While humanism, by definition, dismisses set creeds in the name of continuous advancement, over the past 80 years there have been three key documents attempting to outline the general beliefs and goals of the Humanist movement. These “Humanist Manifestos” are not intended to serve as a timeless doctrine for humanists to follow, but rather seek to identify shared goals around which humanist-leaning people might choose to rally and work for the progress of society.
The first Humanist Manifesto was drafted in 1933 at the University of Chicago. Many of the signatories were Universalist religious leaders. The 1973 Humanist Manifesto had hundreds of signers, many of them professors of religion and philosophy. The most recent Humanist Manifesto was crafted by the American Humanist Association and served as a brief summary of the continuing goals and vision of the original Manifesto.
Recurring themes of the Humanist Manifestos include agreement on the dismissal of the supernatural, the centrality of human potential, and the need for a global community that seeks to maximize the good of humanity. Although all three Humanist Manifestos were written in the United States, each one emphasizes the importance of minimizing the boundaries between nations in favor of achieving a “shared life in a shared world.”
The Manifestos note that they are intended to represent a “developing point of view.” Humanists’ common emphasis on utilizing the scientific method to better understand the world means that no assertion about values, goals, or humanist identity can be set in stone. Indeed, over the course of the three Manifestos, certain elements were added or amended. The second Humanist Manifesto was written forty years after the first, during which time Nazism and other totalitarian regimes had seized power. The second Manifesto noted that its predecessor now seemed “far too optimistic.” Written after the Civil Rights Movement and in the midst of the second wave feminist movement, the 1973 Manifesto recommended targeting society’s underlying racism, sexism, and other abuses of state power as the best way to prevent the rise of police states.
The Manifestos have differed, too, in their terminology around humanism. The original manifesto referred to their ideology as “religious humanism,” and many of the signatories were Unitarian pastors. The original Manifesto credited religion as the traditional “means for realizing the highest values of life,” then proposes that a non-supernatural, human-centric worldview is the best way to realize such values in their day and age. In later Manifestos, however, “traditional moral codes and newer irrational cults” are both dismissed as being unfit to address “existing world realities.” Humanism is not presented as a new religion, but rather as a clear alternative to religious ideology altogether.