In the United States, atheists and humanists are among its most vilified and distrusted citizens. One of the most effective ways of countering this prejudice is to offer a vivid reminder that some of the world’s leading moral, cultural, and scientific figures are indeed humanists. A good place to start is with the past and present members of the International Academy of Humanism (IAH).
The Academy should be better known than it is. An honorary body comprising up to eighty Humanist Laureates, the IAH was founded in 1980 by Paul Kurtz to recognize and honor distinguished humanists and to disseminate humanistic ideals. Once elected, members retain their status for life. Currently there are sixty-six Laureates, and steps are being taken to bring the membership roster back to full strength. The members of the Academy themselves decide who should be invited to join their ranks.
What qualifies someone to be a Laureate of the IAH? Laureates must have made an important contribution to scholarship or to the production of work of outstanding artistic or literary merit or have other significant achievements. In addition, Laureates should (1) be devoted to free inquiry in all fields of human endeavor, (2) be committed to a scientific outlook and the use of the scientific method in acquiring knowledge, and (3) uphold humanist ethical values and principles.
Cast an eye down the list of current and previous members of the IAH and you cannot help but be impressed. Laureates past and present include some extraordinary individuals. You will find the writers Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, and Ann Druyan. There are leading scientists such as Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Steven Pinker, Elizabeth Loftus, Lionel Tiger, and Harry Kroto. Other past and present Laureates include world-leading philosophers such as Daniel C. Dennett, W.V.O. Quine, Ernest Nagel, Jürgen Habermas, Peter Singer, Isaiah Berlin, and Richard Rorty. Business figures such as George Soros and Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein are also represented, as are biblical scholars, including G.A. Wells and Elaine Pagels. And then there’s comedian Steve Allen, the creator and first host of The Tonight Show. Given that the Academy comprises such incandescent individuals—including my boyhood hero Carl Sagan—I was baffled but of course delighted to find myself made a member last year.
The Academy has not been a particularly active body: its role, to date, has been almost entirely honorary. The Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry, recognizing the valuable resource that such an extraordinary body offers, have relaunched the Academy with an eye toward revitalizing it and giving it a more prominent position in humanist life. To get things moving, a set of bylaws has been drawn up and a Secretariat established to take care of the running of the Academy. The Secretariat comprises myself, Steven Pinker, Ann Druyan, and Elizabeth Loftus. I have agreed to act as chair for the time being. A new Secretariat, elected by the Laureates themselves, will be appointed every three years.
One of the few stated functions of the Academy is to issue occasional public statements on matters of particular significance to its members. Among the first actions we took was to explore the possibility of the IAH issuing a statement on the popular uprisings across the Middle East. The uprisings and their aftermath are obviously of great concern to many humanists and secularists around the world, and the Academy decided to issue a public statement in support of those working to promote progressive secular thought and attitudes across the Middle East. The resulting statement, approved by the Academy, was announced at the joint Council for Secular Humanism/Center for Inquiry conference “Moving Secularism Forward,” held in Orlando, Florida, in March 2012. The statement appears in the text box on the next page.
At the Orlando conference, the Academy sponsored a three-hour session during which Laureates could speak about their work. Anthropologist Lionel Tiger gave a provocative lecture on the subject of “Male Original Sin.” Nobel Prize-winning chemist Sir Harold Kroto, armed with one of the most eye-catching PowerPoint presentations I’ve ever seen, gave a rousing talk on religious belief. To open the session, I presented a succinct version of my philosophy paper “The Evil God Challenge” (published in 2010 in Religious Studies), which has received quite a bit of attention recently, not least because of the use I made of it in a debate with Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig. (It also appears in my Very Short Introduction to Humanism [Oxford University Press, 2011].)
Given the range and depth of talent the Academy has to offer, it presents humanists with a valuable and largely unexploited resource, including role models for future generations of humanists—and also the potential to inform, and perhaps even influence, public opinion around the world. My hope is that the International Academy of Humanism will develop into one of the better-known jewels in the crown of the global humanist movement.