The Progress of Humanism

Paul Kurtz

September 2008 marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the issuance of Humanist Manifesto II, which was published in 1973. Since I am the author of that document, it is perhaps useful for the historical record to say something about its origin. I was at that time editor of The Humanist. Ed Wilson, editor emeritus of that magazine, suggested to me in 1972 that I draft a new manifesto, for the first one, issued in 1933, had become outdated. I agreed and sent out a first draft to a selected list of humanists and secularists around the world for comment.

I received many suggestions of what to include or delete. Much to my surprise, these were often sharply contradictory. Hence, there were many revisions, which I kept circulating for further comments. One especially hot topic was the role of religion. Religious humanists, many of them Unitarians, wished to use the term religion to describe their humanism, whereas secular-minded humanists insisted that it was not a religion. Another controversy concerned sexual ethics. The sexual revolution had already begun, and many were concerned whether this implied promiscuity or whether there were genuine humanistic moral principles that were applicable. There were other differences concerning the economy, for example, the free market versus the role of the government.

Writing Humanist Manifesto II was perhaps the most demanding editorial project that I have ever undertaken. Indeed, on two or three occasions I became so exasperated at the conflicting viewpoints that I thought of chucking it all! I remember telling my close friend and colleague Roy P. Fairfield (then a professor at Antioch College) that I wished to abandon the entire effort. He urged me to persevere, which I did, until I finally reached a final draft that I thought was acceptable. I sent this out to a list of distinguished humanists and secularists for endorsement—and I was overwhelmed by their enthusiastic response. These included Sidney Hook, Isaac Asimov, Betty Freidan, Albert Ellis, B.F. Skinner, Maxine Greene, and James Farmer from the United States; Nobel Prize–winner Francis Crick, Sir Julian Huxley, and A.J. Ayer from Great Britain; Svetozar Stojanoviç from Yugoslavia; and Jacques Monod from France. I was especially pleased to obtain the signature of Andrei Sakharov, the distinguished dissident physicist from the Soviet Union, who was under house arrest in Gorki. I sent him a copy of the Manifesto by diplomatic pouch and spoke to him twice with a translator for several hours by transatlantic phone. All told there were 275 signers. Humanist Manifesto II was published in September 1973, by The Humanist magazine and Prometheus Books, a new press that I had recently established. Prometheus issued a small book that contained Manifestos I and II. An abridged version of Humanist Manifesto II is published below.

Humanist Manifesto II became instant news. A front-page story appeared in the New York Times, and there were articles in Le Monde in France, the London Times in Britain, and other newspapers and magazines worldwide. There was also widespread television and radio coverage. This provoked a loud outcry from right-wing fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as well as conservative pundits, who were shocked by what they viewed as the Manifesto’s radical recommendations. It became a key issue in the election campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and in subsequent years. Critics invariably pointed to Humanist Manifesto II as a key culprit in their assault on secular humanism. Incidentally, secular humanism is not mentioned in the Manifesto, because it had not yet emerged as a defining issue in the early 1970s. Many of the signers of the Manifesto were picketed in subsequent years; for example, Betty Freidan complained to me that she was constantly attacked for endorsing the document. The major assault on secular humanism was launched by the Religious Right explicitly in an effort to have it expelled from the public schools and the secular colleges and universities of America. There was also an assault on liberal judges, the publishing industry, the media, and certain foundations. Accordingly, Free Inquiry and the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (later shortened to the Council for Secular Humanism) were founded in 1980 to respond to these intemperate attacks. Many publications were of course highly supportive and welcomed the Manifesto; generally the attacks on secular humanism have not succeeded. Incidentally, Humanist Manifesto II has been translated into many languages, including Korean, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Hindi, and others.

The Manifesto begins with the statement that “The next century can and should be the humanistic century.” Has this been fulfilled? I think that the answer is yes, amazingly so—depending on the region of the world.

In reading the Manifesto today, I was also struck by how the world has changed since its first publication. Notably, a large number of countries have abandoned the old-time religion and have become increasingly secular and humanistic. They are postreligious. This applies to most of the Western European democracies, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. This is also true of China and of Eastern Europe to some extent, though there have been attempts to bring back religion in Eastern Europe.

