The History of American Humanism, by Edwin H. Wilson

What Worked; What Did Not Work

Asking what worked implies a goal or measure.  Perhaps we have had mixed goals. One is growth.  Whatever we have done, we have not grown to the proportions of a mass movement.  Gordon Kent, a Humanist Unitarian minister was among those who thought we had that potential. His book, Humanism for the Millions  went through a number of large editions.  In the vernacular, his book presumed that Humanism would spread “like wildfire.”  Even the fundamentalist journals, especially Christianity Today, wailed that it was a serious threat to Christendom.

When I retired as Executive Director of the American Humanist Association in 1963, the membership was in excess of 6,000.  Under my successor, with a raise in dues and a move of headquarters to California, membership dropped to about 3,000.  As new dimensions developed from differing backgrounds, there was a splintering movement.  Even today the total number of self-professed, labeled, joining Humanists, even adding in subscribers to The Humanist,  is not great.

Professor A. Eustace Haydon warned those of us who first sought organization, that organizing and issuing a Manifesto, as we did in 1933, would provide a target for entrenched Christian orthodoxy.  He also felt that the real strength of Humanism was as a world-wide cultural movement, without formal organization or label. On both counts he appears to have been right.  What has worked has been to advance the Humanist idea, to influence intellectual leaders by spreading the scientific spirit and the democratic faith in humankind.

The relationship of more than thirty organizations from around the world in the international Humanist and Ethical Union is evidence that the potential of a global movement with its ethical stress on the well being of all humanity in the here and now is out there.  When I first interviewed Julian Huxley at Bloomington, Indiana, in 1951, he said “You may quote me as saying that the next great world religion will be some form of Humanism.”  What has not happened, it seems to me, is the launching of a vigorous and effective plan to spread Humanism.  Lack of funds may well be the reason.  In my early days with the A.H.A.  I talked about finances with Dr. George Stoddard, then President of the University of Illinois.  He said, “Get a program, Wilson, and you will find the money.”  The Utrecht Secretariat has done an efficient job of involving the groups that have come to I.H.E.U. At Amsterdam in 1952, I had visions of a schism at the start if the word “Ethical” was not included in the name of the organization formed.  The British and American Humanists wanted it called “The International Humanist Association.”  I moved that it be “The International Humanist and Ethical Association.”  Jerome Nathanson moved the substitution of “Union” for” Association,”, and so the I.H.E.U. was named.  The means is needed for an aggressive outreach on a global scale to the Humanists in various nations and cultures.  The North Committee for American Humanism (NACH) shows that Humanism and Ethical Culture have grown closer over time. Even with volunteers, I.H.E.U. should spread humanism around the globe.