Humanism100 Years of Freethought
It is perhaps a sign of our admass age that the word which now enjoys the greatest vogue in freethought circles, 'humanism', is the vaguest term of all. Yet it has proved very serviceable.
Most of the philosophical positions and scientific attitudes that we recognize today have their germ in ancient Greece. Like pragmatism, humanism is usually said to spring from the sophist philosopher Protagoras and his dictum: 'Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.' Largely through the influence of Greek slaves who served as secretaries and tutors in Roman households, this idea spread throughout the Roman Empire. But another idea, Christianity, based on various Near and Middle Eastern religions and mystery cults, spread much faster and when it became dominant in 324 A.D. the older conception was submerged. Much of its literature was lost through ignorance of its value or in clerically inspired book‑burning rituals. But some survived, particularly in the Eastern Roman Empire. Its rediscovery is usually dated to the fourteenth century. Throughout the educated ecclesiastical and lay world of the European Middle Ages Latin was the lingua franca, and the standard biblical source was the Latin Vulgate of St Jerome. Scholars like Wycliffe had to check their references for translation purposes, as in the course of centuries many corrupt texts had entered circulation. So there began study of early Latin texts, in the course of which many non‑Christian works were unearthed. Not only did this stimulate secular interest in the classical world at large, but in terms of biblical scholarship the next step was to go to the Greek textsNew Testament originals or the third century B.C. Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testamentbehind the Vulgate, and from the Greek to the Hebrew (rendered difficult by the Jewish practice of genizah or disposal of old MSS). These Greek and Hebrew studies expanded in the fifteenth century. At the same time the invention of printing in Europe and the widespread interest in biblical translations of the following century drew attention to the needs of those who did not understand Latin. Out of the jungles of local dialects Scholars and printers like Caxton had to cut the paths of national languages. So that throughout the Renaissance period 'humanism' meant little more than literary and linguistic studies. There was no necessary connotation of scepticism, and Sir Thomas More was prepared to face martyrdom for the ancient Catholic faith. This purely scholarly association of humanism lingers on today in such expressions as the 'humanities', literae humaniores (Oxford) and the chair of 'humanity' (Latin) at Edinburgh University.
But it was inevitable that confrontation with non‑Christian literature should lead to questioning, and often to some measure of rejection, of received doctrines. Erasmus and particularly Dean Colet, who left St Paul's School not to the Church but to a secular livery company (Mercers), were far from orthodox. These tendencies among humanists progressed. Men became interested in the world around them for its own sake and not simply as evidence of the handiwork of God. Art and music too asserted their independence of religious propaganda, to which they had been tied for centuries. As early as 1444 Conrad Witz painted Christ Walking on the Waves not of some formalized sea but of Lake Geneva. Soon secular patrons were commissioning entirely secular works. For many there remained a sentimental interest in Christianity, which they attempted in every way to humanize, playing down the miracles, the eschatology and soteriology and dwelling on carefully selected ethical texts from the Gospels. In this way men like Pomponazzi were able to call themselves Christians, as are many sceptics today. Thus the great freethinking novelist Honoré de Balzac spoke of Socrates as a Christian. In the nineteenth century 'humanism' was also a theological term for unitarianism, i.e. belief in the humanity of Christ. Official definitions of modern humanism place it firmly in the freethought‑secular tradition. The declaration of the congress in Amsterdam which inaugurated the International Humanist and Ethical Union on 26 August 1952 lists five 'fundamentals of modern ethical Humanism': (1) It is democratic (2) It seeks to use science creatively not destructively (3) Humanism is ethical (4) It insists that personal liberty is an end that must be combined with social responsibility (5) It is a way of life. Since 1966 side by side with the Amsterdam Declaration there exists a manifesto:
1 Ethical Humanism expresses a moral conviction; it is acceptance of responsibility for human life in the world.
2 It represents a way of life relying upon human capacities and natural and social resources.
3 Humanist morality starts with an acknowledgment of human interdependence and the need for mutual respect.
4 Ethical Humanism calls for a significant existence made worthwhile through human commitment and acceptance, as a basis for enjoyment and fulfilment.
