The history of the the AHA perfectly illustrates the formation of a myth and the inability of those who believe that myth to realize that they are acting on the basis of beliefs not totally based on rationality. The first Humanist Manifesto appeared in 1933. It was an attempt to establish a new religion, one which would “formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.” They called themselves “religious humanists”; there is no getting around the fact that this was intended to be a secular religion. The first item in the manifesto is that “religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.” The fifth states that “Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.”
The first manifesto was a brief, extremely confident document expressing faith in endless progress through science. That it appeared in 1933 is ironic, considering what was already beginning to happen in Europe. The second manifesto, issued in 1973, is vastly longer, vastly more dogmatic, and both troubled and troubling. It acknowledges in the Preface that “Science has sometimes brought evil as well as good.” It is far more direct than the first manifesto in asserting that “humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith.” They do not say that it has been proven that there is no God; it is enough to dare anyone to “prove” that God exists. Anything not scientifically provable at that precise moment in time, since scientific analysis is the highest value, can’t be accepted as fact. It’s worth noting that the first issue discussed is that of religion. Humanism is now against something, no longer presenting hopeful principles as goals to reach. In the short span of forty years, it has become a dogma.
As the second manifesto sets forth its principles, its first concern is with religion. They feel that “Even at this late date in human history, certain elementary facts based upon the critical use of scientific reason have to be restated. We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of survival and fulfillment of the human race.” They don’t provide any scientific documentation for this. There isn’t any they could provide. There aren’t any “elementary facts,” only opinions, nothing that could be considered scientific facts, elementary or not, that prove that God, the so-called supernatural, or anything else the humanists might lump into that category, does or does not exist. This is an unproven assumption, “everybody knows this,” although they don’t appear to realize that they aren’t being very “scientific” about it.
They next turn to ethics, which they separate from religion. That is a reasonable stance, if one were to accept that everything that can’t be weighed, measured, and mathematically proven isn’t necessarily subjective, which is one of their primary beliefs. One can’t do that with ethics, which, according to the criteria accepted by the humanists, must be subjective and a matter of values. So the question has to be—whose values? Those of the humanists, of course. Again, there is no appreciation of the fact that they aren’t applying their own criteria. Instead, they call on “reason and human intelligence,” no matter how subjective and value-driven that might be when not dealing with experimentation and mathematical proof.
The second manifesto still contains some of the idealistic values and goals that were expressed in the original manifesto. They are, however, tacked on at the end, well past the diatribe against religion. The two manifestoes are followed in 1980 by a “Secular Humanist Declaration,” the word manifesto having become old-fashioned. It is even longer and more dogmatic than the second manifesto.
Both the second manifesto and the declaration make a point of tracing the roots of humanism back to “philosophers, scientists, and poets of classical Greece and Rome.” The second manifesto includes, “through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, to the scientific revolution of the modern world.” The declaration substitutes a much longer list, “ancient Chinese Confucian society, to the Carvaka movement of India, and to other distinguished intellectual and moral traditions. Secularism and humanism were eclipsed in Europe during the Dark Ages, when religious piety eroded humankind’s confidence in its own powers to solve human problems. They reappeared in force during the Renaissance with the reassertion of secular and humanist values in literature and the arts, again in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the development of modern science and a naturalistic view of the universe, and their influence can be found in the eighteenth century in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment.” This need to establish an ancestry, legitimate or not, is typical of certain kinds of Medieval documents which were legitimized by calling upon past authorities, and thus is unconsciously indulging in exactly that kind of medieval thinking they despise.
The declaration has dropped any claim to be a “religion,” although it still represents a secular religion. Instead, it stresses that humanism is “secular,” yet most of the “ancestors” they claim had no doubts about the existence of God, or, for that matter, multiple gods, spirits, demons and angels. As confidence has weakened, and dogmatism has strengthened, these documents have become longer and longer. Humanism now feels downright threatened by any aspect of religion or by anything that could possibly be considered supernatural. “Regrettably, we are today faced with a variety of antisecularist trends: the reappearance of dogmatic authoritarian religions; fundamentalist, literalist, and doctrinaire Christianity; a rapidly growing and uncompromising Moslem clericalism in the Middle East and Asia; the reassertion of orthodox authority by the Roman Catholic papal hierarchy; nationalistic religious Judaism; and the reversion to obscurantist religions in Asia.”
