Moving away from the humanist-theist debate

Tonight Amy Zucker Morgenstern, the senior minister at the Palo Alto church, and I led a class on humanism, theism, and naturalism, part of a series of classes we’re doing on current issues in liberal religion. We each began with a presentation on the topic; the text of my presentation is below. Our presentations were followed by a lively and enjoyable conversation with the 14 people who came, a conversation that ranged from metaphysics to demographics.

When Amy and I started talking about this class, I knew right away what I wanted to talk about: I wanted to talk about religious naturalism. I wanted to talk about religious naturalism because at the moment it is the only theological “ism” that I have any interest in associating with.

The reason I wanted to talk about religious naturalism is because in my experience it is the only theological position within Unitarian Universalism that doesn’t by definition shut out one or more other theological positions. Humanists and theists each want to shut the other group out, even force the other group out. Humanists and christian theists want to keep those doggone pagans out, and pagans, given half a chance, would shut out the humanists and christian theists. The Buddhists sit there smiling smugly at everyone else as if they have the real answers, and they’re willing to tolerate us until such a time that the rest of us get with their program. And so on.

This is all very fine and good. I like a good knock-down, drag-out argument as much as anyone. (Though I will admit I prefer theological bar fights to what academic theologians do — that is, I prefer an out-and-out fight with shouting, throwing of bar stools, and fisticuffs, to the refined intellectual backstabbing that is too often characteristic of the academy.) In fact, I think arguments are a lot of fun, as long as those who are involved are all basically healthy, and all basically want to get involved in the fight.

But my family have been Unitarians, and now Unitarian Universalists, as long as there has been such a thing in North America. And that means I’m a determined non-creedalist. I refuse to tolerate anything that smells of a creed. A creed shuts down healthy inquiry before it can get started. A creed prevents a community of inquirers from talking openly and honestly about theology, and so prevents us from getting closer to truth — for, as a pragmatist, I am quite sure that the only way to get closer to truth is through a long process involving many different inquirers, all of whom are empiricists relying on direct observation and reproducible investigations. Creeds lead to things like creationism, and denial of global climate change.

Right now, I tend to believe that Unitarian Universalism is being dominated by creeds. The dominant creed among us is what I call humanist fundamentalism, which reflexively sets up theological straw men and knocks them down. Running a close second is the creed I call christian theism, which reflexively claims to being an oppressed minority within Unitarian Universalism. Then the buddhists sit over in a corner smiling gently at the rest of us — I don’t know what their creed is, but I’m pretty sure they think they’re right and the rest of us are wrong.

I exaggerate, of course. And of course no one here fits one of these caricatures. But as soon as we set up these creedal barriers, even in something so minor as calling ourselves humanists or christians or buddhists or pagans, I’m immediately suspicious that what’s really going to happen is that conversation and mutual inquiry is going to be shut down.

So along comes religious naturalism. And the most important feature of religious naturalism, given my determined non-creedalism, is that it provides common intellectual ground for people who talk about God and people who don’t talk about God to have serious theological conversations.

In the essay that I asked people to read before this class, “What Is Religious Naturalism?”, the author Jerome Stone provides the following definition of religious naturalism:

“Religious naturalism is a type of naturalism. Hence we start with naturalism. This is a set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world. On the negative side it involves the assertion that there seems to be no ontologically distinct and superior realm (such as God, soul or heaven) to ground, explain, or give meaning to this world. On the positive side it affirms that attention should be focused on the events and processes of this world to provide what degree of explanation and meaning are possible to this life. While this world is not self-sufficient in the sense of providing by itself all of the meaning that we would like, it is sufficient in the sense of providing enough meaning for us to cope.”

That’s Jerome Stone’s definition of religious naturalism. Now here’s an application of religious naturalism to the figure of Jesus. Bernard Loomer, who towards the end of his life became a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, wrote this religious naturalist interpretation of Jesus:

“Jesus has been accorded many titled. He has been called Savior, Leader, Shepherd, Counselor, Son of God, Messiah. But his intellectual gifts have not been recognized (even when the term ‘intellectual’ has been more carefully defined). It was he who discovered what he called the Kingdom of God — what I call the Web of Life — surely one of the great intellectual and religious ideas of the Western world.