5 Man becomes human in society; society should provide conditions for the fullest possible development of each man.
6 Human development requires continuous improvement of the conditions of free inquiry and of an open society.
7 Scientific knowledge progressively established and applied is the most reliable means of improving welfare.
8 Human progress is progress in freedom of choice; human justice is the progressive realization of equality.
9 Justice does not exclude force, but the sole desirable use of force is to suppress the resort to force.
10 Ethical Humanism affirms the unity of man and a common responsibility of all men for all men.
'The Humanist Outlook' was the subject of the main paper delivered at the 1966 Congress of the IHEU by its Chairman, philosopher J. P. van Praag. In it he declared that humanism was 'not bound up with any particular philosophy, and has indeed been upheld by idealist, materialist or naturalist, and existentialist philosophies. Nevertheless, any philosophy may be said to be humanist or nonhumanist.' He sees three trends in humanist philosophy: (a) reflective or religio-moral via German philosophy to Jaspers (b) social via Bentham, Comte and Marx to Mahabendra Nath Roy (c) empirical via Bacon, logical positivism and linguistic analysis to the psychologists Erich Fromm and Carl Rogers and the biologist Julian Huxley. There are two basic postulates: (1) The world exists, I exist, and I know both (2) The world is complete and dynamic. The first assumes that 'men are of the same sensorial organization and mental structure', they 'participate in and are disposed for their reality' and there is a balance between individual and community. In the second there are the two elements of evolution and causality. A humanist is 'not merely god‑rejecting but rather life-affirming'. He does not give different answers to the questions of religion but asks different questions. 'Evil, sorrow and death' he conceives as 'the natural seamy side of his aspirations'. He finds 'a significant life in trial and error' and does not 'assume a cosmic mind or purpose'. Through his concern with justice he is committed to 'the cause of underdeveloped areas, world order and world peace'. Today he especially 'resists a nihilism that swinging between an imaginary absolute truth and a crippling absolute subjectivity denies real humanity' (International Humanism, April 1965).
In its modern context 'humanism' originates from about 1860, derived, it seems, from Comte's 'religion of humanity'. Outside France this was a small world, established in England by Richard Congreve in his Church of Humanity. Small as it was, it soon split. The best-known offshot comprised lawyer Frederic Harrison, historian E. S. Beesly and doctor J. H. Bridges. They were known satirically as 'three persons and no God who worshipped humanity in Fetter Lane'. But they earned the gratitude of the trade union movement for their sterling support of its co‑ordinating body, Junta. At that time and for considerably longer freethinkers in general considered 'humanism' too vague. Writing in the National Reformer of 29 April 1866, to explain why he was re-adopting the label 'Christian' for what he saw as its moral associations, A. C. opined:
Humanism suggest frailty and crime as well as virtue and rectitude; they all are alike human.
In the 1890s the Propaganda Press Committee toyed with the name. It was rejected. According to Gowans Whyte (The Story of the RPA),
'Humanism', which is still used occasionally as a mild synonym for Rationalism, suffers from vagueness which permits too wide a variety of interpretations.
It appears sporadically throughout the freethought literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, usually as the title of a lecture. In 1917 the Ethical Union established a journal The Humanist, which ran for five years. The London Positivist Society was dissolved in 1934 and an academic English Positivist Committee formed. But in August 1931 Jack Coates was writing in the Literary Guide (Watts's had been dropped) of the need to develop a scientific humanism in the RPA. Various readers supported him, notably Joad, who saw Conway Hall as a suitable centre for an association of progressive organizations with humanist aims. There began the 'Great Conway Hall Plot' with nine sympathisers including Joad, economist J. A. Hobson and historian Archibald Robertson putting themselves up for election to the committee. All were defeated. At the beginning of 1932 the group met at Joad's house and decided to form independently a Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals, which they hoped would become a great new umbrella organization. Originally two bodies, the Fabian Nursery and the Promethean Society, expressed interest but were not represented at the first conference in a French chateau belonging to wealthy supporter Pryns Hopkins. Freudian psychologist J. C. Flügel joined the group. At the same time Wells in the New Statesman (20 August 1932) called for a Federation of X Societies (later changed to Z when G. E. O. Knight reminded him there was already an X Society), open conspirators to change the world. Basil Nicolson thought Joad a playboy and suggested contacting Wells to form an organization to promote his ideas, perhaps with his financial assistance. Coates wanted a religio-political movement to oppose fascism and reaction. Later in 1932 a conference was held in England.
