Some of the ancient schools of humanist thought, such as Epicureanism, were associated with organized movements. These schools of thought disappeared with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the rise to power of the Early Christian Church. The humanist organizations that exist in the world today have all been created in the last two centuries.
In Western societies dominated by Christianity, usually enforced by the power of the state, it has been difficult and dangerous to criticize religious views or advance an alternative way of understanding the world. Historically, this has usually meant that humanist views have been hidden, or only expressed in coded language by small groups of people. While there are reports of secret societies of atheists and freethinkers in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – for example, among Freemasons – public groups of freethinkers did not become widespread until the nineteenth century. The growth of humanist groups also corresponds with the general growth of civil society and the spread of voluntary organizations focusing on ideas and issues.
The nineteenth-century humanist groups used a bewildering variety of names to describe their worldview. Descriptions included:
- Secularist (the term “Secularism” was coined by the English social reformer George Jacob Holyoake in 1841)
- Laique (in the French-speaking world)
- Positivist (after the Positivism of the early nineteenth century French sociologist, August Comte)
- Agnostic (a term coined by the British scientist T.H. Huxley in 1870)
- Ethical Culture (a worldwide movement founded in (1876 by New Yorker Felix Adler)
- Free Religious (in Germany)
Some of these groups were primarily anti-clerical, focused on critiquing religion and the power of the clergy, while others saw themselves as a new, progressive, non-theistic form of religion.
“Humanist” was not widely used in its modern sense until the publication of the “Humanist Manifesto” in the U.S. in 1933 (see Lesson 2, Manifestoes and other statements of humanism). The term “humanist” quickly spread as the preferred description for non-theistic people and groups who believed in promoting human welfare without reference to gods or the supernatural. Increasingly, these groups saw themselves neither as religious nor anti-religious but as a positive, ethical replacement for religion.
After the Second World War, leaders from Britain, the Netherlands, and the U.S.A. led the way in creating the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a new global umbrella organization for national humanist groups. Its founding members included groups from the U.S.A., Europe, and India – organizations whose mission is to preserve not only the cultural humanism of historical tradition, but also to promote lifestance humanism, a contemporary worldview offering a framework for everyday life. It is lifestance humanism that we’ll explore in Lesson 2.