The Once and Future Humanist Institute

By Tapp, Robert B. | The Humanist, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

The Once and Future Humanist Institute


Tapp, Robert B., The Humanist


Those who hold minority philosophical views--including North American nontheistic, naturalistic humanists--have traditionally been prone to disagree with all who don't think exactly like themselves. Thus, the varied trajectories of modern humanism freethought, free religion, liberal religion, Ethical Culture, religious humanism, and secular humanism) are strewn with factionalism and personal feuds. The ability to compromise, adjust, negotiate, synthesize, or even empathize has often been woefully absent--resulting in conflict within and between various humanist institutions.

In an effort to offer an antidote to such splintering, the North American Committee for Humanism was established in 1982. On its founding board were humanist leaders affiliated with the American Ethical Union; the American Humanist Association; the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (now the Council for Secular Humanism); the Fellowship of Religious Humanists (now Friends of Religious Humanism), an affiliate of the Unitarian Universalist Association; the Humanist Association of Canada; and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. NACH's first project utilizing this united effort was the establishment of the Humanist Institute, which enrolled its first class in 1984.

Although the institute was committed to the task of training new humanist leaders for the future, current leaders sometimes joined the classes--their presence helping to develop the nascent curriculum. Gradually, the institute broadened its purposes to include the training of humanists not necessarily seeking an identifiable humanist career but simply wanting to become more effective humanist voices.

The founding dean of the institute was Howard Radest, who served at that time as director of the Ethical Culture Schools in New York City. Humanist Institute classes met in Manhattan through the hospitality of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Radest mentored the first class and began the construction of what would be an intensive course o study. The ongoing dialectic among students and faculty helped shape topics for the second- and third-year curricula.

As the institute evolved, new mentors were added, being paired to achieve balance regarding gender, philosophical approach, and organizational background. The institute was further strengthened by an adjunct faculty made up of individuals who could help in teaching courses. This faculty held an annual colloquium, the papers of which were published in Humanism Today, the institute's annual journal. (There have been eleven volumes so far, covering such topics as education, science, aesthetics, the New Age phenomenon, the Enlightenment, and postmodernism. The next issue will be devoted to humanism and globalization.)

Academically, class readings were at the graduate level, and seminars principally involved Socratic dialogue as opposed to traditional lectures. Given NACH's mission to facilitate a bonding of humanists from varied traditions, the institute curriculum embraced the ideas of a wide range of freethought, liberal religious, religious humanist, and secular humanist forerunners.

From the outset, major attention was devoted to science as a source of humanist thinking. Students were expected to develop a working knowledge of frontiers of modern science as they affect society, and to evaluate various pseudosciences critically. They also became involved in critiquing contemporary attacks on science by postmodernists as well as the religious right.

Major sessions were also built around racism and gender issues, with the goal of cutting through simplistic solutions and helping students lead groups into more reality-based and sophisticated positions. …

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