ATLANTA - Looking out over America, humanists see lots of religious authority but little free thinking.
So when the 55th annual American Humanist Association (AHA) convention met here last weekend, they joked about preachers who decry a "secular humanist" conspiracy and dreamed of better days ahead for humanist ideas.
"When the leader of a humanist parade turns around to see who's following, there's often no one behind you," said Tom Malone, 37, a public-school teacher called "Atlanta's best-known atheist" by local newspapers.
Yet the humanist outlook "is such a powerfully positive force, it's almost impossible to stop its values from influencing our culture," said Mr. Malone, head of the Georgia AHA, who prefers to be known as the "best-known humanist."
"We have taken the scientific and rationalist part of humanism to its logical extension, so we reject supernaturalism," he said.
American humanists number fewer than 200,000 in groups such as the AHA, the Ethical Society or the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
Most of them are in the 210,000-member UUA, an international group of which 75 percent of its adherents are humanists. The AHA has 5,500 members who are among 10,000 subscribers to its magazine the Humanist.
Older humanists tend to join the AHA, while those who are younger or with families go to UUA congregations.
"We have over 4 million registered humanists all over the world, so stop telling people how small we are," Jean Kotkin of the Humanist Institute in New York said at the AHA business meeting.
Humanist organizations began forming in the United States in the 1930s. The Humanist Manifesto I was issued in 1933, its signers being half Unitarian ministers and half secular philosophers.
A second manifesto was issued in 1973. Its optimism about humanity and science was stated more cautiously in the light of two world wars and totalitarianism, and its agenda focused more on minority rights.
Western humanism grew out of the Enlightenment, adopting its skepticism and science. In the United States, it also became influenced by New England "transcendentalism" and such notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson and psychologist William James. They added awe and creativity to humanism's cooler scientism.
Educator John Dewey, who died in 1952, was this century's best-known humanist, who influenced theories of public education and in his book "A Common Faith" he called for a secular, progressive society.
Among today's humanist luminaries are entertainer Steve Allen and the late Isaac Asimov, a scientist and former AHA president. Scientist Carl Sagan lends his name to the humanist cause, and many of its influential members are in the social sciences.
Many cultural critics have argued that the secular and scientific views, if not the humanist outlook itself, now pervade the courts, public education, the universities and the media.
Humanist leaders reject the conspiracy label stamped upon them by foes, but they acknowledge the impact of their worldview on intellectual elites.
"Humanism is very intellectually based," said Benjamin Wade of Massachusetts. "You could say that most Americans, during the workweek, think humanistically. But on Sunday they're traditional again. I don't think Americans have crossed that no-man's land into what I would call being intellectually free."
Edd Doerr of Silver Spring, the AHA president who attends the Piney Branch UUA, champions the broadest definition of humanism. …