Humanists’ Massive Impact on 20th Century Social Justice Brought to Light in Free Inquiry

Many of the great progressive movements of twentieth-century social justice were driven in large part by humanists, who had an immense impact for their relatively small numbers. The August/September 2016 issue of Free Inquiry magazine presents “Creative Minority Report: How the Humanist Movement Changed America,” a groundbreaking reappraisal of humanism’s role in the previous century.

Humanism is an ethical life-stance that seeks to promote the freedom and welfare of all human beings, without belief in or reliance upon any gods or supernatural forces. Through deep research and new assessments of twentieth-century activism, independent scholar Leah Mickens details how humanists made outsized contributions to myriad progressive causes. “Despite, or perhaps because of, the humanist movement’s small size and amorphous character,” writes Mickens, “it was possible for members involved in a given social-justice movement to draw on their fellow humanists to help provide person-power for another cause.”

Mickens illustrates how humanists and their ideals fueled progressive change in three major areas of social activism: abortion rights, the right to die, and the struggle for racial equality. On abortion, founding pro-choice organizations such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL were led or established by avowed and active humanists who were pushing back against the religious position that held abortion as at best a necessary evil and promoting abortion access as a positive social good.

Humanists were among those who pioneered the early campaigns for “voluntary euthanasia,” establishing the right-to-die movement we know today, with early proponents being “The Great Agnostic” Robert Green Ingersoll and Ethical Culture Society founder Felix Adler.

Mickens also dispels the myth that the struggle for African Americans’ equality was solely rooted in the black church, when in fact it was humanists and religious skeptics such as W.E.B. Dubois, Asa Philip Randolph, and Chandler Owen who founded institutions such as the NAACP and pushed for desegregation. “In an era when questioning the wisdom of ‘separate but equal’ was considered subversive,” Mickens writes, “civil rights activists from the humanist movement stood up for the value of every person, regardless of race, creed, or color.”

Also in this issue: Greta Christina and Free Inquiry Editor Tom Flynn duel over the definition of “atheism”; Robyn Blumner criticizes the “borderline-pathological alliance” some on the Left make with the most intolerant aspects of Islam; Nicholas S. Molinari encourages nonbelievers to warm up to Pope Francis; and much more.

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Free Inquiry is a bimonthly magazine, published by the Center for Inquiry in association with the Council for Secular Humanism, featuring thoughtful and provocative commentary from such leading political and social commentators as Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, Nat Hentoff, and Russell Blackford. Launched in 1980, Free Inquiry has a paid circulation of approximately 34,000 worldwide.