Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 42-43.
My nomination for the twentieth–century "Must Read" list is not a good book, but a revealingly bad one. When I first began teaching political theory and my students asked about a mysterious document called the "Humanist Manifesto," I thought I had stumbled across the Southern evangelical version of the Roswell flying saucer myth. That shows the folly of studying philosophy apart from how it plays out in popular culture. My students had heard of the Manifesto because their pastors had read Francis Schaeffer, the Christian apologist who made evangelicals aware of the culture war. Card–carrying secular humanists do exist, I discovered, and there had been not one Humanist Manifesto but two—the first in 1933, the second on its fortieth anniversary in 1973. Finally reading them, I found an epitome of all the fallacies that as a child of mid–century I had ever been taught.
Even more amazing were the lists of signatories, which seemed to include everyone who was anyone: for example, John Dewey, Isaac Asimov, John Ciardi, Alan F. Guttmacher, Andrei Sakharov, Betty Friedan, and B. F. Skinner—the preeminent American philosopher of the first half of the century, a novelist and science popularizer, a poet and Dante translator, the president of Planned Parenthood, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, the inventor of an idiom for American feminism, and the psychologist who turned behaviorism into a system.
These flaccid committee products make a dull read, but a fascinating comparison: they show how an antireligious worldview became an unofficially established religion but had to stop calling itself a religion to finish the job.
Both Manifestos call for a form of democracy with certain rights, some kind of socialism, and the renunciation of force as a step toward world government. They propose that children and adults be educated in their ideologies, and through the thirties expression "social and mental hygiene" and the seventies expression "altering the course of human evolution and cultural development" they hint at much more. "Social hygiene" and "altering the course of human evolution," of course, mean eugenics; "mental hygiene" and "altering the course of human cultural development," indoctrination.
The Manifestos are also naturalistic: they think nature is all there is. Scorning "salvationism" as a distraction from the pressing problems of the present life, they disavow belief in God and call upon human beings to "save" themselves. While holding that traditional Western morality is defective, they are cagey about which commandments they would jettison—except the ones about sex, naturally. The rest of the answer is found in Manifesto II, where we read that ethics is "situational." This means, of course, that the rest of the commandments must also go.
Manifesto I blazons that humanism is a religion. Not only that, it demands the transformation of all older religions into its vessels. In the future, it boasts, "there will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes of the kind hitherto associated with belief in the supernatural"—the "emotions" presumably including wonder, awe, and the sense of the holy, and the "attitudes" including praise, adoration, and humility. By the time of Manifesto II, however, there has been a change. Though it still makes claims about the ultimate meaning of things, it no longer calls its creed a religion. By this time the Supreme Court had begun to ask whether secular humanism is a religion within the meaning of the First Amendment, and Torcasco v. Watkins (1961) even seemed to have provided the answer: "Yes." Just how this would play out in subsequent cases was uncertain, but for any movement that seeks control of law and education, unequivocal recognition as a religion would spell disaster. The government could no more teach or promote it than Methodism or Roman Catholicism.
The Manifestos both hold up the scientific method as the model for all belief. This is remarkable, because although Manifesto I claims scientific grounding for humanism itself, Manifesto II claims merely that it cannot be falsified—which by its own standards would seem to make it meaningless. The third Manifesto, released just in time for the millennium, is even more defensive, although its triumphalist rhetoric blurs the picture.
Denying that secular humanism is a religion, Manifesto III pins the blame for this calumny on fundamentalists and right–wingers, never mentioning that the first Manifesto said it was a religion. Whining that secular humanists have been "unfairly accused of being unable to provide viable foundations for ethical responsibilities," it does not even try to explain how there can be any ethics in a universe in which natural forces and objects are all there is. Decrying irrationalism, it fails to recognize that it thereby condemns its own child.
Vanity, vanity. Some movements exhaust themselves only after generations of misspent power. At the moment when its march through the institutions seems complete, this one is already dead. The next century will tell us how far a corpse can walk.
J. Budziszewski is Associate Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.