It was particularly interested in world government and in 'tabu subjects' (even in most freethought circles) like advanced psychology, sex, 'free love' and nudism (now naturosophy). It was said 'FPSI' meant Federation for the Promotion of Sexual Intercourse. The formal programme of the new organization was (1) world government (2) socialization (3) world‑wide education'humanistic, scientific and cosmopolitan' (4) individual freedom (5) humanization of criminal law and procedure (6) control and optimal distribution of the world's population (including eugenics) (7) town and country planning. The two supporting organizations dropped out, Youth House came in and left. In 1934, as its original purpose was clearly not to be realized, Joad and Flügel wanted to wind the 'federation' up, but Coates persuaded the AGM to keep it going as a society of individuals. In 1940 the name Progressive League was formally adopted.
Before the war Blackham also had the idea of forming a humanist council, but deferred his plans. After the war Coates felt the Progressive League, which still considered the world could be saved by science, was not enough. Without ethics, science could as easily destroy the world. Through reading Berdyaev he had come to personalism, a creed founded by Emmanuel Mounier in France in 1932 with a journal Esprit. It was to the Dutch personalist movement that van Praag had originally belonged. So in 1945 Coates founded the London Personalist Group.
The first official use of the word 'humanism' was in the United States. In 1927 a group of students at the University of Chicago, described affectionately by alumnus John Gunther as 'still the most exciting university in the world' (Chicago Today, 1966), started a mimeographed New Humanist. The following year the Humanist Associates were organized to finance it. In 1941 they became respectively the American Humanist Association and the (American) Humanist. After the war the United Secularists of America was formed after a convention at Chicago (August 1948) as 'America's New Humanist Movement'. It took over Progressive World, edited by the grandson‑in‑law of Ingersoll, Sherman D. Wakefield. Humanist organizations were springing up all over the world. In much of Europe the freethought movement had been suppressed during or before the war. Many freethinkers wanted to reconstitute it as before and proceeded to do so. Others feared that the older movements were, or had the reputation of being, communist‑influenced; thought that there might be American money for bodies that would channel scepticism along Washington-approved lines; orand perhaps this was the more general reaction felt that after so violent an ideological upheaval it was essential to avoid, as far as possible, emphasis on divisive ideology and direct concern to the common humanity of man. 'Humanism' best seemed to express these aspirations. So humanist organizations sprang up in parallel with the older freethought bodies. Other continents were not slow to follow, including the new nations. There was the Netherlands, first in the field outside the United States and still the strongest, with an organization for social work soon followed by a 'confessional' body (1945 and 1946). Then came India (with radical politics) in 1948; Belgium (1950; France and Japan (1955); Norway (1956); Montreal (1957); Korea (1958); Nigeria (1959); India (non‑radical) and New South Wales (1960); Denmark and Victoria (1961); East Pakistan and South Australia (1963); the Philippines, Italy and Canberra (1964). The situation in Britain is complicated and will be explained below.
Discussions took place inside the World Union of Freethinkers. It does not yet have its own journal and the following reports are taken from the Freethinker. In 1946 there was a conference on 'The Challenge of Humanism' organized by the British section of the WUFT, with representatives of the NSS, RPA, EU, SPES, Positivist Society, Grand Orient lodges of France, Belgium, Spain and Czechoslovakia (as distinct from that in the Anglo‑Saxon world, Continental freemasonry is non‑theistic) and many American societies. The WUFT Congress of 1949 was reported on by the NSS Acting President, R. H. Rosetti (25 September):
As long as the activities of the Humanist organizations remained secular their cooperation with Freethought would be welcomed, but there could be no weakening of Freethought policy to accommodate Humanist Societies. The need to combat clerical and religious influence was as great as ever and must continue to be one of the main features of Freethought policy.
The following year the President of the WUFT, Charles Bradlaugh Bonner, grandson of Charles Bradlaugh, observed (5 February):
The principles and activities of the Humanist Associations deserve the complete approval of all Freethinkers in so far as those principles and activities are implied in the definition of freethought principles and aims. The World Union of Freethinkers therefore invites all its adherents to appeal for concerted action to develop a better humanist society and to emancipate the individual, and with these aims in view to collaborate with the Humanist Associations, without in any way relaxing their anticlerical and anti‑religious efforts which are now more urgent than ever before.
