Our humanist legacy

Seventy years of religious humanism.


God dies only for a few. Over time, God may well change form for many people, from personal to vague to immanent, from transcendent to omnipotent to limited. But in American culture, at least, God dies only for a few. “Whither is God?” cried Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman. “I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I.” But the people only stared in astonishment. “I come too early,” said the madman. “This tremendous event . . . has not yet reached the ears of man.” (And that was in 1882!) Even so, the madman’s cry has reached some ears in every generation since. And for those, the madman had a question: “Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of [God’s death]?” When God is gone, faith turns to humanity.

In the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century, some heard Nietzsche’s call and heeded Nietzsche’s question. Their story is the story of religious humanism, a religious movement that emphasized human capabilities, especially the human capacity to reason; that adopted the scientific method to search for truth; and that promoted the right of all humans to develop to their full potential. It is the story of a movement that sought to construct what the Rev. John Dietrich called a “religion without God,” shifting the focus of religious faith from divinity to humanity. Clergy and journalists, philosophers and scientists banded together, refusing to believe that human beings could not be saved and insisting that they themselves would be the instrument of salvation.

Perhaps in no denomination but Unitarianism, with its aversion to creeds and dogmas, could such a frankly nontheistic movement as religious humanism have arisen without provoking a schism, and even Unitarianism found itself hard pressed to encompass the new thought. For more than a decade, from 1916—when Dietrich and another Unitarian colleague, the Rev. Curtis Reese, began preaching “humanism” to their congregations—through the 1920s, Unitarians debated the merits of a strictly human centered, scientifically minded, ethically focused religion. The “humanist-theist controversy” that exercised the American Unitarian Association had largely abated by 1933, when a group of philosophers, Unitarian ministers, and other religious liberals issued “A Humanist Manifesto” to articulate a coherent statement of humanist principles. The Humanist Manifesto of 1933, the seventieth anniversary of which we celebrate this year, was consciously designed to encapsulate a religious faith, not just a philosophy of life, and for all its religious failings, it represented a heartfelt attempt to amalgamate intellectual integrity with religious expression.

But religious humanism is not just a matter of historical curiosity, at least as far as Unitarian Universalism is concerned. After all, 46 percent of Unitarian Universalists reported in 1998 that they regarded themselves as theologically humanist—more than twice the number who identified with the second most common perspective, nature-centered spirituality, and far more than the 13 percent who called themselves theists or the 9.5 percent who described themselves as Christians. And even those Unitarian Universalists who do not identify with the religious humanist category would be foolish not to realize that they, too, should pay it tribute, for it provides a set of values that are due honor to this day.

The truth is that a lot of nonsense passes for religion in this twenty-first century, as it has in all the preceding centuries. Religious humanism is willing to call a charlatan a charlatan, and while reason is by no means the only vehicle of religious exploration, we abandon it altogether only at our peril. Where would we who cherish the natural world be without religious humanism’s insistence that the world is a seamless garment and that we humans are a part of the weaving? When the Unitarian Universalist Principles revere the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” they hark back to that fundamental humanist point, the second point in the Manifesto, that human beings are “a part of nature” and have “emerged as the result of a continuous process.” Or consider religious humanism’s courageous faith that the future of the world is in human hands—not those of an angry God or inexorable fate. Humanism beckons us to believe that we can make a difference to history. This is the source of my own passion for social justice. In fact, human rights themselves, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are grounded not in the callings of the divine or the imperatives of natural law but in the common experience of human empathy transmogrified into a set of guidelines designed to effect a civilized world. Finally, what kind of people would Unitarian Universalists be without humanism’s generous contention that the blessings of life are available to all, not just the chosen or the saved, and that they appear not in the miraculous or extraordinary but in the simple dress of the everyday?

Religious humanism—particularly that version of it described by the 1933 Humanist Manifesto—has its limits. Indeed, what system of thought that is now seventy years old would not? Interestingly enough, religious humanism contained the source of its own surpassing within its faith stance. “Any religion that can hope to be a . . . dynamic force . . . must be shaped by the needs of [its] age,” the Manifesto proclaimed. There can be no doubt that the kind of religion the Manifesto advocated is now outdated. (Even die-hard humanists found a need to issue Manifesto ii in 1973, and earlier this year the American Humanist Association issued Manifesto III!) But what has supplanted it is still not entirely clear.

