Religious Humanism Comes of Age

[Editor's note: This text was first presented as a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, MA, 10/21/12. An shortened version of it appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the journal, Religious Humanism.]

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (I Corinthians 13:11)

I’ve come to realize that this simple description of the necessary transition from childhood to adulthood applies not just to individuals but also to cultures and societies, and ultimately to the human species itself.

We human beings are a very young species.  From an evolutionary perspective we are barely out of adolescence.  And it shows!  Around the world today there are some people within virtually every religious tradition desperately clinging - sometimes violently - to the tribal deities and exclusionary beliefs of their ancestors.  It’s as if they are standing there, stomping their feet and shouting, “I won’t grow up, I won’t grow up!”  We have a kind of global Peter Pan Syndrome on our hands.

Human coming of age – as individuals, as communities, and as a species – is a major focus of today’s Humanism, especially religious Humanism.  Today I’d like to lay out a little bit of the history of Humanism within Unitarian Universalism, identify some of the challenges that face us in a rapidly changing world, and finish with some suggestions on what role UU Humanists can play in turning those challenges into opportunities.

But before I get into that, let me tell you briefly about my own continuing attempts to grow up and how they led to my standing here before you today.

I was raised in eastern Massachusetts as an Episcopalian.

I still own the 1940 edition of The Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America.  Here’s what’s inscribed on the flyleaf of my copy:

First Prize

“Name That Hymn” Contest

St. Paul’s Junior Young People’s Fellowship

November 7, 19… (Well, you don’t have to know the exact year.)

Won by John B. Hooper

This is still one of my most cherished possessions.

I was drawn to the resonance of the Anglican music and to the community experience of liturgical ritual.  So, I went on to sing in the choir and then to become an acolyte.  After years of dedicated service, I was appointed head acolyte in my late teens.  In the meantime, I had made up my mind to become an Episcopal priest.  But then something happened that abruptly changed the course of my life.  I call it my inverse epiphany experience.

One Sunday, after doing my head acolyte thing of carrying the cross at the front of the procession of priests, other acolytes and the choir into the church and up to the chancel, I settled in for yet another service.  Of course, by then, I knew the entire liturgy pretty much by heart, so I was free to observe the faces and body language of folks in the congregation.  While I was watching the faithful filing up to the altar rail to receive communion, it struck me:  Many of them looked like automatons.  There was no passion in their faces – no emotion.  And I thought to myself: This is nonsense!  I didn’t only know it in my mind; I felt it at the core of my being.  It was a life changing experience.  Like being “born again” in a weird sort of way.

But, I loved the freedom that casting off all supernatural crutches gave me.  I began carrying pocket editions of the writings of Bertrand Russell and Friedrich Nietzsche around with me, and quoting from them to almost anyone who would listen.  I had the same level of enthusiasm for my newfound atheism as today’s young freethinkers, who relish the writings of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens – the so-called “Four Horsemen of New Atheism.”  I was a committed atheist and existentialist long before I became a Unitarian Universalist.

Of course this change of circumstances put a significant damper on my priestly ambitions.  Now what would I do with my life?  Well, since math and science seemed to come naturally to me, I went on to college and graduate school, studied chemistry, and became a scientist – almost by default. 

I had put away the religion of my childhood and become a NONE – that’s spelled N-O-N-E – the term that is now used to refer to that ever-growing class of people who say they have no religious affiliation.  NONEs have gotten an awful lot of attention recently.  The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has conducted a series of surveys; including one published a short time ago, on the religious affiliations of Americans.  The results present both a challenge and an opportunity for Unitarian Universalism.  Here are a few excerpts from the survey results:

One fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today. …

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared with just one ­in­ ten who are 65 and older.

The ranks of the mainline denominations become more and more depleted every year.  The challenge for Unitarian Universalism is to be not perceived as just another organized religion.   If we are, our numbers may not just stay level, they will probably drop precipitously.  Younger people in particular are looking for new ways to come together in community outside of the traditional “religious” model.  And this is where our opportunity lies.  We have not been and are not now a traditional religion.

Like many others when I finally found Unitarian Universalism after wandering around in Noneville for 25 years, it felt like coming home.  Three things in particular drew me to this way of life: First, Unitarian Universalism is a religion of freedom and responsibility, not creeds – one could actually be an atheist or an agnostic and still be a UU!  Second, it is concerned with life before death, not in any postulated “hereafter” – the seven principles are about action, not belief; and, third, it’s all about reason and compassion.   

In short, I was drawn by what I now know is the Humanistic core of Unitarian Universalism.  And I firmly believe that if it is presented in the right form – most likely outside of the traditional congregational assembly - it will appeal to a large fraction of today’s young NONEs.

The term religious “Humanism” was actually coined by Unitarians.  Around the time of WWI, two Unitarian ministers began to preach and teach a religion without God.  One of them, Curtis Reese, called it “a religion of democracy.” The other, John Dietrich called it “Humanism.”  During the 1920’s, divinity students at the University of Chicago and its Unitarian affiliate, Meadville Theological School embraced this new “American religious Humanism,” which was defined in the Humanist Manifesto in 1933.  Half of the 34 signers of the Humanist Manifesto were Unitarian ministers.  Religious Humanism (as depicted by the Manifesto) combined the worldview of scientific naturalism with the compassionate ethics of a world community of free and equal human beings, with no mention of supernatural entities, miracles, or individual life after death.

