It’s a commonplace that humanism, and especially secular humanism, “punches above its weight.” Our movement has never been more than a minuscule minority phenomenon, yet humanists (as well as historic activists we would now recognize as humanists even if they did not know the term) have played an outsize role in promoting some of their eras’ most prominent social reforms.
Consider one example from the nineteenth century. Popular historic discourse today tends to spotlight religious activists and clergypersons who agitated for the abolition of slavery early on, when abolitionism was unpopular even in the North. Doing so not only distorts the true numbers of clergy and churchgoers who used their Christianity to defend or simply tolerate slavery; it effectively buries the contributions of indispensable early antislavery activists who were either irreligious or wildly religiously heterodox. For example, many were radical Quakers (such as the Hicksites), whose doctrinal views might not be out of place in religious Humanist congregations today. This same group provided much of the early impetus for the woman suffrage movement, whose debt to explicit freethinkers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage went underappreciated for many decades.
With the first part of this feature—and its conclusion in the following issue—Free Inquiry presents a large-scale reappraisal of the humanist minority’s outsized role in social-justice activism throughout the twentieth century. (Next issue’s conclusion will place greater emphasis on the contributions of the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry [CFI] since the Council’s founding in 1980.) The two articles were conceived and made possible by the generosity of CFI supporter Gordon Gamm, who gave a substantial grant to facilitate preparation of the report. (Gamm’s grant was matched by dedicated funding from CFI.) This funding made possible the hiring of Leah Mickens, a brilliant researcher and writer who has contributed previous Free Inquiry cover stories. It also enabled Ms. Mickens to conduct an extensive research residency at CFI–Transnational in Amherst, New York, where she explored the world’s foremost English-language library on humanism, along with historic and archival resources including the papers of CFI founder Paul Kurtz. Ms. Mickens was assisted throughout her research by Center for Inquiry Libraries Director Timothy Binga.
The result is, in total, a 13,000-word exposition, based on troves of “inside” documents, demonstrating how humanist precursors, explicit humanist activists, and more recently secular humanists wielded outsized creative influence over important social-reform efforts in the America of the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries.