“… a social system which year by year witnesses the increase of the pauper class, and the increase of their miseries, stands condemned before the tribunal of … justice, how long will it take before that is understood and taken to heart?”
~Felix Adler, Creed and Deed, 1880
In early 2010, religion historian and longtime university professor R. Joseph Hoffmann wrote a blog post offering his thoughts on “the incoherence of contemporary humanism.” Hoffman, who in addition to his other roles is on the faculty of The Humanist Institute in New York City, observes that, being unsure of its real convictions, secular Humanism has become “a mess … the garbled message of freedom, science, democratic values, and church-state separation spread out over a playing field with no ball and no rules.” Thus, it ends up taking “a free-base approach to whatever grabs its attention on a given day.”
Hoffman is right, but he misses a huge and critical part of the picture. What’s wrong with today’s mainstream Humanism goes far beyond philosophical confusion and strategic anarchy. Strangely, the difficulty is one that, almost universally, Humanists seem wholly oblivious to, even though, as it happens, it is right out in the open. What’s more, because the problem concerns Humanism’s often admirably vanguard ethical fundamentals, it amounts to no less than a moral crisis.
Put simply, the Humanist movement, in the United States anyway, is badly broken. As jolting as that assertion may be to some, it is nevertheless necessary, because in major respects Humanism is blatantly betraying the core principles it was created to champion. We can explore just one of those principles here, namely Humanism’s foundational commitment to economic justice. The ugly truth is that nowadays the movement serves the narrow interests of the elite and the comfortable at the expense of everybody else, especially of poor and working class people.
It does so by the rather straightforward means of deliberate neglect. For the most part, it looks upon problems of poverty and economic inequality, when it looks upon them at all, as low priorities for secular activism and remedial public policy. More on that theme presently, but first, to see how incredibly far the Humanist movement has wandered astray, we need to look at some essential, mostly forgotten history.
Organized Humanism: The First Century
In his posthumously published book The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto (1995), Edwin H. Wilson (1898–1993), an early executive director of The American Humanist Association (AHA), reflects on the development of Humanist Manifesto I (HMI). The buildup to HMI, which was promulgated in 1933, occurred during the miserable early years of the Great Depression, prior to the advent of the New Deal. The “principal political hope to many persons of humanist and humanitarian outlook,” Wilson writes “was found in the leadership of Norman Thomas, who advocated a democratic, non-Marxist form of socialism, or in refrains from [socialist] labor leader Eugene Debs” or in the writings of workers’ rights theorist and land reformer Henry George. “The time seemed ripe to ‘break the dead branches from the past.’” The Manifesto “was a principal expression of the movement.”
Wilson could have formulated a better metaphor. In calling for radical changes in the socioeconomic order, many thinkers, a good many Humanists among them, sought to get past the surface down to the roots of what ailed American society. So, when HMI was published in The New Humanist magazine, forerunner of today’s The Humanist, it explicitly called for the adoption of a democratic socialism. The document contains fifteen provisions, one of which (point fourteen) reads:
The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.
Humanist Manifesto I explicitly calls its perspective a religious humanism, but that fact in no way compromises its relevance for our purposes here. As reflected, for example, in the various secular “religions of humanity” that arose in Europe and the U.S. during the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, for a significant minority of people religion did not necessarily entail theism. Thus, Humanists could be secular without being irreligious, a position of some practical benefit given the ironclad link in the public mind between religiosity and goodness. In any event, as the document clearly conveys, the author and signers of HMI were non-theistic metaphysical naturalists.
Thirty-four people, most of them philosophers and Unitarian ministers, signed the socialistic Manifesto. One of them was Wilson himself, who, decades later, would co-author Humanist Manifesto II. Other signers included philosopher Roy Wood Sellars (1880–1973), author of a book of socialist political philosophy (The Next Step in Democracy, 1916) and writer of the first draft of HMI; John H. Dietrich (1878-1957), one of the founders of modern Humanism, anti-capitalist, and advocate of a “co-operative system” of economics largely inspired by the utopian socialism of Robert Owen; and William Floyd (1871–1943), editor of the Humanist magazine The Arbitrator, pacifistic socialist, and author of People vs. Wall Street: A Mock Trial (1930).
The most famous signatory was the philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952). Philosophically, as the historian Alan Ryan puts it, Dewey was a “non-Marxist naturalized-Left Hegelian” (John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, 1995). Often referred to by historians and political scientists as a social democrat or a democratic socialist, Dewey was in fact a market socialist who opposed the profit motive. He was also an ardent union advocate, enthusiast (like his philosophical rival and fellow Humanist Bertrand Russell) for guild socialism, president of the socialistic League for Industrial Democracy, supporter of the socialist Eugene Debs in the Presidential election of 1912, and, as Matthew Festenstein notes “a leading critic from the left of Roosevelt’s New Deal.” Dewey’s “detestation of the capitalist order” Ryan remarks “had a semi-religious quality.”
One of the various social movements Dewey influenced was Ethical Culture. According to Professor Joe Chuman, a longtime Ethical Culture leader, although Dewey was never a member of the movement, “his influence on it was transformative.” He continues: “Under the pressures of Deweyan instrumentalism” during the first third of the twentieth century, “and in response to the influx into Ethical Culture of newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe, who brought with them commitments to socialism and Marxism, Ethical Culture increasingly moved into the humanist camp” (“Toward a Humanist Politic,” in Toward a New Political Humanism, 2004). As Steven Rockefeller relates, in the years after its founder’s death Ethical Culture “came to function as a kind of religious humanist fellowship founded upon Dewey’s philosophy” (John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism, 1991). Hence the term “Ethical Humanism,” which eventually came into regular use as a synonym for Ethical Culture.
The factors Chuman points to did influence Ethical Culture, but he seems to miss the fact that the movement was both philosophically Humanist and broadly socialist from the very beginning. The New York Society for Ethical Culture (NYSEC), whose school Dewey’s children attended for several years, was founded in 1876 by Felix Adler (1851–1933), a philosopher, humanitarian social reformer, and secular Jew. Chuman himself notes that in its early decades the “animating spirit” of Ethical Culture was “a felt need to redress the evils wrought by the industrial revolution.” In her perceptive study of Adler’s social justice advocacy, Esther Lifshitz shows that, as a graduate student in Germany, Adler came under the influence of, among other strains of thought, the political philosophy of Friedrich Albert Lange. Author of Die Arbeiterfrage (The Labor Question, 1865), Lange was a social democrat (or reformist socialist) who, as Lifshitz writes, compelled Adler, whose mother had inculcated in him a deep concern for the poor when he was a boy, “to admit the legitimacy of socialist grievances and to ‘square [him]self with the issues that socialism raises.’” Lifshitz goes on:
Lange determined the course of his [i.e. Adler’s] future social activity. He convinced Adler that the progress of civilization depended on the advancement of social justice and assistance to the working class. … As he read The Labor Question with “burning cheeks,” Adler incorporated his new appreciation for practical social reform into his developing ethical thought. Thus, he became one of the earliest proponents of social justice and labor cooperation, proving his commitment to Lange’s mission a few years later with the founding of Ethical Culture.
Prior to leaving Germany, in charting the course he intended to take upon his return to the U.S., Adler expressed his intention to “arouse the conscience of the wealthy, the advantaged, the educated, to a sense of their guilt in violating the human personality of the laborer.”
For the rest of his life Adler was a staunch advocate for economic justice. In 1904, he became the founding chairman of the National Child Labor Committee, a position he held for 15 years. Lifshitz notes that Adler had been actively concerned about child labor issues since 1872, “when in Germany he read ‘with horror’ Karl Marx’s description of England’s orphanages, mills, and child maltreatment in Das Kapital.” He was a tenement reform activist and served on the New York State Tenement House Commission. He pioneered the idea of a maximum wage (or income cap) by way of a steep graduated income tax with a top rate of 100 percent. In its early years, Adler’s Society established a District Nursing Service to provide health care services in poor neighborhoods, opened a free kindergarten (the first school of its type in the United States) for the children of the working poor, and contributed to the founding of the Settlement House movement.
