Humanism evolved out of 19th-century American liberal religion, which had come to assume enormous prestige and influence. The founders of the humanist movement in the early part of the 20th century considered their outlook a form of religion and most of the group’s leaders were ministers in liberal churches, especially Unitarian and Ethical Culture congregations.
Although these men embraced the structure of organized religion, they rejected traditionalism of all forms. Their worldview was entirely naturalistic and they contrasted their scientific views with Christianity, Judaism, and other supernatural beliefs. Theirs was, in other words, a religion without God. My book The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism surveys the history of this group, from its founding until the end of the twentieth century.
The humanists’ antagonism against conservative ideologies and religious outlooks has been evident from the outset. The book shows, for instance, how the humanists became key players in the debates over the place of religion in American public schools and universities—something nowhere more evident than in the controversies over the teaching of evolution, where the humanists were among the strongest and most ardent defenders of science.
The humanists were also sharply divided internally, however. In particular, they were deeply torn by the cultural transformations that swept the country in the 1960s and 70s, which brought to the fore a growing philosophical divide among them, one that separated two very different views of science and human nature.
The two competing philosophies were pragmatism and positivism. The humanists of the first half of the century looked to John Dewey and his circle for philosophical guidance. The Deweyan approach was founded on a broadly pluralistic and democratic worldview; and the scientific method, in their view, was always used to support this outlook. The “scientific spirit” for these early humanists was an aspirational idea. Science elevated humanity and show humankind at its best. The second half of the century, however, saw more and more humanists turn to logical positivism, which brought with it a more aggressive, rationalistic, and combative outlook. More often than not, that aspirational use of science fell by the wayside as positivistically minded humanists put science to use fighting gullible and superstitious thinking. Theirs was a narrower and more suspicious outlook on human nature.
These two factions within the movement brought humanists to swords-points in several major cultural battles. While many in the humanist movement stood wholly on the side of civil rights and racial equality, others argued that we must pay attention to the science defending eugenics, biological determinism, and the idea that IQ might be genetically tied to race. Similarly, some humanists looked at the starkly deterministic views of behaviorism and denounced the entire field of behavioristic psychology as antidemocratic and antihumanistic. Nonetheless, within a few years another group of humanists awarded the most outspoken of these behaviorists, B. F. Skinner, the honor of Humanist of the Year.
Behind all of these debates, external and internal, was the belief that scientific ideas and scientific method would provide support for humanism and lead the way toward a vital and enlightened future for all humanity. In this way, moral ideals and democratic values were intimately tied to science in the humanist worldview. In many respects, the scientific spirit dominated humanism throughout the twentieth century, as it still does today.
The history of humanism is especially important today, I argue, because the movement touched on so many of the major cultural and intellectual movements of the past century, and it attracted some of the country’s most prominent intellectuals, from John Dewey to Carl Sagan. Its history can help us see better how American culture and society came to be what it is today. It was during the last century that some of the major fault lines opened up that challenge us, perhaps even more ominously, in the new millennium.