Lecture four: Religious humanist communities

Fourth and final lecture for a class on UU humanism

For me, it is a basic axiom that religion is lived out in human communities. In the culture wars of the past half century, our society has somehow gotten the mistaken notion that religion can be boiled down to irrational beliefs; that is to say, religion has become equated with a certain narrow subset of ontotheology. From my point of view, however, religious practice comes first, and the explanations come along later to try to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. Praxis antedates theoria; liturgy and practice trump ontotheology. That being said, I think it is worth examining some religious humanist practices in order to better understand the religious side of humanism.

Let’s start with the stereotype of a religious humanist community. According to the stereotype, religious humanism is a religion of the head, not the heart and body. Therefore, religious humanist communities spend their time in endless debate about intellectual matters. Because intellect is highly valued, and because intellect is somehow equated with the possession of college and graduate degrees, status in this stereotypical community is determined in part by an individual’s level of academic attainment: post-docs rank far higher than bachelor’s degrees, and if you only have a high school diploma you’ll be expected to keep your mouth shut. Furthermore, the sciences outrank the humanities by at least two degrees, so that a bachelor’s degree in science trumps a doctoral degree in English literature. This stereotypical religious humanist community vigorously roots out anything that looks, sounds, or smells like more traditional Western religions, so there are no sermons (though there may be lectures and talks), no candles nor much in the way of visual interest, no hymns or psalms (though songs might be allowed), and no reading from scriptures.

Now obviously I have drawn a caricature of religious humanism here. I didn’t just make this up; there are people who believe that this is what religious humanists are actually like. But let’s contrast this with a real-life religious humanist community, to show how far wrong this stereotype can be. The real-life community that I’d like to compare this to is the Charles Street Meeting House under the leadership of Kenneth Patton. Patton was both a humanist and something of a liturgical genius, and he thought long and hard about what a truly humanist religious community might look like. He believed that human beings like to have rituals and symbols, and so he created rituals and symbols that were aesthetically pleasing and true to religious humanism.

Thus he lit a flame at the beginning of each Sunday service — the flame came out of a vessel that resembled an ancient Greek lamp, and he thought of this lamp as a lamp of human wisdom.* He had the congregation sit in a sort of theatre-in-the-round setting, so that people in this human community faced each other. He incorporated readings from the great religious writings of many different world religions — thus he was not a humanist who rejected other religions, he embraced all religions as aesthetically pleasing human productions, each worthy of being appreciated by any human being. A poet of some skill, he wrote many hymn texts; believing that ancient Chinese pomes offered great inspiration to today’s humanists, he cast translations of Chinese poems into metrical English verse — and then in a moment of real inspiration, he matched these humanist texts, not with the standard European hymn tunes we all know and are bored by, but with vigorous American hymn tunes from the Southern shape note tradition.

In the Charles Street Meeting House, religious humanism was driven by Patton’s artistic creativity. It was aesthetically pleasing, it pleased body, mind, and spirit (whatever we might mean by “spirit”). It was not dry and lifeless, but alive, and curious, and willing to explore not just science but the arts as well; for after all, if we’re going to call something “humanism,” shouldn’t it incorporate everything that makes us human?

So that’s one vision of religious humanism. With my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, I like to call this “high church humanism” — rather than the austere and plain Puritanism that we stereotypically associate with humanism, high-church humanism embraces sensual beauty. In my view, any movement that is going to call itself “humanism” must embrace the whole of being human — intellect and sensual beauty, science and the arts, head and heart and body too. Humanists will not just sit around and talk, they will also dance and make music and read poetry and eat fabulously delicious food. I will even go so far to say that humanism must embrace the non-rational part of being human, for that is as much a part of being human as rational thought.

Another vision of religious humanism might focus more on how religious humanist communities make decisions, how they govern themselves. Most religious humanists pay at least lip service to democracy. But democracy can take on many different forms. Which form of democracy makes sense for religious humanist communities?

Probably the most common ideal for democracy I’ve seen in religious humanist communities is explicit or de facto consensus decision-making. It is not clear to me why this is so. Consensus has proven itself to be an extremely inefficient method of making decisions. Furthermore, consensus is preferred by upper middle class and educated white people who are articulate and self-empowered enough that they can dominate the consensus process; or to put it another way, most consensus processes that I have seen firsthand are full of class and racial bias. Thus, in actual practice consensus would seem to conflict with the ideal of humanism that holds every individual human being is of significant worth.

In choosing a democratic governance process, it seems to me that religious humanists should be empiricists — they should examine what works best. Curiously, this is exactly what the Christian evangelicals did about forty years ago. They realized that books like Peter Drucker’s Managing the Nonprofit Organization, found lots of solid information on how to run an incredibly successful and growing nonprofit based on empirical observation, and the ones who applied this information to their churches found their churches grew like crazy.

In the past forty years, we have continued to learn a great deal about all aspects of nonprofit governance — such as scalability, and improved financial structures, and social entrepreneurship, and marketing, and on and on. Yet it appears to me that religious humanists have, by and large, ignored this wealth of practical, empirically-based information. Thus I cannot point to any religious humanist organization that I feel embodies the ideal of democracy, and valuing human beings, and empiricism — usually you get the first two, but not the last one.

