Putting the “Human” in “Humanism”


“I… try to stimulate and guide you in your thinking that you may work out your own conceptions of religion and morality.” -John Dietrich

What is humanism? If you search the website of the American Humanist Association, you will find no fewer than eight definitions, ranging in length from one sentence to eighteen sentences. Because it is a human concept, made up by human beings and articulated in a particular language as influenced by a particular set of social, cultural and environmental factors in each case, I guess we should not be surprised that there are so many definitions.

The one I will present to you today as a starting point for our investigation is the one that most appeals to me. It is from the International Humanist and Ethical Union. It goes like this: “Humanism is a democratic and ethical lifestance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

Humanism is nothing new. It can be traced back at least to the sixth century BCE in a quote attributed to the Buddha in the Pali literature: “Since neither soul nor aught belonging to soul, can really and truly exist, the view that holds that this I who am “world.” who am “soul,” shall hereafter live permanent, persisting, unchanging, yea abide eternally: is this not utterly and entirely a foolish doctrine?” (Wikipedia: Humanism)

Not all varieties of humanism are dismissive of the idea of the divine, though it’s true that no understanding of the term insists that belief in a supernatural being is necessary to live a life of purpose and meaning. Secular humanism does reject supernatural claims, a theistic faith, ritualism and other factors that are considered elements of superstition.

But there is such a thing as “religious humanism.” Religious humanists believe that a humanist ethical philosophy can integrate religious rituals and beliefs that “center on human needs, interests and abilities.” My guess is that we have some religious humanists among us today.

Twice a year or so, our Membership Committee hosts an event called “Getting to Know UU,” which is intended to give newcomers to the church an opportunity to get to know us and one another better and to get a better sense of what Unitarian Universalism is and what this church, in particular, stands for. (We have one coming up, by the way, on Tuesday evening, March 31; you are warmly welcome to attend.)

It has usually been my role at these gatherings to talk a little bit about Unitarian and Universalist history. I always make sure to mention the role that Ralph Waldo Emerson had in influencing our development, especially by way of his famous address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School in 1838.

In this address, Emerson refers to the religious sentiment as something which exists in all of us; it’s the thing that unites us with the divine. It is something that we can come into touch with directly, through a kind of “intuition,” if you will. “Man” (humanity) is united with God through nature and the natural world. That realization is made through a religious impulse which inheres in each one of us, if we would but listen to the strains of the soul.

Emerson says that “The religious sentiment brings joy and makes sense of the world for us, empowers and deifies us. Through the religious sentiment, a man understands that goodness is within him, that he and every other man enjoys a direct relationship with God through intuitive Reason, and that virtue cannot be attained through emulating other men.”

This was seen as radical by the faculty of the school– and by the parents of the graduates, no doubt–because it said that reliance on Scripture was not necessary in order to engage in a religious experience– in order to be religious, at all. Think of what it implied about the seminary education that the graduates had just received.Emerson’s Divinity School Address was the single most significant development in Unitarianism in the 19th century.

What was the most significant development in our religious tradition in the 20th century? I think most UUs who know their history would say that it was the influence of humanism. The Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933. Among the signers were eight Unitarian ministers.

The Humanist Manifesto opened up a door to a whole new way of understanding what it meant to be religious within a denomination that was rooted in Christian understandings and that had flourished under theistic religious traditions. You could be religious– and Unitarian– without believing in God. You can imagine the controversy that it caused.

The Humanist Manifesto listed fifteen principles as its tenets. I won’t list them all here– it’s easy enough for any of us these days to enter “Humanist Manifesto” as a term in the subject line of our search engine and to study the document in depth. I will list a few of the principles here, though, to give you a flavor of the document and a way to understand its controversial nature.

1. Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.
2. Humanism believes that man (humanity) is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process.
3. Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.
4. Humanism recognizes that man’s religious culture and civilization, as clearly depicted by anthropology and history, are a 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 by that culture.
7. Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. It includes labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship and recreation– all that is expressive of intelligently satisfying human living…
8. Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now. This is the explanation of the humanist’s social passion.

Religious humanism has contributed greatly to the understanding that one can be religious without being a theist, that one can live a good life, a religiously significant life, without being a believer in a particular doctrine of salvation, and that “religion,” as a human institution, is always in the process of development and evolution. Its drawback, though, many UUs have come to believe, is that, while intellectually satisfying, it has drifted so far away from what we experience as religious feelings that it’s more or less a philosophy of life rather than a religious outlook.

That’s why the emergence of a new strain of religious humanism is so encouraging. Rev. William Murry’s book called Reason and Reverence is probably the place where it is best captured. He calls it “humanistic religious naturalism.” Though it’s a mouthful, I think that all three terms are necessary– and it does lift up the emotive quality of religious experience as well as its intellectual conceptualization.

“Humanistic religious naturalism “emphasizes personal freedom & critical thinking. It upholds intellectual honesty and rejects superstition. It finds great value in human beings coming together in religious community to deepen their understanding, support and strengthen their values, celebrate life’s passages and work together for a better world” he says. And “Religious naturalism provides a foundation for a new, more open and inclusive humanism. In a word, humanism provides the values that naturalism lacks, and religious naturalism provides the religious and spiritual aspect that humanism has lacked.”

In one of his sermons on the topic, Rev. Murry reflects on the nature and majesty of the universe, a universe he says that he has no reason not to believe was self-created. He says:

I find that the more that I learn about the world from modern science, the more I am in awe. That the star Arcturus, which I can see in the night sky, is 216 trillion miles away absolutely boggles my mind; that other stars I can see with the naked eye are as far away as 10,000 light years leaves me speechless; that the DNA in a single cell in my body, that is so small I cannot see it, if stretched out would reach from fingertip to fingertip of my outstretched arms, and that there are trillions of cells in my body, and that there is enough DNA in those cells to reach to the sun and back a dozen times, these facts fill me with wonder and astonishment. And the fact that the Milky Way Galaxy has a trillion stars, and that the universe contains at least 50 billion galaxies, and thus hundreds of trillions of stars similar to our sun, fills me with an amazement far beyond my poor power to describe. I am overcome with astonishment with the thought that my body consists of 10 trillion cells and that my brain contains about 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses.

