Critiques from Humanists Who Did Not Sign
Several important individuals did not sign "A Humanist Manifesto" but contributed substantially through their criticisms. The following four men are of varied backgrounds and professions and, precisely for that reason, the manifesto editors made concerted efforts to obtain their endorsements. We very much wanted the manifesto to reflect the best and broadest of humanistic thought.
Dr. Arthur E. Morgan
One of these men was Dr. Arthur E. Morgan, who is clearly in the wider stream of important nonjoining humanists by virtue of two of his books, My World (1927) and Search for Purpose (1955). His pioneer work as an engineer, his appointment as a Tennessee Valley Authority Commissioner (which led to his confrontation over policy matters with Franklin D. Roosevelt), his innovative presidency of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, his concern for Native Americans and for small community life, and his empathy with the struggles of small communities in India all marked him as a truly great American. In his ninety-second year, he published a scholarly expose of the Army Corps of Engineers, Dams and Other Disasters. He was working on yet another book at the time of his death in 1975.
I had always had close ties with Dr. Morgan and Yellow Springs. In fact, in late 1949 both the publishing office of The Humanist and the headquarters of the American Humanist Association were moved there.
Upon receiving his confidential draft of "A Humanist Manifesto" on April 10, 1933, Dr. Morgan responded immediately in what was to become a decades-long service as an adviser to the humanist movement. Dr. Morgan wrote:
While I agree generally with what is stated, I find my tempo unequal to the task of assimilating and appraising a new statement of a philosophy of life on a busy Saturday morning. Therefore I must forego the historic opportunity for being one of the charter members of the first universal religion.
Dr. Morgan, however, did not let the matter end there but wrote further in a letter published in its entirety in the same issue of The New Humanist in which "A Humanist Manifesto" first appeared:
The hesitancy I feel about signing the Manifesto grows chiefly out of questions of emphasis rather than out of explicit disagreement. Differences as to the essence of philosophy and outlook generally originate as differences of emphasis. I believe that unless the Humanist movement achieves a better distribution of emphasis, it will act as a sectarian movement to divide those who have one partial view of the issues of life from those who have another partial view, unless by fortunate circumstance it should be displaced and eliminated by a more inclusive and adequate view.
W. E. Channing, John Wesley, and George Fox each lacked something which the others could have provided. The following of each is destined to fade away, I believe, because of such lack. Had the desirable qualities of all three been united in one of them, the results might have been far more significant. George Fox, John Woolman, and others, notwithstanding untenable beliefs, had a quality of life of great necessity and value, which this manifesto may not deny but which it fails adequately to recognize. In that respect the manifesto reflects the prevailing temper of humanists.
To touch upon another point, any vital religion must give great emphasis to faith, which in essence is an unproven conviction of the significance of living. The humanist has some of this faith, or he would have no incentive for formulating his creed.
Yet, it seems to me, humanists are not characteristically strong in faith, hope, and love. Faith is an unreasoned conviction that life is, or can be made to be, significant. The humanist temper inclines to be one of seeing justifiable faith as a sort of dispassionate statistical or scientific conclusion about things. (This may be a somewhat unfair statement.) Faith is, however, much more than that. It is a cause of things to be. What is to be is partly determined by what faith is held. The oak and the walnut grow side by side in an identical environment. As a rough analogy we might say that each becomes what it is because of its inner "faith." In the realm of the human spirit we can explore for or create vital life aims and can have faith that such a pursuit is of great significance. It is the function of intelligence to enlighten faith and to protect it from error, but not to clip its wings, and not to compel it to walk because intelligence cannot fly.
Hope is the drive and expectation with which faith is held. To a large degree it determines how great shall be the results. Some time ago I heard a prominent humanist talking to college students. I thought what a pity for them to be under the influence of a man who expects so little from life. He seemed like one whistling to keep up his courage through a graveyeard or on the way to the gallows. Very rarely will men’s lives outrun their hopes, and rarely are their hopes untouched by the quality of their lives.
Love is all that Paul said it is. If it is not strong, all else is weak. I feel this very keenly in my own case. For the past twelve years I have been associated with a rare lot of young people. So far as a native quality is concerned they would have supplied a dozen groups of twelve apostles, every one better than the best of the historic twelve. We have had the raw material to turn America to a new course, but it has gone through our institution and has passed on, sometimes much better for the experience, and sometimes disillusioned and bewildered.
