Reviving Humanism’s Legacy of Peace


Nov. 11, 2009

Historically, humanists have been at the forefront of the peace movement. In some cases, they have combated war with the same degree of fervency that they combated intolerant religious faith. Notable anti-war humanists/freethinkers include French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell and many others.

In the 16th century, one of the earliest humanists, Desiderius Erasmus, a Catholic Christian theologian living during the Renaissance, criticized abuses within the church, specifically its war campaigns.

He wrote: "War is such a monstrous pursuit that it's proper only for beasts, not men; so crazy that even the poets suppose Furies bring it upon us; so infectious that it spreads moral corruption far and near; so unjust that it's most effectively waged by the most cruel of thieves."

Consider the legacy left by Condorcet, one of the last of the Enlightenment's philosophers and the first western intellectual to call for the complete enfranchisement of women (in the late eighteenth century). Condorcet believed that the more enlightened people became, the more intolerant of war they would become.

In his best known work, Progress of the Human Mind (1793), Condorcet wrote of a future world where nations would realize "that they cannot conquer other nations without losing their own liberty; that permanent confederations are their only means of preserving their independence and that they should seek not power but security."

For his part, Founding Father James Madison warned of the dangers of a standing military force controlled by the executive branch of government. He wrote: "A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty… "

While he is often quoted by freethinkers, how many are aware of the fact that Mark Twain was a vehement critic of war and U.S. imperialism?

From 1901 until his death in 1910, Twain was the vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League, founded in 1898. Twain and his associates, which included John Dewey and William James, sought to rally opposition to the annexation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and, in particular, the Philippines.

Albert Einstein was an active anti-imperialist as well. Einstein participated in the League against Imperialism which criticized U.S. imperialist policy in Latin America, among other subjects. Einstein was actively committed to bringing an end to war.

In September 1932 Sigmund Freud responded to Albert Einstein's letters addressing the bane of human warfare. In the letter, "Why War?", Freud explained that he and Einstein "rebel so violently against war" "because everyone has a right to his own life, because war puts an end to human lives that are full of hope, because it brings individual men into humiliating situations, because it compels them against their will to murder other men, and because it destroys precious material objects which have been produced by the labors of humanity." In short, Freud wrote: "we simply cannot any longer put up with (war)."

What is today known as the peace symbol was created by Gerald Herbert Holtom, one of Bertrand Russell's colleagues in the British Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War. Some contend that the symbol was made at Russell's behest to create a unifying symbol for the nuclear disarmament movement.

On July 9, 1955, Russell joined Einstein in issuing the Russell-Einstein Manifesto which urged governments to renounce the use of nuclear weapons and war as a means of settling ideological differences.

Perhaps the most vehement and profound opposition to warfare came from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A dedicated humanist concerned first and foremost with the people of this world, King condemned war as a means to achieve anything of lasting value. After more than a decade of serious contemplation, King concluded that "the potential destructiveness of modern weapons of war totally rules out the possibilities of war ever serving again as a negative good."

But King did not merely lay blame at the feet of other religions or nations. Rather, on April 4, 1967, King  said that he realized it was the United States that is "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

The same year of King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech, the American Humanist Association (AHA) joined in the denunciation of war. As my friend, humanist Bob Bhaerman pointed out, the AHA's board of directors has adopted at least five peace resolutions addressing the problem of war. (Bhaerman is the education coordinator of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center, a program of AHA.)

Among them is the 1967 "Resolution on War" in which the AHA board asserted that war should "be given top priority in study and action by individuals and chapters in the AHA." Furthermore, the resolution held that humanists "should study the factors and resources making for peace and vigorously explore every opportunity for their cultivation and use."

In the 1969 "Resolution on Peace". the AHA board called for "radical action" on the part of "all peace-loving and life-affirming people." This resolution asserted that "as concerned individual Humanists we shall each involve ourselves in politics and legislation in order to elect to office peace-loving and life-affirming men and women who will pass legislation designed to put an end to war and other forms of destruction, to bring about peace, and to affirm life…."

One year later, in the 1970 "Resolution on Peace", the AHA board called upon Congress "to reassert its responsibility in the implementation of our foreign policy and stop appropriations for the war in all Southeast Asia." And in the 1985 "Resolution on World Peace and Family Issues," the AHA board called for "a halt to the arms race," and "the implementation of the United States Institute for Peace (the National Peace Academy)" among other suggestions.

Many of the best known humanists throughout the ages have been dedicated anti-war activists. At least 10 of the 60 people honored as "Humanists of the Year" by the AHA, since 1953, have been avowed and committed peace and justice activists. They include Pete Stark (2008), Barbara Ehrenreich (1998), Alice Walker (1997), Kurt Vonnegut (1992), Isaac Asimov (1984), Helen Caldicott (1982), Carl Sagan (1981), Corliss Lamont (1977), Benjamin Spock (1968), and Linus Pauling (1961).

To this list we can add the AHA's current honorary president, writer Gore Vidal, and the Feminist Caucus's 2005 Humanist Heroine–"Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman.

Interestingly, a number of freethinkers occupy key leadership positions in the peace/anti-war movement.

Debra Sweet, director one of the U.S.'s leading anti-war groups, World Can't Wait, recently told me that she identifies as an atheist and is a supporter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Sweet's organization is known as having been instrumental in bringing torture to the forefront of public discourse in the United States.

David Swanson, co-founder of, also told me that he comfortably identifies as both atheist and humanist. Swanson authored Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union (2009) and the introduction to "The 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W. Bush," by Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH).

For my small part, I am involved in organizing throughout the state of Florida with Humanists for Peace and allied groups such as the Florida Peace Congress. And I am personally acquainted with a number of atheists who are committed anti-war activists.

The time for a humanist peace movement is now. In his April 4, 1967 speech, "Beyond Vietnam," Martin Luther King said: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Yet, our nation continues to pursue this immoral and illogical course today.


(Jeff Nall is a Florida humanist and peace activist who founded Humanists For Peace.)