I was raised a third-generation Unitarian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by two Unitarian parents—but Unitarian parents of the very old school, theologically. My mother and I prayed together every night before I went to sleep, and my father believed that after death he would be reunited with his parents and other deceased family members in something resembling heaven.

At age eleven, inspired by the election of John F. Kennedy and the burgeoning civil rights movement, I became intrigued by politics and have remained so ever since. But in my junior year in high school, thanks to the influence of a brilliant, dramatic English teacher named Barclay Palmer (a former Olympic shot-put athlete for Great Britain and great-grandson of the founders of the Salvation Army), I discovered religious questions. The whys and the wherefores began to supplement, if not displace, my interest in the hows and the whats. Barclay introduced my classmates and me to debate about the nature of the human creature, of evil, of death, and of God. He taught us the Epic of Gilgamesh, Dante’s Inferno, and The Heart of Darkness. He quoted from satirist Jonathan Swift and ethologist Konrad Lorenz, as well as from Shakespeare, the Qur’an, and the Bible. He took on the tough questions that other teachers seemed to duck. Most of all, he appeared to live his life with a degree of intensity, pathos, and passion that I had never seen in anyone before. And he did all this while identifying himself as a religious person, albeit not a conventional one.

My association with Barclay made me realize that it was time to return to the Unitarian (now also Universalist) Church that I had abandoned when I dropped out of church school in third grade. It was time to see what this religion business was all about. For the next few years, I attended Sunday services every week, read about religion voraciously, and talked to as many clergy as I could corner. At the end of it all, I decided to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.

There was just one problem with my newly chosen profession: I didn’t believe in God. In fact, I didn’t believe in any of the religious things my parents did, such as prayer or heaven, and I really wasn’t very interested in the Bible. I was interested in religious questions but not in the typical trappings of their answers. Could I possibly make it in the ministry? A host of humanist ministers—including the minister of my home church in Pittsburgh, the Rev. Edward A. Cahill, and the minister I worked most closely with in college, the Rev. R. Lanier Clance (later the founder of the First Existentialist Church of Atlanta)—assured me that I could. The trick was to approach religion from the perspective of philosophy.

But a little philosophy, it has been said, is a dangerous thing. By the time I got to theological school, I was pretty well acquainted with the existential philosophers, and during my years at Meadville Lombard Theological School, the Unitarian Universalist seminary at the University of Chicago, I enrolled in as many philosophy courses and as few theology and Bible courses as I possibly could. I took particular interest in philosophy of religion, and at one time, I could recite, almost by heart, the refutations of each of Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God. My newfound erudition convinced me that there was not even one respectable intellectual argument for traditional Christian belief. “Aha!” I can still hear myself cry. “But can God create a rock that is heavier than God can lift?” Only a resort to unsubstantial faith could rescue a theist from annihilation at the hands of a philosopher. I loved the story of a conversation between a philosopher and a theologian in which the theologian remarked that pursuing philosophy was as frustrating as a blind person looking in a dark room for a black cat that is not there, and the philosopher retorted, “Yes, and if I were a theologian, I’d find the cat.” Such a retreat into irrationalism was not for the faint of heart. My classmates in theological school took to calling me “Bill, the Boy Humanist.” In 1973, when I was twenty-three, I was rewarded for my nontheistic sanctity by being invited to become the youngest original signer of Humanist Manifesto II.

It is hardly surprising, then, that when it came time to choose the topic for my doctoral dissertation, the movement that had spawned the 1933 Humanist Manifesto—its history, sociology, and philosophical underpinnings—held rapt appeal. Furthermore, six of the thirty-four signers were still alive in 1974; I could therefore create a living history, a work of some original research. I would set out in quest of elderly humanists! The six all received me graciously and told me their stories. (The result is my book, Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism.)

But over the course of my four years at theological school, two other developments in my life worked their ways with me. One was that I entered psychotherapy, and the other was that my family started dying. The result of the former was that I came to have a far deeper appreciation for the irrational in every form and a far greater access to my own feelings, limits, and yearnings than I had had before.