Faith, hope, and love are usually transmitted by contagion from persons who possess those qualities, but the human associations which transmit them generally have transmitted also an uncritical credulity. Those who are free from that uncritical credulity commonly are also free to a considerable extent from the faith, the hope, and the warm love of men which so commonly accompanied that credulity in our religious history, when nearly all men were credulous. The same environmental causes probably led to the absence of credulity and the absence of the desirable qualities. We might also say that such was the price of intellectual freedom. We have not yet learned to separate our cultural inheritance into its elements and to select and reject with sincerity and with critical intelligence.
The spiritual lassitude and disillusionment of many young people are partly due to the fact that they have been introduced into a critical atmosphere without having been equipped or indoctrinated in early childhood with spiritual drives and enthusiasms to carry them through such a crisis. Sometimes they lack sensitiveness to aspiration because that sensitiveness was not instilled early. Yet as I have considered the causes of this large degree of failure on my part I believe it is not due primarily to intellectual limitations or to lack of hard work, but that its cause may be illustrated by Paul’s phrase-"Though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing" [I Corinthians 13:31].
I think it was primarily that quality of love for men which gave Abraham Lincoln his orientation and his power. It is that quality which has given him his dominant place in history. . . .
Orthodox people will say that the lack of strong development of these qualities is evidence of fundamental unsoundness of humanism. I do not agree with that attitude. Our patterns of life are usually taken bodily from our environment or from some parts of it. The same pattern, which in the past included faith, hope, and love, commonly also included an uncritical and traditional attitude toward life, since such uncritical attitude was common to mankind.
I believe this association of elements was a historical accident, and was not an essential connection. The following is an example of the accidental historical association of qualities that have no inherently necessary relation:
For a long time I have searched for a man to head up a small industry. It was necessary that he have sound and discriminating and well-tested judgment in business matters, and that he have discipline of character to act with decision and with forethought. It was also necessary that he should not be controlled by the prevailing profit motive or by self-interest, and that he should not measure his success by his financial income.
Such people, I find to be relatively few. The reason, I believe, is that since business in general is controlled by the profit motive and recognizes self-interest as dominant, any person who serves an apprenticeship to business, which is about the only way to develop business skill and judgment, by that same apprenticeship becomes indoctrinated with the profit motive and with self-interest, since they are so nearly always present. Because of this historical association, it is relatively common to find keen and able business men whose business conduct is dominated by self-interest, or to find altruistic and self-forgetting persons who are incompetent in business, but relatively uncommon to find business keenness and acumen combined with altruism and self-forgetfulness. Could we once get started a race of business men who would consider business primarily as a public trust, and who would take out only enough income to make them effective in their work, then the new combination would be just as natural as the old.
The draft of a humanist manifesto exposes this condition. As I said before, it is a matter of emphasis, not one of intellectual approval or disapproval. I doubt whether I can suggest a thesis in addition to meet this weakness. The quality must be implicit in the movement in order to have adequate expression in a manifesto, though it is well to do the best possible for its inclusion.
The problem of humanism is to do that-to hold faithfully to a completely open-minded and critical attitude, while holding to, or eagerly seeking, the strong drives of faith, hope, and love. As such strong drives appear they will express themselves in heroic living, and by contagion will be transmitted.
Your fifth item reads in part: "The nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values." After eliminating the words "supernatural or",it is still a theoretical negation of this faith, not by what it says, but by what it leaves unsaid. That statement has an unjustified cocksureness, and is not dictated by humility or imagination. Religion must be disciplined by scientific procedure, but not limited to it, except as a poet or musician should be so limited. It must run far ahead of a science.
Religion should instill a hot partisanship for life which shall set for science the task of finding significance or of creating it. "Wishful thinking", if wisely inspired, may cause the discovery or creation of the values wished for. Our business is to find significance, or to create it. Lest we miss the real possibilities, this attitude drives us to the most relentless criticisms and the most ruthless testing of assumptions. Lacking that faith, we will not take the trouble to search and test, and so may miss the greatest realities. Your manifesto fails adequately to recognize the source of your own driving power.