Later that year the American Humanist Association sponsored a World Humanist Essay Contest, with subjects: Humanism and UNESCO, Future Steps to World Humanism, Humanism as a World‑Unifying Faith, HumanismEthical Basis of World Co‑operation, Science for Humanitya Programme for Humanism, HumanismAlternative to Totalitarian Religion or Politics.
This contest is part of an effort to establish closer co‑operation among Humanists throughout the world. (20 August)
Two years later, on the initiative of American, British and Dutch humanists, the International Humanist and Ethical Union was formally constituted at a congress in Amsterdam under the chairmanship of Julian Huxley, 21‑6 August, the same date as the previously announced Brussels Congress of the WUFT.
Meanwhile in Britain in 1950, at the initiative of Hawton, a Humanist Council was formed 'as a liaison committee to link the Rationalist Press Association, the Ethical Union and South Place Ethical Society, which was not at that time affiliated to the Ethical Union' (Report in 'Humanist Council Minute Book). The English Positivist Committee was associated and in 1953 the National Secular Society accepted an invitation to be represented. But the EU and RPA were hoping for a closer association, and in 1955 formed a joint Development Committee to promote groups in centres of population. A century ago if a few freethinkers came together to discuss common interests they would spontaneously call themselves secularists. Now they would be more inclined to adopt 'humanists'. The NSS has always been a 'classless' or multi‑class society, but the EU and RPA had come to regard it as 'working class' and themselves as middle class. So it was that an organization with secularist traditions and one with ethical church traditions came together in a realignment. Soon a complete merger was envisaged and in 1957 a Humanist Association of the two bodies was formed as an interim step. Whereupon the Humanist Council was disbanded, though the HA 'would hope very much to continue relations' with the NSS. The idea of merger was not generally acceptable because of the structure of the EU as a federation of groups and the annual financial loss of the RPA. So in 1959 the Humanist Council with the EU (including SPES), RPA and NSS was reconstituted for the next four years. In this period an independent Humanist Broadcasting Council was set up by Blackham to discuss alternatives to religious programmes with the British Broadcasting Corporation, and specific projects of common interest were implemented. Through Russell and physicist Joseph Rotblat contact was made with the Pugwash (originated by Cyrus S. Eaton) scientists who were planning two conferences in Canada for 1958. At this time English mathematician Hyman Levy and German geneticist Klaus Mampoll independently proposed an 'oath' for scientists and technologists along the lines of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors. Levy and Blackham's form of affirmation was:
I . . . hereby solemnly declare that I will use my scientific and technical knowledge and my special experience for the increase of human welfare and for the deepening of human understanding, and will not knowingly contribute towards human destruction or human degradation.
In the political circumstances of the day this was a worthy idea which could not hope to succeed. Other projects were more successful. The council conducted a survey of register office marriage facilities and affiliated to the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, an affiliation continued by the NSS when the council was wound up. Outside the official FFHC, support was given to the Swaneng Hill School, Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and the scheme in the district of Shahabad, Bihar, India. The Swaneng school was founded in February 1963 by Patrick and Elizabeth van Rensburg as an inter‑racial secondary school in a land desperately short of places beyond primary level. Patrick was the author of antiapartheid Guilty Land (1962), Elizabeth, niece of Blackham, was a founding member of Humanist Group Action. Associated with academic subjects were agricultural training and a co‑operative store in the nearby village of Serowe. Every support has been given by Chief (now President) Sir Seretse Khama and the Bamangwato Tribe. The Bihar Scheme was the suggestion of S. N. Ray and the Radical Humanists of India to promote village co‑operatives, improved farming methods and family planning in a selected district.
At the suggestion of Gordon England in 1961 Humanist Group Action was formed. Its constitution stated:
The aim of the Group is to foster and practise corporate Humanist activities. Humanism we define as concern for the best interests of our fellow man, insofar as these interests can be ascertained by impartial investigation of general experience, based entirely on democratic human sanctions. Our activities comprise humanitarian work on behalf of individuals, and initiation and support of whatever reforms of our laws and mores are needed to foster the physical, cultural and moral welfare of society. The Group is unconnected with any political organization, but is prepared to co‑operate with any organization, political or otherwise, on specific social issues.