Much of the Manifesto’s humanism seemed pinched, even arrogant, and certainly too quickly dismissive of the vast realms of human experience that could not be reached by cognition alone. In a paradoxical kind of way, this type of rationalism seemed suitable only for the meek—that is, for those afraid to make the journey into the interior haunts of the unconscious, of guilt, passion, and pain. I knew from my experience with psychotherapy that the only way to get through emotional despair was to dive right into the midst of it, frightening as that might be. But humanism seemed to think (yes, that was the right word) that there might be a way around it.

For me, that confrontation with despair became most poignant in the quick succession of deaths of three of the five adults who had formed me as a human being, including my mother. An only child with but two remaining close blood relatives, I found the world a far more bleak and lonely place than the brave words of the Manifesto would allow: “Man will learn to face the crises of life in terms of his knowledge of their naturalness and probability. Reasonable and manly attitudes will be fostered by education and supported by custom.” While I retained great respect for early religious humanism after I had finished the dissertation and graduated from theological school, as indeed I do today, these experiences crystallized its limits for me.

Over the years, I have seen those limits ever more clearly, as the Manifesto implicitly predicted that I would. While the 1933 document had encouraged the “creative in man” and had proclaimed “nothing human [to be] alien to the religious,” it had also ardently insisted that “the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry” and that “religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.” One of the signers, Oliver Reiser, had captured the essence of this perspective perfectly in a parody of a prayer:

Thou Cosmic Movement, Cosmic Continuum! We petition thee to lend auditory discrimination to these, our laryngeal contractions. . . . May our cortical pathways always keep vigilance over our lower reflexes. May our endocrines not hypertrophy nor our hormones become toxic. . . . Increase our opsonic index. And though we walk through the valley of depressed metabolism, may we secrete no useless adrenaline.

Hard-edged, objective science could answer almost any question put to it. Werner Heisenberg had discovered his uncertainty principle in 1927, six years before the Manifesto was written, but quantum theory, with its profound implications for the limits of objectivity, had not yet gained the renown or acceptance it was to claim in later years. Yet challenges to the Manifesto’s presuppositions were easy to see.

If nothing human was truly alien to the religious, for example, then what are we to make of all the human experiences whose meanings could not be completely captured in scientific terms—dreams, for example, emotions, religious aspiration, wanton cruelty? And what are we to think of the animal world? Are even the greatest apes nothing more than automatons? Of course, all this could be reduced to physiological phenomena, as Roy Wood Sellars, the Manifesto’s original author, suggested they should be, but anyone who tried to capture the holistic significance of love or loyalty, guilt or grandeur, in terms of brain cell functioning alone could be rightly accused of displaying a pitiful paucity of imagination.

A brain-imaging machine called SPECT has recently been used to identify changes in the top-rear part of the cerebellum brought about by meditation. When it is deprived of sensory input, the so-called orientation area—the part of the brain that monitors where the self ends and the rest of the world begins—quiets down, and the individual is left with a feeling of being one with God or with the Cosmos. A traditional humanist might cite such research as evidence that the experience of God is illusory, but the evidence could just as easily be read to support the notion that the phenomenon of feeling one with the Whole is a profound reality with arguably beneficial side effects, the full meaning of which cannot be captured by intelligent inquiry alone. Surely, this is what poet Wallace Stevens was pointing to when he said that “the truth depends upon a walk around a lake.”

Science is by no means an enemy of imagination. As Alfred North Whitehead pointed out as early as 1929, science begins in wonder and is advanced through the audacity of intuition. But the humanists tended to be the practical sort, whose first question of any new scientific development was: And what can this do for us humans? This left them extraordinarily vulnerable when the answer came back: It can kill you. With the coming of the Second World War only a few short years after the Manifesto was published, the world would be reminded—in the form of the Nazi’s v2 rockets and efficient gas chambers, to say nothing of the Allies’ atomic bomb—that science and technology could foster massive amounts of destruction as readily as they could relieve human suffering. A few of the religious humanists had anticipated technology’s terrifying possibilities, but the general tenor of the movement, convinced as it was that salvation lay largely in molding nature to human needs, was unrestrained in its enthusiasm for technological manipulations and unprepared for the devastating consequences such manipulation could unleash.

