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(author’s note: additions made in italics were added to the post 12/26/2012)

In 1933, the American Humanist Association published the first Humanist Manifesto, highlighting fifteen affirmations for Humanists to hold.  Initially, Raymond B. Bragg and the other 34 signatories wrote the Manifesto in order to forge a new religious philosophy eupraxophy that would replace the fractured deity-based faiths that dominated the twentieth century.  But it was a carefully written creedless and faithless declaration of beliefs that could be accepted by one of any faith.  The manifesto championed the ideas of economic prosperity and the opportunity for social mobility.  Among other things, the manifesto affirms the endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few.  And in the 80 years since the Manifesto was first published, humanity as a whole made great strides in realizing greater social justice, alleviating poverty, and ending war.  Indeed, as Steven Pinker notes in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the rise of a global economic system and a commitment to universal human rights has had a profound impact on curbing war.  While news reports fill the airwaves every night with stories of atrocities and strife, this is merely a sampling bias, argues Pinker (no one every does a new story on a plane that didn’t crash…).  In reality, the planet has never seen a more peaceful time in our history, which is thanks in part to the decline of capital punishment.  As we approach the eightieth anniversary of this Humanist Manifesto, it’s time to look back on the last eighty years and review the progress we as a species have made towards realizing the lofty goals of the Humanist philosophy.


The World Health Organization has established Millennium Development Goals that seek to reduce pollution, poverty, and disease worldwide.  Since the year 2000, progress towards a more prosperous planet has been made through declining infant and maternal mortality, improving nutrition, reducing morbidity and mortality due to HIV infection, tuberculosis and malaria, and increasing access to improved drinking-water sources, although progress has been uneven around the world.  However, a recent report from the World Bank has even shows that a midst a global financial crisis, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 a day fell in every region of the developing world.  The sheer number of people alive on the planet makes this statistic so remarkable.  While there may be more people living on the planet living in poverty than ever before, the rate at which people are rising out of poverty has also never been higher, either.  This is because in some parts of the world, population doubles every 14 years, and in order to make strides in alleviating poverty, economic growth must outpace population growth.  And indeed, the World Bank is seeing economic growth beating out population across all six regions of the world.  But perhaps the greatest threat to economic and demographic stability is continual warfare and violence.

Violence in the less developed countries may be higher than in the more developed countries, but Pinker notes that these countries haven’t been socialized into the international community yet; societies evolve demographically and they tend to become more stable over time, especially as income inequality lessens, wages rise and life expectancy increases.  But even so, developing countries are in a precarious position today.  They face unprecedented challenges that can stress even the most stable governments and lead to failed states and martial law.  There are over seven billion people living on this planet in 2012 and it’s predicted that another billion people will be born by the year 2028 and another billion people will be born before 2050.  In fact, if human population growth doesn’t slow down, we could see as many as 12 billion people alive at the dawn of the twenty-second century.  While growing populations can be a boon for sputtering economies, it can also be a hindrance towards greater economic growth, too.  High birth rates put a strain on the governments of the less developed countries to provide basic services like street maintenance or trash pick-up for its citizens when populations grow too quickly, any economic growth is immediately funneled into infrastructure projects like repairing over-stressed roads, bridges, and sewer systems that are simply not robust enough to serve the needs of communities.

This still doesn’t even acknowledge the destabilizing impact of climate change.  A larger human population also means a larger footprint on the planet.  When human activities put stress on the ecological world, there are consequences for the economic world.  As we’ve seen, climate change has tested governments like Haiti and Egypt, and has smacked around these fragile governments; heat waves and droughts can cause food shortages, tidal waves and hurricanes can knock down levees or seawalls, and inundate coastal areas.  Climate change is not directly responsible for the devastation of hurricanes like Hurricane Sandy, but it did provide the fuel that made such a devastating storm possible.  Rising global temperatures in turn means that more warm water evaporates from the oceans, and more vapor gets pumped into the atmosphere.  That means more intense rain, warmer surface waters, and more energy available in the ocean to make hurricanes more ferocious.  Even cities in like New York are not immune from devastating climate change.  And when extreme weather hits, cities are faced with real financial costs of mitigation.

When the cost of mitigating the impacts of climate change are dwarfed by the costs of remediation the damage, nations that take action against climate change now will avoid greater costs and greater damages in the next century.  In fact, many environmentalists have trumpeted the need to reconsider what the American Dream means.  The old standby of two cars in the driveway, a refrigerator, an oven, a toaster and a pot roast for dinner every night is not sustainable.  With a billion people on this planet living that middle class lifestyle, and another two billion people in developing countries who are rising the economic ladder to a middle class lifestyle, the planet simply cannot sustain that many people living at that unrealistic level of material abundance.  To accommodate the needs of everyone in the world if they were to reach the level of affluence of the average American, it would take more than 4 planets worth of resources to support a global American-style middle class.  And that is not to say that material abundance is the only measure of a society’s greatness.  A society could also be judged by its sense of morality or spiritual development.  But something has got to give.  Either we as a global village must come up with a more efficient way to produce the products that we in the more developed countries have grown accustomed to, or we must learn to live off of less.

What kind of world would our grandchildren and great-grand-children live in?  Would they live in a world that supports more material abundance than at present or less?  John Stuart Mill argued for the need for a steady-state economy, one where the material wealth of a society remained largely the same from generation to generation, but the intellectual, spiritual, and moral development of the society could be improved with each new generation.  Such a society would be focused on artistic, scientific, or philosophical endeavors.  Such a society would care about pollution, disease, famine, poverty, and strife.  Such a society necessitates secularism.  It is no coincidence that the happiest and healthiest nations on the planet are also the most irreligious.  Not to mention that these countries boast the lowest crime rates, and the highest quality of life and life expectancy on Earth.  If our society is to progress morally, we must do it without the superstition and dogma of theistic religions.