When young people without a religious background become indoctrinated with such a creed as you present, they discern the inconsistency between the concern you express for social progress and the lack of inclusive significance for life as a whole. With reference to a great discipline of life or to immediate social effort they will say, "What’s the use." They may have little appetite for living. I am not speaking in the abstract, but from observation of students who have shown just such development from just such causes. If there are great and undiscovered possibilities for life, their disillusionment and lack of drive would destroy incentive and leave those values undiscovered.
Another point-the repeated insertion of "human" before "life" implies that only in the species Homo sapiens can there be significance.
When I criticize the humanists in general I criticize myself, for some of their typical weaknesses are my own. If what I say is to be of any value I must speak plainly and perhaps not without offense. A movement like humanism is determined not solely or primarily by a statement of policy but also by the types of the personalities that lead it.
These are some of the reasons why I hesitate to have my position defined by this manifesto. The statement shows great progress, and I admire and approve its courage.
Although Dr. Morgan never joined the American Humanist Association, he continued to be in touch with it throughout his career. He was actively involved in securing a minister for the Unitarian Church of Dayton, Ohio, and was once the moderator of the American Unitarian Association; however, at some point, he dropped out of Unitarianism and announced that his sole label would be that of the Society of Friends, his wife Lucy’s church. The Yellow Springs Meeting of the Quakers, to which he belonged, was the most humanistic of all the Quaker circles I have ever encountered.
I used to see Dr. Morgan quite frequently, and once he remarked to me: "Humanism’s all right; it’s the humanists!" Through Antioch College and its students, the wisdom of this seasoned educator has inspired and nourished the culture of many decades.
John Haynes Holmes
John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Community Church of New York, provided valuable criticism which the manifesto editors took under careful consideration. In 1927, Holmes had contributed to Humanist Sermons, edited by Curtis Reese. Throughout his career, Holmes was renowned for the eloquence of his public speaking.
At the time we were publishing "A Humanist Manifesto," he was the editor-in-chief and Curtis Reese was the associate editor of Unity, a periodical published by the Western Unitarian Conference in Chicago. It is important to distinguish this publication from another by the same name, published in Kansas City; the latter had as its general theme that "as a man thinketh so is he, so think fondly sweet thoughts." In general, religious liberals and the editors of the Chicago Unity found the Kansas City publication saccharine but less harmful than Christian Science.
Holmes eventually withdrew from the editorial board of Unity, as he and Reese differed seriously on a number of issues, including pacifism during World War II. Holmes’ theism and views on immortality hardly put him in the humanist ranks, although his pacifism and forthrightness on civil liberties made him a lasting hero of socially relevant religion. Holmes stated in his initial response to Bragg regarding the manifesto:
I have been studying with the utmost care the Manifesto which you are preparing to publish, for I count myself a humanist in the broader and more inclusive sense of the word.
Nearly every one of the items of your program is satisfactory to me, although I might desire to change the wording here and there. But there is one exception-the Sixth. I do not feel, and certainly do not want to assert, [that] "the time has passed for theism"! I have never at any time seen any necessary contradiction between humanism on the one hand and theism on the other. Indeed, I believe that a true humanism inevitably unfolds into a rational theism, or may at least be consistent therewith. Theism is to my mind the blossom which grows upon the plant of humanism, the poetry into which it unfolds in mystic beauty. As I look at it, God is only another word for Humanity, as America is only another word for the United States.
You speak of deism! Well, now, deism isn’t half bad! As a precise type of philosophical and theological thought it is, of course, old-fashioned and terribly unscientific, but it has a fundamental poetic value. After all, there is a religion of nature-see Wordsworth-and deism was a crude attempt to explain it, if you know what I mean. At bottom, I don’t see why, in a modern Manifesto, the word "deism" should appear at all, as it belongs to the eighteenth century. You wouldn’t refer in this statement to Platonism, positivism, or monism-why bother with deism?
As for modernism, I think this is a terribly loose word. Who knows what you mean? Why isn’t humanism to be regarded as modernism of the best type? Modernism to my mind depends on the modernist-that is, upon the man who holds it-and I would not deny the term as applied either to you or to me. The word has no definite content at all, and therefore to my mind should not be used. .