Its programme listed youth work, family planning publicity, war on want, penal reform, equality for women, promotion of tolerance, pressure for disarmament, cultural exchange, defence of civil liberties and permissive legislation, social justice, colonial independence and an accelerated housing programme. It was an ambitious prospectus, but its members wished
to discuss the ways whereby Humanism could show its constructive interest in the cause of human betterment by active co‑operation in joint projects. They felt that there was a danger that the movement, which had for a long time been holding meetings, conferences, and symposia, but had shown itself singularly unproductive in public utterances on the great issues of our day, or in active social work, was in danger of becoming, or at least of being regarded by outsiders as, nothing but a talking shop. (Chairman's Annual Report, 15 April 1962)
In the course of representing humanist views to Ministers, Government departments, local authorities and the like, members found 'that Humanists will gain, rather than lose in respect, by making their opinions known'. While decorating old people's homes they found a gap in the welfare services: nobody seemed to have a responsibility for reporting on the regular sanitation, safety or state of decoration of premises until in extreme cases the public health inspector was called out. Subsequently the Women's Voluntary Service was able to assist as part of its vast meals‑on‑wheels scheme and local authorities grew more concerned about those in their charge, a process assisted by public shock at the number of old people who died, neglected, from hypothermia the following winter. Somewhat after the manner of the Progressive League in its early days, HGA tried to establish a permanent liaison among reformist or socially committed organizations, but though many attended the inaugural meeting little permanent success was achieved. Useful work was however done with the Abortion Law Reform Association, the Family Planning Association, Commonwealth (a political movement formed by Sir Richard Acland), Oxfam, Racial Unity and Amnesty. Out of the group's campaigning rose the New Epicureans as a pioneering 'open' youth club organized by Robin and Kay Payne, talks that led to the formation of the Agnostics Adoption Society and humanist interest in Richard Hauser's Institute for Group and Society Development (now Centre for Group Studies). HGA was always small and disappeared in 1966 after many of its ideas had been taken over and implemented by the National Secular Society and British Humanist Association.
By 1962 a merger between the RPA and EU again seemed possible, and again an interim association was formed and the Humanist Council wound up, with a promise of 'not less than once a year a meeting with the National Secular Society for consultation and the exchange of information' (Humanist Council Minute Book, 7 February 1963). The difficulties now were somewhat different from those before. Through its outlay in the promotion of groups the EU was incurring an annual loss. Under the guidance of Hawton the RPA had revised its publishing list, sold Watts and Co. to Pitmans in 1960, and was now making a substantial profit. There was a new difficulty. For financial reasons the EU had become a charity and could be associated only with another charity. So the RPA Articles of Association had to be rewritten to comply with the Charity Commissioners' specifications. The preparations concluded, the British Humanist Association was launched at a dinner in May 1963, addressed by Ayer, sociologist Baroness Wootton and writer and editor Kingsley Martin. It was a shortlived arrangement. In July 1965 the EU was struck off the charities' register on a technicality of its constitution, and shortly afterwards the BHA, one of whose objects was to advance the aims and objects of the EU, was removed. This made it legally impossible for the RPA to continue its partnership. It was not altogether distressed, as it had in the meantime considered that in terms of both personnel and ideology the ethicist was trying to submerge the rationalist stream. The EU abandoned its appeal against loss of charity status and changed its name to BHA in 1967. Informal talks three times a year have been instituted within the British freethought movement. joint activities had already taken place informally, e.g. a working party on Sex and the Young Unmarried (1967) where members of all the national bodies participated.
The BHA has encouraged the formation of a number of independent humanist agencies, whose names indicate their activity: Humanist Committee on Moral and Religious Education (now Humanist Education Committee), Humanist Counselling Service, Humanist Health Council, Humanist Holidays, Humanist (formerly EU) Housing Association, Humanist Lobby (now merged with the new non‑charitable BHA), Humanist Youth Service, Humanist Teachers' Association. The last is particularly flourishing. As well as being a 'trade union' for humanist teachers, it has done much constructive work, notably consideration of alternatives to religious instruction in schools. Humanist Lobby was devised by David Pollock to overcome the difficulty that a charity could not agitate for changes in the law.
