What Do UU Humanists Believe?

FEBRUARY 7, 1999
Rachel Tedesco, Student Minister

As probably every Unitarian Universalist teenager knows, the 1960’s were the height of the civil rights and anti-war movements in this country and a time of great turmoil and questioning of authority. These movements were led and supported by many religious groups and individuals. For those of you who were alive and aware then, just think of Father Robert Drinan and Rev. William Sloane Coffin, as well as the Berrigan brothers in the anti-war movement. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the civil rights movement, as well as the many clergy from all over the country who went to the March on Selma, Alabama. However, another impact of these tumultuous times was the questioning of religious authority and a turning away from traditional religions. Many of us baby boomers looked for alternative religions or rejected religion altogether. Many were drawn to Humanism—whether of the religious or secular variety. Many of us didn’t know much about Humanism in its more modern form, since what we learned in high school or college dated back to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

The impact of this renewed interest in Humanism three decades ago is reflected in the "Fulfilling the Promise" survey, which was answered by nearly 10,000 Unitarian Universalists –a truly amazing number! Of these, 46% declared themselves Humanist in their theology. (It should be noted that several respondents checked off more than one theology, since the percentages add up to 112%. We do have trouble following the rules, don’t we?) I was interested to note that the second place winner was "earth/nature-centered theology," at a far distant 19%.

Certain questions occurred to me while I studied the results of this survey. What did the respondents mean when they checked off "Humanist"? Was there much agreement among them? It is, after all, a rather imprecise philosophy or religion (people call it both), which allows for a rather broad range of beliefs. Are they members of some Humanist organization, such as the Friends of Religious Humanism, an affiliate organization of the Unitarian Universalist Association? Or do they just define themselves as Humanists because they’ve heard or read something about it? I wondered if the respondents are aware of the history of religious humanism, both inside and outside our denomination, going back over 130 years to the founding of the Free Religious Association.

Of course, we can’t know what was in the minds of these people unless we do another survey! We only know their demographics: mostly white, middle-aged women who are active lay members of their congregations. But we can make some educated guesses, knowing what we know about the diversity of UUs. There must be all sorts of humanists among us: secular humanists and religious humanists; political radicals, liberals and Libertarians, even some who are essentially apolitical, but who work to improve the lives of other people through the helping professions or volunteer work. I also suspect that much more than 42% of us would say we were humanists as well as something else—although Humanism may be second or third on our list. After all, the Humanist philosophy permeates our UU principles.

So what do we mean by Humanism? Even a liberal philosophy or theology needs some defining or unifying beliefs, although not everyone need agree on every point. I recently read Humanism As the Next Step, an interesting book by Lloyd and Mary Morain, which sets forth the principles of Humanism in plain language. This was published in 1998 by the publishing house of the American Humanist Association, located in Amherst, New York. The AHA is loosely affiliated with the UUA.

Humanism As the Next Step summarizes six points of general agreement among humanists:

    1. Humans are, in every respect, a part of nature. They are a natural product of evolutionary processes.
    2. We humans, like all other living things, must rely upon ourselves, upon one another, and upon nature. There is no evidence that we receive support or guidance from any immaterial power with whom we might imagine we commune.
    3. We are able to meet the challenges of life in constantly more satisfying ways provided we are able to make fuller use of our capacities.
    4. The meaning of life is that which we give to it. Happiness and self-fulfillment for oneself and others are richly sufficient life goals.
    5. Moral codes are made by humans. Values and ideals grow out of the experience of various cultures, societies, and individuals.
    6. The supreme value is the individual human being. Each person, of whatever race or condition, merits equal concern and opportunity. Laws, governments, and other institutions exist for the service of men and women, and are justifiable only as they contribute to human well-being.

The authors continue, "Believing in the capabilities of humans to solve their problems, having confidence in the scientific method, in experience, in knowledge, and in the natural creative processes of the universe, the humanist feels that human kind can successfully make better todays and build toward a better tomorrow." (page 28-29)

Humanists reject any dogma or creed and the authority of traditional religion or divine revelation. Their focus is on the value of human beings, both as individuals and collectively, as the human race. Underlying Humanism is an evident optimism about the perfectibility of people and society, although this has been tempered by wars, the rise of nationalism and fascism and other horrors of the 20th Century.

I’d like to focus on another organization within our own denomination, the Friends of Religious Humanism, which was founded in 1963 and which shares an address with the American Humanist Association in Amherst, New York. Its purpose is "to keep alive the religious element in humanism and the humanist element in liberal religion." There are some members who aren’t UUs, but many who are, including a number of ministers and theologians. "Its practical purpose," as put forth in the UUA’s Annual Directory, "is to organize conferences and to provide publications for people who seek to interpret the humanist outlook within the framework of Unitarian Universalism and beyond. FRH regularly presents three events at the UUA General Assembly." I attended a humanist workshop and picked up a copy of their publication, Religious Humanism, at the General Assembly in Rochester this past June.

To what extent do religious humanists believe in a supreme being? As far as I can gather, most don’t believe in one. There are exceptions, including one of the founders of humanism, John Dietrich, who in his later years came back to a believe in something more transcendent than humanity alone. However, I think the following is more representative of Humanist views. It is written by Robert M. Price, a former minister and a professor of New Testament and Biblical Criticism at Drew University, who grew up a fundamentalist Baptist and gradually because a UU and a humanist.

