Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 2: Time Line of Reason as a Source of Religious Belief

Reason can be described as "the mental capacity or power to use the human mind in reaching and establishing truth." Reason has played an important role in religion since the Greek philosophers pronounced it a masterful principle of Creation, and human knowledge to be a result of the free exercise of reason. The Greek philosophers also contrasted reason with emotion, setting up a dichotomy that survives to this day.

The Greek word logos (logic) would eventually become associated with the Latin ratio, the root of the word "rationality." The Roman philosophers applied reason to ascertain morals in harmony with nature. Cicero wrote, "True law is right reason in agreement with nature."

Reason became a central theme during the Renaissance (the late 1500s to the late 1600s) and in the work of scientists and philosophers of the Enlightenment era which followed. Scientific-empirical methods of investigating questions about how the world worked valued evidence over dogmatic ideas. Galileo wrote, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means given us knowledge which we can attain by them."

Occurring on the heels of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation emphasized the "priesthood of all believers." Custom and tradition were challenged by new discoveries, and freedom of the mind and freedom of conscience became hallmarks of a widespread revolt against authoritarianism. This raised another dichotomy that survives today in religion: reason vs. revelation. Some thinkers suggested that if central truths were derived from reason alone, then basic rational inquiry should lead to conclusions that are universal. Others went further, suggesting there really was no basis for Divine revelation at all.

Philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) accepted Divine revelation as a source of religious truth, but understood reason to be an important and necessary source of determining truth. Truth took priority over revelation; that is, reason should be applied to revelation.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) wrestled with the problems of deriving morality and religious principles from reason in two books, Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788). Kant concluded that due to the limits of human reason, rational or scientific thought alone was insufficient to completely understand the great problems of metaphysics—freedom, immortality, the existence of God. To Kant, the empirical or experiential is as important as the rational or scientific. When we reach the limits of human reason or scientific data, we must choose the beliefs that best facilitate our ability to be moral persons.

Through the 17th and 18th centuries, there was also a growing embrace of humanism, a viewpoint found in both philosophy and religion that emphasizes human values, worth and achievement, and which is sometimes contrasted with a theological viewpoint that gives God the place of supreme value. Early strains of humanistic thought can be found in Deism, perhaps most famously articulated in Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason (1794, 1795, and 1807). Classical Deism holds that knowledge of God comes through reason rather than revelation, and that God had no further involvement in the world after Creation. Humans, therefore, have a special responsibility and role in the course of historical events and personal salvation.

In the 18th century, American revivals (the two Great Awakenings) emphasized emotionalism in religion. In response to the revivals, those who valued reason in religion as a way of understanding God and discerning right from wrong began to clearly argue for reason rather than emotion as the basis of religious understanding. In the same period, John Wesley (1703-1791) articulated four different sources that led to theological conclusions: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. In this view, scripture includes the word of God, the Bible; traditions of the church are based upon this; reason is granted to humans from God; and with all these things in place, humans then experience God's love. Religious experience, then, was a product of the revealed word of God, the historical church, and human reason.

The Foundational Role of Reason in the Development of Unitarian Universalism

In 1819, William Ellery Channing called for the use of reason in interpreting the scriptures.

In 1866, the Free Religious Association (FRA) was established by several disenchanted Unitarians and others, to, according to their constitution, "promote the interests of pure religion, to encourage the scientific study of theology, and to increase fellowship in the spirit." Surviving into the 20th century, members of the FRA were amongst the earliest humanists in the Unitarian tradition.

In 1887, the Unitarian Western Conference adopted a statement of faith, Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us, by William Channing Gannett. The statement was meant to soothe a growing divide between Unitarians who saw their religion based in Christian theism, and those who sought a broader understanding and definition of Unitarianism. The statement includes the assertion, "We hold reason and conscience to be final authorities in matters of religious belief."

In raising these human attributes—reason and conscience—to the level of "final authority," the groundwork was laid for humanism to be a major force within Unitarianism, Universalism, and ultimately Unitarian Universalism, in the 20th century. Early proponents included John Dietrich (1878-1957) and Curtis Reese (1887-1961). Religious humanism, as understood in 20th-century Unitarian circles, valued the insights of science, sought the reformation of traditional religious beliefs and practices, and rejected any supernatural God. While humanism maintained these values, its development was not static, and can be followed in such statements as Humanist Manifesto I (1933), Humanist Manifesto II (1973), and Humanist Manifesto III (2003). Find links to each of these statements in Find Out More.

In 1936, the Unitarian Commission of Appraisal summarized areas of theological agreement among Unitarians, affirming that the "safest guide to truth is human intelligence." In 1937, Sophia Lyon Fahs became Children's Editor for "The New Beacon Series". The series, published by Beacon Press but used for several decades by both Unitarians and Universalists, brought a natural humanist philosophy to children's religious education, emphasizing children's first-hand experiences with the universe and engaging them in asking and answering their own religious questions.

Reason and humanism continue to be key elements of Unitarian Universalist faith.