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The American Humanist Association: building on momentum
Submitted by admin on 1 February, 2010 - 10:51
On January 20, 2009, newly elected President Barack Obama in his inaugural speech stated, “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.” For the first time in history, millions of Humanists, atheists, and other freethinkers in the United States were acknowledged as Americans. The American Humanist Association (AHA), the oldest and largest Humanist organization in the United States, is taking advantage of this momentum to grow our movement.
Organized Humanism can be traced back to the formation of the Humanist Fellowship at the University of Chicago, which began publishing the New Humanist (the precursor to the AHA’s Humanist magazine) in 1928. The successor organization to the Humanist Fellowship was the Humanist Press Association in 1935, the first organized national association of Humanism in the United States. This group would later be recognized as the American Humanist Association and be incorporated in 1941.
Humanism is defined as a progressive philosophy of life that—without theism or other supernatural beliefs—affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. Author Kurt Vonnegut, who served for many years as the AHA’s honorary president, said it best when he said, “I’m a Humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after I am dead.”
The American Humanist Association strives to bring about a progressive society where being “good without god” is an accepted way to live life. We accomplish this through our defense of civil liberties and secular government, by our outreach to the growing number of people without religious belief or preference, and through a continued refinement and advancement of the Humanist worldview. The AHA has over 15,000 members and supporters, over 120 Humanist chapters and affiliates in the United States, and offices in Washington DC and New York.
Over the years, many women and men who embrace Humanism have worked closely with the American Humanist Association. The AHA’s “Humanist of the Year” award has been given to some of our most prominent thinkers and leaders, including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Joyce Carol Oates, U.S. Representative Pete Stark, Isaac Asimov, Betty Friedan, and Kurt Vonnegut. The AHA’s current honorary president is the prolific author and essayist Gore Vidal.
The AHA is also the publisher of the Humanist magazine, which has had a number of writers over the years, including Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, Joyce Carol Oates, Michelle Goldberg, Philip Pullman, and E.O. Wilson. The Humanist remains committed to its core: critical inquiry and social concern from a Humanist perspective, presenting moral dilemmas, exposing various rights abuses, and grappling with the challenges of life in the 21st century, with an eye toward solutions. The Humanist appears in thousands of libraries and on national newsstands, with individual readers numbering over 20,000.
Today, our biggest challenge is: how do we reach out to the 43 million Americans who consider themselves nonreligious? This question launched the American Humanist Association’s advertising campaign in 2005 to promote Humanism and reach out to other Humanists. The AHA first began with full-page advertisements in progressive magazines like The Nation and American Prospect, then later published ads in major newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post.
The AHA’s first Humanist billboard in 2008, which appeared near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, garnered significant press and controversy for its bold statement, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” The AHA later established billboards and sponsored bus advertisements in other cities across the country, with our most recent one declaring “Millions are Good Without God” in Moscow, Idaho.
Our most successful campaign was in December 2008 when the AHA placed an ad on over 200 buses in Washington DC. The ad stated, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” The campaign led to televised appearances on CNN Headline News, Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor, and numerous national radio shows and local television stations. The AHA plans to repeat our campaign this November with a new slogan that’s sure to generate thought and controversy.
Protecting the Jeffersonian wall separating church and state is the AHA’s biggest focus. As a member of the Secular Coalition for America and with a lobbyist on staff, the AHA is actively lobbying leaders on Capitol Hill for a place at the table. We recently joined over fifty other civil liberties organizations calling for the withdrawal of a 2007 Office of Legal Counsel memo that inaccurately interprets the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as allowing religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring.
While church-state separation is our biggest focus, several adjuncts fly under the banner of the AHA to not only serve Humanists but protect the rights of Humanists and other secular minorities.
The Appignani Humanist Legal Center is our official legal arm, providing assistance to defend the constitutional rights of secularists by directly challenging clear violations of the law where it relates to the Establishment Clause. Most recently, the American Humanist Association has filed an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case in support of the removal of a Christian cross on Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve in California and challenged unconstitutional religious content and remove “so help me God” in the presidential inauguration ceremonies. The AHLC also drafted a complaint challenging Section 107 of the IRS code, commonly known as the Parsonage Allowance, which allows churches to provide a tax-free housing allowance to pastors, a benefit that unconstitutionally favors religion.
Recognizing the need for education rooted in reason and science, the Kochhar Humanist Education Center is developing Humanist curriculum for local chapters interested in establishing children’s educational programs, with critical thinking at its core. With pilot programs in Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico, the KHEC is introducing courses for children on science, critical thinking, and Humanist values. The AHA recently petitioned the Texas School Board to halt any changes to the social studies curriculum that would portray the United States as a “Christian nation.” The petition is currently at over 2,000 signatories.
The Appignani Bioethics Center, with offices in New York, works with the United Nations and other government and community leaders to bring a more scientific and Humanist perspective to bioethical issues like stem cell research, reproductive rights, and the alleviation of world hunger. The Center’s director, Dr. Ana Lita, is also a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine. The Center’s senior advisor, Dr. Jonathan Moreno, was selected to be the head of the transition team for President Barack Obama’s Presidential Council on Bioethics.
Other adjuncts that serve Humanists in the United States include:
• The Feminist Caucus, a group of both women and men working toward the advancement of women’s rights and equality, keeping us involved in women’s rights issues;
• Our newly formed LGBT Humanist Council, a forum for LGBT Humanists from across the country to exchange ideas on local organizing, find support in coming out as LGBT (and a Humanist), and to speak out with one voice on issues of concern to the LGBT Humanist community;
• Humanist Charities, which specializes in aid and action, particularly in response to major natural disasters abroad and at home. It’s an opportunity for members to support direct charitable work that does not involve religious proselytizing;
• The Humanist Society, which certifies Humanist celebrants, who can conduct nonreligious weddings, memorials, baby-naming, and other life cycle ceremonies, and provides resources for individuals seeking nonreligious ceremonies.
• The International Darwin Day Foundation, which promotes public education about science and the defense of evolution in public school science classes, in addition to hosting the largest database of Darwin Day events online.
For too long, Humanists were likened to an elite club of intellectuals that talked more than acted. In today’s world, we are seeing a change with many Humanists, atheists and other nontheists standing up and doing their best to improve society.
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, states, “In past decades we’ve seen some in our movement sometimes in the closet, willing to ‘pass’ as something we’re not in order not to offend, and to gain a sense of acceptance—a false sense of acceptance in my opinion. It’s time to come out of the closet.”
One of the major challenges of the freethought movement was the lack of cooperation between the dozens of disparate secular, freethought, atheist, skeptic and Humanist organizations. Today these groups have formed into a movement that aims to raise the positive profile of all of us, and seek a place at the table so that we can advocate for our views. The annual Heads Meeting, a gathering of the leaders of national nontheist organizations, brings together groups like the American Ethical Union and the Society for Humanistic Judaism with Atheist Alliance International and the Secular Coalition for America. All involved are benefiting by closer collaboration despite differences in our philosophical approaches.
By working together, and helping to unite the freethought movement, we can mobilize for change through public outreach, activism, advocacy, and through efforts to change hearts and minds one person at a time.
Maggie Ardiente is the director of development at the American Humanist Association and editor of Free Mind.