Unitarian Universalist Humanism: Introductory lecture

Introductory lecture delivered tonight, in a course in UU humanism:

In this introductory lecture, I’m going to attempt to outline Unitarian Universalist humanism for you. My primary approach in this lecture is going to be based on an approach used by the humanist theologian Anthony Pinn in his book Varieties of African American Religious Experience. After pointing out the inadequacies of theological traditions which merely point towards some ultimate revelation, something beyond what we see and hear and experience in this life, Pinn describes his approach as follows:

“I want to suggest that the task of … constructive theologies … is more in line with [Gordon] Kaufman’s ‘third-order theology’ and Charles Long’s reflections upon the theology of the opqaue. That is to say, theology is deliberate or self-conscious human construction focused upon uncovering and exploring the meaning and structures of religious experience within a larger body of cultural production. It is, by nature, comparative in a way that does not seek to denounce or destructively handle other traditions.”

I find Pinn’s approach to theology to be incredibly useful for at least four reasons.

First, Pinn does not get bogged down in interminable arguments about metaphysical questions; thus while I have no interest in giving a final answer to the question “Does God exist?”, I am intensely interested in trying to understand how others have dealt with that question, and with lots of related questions.

Second, Pinn is quite clear that theology is a human construction. Too often, theological conversations are preemptively terminated by appeals to a “higher authority”; this “higher authority” could be an appeal to perfect and infallible divine revelation, but it could equally be an appeal to supposedly infallible and perfect scientific reasoning. Since we human beings are quite fallible and most imperfect, and since we’re the ones who do theology, Pinn’s approach is only logical.

Third, Pinn is looking at religious experience as a subset of a larger body of human cultural production. That is to say, theology rooted in human experiences and in human religious communities, and cannot meaningfully be abstracted from those human experiences and communities.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, Pinn’s approach is non-destructive. A theological position that is solely focused on disproving other theological positions is essentially destructive in nature, and is ultimately boring; either you disprove your opponent’s position, or you fail to disprove it, and in either case the conversation is over quickly, and to prolong it would be merely to prolong boredom. Thus Pinn takes a comparative approach, which he says will lead to a constructive theology. That is my goal in this class.

Another way of saying this is that we are going to do theology as if we’re having a productive and very interesting conversation. Indeed, I think of the field of theology as a conversation that has been going on in Western culture for at least three thousand years. And now, in this postmodern world, the Western theological conversation is coming into contact with similar conversations from other cultures around the world. This is an amazing and fascinating time to be doing theology, and given the long history of the theological conversation, and the world-wide scope of the conversation today, the more we can open ourselves to the wider conversation, the more interesting it gets.

So that’s an outline of the method we’re going to use in this class. Any questions before I go on to give a short history of humanism?


OK, let’s turn to a brief history of humanism.

In the Western tradition, we can trace the roots of humanism back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers. The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras said, “Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are; and of the things that are not, that they are not.” [DK80b1, Kathleen Freeman translation] This statement is often summed up in the shorter statement, “Man is the measure of all things.” Making individual human beings the measuring stick of the universe tends to move us away from making firm metaphysical pronouncements. So, for example, Protagoras says this about the gods: “About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life.” [DK80b4, Kathleen Freeman translation] Protagoras’s approach must be distinguished from scientific method; scientific method tends to discount individual human beings, because it relies on the ongoing efforts of many many human beings to slowly come closer to the truth.

Humanism has remained an important strand in the Western tradition ever since the ancient Greeks, although it remained somewhat submerged through the middle ages. During the Renaissance, humanism became a prominent feature of Western culture. Renaissance humanists sought to revive ancient Greek and Roman learning, and placed the humanities — grammar and rhetoric, ethics, poetry, etc. — at the center of learning.

Now we jump ahead to 19th century North America. Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, various North American thinkers extended the Radical Reformation to the point where Gary Dorrien, a scholar of American religion, calls some particularly progressive thinkers “post-Christian” [see his The Making of American Liberal Theology, 1805-1900] John Weiss, a Unitarian minister and radical abolitionist, was one such thinker. Weiss was the minister in Watertown, Massachusetts, before he got ousted for his abolitionist beliefs, went to New Bedford where the Unitarian church was receptive to his abolitionism, and after the Civil War returned to Watertown. As a Unitarian, he already rejected the doctrine of the trinity, and understood humans to have free will. As a Transcendentalist, he followed the German advances in theology, such as the rise of the higher criticism, and moved to understandings of the divine that were so far from Christian understandings that Dorrien says we cannot class him as a Christian. Weiss’s successor in the New Bedford pulpit was William Potter. Potter was younger than Weiss, and just as radical. He studied in Germany in the late 1850s, and then returned to take the New Bedford church after Weiss. As time went on, he was influenced by his understanding of evolution, and he gradually came to a position where there wasn’t much God left in his theology.