Adler’s outlook is reflected in his writings and speeches. In his first book (Creed and Deed, 1880), he lamented what he saw as the terribly tragic plight of exploited workers and of the poor in general, and insisted that changing the conditions that spawned oppressive inequalities was an urgent need. In an address honoring the twentieth anniversary of Ethical Culture in 1896, he called for scientific research “to ascertain whether the positions of individualism and socialism are not susceptible of being united in a deeper philosophy of life.” In 1903 (Life and Destiny) he wrote of his guiding vision for a new kind of society “in which no men or class of men shall be mere hewers of wood and drawers of water for others; in which no man or woman, or class of men or class of women shall be used as tools for the lusts” … “or for the ambition” … “or for the greed of others.” “The root disease” from which the world suffers, Adler wrote in 1918 (An Ethical Philosophy of Life) is the dominance of “the commercial point of view.”
Fittingly, then, as Chuman notes, one “enthusiastic member” of NYSEC was Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor. “Of all the religious and affiliated associations in New York,” Chuman writes, Gompers saw NYSEC as “the most supportive of the interests of labor.” And among the leaders of such associations, in Gompers’ estimation Adler was certainly the “most outspoken in the cause of the working class.”
The New York Society provided the model for the Chicago Society for Ethical Culture (CSEC, now The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago), founded in 1882. Its first and longtime leader was William M. Salter (1853–1931), an author, scholar, and anarchist who “was deeply involved with social welfare work.” His book Anarchy or Government? (1895) is in large part an argument for active government regulation of big business in the interests of preventing the exploitation of workers. He proclaimed the mission of the new Society to “promote a nobler private and juster social life.” Society members believed themselves bound by “a sacred duty … to do all within our power to raise our less fortunate fellow-men out of the sorrowful condition into which they have fallen.” During its early years CSEC’s activities generally mirrored those of NYSEC. One difference was the former’s establishment of a Bureau of Justice, an early forerunner of the Legal Aid Society, for the purpose of providing legal assistance to the poor.
One notable member of CSEC was Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), a defense attorney who himself performed a good deal of pro bono work for poor clients. Darrow first drew national attention as a labor lawyer in a series of high-profile cases, defending among others, radical union leader Eugene Debs, the United Mineworkers, and “Big Bill” Haywood—like Debs a socialist founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World. As S.T. Joshi writes in his book The Unbelievers (2011), such cases solidified Darrow’s reputation as “a radical firebrand and ardent friend of labor.”
The Chicago Society was especially close to the local Settlement House movement, to which it gave organizational and material support. The leading figure in that movement, Jane Addams (1860–1935), was cofounder of the Illinois Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), a close friend of Dewey’s, a lecturer at Adler’s summer School of Applied Ethics in Massachusetts in 1892, a frequent speaker at CSEC, and a social democrat. (It’s indicative of Addams’ own radicalism that, when she cofounded Hull House, her partner, Ellen Gates Starr—an Anglican who ultimately turned Catholic—was an anti-child labor activist, member of the WTUL, opponent of industrialization, and member of the Socialist Labor Party.)
One of Hull House’s resident staff members during the 1890s was Florence Kelley (1859–1932), whom Chuman calls one of Ethical Culture’s “moral heroes.” One of the most impressive figures of her time, Kelley (in addition to being a civil rights activist and cofounder of the NAACP) was a Marxist, a friend of Friedrich Engels, translator of Engels’ book The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 (the version is still in print), an activist against sweatshops and child labor and for the eight hour day and a minimum wage, and cofounder (along with Upton Sinclair and Jack London) and president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. A protégé of Kelley’s who spent time working at Hull House was the labor rights advocate Frances Perkins (1880–1965). During her twelve-year tenure as Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, among many other reforms a minimum wage bill was enacted, child labor was ended, and the National Labor Relations and Social Security Acts were signed into law.
Kelley’s biography, posthumously published in 1953, was written by Adler’s sister-in-law, Josephine Goldmark (1877-1950). Goldmark was a progressive labor law reformer and a longtime publications secretary and researcher for Kelley at the National Consumers League. In the latter role Goldmark oversaw the production of publications such as the Child Labor Legislation Handbook (1907) and the Handbook of Laws Regulating Women’s Hours of Labor (1912), both of which, according to The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, “became blueprints for reform legislation during and after the Progressive Era.”
Another activist who worked for Kelley was Alzina P. Stevens (1849-1900), a CSEC member and, during the 1890s, a resident of Hull House. Stevens was an experienced union organizer of women, coeditor of a weekly labor newspaper, and a regionally prominent member of the Knights of Labor. When Kelley was named chief factory inspector for Illinois, she appointed Stevens to be her top assistant. Among her other projects, Stevens collaborated with Darrow and with H. D. Lloyd on the promotion of anti-sweatshop legislation. Upon Stevens’ death, the NYSEC journal The Ethical Record memorialized her as “an indefatigable and heroic worker in behalf of social progress.”
Henry Demarest Lloyd (1847–1903) was Kelley’s close friend, CSEC member, and a radical labor advocate. A social democrat and staunch anti-monopolist, Lloyd envisioned a better society in the form of a “cooperative commonwealth.” In 1888 he ran for Congress under the banner of the Union Labor Party, during the 1890s he was a leader of the left wing of the Populist movement, and in 1894 he ran for Congress on a Labor-People’s Party fusion ticket. His published works include A Strike of Millionaires against Miners, Labour Copartnership, Country without Strikes, Lords of Industry, and the highly influential Wealth against Commonwealth. His speech “The New Conscience, or the Religion of Labor,” delivered at CSEC in 1888, was widely read after it subsequently appeared in a national magazine.
In the same way, then, that Wilson had explained that HM1 emerged, as much as anything else, out of concerns about the class problem, Lifshitz observes that a desire to fight class oppression was at the heart of the rise of Ethical Culture:
Reflecting on the initial motivation for the movement, Adler insisted that Ethical Culture did not begin as a series of rationalistic societies comprised of an intelligentsia embittered by religion, but as a movement for progressive reform. It originated as a positive action for humankind, not a negative reaction against Judaism. From its inception, Ethical Culture was bound with labor struggles—“the chief moral question of the day”—and the tangible and philosophical problems of the modern industrial world. (emphases mine)
Many humanists are aware that the most famous person ever to identify himself with Ethical Culture was Albert Einstein (1879–1955). However, few of them know that the greatest scientist in history was also a left-wing radical. In his essay “Why Socialism?,” written in 1949 for the inaugural issue of the socialist magazine Monthly Review and published in his book Essays in Humanism (1950), Einstein argued for the adoption of democratic socialism. Contemporary man was highly driven in anti-social directions, he observed, and in his view the culprit was no great mystery. The “real source of the evil,” he wrote, is the “economic anarchy of capitalist society.” In practice, capitalism creates inequities that lead to “an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society.” He went on: “I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.” As biographer Walter Isaacson notes, Einstein “was a fierce defender of the underdog” whose socialism was a product of his commitments to equality and social justice. Isaacson quotes Einstein’s stepson-in-law: “Socialism to him [i.e. Einstein] reflects the ethical desire to remove the appalling chasm between the classes and to produce a more just economic system.”