I firmly believe that major problem with religious humanism today is not what most humanists think it is — the problem is not one of convincing people of the theories behind humanism. In fact, I’d be willing to bet there is a huge number of people in this country alone who are basically religious humanists right now, except that they won’t call themselves by that name. I firmly believe that the real problem facing religious humanism today is that most self-professed humanists can’t organize their way out of a wet paper bag. Religious humanists appear to know little about effective marketing (especially marketing to people under the age of 50), nothing about social entrepreneurship, nothing about scalability, little about effective nonprofit governance, and nothing about how to raise lots of money. In short, religious humanists seem to know next to nothing when it comes to the basic knowledge on how to grow larger and more effective human institutions.

I issue this as a challenge to those of you humanists who are taking this class. I believe that if religious humanists are willing to be flexible and creative, if religious humanists were willing to be institution-builders, we could double the number of self-professed religious humanists within five years. Of course, I could say the same thing to almost any religious liberal — to liberal Christians, liberal Muslims, liberal Jews, and so on — though I could not say this to the Neopagans, who are the one liberal religious group that has grown significantly in the past half century. So my challenge is simple: religious humanists, go out and learn effective organizational strategies, apply them, and see if you can double the number of self-professed religious humanists within your area in the next five years.


* Some people believe Patton’s lighting of this flame evolved into the current Unitarian Universalist liturgical tradition of lighting a flaming chalice.

Link to first lecture.

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.

6 thoughts on “Lecture four: Religious humanist communities

  1. Bill Baar

    It’s institution building that was in the back of my mind thinking of Humanism and Marxism. If one was inclined to view Religion as an Opiate of the Masses –as I’d wager many professed and especially new Humanists did– then your going to end up with folks who know how did build an Institution (The Party) as opposed to those who fumbled about with it. Again, imagine this all happening in the 30s forward…

    Also, I read Robert James Hutcheon’s “The Nature and Validity of Conscience and Moral Priniciple” from the Harvard Divinity School Review 1919 (google the name and title and you’ll hit it. Hutcheon a Meadville Prof invited to sign the Humanist Manifesto and declined, and I’m not certain he would have identified as one, but his little essay –which reads very modern to me– reminded me of you and “Praxis antedates theoria”. Hutcheon carried praxis to Praxis antedates morality –as I read him– because people only grow a moral sense from working in community with others:

    “Our supreme guides must be, not a lot of ready-made principles and intutitions, but good will, the desire to cooperate, willingess to do whatever the social welfare demands, insight into the might forces for good and evil that the war has let loose, sanity in discriminationg between the possibel and the impossible, and a will to believe and a will to perseve that nothing can daunt or overwhelm”.

    Seems to me building institutions requires praxis rather than, let’s say, declaming who’s on what side of loves divide. Which is a pretty relaxed thing to do requiring only the exercise of a placard despite all the show.

    That’s a direction UUA seems uninclined to pursue.

    Thanks for this series. Much much appreciated.

  2. Will Shetterly

    “consensus is preferred by upper middle class and educated white people who are articulate and self-empowered enough that they can dominate the consensus process; or to put it another way, most consensus processes that I have seen firsthand are full of class and racial bias. Thus, in actual practice consensus would seem to conflict with the ideal of humanism that holds every individual human being is of significant worth.”

    Total agreement on the class part of that, but I have to note that upper middle class folks of color are every bit as good at dominating the consensus process as the white ones.

  3. Dan

    Bill @ 1 — You write: “That’s a direction UUA seems uninclined to pursue.”

    And most of the rest of religious liberals, except the liberal Jews in the U.S. who are, in my view, quite sound on the relative importance of religious practice vs. religious theories.

    Will @ 2– You write: “upper middle class folks of color are every bit as good at dominating the consensus process as the white ones.”

    Yes, of course! Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Amy

    Many African tribal societies have been governed by consensus and because dialogue must continue until agreement is reached, they are predicated on the worth of each person’s opinion. I don’t know much about any of them or how they deal with uncooperative participants, but they appear to be a model for a form of democratic decisionmaking that rises above the flaws you talk about. I suspect that any Western society that wanted to use consensus effectively would need to cultivate some values such as patience, respect for all kinds of experience, and humility.

  5. Bill Baar

    I never considered liberal Jews on practice vs theory, but I sat next to one at Thanksgiving and I was wondering why avoiding the ham was an issue for an atheist Jew. Now I know.

    Your consensus comments threw me a bit. My experience at UUSG has been almost everything by consensus.

    My experience with my generation on split decisions has been a rapid degeneration into rights and violations. The vote doesn’t go ones way on the home-owners association over a backyard playset on steroids that will probably remain partially completed and a eyesore until the last kid in College, and its a civil rights violation.

    So consensus looks pretty good to me in old age.

  6. Dan

    Bill @ 5 — You write: “My experience at UUSG has been almost everything by consensus.”

    That was not my experience at UUSG six years ago. What I saw was that there were trusted leaders (both lay leaders and clergy leaders) who were allowed to make significant decisions without seeking the approval of everyone.

    As I think about it, sometimes consensus seems to be required when people don’t trust each other — if you don’t trust your leaders, you want to retain veto power over all decisions.

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