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Sermons: “The Humanist In Me

I have come to discover that what most people know about humanism they learned from the lips of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other televangelists. It is a shame that this is so, but it is. One key leader of the religious right, Tim LeHaye, wrote an immensely popular book years ago about humanism that has probably been read by more people in this country than the works of humanist writers Bertrand Russell and John Dewey put together. Let me share with you what lots of people know, or think they know, about humanism, as explained by LeHaye in his popular book entitled The Battle for the Mind. A few excerpts will do:

Humanism is not only the world’s greatest evil but, until recently, the most deceptive of all religious philosophies. They are committed to doing away with every vestige of the responsible moral behavior that distinguishes man from animals.

Humanist politicians permitted Russia to conquer the satellite countries of Europe and turn them into socialist prisons. [Humanist politicians prevented us from] win[ning] in Korea and Vietnam, and…they voted to give away the Panama Canal.

No humanist is qualified to hold any governmental office in America—United States senator, congressman, cabinet member, State Department employee, or any other position that requires him to think in the best interest of America. Humanists work untiringly to keep parents from injecting any moral ideals into their children. Believe it or not, their goal is a worldwide generation of young people with a completely amoral (or animal) mentality.

The incidence of rape has doubled in the last decade. An incredible increase in promiscuity, premarital sex, trial marriages, [STD’s], abortions, and so forth has soiled our social fabric. These immoral expressions of amorality can be laid right at the door of the atheistic, amoral humanism that permeates our country.

The book continues in this vein, on and on with invective against humanism. Since I think you probably get the idea, mercifully, I’ll end the quotes here.

I had thought, before reading that book, that humanism was a small, esoteric group of deep thinkers with high ideals, but certainly not very powerful. Apparently, humanists have been busier than I had imagined. Now I discover from Mr. LeHaye that they have been busy spreading STD’s and abortions, and—to add insult to injury—they gave away the Panama Canal!

I have been associated with humanist groups since I was in college. For most of that time, it has been my experience that humanists have been frantically and, for the most part, unsuccessfully, trying to get their message out to the public at large. What they couldn’t achieve, the religious fundamentalists did. Today, humanism has name recognition far beyond the wildest dreams of humanists in past generations. They have achieved the status of a household word. The name is heard on the evening news, and mentioned from some pulpits about as often as the Bible, and it is standard fare for letters-to-the-editor. None of this, of course, was their doing. No amount of money could have purchased the widespread publicity, however inaccurate, that they received. And they owe it all to the religious right.

For the record, humanism is not just the whipping boy of the religious right wing in this country. It was not simply created for the benefit of televangelist fundraisers, to help put the fear of God into their potential contributors. No, humanism is an ancient tradition, tracing back over the centuries to the early Greek thinkers.

Those Greek thinkers, people like Socrates and Aristotle, identified human reason as far more powerful and effective than superstition, and urged civilization away from reliance on magical and supernatural understandings of life. In 1933, Harvard church historian J.A.C.F. Auer offered the following definition of humanism in his book, Humanism States Its Case: “Humanism is a system of thought which assigns predominant interest to [human] affairs as compared with the supernatural or the abstract, and which believes that [human beings are] capable of controlling those affairs.”

Like most of us, I first encountered the word “humanism” when studying the Renaissance period of history, when the great writers, artists, and scientists of our civilization turned their attention away from the heavens and discovered human beings in a new light. The scientific explorations of the Enlightenment added to the momentum of humanism by offering the scientific method as a new standard for evaluating truth; as a new measure for testing human knowledge.