What I am objecting to at bottom is the whole spirit of this Sixth Thesis. You are arbitrarily ruling out from our thought something about which you know absolutely nothing at all . You are insisting, or at least suggesting, that in some way, traditional or otherwise, there is a fundamental contradiction between humanism and theism. I deny this! I insist that they are complementary. From one point of view at least, I would describe humanism as the right road to theism. Whether you and I, in traveling this road, will ever arrive at our goal is a question. It may be a question as to whether the road has ever been broken through to the goal. You have perhaps traveled as far as the road can take you, and I am insisting on going on and losing myself in the unexplored landscape. What you are trying to say in your Manifesto, or the most of what you are trying to say, is that the humanist road, as far as it goes, is the only road a sound thinker can travel. And I deny that you have any right to say that the road ends at the point where you stop your journey and that nothing lies beyond.
Thus John Haynes Holmes took the manifesto seriously but, in the end, could not sign it. On April 13, 1933, he wrote to Raymond B. Bragg:
Thanks for your letter of the 12th. Let me say how much it pleases me that you really want me to join your good company of signers of the Humanist Manifesto. I certainly want to sign, but I am still troubled in my mind.
I think that the change you propose in the Thesis to which I objected is an improvement, but I doubt if it meets the real difficulty I have in mind. It may perhaps, in its actual thought as resident in your mind, but not, I think, in its form of statement, which might very well convey very different ideas to other minds. . . .
As for theism, putting the adjective "traditional" before it helps some, but not much. You see, I have a great respect for theism. It may be a hangover from my early training, but it represents to me something real and true. At bottom, I don’t think you can interpret the universe in terms of little, atomic, vermin-like creatures who swarm upon this infinitesimally insignificant planet of ours. We have got to begin our interpretation with these silly creatures, as we are such creatures ourselves, and therefore must start with what we know or imagine about ourselves. But to insist that we shall measure the cosmos by the limitations of our experience is to me ridiculous. I think we’ve got to leap beyond ourselves, use the vision or imagination or faith that the scientists use, and when we do this in theology, we call the attempt, or the result, theism. Of course, the content of theism is pretty fantastic and I suppose basically unreal, but I insist that it isn’t a bit more fantastic or unreal than what the scientists are giving us these days in their quantum theories and all the rest. In other words, in using this word, "theism," traditional or otherwise, and casting it out into utter darkness, I think you are doing as arrogant and fundamentally as ignorant a thing as any dogmatist who ever lived.
I feel that I should be hopelessly misunderstood if I signed your Manifesto with this Sixth item reading in this way, I have got to say that I cannot sign up.
I fear that this is a terribly bungling statement, but it is the best I can do "right off the bat." If I must be excommunicated, I shall quite understand and love you just the same. For after all, it is your Manifesto, and not mine.
Recognizing that the criticisms of Holmes and others, coming at this late hour, were so drastic that to publish anything would require a complete halt of the proposal, Bragg wrote to Holmes on April 18, 1933:
We are going ahead with the Humanist Manifesto in a little different form though not different content. I wonder if you would permit us to publish some of your criticism contained in your letter to me in The New Humanist for May-June. We want to show other sides of the matter and your permission in this matter will help much.
The editors received Holmes’ permission and reprinted his letter in The New Humanist along with "A Humanist Manifesto."
Exactly how "humanist" Holmes was is a matter of debate. I once heard an Ohio University professor, addressing the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Athens, Ohio, give a devastating refutation of immortality, using point by point a sermon by John Haynes Holmes on that topic. However, Carl Hermann Voss, in Rabbi and Minister: The Friendship of Stephen S. Wise and John Haynes Holmes, reveals clearly that Holmes held faith in immortality, God, and puritanism. Obviously, Holmes was not the type of naturalistic humanist found among the signers of "A Humanist Manifesto."
But still, Holmes was an outstanding champion of the social gospel of his day. And on social issues, in opposition to war, and in concern for the poor and outcast, he as well as most humanists were going in the same direction-and still are.
Cassius J. Keyser
Another gentleman we actively pursued for his signature on the manifesto was Dr. Cassius J. Keyser, a mathematician at Columbia University from 1897 to 1927, at which time he became professor emeritus of mathematics. On April 10, 1933, I wrote to Dr. Keyser:
I am writing to let you know that we are delaying the release of the Humanist Manifesto until a few more of the signatures come in. We are disappointed not to have received your signature to date. If you have not sent it by the time this letter reaches and can do so will you kindly send us your signature at once either by wire or by air mail? For your information, we have had very encouraging response. Among the signers are Robert Morss Lovett, editor of The New Republic, Maynard Shipley, president of the Science League of America, Llewellyn Jones, literary critic, Harry Elmer Barnes, and Roy Wood Sellars…. We shall continue to hope for your early reply.
