AHA Through the Years

The following excerpt from Roy Speckhardt’s Creating Change Through Humanism (Humanist Press, 2015) is part of theHumanist.com’s month-long celebration of the AHA’s 80th Anniversary in April.

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. As it took its present form it drew in knowledge and wisdom from still more sources—from Jawaharlal Nehru to Nelson Mandela and more.

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. 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. This was a publicly signed document detailing the basic tenets of humanism. By 1935 the Humanist Fellowship was supplanted by the Humanist Press Association.

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 became 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 NARAL Pro-Choice America, which 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 in 1973 to unprecedented media fanfare including a New York Times in-depth, front-page article exploring humanist philosophy and the new manifesto. Welcomed by many commentators, the manifesto was denounced by religious conservatives as anti-religious and anti-God.

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, 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, and Instagram.

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 support of the AHA’s endowment fund, now called the Humanist Foundation, along with a seed grant from Lloyd Morain for a building in 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. [In 2017, the AHA made another move to an upgraded national headquarters in the heart of Washington, DC.]

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 weekly digital newsletter theHumanist.com, and added the Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism peer-reviewed journal.

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 where advocacy for humanist values became the AHA’s focus.

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.