These are just two examples of proto-humanists within liberal religion. Many of the women preachers in the so-called Iowa Sisterhood, a band of Unitarian and Universalist women ministers who held pulpits throughout the midwest, were equally or more radical. Indeed, from what I can learn, Eliza Tupper Wilkes, the first Unitarian Universalist preacher here in Palo Alto (she may be considered Unitarian Universalist by virtue of being in fellowship with both denominations), may probably be considered post-Christian, and maybe even tending towards humanist, though she did use God-talk.

In the early 20th century, a Unitarian preacher named John Dietrich made a name for himself by openly championing what he called humanism, as an alternative to theism or a belief in God. Dietrich was particularly concerned with the growth of fundamentalism, and preached more than once on the problems of fundamentalism. It was in the first three decades of the 20th century that both the Unitarians and the Universalists experienced open warfare between humanists and theists. Individuals at both extremes put forth thunderous pronouncements on the problems of their opponents. At the same time, there were plenty of people in the middle who were quieter and, to my way of thinking, more interesting. E. Stanton Hodgins was one such person: he was a humanist who was invited to sign the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, but refused because it seemed too much like a creed to him.

And that brings us to the Humanist Manifesto. In 1933, a couple of people put together a statement of what they saw as the core of humanist beliefs. 34 people signed this first Humanist Manifesto, of whom 15 were Unitarians, and at least one Universalist, Jew, and member of the Ethical Culture Society. The most famous of the signatories was the philosopher John Dewey. In its day, it was a radical document. Today, the first thing I notice is that it wasn’t signed by any women; this makes it seem far less radical to me.

Non-theist ideas spread quickly, far beyond the narrow little confines of people who called themselves humanists. In one example, a major theological movement in the mid-20th century was so-called death of God theology. At the same time, rising secularlism in the Western world seemed to some to herald the eventual death of religion. In 1965, the liberal theologian Harvey Cox wrote an influential book titled The Secular City, in which he talked about the rise of the secular world and the seeming decline of religion. All this had a big influence on the Unitarian Universalist Association, formed in 1961 from the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists.

But the really big theological change within the new Unitarian Universalist Association turned out to be feminist and black liberation theologies. Black liberation theology turned the new UUA upside down beginning in 1967 with the so-called Black Empowerment Controversy; unfortunately, the white-dominated UUA refused to have much to do with black liberation theology, and about half the African American Unitarian Universalists left the UUA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the ones who stayed was William R. Jones, who continues to challenge us theologically.

Feminist liberation theology, unlike black liberation theology, had amazing success within the UUA. By the mid-1980s we can safely say that the dominant theology within the UUA was feminist liberation theology. Unitarian Universalist humanist theologies should have been poised to ride the feminist wave — from the humanist point of view, God should have been portrayed as the ultimate male chauvinist pig — but that didn’t happen. Instead, we saw a dramatic increase in goddess-worshippers, as well as liberal Christian re-interpretations of theism. Too many of the old humanists were mired in a sexist version of humanism, and they seem to have completely missed feminist theology’s challenge to humanism. Finally, by the late 1990s, a few feminist humanists began to reinterpret humanism from a feminist perspective. Two notable figures are Sharon Welch, whom we will be reading in a few weeks, and Carol Hepokoski, a Unitarian Universalist minister and former professor of theology who has been developing an interesting feminist and ecological humanism.

One of the critiques leveled against Unitarian Universalist humanists is that they tended to be pretty cold-blooded. Bill Murry, a long-time humanist minister and experienced giver of pastoral care, became an influential voice for the pastoral side of humanism during his tenure as president of Meadville Lombard Theological School in the early 2000s. Also at Meadville Lombard during that decade was philosopher and scholar of religion Jerome Stone. Jerry began redefining what he called “religious naturalism” as something of an alternative to humanism. Religious naturalism turns out to be somewhat easier to define than humanism — religious naturalism is defined as rejecting supernaturalism in religion in favor of a more empirical, naturalistic approach.

And that brings us more or less to the present moment in Unitarian Universalism. Today, it is fairly pointless for a Unitarian Universalist to proclaim, “I don’t believe in God.” Such a bald statement will cause Neopagans to proclaim that they don’t believe in God either, they believe in the Goddess, or Goddesses, or multiple deities of whatever gender. Religious naturalists will challenge such a statement by saying, Define the God that you don’t believe in, and then saying that they don’t believe in that God either but some would say it is possible to define a God that they might believe in. There are the pragmatists like me who will challenge the statement of “I don’t believe in God” with the rejoinder, “I want to know what results in the real world come from such metaphysical inquiry (which, parenthetically, seems to the pragmatist to be fruitless inquiry).” And there are those upholding feminist theologies, liberation theologies for people of color, queer theologies, ecological theologies, and so on, who like the pragmatists want to know how the humanist is going to solve real-world problems.