That was, in part, because early religious humanism lacked a clear doctrine of human freedom—not political freedom, which it wholeheartedly endorsed, but free agency, what was traditionally called free will. Hence, it lacked an adequate understanding of evil. Indeed, it is curious that the Manifesto makes not a single mention of the human capacity for free choice. On the contrary, it seems to suggest a brand of cultural determinism in its affirmation that “man’s religious culture and civilization . . . are the product of a gradual development due to his interaction with his natural environment and with his social heritage. The individual born into a particular culture is largely molded to that culture.” If that is all there is to it, then the religion embodied in the Manifesto is little better than a product of cultural dictation. But quite apart from this confoundment, without a belief in some measure of free choice, the Manifesto was hard pressed to fully account for human evil. Not surprisingly, it had little to offer in the way of consolation from anguish. It tended to forget that religion was not just about insight but also about poetry, that culture was reflected not only in its worldview but also in its music.

In all my conversations with the signers of the Manifesto, none of them, except the Rev. Lester Mondale, ever talked about religion in terms of experience; they talked exclusively in terms of beliefs. But religion is also about longing and lament, laughter and light. As George Santayana put it, “Religion is the love of life in the consciousness of its impotence.” Moreover, it requires a resource suitable to the plight of Winnie the Pooh who, when stuck in the doorway of Rabbit’s house, made a simple request: “Would you be so kind as to read a Sustaining Book such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in a Great Tightness?” In large measure, humanism lacked such a “book.” It could explain Pooh’s plight—maybe even tell him how to extract himself from it. But humanism fell mute on those occasions when Pooh was good and truly stuck, in the face of evil and heartache and death, when the only response worthy of the occasion was to curse the human plight and be determined to dance nonetheless. While humanism gave a nod to art, it lacked an aesthetic sense; its language was crisp, but its rhythm was flat. It had little, if anything, to offer to those who brooked consternation before chaos or treasured awe before vastness. Some of the early religious humanists, including Lester Mondale and John Herman Randall Jr., recognized this, but they belonged to a distinct minority.

The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher once concluded a sermon with a magnificent peroration describing the Angel of Truth holding a spear tipped with a star. Afterward an admiring parishioner exclaimed, “Oh, Dr. Beecher, how did you happen to think of the star, the spear tipped with the star?” Beecher replied, “I didn’t think of it; I saw it!” Most of the early religious humanists, finding metaphor dangerous, would have had no idea what Beecher was talking about.

Critical as I became of the traditional humanist stance, a brand of religious humanism has, nonetheless, accompanied me throughout my ministry, my service to the Unitarian Universalist Association, and, indeed, my years at Amnesty International—all of it presaged by the early religious humanism of the 1930s. That is one reason I accepted from the American Humanist Association (AHA) in 2000 the Humanist of the Year Award, previous recipients of which include far greater luminaries than I, such as Isaac Asimov and Stephen J. Gould. I felt a little guilty accepting the award on two counts: First, I am often uncomfortable with the kind of humanism, reflected in some quarters of the AHA, that holds religion in general in disdain. (On the other hand, I am closer to the humanist perspective than to that of the evangelical Pray 365 Project, which quite inaccurately named me one of the world’s 365 most influential people just a few weeks before. I figured the AHA designation would help balance things out.)

The second reason for my guilt is that Unitarian Universalism, by becoming a home for religious humanists, has contributed to the difficulty humanism has experienced in its efforts to flourish as a stand-alone movement. It was, after all, the dream of many humanist pioneers to found a potent humanist institution independent of any other. But that dream has not been realized. The AHA today has but a few thousand members. Unitarian Universalism has over 200,000, 46 percent of whom, as we have seen, identify themselves as humanists. And I have contributed to that assimilation. As president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1985 to 1993, I tried to make humanists feel at home in the Association, which, despite their considerable numbers, they often do not. As Unitarian Universalism has discovered spirituality and made room for a variety of religious lexicons, those of traditional humanist persuasion have often become uncomfortable. Why is that?

