A Humanist Manifesto Turns Seventy-Five

Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in January, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States in March, Mohandas Gandhi carried out a hunger strike in May on behalf of the lower castes of India, the Vatican signed an accord with the Nazi regime in July, physicist and humanist Leó Szilárd conceived of the nuclear chain reaction in September, and the Twenty-first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, repealing Prohibition, went into effect in December. This was 1933, a watershed year in history when both humanistic and anti-humanistic trends were sprinting from opposing starting lines, heading on a collision course that would transform the world by mid century.

In the midst of this, on May 1, 1933, A Humanist Manifesto was released under the auspices of the New Humanist, the predecessor magazine to the Humanist.

The document wasn’t prescient. It didn’t foretell the coming global struggle that would force the world to lose what remaining innocence it had. Rather, this statement of seventy-five years ago was an expression of a scientific and technological optimism, and the spirit of social reform and revolution that had been growing since the middle of the nineteenth century. It was also a culmination of liberalizing traditions within American religion, as blended with popular freethought and deepened by early twentieth-century innovations in philosophy. This first humanist manifesto–comprised of fifteen affirmations on cosmology, biological and cultural evolution, human nature, epistemology, ethics, religion, self-fulfillment, and the quest for freedom and social justice–delineated the leading ideas and aspirations of its day.

But the document also marked humanism’s coming of age. For the first time the new movement, which had settled on its name only around the end of World War I, articulated its central, unifying principles and launched them into the larger society as the formulation for a new, non-theological religion. To this day, A Humanist Manifesto is reprinted in standard textbooks on religion and philosophy.

Even so, the declaration that first made humanism manifest also shows a naiveté that prevents it from aging well. As Humanist Manifesto II of 1973 states boldly in its preface:

    It is forty years since Humanist Manifesto I (1933) appeared. Events since then make that earlier statement seem far too optimistic. Nazism has shown the depths of brutality of which humanity is capable. Other totalitarian regimes have suppressed human rights without ending poverty. Science has sometimes brought evil as well as good. Recent decades have shown that inhuman wars can be made in the name of peace. The beginnings of police states, even in democratic societies, widespread government espionage, and other abuses of power by military, political, and industrial elites, and the continuance of unyielding racism, all present a different and difficult social outlook. In various societies, the demands of women and minority groups for equal rights effectively challenge our generation.

But these points show only that the task of bringing the original humanist vision to fruition proved far more difficult than at first imagined. Yet the commitment expressed in A Humanist Manifesto–that the quest for a good life here and now remains the central task of human beings–represents a significant achievement for its time. And it remains worth keeping, developing, and fostering. For what humanist could disagree with the manifesto’s general tenor, well encapsulated in the concluding article fifteen?

Though values have since been added to the humanist principles set forth in the first manifesto, and while the overall philosophy has been further universalized and secularized, the thirty-four signers of 1933 would not only recognize their humanism in the humanism of today, they would embrace it–as indeed they embraced those evolutionary changes they witnessed during their lifetimes.

Read the 1933 Humanist Manifesto here.

Fred Edwords, a former editor of the Humanist, is the director of communications for the American Humanist Association.

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