My own understanding of contemporary humanism came in high school by reading the writings of Bertrand Russell. This exceptional thinker represents, I think, much of the best of the humanist tradition: a thirst for knowledge, a commitment to justice, and an unswerving optimism about the progress of humanity. His one-page summary of his life, which introduced a 700-page autobiography, captures for me the spirit of humanism as it can be lived in real life. For those who think humanism has to be painless, I recommend the opening sentence:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of [humanity]

As a teenager, when I encountered the humanist philosophy exhibited through the writings of Russell, and later, John Dewey, this fresh approach appealed to me deeply. Some might say that I was corrupted through my reading of humanist writings in general and Bertrand Russell in particular. It feels far closer to the truth for me to say that I was “liberated” by them.

Humanism is not a particularly complicated idea. It is not a set of beliefs so much as it is a set of commitments. It means holding concern for this-worldly matters rather than other-worldly matters and being committed to that which improves the human condition in this world.

Today, I find my link to the humanist view reinforced most strongly whenever I am asked to lead a memorial service for someone who has died. It is at these times that I understand most clearly that the life we live here and now is what counts most profoundly, and that our speculations about “other world” issues have little more significance than that—speculations.

Let me offer one more description of the humanist view. One of the better summaries I found is in an unsigned pamphlet that was used by the Humanist Association I belonged to for many years in Portland, Oregon. It said this:

Humanism is non-dogmatic and open-ended. It is the belief that human beings are the source of meaning and values. It is a scientific search, self-correcting and open to change with new knowledge and new insights. Humanism is deeply concerned with ethics and values, but rather than telling people what they should or should not do, it assists their search for values and attempts to help them achieve their full positive potential as human beings. Humanists see humanity as having the capacity for continued growth and development, and they accept responsibility for encouraging that growth.

On the surface, this sounds suspiciously like Unitarianism, does it not? Well, it should, because Unitarians and humanists do, of course, have a great deal in common. It is not just a surface similarity. As a matter of fact, humanism—as an organized movement in the United States—began within Unitarian churches.

In the opening years of this century, John Dietrich, a Unitarian minister in Spokane, Washington and later in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was preaching a non-theistic religion he called “humanism.” In Des Moines, Iowa, a Unitarian minister named Curtis Reese was preaching a non-theistic religion he called the “religion of democracy.” When these two met at a conference in 1917, they discovered the similarities of their messages and Reese eagerly adopted Dietrich’s label, “humanism.”

Throughout the l920s, the humanist view attracted many followers in the denomination. Eventually, the Humanist Fellowship was formed, largely by Unitarians at the University of Chicago. This group later reorganized as the American Humanist Association. In 1933, a statement outlining the philosophy of humanism was published under the title, “A Humanist Manifesto.” Of the 84 people who originally signed the document, over half were Unitarian ministers. The most famous signatory, though, was John Dewey, the philosopher, who was then at Chicago, and later at Columbia University.

In considering my own views, I must also consider the relationship of humanism and Unitarianism. I am a humanist and I am a Unitarian Universalist. I have been a humanist longer than I have been a Unitarian Universalist. Like many others, when I discovered the Unitarian church, I found that my humanist thinking was not only compatible here, it was welcome. This was a delightful surprise to me, as it has been for many, many others.

Is there a difference, then, between Unitarianism and humanism? Humanism as a movement, I have tried to show, is deeply rooted in Unitarianism. It is also fair to say that Unitarianism as an organized movement is historically rooted in the long-standing humanist traditions of the Enlightenment. As compatible and related as they are, though, I believe there are subtle differences in emphasis that ought to be recognized

One of the best statements of Unitarianism that I’ve seen that gets at the differences between Unitarianism and humanism is an article by Marvin Shaw, a Unitarian who is a professor of Religious Studies at Montana State University. The reason this is such an excellent statement is, of course, because Shaw agrees with me. He is saying something that I’ve been saying over and over for years until now I’m almost sick of saying it. Unitarianism is not about beliefs; it is about values. So, if you want to know about Unitarianism, if you want to know what it is about, don’t ask the question, “What do Unitarians believe?” That is not the proper question.

Here is what Shaw says:

The basis of unity in Unitarian Universalist churches and fellowships is not shared beliefs, but a common quest and the affirmation of the values necessary to its furtherance.

