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100 Humanist Events That Changed the World

FI Editors' Picks The Last 1,000 Years


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 2.


Humanistic ideals can be traced back to the dawn of civilization, but they have flourished more in the past 1,000 years than ever before. When the rights of human beings gain respect, when democracy is nourished, when science and reason expand human knowledge, when secular ideas arise and influence the world, humanism blossoms. The following is a catalogue of events that have signaled dramatic growth in the influence of these humanist ideals in the last millennium. The list, which is neither exhaustive nor exacting, has been selected by Free Inquiry editors. It reminds us that, if the past prepares the future and there is thus a further flowering of humanism, the next thousand years may be more promising than many humans believe. 

TECHNOLOGY & SCIENCE

  • Scholastic Awakening (1050-1200). Revived tradition of analytical inquiry; sparked foundation of Europe's first universities.
  • First recorded use of a compass for navigation, in China (1117). Navigational tool not dependent on star observations expands range, reliability of sea travel.
  • Marco Polo travels to China (1298). Creates new Western awareness of lands and peoples to the east.
  • Johann Gutenberg invents movable-type printing press (1450). The Bible is first book to be mass-produced.
  • Publication of Copernicus's "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres" (1543). Positing the sun, not the Earth, as the center of the universe, Copernicus discredited scripture as a guide to the cosmos and paved the way for all future developments in astronomy; vindicated empirical inquiry over Aristotelian authority as a means of determining truth.
  • The Scientific Revolution (1600-1700). Galileo, Newton, Kepler demonstrated the power of empirical inquiry to explain phenomena; undercut scripture-based views of the universe and humanity's place therein.
  • The birth of economics (1770s). Based on post-mercantilist view of what constitutes wealth, work of Adam Smith and others reduces effective powers of royalty while encouraging industrial, commercial growth.
  • Publishing of Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" (1776-1788). Implicated Christianity and its hostility toward intellectual inquiry in the fall of Rome; popularized idea that religion could be responsible for sweeping, negative social consequences.
  • Malthus introduces modern notion of overpopulation (1798). First to suggest that overpopulation posed a genuine threat; pioneer in advocating for deliberate management of human population's size.
  • Rosetta Stone found (1799). Enabled translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs; later scholars would demonstrate that many Christian beliefs and practices have Egyptian roots.
  • Publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species" (1859). Its naturalistic account of the origin of life made a fully nontheistic worldview credible to millions.
  • Quantum Theory developed (1900-1930). Established modern understanding of the subatomic universe; freed scientific naturalism from dependence on strict determinism.
  • Publication of Einstein's theories of "Special and General Relativity" (1905, 1916). Revolutionized physics; stunning confirmations of certain Einsteinian predictions smoothed the way for public comprehension of the new physics.
  • Invention of the computer (ENIAC, 1946). Electronic computing would usher in the so-called Third Industrial Revolution while flattening social and commercial institutions and democratizing access to information.
  • Discovery of DNA (1953). Paving the way for unlocking the genetic code, "double helix" discovery also closed off one of the mysteries believers commonly assigned to exclusive control of the deity.
  • Amino acids produced in test tube (1953). Demonstrated partial pathway by which life might arise from nonlife without divine intervention; enhanced plausibility of strict naturalism among popular audiences.
  • Space Exploration begun (1957). Ushered in unprecedented era of growth in scientific knowledge and (for a time) public appreciation of science.
  • Advent of genetic engineering (1973). For first time, humans can influence-as well as be influenced by-their genetic endowments.
  • First test-tube baby born in England (1978). Extends human control over our own biology; confirms the new, mutual independence of sex and reproduction.

ARTS & LITERATURE

  • First commission of a work of art by a secular patron (1434). Ended Roman Catholic Church's monopoly over creation of artworks in the West.
  • The Renaissance (1450-1550). In art, music, architecture, and politics, established humanity rather than God, this world rather than the next, as the focus of human endeavor.
  • Work of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (late 1500s). With their vivid characterizations, these great plays popularized the idea of individual personalities, not fate or the gods, as primary shapers of events.
  • Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley attacked for his atheism (1811). Though expelled from Oxford for co-publishing The Necessity of Atheism, Shelley became West's first open atheist to enjoy successful literary career.
  • Poet Edward FitzGerald's discovery and translation of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat (1859). Popularized a life-affirming, this-worldly viewpoint rooted in a non-Christian culture.
  • Harlem Renaissance (1920s). First distinctly African American voices in music and literature to win prestige, recognition among mainstream critics.