Humanist Manifesto II was critical of religion; in the major democratic countries, church attendance is now shockingly low: for instance, only 2 percent attend church in Denmark, 4 percent in Sweden, less than 10 percent in France, and comparably small figures are found in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Even Spain and Italy have shown remarkable declines in religiosity. The United States is an anomaly in this regard, having the largest proportion of believers of any developed country, but even here there has been substantial growth in secularism, especially among the young, since this document was issued.

A second major change is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its totalitarian empire in Eastern Europe. What emerged in many parts of the world is the solid defense of human rights, which is essential to democratic societies. Although China is secular, if it is to be considered humanistic it must improve its record on human rights and develop democratic institutions that respect civil liberties, a free press, dissent, and the legal right of opposition by contending parties.

The most surprising change in the twenty-first century is the resurgence of Islam. Very few Muslim countries are secular or democratic. This is surely today’s battleground for secular humanism—to defend human rights and the preciousness and dignity of each person, all rights enjoyed in democratic societies.

A third area of achievement is the rapid economic growth in the emerging economies of the world. Heroic efforts have been made in many countries to conquer poverty, reduce disease, and extend life spans—this is especially true in Japan, the United States, Europe, and affluent nations, which have provided opportunities for achieving an abundant life. The Asian continent has been leapfrogging economically, especially in Japan, South Korea, China, and India.

Science continues to expand our knowledge of the natural universe and is enlarged almost daily. The doctrinaire utopian ideologies of the previous century have either dissipated or been transformed. Humanistic ethics is in fact widely adopted. As science expands the boundaries of the known, it is now usually recognized that the goal of ethics is to extend opportunities to more and more people. An appreciation for science and technology and for science education is growing.

Attitudes about sexuality have radically altered since 1973, at least in democratic societies, where rights to contraception, abortion, and divorce are legalized. The gay revolution fostered toleration of diverse lifestyles
, including same-sex marriages, which were unthinkable thirty-five years ago but are a central issue today.

The autonomy of the individual is a central value of Humanist Manifesto II. This means the right to choose one’s own lifestyle and to enjoy freedom of choice as long as one does not prevent others from doing the same. Included in this is informed consent in health care, the recognition that it is the patient who shall determine what care is or is not provided, which extends to the right to die, euthanasia, and assisted suicide.

The principle of equality is also widely recognized—it is imperative to eliminate discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or country of origin. A new concern with the disadvantaged and abused persons is evident. Especially important is the fact that the rights of women stand out as a beacon for societies to achieve.

The need to build a world community and a new planetary ethics is finally being recognized. We must heighten global conscience, recognize our interdependence, expand economic development for the good of all, engage in population-growth constraint, and protect the environment against ecological degradation. Above all, we must develop international cooperation in science and culture and reach some kind of global consensus.

I note with interest that provision seventeen of the Manifesto calls for full international cooperation in culture, science, the arts, and technology, but it also says that the world must be open to diverse political-ideological and moral viewpoints. In addition, it says that we should evolve a worldwide system of television and radio for information and communication. In recent years, the Internet has emerged, enabling people everywhere to be in instantaneous communication. With it have come revolutionary media and devices: iPods, YouTube, MySpace, and so much more. In one sense, we finally have reached a point where people throughout the world can experience, appreciate, and share the values and contributions of everyone on the planet.

Clearly, there is still work to be done; heroic challenges remain. Humanism and secularism can provide meaningful guides for the future, and they are essential if the globe is to reach some kind of unity—if people throughout the world can work cooperatively with others and learn to live in peace and harmony.

One issue enunciated in Humanist Manifesto II has become all the more urgent since 1973, and that is the need for the world community to preserve and protect the natural ecology of the planet Earth; and above all to develop international institutions that will be able to do so.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


September 2008 marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the issuance of Humanist Manifesto II, which was published in 1973. Since I am the author of that document, it is perhaps useful for the historical record to say something about its origin. I was at that time editor of The Humanist. Ed Wilson, editor emeritus of that …

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