"Religion came to seem to me basically a matter of drama and theater. That is not to denigrate it. Rather, to see it as theatrical is to explain why it is so powerful, like an engrossing film or play that leaves the viewer changed. But this means that religion is nothing more than a creation of human imagination. As such it still fascinates me. … I look to philosophy for a deeper understanding of the world. Religion now seems to me a kind of nursery school for philosophy." (Religious Humanism, summer/fall 1997, p. 94)

Rev. Barbara Child, another humanist UU and minister in Tampa, Florida , wrote: "My own way comes of what speaks to me profoundly both from the teaching of Taoism, a religion without a God, and from some of the stories in the Hebrew Bible and the parables of Jesus in the Christian Bible, books written by people for who God was the most central concept of all. My way comes also from the wisdom I find in a wide range of contemporary writers, some of whom do not mention God and some of whom do. In short, whether someone is a theist or not doesn’t matter to me. But I hope I always have around me people whose beliefs differ widely. Pluralism does matter to me utterly. With Tom Owen-Towle I believe that "religion is a covenantal adventure." (First Days Record: A Journal of Liberal Religious Responses, Nov. 1998)

There is a recognition among religious humanists of a "religious factor that resides deep within humanist sensibility." Some find inspiration in the scriptures of traditional religions, while not taking them as authority in matters of belief or morals. "However, many stories attributed to Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Mohammed, Confucius or Jesus are humanistic in spirit and purpose. Whether or not the stories are true doesn’t necessarily matter so long as they serve as useful guideposts for some people." (Humanism As the Next Step, p. 33) Humanists don’t believe in the dualism of body and soul. In fact, most would discount such concepts as the soul and an afterlife as without evidence.

In most of the literature about Humanism, I found a great emphasis on individualism and self-determination, as well as a very upbeat and positive attitude toward solving problems and life in general. An attitude of "Just put your mind to it and you can do anything!" This strikes me, and some other people as well, to be rather elitist. Only people with some money, education and power—some control over their lives—can practice this form of humanism. As my professor of UU theology, Paul Rasor, summed it up, "Radical autonomy is a class privilege." There’s another brand of humanism which comes out of the black tradition. UU theologian and retired professor William R. Jones argues that black humanism arose out of the experience with slavery. Despite the stereotype of the black slaves and African Americans after slavery clinging to Christianity as a means of moral and spiritual support, many oppressed blacks rejected God altogether. For them, if this God of Christianity could turn a blind eye to the evils of slavery and racial oppression, then this God was not a loving God – or didn’t exist – or was powerless in the face of evil and was therefore irrelevant.

We should be aware that modern 20th Century Humanism really began in the early part of this century. I won’t go into great detail here. However, I will mention the names of the three founders and prominent spokesmen of the Religious Humanist movement, all Unitarian ministers: Curtis Reese, minister to the church in Des Moines, Iowa; John Dietrich, minister of Unitarian churches in Spokane and Minneapolis; and Charles Potter, minister at the time in Edmonton, Alberta. All three men came out of conservative Christian churches before converting to Unitarianism. Reese and Dietrich met at a Western Unitarian conference in 1917 held at Reese’s church in Des Moines and formed a humanist group soon after. Potter joined them later.

The movement gained momentum in 1920 when Reese addressed the Harvard Summer School of Theology. Harvard was the stronghold of the eastern, more conservative Unitarianism and his address caused quite a stir. It was subsequently published in the Christian Register, the principal Unitarian periodical of the time. His opening sentence characterized its spirit: "Historically the basic content of religious liberalism is spiritual freedom." Reese envisioned a religion "that would not be shaken even if the thought of God were outgrown."

The most famous statement of the Humanist position was "A Humanist Manifesto," which was published in 1933. Its beliefs were summarized in 15 propositions and the manifesto was signed by 34 men – but no women. Forty years later, this first manifesto was seen as na´ve, overly optimistic and outdated by many humanists. The Second Humanist Manifesto was drafted in 1973 and signed by 114 men and women, many of whom were prominent writers, professors, scientists, doctors, social activists and clergy, most of whom were UU ministers. It is a much longer, more fully developed document, which addresses many social, political and environmental problems. I think that much of it is still relevant 25 years later.

And what about the future of Humanism? It seems that the basic ideas of Humanism are being absorbed by the more mainstream liberal religions, as happened with other radical and cutting-edge movements of the past. It may be, as William Jones predicted in 1975, that theists and humanists are moving ever closer together, although where the boundary is between the two may be unclear. But, according to many UUs, our theological differences may be less important than our attitudes toward each other and actions in this world.

In case you are wondering where I stand, I consider myself an 85% Humanist. I reserve the other 15% for theologies I’m still working out in my head … and expect to do so for the rest of my life. They generally involve a more transcendent, mysterious creative force in the universe than Humanism acknowledges. Although I affirm a lot of Religious Humanism beliefs, I am uncomfortable with some of its inadequacies. First, I see too much of an emphasis on the rights of the individual and not enough on the need to support each other in community, to be flexible as individuals and to compromise these rights sometimes for a greater good. Secondly, I find the concept of the supreme being as humankind itself or as the collection of our highest values and ideals to be less than satisfying. Thirdly, the tendency to over-emphasis the scientific method and "data collection" as the way to discover truth seems awfully sterile and intellectual. That said, there is much to value in Humanism.

May the words and the spirit of the humanists inspire us to see the possible;
to imagine a world where all human beings are seen as part of one human family;
to imagine a world where we bring reason and intelligence, love and compassion to bear on all human problems;
to imagine a world where all children are raised to be altruistic and caring as well as self-respecting and self-sufficient, strong and healthy, imaginative and creative;
to imagine a world where no one is oppressed and where everyone has the freedom to make meaningful choices for themselves, to realize their potentials and to live full and satisfying lives;
to imagine a world where we apply our reason and skills to protect the natural environment, the great interdependent web of which we are a part;
and to imagine a world where we as the human race strive together to build a peaceful and prosperous world.