“As I define it, the web is the world conceived of as an indefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality. This includes the human and non-human, the organic and inorganic levels of life and existence.”

There you have Loomer’s naturalistic interpretation of Jesus’s thinking. (By the way, Loomer is the one who introduced the term “Web of Life” to us Unitarian Universalists.) This strikes me as far more productive than either rejecting Jesus outright as a waste of time — as I have heard some UU humanists do — or aggressively stating how much you like Jesus — as I have heard some UU christians do. If you say Jesus is a waste of time, you pretty much end the conversation right there, and we don’t make any additional progress towards truth. Similarly, if you say like Jesus, again you pretty much end the conversation, and again we don’t make much progress towards truth.

Also of interest is the way religious naturalism handles the term “God”. Some religious naturalists find the term “God” to be useful, and some don’t see the need to use the term “God” at all. But the argument is not about whether or not God exists — instead, the conversation is about whether the term “God” is useful in helping us articulate the natural world around us. Jerome Stone seems to prefer the term “the transcendent” to the term “God” in this essay. Loomer, for his part, seems to want use the term “God” while defining this term using a nuanced naturalism. If we ask the question, “Do you believe in God?” we usually wind up talking past one another. But if we ask the question, “Is ‘God” a useful term as we try to pursue an ongoing investigation?” — that to me is a much more interesting question.

When we’re doing theology together — when we’re trying to make sense out of that human cultural production that we know as religion — it’s really important to ask really good questions. That’s true in any intellectual discipline. When you’re doing physics, or sociology, or literary criticism, you need to ask really good questions. If I’m doing literary criticism, a bad question might be, “Is Hemingway better than F. Scott Fitzgerald?” — whereas it might be really interesting to ask, “What fundamental human situations of the early twentieth century do both Hemingway and Fitzgerald write about?”

Religious naturalism seems to me to ask really good questions. A question like “Do you believe in God?” will only lead to boring arguments that can be reduced to: “Does not! Does too! Does not! Does too!” Instead, why not ask questions like these which arise from religious naturalism:— “Acknowledging that many human beings experience something that we/they call the divine, how can we understand that experience?”; “Is ‘God’ a useful term to signify ultimate values?”; “How can we speak religiously to human issues such as racism, global climate change, and so on?”.

So I feel that religious naturalism — based on empiricism, fallibilism, materialism — offers something very rich to us religious liberals. I am not trying to convince you all to become religious naturalists; I am not out seeking converts to my creed. Rather, I am suggesting that right now liberal religion is kind of stuck in the old theism-humanism debate that hasn’t changed much since the 1920s. I see two ways forward. First, we could let the humanists and theists keep on fighting, which I’m OK with, as long as it turns into a real bar fight, which won’t move forward theologically speaking but which at least will be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Or, second, we need to shift the grounds of the old humanist-theist debate. We need to stop having the same old arguments over and over again. We need to be really careful about asking really good questions. I will close by noting that the first approach might be fun to watch but will probably be the death of Unitarian Universalism. The second approach, based on empiricism, fallibilism, materialism, has the potential to attract some really interesting people to come talk with us.

8 thoughts on “Moving away from the humanist-theist debate”

  1. I very much agree. I think Unitarianism is characterised by a engaged this-worldly spirituality, this goes back as far as Michael Servetus. You could describe it as panentheism, pantheism, or religious naturalism. But in a sense that doesn’t matter very much. I’d say we have the same spiritual instinct on this, we only diverge when we get into head-stuff. The heart-stuff unites us.

  2. We’re not at our best when the hypenated UUs go at it. That’s for sure. The arguments old, dated, and have been heard before many times over.

