A Brief History OF UUism and Humanism
Matt Groening is the creator of “The Simpsons”. He is a Humanist who has been in and out of Unitarian Universalism.
I remember one of the earlier episodes in which rowdy pre-teen Bart Simpson is over at the home of the Flanders, Springfield’s resident Christian Fundamentalist family. Bart and young Flanders are playing a video game called “Billy Graham’s Conversions”. The way it works is, you shoot at unbelievers, and when you hit one he or she becomes converted into one of the faithful.
Bart shoots and yells, “Got him”. The Flanders kid replies, “Naw, you just winged him—now he’s a Unitarian.
You know my credentials as a spokesperson for Humanism, but what are my credentials to talk about Unitarian Universalism?
About 45 years ago I joined a Unitarian Society and remained a UU for 40 years (including about 8 years as President of the UU Congregation of Las Vegas.) I was also an instructor at the Leadership Training School held each year by UU’s Pacific Southwest District and I held several regional leadership positions. In addition, I attended almost every GA from 1986 to 2006.
25 years ago, over 90% of UUs were Humanists as were about 80% of UU ministers. Today only about 30% of UUs are Humanists as are less than 10% of Humanist ministers. Many more UUs call themselves Humanists, but they can call themselves anything they wish. So let me tell you what Humanism is.
In April 2003 the American Humanist Association issued Humanist Manifesto III. The opening sentence in that document sums up what Humanism is. It says, “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity”. The only thing in that statement that would currently distinguish Humanists from about 70% of current UUs are the two words, “Without Supernaturalism”. A philosophy of life “without supernaturalism”.
At the time the Manifesto was released, I was President of the American Humanist Association. In our statement we wanted to make it crystal clear that Humanism is exclusively on one side of the theistic divide. Humanism doesn’t rely on or accept any supernatural interpretations of reality. These matters are too basic to ignore, dodge or rationalize.
Let me talk for a while about the history of American Humanism and its relationship to UUism. No history of American Humanism would be complete without reference to UUs. Just as no history of UUism in this country would be complete without mentioning the numerous Humanists who were instrumental in the growth of UUism.
Modern organized Humanism in the U.S. can be said to have its beginning in 1933 when 34 signers (which included 17 Unitarian ministers) drafted the first Humanist Manifesto, which challenged theism and formally set forth the concept of human responsibility for our world.
In 1941, Unitarian minister Edwin Wilson founded the American Humanist Association and became the first editor of the Humanist magazine (which is still being published by the AHA). Wilson summed up Humanism when he wrote, “The Humanist lives as if this world were all and enough and time spent on the contemplation of a possible afterlife is time wasted. He need not deny immortality; he simply is not interested. His interests are here.”
As a new UU, I was given a copy of George Marshall’s 1966 book about UUism entitled “Challenge of a Liberal Faith”. Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s that book was considered the “Bible” of UUism.
In that book Marshall asks, “Who is a Unitarian Universalist?”. His answer describes a Humanist today and a UU in 1968. He said a UU is “a freethinking adherent of a church or fellowhip associated with the Unitarian Universalist Association. In religion he is a freethinker who would be considered a heretic, radical, infidel, or nonconformist in other churches. Being independent in thought, he is basically an anti-institutionalist who, nevertheless, has combined with others of like mind to develop and maintain an institution based on individual freedom, convinced that the nurture of the free mind is necessary for the improvement of the human lot”.
The mid 1980s started a shift away from Humanist predominance in the Unitarian Universalist Association with the election of Bill Schultz as president of UUA. Schultz served from 1985-1993. One of Schultz’s notable comments when he was president was “we have gone too far on this side of rationality”.
But as disturbing to rational thinking as Bill Schultz may have been, it gets worse. In the early 1990s John Buhrens and Forrester Church wrote a book entitled “Our Chosen Faith”. This book quickly replaced Marshall’s book as the definitive guide to UUism. Buhrens book contains many anti-humanist references, consistently referring to the “excesses” of Humanism, and at one point, even implying that Humanism was responsible for the Nazi Holocaust and Stalin’s Gulag. Buhren’s co-author, Forrester Church, refers, in the book, to “the demonic pseudoreligion of atheism”. This sounds more like rhetoric from Pat Robertson than from 2 influential UU leaders.
At the 2003 GA, I heard Forrester Church give a sermon entitled “Born Again Unitarian Universalism”. Although this time he did not again call Humanists members of a demonic pseudoreligion, he made his distaste for Humanists quite clear. At one point in his talk he referred to Emerson’s belief in miracles. He said Emerson’s miracles were “not in the stopping of the sun. Not in the parting of the Red Sea. But in the miracle of the sun shining upon this earth and the miracle of the oceans teeming with life. The miracle of a newborn child.—Secular materialists (his euphemism for Humanists) discount the very idea of miracle”.
What Church knows but doesn’t mention is that Humanists don’t discount the concepts he described—the sun shining or a child’s birth. But Humanists DO discount the use of the word “miracle” to describe these naturalistic concepts. To be a miracle, it MUST be supernatural. Otherwise, it’s not a miracle. Natural events such as the sun shining and a child’s birth are natural events and not a miracles.
While that portion of Church’s talk may be nonsensical, other parts of his sermon were downright insulting.—such as when he compares atheists to religious fundamentalists saying, “both groups are in thralldom to the same tiny god”. This UU leader was no different from Falwell and Robertson in his rabid attacks on non-supernaturalists.
Church’s co-author, John Buhrens, became president of UUA in 1993 and held that position until 2001 when he was succeeded by Bill Sinkford. After being elected president, Sinkford made it known that while he was “a devoted Humanist for years”, his spiritual path had taken him elsewhere. He claimed to have had a conversion experience in 1997 when his son nearly died of a drug overdose. