History of Humanists International

In August 1952, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was founded, now known today as Humanists International. At that moment, organized modern humanism already had a tradition of at least a hundred years, including other international federations that are reckoned among the humanist tradition. One can discern four ‘generations’ of modern humanism, originating around 1850, 1890, 1918, and 1945, three of which came together in IHEU in 1952.

Four generations of organized humanism

The oldest generation is formed by atheists, including freethinkers, rationalists, and secularists, who explicitly reject all religion. This movement originated in the mid-nineteenth century in Western Europe and America. The various organizations of freethinkers soon met at international congresses and in 1880 they founded the World Union of Freethinkers (WUFT), which still exists. The WUFT was quite active in the years around 1952, which explains why no outspoken freethinker organizations were among the IHEU founders.

However, from the 1980s they increasingly joined IHEU. The second generation is formed by the so-called free-religious or ‘ethical culture’ groups, which sprung up in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Historically, these groups have Jewish and Protestant roots but they became progressively more liberal, until at last they identified religious feelings with a sense of belonging to one great cosmic unity and no longer recognized a personal God. In 1896, at a Zürich congress, ethical societies from the USA, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France united themselves in the International Ethical Union (IEU). From 1908 until 1932 this organization held a congress every four years. But, when the Second World War broke out the IEU ceased to exist. Representative of the ethical tradition among the founders of IHEU were the American Ethical Union (AEU, founded 1889, with forerunners from 1876), the British Ethical Union (BEU, founded 1896, forerunners from 1886), and the Gemeinschaft für Ethische Kultur or Ethische Gemeinde Wien (Vienna Ethical Society; founded 1902, forerunners from 1894). The important Bund Frei-Religiöser Gemeinden Deutschlands (BFGD, Association of Free-Religious Communities in Germany) joined IHEU in 1960.

“Man is, at last, becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement. He must set intelligence and will to the task.”

The third generation is that of the American humanists from the interbellum, a group sprouting from the Unitarian denomination who, in the graphic words of Nicolas Walter, “having discarded the second and third persons of the Trinity, […] discarded the first person too, replacing supernaturalism and theism with naturalism and humanism.”

From the late 1920s, they left the American Ethical Union. They considered themselves to be “religious humanists,” and founded the American Humanist Association (AHA, legally established 1941). In 1933, at the height of the economic crisis of the 1930s, a group of these humanists presented the religious and ethical views of their modern liberal humanism in a public declaration, A Humanist Manifesto (the first one). It declared that conventional religions, including “new thought” varieties, had been superseded, and that “to establish [a new] religion is a major necessity of the present.” This religion, emphatically called “religious humanism,” “maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life.” This meant “a heightened sense of personal life and a cooperative effort to promote social well-being.” The manifesto concluded:

‘Though we consider the religious forms and ideas of our fathers no longer adequate, the quest for the good life is still the central task for mankind. Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement. He must set intelligence and will to the task.”

Participants of the IHEU Congress, 1952, at Oudemanhuispoort, University of Amsterdam

Here it should be noted that the combinations “religious humanism” or “humanist religion” in the past had another emotional value than they have today. Today we, as humanists, take humanism for granted and it is the adjective “religious” that makes us frown. In the 1930s it was just the other way around: religion was respectable, and it was the word ‘humanist’ in ‘humanist religion’ that made eyebrows rise. Yet, the word ‘humanism’ stuck, as is shown by another initiative from the interbellum, which anticipated future close connections between IHEU and United Nations organizations. In 1922 a forerunner of UNESCO was formed, the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation (IIIC), a subsidiary to the League of Nations. Humanist in spirit, it devoted its 1936 yearly convention to the theme Vers UN nouvel humanisme (Towards a new humanism), producing what has been described as “a program for an ‘ethical humanism'”. IIIC’s president was Julian S. Huxley, who in 1945 became Director-General of UNESCO and who in 1952 opened the first IHEU congress.