The Humanist tradition is now carried on by the HUUmanists Association, which I am privileged to lead.  To learn more about us and the many initiatives we have underway, go to our website at HUUmanists.org.  We have recently published a new book by Rev. Bill Murry, called “Becoming More Fully Human: Religious Humanism as a Way of Life.”  It’s become a kind of handbook for religious Humanists.  You can purchase it on our website.  We also publish the Journal Religious Humanism.

So, with that little bit of history behind us, you might be wondering: where are we today?  How would I recognize a Unitarian Universalist Humanist if I saw one?  (Well, whether you’re wondering or not, I’m about to tell you.)

We UU Humanists have adopted a naturalist perspective as a predominant part of our life stance, a commitment to the evolutionary view of life and its origins.  We are just as “secular” as secular Humanists in the traditional sense of being “this-worldly.”  We believe that humans are responsible for addressing both the human condition and the ecological challenges we humans have been largely responsible for creating.  Unlike the so-called “new atheists” we don’t lead off with non-belief.  Rather, we take pretty much the same position as the great French mathematician and scientist, Pierre Simone LaPlace.  When Napoleon asked him why he made no mention of God in his scientific writings.  LaPlace replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”  If one of us happens to be an atheist, and many of us are, it is probably more a consequence of her Humanism than a cause of it.

Many UU Humanists are concerned that the increasing use of God language in some UU worship services undermines our message and may actually turn off many non-affiliated visitors, who otherwise might be attracted to Unitarian Universalism.  Some of my Humanist colleagues think that Unitarian Universalism is going to heaven in hand basket.  I share that concern, but I think we UUs are still the best game in town for people who are looking for authenticity, acceptance, and love in a dogma-free religious community.  Since I spend a lot of time in atheist and secular Humanist circles, I’m often asked why I remain so closely associated with other UUs who don’t have the same position that I do on the “God thing.”  I always reply, “because I love them and they love me.”

Which brings me to another important attribute of modern day religious Humanists, which might be surprising to some who may have bought into the stereotype of the typical Humanist as a hyper-rational white male scientist or philosopher.  We are in actuality a very diverse bunch, who are no longer reluctant to appeal to the emotions as a complement to reason.  We have compassion for others and celebrate the shared experience of being alive.

What’s this “appeal to the emotions” bit?  Have the hardheaded Humanists gone soft on scientific objectivity?  Not at all.  In fact, it is our respect for science that prompts us to value lived experience tempered with reason.   Over the the past few decades, there have been enormous advances in what may be called “the sciences of experience.”  We now know that we are essentially hard-wired for empathy and compassion.  Our brains did not evolve to enable us to think, but rather to help us make our way in the world.  Cognitive scientists have show that emotions and feelings are not epiphenomenal to thought, but an important component in the process by which we make our way in the world.  They are central to our rationality and, as the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio observes, are “a powerful manifestation of drives and instincts, part and parcel of their workings.”

Mary Oliver also has something to say about this.  I don’t know if she would consider herself a Humanist, but I think she summarizes the religious Humanist perspective beautifully in her poem “Wild Geese:”

You do not have to be good. 
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. 
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves. 
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. 
Meanwhile the world goes on. 
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain 
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees, 
the mountains and the rivers. 
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, 
are heading home again. 
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination, 
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place 
in the family of things.

We Unitarian Universalists take pride in the fact that we come from a long line of heretics.  A heretic is usually thought of as a person who holds beliefs or ideas that are contrary to those of her or his religious tradition.  But the word “heresy” actually comes from the Greek hairetikós, which means “able to choose.” In ancient days it also referred to a process used by young people examining various philosophies to figure out how they would live their lives. 

I am convinced that religious Humanism is the Grand Heresy of our times – in both senses of the word - and not only in Unitarian Universalism.  Modern Humanist heretics are emerging from within virtually all of the world’s religious traditions.  People are putting away the childish superstitions of their faiths, but retaining the traditions, the commitment to social justice, the culture, the caring for each other and the sense of community that they have grown to cherish.   Let me give you a couple of examples from other traditions:

First, from Judaism.  Here’s a portion of the philosophy of the Society for Humanistic Judaism:

Theistic religions assert that the ultimate source of wisdom and of the power of the solution to human problems is found outside of people - in a supernatural realm. Humanistic philosophy affirms that knowledge and power come from people and from the nature in which they live. Judaism is an ethnic culture. It did not fall from heaven. It was not invented by a divine spokesperson. The Jewish people created it. It was molded by Jewish experience.