These facts astonish me, too, and humble me. They make me realize the immensity of things beyond what I can conceive, the complexity of things beyond what I can observe and comprehend, the vastness of all that exists and the limitlessness of all there is to know– more than can ever be known by an individual– even by a species, I suspect.

Awe and wonder. Indispensable ingredients of the religious experience. Experience– it’s more than ideas or concepts or formulations, helpful as they may be. The intellect may be able to point to it; the imagination may move towards holding it, the emotions may be stirred beyond what can be expressed. All these facets of the human experience are necessary to understand religion in a way that is meaningful enough to influence the choices that we make, the lives that we choose to live.

If we are not anchored to a notion of the supernatural in our faith, Rev. Murry says that “the religious naturalist can be devoted to a nature that nurtures and sustains.” We speak of Mother Earth– it names a relationship of deep significance, doesn’t it?

How can we survive if we don’t keep her healthy, honor her, nurture a relationship with her that is real and sustaining? When I see how determined our society seems to be to go the other way, it concerns me, it disturbs me– it even frightens me. We use drones to kill our enemies. We justify it because it keeps our soldiers out of harm’s way.But, it also makes killing seem more remote, artificial, unreal.

When we move away from an exchange system based on barter to one based on coins and paper bills, we gain in convenience and flexibility and move away from the real to the artificial. When we move from money to credit cards and debit cards, we increase our convenience, we have less sense, though of what the medium of exchange is.

And when we move even further away, to a currency that does not exist except in terms of a computer-generated construct, “Bitcoins,”, we move far away, indeed from the world of nature, the real, the material.

How do we reconnect with the natural world in a way that is meaningful? I suggest that we do it by doing it. But, we need a vocabulary of exchange, a way to talk about the meaning of our connectedness to the natural world as a religious experience, as William Murry suggests in his language of the humanistic religious naturalist.

We can’t know who we are without feeling ourselves part of a larger process. We define ourselves within contexts: in terms of the family that we are born into, for instance, and we can be largely defined by them– at least until we undertake our own voyages of self-realization. Or if the family life is poor or non-existent, we can seek that meaningful relationship in a group that will accept us; sometimes that group is a neighborhood gang. We can define ourselves through a sports team, a religious institution, the military, the corporate world or the government.

But, there is a greater reality than all that we have invented in our search to build civilizations. Murry calls it “the epic of cosmic evolution… which provides us with a vision of the universe as a single reality, one long spectacular process of change and development, an unfolding drama, a universal story for mankind– our story.”

We all need a story. We have a better chance of survival as a species if we live a shared story, not a billion different stories in conflict and in disunity. We know now that the changes in the climate that emerge from the processes, institutions, and habits of the industrialized world affect all nations, the poorest disproportionately. We exist not in lonely isolation, but as part of a single, interdependent web of creation– or of evolutionary development, take your pick.

You don’t need to be an atheist to be a religious naturalist. “Theistic religious naturalists believe that God is a power or force within the universe. Some say God is the spirit of love that pervades the universe.” You can be a naturalistic, mystic theist.

Rev. John Dietrich was one of the first Unitarian ministers to describe himself as a humanist and was a signer of the Humanist Manifesto. He described humanism as the “belief and trust in human effort.” He had a very successful career as a minister, but in retirement, he had second thoughts about his contribution to the understanding of what it means to be a religious humanist.

“I realize now,” he said, “how my utter reliance on science and reason and my contempt for any intuitive insights and intangible values which are the very essence of art and religion, was a great mistake; and the way in which I cut mankind off from all cosmic relationship was very short-sighted and arrogant.”

The emergence of Humanistic Religious Naturalism, it seems to me, unites the great insights of Emerson in the 19th century and those of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. Humanism can say that “Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant.” And that “Nothing human is alien to the religious.” And that “(religion) includes labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship and recreation– all that is expressive of intelligently satisfying human living…”

But, religious naturalism introduces the subjective dimension. We don’t describe life and ethics; we live them. And living in awe and reverence of the natural world, its delicacy, its complexity, and even its capacity for destructiveness, provides the religious experience that we all are so dependent on to make our lives significant.

What propels the heart into motion? Where is the divine revealed to you? And how does what you believe affect the way you live and the way you shape community? If you recognize in yourself a sense of awe as you interact with the natural world, a passion will be realized within you that will stir you to action if you understand yourself as human and human only and here on this Earth for just a short while.

John Dietrich has been quoted as saying that, as a minister “I… try to stimulate and guide you in your thinking that you may work out your own conceptions of religion and morality.” And that’s what I try to do, too.

What’s your next step?


  • iheu.org: The International Humanist and Ethical Union
  • www. rruuc.org: River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation>Spirituality>Sermon Library>Sermon>“My Evolving Faith: Humanistic Religious Naturalism” by Rev. Dr. William R. Murry
  • American humanist.org/Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto I (and) III
  • www. cliffsnotes.com/literature: “Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism;” “Emerson’s ‘The Divinity School Address’”
  • uurn.weebly.com: Unitarian Universalist Religious Naturalists
  • Wikipedia: Humanism.
  • http://uudb.org: The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography: “John Hassler Dietrich;” “Curtis W. Reese.”
  • Telephone conversation with Rev. Brian Eslinger on March 14, 2015

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