Even more serious, “New cults of unreason as well as bizarre paranormal and occult beliefs, such as belief in astrology, reincarnation, and the mysterious power of alleged psychics, are growing in many Western societies….These religious activists not only are responsible for much of the terror and violence in the world today but stand in the way of solutions to the world’s most serious problems.”
The enemy has been defined. It is necessary to do battle against these forces of darkness. The result is that humanism has redefined itself. No longer the champion of idealistic goals, it will stand and fight the enemy. It has become as dogmatic and fundamentalist as any of the fundamentalists it wants to fight, never suspecting that this has happened, or that it is pitting one set of myths against other myths. The rest of the document is full of contradictions. It asserts the right of free inquiry, not stating, of course, that “free inquiry” does not include the right to conduct scientific investigations in areas they don’t consider “scientific.” Ethics are still based on “critical intelligence,” as though only they are capable of using critical intelligence. Again, they call upon their “ancestry," now “Socrates, Democritus, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Epictetus, to Spinoza, Erasmus, Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Bentham, Mill, G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, and others.” Later they add another list: “Protagoras, Lucretius, Epicurus, Spinoza, Hume, Thomas Paine, Diderot, Mark Twain, George Eliot, John Stewart Mill, Ernest Renan, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Clarence Darrow, Robert Ingersoll, Gilbert Murray, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Max Born, Margaret Sanger, Bertrand Russell, among others.” Never mind the eccentricity of the lists, that they overlap, or that many included on the list were devout believers in various forms of religion or spiritualism.
In addition to the attacks on religion a section on “Religious Skepticism” is included. This is wrongly named; it should be skepticism about religion. It lists the “sins” of religions, as though science has never made any mistakes. Humanity, in their opinion, must learn to live without religion or any other manifestations of the spirit, and they’re going to see to it that this happens. Humanism has become a campaign against the spirit. It has become the thought police. Significantly, the Conclusion states: “Democratic secular humanism is too important for human civilization to abandon.” As though that were under serious consideration. “We are nevertheless surrounded by doomsday prophets of disaster, always wishing to turn the clock back.” The enemy is at the gate. There is no comprehension that they have become doomsday prophets. The rest is yet another diatribe against religion.
The declaration is signed by a long list of outstanding people, mostly influential professors. Significantly, the declaration is conditioned: “Although we who endorse this declaration may not agree with all its specific provisions, we nevertheless support its general purposes and provisions,” although nothing of the sort had been added to the previous documents.
This is an excellent illustration of what happens to a myth. Initially there is naive optimism, cheerful goodwill, hope, everything is positive. Dogma develops. Dogma must be defended. The followers become True Believers in the One True Faith. The enemy is at the gate, and the dogma must be defended at all costs, everything depends on a defensive, negative stance against enemies.
Much of the current outcry against science which so upsets the humanists is not an attack on science itself, but on the misuse of science, on having forced it into the role of a faith and then allowing it to run rampant, as though science, a mere human endeavor, could do no wrong. Although it was not the only expression of the prevailing scientifically based myth of the past century, humanism, in all good faith, embodied it, swallowed it whole, and now seems to stand ready to die for it. It was a simple faith, a belief in what science could accomplish, and that scientific thought and method, considered by them to be vastly superior to all past systems, was all that was necessary. All that was needed was faith in endless progress through science. They declared science the highest human value and declared all other means of knowing merely subjective. They took scientific accomplishments as representing absolute truth, unchanging and whole. If that knowledge was incomplete, the blanks would be filled in time, but nothing understood by the humanists as true would be refuted or be superseded by future discoveries. They looked at all previous beliefs as mere myth and superstition, especially any belief in God or spirit because there was no place for them in a mechanistic universe. They denied all the wisdom and experience of the human past, except a tacked-on list of acceptable “ancestors,” never suspecting their own arrogance or human fallibility in doing so, or their built-in hubris. They certainly never suspected that they, too, were creating a myth.