Like Adler, Einstein was a secular Jew. According to Sherwin T. Wine, writing in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007), Ethical Culture was one of five distinct varieties of Jewish secular Humanism. One of the others, Secular Zionism, included a Socialist Zionist (or Labor Zionist) element whose members (one of whom, although Wine does not say so, included Einstein, whose case illustrates that individuals were sometimes part of multiple Jewish Humanist traditions) “dreamed of a model egalitarian state where clerical, bourgeois, and military domination would cease to exist.” A notable aspect of Socialist Zionism was the kibbutz commune, “a dramatic example of secular socialism.” Interestingly, unlike the Bourgeois and Nationalist types of Secular Zionism, Wine explains, Socialist Zionism is the only variant that has “remained fiercely secular.” A third type of Jewish secular Humanism was Jewish Socialism. “For many Jews,” Wine writes “secularism was an aspect of their socialist commitment.” Jewish socialists, he goes on “could not separate secularism from egalitarian politics. Dismissing God went hand in hand with elevating the proletariat.” A significant number of Socialist Zionists, and a large number of Jewish Socialists, were part of the Jewish Diaspora in the United States.
Einstein’s Humanist ties went beyond his affiliations with Jewish secular Humanisms. During the 1930s, he served on the advisory board of the First Humanist Society of New York. His colleagues on the board included, among others, John Dewey, historian and socialist-turned-progressive labor advocate Will Durant (1885–1981), and author and activist Helen Keller (1880–1968).
Keller’s political views, which would come as an utter shock to most people, are fascinating. She was a lifelong radical socialist and a member of the revolutionary labor union Industrial Workers of the World. Convinced that “the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness” within the human population, Keller applied a class analysis to that subject in her book Social Causes of Blindness (1911). Her other published books include The Unemployed (1911), and The Underprivileged (1931). The FBI, always on the lookout for subversives audacious enough to attempt to humanize American life, was concerned enough about Keller’s support for international socialism and her friendships with communists that it maintained a file on her throughout the last two decades of her life.
In 1973, the AHA released Humanist Manifesto II (HMII), coauthored by Wilson and Paul Kurtz (1925-2012). These days, the taken-for-granted view is that the new Manifesto represented a retreat from the socialist economics of HM1. It’s a plausible outlook, so long as you don’t examine it too closely. The inveterate, often truculent tradition of state repression of leftist political activity had not, to their great credit, dissuaded the drafters of HMI, but forty years later that tradition was steeped in a changed political and cultural atmosphere. The middle decades of the twentieth century had prominently included the long post-war economic boom, McCarthyism, and ubiquitous conflation of any sort of radical left democratic philosophy with authoritarian communism. As was the case with intellectuals in general, a good many Humanists, Kurtz’s mentor Sidney Hook being the most famous (or infamous), responded to sociopolitical currents by discarding their Marxist and or socialist commitments. With HMII’s preamble stating that the history of that period made HMI “seem far too optimistic” and with the explicit call for a “socialized and cooperative economic order” now absent, Humanism had seemingly de-radicalized toward a more realistic, responsible, and—undoubtedly for liberals the most important consideration—respectable, political orientation.
But that interpretation is wrong. For one thing, if they intended to extirpate socialism from the canon of mainstream Humanism, Kurtz and Wilson were like a remodeling crew that changed the appearance of the building but left the foundation and basic structure fully intact. In HMII they averred that “Humane societies” will emphasize improvement in the quality of life and enhanced “economic well-being for all individuals and groups,” an ethic which, in light of its then-obvious non-fulfillment, necessitated the consideration of “alternative economic systems.” They also called for a worldwide lowering of military spending and transfer of resulting savings to “peaceful and people-oriented uses,” an end to poverty everywhere, reduction of “extreme disproportions in wealth, income, and economic growth,” a robust social safety net, and economic democracy.
Given its insistence on both popular control (“We must extend participatory democracy in its true sense to the economy … [and] the workplace … Decision-making must be decentralized to include widespread involvement of people at all levels – social, political, and economic.”), and on relative economic equity, and in light of the profound social reconstruction the realization of those ideals would entail, it could be argued that, by implication, HMII demands democratic socialism. However that may be, its stated vision is, at minimum, social democratic, which, in fact, is what the journalist and Humanist activist Steve Ahlquist calls it. And that designation makes sense, given that, on government economic policy, Kurtz explicitly identified himself as a “Marxist social democrat.”
Here it is worth noting a subtle and hitherto overlooked, but intriguing historical connection. Kurtz’s favorite normative ethical theory was utilitarianism. As many readers will know, utilitarianism is a form of ethical consequentialism. According to the website of the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH), secular Humanists are consequentialists. Arguably, the greatest of all consequentialist thinkers was the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. As it happens, Mill’s idea for a “Religion of Humanity” was an early version of secular Humanism, and, although the fact is seldom remembered today, he was, as reflected in the later editions of his Principles of Political Economy, a socialist.
For another thing, in the section titled “Democratic Society,” HMII endorses the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the principles of which it expresses a commitment to “safeguard, extend, and implement.” The UDHR, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, was coauthored by Eleanor Roosevelt, who, as it happens, was a longtime board member of NYSEC. The principles articulated in the UDHR include the following:
22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
23.1: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
23.3: Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
25.1: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well- being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
28: Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
From the perspective of mainstream economics these are truly radical notions. Capitalism is unequipped to deliver on such principles and in fact doesn’t even believe in them. This was true even before the rise to dominance of neoliberalism, the values of which are so sociopathic that, as Nina Power poignantly puts it “permanent accumulation” is “the only post-religious ‘infinite’ permitted to matter.” These factors (i.e., HMII’s stated economic principles and endorsement of the UDHR) should go a long way toward accounting for the curious fact that, as will become clear below, the left-wing signers of HMII were even more radical than most of the people who signed HMI.
An emphasis on economic rights appears again, coupled with a call for broadly socialist economics, in the Declaration of Interdependence: A New Global Ethics, issued in 1988 by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). Therein, the IHEU’s board of directors asserts that adequate health care, freedom from want, and “moral equality,” meaning “equal opportunity and equal access,” are basic human rights. In place of the existing economic system, in which ethical egoism reigned at all levels, the declaration calls for “A new global system based on economic co-operation and international solidarity.”
As I have shown elsewhere, genuine concern about economic inequality was a recurring theme in the writings of HMII’s coauthor, Paul Kurtz. To cite a further example from his later years (Free Inquiry, Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005), the pioneering Humanist philosopher identified what he took to be the greatest threats to democracy in the United States. After noting that economic democracy is “a precondition for a just democratic society,” Kurtz elaborated at length on what he took to be four “especially dangerous” threats to democracy in America. Three of them are structural aspects of the broad system of economic oppression: plutocracy, “mega-corporations,” and “media-ocracy,” i.e. effective control of public debate by mega-media corporations (the fourth threat was theocracy). For Kurtz economic injustice matters a great deal, for “The erosion of democracy is especially disheartening to the humanist outlook, which has been intimately tied to the democratic philosophy.” So if economic democracy is a sine qua non for popular sovereignty, Humanists ought to be focusing on it.
Signers of HMII included A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979), towering civil rights activist, longtime union leader, and democratic socialist; Paul Blanshard (1892–1980), author, union advocate, and socialist-turned-New Dealer; Mark Starr (1894-1985), enthusiastic student of Marx’s political economy at the Central Labour College in London, democratic socialist, and longtime labor union educator in the U.S.; Corliss Lamont (1902-1995), President of the AHA, Marxist, and two-time U.S. Senate candidate in New York (American Labor Party, 1952; Independent-Socialist Party, 1958); James Farmer (1920–1999), cofounder of the Congress of Racial Equality, national secretary of the socialist Student League for Industrial Democracy, and honorary vice chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America; Maxine Greene (1917–2014), educational philosopher, social democrat, leading figure in the left wing critical pedagogy movement, and scholarly collaborator with former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers; and Kai Nielsen (born 1926), political philosopher and “Marxian” democratic socialist.