Our liberal religious societies are not based on agreement as to belief, but on agreement as to method. We agree in affirming the value of a free and wide-ranging inquiry in religious belief, and we vow to establish an atmosphere in which the religious quest is nurtured and encouraged.

This is about as good a summary of the Unitarian approach as I have seen. It is more important that we value freedom and respect for one another than it is that we value truth, or our own version of the truth.

This attitude or orientation that Unitarians share has its roots in the humanist tradition. Humanism, if it has taught anything, has taught the value of free inquiry, free thought, and freedom of belief.

But I see a subtle difference in emphasis on this between the Unitarian approach and the humanist approach.

It is common for Unitarians to summarize their values into these three words: freedom, reason, and tolerance. These are all words inherited from the humanist tradition: freedom, reason, and tolerance. The subtle difference in emphasis I see, though, is that in Unitarianism, the value of freedom takes precedence, and in humanism the value of reason takes precedence. This does not mean at all that Unitarians reject reason or that humanists reject freedom; rather, as I say, it is merely, and subtly, a difference of emphasis. Both approaches are highly compatible.

As a result, my experience of humanism, as it has evolved in the United States, is that it is less inclined than Unitarianism to incorporate a wide diversity of beliefs within its boundaries. And my experience of Unitarianism, as it has evolved, is that it is less inclined than humanism to require rational tests of acceptable beliefs within its boundaries. The risk involved for Unitarianism is that it seems to attract some flaky ideas and people. The risk involved for humanism is that it inhibits creative and imaginative ideas and people because they haven’t passed the litmus test of rationalism.

Let me give you an example. I would like to introduce you to three Unitarian friends of mine. I will call them Tom, Dick and Harry. Tom, Dick, and Harry represent somewhat extreme examples, but they do, I think, illustrate the point.

I think of Tom as kind of strange. I’m sure he thinks of me the same way. His ideas take him further afield of reality than I would ever dream of going. He loves to play with exotic fortune telling gizmos like the “I-Ching” and runes. These are not just games to him, they are life-enriching activities. He doesn’t really think they foretell the future or give sage advice, but he does find them intriguing enough to use in better understanding his life.

Tom has been “into” just about every psychological fashion that comes along. He’s taken his turn at pyramids and crystals, he knows about auras and daemons, and, of course, he is a strict vegetarian. Tom will share his explorations with me, if I ask, but he doesn’t insist that I try them, too.

Tom is also into Eastern religions, and if you visit his house, you’ll find a little Buddha stuck on top of a bookshelf. Tom spends a lot of time meditating in front of that Buddha.

Now let me tell you a bit about Dick. Dick is a Unitarian Christian.

He reminds me continually that all the early Unitarians were Christians, and he is true to that tradition.

Dick is, of course, a liberal Christian. He does not believe that Jesus was God or anything like that. He does not believe in such notions as the resurrection. But he does believe, and he will tell you about it if you ask, that Jesus’ teachings about how to live, about loving your neighbor, about serving the “least of these”—these teachings are the wisest teachings of any religion.

In this sense, Dick is a follower of Jesus, a Christian. He looks to the teachings of Jesus as his ethical guide, and the model of Jesus’ life as his spiritual guide. He does not believe the Bible to be literally true—to him, it is a historical document like any other—but he does find in the Bible inspiration and insight into life’s tough questions.

Dick is a member of the UU Christian Fellowship, an organization of Christian Unitarians that promotes Bible study and other Christian activities. When the UU Christians gather together, they share in a Christian communion service.

And then, of course, there’s Harry. Harry subscribes to what he calls “eco-spirituality.” When I’m in the mood to kid Harry, I call him a “tree-hugger.”

Harry looks to nature for the source of his spiritual sustenance. One of the definitions of humanism that I read earlier said that it is the belief that “human beings are the source of meaning and values.” Harry would say that is too limited. He does not distinguish humanity as separate from nature, so he would say that nature itself is the source of meaning and values.

