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Leader Resource 2: Reason and Unitarian Universalism
Material about reason in Unitarian Universalism today comes from “Engaging Our Theological Diversity,” the 2005 report of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal. Definitions of humanism come from William R. Murry’s Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2007).
Read or adapt this script for Activity 1, What is Reason?, to explain the importance of reason in Unitarian Universalism past and present.
Reason is a mental capacity that humans use to explore and understand the truth and meaning of the world. It is sometimes contrasted with authority, tradition, intuition, emotion, superstition, and faith. In 2005, the Unitarian Universalist Association's Commission on Appraisal conducted a study of our theological diversity, and found that while we agree that reason is a necessary part of religious exploration, we disagree as to whether reason is enough or whether we need to use other human capacities beyond reason.
Reason emerged as an important component of liberal religion in the 19th century, when scientific developments began playing a larger role in the way people understood the world. Nineteenth century Unitarians believed that God gave humanity reason so that we could understand right and wrong and use it to understand God and the world. In reaction to traditional Christianity, Unitarians said that the use of science and reason to question and theorize was more reliable than what they considered "religious superstitions." They also applied reason to studying the Bible and scriptures.
Today, Unitarian Universalists continue to value reason as a tool for inquiry and decision-making. However, they also value some of the capacities that reason is commonly contrasted with—faith, tradition, emotion, experience, and intuition. In fact, one could argue that reason is a tool used to verify Unitarian Universalist faith, to reflect on intuition and experience, and to act as the "wings" of Unitarian Universalist tradition. There are diverse perspectives within Unitarian Universalism about the importance of each of these concepts in religious life and this diversity is reflected in our Principles and Sources.
One of these Sources is "humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn against idolatries of the mind and spirit." Many Unitarian Universalists identify with humanism. There are many types of humanism—Christian humanism, Jewish humanism, Unitarian Universalist humanism, religious humanism, and secular humanism. Generally, humanism "refers to the affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person, a commitment to human betterment... the necessity for human beings to take responsibility for themselves and the world," and the use of critical thinking and reason for religious exploration (William Murry, Reason and Reverence). Humanists emphasize the importance of human life here and now in this world, rather than looking toward a heavenly realm. Religious humanism operates within a religious community and is "open to mystery and more likely to respond with reverence and gratitude at the wonder of being alive" (Murry, Reason and Reverence). There is a spiritual dimension to religious humanism and there doesn't need to be a conflict between humanism and spirituality. Early Christian liberal William Ellery Channing believed in intellect and reason as means of cultivating human goodness, and Joseph Priestley believed that human progress was made possible through human thinking and human efforts. During the 20th century, Unitarian Universalist humanists were instrumental in the development of three Humanist Manifestos, which articulate the basic humanist perspective. Today there are many Unitarian Universalist humanists, and humanism has deeply influenced Unitarian Universalist Principles, Purposes, and Sources.