There were many other prominent Humanists for whom economic justice was a central concern. The following is a partial list. It consists of individuals who were active in the Humanist movement, or were celebrated by it (eight of them received the AHA’s Humanist of the Year Award), or who in some fashion explicitly identified themselves as Humanist, but who never signed one of the manifestos. Like the figures previously mentioned, they all saw Humanism as entailing some form of radical or semi-radical left-wing political economy. Most of them were social democrats or democratic socialists: Hubert Harrison (1883–1927), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), Lillian Wald (1867–1940), Lewis Hine (1874–1940), John Lovejoy Eliot (1868-1942), Stanton Coit (1857–1944), James Peter Warbasse (1866-1957), Michael Schwerner (1939–1964), Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965), Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), Herman Joseph Muller (1890–1967), Erich Fromm (1900–1980), Roger Nash Baldwin (1884–1981), Gene Roddenberry (1921–1991), Algernon Black (1900-1993), Maggie Kuhn (1905–1995), Benjamin Spock (1903–1998), Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), James Forman (1928-2005), Murray Bookchin (1921–2006), Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007), Howard Zinn (1922–2010), Barry Commoner (1917–2012), Gore Vidal (1925–2012), and Beth Lamont (born 1929).
Clearly, then, from its beginnings in the 1870s into the late decades of the twentieth century, the amelioration of poverty and economic inequality was a central concern of the Humanist movement. In fact, for many prominent Humanists, the only problem as important as economic injustice was the threat of nuclear war. Among African-American Humanists, economic oppression was, of necessity, thoroughly mixed together with racism as the paramount body of concern.
Humanist Principles I
This history of class consciousness makes perfect sense. Humanist writings and speeches go on endlessly about how the main point of the philosophy is the promotion, primarily through the exercise of reason and the cultivation of goodness, of human flourishing. In this regard, among the psychosocial insights reason inevitably leads to, surely one of the most important is that human flourishing requires personal freedom—to be understood, I would suggest, in the Deweyan sense of being a cultural and social rather than an individual condition. But as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who proposed an Economic Bill of Rights (a.k.a. the Second Bill of Rights, the main inspiration for the UDHR) was fond of saying “necessitous men are not free men.” Surely it follows then, that human flourishing requires what I will call economic wellness. Such considerations prompt Ahlquist to take the view that “If Humanism is not about the working class, it’s about nothing at all.”
One of the rare contemporary Humanists who gets the importance of all this is Barry Seidman, producer of the radio show Equal Time for Freethought and editor of the book Toward a New Political Humanism (2004). “To be a humanist,” he writes “is to be anti-capitalism.” Humanists “have all these ethical codes and affirmations and principles, which if applied, would have to take into consideration capitalism and class or they would be neutered.” As he brilliantly puts it “Understanding Humanism without class/economics is like understanding biology without evolutionary theory.” (Email correspondence with the author, 21 Aug. 2014.)
A Movement Transformed
Unfortunately, nowadays, as radical leftists Ahlquist and Seidman belong to a tiny and mostly ignored minority within Humanist circles. Signs of a moderating tendency on economics began to appear within Humanism in the early 1980s. Although more research needs to be done on this, it’s likely that that tendency steadily strengthened during the administrations of corporate Democrat Bill Clinton. By the time Humanist Manifesto III (HMIII) appeared in 2003, the shift away from economic radicalism had become pronounced (more on HMIII below). Beginning in the mid 2000s, the movement’s change of direction was reinforced by, and in turn helped to strengthen, the state-and-corporate-power-serving New Atheist movement. Since then, the Humanist movement has followed along with determined docility while the mainstream of American political culture has moved further and further to the right. Today, ideologically, the realm of self-described Humanist bloggers, writers, conference speakers and panelists, magazine editors, podcasters, and organizational directors, is pretty thoroughly dominated by neoliberal values and thus mostly indifferent to the problems of poverty and inequality.
That indifference is evident all across the mainstream Humanist landscape. Anti-poverty advocates seldom appear as speakers or panelists at Humanist conferences, where economic oppression is rarely a main topic of discussion. Writings about poverty and inequality appear infrequently on Humanist blog sites and in the major Humanist magazines. Unless I have missed somebody, only two well-known Humanist figures, authors Sikivu Hutchinson and Barbara Ehrenreich, exhibit a serious and sustained concern about economic injustice (although, born in 1941, Ehrenreich belongs to the earlier, class conscious period of Humanist history as much as to the current one). It is a strange spectacle indeed: a movement that, at its inception, and which, for at least a century, took the alleviation of economics-based suffering to be a core part of its raison d’être, existing now in a context where “A typical American household cannot raise $400 without borrowing money or selling possessions,” but for which the class problem is usually an afterthought.
On that score, the websites of the two major Humanist organizations in the U.S., the AHA and the CSH, are quite revealing. On the “Issues” page of the AHA website, where eight focus areas are listed (as of 24 May), economic justice is not among them. The topic is alluded to under “Women’s Rights” only in terms of a few selected issues. The UDHR is mentioned under “Human Rights,” but for a decade now at least, most references to the UDHR within Humanist circles have had to do with the Declaration’s statements on freedom of thought, conscience, and expression.
It’s worth pausing here for a moment to let that information sink in. As we have seen, as a matter of both history and principle, a heavy emphasis on economic justice is supposed to be a defining element of the Humanist movement. Yet today, with more than 46 million Americans on food stamps, with millions more people “food insecure” but not receiving assistance due to unrealistic eligibility requirements, the folks who run the AHA consider the poverty/inequality problem unworthy of a place on their list of priorities.
The situation is no better on the CSH website. Its “Activities” page makes it clear that the organization’s focus is on promoting a secular-based worldview and on defending the rights of nonbelievers. In his long definitional essay on Secular Humanism, CSH executive director Tom Flynn does state that the broad goals of secular Humanist ethics are “Human happiness and social justice” and that the conditions necessary for human flourishing include “freedom from want.” Beyond that, however, amongst the 4000 words he devotes to explaining Humanism the problems of poverty and economic injustice are never mentioned.
So what does organized Humanism focus on these days? Four issues are paramount and get most of the attention: feminism (mostly in terms of the topics of sexual abuse and reproductive rights), LGBT equality, the promotion of science and reason, and the defense of secularism. But it is the latter project, increasingly coupled with the promotion of atheism, which is clearly the core concern. Last year, the movement’s intense privileging of a relatively narrow secularist agenda compelled James Croft, a Humanist blogger and Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis, to express concern that, in recent decades “it seems secularism has become the primary value of the American Humanist movement—indeed it sometimes seems to be the movement’s only value.”
The New Disposition: Two Examples
To get a better sense of what Humanism amounts to under the guiding ethic of secularity uber alles, consider the following examples of writings by high profile Humanist leaders. The first is a July 2012 blog post by Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, the CSH’s parent organization. The whole article is problematic, but it will be enough for our purposes to consider just the following excerpt:
Aim to Reduce Drastically Income/Wealth Inequality. … How? Why? … there’s no intrinsic merit in a drastic reduction in disparities in income and wealth. My dignity as an individual is not affected by the fact that some others have 50, 500, or even 5000 times my assets. … The way I interpret humanism, it has no problem … with significant disparities in income and wealth.
The amount of wrongness contained in this small collection of words is truly something to behold. Lindsay implies that reducing inequality would be exceedingly difficult. Much of the seeming intractability of the problem, though, is the product of plutocrats and their legions of enablers such as Lindsay himself, standing like a militarized police barricade in the way of reform. Economists and social critics have offered hundreds of ideas for decreasing inequality. In a 2012 essay, I recommended two dozen of those ideas which, taken together, would—it seems reasonable to believe—drastically reduce inequality and virtually eliminate poverty in this country.
Claiming there is no “intrinsic merit in a drastic reduction in disparities” is a weird, inefficiently abstract way of thinking about the problem. Would it be worth our time and effort to consider the opposite proposition that “there’s no intrinsic merit in” leaving disparities right where they are? I don’t see how. Since Lindsay has started us down this dead end road, let me turn the car around by pointing out that acting or not acting on income and wealth disparities is a means to an end either way. Under Lindsay’s value system, seemingly that end is the maintenance of a profoundly oppressive and unjust class order that not only causes, but absolutely requires, widespread human misery and harm. Under the value systems of most people reading this, presumably, the end is a humane society in which everyone can flourish and in which most people do. Were we to pose the actually useful question “which of these ends has intrinsic value?” surely the answer would be obvious.
