Roots of Our Faith: Humanism

Roots of Our Faith: Humanism


This root of our faith has grown since the 1930s and forms a large part of current UUism. The name “Humanism” was chosen because of its powerful simplicity. Humanism makes humanity its priority, rather than God or Jesus, or the saints, or the Earth. There are two main divisions: religious Humanism and secular Humanism, and UUs who think of themselves as Humanists populate a broad spectrum of belief.


Finding the balance between inward and outward is a worthy goal for anyone at any time, not least the 21st Century. We seek to have rich spiritual lives, informed by the reality of the larger world – a place far too often bloody, greedy, and cruel – while in that world we seek to act modestly, wisely, discreetly, soberly, and reverently, informed by an ever-deepening understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the All.

Our denominations (Unitarian and Universalists) were for many years the most welcoming home for religious humanists. After the merger, secular humanism dominated our movement for a good 30 years and now religious humanism is back.


Ancient Greece

Humanism goes at least as far back as the Hellenes (the ancient Greeks). They were the first to idolize the human body in abstract. They sculpted it, male and female, in myriad ways. The Hellenes were the originators of the “humanities.” They exalted the human ability to reason, speak, and to argue freely. They created alternative political systems designed to draw on the best qualities of humanity. They wrote history. They did mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. They were the first to express the enduring problems of human nature in both philosophy and drama. We still read Socrates and Plato. We still admire the Stoics, and we still go to theatre to see “Oedipus” and “The Trojan Women,” where we sit, see, and hear, and are once again filled with terror and pity, because the difficulties these Greeks caused – or had thrust upon them – are the difficulties of our own time and of all times. For as the Humanist Machiavelli would teach later: human nature is always and everywhere the same.

History, as we know, proceeds in waves. Many centuries were to pass before the humanities were once again kindling fire in people’s imaginings. Here and there over the next 1500 years we encounter a lonely individual who looks like a humanist. Pelagius, in the 5th Century, preached that we are not tainted with original sin. We remember Francis of Assisi in the 13th Century because he concentrated not on theology but on creating a kinder world.

The Renaissance

Then, coincident with the fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks in 1452, there was a rebirth, a Renaissance. The Eastern Catholics fleeing west brought their Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic texts lost to the west for centuries, now suddenly available, and with them a burst of interest in the humanities. It was called the New Learning.

At the same time, there was a technological breakthrough. The printing press, conceived in China, finally set up shop in Europe just in time to mass-produce the New Learning. Erasmus’s works because the first best-sellers. Out of this came a renewed sense of the joy of existence, and in the glories of Nature. The individual was celebrated. It was renewed springtime of civilization.

The body was once again celebrated, sculpted, and painted. Greek and Roman statuary was dug up and admired, instead of being smashed as idolatrous. The Popes became the greatest collectors and patrons of the arts.

The Wars of the Reformation ended this springtime, but the ideas and attitudes now had a life of their own, and ran along quietly half underground, bursting forth from time to time, such as in the works of Shakespeare. In Hamlet we hear this exultation:

What a piece of [work is man]!
how noble in Reason!
how infinite in Faculty!
in form and moving,
how express and admirable!
in action, how like an Angel!
in apprehension, how like a God?

How like a God? To conservatives, this was paganism; this was idolatry; this was blasphemy. And yet it was embraced by the Catholic Church, and the Popes, and the people.

The Enlightenment would take up these ideas, and this time, bolstered by the new sciences, made them stick.

Led by the Unitarians, an informal movement began in the 18th and 19th Centuries to forge a new religion, more liberal even than conventional Unitarian Christianity, based as the new movement was on scientific discovery, reason, rejection of discredited forms, rituals, and especially superstitions.

Throughout its history, humanism has been an attitude, an attitude, a set of appreciations of and compassion for humanity. But most humanists were individual with individual goals. In the 20th Century, some humanists decided to get organized.

Modern Humanism

In the early years of the 20th Century, modernism was everywhere. Picasso was painting and Stravinsky was composing. The grip of the old ways was steadily weakening. Women would soon get the vote. The intoxicating freedoms of the roaring 1920s were growing.

Certain ministers and religious laypersons began to talk of a new formulation for religion. John Dietrich, Unitarian minister first in Spokane and then in Minneapolis, from 1911 until his death in 1957 was the driving force in creating a movement that was religious but not theistic. Religious, but with hardly any reference to God. Radical!

The idea’s time had come. In 1933, a group of self-described humanists fashioned a faith statement, a two-page document titled the Humanist Manifesto that was the reading we heard a little earlier.

65 people were asked, all men, and 34 signed. 16 of the 34, almost half, were what we would now call UUs: 15 Unitarians, led by Dietrich, and one Universalist. Half of the Unitarian signers were ministers.

It is a good statement, but humanism reaches most of us in other ways. Like the example of Albert Schweitzer in West Africa with his intuition of “reverence for life.” It is found in writings like those of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut.

In Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel Contact the heroine Ellie Arroway valiantly takes a terrifying ride through space and time in order to receive confirmation that significantly greater understanding lies ahead, waiting for our race to grow into it.

The kind alien told Ellie:

“[You humans] are an interesting species. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. You see, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”

Sagan named his heroine Ellie Arroway after two of his heroes: Eleanor Roosevelt and Voltaire (Voltaire’s given name was Francois-Marie Arouet). Jody Foster describes herself as an ethical atheist. I looked up Carl Sagan because I was pretty sure he was a humanist, and sure enough, in 1981 he was named Humanist of the Year.

Let’s remember Dr. Benjamin Spock. He taught mothers to trust themselves, and to treat their babies as individuals! The result was that a good part of that generation felt empowered to take ethical action during the 60s. And that generation taught their children well.

Humanism’s Beliefs

All these humanists attempt to reconcile and connect the inner and the outer, the mind and the heart, reason, and intuition. The humanist spiritual journey relies on reason and scientific method and the evidence of the senses in most things, but I, as a religious person, join with all who listen, wait, and hope for the truth, reality and revelation, and especially connection, from every possible source. We are eclectic. We accept good ideas from any source. And do we have so many such opportunities that we can afford to dismiss any of them out of hand?

The ineffable, the inexpressible, is worth exploring. As the poet and visionary William Blake said, “Everything that can be imagined is an image of the truth.”

Some humanists claim they’re not religious, but in all the ways that really matter, their goals are the same as those of the religious humanists. Since one’s ethics, politics, and religion are inseparable, secular humanists are full partners in the movement, but who I think might ask themselves if maybe they’re missing some of the best parts, including the wonders and mysteries of creation. To resolutely secular Unitarians, I’d like to suggest adding a liberal portion of gentle, loving, superstition-free Universalist religious feeling. It’s good, and good for you.

Even if we are not pure humanists, we are purely humans, and our dreams are still the same – to be empowered, happy, connected, and working toward that day when, in the words of our old Unitarian hymn, “Earth shall be fair, and all her people one.”


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