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The Past Future of Humanism: Happy 50th Birthday Humanist Manifesto II

By David Warden

In this article, David looks back at the future of humanism as envisioned by humanists 50 years ago, paying tribute to their optimism and hope.


2023 is the 50th anniversary of Humanist Manifesto II which appeared in 1973. What were humanists thinking back then? What sort of world did they envisage in the future? Did they come close to imagining what the world would be like in 2023? And what can we learn from them today? The drafters of the Manifesto, Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson, wrote “As we approach the twenty-first century… an affirmative and hopeful vision is needed…. In the choice between despair and hope, humanists respond in this Humanist Manifesto II with a positive declaration for times of uncertainty… This statement is reaching for vision in a time that needs direction… New statements should be developed to supersede this, but for today it is our conviction that humanism offers an alternative that can serve present-day needs and guide humankind toward the future.”

Edwin H. Wilson - one of the authors

It sounds familiar doesn’t it? Perhaps humanity is always balanced precariously between despair and hope. The authors went on to declare boldly that “The next century can be and should be the humanistic century. Dramatic scientific, technological, and ever-accelerating social and political changes crowd our awareness. We have virtually conquered the planet, explored the moon, overcome the natural limits of travel and communication; we stand at the dawn of a new age, ready to move farther into space and perhaps inhabit other planets. Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our life-span, significantly modify our behavior, alter the course of human evolution and cultural development, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life.”

Paul Kurtz - one of the authors

Wow. Reading that, I feel as though we have indeed succumbed to despair. Far from “controlling our environment”, it seems that we are almost fatalistically resigned to the possibility of human extinction in the near future and it will all be "our own fault" – or the fault of evil actors. We have made astonishing progress in conquering extreme poverty and hunger and yet this has come at great cost to other species on Earth, many of which have been pushed to the margins of survival. Only a few madcap billionaires still dream of inhabiting other planets. And as for “modifying our behavior”, we have become increasingly aware of the fact that our brains are contraptions cobbled together by blind evolution and that we share many of our basest instincts with reptiles. We cannot re-engineer our brains from scratch. We have extended our life spans but some of our health systems are creaking under the weight of demographic change and geriatric care. We are unlocking vast new powers but we are terrified by the prospect of runaway AI and quantum computing. The most dramatic example of “altering the course of human evolution and cultural development” may have come about, inadvertently, by the advent of social media and the result, in terms of mental health for the rising generations, seems far from benign.

1973: A future filled with dangers

Our humanist forbears saw that we were heading into danger. They wrote that “The future is, however, filled with dangers. In learning to apply the scientific method to nature and human life, we have opened the door to ecological damage, over-population, dehumanizing institutions, totalitarian repression, and nuclear and bio-chemical disaster. Faced with apocalyptic prophesies and doomsday scenarios, many flee in despair from reason and embrace irrational cults and theologies of withdrawal and retreat.” They wrote that “Humanity, to survive, requires bold and daring measures. We need to extend the uses of scientific method, not renounce them, to fuse reason with compassion in order to build constructive social and moral values. Confronted by many possible futures, we must decide which to pursue. The ultimate goal should be the fulfillment of the potential for growth in each human personality — not for the favored few, but for all of humankind. Only a shared world and global measures will suffice. A humanist outlook will tap the creativity of each human being and provide the vision and courage for us to work together. This outlook emphasizes the role human beings can play in their own spheres of action. The decades ahead call for dedicated, clear-minded men and women able to marshal the will, intelligence, and cooperative skills for shaping a desirable future. Humanism can provide the purpose and inspiration that so many seek; it can give personal meaning and significance to human life.”

From their vantage point, we’ve just lived through “the decades ahead” and it seems far from obvious that humanity, let alone humanists, have been “clear-minded in marshalling the will, intelligence, and cooperative skills for shaping a desirable future.” What we’ve ended up with is a politics disfigured by ideological conflict and a crazy culture war which divides humanity into oppressors and victims. Some humanists have been seduced into fighting this destructive and unwinnable war. The authors of Humanist Manifesto II warned us that “Some forms of political doctrine, for instance, function religiously, reflecting the worst features of orthodoxy and authoritarianism, especially when they sacrifice individuals on the altar of Utopian promises. Purely economic and political viewpoints, whether capitalist or communist, often function as religious and ideological dogma.” It is not too late to heed their warning.

The authors of Humanist Manifesto II wrote that “We affirm a set of common principles that can serve as a basis for united action — positive principles relevant to the present human condition. They are a design for a secular society on a planetary scale. For these reasons, we submit this new Humanist Manifesto for the future of humankind; for us, it is a vision of hope, a direction for satisfying survival.”