Any proper explanation of “why” we ought to reduce economic disparities takes us right to the heart of Humanistic ethics. One of Humanism’s stated principal values is the promotion of human well being. If inequality militates against human happiness and welfare, then it must be acknowledged as an important problem after all. Obviously, poverty militates against human flourishing—to such a large degree, in fact, as to cause a hopelessly immeasurable amount of human suffering. Unfortunately for Lindsay’s position, high levels of inequality entail that huge numbers of people must suffer from poverty and its wide assortment of associated harms.
Indeed, the close connection between wealth and income inequalities and poverty is well established. As scholars at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty observe “poverty and inequality are … intimately linked.” The Economic Policy Institute’s Elise Gould, an expert on the economics of poverty and inequality, reports that, over the past few decades, of all the factors contributing to increases in poverty “income inequality was the largest.” In his book, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2013), Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz attributes the high poverty rate, more than one in every seven Americans, primarily to inequalities in income and wealth.
The effects of inequality are especially devastating for children. As Stiglitz writes “The growing concentration of wealth” in the U.S. “has meant less money to spend on investments for the public good, like education and the protection of children,” 15 million of whom are in households below the poverty line. He elaborates:
Income inequality is correlated with inequalities in health, access to education, and exposure to environmental hazards, all of which burden children more than other segments of the population. Indeed, nearly one in five poor American children are diagnosed with asthma, a rate 60% higher than non-poor children. Learning disabilities occur almost twice as frequently among children in households earning less than $35,000 a year than they do in households earning more than $100,000.
As Paul Buchheit reports, due to widespread poverty more than one-half of public school students qualify for lunch subsidies. He also notes that “On a typical frigid night in January, 138,000 children, according to the U.S. Department of Housing, were without a place to call home.” That, he goes on, is approximately “the same number of households that have each increased their wealth by $10 million per year since the recession.”
On a related note, as Eduardo Porter recently explained in the New York Times, another casualty of economic inequality is low infant mortality. American babies, he writes, die at a higher rate than in most of the other 33 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He explains: “As economists from the University of Chicago, M.I.T. and the University of Southern California put it in a recent research paper, much of America’s infant mortality deficit is driven by ‘excess inequality.’”
There is more. According to researchers at the Institute for New Economic Thinking “rising inequality is now holding back the U.S. recovery from the Great Recession and the lack of purchasing power faced by most people is a job killer not just for a few quarters but also over a number of years.” Regarding Social Security, our biggest anti-poverty program for both retired people and children, the Center for American Progress warns that “Rising income inequality poses a direct threat to Social Security’s financial health.” Moreover, Professor Richard G. Wilkinson relates that
A wide range of social problems are worse in societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor. These include physical and mental illness, violence, low math and literacy scores among young people, lower levels of trust and weaker community life, poorer child well-being, more drug abuse, lower social mobility and higher rates of imprisonment and teenage births.
So, the answer to the question “Why should we reduce inequality?” is that maldistribution is a major cause of poverty and poverty-related harms to large numbers of people. For those who may need instruction or reminding, poverty is bad because, as the World Bank (of all sources) competently explains
Poor people live without fundamental freedoms of action and choice that the better- off take for granted. They often lack adequate food and shelter, education, and health. They also face extreme vulnerability to ill health, economic dislocation, and natural disasters. And they are often exposed to ill treatment by institutions of the state and society … and are powerless to influence key decisions affecting their lives.”
This is a description of a socioeconomic reality with which scores of millions of Americans are all too familiar. Scientists are now even finding that, among the urban poor, chronic stress “linked both to income level and racial-ethnic identity” significantly speeds up aging by damaging DNA. It cannot be emphasized enough that the values which fuel the economic oppression resulting in poverty are completely antipodal to Humanism’s stated commitment to furthering both social and individual well being. Remarkably, however, Lindsay’s article never mentions poverty or poor people.
Interestingly, although his essay focuses on the subjects of inequality and the perverting influence of money on politics, there is another essential term Lindsay never uses, namely “justice,” which, more than anything else, is what those two issues are about. The philosopher T. M. Scanlon makes the suggestion that “Workers, as participants in a scheme of cooperation that produces national income, have a claim to a fair share of what they have helped to produce.” But in a country where the median wage is $27,851, that perfectly reasonable normative position has an aura of quixotic fantasy about it. The journalist Saeed Taji Farouky nicely gets at the crux of the matter: inequality is “the abuse of power … the failure of a society to value its citizens equally, and the success of institutions (governments, corporations, etc.) in keeping some people oppressed and exploited.” The product of “unchecked privilege,” inequality, he goes on “is the ritual humiliation of the less powerful for the benefit of the more powerful.”
To Lindsay’s assertion that his dignity is unaffected by the fact that there are people out there wealthier than him, two responses are in order. First, given that Lindsay makes a good salary (it’s specified on a tax document available on CFI’s website), and was formerly a corporate lawyer, that is easy enough to believe in terms of his subjective mental experience. But leaving aside the necessary question of whether each of us has an ethical obligation to care about fairness, I would say to Ron Lindsay that the inequality debate is not about you. It is about each one of us (or all of us) and about the common good. In large measure, it is about human suffering and what we are willing or unwilling to do about it. Second, as we have seen, because of the close connection between inequality and poverty, the distribution of wealth matters a great deal. While the total amount of wealth is variable over time, there is only so much at any given moment. If distribution becomes lopsided enough, some people are going to be not only disadvantaged but impoverished. Any effort to reverse that requires the transfer of wealth from people who have to people who don’t. That is exactly why greedy and selfish people feel such visceral hatred toward the word “redistribution.” Because too many people do in fact have “5000 times” Lindsay’s assets, the bottom 40 percent of Americans essentially have no assets at all.
“The way I interpret humanism,” Lindsay writes “it has no problem … with significant disparities in income and wealth.” This is rather like concluding that libertarianism has no problem with food stamps and the minimum wage. Here we seem to have a new type of eisegesis, for apparently, Lindsay has subjectively read his alternative, ideologically preferred view into texts that are in no way open to interpretation. HMI calls for socialism. Eliminating significant disparities in income and wealth is part of the whole point of socialism. HMII is perfectly perspicuous on this point: “World poverty must cease,” the document states “Hence extreme disproportions in wealth, income, and economic growth should be reduced on a worldwide basis.”
Much more could be said here, for, as Stiglitz asserts “America’s inequality distorts our society in every conceivable way.” But you get the idea. When it comes to the problem of economic inequality, Lindsay’s views have no relation to Humanist principles.
Had Lindsay shown this sort of callous disregard for women’s rights or for LGBT equality, inside the secular blogosphere all hell would have broke loose. But, because it was only economic injustice Lindsay was defending, there was barely a whisper of protest—a rather stunning contrast if you stop and think about it.
Among Humanist leaders, though, by far the most common way of handling issues of economic injustice is simply to ignore them. Our second example, David Niose’s 2012 book Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, is typical of this tendency (for a similar example, see my 2012 discussion of Humanist author Greg Epstein). Currently the legal director of the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, Niose is a longtime board member and past president of the AHA. While Nonbeliever Nation is technically about secularism, its inclusion here is not only warranted but apposite, for Humanism is a frequent topic of discussion in the book, the general perspective is that of a longtime Humanist activist, and, when Niose defends a particular public policy position, such as the need for LGBT equality, he does so from an explicitly Humanist orientation.