PHILOSOPHY & RELIGION

  • Averroes (1126-1198) applies skepticism to study of Islam. Demonstrated applicability of rational inquiry to the study of all subjects, including religion.
  • Publication of Maimonides' "Guide to the Perplexed" (1176). First great secularizing, demythologizing work in the Jewish tradition.
  • "In Praise of Folly" by Erasmus published (1509 English edition 1549). Pioneering critique of theology and clericalism.
  • Machiavelli's "The Prince" (1513). Though ruthless, this guide for rulers was the first to portray government as a secular exercise best judged by its results, not by the dictates of religious law.
  • Work of Montaigne (mid-1500s). His essays encompassed every aspect of life and established autobiography as a humanistic literary form.
  • Publication of Hobbes's "Leviathan" (1651). Its notion of the social contract rooted the ruler's power not in divine sanction, but in the consent of the governed.
    Literary and philosophical contributions of Voltaire (1694-1798). Pre-eminent essayist, dramatist and philosophe, his writings and his life exemplified the inquiring, iconoclastic Enlightenment sensibility. Popularized profound arguments against the tenets of Christianity.
  • Activity of French philosophes (mid 1700s). Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, d'Alembert, d'Holbach, Condorcet, and others popularized Enlightenment ideals of reason, empiricism, and humanism in the arts, sciences, and politics.
  • Locke's "Letter on Toleration" (1689). Pioneering statement that religious belief is a matter of individual conscience (though Locke rejected toleration for atheists).
  • Writing of Hume's "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" (1779). This posthumous work leveled a withering attack, still powerful today, against belief in miracles and religious supernaturalism generally.
  • Publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women" (1792). Pioneering women's rights treatise introduced key feminist concepts, inspired many 19th-century suffragists.
  • Publication of Thomas Paine's "The Age of Reason" (1794). This deistic critique of Christian doctrine has probably guided more inquirers out of their faith than any book save the Bible.
  • Defense of utilitarianism by Jeremy Bentham (late 1700s) and J.S. Mill (mid-1800s). Popularized idea that moral precepts should be judged by their consequences rather than by their conformity to pre-existing, often religious, norms.
  • Schopenhauer's denunciations of religion (1818-1851). Popularized a wholly this-worldly view that acknowledged the importance of will and emotion as well as reason.
  • Ludwig Feuerbach publishes the "Essence of Christianity" (1841). This influential work portrayed Christianity as inhumane and pioneered accounting for its origins and persistence on psychological grounds.
  • J.S. Mill's "On Liberty" (1859). Unequalled defense of liberal politics premised on the value of personal autonomy, choice, and individuality.
  • Marx's "Das Kapital" (1867-1894). Proposed a wholly secular model of history, economics, and religion, a rallying point for both reformers and dictators whose influence on the twentieth century (for good and ill) would be immense.
  • Birth of biblical "higher criticism" (early 1800s). Demonstrated that scripture could be subjected to historical analysis like other ancient texts-and convinced many literate Europeans that most religious claims are untrue.
  • Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" (1883). Popularized idea of the death of God; compelling statement of nineteenth-century Western mind contemplating the new vistas revealed by discovering the bankruptcy of religion.
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton published "Woman's Bible," vol. I (1895). First influential work to recognize the damage done by traditional Christianity to women's rights, autonomy, self-image.
  • Freud's speculations about the psychology of religious belief (1920s). Though largely discredited today, they made popular the idea of seeking this-worldly explanations for religious phenomena.
  • Dewey's "Experience and Nature" (1925) and "Reconstruction in Philosophy" (1948). Set forth an influential naturalistic conception of science, art, and values.
  • Publication of Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" (1927). Next to the Bible and Paine's Age of Reason, perhaps the most effective text for encouraging Christians to outgrow their faith.
  • Development of logical positivism (1930s). Favored empirical science over metaphysics; popularized idea that religious statements are inherently meaningless.
    Publication of Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" (1949). Launched second-wave feminism, inspiring Millett, Friedan, Steinem, and others.
  • Creation of aesthetic existentialism by Jean-Paul Sartre and his circle (1950s). Popularized idea that instead of depending on religious or social institutions, people are responsible for their own lives.

POLITICS & LAW

  • The Crusades (1096-1251). Christendom's failure to dislodge Muslims from the Holy Land engendered popular skepticism about God's will and church authority.
    Signing of the Magna Carta (1215). First great transfer of power, from an autarchical monarchy to the landed gentry, presaged later transfers of power to the people as a whole.
  • Peace of Augsburg (1555). Ended wars of religion within Germany; first cautious step toward religious pluralism and self-determination.
  • Netherlands' Treaty of Utrecht signed (1579). Freed from domination by Spain, the Netherlands established itself as a haven of freedom and tolerance.
  • Edict of Nantes (1598). Established civil rights of Protestants in Catholic France.
  • Treaty of Westphalia (1648). Ended the Thirty Years' War, forged lasting peace between Europe's Protestants and Catholics, and diminished power of Holy Roman Empire.
  • British Act of Toleration (1689). Laid foundation for modern freedom of religion in England.
  • Signing of the "Declaration of Independence" (1776). Based on Enlightenment concepts and Locke's political philosophy, asserts primacy of individual self-determination over the powers of monarchy.
  • Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance" (1785). Articulated new American ideals of religious liberty and separation of church and state.
  • Passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty (1786). Composed by Jefferson, Madison, and George Mason; established the same concept of religious freedom expressed three years later in the Bill of Rights.
  • French Revolution (1789). Popularized democratic concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity; affirmed power of the people to overthrow both monarchy and church.
  • Adoption of the U.S. Constitution (1789). Established first nation explicitly based on Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom and self-determination.
  • Ratification of the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791). Established the primacy of human rights as a guiding principle of American democracy.
  • Abolition of the slave trade by the U.K. (1807). First renunciation of slavery by a major Western slaveholding power; set stage for abolition in the U.S. 56 years later.
  • Revolutions of 1848. Unsuccessful revolutions paved way for later democratic reforms in Europe; freethinking refugees from failed revolutions streamed to America, where many made important contributions.
  • Abolition of slavery in America (1863). End of world's largest system of legal slavery struck a blow for human freedom, set stage for African-American struggle against racism.
  • Worldwide woman's suffrage movement (early 1900s). Agitated for political equality, reform of other social and religious structures that unfairly disadvantage women.
  • Kemal Ataturk launches a strictly secularist republic in Turkey (1923). Recognized that secular republicanism, not Islamic tradition, offered best framework for modernizing his country.
  • Scopes "Monkey Trial" (1925). Focused national attention on the evolution controversy; though teacher Scopes was convicted, evolution won in the court of public opinion, dealing creationists a loss they took six decades to recover from.
  • Formation of the United Nations (1945). First enduring world body provides a forum for social service, economic development, and resolution of international conflicts in a thoroughly secular setting.
  • U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Extended Western-style concept of inherent individual rights as an ideal for the world community.
  • U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). Establishes a relatively objective test for identifying unconstitutional church-state entanglements.
    Roe v. Wade (1973). Legalized abortion in first and second trimesters, ending reign of illegal abortion as the #1 killer of women of childbearing age.
  • Collapse of communism in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (1980-1990). Demonstrated bankruptcy of Marxist central planning before the power of humanistic values and individual initiative.

SOCIETY & EDUCATION

  • Boom in European exploration (late 1400s). Increased the wealth and power of Western states; paved way for widespread understanding of the world as a whole.
  • Publication of first volume of the French "Encyclopedie" (1751). Edited by Diderot and d'Alembert, the Encyclopedie was both a magisterial overview of human knowledge and a soapbox for Enlightenment ideals.
  • First major utopian text, by Charles Fourier, published (1808). Utopians fearlessly questioned existing political, economic, social arrangements and encouraged experimentation with alternative ways of living.
  • Institution of public education (late 1800s). Moved responsibility for education from churches to government; encouraged ideal of secular educational system that treats children of all religions (and none) alike
  • Frederick Douglass's abolitionism (1841-1865). Former slave became the world's foremost orator against slavery, a lifelong crusader for reform.
  • Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls (1848). Initiated first wave of women's rights movement that ultimately won women suffrage.
  • Robert Ingersoll's lecture tours (1872-1899). The "Great Agnostic" brought his critique of religion to every large American city, giving hundreds of thousands their first-or only-exposure to freethought ideas.
  • Founding of the Rationalist Press Association (1899). Disseminated important freethought works throughout the English-speaking world; especially influential on development of humanism in India.
  • Publication of DuBois' "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903). Stressed the importance of learning and culture as tools for improvement of African-Americans' lives.
  • Margaret Sanger opens first birth control clinic (1916). Pioneered idea that family size should be a woman's choice; opposed religious control over reproduction, promoted decoupling of reproduction from the sex act.
  • Environmentalist movement (late 1960s). Expanded human moral concern to encompass the biosphere.
  • Gay Rights Movement (mid 1970s). Eroded power of antipathy toward homosexuals based primarily on Old Testament doctrine.
  • Nuclear disarmament movement (1980s). Sought-and helped to win-five decades of forbearance from use of nuclear weapons in anger.
  • Legalization of euthanasia in The Netherlands (1993). Extended power of self-determination to the final stages of the individual's life.
  • Animal Rights movement (1970s). Extends the moral concern granted sentient entities to include higher animals as well as humans.
  • 1960s Women's Rights Movement. Where previous women's rights movement had won women the vote, the 1960s movement sought parity between men and women in all areas of life.
  • Signing of "Humanist Manifesto I" (1933). Emergence of American humanist movement.
  • Founding of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (1952). Crystallized humanism as a truly worldwide movement for human betterment.
  • U.S. Civil Rights Movement (mid- 1950s). Sought to extend human rights defined by Mill, Locke, and Jefferson to African Americans in fact as well as in theory.
  • Release of "Humanist Manifesto II" (1973). Update of 1933's Humanist Manifesto I was endorsed by numerous intellectual, social, political leaders, won high visibility for humanist movement.
  • Issuing of "Secular Humanist Declaration" (1980). Updated Humanist Manifestos I and II; signaled emergence of a self-conscious secularist wing within American humanism.
  • Free Inquiry founded (1980). Would become world's largest-circulation, most influential English-language humanist publication. 
  • Founding of the Council for Secular Humanism (1980). Would become the largest, most active humanist organization in the United States.
  • Issuing of "Humanist Manifesto 2000" (1999). Third successor to 1933's Humanist Manifesto updates humanist social, ethical commitments for the coming millennium.

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