So the theological conversation continues. The key thing from my point of view is to engage in the conversation as it exists today, and to make positive contributions. What I hope to do in this course is to introduce you to some Unitarian Universalist humanist thinkers of the past fifty years, so you know where the conversation has been — so you can engage in the conversation as it exists today. And if we’re really good, we will start making some positive contributions to the ongoing theological conversation — that is, we will begin to do some constructive thinking together, and maybe, perhaps, move the conversation forward to confront the realities of our moment in history.

Lecture 2

This lecture is copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper. This lecture may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes only, provided this copyright notice accompanies all copies.


For reference, here’s the course reading list:

(1) For October 23: “Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” William R. Jones, on reserve in the library of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, or available online at:

(2) For November 3: “Living with Death” and “Being Honest with Death,” pp. 121-142 in A Faith for All Seasons by William R. Murry (Bethesda, MD: River Road Press, 1990); on reserve in the library.

(3) For November 17: “Ethics without Virtue,” pp. 119-136 in Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work, by Sharon Welch (New York: Routledge, 1999); on reserve in the library.

(4) For November 24: “What Is Religious Naturalism?” by Jerome Stone, on reserve or available online at:

6 thoughts on “Unitarian Universalist Humanism: Introductory lecture

  1. Dad

    I plan to follow the rest of your lectures. Can I have your permission to distribute copies to the members of the Humanist Group in our congregation.

  2. Jean

    Is it possible to provide a link or resource to read the Humanist Manifesto? I’d be curious to see what it said.

    I wonder too: is it possible that “ordinary” folk mistrust humanism because no one can seem to say, in a plain sentence or two: this is what humanism is? Or, even more broadly and welcomingly, this is what humanism encompasses?

    I have heard more than one person answer that question — what is humanism — by saying: “Humanism is whatever you want it to be.” That seems both profoundly unsatisfactory and somewhat, how can I say this nicely, smug? As though: if you really knew what it was, you wouldn’t have to ask.

    I don’t know. Just random thoughts from a writer and teacher out here in the middle of the country, trying to imagine what my students and neighbors would make of things.

  3. Dan

    Dad @ 2 — I’ve added a copyright notice which gives you (or anyone) permission to reproduce for non-commercial purposes.

    Jean @ 3 — Link to the first Humanist Manifesto now embedded in the lecture above.

    William R. Jones contended in 1975 that humanism was marginalized because no one had done any kind of systematic treatment of it. By contrast, Neopaganism has inspired a number of writers to attempt serious and systematic treatments (see, e.g., Starhawk’s Dreaming the Dark). Unfortunately, too much humanist writing is little more than denunciations of God. Bill Murry’s Reason and Reverence attempts a short systematic treatment, and is worth reading; interestingly, Bill winds up saying he is probably a religious naturalist. In 2008, Jerome Stone came out with a book-length treatment of religious naturalism; I have not yet read it, but suspect it is a fairly systematic treatment of religious naturalism (which is closely allied with humanism).

    I’d also say that humanism has not attracted particularly good writers, nor has it attracted many major thinkers whom I find interesting. John Dewey may be the best thinker the humanists have ever had, and his book A Common Faith is definitely worth reading, but that book does not promote humanism per se. In the past hundred years, the Jews have had Martin Buber, the liberal Christians have Harvey Cox, the Neopagans have Starhawk, the Buddhists have Thich Nhat Hanh — and the humanists have had no writer or thinker of comparable status.

    The most stimulating contemporary humanist theologian that I’m aware of is Anthony Pinn, but he is really focused on African American theology; he’s a humanist who doesn’t write much about humanism. Sharon Welch is a humanist who’s definitely worth reading, but she is really writing ethics, not so much about religion. At this point, the religious naturalists are more interesting than the humanists.

    So yes, I’d agree that the lack of a good definition for humanism tends to cripple it as a realistic religious option; the lack of really topnotch writers and thinkers also cripples it.

  4. Jean

    I’d offer to write about humanism, topnotch writer that I am (:-> … that’s me, laughing), but I think the waters of humanism are so muddy I don’t even want to dip a toe into them.

    Still — I too look forward to reading your lecture notes. Should be very interesting!

  5. Bill Baar

    I think….and you may well have been there Dan… when we asked once by show of hands who was a Humanist in the Congregation, over half the people raised theirs in Geneva.

    Humanism is very much the UUism I knew growing up in the Chicago area. Whether anyone bothered to read any of the writers I can’t say, but Humanism was a potent force. At least when asking people to identify.

    Please keep up this series.

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