Professor Keyser penciled on this letter a simple remark: "I am unable to sign the Manifesto although I am in hearty accord with much of it."
Bragg followed up with a letter dated April 14, asking whether Keyser would take the time to offer specific comments on the document and his differences with it as it stood. He told Dr. Keyser:
We want to revise this thing still further. We want it as representative as possible. If you can possibly spare the time, won’t you jot down whatever feeling you may have about the form and the various points? We would like to have your reply as soon as possible.
Again, Keyser wrote on the note: "I seem to have lost my copy of the Manifesto so I am unable to comment upon its terms."
I think this exchange of letters illustrates how carefully the editors were attempting to elicit suggestions and criticisms in order to produce a document that was truly a reflection of the best thought in the movement.
An astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory, Harlow Shapley was another who received the confidential statement and request for signature, but he, too, declined. After having sent him a personal letter, Bragg wrote to him again on April 15, 1933:
I am enclosing a more formal letter that was sent to a number of individuals representing a scientific naturalism in one way or another. The letter, I believe, outlines what some of us had in mind when we drew up this general statement. We would be very glad to have your signature if you feel interested enough to lend your support to the statement.
It has already been signed by John Dewey, Maynard Shipley, Oliver Reiser, A. J. Carlson of Chicago, Roy Sellars of Michigan, and others. Prof. Auer of the Divinity School at Harvard has been part of the effort, as you will see.
It would be good to have a word from you in the near future. At all events won’t you comment on the general propositions? We would like your feeling about it all.
Dr. Shapley’s reply, dated April 21, 1933, expresses the reticence of some scientists to speak outside their field and chides those who use their authority as scientists to speak out on religion:
I have from time to time in the past week considered the communications sent by you and the invitation to join in the Humanist Manifesto.
As a social philosopher I am embryonic and I have decided that I should not misuse my position by pretending to intelligence or comprehension in a field in which my thoughts have been too scattered and probably too prejudiced.
The recent spectacle of one highly trained successful scientist after another becoming soft and religiously traditional has been very painful to many of us. We find it hard to live down the softer moments of Milliken, Eddington, and others.
Personally I have not yet convinced myself that current civilization which systematically protects the weak is in keeping with the biological traditions of the planet. I assume, but it has not been proved to me, that such elementary habits as kindness are justifiable in a close analysis.
I ask myself if we are as yet psychologically and biologically far enough from the jungle to replace emotional religion for the masses by cold and more rational philosophy.
The Manifesto is beautifully expressed, and the principles announced are inspiring. I subscribe almost in toto. But I wonder if we are ready for a religion of intelligence; and if so is it spontaneous enough, when nurtured by a deliberate manifesto?
Is the word religion correctly used in the Manifesto? Your affirmation numbered Seventh defines it so broadly that I suggest the word life or activity as equally appropriate.
Personally I feel that I should keep clear, knowing my ignorance, from any movement to which the word religion can be attached openly. I try to be a scientist. Science is chiefly a matter of the intelligence; religion is chiefly a matter of the emotions.
We understand stars better than we do the planets or animals because the stars are gaseous and there are fewer degrees of freedom and simpler laws. Religions and philosophies are just as much more complicated than animals as animals are more complicated than stars. A new humanism is a compact of so many variables and unknown parameters that nothing can be predicted; and this humanism is still more inexpressible in equations.
I mean by the preceding paragraphs that I feel that my sphere of activity should remain in the attempted interpretation of stars, nebulae, galaxies, and expanding universes-relatively simple enterprise-and that I should not venture at this stage of my activity into the complicated neuroses which we call civilization. I admit that the difficult phrase "fulfillment of human life" entices me as a personal and social dogma but I do not know what it means. I am sorry that I am so useless to you.
I find it interesting that later, in his retirement years, Harlow Shapley became actively interested in exploring the relationship of science and religion, cooperating with Ralph Burhoe, editor of Zygon-Journal of Religion and Science. Although Dr. Burhoe and the magazine (later edited by Dr. Karl Peters of Rollins College) received considerable acclaim, I was never convinced that Burhoe’s effort was more than a sophisticated form of theistic apologetics.
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