The word 'humanism' has become increasingly popular in the freethought movement, even by those bodies who recognized from the start that it might have a short meaningful life as very different organizations jumped on the bandwagon. In 1956 the RPA Literary Guide became the (British) Humanist; in 1962 secularist Kit Mouat's correspondence scheme, the Humanist Letter Network (International); in 1963 the EU News and Notes, Humanist News; in 1964 the NZ Rationalist, the NZ Rationalist and Humanist; in 1966 the Freethinker adopted the caption 'Freethought and Humanism Weekly'. Most freethinkers began to describe themselves as humanists, some in the hope that it would make their heresy more acceptable. This hope was not immediately realized, for the ordinary devout religionist knew exactly what it signified and denounced 'humanism' as loudly as any other manifestation of unbelief. Others thought it suggested more constructive thought than that of the oldtime outdoor speaker who, asked what he believed in, replied 'I don't believe in anything'. But if they tended to forthrightness they added an adjective: scientific or secular or atheistic.
The confusion they feared has already come. In the non‑religious world the word has acquired a number of specific meanings not generally acceptable to freethinkers. In 1934 the Synarchy in France, which proposed the overthrow of the Third Republic, described its programme as 'ethical humanism'. Since it led to the National Revolution attempted by the Vichy Government, humanism of any sort was until recently discredited in France. Leon Blum, French Socialist Premier of the 1936‑7 Popular Front Government, further complicated the picture by using 'humanism' to describe spiritualist socialism purged of materialism. Till his death in 1933, American critic Irving Babbitt characterized his literary and ethical classicism, which advocated moderation and good taste instead of realism and romanticism, as 'neohumanism'. At the same time in Britain 'humanism' to philosopher F. C. S. Schiller meant his version of pragmatism in opposition to 'rationalist' or intellectualist philosophies. In 1946 French atheist existentialist Jean‑Paul Sartre wrote 'L'Existentialisme est un humanisme'.
After a short sharp encounter in which the churches tried to discredit humanism and failed, theyor their more intelligent leadersare now disposed to look more favourably upon it and are even claiming it for themselves. The Archbishop of Canterbury often speaks of 'Christian humanism'. Writing in the Times Educational Supplement (29 October 1965) about the Vatican Council Declaration on Christian Education (1965), the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool said:
The introductory section of the statement attempts to situate the world problem of education in the immense context which ranges from sheer illiteracy in many areas to questions of higher education, technology and humanism in the more prosperous countries of the West.
So today we have 'Catholic humanism'. On the fringes of religion the singular mysticism of Raymond Holliwell's International New Thought Alliance, which employs faith healing and invocations of cosmic forces, has been described as 'a ramification of Humanism' (Evening Standard, 2 September 1966).
The confusion about 'humanism' outside is reflected by that inside the freethought movement. As far back as 1927 Julian Huxley, first President of the BHA, had written Religion Without Revelation. It was regarded at the time as an interesting academic exercise in diplomatically undermining theism. As far as the organized freethought movement was concerned, much more consternation followed his article 'The New Religion of Humanism' in the (American) Humanist (January‑February, 1962). Though he believed that the gods were doomed, 'the stuff of divinity out of which they have grown and developed remains, and will provide much of the raw material from which any new religions will be fashioned . . . . Some events and some phenomena of outer nature transcend ordinary explanation and ordinary experience . . . magical, mysterious, aweinspiring, divinity‑suggesting.' He felt 'sure that the world will see the birth of a new religion based on what I have called evolutionary humanism', which would 'redefine divinity, . . . elicit it, and establish fruitful contact with its manifestations'. Harry Elmer Barnes and Herbert T. Rosenfeld replied with Is Humanism a New Religion? (1962), widely circulated throughout the movement in America and overseas, suggesting that Huxley's attitude was one of 'unitarianism'. In America unitarianism is much more liberal theologically than in Britain and has closer links with the humanist movement. Thinking of the British situation, in a correspondence with the author Huxley repudiated the 'unitarian' (theistic) label. He continued:
Man is confronted in life by various experiences which seem to go beyond ordinary 'natural' occurrences, and affect him with a sense of transcendent physical power or psychological effectiveness. Such experiences always seem to he regarded as somehow sacred or numinous, and are often associated with a sense of awe, reverence or wonder. The objects and events underlying such experiences have universally become objects of religion and are normally regarded as 'super‑natural' in the literal sense of being beyond ordinary nature. (letter, 18 September 1962)
In reply to objections that terms like 'super‑natural' or 'divine' were not only confusing to the general public but suggested metaphysics and were to that extent unscientific, Huxley declared that 'metaphysics is a human phenomenon' (letter, 25 September). He did not accept that experiences could be real psychologically but artifactual in that there was no external source. It appeared that he was really thinking of aesthetic experiences for, although in his younger days he had given much attention to psychical research and mediumistic phenomena, he was not here including parapsychology.