Finally, a fourth generation of humanism arose in the aftermath of the Second World War and gave the actual impetus to the founding of IHEU. It consists of two synchronous but fully distinct movements, one in the Low Countries and one in India. In the Netherlands Jaap van Praag, himself of Jewish descent, wondered why Western civilization had not put up more resistance against Nazism and fascism. As a major cause he pointed at widespread ‘nihilism’ (moral indifference) in spite of the fact that most people considered themselves to be ‘religious’, and he stressed the importance of a moral awareness based on human values. In addition, as a socialist Van Praag aimed at breaking through the rigid compartmentalization of Dutch society on the basis of religious denominations. Van Praag became the key force behind the founding of the Dutch Humanistisch Verbond (Humanist League, HV) in 1946, designed as a broad and pluriform humanist movement. In Belgium, a comparable Belgian Humanistisch Verbond (HV(b)) was founded in 1951.

In India, the process of decolonization that followed the end of the Second World War led Manabendra Nath Roy to found an Indian Radical Humanist Movement (IRHM). Originally this had been a political party striving for independence, but Roy arrived at the conclusion that politics was corruptible (you have to make concessions to win votes) and so in 1948 he decided to reconstruct his party into a social movement. Although contacts between India and Western Europe were difficult, his movement became one of the founders of IHEU.

Preparations for a new federation

Though the ieu had disappeared in the late 1930s, during the Second World War there remained informal contacts between American and English humanists. For example, Lloyd Morain, who was serving as a field representative of the AHA in the US Air Corps in England during the latter part of the war, had informal meetings with several British humanists. Among them were Harold J. Blackham, active in the beu and from 1945 its Secretary, as well as leaders of the Rationalist Press Association (rpa) and humanist scientists such as science sociologist John Desmond Bernal.

Morain later remembered how they all hoped for increased international contacts between humanists after the war. Blackham also pleaded vigorously, from 1944 on, for a new international humanist organization to provide a synthesis of all ‘constructive’ forms of humanism, that would absorb and transcend the existing freethinker organizations. Among those whom he convinced, were men like biologist Julian Huxley and philosopher and freethinker Bertrand Russell.

After the war Blackham at first kept trying to work via the World Union of Freethinkers (WUFT). He took the initiative in organizing its first post-war conference (April-May 1946), held in London in Conway Hall, home of the South Place Ethical Society. The theme of the conference was ‘The challenge of humanism’. According to Blackham, this challenge was to reach a ‘marriage’ between ‘scientific humanism’ and ‘literary humanism’. As the Cold War unfolded, Blackham presented this cooperation between Rationalists and Liberal Humanists as ‘a Third Force between the main developed alternatives of Christianity and Marxism’ (1948). In 1947 Blackham and J. Hutton Hynd, a leader of the AEU, visited the Netherlands to ‘identify’ the Dutch Humanist League, which had been founded a year before. To explore the possibilities of closer international co-operation, they met with its President Jaap van Praag.

The three distrusted the WUFT, partly because they were suspicious of its communist sympathies, but more specifically because of its vehement and negative atheism and anti-religionism, which they thought was too negative and counterproductive. What was needed, was a more positive alternative to religions. This idea had fallen on fertile ground in the Netherlands, for the Humanist Dutch League grew fast since 1946, while the refounded old style Dutch freethinker movement remained as small as ever. By the time IHEU was founded, in 1952, the Dutch HV had more members than any other of the founding organizations, perhaps excepting the Indian Radical Humanist Movement.

Tasting the freethinkers: Rome 1949

From 9-12 September, 1949, the freethinkers organized their first international World Congress after the war, in Rome. Delegations of the Dutch (Van Praag and international secretary Mrs. Henriàtte Polak-Schwarz) and British (Blackham) humanist organizations attended this congress, eager to experience the atmosphere within the WUFT at first hand. The two major American associations, the AEU and AHA, were absent from the congress, though the latter was a WUFT member. For Van Praag and Blackham the congress was a great disappointment. True, they got on well with freethinkers from Northern Europe such as M.C. Bradlaugh Bonner from the RPA, who was ‘the amiable president’ of the congress, or the Dutch freethinker Anton Constandse. But Van Praag and Blackham perceived a huge gap between the congress participants from Anglo-Saxon, Protestant countries on the one hand, and from Latin, Catholic countries on the other.

“It took another three years before a congress was convoked to discuss the principles of the proposed organization and to decide on its practical realization. The preparatory work was done by five humanist organizations…”

This became especially clear from a discussion on the relation between humanism and freethought, which was one of the three central themes at the congress. The northern freethinkers saw the battle against religion and church only as a means to be able to create a positive life stance that could inspire non-religious people. The southerners, however, saw this battle as an aim in itself. In fact, the door was virtually slammed in the face of the humanists as the congress decided that ‘there could be no weakening of Freethought policy to accommodate Humanist Societies’. Van Praag considered this to be a negative, sterile approach. ‘The Italians and the French did not understand a single letter of our stance’, he wrote in a report on the congress, though he admitted that for them ‘it was not easy to get an understanding of modern humanism in only a few discussions’. Yet his conclusion was that ‘the question arises whether facts do not impel us to accept the idea of an entirely different form of consciousness-awakening in Catholic and non-Catholic countries’. Though he did not exclude entirely the possibility that the ‘Latin’ WUFT members would eventually come to accept the modern humanist views, he suggested that presently it might be useful to establish a new close connection between the humanist organizations in the Anglo-Saxon countries and the Netherlands.

The IHEU founding congress: Amsterdam 1952

It took another three years before a congress was convoked to discuss the principles of the proposed organization and to decide on its practical realization. The preparatory work was done by five humanist organizations: American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, British Ethical Union, Vienna Ethical Society, and Dutch Humanist League who also hosted the congress. Various kindred organizations had been invited to attend the congress; several sent delegations and during the congress two of them, the Belgian HV and the Indian IRHM, decided to become co-founders. Incidentally, the timing of the congress was remarkable, for it coincided almost exactly with a rival congress: from 22 to 27 August the freethinkers’ WUFT held its congress at Brussels. Whether this was accidental is not known.

A problem that arose immediately was a confusion of tongues. Words such as ‘humanism’, ‘ethicism’, ‘secularism’, or ‘religion’ did not mean the same to everyone. This problem became acute when a name for the new federation had to be found. The Americans preferred to call it ‘Ethical’, the Europeans ‘Humanist’. To the Americans, especially the AEU, ‘humanism’ smacked of pragmatism, positivism and rationalism, which ill-fitted their own idealistic background. Conversely, to the Europeans the word ‘ethical’ had become a neutral synonym of the word ‘moral’ and had nothing specifically humanist about it. It may sound incredible, but it took fourteen hours of deliberation before a brilliantly simple solution was reached: the organization was to be called International Humanist and Ethical Union.

IHEU member organizations, 1952

The Amsterdam congress was attended by more than two hundred participants. It was truly international: half of the participants were Dutch, but no less than thirty-five visitors came from the United Kingdom and thirty from the United States. There were considerable delegations from France, Germany and Belgium as well, and visitors from Japan, Australia, Finland and Austria. The largest delegations came from organizations that had been co-organizing the congress, or at least had been invited beforehand to join the prospective federation. For example, from France a delegation from Les Amis de la Liberté was present, though in the end they decided not to become a member. They did favor the general basic assumptions, such as defense of individual liberty and promotion of social justice and of mutual understanding, contact and communication, but would not narrow this down to the ‘more precise, and more exclusive, principles and aims’ of an explicitly ‘humanist’ organization. They accepted, in other words, humanism, but kept clear of Humanism.

‘One must have a hand before one can make a fist’

The congress began Thursday evening, August 21, and lasted until Tuesday afternoon, August 26. The prospective chairman was biologist, self-proclaimed ‘scientific humanist’ and first Director General of UNESCO Julian Huxley. Blackham, a staunch supporter of cooperation between IHEU and the United Nations, had persuaded him to preside. Blackham’s commitment to UN ideals may be seen as an expression of hope in a dark era. It is chilling to realize that most participants of the Amsterdam congress had been witness to the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and then the Cold War. When that last one broke out in the late 1940s, prospects of a better, more peaceful, democratic and human world seemed crushed again, as George Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four (1949) testifies. At the time of the congress, the Korean War was in full course; in America McCarthy’s witch-hunt against cryptocommunists was at its height. Against this background, the bright spots during the last decade seemed very few: mainly the institution of the United Nations in 1945 and its adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It was no coincidence that the Amsterdam congress explicitly emphasized its support to both. As Huxley had fallen ill, the Congress was opened by Jaap van Praag, chairman of the Organizing Committee, who summed up the aims of calling the congress: ‘First to draft a conception of humanism on an international level, and second to establish permanent relations between humanist and ethical groups all over the world’. Van Praag explicitly warned that founding a new international organization when there exists the WUFT should not be interpreted as an act of enmity. Implicitly, however, he worded his criticism of the freethinkers in the sequel.

‘If we are convinced of the necessity to shape humanism and ethical culture as a positive and constructive philosophy of life [italics added-ed.], we cannot do without an international institution that answers this conviction.’

Yet, Van Praag carefully added that there were good personal relations between humanists and freethinkers. Some freethinkers did indeed take part in the congress, and ultimately some organizations of freethinkers would join IHEU, though not many from WUFT core areas such as Mediterranean Europe. Van Praag stressed the need for self-organization before intervening in practical world-problems.

‘One must first have a hand before making a fist. Our first task is to give international humanism hands now. […] So our first duty is to develop our national movements and to gather the scattered sparks of humanism all over the world.’

Amsterdam Declaration

In 1952, at the first World Humanist Congress, the founders of Humanists International agreed on a statement of the fundamental principles of modern Humanism. They called it “The Amsterdam Declaration”.

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Humanism as a religion

Van Praag also urged his audience: ‘let’s try to see through the traditional meaning of words and hit the thing meant’. His audience got the chance to practice this exhortation immediately, since the next speaker was Julian Huxley, who had a reputation for advocating a ‘humanist religion’. In his Presidential Address on ‘Evolutionary Humanism’, which in spite of the speaker’s illness was quite voluminous, Huxley indeed pleaded for a humanist ‘religion’. He said:

‘As I see it, the world is undoubtedly in need of a new religion, and that religion must be founded on humanist principles if it is to meet the new situation adequately. […] We must believe that some sort of humanist religion could and should eventually arise.’

Huxley was aware that he was using the word ‘religion’ in a non-standard way:

‘I mean an organized system of ideas and emotions which relate man to his destiny, beyond and above the practical affairs of every day, transcending the present and the existing systems of law and social structure. […] and I believe we have nothing to lose by using the word religion in the broadest possible sense to include non-theistic formulations and systems as well’.

On the contrary, Huxley feared that not calling it a religion might be bad public relations, curtailing its potential appeal, and that it might ‘sterilize the ideas we put forward, by implying that our systems are not so fully satisfying’ as traditional religions.

Towards a program

On Friday, Saturday and Monday the principles of the new federation were debated, first in general and then progressively more specific. The theme on Friday was ‘The meaning of science and democracy in human progress’, that on Saturday ‘The humanization of man in society’. Introductory papers had been prepared by experts, such as philosophers, scientists, politicians and leading members of national humanist organizations. These introductions were discussed first in working groups, then in the evening in plenary sessions. Though these broad themes might make for interesting discussions, and many might stress, like Blackham, that ‘the essential point’ of humanism was that ‘its ideas and ideals are always subject to revision’, yet some choices had to be made before a humanist union could actually be founded. Therefore, ‘The program of humanism and ethical culture’ was the theme for the third day. It had to be decided what kind of humanism the new federation should stand for: either humanism in the sense of a broad defense of individual liberty, social justice, and mutual understanding without political or religious constraints, or ‘Humanism’, that is a specific ‘view of man’s nature and destiny, and therefore more precise, and more exclusive, in its principles and aims’. Was personal freedom to be defended as an aim in itself, or as a consequence of man’s responsibility as bearer of values? In line with Van Praag’s earlier exhortation that ‘one has to make a hand before one can make a fist’, the large majority preferred to solidly found the own position first and therefore favored a specifically Humanist organization. They trusted that this choice would not be detrimental to the contacts with the broad humanist and freedom-loving movement, for humanists were ‘by their own temper and principles’ naturally committed to contacts with persons of different convictions for the sake of mutual understanding. It was generally felt that the program of the Union should be both internal, i.e. ‘philosophical and moral edification and fortification of the individual’, and external, i.e. ‘action on the political fronts vital to humanist concerns’. These internal and external programs were deemed ‘reciprocally conditioned and vitally united’.

The Amsterdam Manifesto

On the last day of the congress, Tuesday, August 26, 1952, five resolutions were adopted. The first resolution decided to actually found the IHEU. The fundamentals of ‘modern, ethical Humanism’ were described in the fifth resolution, which became known as the Amsterdam Manifesto (or Amsterdam Declaration), and was appended as a preamble to the first Bylaws of the Union. The Manifesto formulated five fundamental characteristics of humanism, as agreed on at the congress. In its second resolution, the congress decided to apply for NGO status (non-governmental organization) at UNESCO, and pledged its allegiance to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and several United Nations Conventions, thereby setting IHEU on its pro-UN course. The two remaining resolutions addressed the world population problem.

The congress was quite seriously covered in the press, especially by liberal and socialist newspapers. Protestant media were critical, the Catholic ones even sarcastic. One Dutch weekly compared the humanists venomously with ‘barbaric Norsemen’. But such attacks were the exception, and the IHEU founding congress had really been a success. IHEU was put on its trail. Now it was up to the Board of Directors to implement and pursue the decisions taken at the congress.

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Jaap van Praag

Jaap van Praag was born in Amsterdam on 11 May, 1911, in a modern Jewish socialist environment. He studied Dutch language and history and became a teacher. In the prewar period he was active in various pacifist youth organizations, where he met people with whom he would found the Dutch Humanist League (HV) after the Second World War. During the German occupation of the Netherlands (1940-1945), Van Praag had to go into hiding. In this period he developed his theory of humanism. In February 1946, Van Praag was one of the principal initiators of establishing the Dutch Humanist League, and became its Chairman from September 1946 to 1969. From 1954 to 1974 he was a member of a provincial Executive. Van Praag was one of the first professors in humanist studies (University of Leiden, 1964-1979). He stressed the importance of a non-religious humanist life stance which, as an alternative for the churches, could give meaning to life. Van Praag played a major role in founding the International Humanist and Ethical Union. As its first Chairman he was actively engaged in the work of consolidating and enlarging IHEU. His natural authority enabled him to take an active part in arranging contacts and dialogues, for example with the Vatican and with Marxists in the 1960s and 1970s. He resigned as a chairman in 1975, but continued to be a Honorary Board Member. At the 1978 London Congress Van Praag was presented with a Special Award in recognition of his importance to IHEU. He died in 1981.