Here’s an example from Christianity: Chet Raymo, a prolific writer and astronomy professor at Stonehill College (a Catholic institution) has written about his conversion from the dogmatic Catholicism of his early years to his growing commitment to a kind of Humanistic religious naturalism.  This is what he says about it in his book “When God is Gone, Everything is Holy:”

The divinity of the conventional theist is not so much seen through a glass darkly as in a mirror brightly.  And what could be more natural?  What metaphor is closer at hand than our own self-awareness?  Pre-scientific people invested every tree, brook, and celestial body with personhood.  For all its grandeur and refinement, the modern idea of a transcendent, personal deity who acts willfully in the world is only the final manifestation of ancient animism.  For the religious agnostic, this is the ultimate idolatry,

Here’s an example from Buddhism: Stephen Batchelor, in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, points out that the Buddha was not a theist nor was he an anti-theist.  The word “God” was simply not a part of his vocabulary.  Batchelor is championing a new Westernized version of Buddhism that has jettisoned all supernatural accouterments.  For example, he observes, “the practice of mindfulness aims for a still and lucid engagement with the open field of contingent events in which one’s life is embedded.” For him, Buddhism is a religion of engagement not belief. 

These examples, and many others I haven’t mentioned, bring to mind the Rumi poem often quoted in UU services.  Incidentally, I think that the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi was one of the very early religious Humanists coming out of Islam.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing
There is a field
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
Doesn’t make any sense.

People from a wide variety of religious traditions are casting off the gods and superstitions of the past and moving towards Rumi’s field “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing.”  They are looking for ways to express this new naturalist religious experience that they share. If Unitarian Universalism is to really become the religion for our times we must provide relevant opportunities for these searchers.  If we do I think we will also become more attractive to all those “NONEs” out there needing a religious home.

To me, one of the most exciting recent developments in American Humanism is that atheists and secular Humanists are realizing that heading towards Rumi’s Field might be a good idea for them as well.  My friend, Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard puts it this way in his recent book “Good without God:”

(T)he single biggest weakness of modern, organized atheism and Humanism … has been the movement’s own tendency to focus on religious beliefs, when the key to understanding religion lies not in belief at all but in practice – in what people do, not just what they think. … (N)ow we need to sing and to build.  We need to acknowledge that as nonreligious people, we may not need God or miracles, but we are human and we do need the experiential things – the heart – that religion provides: some form of ritual, culture, and community.

Greg is practicing what he preaches.  He started the Humanist Community Project at Harvard, which is flourishing.  I visited them last week and when I walked in, it felt a lot like it does when I walk into a Unitarian Universalist Community.

As Greg observed, Humanism is not just a philosophy, it’s a way of life that is defined by the way we treat each other.  Here’s a little story that I found on one of the many Humanist blogs.  I think it illustrates the kind of humanist perspective we need to foster in our every day interactions.

Imagine this:

You are driving down the road in your very tiny "Smart Car" on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus:
1. An old woman who looks very very ill.
2. An old friend who once saved your life.
3. The perfect partner you have been dreaming about.
What would you do, knowing that there could only be one passenger in your car?

This is a moral/ethical dilemma that was once actually used as part of an employment application process. This problem was presented to 200 job applicants. The candidate who was ultimately hired had no trouble coming up with his response.  He simply answered: “I would give the car keys to my friend and ask him to take the old woman to the hospital.  I would then stay behind and wait for the bus with the partner of my dreams.”

Let me close with this.  I am confident that the grand heresy of religious Humanism will eventually sweep through the great religious traditions of the world.  I am equally confident that many more atheists and agnostics will recognize that their human need for love, acceptance, and shared experience can only occur in an assembly of like-minded, warm-hearted people.    Religious Humanists are casting off the supernatural baggage of their religious traditions, which the secular Humanists never had in the first place.  At the same time, secular Humanists are acquiring the experiential communitarian elements that we religious Humanists already have.  We are all really heading for the same place – the place I’ve called Rumi’s Field. 

Unitarian Universalists have a special role in this emerging Humanist convergence.  Remember that the American form of the Grand Heresy began almost a century ago within our own religious tradition.  And it blossomed back then by capturing the imagination of a group of freethinking students.  I believe that, like our forebears, we Unitarian Universalists have a special role to play with the freethinking young people of today.  We must accept them where they are in their life journeys.  Our congregations need to be more openly welcoming to atheists and agnostics.  Young nonbelievers of today shouldn’t have to wait twenty-five years to “come home” to Unitarian Universalism like I did - or perhaps never get here.  This congregation nestled as it is in the five-college area has a unique opportunity to show nonbelieving young people that our “faith” doesn’t take away from their nontheistic life stance.  Rather it adds love, purpose, and community to it.  Go for it!

Knowing that we are a young species just coming of age, our religious quest must be to become more fully human, while continually striving to understand what being fully human really means.  If we strive to carry out the Humanistic vision of our forbears, we may actually help ourselves, our country and our species to grow up. 

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About John Hooper

John Hooper's picture

Dr. John B. Hooper, president of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association (UUHA), is a retired research and development director who lives in Connecticut. John, a long-term UU, is a Board Member of The Humanist Institute, The Institute for Humanist Studies, The Secular Coalition for America Education Fund, The American Humanist Association (ex officio), the Yale Humanist Community, and the Connecticut Coalition of Reason. John is also a cofounder of and advisor to Humanists and Freethinkers of Fairfield County, CT (HFFC).