Just as in the early years of secularism, debate continued inside the movement over what humanism was. Surprising suggestions were made. From New Zealand came:
There should be a special Humanist Commission appointed to study the requirements of Humanism as a popular religious movement, with appeal to both intellectual and non‑intellectual. A simple Humanist 'Bible' and Humanist hymns should be developed. A ten commandments for Humanists could be added, as could Humanist confessional practices for group or individual practice. . . . The use of hypnotic techniques music and other psychological devicesduring Humanist services would give the audience that 'deep spiritual experience' and they would emerge refreshed and inspired with their Humanist faith. (British Humanist, May 1964)
After toying with the idea that this was a secularist spoof, orientalist Victor Purcell, who wrote many entertaining satires under the pseudonym of Myra Buttle and had been a wartime Director General of Information in Malaya, suggested (British Humanist, November 1964):
Some of the attacks on Humanism from alleged Humanists are of a nature to suggest that they are part of the activities of a 'Fifth Column'.
This suggestion was generally discounted but there did seem much blurring of ideological lines that was a semantic disservice to all concerned. As van Praag put it (International Humanism, April 1965),
The various attitudes also cross the borderlines of the great philosophies and religions. For that reason one can sometimes notice that a humanist is called by a christian a virtual christian, and that a christian is called by a humanist a virtual humanist. But of course this does not really make sense.
Further controversy developed in 1966 from an article by Ayer, new President of the BHA, in June's Encounter:
The humanist movement is gradually changing its character. Until quite recently its energies were mainly absorbed in a kind of religious war against the churches. This war, in which only the humanists themselves took any great interest, was waged by them on two fronts. They set out, on the one hand, to expose the absurdities of Christian theology and, on the other, to demonstrate historically that religious belief in general had been a source of more misery than happiness, and especially that the churches, as political and social forces, were an obstacle to human enlightenment and progress.
Ayer considered that any attempt to change the entrenched position of religion in schools 'would raise a political storm out of all proportion to the part that religion does actually play in people's lives' and that its dominance in broadcasting was 'a minor grievance'. A humanist's activity should be in law reform in company with progressive Christians, and he made some political points to be considered in the next chapter. Replying in the August issue, dramatist and television script‑writer Lord Willis declared:
Professor A. J. Ayer in his article on 'Humanism and Reform' in the June issue of Encounter puts a persuasive argument for the abolition of the Humanist movement, though I doubt if this was his intention. To attempt to transform the Humanist movement into a kind of 'third force' which would spearhead broad social reforms is unnecessary if not impossible. It would merely duplicate and complicate the work of other organizations.
And so the debate proceeds, most freethinkers probably taking an intermediate position and believing that ideological confrontation and agitation for social reforms can and should proceed together.
Other problems of strategy and tactics have arisen. One of these has been dialogue with the Vatican. On 9 April 1965, Pope Paul VI set up a Secretariatus Pro Non Credentibus under progressive Cardinal König, Archbishop of Vienna. Blackham, then Secretary of the IHEU, and Tolbert H. McCarrollattorney who prevented recent American civil rights legislation from excluding atheists, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association and current IHEU Secretary wrote to the secretariat. As a result meetings were held at Utrecht and Amersfoort in the Netherlands. The Catholic representatives said that since the opening of Vatican II the Church had passed from an 'integralistic' or negative to a 'humanistic' or positive outlook. Moral values can exist inside atheism.