  3. But Dan, I am unsure how this is really different then Humanism except making it more palatable to the other ism’s in our denomination. Granted, I am overly exhausted (sick) of UU Christians feeling left out – I feel like we have evolved past that original UUism into the new frontier that is Humanism… is Naturalism the next stage in that evolution?

  4. Ok… I just read the first comment… and I have to say… “Head Stuff”? “Heart Stuff”? I’m not a budding biologist, but doesn’t it all originate in the head? Annoyed that using our minds is considered separatist, but if we hug it out we are good.

  5. Stephen @ 1 — I think you pretty much summed up what I was trying to get at, only you did it in a paragraph.

    Jacqueline @ 3 — How is religious naturalism different from humanism? Good question, one which I mostly dodged in the above presentation (we got into it more during the discussion afterwards). Short answer: Lots of ways, but perhaps most importantly because it does not place humans at the center of the universe (something I did not get into in this presentation). For more on the differences, you could read Jerome Stone’s essay “What Is Religious Naturalism?”, available online at — or read his book Religious Naturalism.

    As far as talking about some kind of evolution past original UUism and leaving christianty behind — hmmm, well, I’m uncomfortable with that interpretation of history. Liberal christianity continues to evolve as well, and it could be argued that in some ways it has now evolved beyond humanism. For example, humanism strikes me as being stuck in a Western-centric notion of what constitutes religion; liberal and leftist christianties, by contrast, have had to engage with the globalized world, and their notions of religion have had to evolve because of that. Of course, all this depends on how you define “evolution,” which raises something else for me:

    I’m also wary of the notion that humanists are more evolved than anyone, because that looks to me like exceptionalism, i.e., “we’re better than the rest of the world.” Most often, the notion that we’re better than anyone else may feel correct from the inside, but will appear incorrect when viewed from the outside. Thus, nearly every religious grouping feels as though they’re superior to any other religious group, but outsiders rend not to agree with that self-assessment. While humanists may be more evolved than anyone else, I’d want to establish firm and widely accepted criteria for religious evolution, and then I’d want to do some empirical research to determine where humanism stood based on those criteria.

    I have found it more useful to begin by assuming that my religious stance is no better than anyone else’s. That allows me to engage more freely and openly in conversations with other religious stances, which in turn allows me to engage a larger community of inquirers who can help me to refine my own ideas, as I in turn perhaps might help them refine their ideas. This, by the way, is the attraction of religious naturalism to me: I feel it opens up a bigger space in which I can have conversations with other persons holding diverse views. Not that I want to limit my conversations to the space opened up by religious naturalism! — and so I’d never call myself a religious naturalist, no more than I want to call myself a humanist or a christian or what-have-you.

    The real goal for me is not to identify myself with a specific theological stance, but rather to try to move forward in my own religious understanding. If I have to name myself, I’d call myself a pragmatist, or pragmaticist, which identifies me not with a set of theological beliefs, but with a process for continuing investigation into religion and theology.

  6. Jacqueline @ 4 — This made me smile. Even though cognitive science seems to be telling us that there is no division between mind and body, your point is well taken. But I think Stephen is reminding us that it’s easy to get involved in endless arguments that don’t really go anywhere — at least, that’s what I took from his comment.

    Victor @ 6 — Thanks for the link to that sermon, It starts off with that great quote from David Robinson, which makes me want to go back and reread Robinson….

  7. As I was reading this trying to figure out what Religious Naturalism was, I was thinking to myself “Hmm, sounds like what Humanism used to be, back before it became whatever it is now, dogmatic”. and then I see in that Jerome Stone (in the link provided says that it is indeed (to him) the old style humanism of the 1920s – 1930s.
    Certainly not too much that one would think that an average UU could disagree with. But the devil (as they say) is in the details, which is where UUs seem to have our biggest problems. The hyphenated UUs (and yes HUUmanists are hyphenated UUs) have much more in common with each other than some of them seem to think. Indeed, many of our hyphenated UUs use more than one hyphenation.

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