Humanism at 100

Humanism at 100

Across a century of change, Humanism has continued to evolve.

Kris Willcox


On November 1, 2016, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis celebrated the 100th anniversary of the installation of the Rev. John H. Dietrich (1878–1957), kicking off a year of events celebrating Dietrich and contemporary humanism in its many forms. Dietrich has been called the father of Religious Humanism, and it was during his ministry, from 1916 to his retirement in 1938, that First Unitarian became known as the “Humanist pulpit.” The Rev. David Breeden, the congregation’s current senior minister and president of the UU Humanist Association, is among a long line of UU clergy to carry on Dietrich’s legacy at First Unitarian. Today, when Humanist values shape much of our secular culture and seem inextricably part of Unitarian Universalism, it’s easy to forget that the Religious Humanism of John Dietrich was—and still is—a radical notion.

“The bedrock belief of Humanism is that no human being should ever be treated as a means rather than an end,” says Breeden. It may sound simple, Breeden says, but “we must go way beyond tolerance if that’s really our commitment in the world.”

Contemporary Humanism encompasses a range of temperaments and organizational structures, including secular and religious Humanism. Some Humanists are aggressively allergic to religiosity while others find it quite comfortable. Breeden has offered the term “congregational Humanist” to describe those who opt for community that resembles a traditional congregation. Congregational Humanists include many UUs, as well as Ethical Society members, Sunday Assembly goers, and nontheistic members of other faith communities. There are also secular Humanists whose only affiliation might be going to a meeting of the American Humanist Association or who have no affiliation at all. While a majority of UU Humanists identify as atheists or agnostics, religious Humanism does not formally exclude or oppose theism; it simply prioritizes present human concerns and actions. Dietrich himself found both terms too restrictive, writing in 1928:

Atheism, I believe, is properly used as a denial of God; and my attitude toward the idea of God is not that of denial at all; it is that of inquiry. I am entirely open-minded and not dogmatic toward the idea of God . . . [N]either do I call myself a theist. Theism involves a belief in a guiding intelligence which is working out some definite purpose, and as I look out upon the universe I see no evidence that the processes of nature are guided by a supreme intelligence aiming at a fore-planned result. But, mark you, I do not deny such intelligence.

The Rev. John H. Dietrich (1878–1957), a Unitarian,  is often called the father of Religious Humanism.

The Rev. John H. Dietrich (1878–1957), a Unitarian, is often called the father of Religious Humanism.

Courtesy of First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis

Dietrich was born near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and raised in the Calvinist tradition of the Dutch Reformed Church. As a seminary student, he raised eyebrows with his liberal approach to scripture. At his first congregation, St. Mark’s Memorial Church in Pittsburgh, Dietrich was a popular and charismatic preacher, but he upset wealthier members by modernizing the liturgy and introducing other changes. Dietrich’s critics accused him of being a Unitarian, and soon after his ejection from the Reform Church he accepted fellowship with the American Unitarian Association. As a Unitarian minister, Dietrich developed his ideas of a religion centered on human beings rather than God. In an article by British writer Frederick M. Gould, he encountered a term originated by German theologian Friedrich Niethammer (1776-1848) and which seemed the perfect descriptor for Dietrich’s own approach: “Humanism.”

‘We do a heck of a lot more good if we focus on the world as it is and do what we can.’

Dietrich drew large audiences in Minneapolis—so large that services had to be moved downtown to the Garrick Theater. Thousands more heard his sermons by radio. Dietrich, along with contemporaries the Rev. Curtis Reese (1887-1961) and Dr. Charles Potter (1885-1962), was at the center of an expanding Humanist movement emergent from American Unitarianism, which claimed roots in Western and Eastern tradition, from Renaissance theologians to Confucius. Dietrich saw Humanism not as a rejection of religion but a critical shift of emphasis, from a supernatural being to human beings, from the promise of an afterlife to the wonders and challenges of this one.

Though Dietrich did not see himself as taking up a side in a long argument, it would be disingenuous to tell the story of UU Humanism without mention of the struggle between theists and nontheists in our movement. The Rev. Amanda Poppei, senior leader of the Washington Ethical Society (co-affiliated with the American Ethical Union and the Unitarian Universalist Association) and vice president of the UU Humanist Association, says that by keeping us focused on static positions rather than deeper explorations of belief and practice, this “seesaw” is limiting for everyone. It reinforces stereotypes of “the older, cranky Humanist who just wants to go to lectures about science and doesn’t like the minister.”

“I’ve had people ask me if everyone in my congregation is cranky,” Poppei says, laughing. Far from it: “We’re a joyful, silly, goofy, reverent, wonder-filled congregation like any congregation,” where many have found Humanism to be “a beautiful articulation of their values and experience of the world.”

“I think we’re best when we are fully ourselves and when congregations can be fully themselves, so for the UU congregations whose fullest selves are more Christian or theistic in tone I think, ‘Rock on. Awesome,’” Poppei says. “I love our tradition in all of its variety. . . . There’s space for all of us.”

The Rev. Jake Morrill, senior minister of Oak Ridge UU Church and director of the UU Christian Fellowship, agrees. Humanism has been foundational in his personal journey: “I am a Christian because my Sunday school teachers at Tennessee Valley UU Church were the finest kind of Humanists, committed to honesty and liberation. They let me flower; through that process, I found God. So, in a way, all of my ministry was forged in the crucible of Humanism.” Morrill believes that diverse beliefs within a congregation can and should “meet, engage, and sharpen each other.”

In his history of the Humanist movement in America, Making the Manifesto (Skinner House, 2004), the Rev. Dr. William Schulz reflects that time and experience have taught Humanists, often painfully, about the limits of science and the capacity for human cruelty. In the first Humanist Manifesto, penned in 1933, as well as in many of Dietrich’s early sermons, God appears to have been replaced by an unquestioning faith in the potential of “men” and science. Early Humanism bore a likeness to theism in its anthropocentric worldview and belief in linear human progress, powered by science and reason, observes Breeden. Today, he says, our understanding of science and the human condition have changed: “We’re going to keep striving and we have to keep striving,” but “there is no goal of the universe. . . . We do a heck of a lot more good if we focus on the world as it is and do what we can.” He adds that “if we are going to treat people as ends in themselves, this must be a cultural and political commitment.” Just how that commitment is expressed is one of the subjects explored in Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism, a new collection of essays from Skinner House.

Historian Mason Olds wrote that Dietrich’s personal theology “evolved through several stages, from a respectable orthodoxy in the Reformed Church to a Humanism so radical that it took the Unitarians years to decide whether they were sufficiently liberal to contain it.” As Dietrich would refine his own theology to the very end of his life, UU Humanism today is an unfolding work. Across a century of change, it has been enlarged by challenging ideas like liberation theology and feminist thought, scientific breakthroughs and seismic cultural shifts. It has been humbled by human failures and learned to make room for doubt and awe while holding to Dietrich’s belief that responsibility and possibility in human life are located here and now, within us. And it is one of Humanism’s earliest and most radical propositions that propels it forward: that the world can only bend toward love and justice when shaped by human hands.


In the print version of this article, the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz was identified without his doctorate.