Flavours of humanism in 1952-two eyewitnesses

Lloyd and Mary Morain, who together represented the AHA on the IHEU Board of Directors for some fifteen years, commented in 1992 on the ‘flavours’ of humanism united in IHEU. Lloyd noted how in 1952 delegates from the various countries each laid their accent slightly differently: ‘The Dutch on the whole objected to calling humanism a religion, preferring the term faith, philosophy, or viewpoint. Some British delegates desired a more fully developed philosophical basis as well as recognition of humanism’s social implications. The Americans could hardly have been said to have any single area of emphasis or agreement. The Belgians were much concerned about freedom from religion in the schools. The Germans were hopeful that they would be recognized as integral parts of the international fight for freedom on all fronts. The French were primarily concerned with the protection and furtherance of personal liberty, for they had vivid recollections of what it meant to have lost a measure of it. Nevertheless, there was a common bond among these delegates of many nations, a bond which tied the present with the future.’ His wife Mary Morain observed a difference between humanists from the United States and from the rest of the western world, which might be called ‘cultural’ and be summed up in the words theoretical vs. practical. Many Americans ‘feel a great inspiration towards ethical behavior in the very fact that one recognizes that human beings are an inherent part of nature and are dependent for help on each other without any supernatural concern or guidance.’ The ‘European’ view is ‘more relaxed, practical, concerned not so much with theory as to why one is moral, but rather with the important end-product of moral, social behavior-with the need to stress that one can be both moral and a humanist.’

Harold J. Blackham

Harold John Blackham was born in 1903 near Birmingham. He studied literary theory and was a teacher for two years. Then he addressed himself to philosophy and adult education. In the early thirties he became a leader in the British Ethical Union. Together with leaders of the main churches he set up a ‘moral education program’ in Great Britain, of which he was quite proud. Blackham played a key role in the founding of IHEU, and acted as its Secretary until 1967. In 1965 he represented IHEU in its contacts with the Vatican Secretariat for Non Believers. At the 1974 Amsterdam Congress he received the International Humanist Award ‘for his long and creative service to humanism in England and in the world’. Blackham repeatedly stressed that humanist principles and humanist organization should be undogmatic: ‘The conception of the humanist mission is subject to the same method of development as the humanist conception of civilization, that is to say, it is derived from tradition, it is open to challenge and discussion, and it requires review in the light of the experience into which it leads’.

The Amsterdam Manifesto

1 It [Humanism] is democratic. It aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that this is a matter of right. […] 2 It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. […] 3 Humanism is ethical. It affirms the dignity of man and the right of the individual to the greatest possible freedom of development compatible with the rights of others. There is a danger that in seeking to utilize scientific knowledge in a complex society individual freedom may be threatened by the very impersonal machine that has been created to save it. Ethical Humanism, therefore, rejects totalitarian attempts to perfect the machine in order to obtain immediate gains at the cost of human values. 4 It insists that personal liberty is an end that must be combined with social responsibility in order that it shall not be sacrificed to the improvement of material conditions. […] 5 It is a way of life, aiming at the maximum possible fulfillment, through the cultivation of ethical and creative living. It can be a way of life for everyone everywhere if the individual is capable of the responses required by the changing social order. The primary task of humanism to-day is to make men aware in the simplest terms of what it [humanism] can mean to them and what it commits them to. By utilizing in this context and for purposes of peace the new power which science has given us, humanists have confidence that the present crisis can be surmounted. Liberated from fear the energies of man will be available for a self-realization to which it is impossible to foresee the limit.

A reaction from the press

The usually respectable Dutch weekly Elseviers Weekblad commented on the Amsterdam Congress under the lead ‘Assault of the Humanists’: ‘[…] In fact, it is staggering. More than ever our society is craving for character, for roots, for trust in God. And yet here this crowd of savages is gathering to ring the great bell, and in the halls of the High School of our Capital it seizes the opportunity to once again hammer away at the unpicking [dissolution] of the minds of our people, and of all peoples. With their New Reason! One would say that humanity in the last few centuries has endured more than enough invasions by such Norsemen of the new reason. […]

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