Humanist Manifesto was written and publicized.

First, a generic definition of Humanism is necessary in order to explain the various changes over the years. The AHA, established in 1941, defines Humanism as "a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment that aspire to the greater good of humanity". This definition covers both Religious and Secular Humanists' basic principles.

However, Religious Humanists have non-theistic beliefs based on their religious cultural background and not the traditional religious beliefs of the theistic doctrine. Non-theism simply includes both atheism and agnosticism or those who live their lives without theism.  I cover these terms and give various examples, so that people can understand the difference between the various humanistic views and see how humanism, as well as the various views evolved since the first Humanist Manifesto.

The Unitarians, who assisted in forming the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933, were Religious Humanists. As we read over the first one, some probably shared similar views to those like Bishop John Shelby Spong; author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Anthony Freeman; author of God In Us: A Case for Christian Humanism, and Don Cupitt; author of Reforming Christianity and After God. All three men are retired bishops and priest of the Anglican Communion. Their view does not see the Bible as the inerrant word of God nor does it recognize a supernatural deity.

In fact, Anthony Freeman not only states religion is a human creation in his book, he also says, on page 22:

If we are to take seriously the non-supernatural form of Christianity, which I am commending, then the emphasis of religion shifts from heaven to earth, from the next world to this one, and from dogma to spirituality and ethics. But religion still has an important place in human life.

In addition, on page 37 he states, "The idea that the Holy Spirit is a supernatural force invading this world (with or without wind and fire), and the idea of God the father as a supernatural person somewhere beyond the realms of time and space, have got to go."

The Sea of Faith, which is a mix of Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, and Anglicans, gives their view with this definition on their site:

Sea of Faith is most closely associated with the non-realist approach to religion. This refers to the belief that God has no 'real', objective or empirical existence, independent of human language and culture; God is 'real' in the sense that he is a potent symbol, metaphor or projection, but He has no objective existence outside and beyond the practice of religion. Non-realism therefore entails a rejection of all supernaturalism – miracles, afterlife and the agency of spirits.

Its stated aim is to 'explore and promote religious faith as a human creation'.

Below is a fifteen-minute interview, from Philosophy Bites, of Don Cupitt concerning non-realism. Don Cupitt also talks about atheism in the interview and said he beliefs in life. He is “not an atheist in the sense of a dogmatic atheist because that presupposes that there is one clear fixed notion of God,” which he stated is not true.

Cupitt on Non-Realism

These quotes are essentially non-theistic, certainly non-supernaturalistic, though they still affirm some legitimacy for god talk. They focus on the idea that God is a human concept that is natural to the human, such as love and compassion, instead of supernatural, and some call themselves Religious Humanists.

However, these quotes only show humanistic Christianity. There are Judaic Humanists or Humanistic Jews, who are culturally Jews.  Greg Epstein who is the Humanist Chaplin of Harvard University, is said to be one example of a Humanistic Jew.  Then there is Islamic Humanists such as Salman Rushdie is said to be. These last two groups do not have as much god talk, if any at all. In fact, Epstein and Rushdie are more focused on the human and less on religion than Spong, Cupitt, or Freeman are.

Secular humanism is an outgrowth of the eighteenth century enlightenment and the nineteenth century freethought. The Center For Inquiry (CFI) and Council for Secular Humanism, which Paul Kurtz started after 1973, are two examples of this group and most do not associate with religious culture or even a church. Very few attend even a Unitarian Church.

The Council for Secular Humanism defines Secular Humanism as a comprehensive, nonreligious lifestance incorporating:

  • »  A naturalistic philosophy
  • »  A cosmic outlook rooted in science
  • »  A consequentialist ethical system

Other forms of humanism, such as literary humanism, humanistic psychology, spiritual humanism, modern humanism, Christian humanism, and western cultural humanism exist, but my focus will be religious humanism, of which I group Christian humanism into, and Secular humanism, since they are the more common ones. I group Christian humanism into religious humanism, because I view it as a subset of religious humanism and I think Robert Price gives a good and rather humourous explanation between the two in his essay “Religious and Secular Humanism- What’s the Difference?” It is this view and the AHA's view in which I base many of my own definitions of the two in my essay.

In his essay, he compares the two views as thus:

Religious humanists such as Don Cupitt's Sea of Faith movement in the United Kingdom continue to perform religious rites although they don't believe in the supernatural or in any metaphysically real deity. They know full well that the motions they are going through are human creations from start to finish. But they think that is no reason not to perform them!

Secular humanists could, too—but what makes them secular humanists is that they just aren't interested. I guess it's like having a friend who's engrossed in Creative Anachronism or Civil War reenactment or attending Star Trek fan conventions. More power to them, but it's not for me. And why should it be?

Therefore, definitions and descriptions vary just as much as other forms of Humanism. Some may give a cultural definition instead of a human concept of these ideas, but the generic definition states that Religious Humanism emerged out of Ethical Culture, Unitarianism, and Universalism. The intended sense of "religious" here, according to Frederick Edwords in his essay "What is Humanism" found on the AHA website, is a functional one, in which religion serves the personal and social needs of a group of people sharing the same philosophical worldview. The concepts of Religious Humanism do not focus on the supernatural or an external realm separate from earth, but rather on a natural concept that is internal to the human. Yet science and reason are important to both Religious and Secular Humanism, but the latter has no religious views. Science and reason are two of the ways as to how humanistic thought changes over time.

These various definitions are important, because the Humanist Manifesto I was drawn up by Unitarians, especially those who feared a creed, and Secular Humanists. This document is not a creed or a statement of doctrine, because Humanism is not a faith. It is a philosophy and stance for an ethical way of life that strives to better humanity without supernaturalism. It rejects dogma and extreme religious views, but it is not against religion, contrary to the religious conservatives. Instead, it seeks to give constructive criticism concerning religious dogma that could be harmful to society. All three Humanist Manifestos affirm life, science, and ethics even though revisions were made over the years, due to society always changing, because none of Manifestos is set in stone, unlike religious doctrine.

Up next: The Humanist Manifestos.

About Mriana

Mriana is a humanist and the author of "A Source of Misery", who grew up in the Church of God, Anderson Indiana. After she became an adult, she joined the Episcopal Church, but later left the Church and became a humanist. She has two grown sons and raises cats. Mriana raised her sons in the Episcopal Church, but in their teen years, they left the Church and she soon followed. One of her sons became a "Tao Buddhist" and the other a None, creating his own world view. She enjoys writing, reading, science, philosophy, psychology, and other subjects. Mriana is also an animal lover, who cares for their welfare as living beings, who are part of the earth. She is a huge Star Trek fan in a little body.
  • This is an excellent article, Mriana. There are so many misguided conceptions about humanism out there, including an idea that the religious cannot be humanists.

    I look forward to the next installment!


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