As its dust cover description tells us, Nonbeliever Nation examines the intersection of the recent marked increase in the number of nonbelievers in the U.S. and “the unchallenged [political] dominance of the Religious Right.” The rise of nonbelievers is cause for great celebration, Niose writes in the book, for the religious right, which advocates “extreme policy positions,” is responsible, to one degree or another, for “many” of our problems, “from the immature level” of our society’s “internal dialogue” to “the misguided direction” of our public policy. In contrast with religion, secularity embraces “forward-looking values” and, because secular people can be counted on to foster “critical thinking, sound science, and reason-based policy,” as they gain social acceptance “the center of gravity moves in the direction” of rational and critical thought.
There are several major problems with Niose’s book, but here we must limit ourselves to those directly having to do with the topic of economic justice. To begin with, as with most literature coming out of the Humanist movement, the problems of poverty and economic inequality are considered unworthy of attention. In fact, the book’s 225 pages of text contain no discussion of these problems whatsoever. Evidently, when nonbelievers finally assume full control of public policy in America, the goal of reducing, to say nothing of putting an end to, poverty and inequality will not be on their enlightened, reason-based agenda.
And why would it be? As Niose and most other liberal and progressive liberal Humanists see it, secularism is an “identity-oriented” movement in which the class struggle plays little or no role. Instead, the main business of the secular movement is to defend the rights of nonbelievers, to actively oppose the public policy agenda of the religious right, and to work “to normalize secularity in American culture.”
Niose lists several social problems, including, in a don’t-blink-you-might-miss-it reference, “the disappearing middle class,” and suggests that the empowerment of secular citizens—“a necessary prerequisite to long-term progress”—would open up the possibility for “real, lasting positive change.” “All other issues,” including economic policy, he writes near the end of the book “will be greatly affected by how America addresses” the problems caused by religion, which, he emphasizes, is the most important issue of the twenty-first century.
Secularization and Economic Wellness
However, as some readers of this article have doubtless already recognized, when it comes to the fundamental relationship between secularization and socioeconomics, Niose gets the basic dynamics all wrong. The idea that solving the social problems produced by religion will allow for solving the problems of economics in fact gets the reality of the matter backwards. “The demand to give up the illusions about its [i.e. the people’s] condition” Marx wrote concerning the link between economic hardship and the religious impulse “is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.” As Michael Rectenwald, Professor of cultural history, science studies, and critical theory at New York University and an expert on the history of secularism, recently suggested to me, with such comments Marx may well have invented what is now called the Existential Security Hypothesis (ESH). In defense of their powerful arguments for the ESH, which maintains that “the public’s demand for transcendent religion varies systematically with levels of vulnerabilities to societal and personal risks and threats” Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart demonstrate that socioeconomic security, the product of sustainable development and “strengthening economic equality and welfare safety nets within societies,” is “the driver of secularization.”
As it happens, just last month there appeared in the press a perfect illustration of this process. In an article titled “What is secular fundamentalism?” by C.J. Werleman, an Australian (U.S. based) Humanist writer, one section contrasts the experience of Muslim immigrants who migrated to France from North Africa in the decades after World War II with that of their descendants. The former (Werleman quotes Henri Astier) “’had no desire to find in France the mullahs they had left behind’” and they were generally accepting of laïcité. Their descendants, however
… see the world very differently. Full employment was almost guaranteed to those who migrated to France during the 1960s and ‘70s. Today’s generation of French Muslims, however, are faced with poverty, alienation, ghettoisation, anti-migrant sentiment and a youth unemployment rate of 23.7 percent. Faced with these economic and social pressures, third and fourth generation French Muslim citizens view Islamic headscarves and outward displays of ‘Muslimness’ to be a ‘way of expressing anger and forging an identity.’ Conservative Islamic traditions have become a vehicle for disenfranchised French Muslim youth to rebel against the state, i.e. the secular fundamentalist state.
More than 1400 French citizens, Werleman reports, have left the country in order to join Islamic State groups in the Middle East.
Fascinatingly, as Professor Kevin M. Kruse shows in his new book One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, the religious right was an invention of American capitalism. Here we see yet another example of how, in general, religious trends tend to follow from economic conditions. When it comes to social justice activism, then, it makes more sense to focus on causes rather than, as Humanists tend to do, on symptoms. Thus, as Rectenwald writes “a true humanist doesn’t work hard to eradicate religion. A true humanist works to eradicate the conditions that make religion necessary. In other words, a true humanist condemns liberals more than religions, because liberalism permits such oppression as makes religion necessary.”
It gets worse. Niose often characterizes the religious right’s policy preferences as extreme, a quality that accounts for much of their dangerousness. But if extremism bothers him so much, why is he not up in arms about neoliberalism, today’s version of what Lloyd—writing to Darrow in 1894—called the “radicalism of the fanatics of wealth?” Consider. The neoliberal order requires that huge numbers of people be unemployed, underemployed, poorly paid, overworked, homeless, or imprisoned. It maintains an official child poverty rate of 20 percent, which of course is bad enough, but a true rate, recently estimated by UNICEF, of 32.2 percent. It exploits and promotes race antagonism. It has imposed on the U.S. an austerity regime of the sort that has devastated every economy around the world on which it has been inflicted. It prevents the practical realization of health care as a human right. It degrades popular democracy. It insists that, collectively, 80 percent of Americans make do with just 11 percent of the nation’s private wealth. Worldwide, it puts into the hands of 66 billionaires wealth equal to that held by one-half of the world’s population or 3.5 billion people. It is a system of political economy that, as Naomi Klein correctly adjudges “is at war with life on Earth.” If neoliberalism, which is transforming the U.S. into a third world country in which the police are increasingly repressive and out of control, is not extreme, then surely the word has somehow been rendered meaningless.
To top it all off, neoliberalism is itself a kind of religion. “Strip off his pinstripe suit,” author Chase Madar remarks “and our fictional friend the free market is just a lightly secularized, more Calvinist version of Tlaloc, the Aztec harvest god who had to be propitiated by blood, and lots of it.” These days, belief in this “non-god god,” as he observes “is far more pernicious than belief in an old-fashioned god god.” As Chris Wright, author of Notes of an Underground Humanist (2013) writes, neoliberalism is a “Free Market theology that has … destroyed millions of lives around the world and is threatening to destroy the species.” If such comments strike you as perhaps more than metaphorical, probably it has to do with the sacred status so many people ascribe to money and with the blind faith on display whenever free market fundamentalists sermonize about how the only practical path open to us is that of unregulated finance capitalism. Wright argues, sensibly, that yes, theistic religious practices ought to be opposed wherever they are harmful, but that “in most of the world, public intellectuals would be well-advised to follow the examples of Glenn Greenwald, Naomi Klein, Norman Finkelstein, and other such leftists if they want to have beneficent influence on society.”
The Marxist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, author of Existentialism is a Humanism (1946), had a handy but well considered label for thinking like Niose’s, namely humanisme bourgeois. It’s a useful and fitting phrase, for, in tacitly suggesting that the current economic order is in no urgent need of radical reconstruction, Nonbeliever Nation functions, more than anything else, to support systems of structural oppression as they currently operate under neoliberal capitalism. In his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1985) Sartre writes that “as a practical inertia,” bourgeois humanism constitutes “a passive activity of exclusion and rejection,” a form of “solidified ideological violence” in which the vast majority of people are looked upon in purely instrumental terms and treated by the power elite and their loyal legions as essentially subhuman, their lives being of value only to the extent they are deemed necessary for filling the roles that serve the interests of the bourgeois classes. By failing to challenge a deeply unjust and oppressive class structure, a political book like Nonbeliever Nation sanctions its many dehumanizing elements. Ironically, by performing this right-wing function, Nonbeliever Nation indirectly promotes the religious right it so ardently claims to oppose.
Croft observes that “Efforts to police the boundary between church and state have taken on increasing prominence, to the extent that they have begun … to crowd-out other issues which are even more pressing.” That is a considerable understatement, as the crowding out process is already extensive and well advanced, but the observation is essentially correct. In a space filled with many hugely important concerns that are gasping for air, secularism is sucking up most of the oxygen.