Part of the answer is that many of the traditionalists are now elderly (the 1998 survey of Unitarian Universalists revealed that the older the respondent, the more likely he or she is to be a humanist) and fear that the number of humanists is dwindling. Other explanations include the traditionalists’ negative experiences with other religious traditions and their understanding of the heritage they embody as one that rejects all things religious. But this last perception is simply wrong. Most of the early religious humanists were not interested in abandoning religion but in transforming it. Moreover, they did not want to impose their views on Unitarians. Their goal, as I have said, was to form a separate organization. What those who identified themselves as Unitarians asked of their denomination was not that it rid itself of other theological perspectives but that it make room for theirs. How ironic, then, that some of humanism’s contemporary practitioners would be the most resistant to an evolving faith, and how paradoxical that some of those whose humanist forebears fought the battle for theological pluralism within the Unitarian fold are today the agents of a narrow sectarianism.

I have long thought that if all of us understood better where religious humanism came from—the battles it fought, the assumptions it purchased, the victories it claimed, and the limits it fostered—we would be better equipped today to integrate its theology into our religious worldview, to draw the best from its inspiration, and to avoid the pitfalls to which it once succumbed. Besides, the story of the birth of religious humanism is a fascinating one, ripe with drama and tinged with humor. It is philosophically challenging and sociologically revealing.

The humanist-theist controversy has long since been over, not just within Unitarian Universalism but, indeed, the larger world. In one sense, that is because Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are right: The basic principles of humanism have come to pervade our larger culture. In a recent pamphlet on humanism, one of its practitioners listed its basic tenets as these:

  • Showing love to all humans.

  • Immortality is found in the examples we set and the work we do.

  • We gain insight from many sources and all cultures. . . .

  • We have the power within ourselves to realize the best we are capable of as human beings.

  • We are responsible for what we do and become.

Of course, nothing is wrong with any of these affirmations. I agree with all of them. But I would venture to say that so do millions of other Americans, who would be shocked to learn that they are thereby considered humanists. I doubt if there is a single theist, Christian, or advocate of earth-centered spirituality within Unitarian Universalism today who would not affirm these tenets. Most of them would just not stop there.

Informed by such latter-day influences as feminist theology, Zen Buddhism, deep ecology, and new models of cosmology introduced by science itself, most religious explorers today would want to go further, use richer language, and wrestle with deeper questions. And therein lies another reason the humanist-theist controversy is behind us: The religious world—and not just the Unitarian Universalist religious world—has largely said to such explorers, “Go to it.”

That sanction includes a willingness to employ a wider lexicon of traditional religious language than that with which the early religious humanists would have been comfortable. Thomas Carlyle said, “Life is one long quarrel with God but we make up in the end.” My life has followed that trajectory as well, although in a far different vein than Carlyle intended. It is not particularly important to me anymore whether I or anyone else uses “God talk.” What is of supreme importance is that I live my life in a posture of gratitude—that I recognize my existence and, indeed, Being itself, as an unaccountable blessing, a gift of grace. Sometimes, it is helpful to call the source or fact of that grace God and sometimes not. But what is always helpful and absolutely necessary is to look kindly on the world, to be bold in pursuit of its repair, and to be comfortable in the embrace of its splendor. I know no better term for what I seek than an encounter with the Holy.

Someone has categorized religions along a spectrum from the monkey-hold type, on one end, to the cat-hold brand, on the other. In monkey-hold religion, the babies cling to Mama as she strides through the world; whether they live or die depends, in good measure, on their own dexterity. In cat-hold religion, Mama holds babies by the scruffs of their necks, dangling them over the abyss; their calling is largely to take on a healthy dose of trust and enjoy the scenery. Early religious humanism was monkey-hold religion, through and through. Today, we recognize more readily the wisdom of the feline faith.

Having said all this, I return, in the last measure, to appreciation. For of course, early religious humanists had to be bold in their pronouncements and brash in their claims. They were seeking nothing less than to save religion itself—from the modernists, on the one hand (whom they thought would turn it to mush), and the futilitarians, on the other (whom they knew would throw it out altogether). In that task, they succeeded by carving out a spot for an intellectually respectable faith. And for that, every one of us owes them our thanks.

Reprinted with permission from Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism (Skinner House Books), copyright 2002 by William F. Schulz. Available from the UUA Bookstore.

Related Resources