Humanist, The Spirit of a Humanist
Rev. Paul D. Daniel
Humanism is one of the most a prominent strand of Unitarian Universalism. It is a belief that we can create a moral and ethical framework for our lives through reason and rationality without a belief in a personal Deity or a higher power as a necessary source of wisdom. One might call this as a “science of morality”.
While most Unitarian Universalists are comfortable with such a faith this certainly puts us at odds with mainline and fundamentalists religions.
For some of then we are heretics and apostate which we have proudly embraces since the 16th century when we first rejected the trinity in favor of the unity of God and we question the divine nature of Jesus. Later in the early 19th century we went even further and embraced the Humanist Manifesto first created in 1933 with subsequent modifications in 1973 and 2003.
We do seem to get a rise out of fundamentalism when we are vocal and open about our humanism. Oh well, such is life. One 1980s leader of the religious right, Tim LeHaye, wrote a scathing book on Humanism entitled, The Battle for the Mind. Here are just a few examples of his vitriol: “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] winning in Korea and Vietnam, and…they voted to give away the Panama Canal.
Can you imagine that, and we did all that before breakfast!!
His rant continues, “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 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”.
Sounds a little like Joseph McCarthyism, doesn’t it? Wow, we UU humanists have certainly, been busy, spreading STD’s and abortions, and—to add insult to injury—we gave away the Panama Canal! Would that we were as powerful as religious fundamentalists would have you believe.
Apparently, what we religious progressives couldn’t achieve on our own, the religious fundamentalists did it for us. They put us on the map! They gave us name recognition! although mostly inaccurate! The religious right has been more successful in spreading the good news gospel of humanism then our own efforts at evangelism. There is no plot here. It was never in our plans to have religious conservatives become our minions.
People will want to know that humanism is not new but rather in fact, quite ancient, originating with 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.
More contemporaneously, in 1933, Harvard church historian J.A.C.F. Auer helped define modern 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.”
Rev. Bruce Cleary writes that “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.
An early 20th century UU pamphlet (author unknown) states “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 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.”
This notion feels very comfortable to we UUs since it part of our early faith. In the beginning of this century, UU ministers were preaching this non-theistic humanism. Throughout the l920s, the UU view of humanist attracted many followers which eventually morphed into the Humanist Manifesto in 1933, championed by John Dewey, the philosopher and educator.
The beauty and strength of our faith is that we can embrace many philosophies and religious perspectives without contradiction. At times, for example, we may identify as an atheist, agnostic and humanist. Perhaps you find yourself in a similar place. Humanism is deeply embedded in Unitarian Universalism. Cleary contends, “Unitarianism is not about beliefs; it is about values”.
Here is what UU professor Marvin Shaw writings that reflecting that view, “Unitarian and Humanism: 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.”
My truth is not necessarily your truth and that’s fine. What matters is that we respect each of our unique free searches for truth and meaning. Cleary say, “He sees a subtle difference in emphasis between a Unitarian approach to religion and the humanist approach. “UU seem to value freedom over the primary Humanists value of reason”. I see this as our Achilles heel. I see belief and freedom as necessary to our faith. Regardless of my perspective, both approaches are highly compatible and complimentary.
Whether we seek enlightenment in the mystical, or in prophesy, Eastern religions, Judaism or Christianity, nature or the Goddess we are open to differing individual paths to personal truth that may over time, contradict our own currently held beliefs. This is a freedom that UUs hold dear. When mixed with the rationality of a humanist we have all our bases covered. The union of these two perspectives allows us to welcome a spiritual diversity that leads us to grow larger and stronger in mind and heart….
Albert Schweitzer refers to this diversity as “reverence for all life.” We UUs may share the same values, though not always the same beliefs. There is no right and wrong here, no judgment except our own prejudice and closed-minded attitudes. As Francis David, one of our 16th century founders, said, “we need not think alike to love alike”. That notion caries no judgment just a recognition of differences along a spectrum of faith.
I believe, all UUs to varying degrees, respect reason and spiritual reverence. Unitarian Universalists hold that we are all enriched when we are exposed to a diversity of ideas and beliefs that open us to growth, change and new understanding. One of the foundations of both Unitarian Universalism and Humanism is the belief that revelation is always open to new meaning.
John Dewey said it this way, “there is a religious dimension to human experience whether 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.
In closing, I offer Dewey’s treatise, that being a humanist is 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 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 despite threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and enduring value is religious in quality.”
With that in mind all of we Unitarian Universalists are
Indeed, a people of faith because we honor the human experience, of mind, body and spirit, the totality of human life.
Let the religious conservatives and fundamentalists put that in their pipes and smoke it!!
Blessed be, Namaste!