They deserve a great deal more attention than we can give them here, but we should note what must count as two such concerns. To practice political quietism concerning the class problem is to do a terrible disservice to everyone victimized by a ruthless and profoundly unjust economic order. But the especially destructive overall impact of such neglect on particular populations is another dimension of the problem that, for Humanists, ought to be a focus of both thought and praxis.
One concern, then, is institutionalized racial discrimination. According to the U.S. Census, in 2013 the poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites was 9.6 percent. Among Latinos it was 23.5 percent and among African Americans 27.2 percent. Inexplicably, the census does not report the figure for Native Americans, but according to the Pew Research Center, in 2012, among those who indicated American Indian or Alaska Native “as their only race” the poverty rate was 29.1 percent. The Economic Policy Institute reports that the poverty rate among children below age six is 14.5 percent for whites and 45.8 percent for African Americans.
In a 2010 online article, Sikivu Hutchinson writes that “for many black Humanists coming from African American communities where religion has become the opiate for a people under socioeconomic, political and cultural siege, the reductive science worship of the white non-theist world is a problematic luxury.” In her book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011), Hutchinson notes that, the election of a black man to the Presidency notwithstanding, African American communities “are worse off now in many key ‘equality index’ areas than during the Jim Crow era.” In a recent interview, reflecting on “the context of hyper-segregation, downward economic mobility, mass incarceration and the neoliberal privatization of public education in black and Latino schools,” she observes that “These systems have had the most devastating impact on our communities and have only intensified the grip of organized religion and faith precisely because there is no comprehensive social welfare safety net that addresses these disparities.” There and elsewhere, Hutchinson tacitly supports the ESH. In Moral Combat, she writes that, because within communities of color “the lifeblood of organized religion is economic injustice … only economic justice can truly redress the cult of religiosity.” In Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (2013), she asserts that “Unless structural inequality is radically redressed, religious belief amongst disenfranchised peoples, both globally and within the U.S., will continue to thrive.” What’s needed, among other things, she rightly insists, is the construction of a “comprehensive social safety net.”
The other concern is gender inequality. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), in 2013 “55.6 percent of the 45.3 million people living in poverty” in the U.S. were women and girls. The IWPR goes on: “Women’s higher likelihood of living in poverty exists within every major racial and ethnic group” within the U.S. The National Women’s Law Center reports that, in 2013 “More than one in seven women, nearly 18 million,” lived in poverty. “About 43 percent of these women (7.8 million) lived in extreme poverty, defined as income at or below 50 percent of the federal poverty level.” Worldwide, as the United Nations explains, the vast majority of poor people are women. Or as Terry Eagleton puts it (Why Marx was Right, 2011) “in an era of Third World sweatshops and agricultural labour, the typical proletarian is still a woman.” So bad are the problems of female poverty and gender based injustice that, as the World Bank reported in 2011, women own just 01 percent of the world’s wealth. In its Platform for Action from the Beijing Conference in 1995, the UN averred that “The eradication of poverty … will require democratic participation and changes in economic structures in order to ensure access for all women to resources, opportunities and public services.” (emphasis mine)
In Godless Americana, Hutchinson writes powerfully about the space where these two concerns overlap with the religiosity of African American women. Black women are the most religious people in America, she notes, and for the same reasons religious observance is high among Latinas: their generally high level of religiosity “cannot be separated from [the] limited economic, educational, and social opportunities” open to them. In the context of widespread poverty and economic insecurity, one in which the median net worth of white households is 22 times that of black households, it makes sense that, for most black women, “Gods, goddesses, spirits, and ancestors are still deeply seductive, culturally binding, and visceral in a way that the unvarnished natural world, and its sole guarantee of everlasting death, is not.”
As we have seen, generally speaking today’s Humanists want to focus above all else on promoting secularism. However, as Hutchinson contends “Secularism in a capitalist economy without unlimited access to reproductive health care, living wage jobs, transportation, housing, and education is especially untenable for women of color.” In Moral Combat she again echoes the ESH: “Embracing humanism as a form of liberation struggle is paramount for African Americans, precisely because blacks’ ironclad investment in organized religion is a function of capitalism, sexism, and institutional racism.” These three factors, she goes on “operate in harmony with each other to deny African Americans and other people of color basic human rights.” Racism, classism, and sexism, she writes “are amplified and reinforced by economic injustice institutionalized under global capitalism” and buttressed by organized religion. Therefore, “radical humanism” … “a vital lens for critical consciousness” is “especially relevant for people of color living in conditions of structural inequality in which the state serves only the human rights of the wealthy.”
A Study in Contrasts
So, on the earlier side of a late twentieth-century historical divide, Humanism gave us the first Ethical Culture societies with their core emphasis on improving the lives of the poor and the working class. It issued socialistic manifestos aimed at eliminating classes altogether. It was teeming with anti-capitalists and with champions of labor. It could boast of anti-imperialists like Felix Adler, Jane Addams, William Salter, John Dewey, Helen Keller, and Howard Zinn, among others. Its most accomplished institution builder was a proud social democrat and great admirer of the Scandinavian welfare state who, in his book Toward a New Enlightenment: The Philosophy of Paul Kurtz (1991) opined that “Marx was no doubt the greatest humanist thinker of the nineteenth century.” Although it was far from perfect, Humanism was an admirable type of radical meliorism.
On our side of the divide, within mainstream Humanism a serious concern about economic injustice is rather rare and the presence of socialists even rarer. Judging by their writings and public appearances, most Humanist leaders seemingly feel about as much concern for the poor and the exploited as your average U.S. Senator does. Humanism looks at the reigning economic paradigm of neoliberalism and responds to its many fascist features with a casual shrug of the shoulders. For the most part, it acts as if it has never heard of anti-imperialism. In recent years, its most famous organization, the AHA, has made some truly appalling choices for its Humanist of the Year award, for example, in 2014, bestowing that honor on former congressman Barney Frank, longtime friend of the financial services industry who voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (2008), quite possibly the most anti-humanist piece of federal legislation signed into law during the past 40 years. Humanism’s indifference to poverty and inequality is such that, as far as I can tell, the man who currently serves as Pope of the Catholic Church, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has spoken out on behalf of the poor and the economically exploited more than all current Humanist leaders and public personalities combined have done (Sikivu Hutchinson excepted). Where the crisis of economic injustice is concerned, today’s Humanism is neither radical nor meliorist.
This devolution is about what we should expect from a movement that, in 2003, saw the AHA issue the embarrassing, platitudinous document called Humanist Manifesto III. The whole of its commentary on economics is contained in this lame, anti-ecological statement: “We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.” Reflecting on the ethical backsliding involved here, Ahlquist correctly observes that “mainstream Humanism has little to offer in terms of economic wisdom.”
What we have here, then, in the trajectory of the movement from the earlier period through the current one, especially over the past dozen years or so, is a decline of truly epic proportions.
Humanist Principles II
Many readers favorably inclined toward the Humanist movement are doubtless having thoughts along this line: “just because economic justice is supposed to be at the forefront of Humanist concerns, that doesn’t mean the promotion of secularism hasn’t always been there too.” My descriptions (above) of the rise of Ethical Culture and of the formulation of HMI utterly refute that idea, but, given the current hyper-valorization of secularism (along with science and atheism) within Humanist circles, it’s a belief that is not likely to die easily.
So, for good measure, let us briefly explore the matter from another angle. In HMI, which Hoffman appropriately calls “an idealistic paean to common sense and high morality,” secularism is mentioned only once, in a non-political sense. The drafters were not unconcerned about what they took to be the dangers of theistic religion, but for them Humanism’s chief concern was “the enhancement of human life” and the satisfaction of human needs. The centrality of economics to that mission can be seen in the fact that economic justice is the only social issue addressed in the document. The socialism of point fourteen, quoted above, is correctly seen to be logically entailed by Humanist ethics:
[T]he humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being. We assert that humanism will … endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts of humanism will flow.
