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Distinctions Between Literary and Religious Humanism

In retrospect, I think it was inevitable that some persons would be overlooked who should have been asked to sign the manifesto and others asked whose positions were not fully known. We were, after all, working under pressure, with no budget, and with very little clerical help.

Two important educators who contributed to the discussion of humanism before 1933 but who were not asked to sign the manifesto were Edward Scribner Ames and Oscar W Firkins. Dr. Ames taught philosophy at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Firkins taught English at the University Of Minnesota. These two men helped distinguish the new religious humanism-whichwas naturalistic in philosophy, socially activist in sympathies, and scientific in orientation-from a so-called literary humanism, which was at that time widely known and specifically identified with the viewpoints of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Along with many others, I felt that the literary humanists had misappropriated the term humanism, as their position was elitist and they were committed neither to humanitarian reforms nor social change. Whereas religious humanists saw science as an important tool in fulfilling the potential for a better life, the literary humanists were anti-science; in fact, they outwardly rejected science. In the March/April 1931 issue of The New Humanist, Firkins described literary humanism as having a "background [that] is scholarly, its basis is introspective and retrospective; it looks into its own soul; and it combats that side of the present which strikes it as inimical to the testimony of the ages and of its own soul."

Interestingly, literary humanism turned out to be a shortlived fad that didn't survive the decade. It bears mentioning now only because, in the 1930s, religious humanism was frequently mistaken for or misunderstood as a part of the literary humanism movement. It turns out that, in describing our naturalistic humanism as "new" and having the movement's (albeit) unofficial magazine name The "New" Humanist, we unwittingly contributed to the confusion.

Edward Scribner Ames

Because of my feeling that Edward Scribner Ames was one of the very great men on the University of Chicago campus, I took his course "The Psychology of Religious Experience" during the summer of 1929 while completing work for a master's degree in comparative religions under A. Eustace Haydon. I revered Dr. Ames while he was my teacher and found him to be a thorough-going naturalist despite his use of traditional theistic terms. (I once heard Professor Ames say sadly to a young Disciples of Christ minister, who had lost his pulpit for refraining from the use of traditional terms, "If you had listened to me, you could still be there.")

However, there is no question of the sincerity or validity of Dr. Ames' beliefs; his views were based on profound psychological study of religious experience. Anyone who ever heard Edward Scribner Ames lecture would be immensely impressed. I can still remember, at the end of the course, saying to him: "If I have a god, I want a real god!" Feigning intimidation by shaking his fist in my face, Professor Ames thundered in reply: "My God is a real god!"

In 1931, Ames set forth his views in a lecture to the Chicago Literary Club, which was also published as a brochure entitled Humanism:

[Religious] humanists are naturalistic, experimental , behavioristic, humanitarian. They accept the evolutionary doctrine. . . . This sphere (here and now) of human interests and accomplishments is the proper concern of many, according to these humanists. . . . (a) chief point of attack of the humanist upon the old beliefs is the existence of God, and in general the conception of the supernatural which runs through those beliefs. . . . They emphasize the function of scientific knowledge as a means of realizing a better and happier life.

The editors of "A Humanist Manifesto" were all familiar with this Chicago Literary Club discussion of what Ames termed "a new ism." Reviewing its historical background and discussing the so-called humanism of Irving Babbitt and his disciples -especially Paul Elmer More, who "does not hesitate to go the whole distance in the acceptance of supernatural religion and traditional theology" -Ames usefully presented the literary humanists of the 1930s as "violently opposed not only to Rousseau but to Francis Bacon and John Dewey." Ames stated of Babbitt and More:

Bacon, for them, symbolizes empirical science and the spirit of our machine age, in which his motto, "Knowledge is power" leads to the . . . naturalism and pragmatism of John Dewey. It is not strange, then, to hear these [new] humanists proclaim that they [Babbitt and More] are reactionaries in the midst of the modernists.

Many humanists, myself included, have long felt that naturalistic (scientific) humanism can be traced back directly to Bacon's Novum Organum, first published in 1620, and his argument that we should "pursue science in order that human life may be enhanced."

Dr. Ames gave his own notion of the gods as something real but which has grown out of human group experience: "The gods are not separate from men but are of one nature with them. Gods and men constitute one living organism, one kinship group." To Ames, God was apparently a projection of this group spirit: "Projections of new ideas of God have appeared in the midst of social readjustment. . . . God and man are moving together out of the old dualistic framework of an outworn religious philosophy into a living social process where their kinship and common nature are better understood."

In spite of his brochure's title, Humanism, Ames in effect read himself out of the new movement because of his concept of God. Understandably, the manifesto editors did not ask Edward Scribner Ames to sign because it was their view that any use of supernatural symbols or god language would open the door to a flood of theist apologists. An explicit nontheism refraining from the use of traditional theological language was the distinguishing feature of the newer humanists. Later, when the word-conscious pioneers were more ecumenical and not as severe in their use of language, I think it certain that a man of Ames' caliber would have been included. Using the term ecumenical as being unity in the cause of humankind, as compared to unity in God and Christ, the humanists of 1973 who worked on and signed the second manifesto did not maintain as sharp a symbolic barrier as did the editors of "A Humanist Manifesto" in 1933.

Though not asked to sign the manifesto, Dr. Ames was respected. And I'll always remember a comment he made to me during a visit to his home (this was much later, after he had retired and after having had both legs amputated): "Here I sit, literally footless, wondering what it would be like if-as I do not believe-it were possible for me to rejoin the wife of my years in an existence other than this."

Oscar W. Firkins

Oscar W. Firkins, an English professor at the University of Minnesota, published a comparison of the humanism of John Dietrich and that of the literary humanists entitled "The Two Humanisms: A Discrimination" (The New Humanist, March/April 1931). These "two cults," as he called them, "co-exist quite without coherence; almost without collision." Of that time's better-known Babbitt-More humanism, he wrote: "The Tennysonian 'self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control' conveys much of its spirit. Briefly and loosely, it stands for inward discipline grounded on a sifted tradition; its inwardness tends to distrust science; its discipline is hostile to romance."

I suspect that it was an oversight that Dr. Firkins was not asked to sign 'A Humanist Manifesto." His response would have been interesting. Of the two humanisms-literary and religious-Firkins concluded: "Each has an intuition as a basis. The faith in reason as savior is, after all, a faith; the future, its chosen witness, holds its tongue."


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