Four Giants of Modern Humanism

By | April 25, 2015

Four Figures of Humanism’s Recent Past

Nineteenth Century:   Precursors of Secular Humanism

Charles Darwin’s work (Origin of Species, Descent of Man) changes the playing field for non-theists and naturalistic perspective on biological sphere. There is no longer a need to defer to those who pointed to design in nature as evidence that life could not have arisen and evolved naturally.  Darwin’s work can be seen as giving a strong basis for an all-round humanistic philosophy common to advocates of  free thought, religious skeptics,  and non-theists.

Robert Ingersoll’s strong promotion of free thought and strong criticism of religious fundamentalism in his very popular lectures throughout the USA  instructed and entertained thousands.  Ingersoll merits the title “the great Agnostic”  and surely can be seen as a great precursor of humanist philosophy and thought, as he presents entertaining critiques of Biblical Christianity and strong advocacy of science and reason.

Twentieth Century Advocates of Humanism

Humanism in the US:  John Dewey, whose pragmatic, naturalistic philosophy, advocacy of intelligence in society, of due attention to the sciences, and promotion of education as key to a successful society, all are the basis for humanistic perspective.   Dewey rejects abstract, systematic philosophies in favor of a pragmatic philosophy that serves social and human needs.

Humanism by a British Philosopher:  Bertrand Russell’s strong criticism of theistic religion and his constant advocacy of science and reason are also seen as promoting secular humanism in Britain and the USA.  His collection of essays, “Why I am not a Christian” express a strong secular stand against traditional religion.  His life of activism and stands for social-political freedom and his opposition to his country’s war policies can also be seen as models for humanistic activism.


Charles Darwin is centrally important in the development of scientific and humanist ideas because he first made people aware of their place in the evolutionary process when the most powerful and intelligent form of life discovered how humanity had evolved. The theory of evolution by natural selection was first put forward by Darwin in On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, and his theory is still generally accepted as the best available explanation of the way life on this planet developed.

It is hard to exaggerate the influence that Darwin’s work, Origin of the Species (1859)  had on Western thought.  With effective arguments for evolution of all life forms from common ancestry and the theory of natural selection, Darwin and his colleagues effectively revolutionized the biological sciences and a good part of general Western thought.   Harold Y. Vanderpool remarks concerning the “the power and scope of the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution on the Western Intellect.”

Darwin and Darwinists created a veritable revolution that profoundly influenced existing presuppositions about man, religion, the natural world, social institutions, and even the fundamental presupposition that change is a permanent aspect of human life and institutions.

(Darwin and Darwinism (Revolutionary Insights concerning Man, Nature, Religion, and Society).  Edited and Introduction by Harold Y. Vanderpool)

Robert Ingersoll as a 19th Century Socrates?

Since he did not write books, although many of his lectures were published after his death and  are available, we could compare Ingersoll to Socrates in this respect.  Socrates carried on his philosophy in the public square, directly engaging Athenians in dialogue.  In an analogous way, Ingersoll, the great orator,  took his Free Thought philosophy to the public arena, delivering very successful and popular lectures to large crowds and also engaging in dialogue and debate with all comers.

Traveling across the continent when most Americans did not, he spread his message not only to urban audiences but also to those who had ridden miles on horseback to hear him speak in towns set down on the prairies of the Midwest and the rangelands of the Southwest. Between 1875 and his death in 1899, Ingersoll spoke in every state except Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

Known as Robert Injuresoul to his clerical enemies, he raised the issue of what role religion ought to play in the public life of the American nation for the first time since the writing of the Constitution, when the Founders deliberately left out any acknowledgment of a deity as the source of governmental power. In one of his most popular lectures, titled “Individuality,” Ingersoll said of Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin:

They knew that to put God in the Constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship, or not to worship; that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man, and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality and liberty of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.

John Dewey is usually listed under American Pragmatism as one of three main proponents, along with __ Pierce and William James, but his contribution to goes beyond his pragmatism.  Dewey is one of those philosophers who recognized the importance of the sciences, including Darwin’s evolutionary science, to any contemporary philosophy.

Contemporary philosophers like Sydney Hook and Richard Rorty considered Dewey’s philosophy as vital to an understanding of the role and function of philosophy in contemporary society. Basing himself on the relevant findings of the sciences, he developed a humanistic philosophy focusing on a call for intelligence in individual action and social policy, while shunning the grand speculative metaphysics and idealism prevalent in much of traditional.

John Dewey was what we would call today a humanist activist. He was one of the original thirty-four signers of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933 and an honorary member of the Humanist Press Association, which was the predecessor to the American Humanist Association. With a wide range of works that were not only highly respected in academia but also influential in shaping American public policy and dialogue, Dewey is arguably the single most important public intellectual in the history of modern American humanism.


Philosopher, mathematician, academic, and campaigner for intellectual, social and sexual freedom, and peace and disarmament, Bertrand Russell was a prominent atheist. He wrote about his worldview in Why I am Not a Christian, and was a member of the British Humanist Association’s Standing Advisory Council, as well as President of Cardiff Humanists, until his death.

….He was a philosopher, an outstanding mathematician, a champion of intellectual, social and sexual freedom, a pioneer of new ideas in education, and a writer.  ..  Fundamental to his work in formal philosophy was the idea that beliefs should be based on evidence and logical procedures. He applied this idea to his philosophy of life. From about the age of fifteen he became deeply concerned with questions like the existence of god, for which he could find no evidence. At the age of eighteen he became an atheist. He found it a great relief to be free of some of the fears and dogma surrounding religion. He became aware of many instances where religious beliefs opposed humanitarian and scientific progress. Looking at the suspicion, fear and persecution arising from religions over the centuries, Russell came to believe that religious practices have done more harm than good. In his book Why I am Not a Christian, he says that “religions are both harmful and untrue.” When he was asked, in a famous radio debate, how he could explain the existence of the universe, his reply was, “I should say the universe is just there, and that’s all.”


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