Points of departure: the second presupposition of integralism is being contested: the subordination of values does not imply totally that they are means to ends. There is a subordination that is compatible with autonomy. Thus, the alternative of God or man is being lifted. (AHA News Release, 21 April 1966)
As reported by Blackham (British Humanist, June 1966),
Persons and groups of different faiths would have institutions in common for general social purposes . . . so long as the stress on common institutions and tasks allowed persons and groups to maintain and develop their own character and to make their impact on policy and on culture.
In view of this concession by the Vatican,
Humanists are required to respond with a revaluation of religion. The Roman Church is not likely and hardly able to abandon a ghetto mentality and segregated institutions if Christians have reason to fear that tomorrow the State and public opinion are going to be hostile to religion. The traditional position of the Church has become untenable and its traditional role intolerable. If the Churches are struggling to survive by finding a tenable position and a tolerable role in a modern society, what is the public response of Humanists going to be? At least the old arguments become irrelevant and the old attitudes futile.
Those freethinkers critical of this assessment and exhortation pointed out that it was no more the concern of humanists to assist religion than it was for believers to assist atheism. 'There is a subordination that is compatible with autonomy' struck them as just another example of Catholic verbal juggling which did not in any way undermine the traditional formula of the Church, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, while it gave humanists the impression that a notable concession had been made. Recognition of the civil liberties of unbelievers was welcome, but was the least that could be expectedand the impression remained that to some extent this had developed because 'the traditional position of the Church has become untenable and its traditional role intolerable'. In return for this recognition, freethinkers were expected to refrain from criticism of religion lest public opinion become 'hostile', while at the same time Catholic Action would be able to make its traditional 'impact on policy and on culture'. The community would thus hear only praise of religion and the long‑term result could be imagined. They agreed with Chapman Cohen (Freethinker, 11 June 1922):
The Churches would come to terms with everythingSocialism, Communism, Anarchismexcept Freethought. Jesus Christ could be brought into line with everything except full mental and intellectual freedom.
Another debate has been over how great an impact humanism might be expected to make on society. If controversial statements could be reduced to the minimum, would people in their tens of thousands pour into the movement, or would they decide that if after all there was very little difference between humanism and religion they might as well stay in or return to the churches or continue unattached? Should the movement continue as itand the Fabian Society, Anti‑Corn Law League and Howard League for Penal Reformhad always been, a comparatively small band of dedicated members? If so, from what section of society would they come? In the (British) Humanist of February 1964 Graham Kingsley, now Chairman of the BHA, listed what Angficanism offered and compared this with humanism:
I do not think that the Humanist Movement can offer more than two of theseintellectual stimulation and social activities . . . . To those who like mental exercise and the gathering of information about various topics we can offer magazines and conferences and meeting‑places. To ordinary people I doubt whether we can offer anything distinctively Humanist, though we can and shall strive to improve the quality of fife for everyone.
That is, humanism would appeal only to the 'intellectual' or 'educated' and not to 'ordinary' people. This was intended as a serious assessment of the comparative difficulties of 'evolutionary humanism' and 'salvation', but in the minds of some it acquired class connotations. One member at the 1966 BHA Conference was reported in the Guardian (30 August) as saying:
It's all very well and righteous to make an appeal to the lower orders, but there is something of an intellectual character in the very notion of humanism.
This was repudiated by Chairman Blackham as 'a wicked half‑truth'. For his part,
He is eager for them, as a group which by its nature attracts intelligent and articulate people, to move on from being simply a generally agnostic body to a point where they can bring a specific humanist voice to bear on national and world problems. He would like them to be in a position, where necessary, to take more action politically on subjects that interest them. (Times Educational Supplement, 2 September)
For this reason some members were then anxious about the inhibiting nature of charity status. Others are concerned that emphasis on the humanist role in an 'open society' should not obscure the fact that it is far from being realized. Karl Hyde, Secretary of the Richmond and Twickenham Humanist Group, has suggested that all groups adopt the name 'secular humanist' to keep this goal in mind. Some humanist groups have already affiliated to the NSS.
SOURCE: Tribe, David H. 100 Years of Freethought (London: Elek, 1967), extract from Chapter 2 (Philosophical Outlook, section on humanism), pp. 46-61.
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