The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism


Stephen P. Weldon’s book, which originated with his 1997 doctoral dissertation and is part of the publisher’s series Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context, gives humanists the highly valuable opportunity to see the various roles the sciences played in the development of their philosophy. Knowing history prevents many mistakes in the present—as Winston Churchill said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”—so this book is an important read. Weldon carefully describes the development of humanism—key characters, publications, and organizations, as well as the philosophical struggles.

To provide some background for the book, humanism originated in response to two competing cultural forces. The first is a liberalization of the early church, beginning in Germany, which led many Protestants to think it was their job to build that Kingdom of God here and now, rather than wait for God to end civilization and bring it—known as a “social gospel.” The second came from those revolutionized by Darwinism and its undercutting of any divine planning or intervention. In 1867, a Free Religious Association was founded with members from many denominations and individual groups, including Unitarianism, which was a home to many radicals and rebels. It had itself evolved out of Congregationalism and adopted a creedless format which let people from all directions come to them.

As Weldon puts it, “The central thread of this book traces the trajectory of the visionary outlook I have called the scientific spirit of American humanism, the notion that there is more to science than simply the knowledge it provides us.” Readers will see that this is an important phrasing of a complex story that will help them better understand humanism, whose central ideals are “freedom, dignity, equality, and the well-being of all people.” We can understand the focus of humanist leadership over different periods by reviewing the signers of Humanist Manifesto I in 1933 and looking at the American Humanist Association’s Humanists of the Year from 1941 to today. The largest group of signers of Manifesto I (1933) were Unitarian ministers. As we survey the annual award of the AHA, we begin to see philosophers and scientists, who were drawn more from the biological than the physical sciences. Many humanists then and now come from the social sciences. Two Humanists of the Year, Isaac Asimov and Kurt Vonnegut, were science fiction writers—but also heavily involved in the sciences.

The politics of humanists have typically been described as liberal or progressive. Manifesto I had many socialist elements, and socialist Roy Wood Sellars recruited many to sign Manifesto I during the Great Depression who had endorsed socialist Norman Thomas for the U.S. Presidency. Philosophically, Sellars described himself as an evolutionary naturalist. He wanted to be sure that we did not settle for a description of humans in simply chemical and biological terms.

Weldon explains that the pragmatic naturalist “[John] Dewey’s ideas and work dominated the philosophical thinking of all of the early humanist philosophers.” That naturalism, though, was not shared by many non-humanist philosophers and theologians. So in 1940, Louis Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary created the “Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion.” Its main function was to oppose the naturalism that supported humanist thought. This conference popularized the term “Judeo-Christian,” affirming that Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism had a common thread against Dewey and his naturalism.

Sidney Hook boycotted Finkelstein’s event and held his own conference in response. The “Conference on the Scientific Spirit and Democratic Faith,” held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, had 400 to 500 in attendance. Weldon notes that these conferences “promoted the view that a culture with a strong scientific focus could stand up to authoritarian politics and reactionary religion.” Weldon emphasizes that “[f]or the humanists, the scientific method taught values that arose from an acceptance of uncertainty, in particular, tolerance and flexibility.”

But because of that flexibility, there were and are often arguments between scientists about interpretation versus fact. Many of these spilled over into humanist discussions, especially when some of the scientists participating were humanists. 
Weldon discusses the people addressing these controversial issues in great detail and with great accuracy. These issues have often divided university departments across divergent topics from eugenics and the salience of race to birth control and overpopulation, and some journal articles exploring these issues became controversial.

Similar to the scientific community, the development of the humanist movement was guided by intensive debates. Editor Edwin H. Wilson, a Unitarian minister, felt the AHA should a remain a large tent with religious and secular groups comfortable with each other. The AHA was legally a religious organization until 2003, but it was a highly debated issue—leaders like Corliss Lamont believed it absolutely should not be religious, while others believed it should draw from traditional religions as they grew more humanistic.

Physical location played a role in movement development in the following years. While humanist national headquarters was established in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Executive Director Tolbert McCarroll moved it to San Francisco, exploring new kinds of humanism and finding ways to involve young people. Psychologists with different ideologies became involved in the movement, including Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers, also using science to influence the direction of the movement.

After World War II many humanists became involved in international issues. British humanist and evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, for instance, was the first director general of UNESCO. In 1952, a group of national organizations around the world including the AHA created the International Humanist and Ethical Union, with Huxley as its first president. The original idea for the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs came from famous British pacifist and humanist Bertrand Russell. 
Nobel laureate Hermann Muller, who served as the AHA’s president from 1956 to 1958, would be a key player in the Pugwash Conferences, which began during the years of his tenure. Participants came from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The detailed chapters of Weldon’s book take us up to about the year 2000. By that time, many New Age experiments were going on in America, like seeking extraterrestrials and transcendental or mystical experiences. One successful critic of New Age mysticism was magician and skeptic James Randi. He was able to show how spoon bending, for instance, could be done without any mystical or supernatural forces.

Weldon most often cites philosopher Paul Kurtz, who edited issues of the Humanist with opposing viewpoints placed side by side. Kurtz created Prometheus Books to reprint secular classics as well as new humanist volumes. Disturbed by astrology, he had a full newspaper page, signed by many scientists, published in numerous outlets contrasting it with astronomy. Kurtz also assembled a group of academics to create the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), along with the journal Skeptical Inquiry. He raised money to buy land and build offices close to the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Weldon’s is a unique and important book. Tomorrow’s humanism depends upon how carefully the humanists of the future understand the strengths and risks of the various strategies explored and employed in building the humanist movement, for which Weldon’s notes alone are extremely helpful. Fortunately, our present organizations compete in friendly ways with each other and share access to respected celebrities such as Steven Pinker who has spoken at gatherings for almost all of them. To gain a fuller understanding of “the scientific spirit” that imbues the humanist movement, it is well worth it to read Stephen Weldon’s book.