Harry is a pantheist. He does not believe in a God separate from the world, but believes that God permeates the world and all of nature. All of existence is sacred and worthy of respect and reverence. A tree, a flower, a chipmunk are all expressions of the divine. Or so says Harry.

Albert Schweitzer liked to refer to his philosophy as “reverence for life.” Harry extends his reverence beyond the human realm, beyond the realm of living organisms, to a reverence for the entire system of nature.

Harry celebrates the turning of the seasons and the phases of the moon—the solstices and equinoxes—as a part of his religious rituals. Harry considered joining the group called the “Covenant of U.U. Pagans,” but the word “pagan” disturbed him, even if his ideas were similar to theirs.

I tell the story of Tom, Dick, and Harry—all Unitarians—to illustrate the subtle differences I see between Unitarianism and humanism. Neither Tom, Dick, nor Harry are typical Unitarians, but they fall easily within the Unitarian boundaries because they share the same values, though not the same beliefs, of other Unitarians. None of them believes that their way is “the right” way. Nor do they think that others must believe as they believe. All of them respect reason, and though their beliefs are not “rationalistic”—that is, they don’t hold that their beliefs have been proven by the scientific method—neither do they think that they are irrational, that their beliefs have been proven false.

Freedom, reason, and tolerance. In Unitarianism, the primary value is freedom, and therefore Tom, Dick and Harry fall within the boundaries of Unitarianism, just as most humanism does as well. Freedom is primary, reason secondary. But for humanism as I’ve experienced that movement, the primary emphasis is given to reason over freedom, and generally Tom (the meditating Buddhist), Dick (the liberal Christian), and Harry (the eco pantheist) would fall outside the boundaries of humanism.

Let me distinguish in a different way between the priority of beliefs on one hand and priority of values on the other. I myself am a humanist because in my own beliefs, for my own religious journey, reason takes priority. I am a Unitarian because, in a broader context than my own, the value of freedom takes priority for me.

I must confess that my life is enriched by my association with Tom and Dick and Harry. I do not, nor do I think I ever could, subscribe to their religious beliefs. The humanist in me holds reason too highly to accept their world-views. But my own journey in life is enhanced by knowing them and discussing issues with them and even arguing with them. The Unitarian in me prizes freedom too highly to exclude them from my religious circle.

The humanism I have described today is not all of me. There is more to me than just that. This sermon is the first installment in a series. Next week we will hear about “The Theist in Me,” and the following week, “The Christian in Me.”

The humanism I present this morning is explicitly a religious approach to humanism. It should be acknowledged that there is an abundance of schools of humanism—religious and secular, atheistic and theistic, and so forth. The humanism in me is of the religious sort, meaning that it provides for me a statement of meaning which can guide my life. This is the approach to humanism advocated by John Dewey, one of the “saints” of humanism.

His credentials are, I hope, impeccable. In 1984, the year after he signed the Humanist Manifesto, he published a wonderful little book called A Common Faith. In this book, Dewey distinguishes between “religion” (which he describes as a specific set of beliefs, and which he doesn’t like) and “religious” (which is a specific quality of experience, and which he does like). His thesis is that there is a religious dimension to human experience whether or not one holds the beliefs of any specific religion. Dewey speaks out strongly against “religion” as an institutional force, but he urges us to embrace the religious quality of human experience in our lives, with or without a formal religion to go with it.

Here is the way in which he describes humanism as religious:

The sense of dignity of human nature is as religious as is the sense of awe and reverence when it rests upon a sense of human nature as a cooperating part of a larger whole…Understanding and knowledge also enter into a perspective that is religious in quality. Faith in the continued disclosing of truth through directed cooperative human endeavor is more religious in quality than is any faith in completed revelation.

Any activity pursued on behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and enduring value is religious in quality.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

For more information contact worshipweb@uua.org.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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