This passage, coupled with point fourteen, constitutes a kind of firm insistence that the road to human flourishing lies not through the spread of secularism, but through social change aimed at justice.
So much for the political/legalistic branch of secular Humanism; what about the communitarian branch, Ethical Culture? On May 15, 1876, Felix Adler gave the founding address to NYSEC. It contains more than 4500 words, but “secular” and “secularism” are not among them. It expresses some sharp criticism of religion, but its focus, in light of the tremendous psychological and social strains and dislocations caused by industrial capitalism, is on the need for a new emphasis on morality. Fearing the continuing loss to memory of “life’s grander motives and meanings,” most of the speech is a kind of vague and applied philosophical prescription for a society “drifting on the seething tide of business, each one absorbed in holding his own in the giddy race of competition.” (Much later, in Humanism as the Next Step, 1954, a similar sentiment would be articulated by Lloyd and Mary Morain, who, imagining a world transformed according to Humanist principles, envisioned that “The money god and rabid consumerism will have retreated and there will be general appreciation of that ideal whereby free time for creative expression or recreation is valued as highly as mere pieces of silver.”) Helping the poor to realize justice, Adler wrote in 1880 (Creed and Deed), is “the loftiest cause of the age.” In an article titled “The Aims of the Ethical Society” (The Ethical Record, Oct. 1889), he wrote:
The Ethical Society is not a club of free-thinkers, having for their sole aim the emancipation of the multitude from superstition. It does not appeal exclusively to the cultured classes; it does not seek to draw together an intellectual elite; it brings into the foreground those fundamental moral needs and aspirations, in regard to which all men are equal. The Ethical Society emphasizes the sublime moral idea of universal brotherhood.
Consider also the history of organized secularism. As Rectenwald observes “Secularism didn’t and doesn’t have only to do with being an arbiter in the political sphere. In fact, it was not founded as such.” It was founded, he goes on, during the nineteenth century, in both England and the U.S. “as a social and political movement for the amelioration of human conditions, in particular those of the working class.”
It is worth noting that, historically in the U.S., even within Humanist currents that did have a focus on secularism, a serious concern about the problems of poverty and economic oppression was rarely if ever absent. Consider the case of proto-Humanist Robert Ingersoll, the popular nineteenth-century lecturer whom Croft calls “a stalwart champion of an early form of modern Humanism.” According to Susan Jacoby, author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (2013), Ingersoll “espoused many causes supported by American socialists.” In addition to holding enlightened views on a wide variety of other issues, Ingersoll called for equality and economic justice for women; for the eight hour workday; for the rights of workers to organize and go on strike; for the election of Henry George, author of the radical treatise on inequality Progress and Poverty (1879), in the New York mayoral race of 1886; and for the alleviation of poverty and the ending of economic exploitation. “How a human being can consent to live on profit from poverty, is beyond my imagination,” Ingersoll wrote “If nobody has too much everybody will have enough.”
In two of her books, The Great Agnostic and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004), Jacoby quotes a Shakespearean passage much admired by Ingersoll. It is a soliloquy spoken by King Lear:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
Ingersoll called this “the greatest prayer that ever fell from human lips.” For Jacoby, the passage “is the essence of the secularist and humanist faith.”
In response to the severely truncated, elite-serving Humanism of recent years, a small number of people have begun calling for a “radical Humanism,” one that would put class, race, and sexism at the forefront of Humanist concerns. Their reasons for doing so are admirable, but I’ve come to think that use of that term probably does more harm than good. “As a concept,” Sartre writes in the Critique, bourgeois Humanism “crumbles and disappears.” In other words, bourgeois Humanism, the moral arc of which very often bends away from justice, is really no Humanism at all. But if, for all its considerable usefulness as a descriptive category, bourgeois Humanism is essentially an oxymoron, radical Humanism presents the problem of being a tautology. Creating the conditions in which all people can flourish, in which their human rights are honored in practice, and in which their worth and dignity can be said to be fully respected, all require a radical transformation of the socioeconomic and political order. This is all the more true given that we need to realize these ideals while shifting to an eco-centric way of being within the natural world. Thus, Humanist philosophy is already radical, a fact that Croft, unlike most of his peers within the Humanist leadership, seems, to some degree, to understand—Humanism, he writes is “a movement for the radical improvement of human life on this planet” (a serviceable partial definition, although in my view one marred by a lack of appreciation for what Roderick Nash and others have called “the rights of nature”). The word “radical,” then, is superfluous, or as Ahlquist calls it, redundant. Use of it, it seems to me, gives people the idea that there are alternative readings of Humanist philosophy from which to choose, including a moderate one friendly to the status quo but incompatible with core Humanist values.
However, it will not do for us to act in the manner of conservative legal scholars, who talk of a dearly missed “Constitution in Exile,” by (ourselves) lamenting a “Humanism in Exile.” Doing that would require overlooking the Humanist movement’s historical failure to adequately emphasize, among other issues, racism, sexism, and, later, the anthropogenic environmental crisis. We need to be clear about how and why the movement used to be fundamentally different, but we won’t do ourselves any favors by romanticizing it either.
Is the Humanist movement worth keeping around? I’m not sure. Part of my motive for writing this article has been the hope that it might spark a widespread conversation about that question.
If the answer is “yes,” then, as Seidman puts it “humanism needs a re-boot.” It’s a great metaphor, for to reboot a computer is to return it to the condition it was in before things went haywire. So from the atheist/secularist movement is has morphed into, Humanism must be reshaped into the kind of thing it originally was, namely, a radical reform movement. A restored humanism, Seidman writes, would “be best defined as a sociopolitical philosophy, both democratic and non-hierarchal, which is informed by scientific naturalism, and [which] promotes individual freedom, economic and social equality, human cooperation and planetary peace.” He goes on: “Where there are atheists or other ‘freethinkers’ who defend the politics or economics of oppression and regression – from war to capitalism to neo-liberalism to neo-conservatism – there must be humanists to point out that atheism is not the same thing as humanism.”
So rather than superimposing a “radical” space onto the movement, the whole of which is supposed to be radical anyway, the need becomes to make the movement more perceptive and militant, that is to say, more acute about the ethical and political implications of its principles and more vigorous in advocating for radical change. Or, putting it in different terms, Humanism needs to stop making the massive and inexcusable category mistake of emphasizing the importance of human well being while mostly ignoring the problems of poverty and economic inequality. Or to say it still another way, now and for the foreseeable future, with state and corporate power so heavily invested in serving the antisocial interests of a small and obscenely privileged minority, if it is to have any ethical coherence Humanism must become keenly counter-hegemonic.
Going forward, there will be many key questions, including the following three. First, will the Humanist movement continue to support capitalism, an economic system which, as Wright reasonably argues, is an ecocidal form of “fragmented totalitarianism?” Second, what kind of relationship should the movement seek to have with Socialist Humanism, a distinct tradition that, to a degree, overlapped with mainstream Humanism during the latter decades of its class-conscious period? And third, what kind of commitment will the movement make to changing its outlook and priorities with a view toward eliciting the respect and participation of poor and working class people?
Joseph Hoffmann is absolutely correct, then, in asserting that organized Humanism “has been turned into a parody of serious humanist principles and ideals.” He is also right in observing that Humanist philosophy deplores injustice, oppression, and poverty “because they are attacks on our humanity—on the principle of the dignity of mankind.” What he misses, along with nearly everyone else, is the deep connection between the two: a major reason why the Humanist movement makes a mockery of Humanist convictions is that its foundational and customary commitment to the goal of economic justice has been, for the most part, abandoned.
David Hoelscher has taught philosophy and history at various colleges in the U.S. and Sri Lanka. His most recent Counterpunch article was “The Battle Over Pat Tillman: A Ten Year Retrospective” (print edition, volume 21, number 6, 2014). He can be reached at email@example.com