The Manifesto’s twelfth principle stated that “We deplore the division of humankind on nationalistic grounds. We have reached a turning point in human history where the best option is to transcend the limits of national sovereignty and to move toward the building of a world community in which all sectors of the human family can participate. Thus we look to the development of a system of world law and a world order based upon transnational federal government.” Many, perhaps most, humanists are still inspired by this global vision. But it can also be argued that globalisation has destroyed settled communities and hollowed out democracy, handing too much power to technocratic elites and billionaire oligarchs, and fuelling far-right responses. Perhaps it is time for humanists to reappraise the benefits of smaller-scale national communities coupled with international co-operation.

War and peace

The authors declared that “War is obsolete. So is the use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. It is a planetary imperative to reduce the level of military expenditures and turn these savings to peaceful and people-oriented uses.” The World Humanist Congress in Oslo in 2011 reaffirmed the humanist desire to reduce military expenditures as a pathway to peace. But there’s an opposing argument which claims that military weakness increases the likelihood of invasion and conflict. Ukraine may be an object lesson in the foolishness of giving up a nuclear deterrent in exchange for assurances of peaceful co-existence, and the foolishness of appearing to tolerate “minor incursions”.

Planet Earth

The fourteenth principle stated that “The world community must engage in cooperative planning concerning the use of rapidly depleting resources. The planet earth must be considered a single ecosystem. Ecological damage, resource depletion, and excessive population growth must be checked by international concord.” We still seem to be some way off understanding how to maximise human flourishing at the same time as minimising our ecological footprint. Far too many people have been seduced by capitalist marketing into believing that human flourishing means maximising their consumption habits. We continue to worry about population growth, but a new worry is population collapse coupled with human migration on a scale not seen since the end of the Roman Empire. Climate change was virtually unheard of in 1973 and so it does not get a mention in the Manifesto. Humanists are rightly concerned about global warming and we should be advocates for rational and scientific approaches to dealing with the problem, avoiding irrational panic about "low likelihood, high impact" events. For example, in its latest report, the IPCC has stated that there is no evidence that anthropogenic greenhouse gases could tip the global climate into a permanent hot state in climate projections for the next century (Climate Change 2021, The Physical Science Basis, IPCC p202).

The internet

Principle seventeen, perhaps the most antiquated, demands that “We must expand communication and transportation across frontiers. Travel restrictions must cease. The world must be open to diverse political, ideological, and moral viewpoints and evolve a worldwide system of television and radio for information and education.” Our humanist forebears did not foresee the internet and the dramatic extension of communication which it represents. But as yet, the internet has not enabled us to solve some of our most basic problems and it has intensified existing ones, such as tribalism.

Building a peaceful and prosperous world

The closing statement claims that “The world cannot wait for a reconciliation of competing political or economic systems to solve its problems. These are the times for men and women of goodwill to further the building of a peaceful and prosperous world. We urge that parochial loyalties and inflexible moral and religious ideologies be transcended. We urge recognition of the common humanity of all people. We further urge the use of reason and compassion to produce the kind of world we want — a world in which peace, prosperity, freedom, and happiness are widely shared.” It seems to me that politics has become increasingly tribal and fuelled by ideological hatred. A humanist politics needs to transcend this, always reminding ourselves that we should be working for the common good, not tearing each other apart. As humanists, are we stepping up to the plate or indulging in the same tribal warfare as everyone else?

A humanist faith

I was interested to see that the authors of Humanist Manifesto II used the word 'faith' in relation to humanism without defence or justification. In the Preface, they wrote: "As we approach the twenty-first century, however, an affirmative and hopeful vision is needed. Faith, commensurate with advancing knowledge, is also necessary." And in the final paragraph they explain: "These affirmations are not a final credo or dogma but an expression of a living and growing faith." I have been saying for some time that humanism is a faith. Faith in humanity. Not because humanity always deserves that faith, but because that is the only way to respond positively to our human situation – taking responsibility and having faith in ourselves as individuals and as a species.

Humanist Manifesto II’s future is our present. As a species we’ve made a lot of progress and so far we have avoided nuclear Armageddon. But in many ways we’ve become more neurotic, nasty, and fatalistic. What can we learn from these humanist visionaries from fifty years ago? Humanist Manifesto II is one of the longest such manifestos with seventeen sections comprising more than 3,000 words. But surely we owe it to a previous generation of hopeful humanists to read what they had to say back then and to see whether we can be inspired anew to think hopefully and rationally about our human future. Happy 50th birthday, Humanist Manifesto II. And thank you for this precious gift from the past.

Humanist Manifesto II was signed by more than 260 people including Isaac Asimov, Sir Alfred Ayer, Harold Blackham, Sir Hermann Bondi, Brigid Brophy, Francis Crick, H. J. Eysenck, Antony Flew, Betty Friedan, Hector Hawton, James Hemming, Sir Julian Huxley, Margaret Knight, Corliss Lamont, Lord Ritchie-Calder, B. F. Skinner, J. P. van Praag, Sherwin Wine, and V. M. Tarkunde.

You can read Humanist Manifesto II here

Please note, however, that Humanist Manifestos I and II have been superseded by Humanist Manifesto III here

The thumbnail image is of Paul Kurtz

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