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The First Humanist Manifesto: a foundation in conversation

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The media spectacle of the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes in the summer of 1925 underlined for many religious liberals that Charles Darwin’s natural selection would be the wedge that permanently split Western religious thinking into two broad camps.

The question became what position the most protesting of Protestants would look like, and . . . there was no general consensus on that theological point. Many thought the logical candidate for the far left was Humanism.

The first wave of humanism within Unitarianism was a Midwestern insurgency made possible by the Western Unitarian Conference, a Chicago-based entity sufficiently separate from the American Unitarian Association, based in Boston, to allow for some theological variation farther to the left than the establishment liberalism of Boston.

book cover The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto

A thorough outline of the early controversies that shaped humanism appears in a book titled The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto by Edwin H. Wilson, a Unitarian minister and editor of a Chicago-based magazine called The New Humanist (precursor to the current day The Humanistwhich first published the 1933 manifesto.

The magazine not only published the first manifesto but in the same edition published letters from those who refused to sign the document.

So, on the one hand, there was an attempt to formulate the foundations of Humanism in the manifesto, but at the same time to offer a full range of reflections and critique by those who considered themselves Humanists but who did not agree with parts of the manifesto.

There were two overarching reasons for not signing the manifesto. The first was the discomfort of many with blatant atheism/agnosticism. The sixth point reads:

SIXTH: We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of “new thought.”

Many Humanists at the time thought that this statement precluded even the discussion of theism. And conversation has always been a centrally important process to Humanists.

For example, the congregation where I am senior minister, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, was the first explicitly Humanist congregation in the Unitarian tradition, a decision made in 1916. Since that time, the congregation has included atheists, agnostics, apatheists, pantheists, and naturalists (another problematic term) as active members, and some theists, though their ideas of deity are unorthodox to put it mildly.

That was one problematic point in the manifesto for many.

The other point is a bit more difficult to pin down but extremely important. That point is that many self-identified Humanists insisted that Humanism is not a theory or a concept but a way of living — a constructivist way of living. Therefore, the meaning of being Humanist is only understandable by living as a Humanist or getting to know someone who is living as a Humanist.

The term “lived religion” was not current in the United States of 1933, but the first manifesto did address lived religion in its last point:

FIFTEENTH AND LAST: We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few . . .

One who objected was Harold Buschman, who trained as a Unitarian minister and became a leader in the Ethical Culture movement. Hwrote by way of explanation for why he could not sign the manifesto:

. . . this creed does not approximate my individual construction of my experience. I simply do not recognize myself in this manifesto. (p. 63)

Max C. Otto, a philosophy professor, refused to sign, saying that the way of Humanism could not be “sold.” Rather, he thought, it must be “attained.” He ended his letter by asking, “Why advertise?”

It is important to remember that no women or people of color were asked to sign the first manifesto. Had they been, I suspect that these two general concerns would have been further examined and addressed. Those two points have, it’s safe to say, been the flies in the ointment of Humanism ever since:

  1. An unwillingness to complexly consider the god symbol.

2. A tendency toward conceptualizing rather than creatively living a humanist life.

These are general failures in the unfolding of Humanism that continue to plague the larger movement today, although Unitarian Universalist Humanist minister and theologian Rev. Dr. William R. Jones tackled them head-on in his 1997 book Is God a White Racist? a Preamble to Black Theology. This book is foundational in African American Humanist theology, and in it Dr. Jones explicitly wrestles with those two questions.

Spoiler alert: The answer Jones gives to the question his book’s title poses is an unequivocal “yes: God is a white racist.” Why? Because white supremacist assumptions concerning god permeate American Christianity and American culture. Even the god of Protestant atheism. Therefore, Jones, like most Humanists, advocated throwing out the god symbol.

However, Jones was very careful to say that agnosticism or atheism aren’t for everybody. Jones argued that atheists, agnostics, and theists of various stripes only need to agree on one thing: That human beings can fix human problems.

The question is not the god symbol but rather the question of human agency. Which led Jones to a phenomenological, existential conclusion: Humanism exists only in humanistic action.

It has taken a while. And Humanists today are still all over the map in terms of their answers to those two questions. Dr. Jones, however, showed us a way out of those longstanding conundrums.

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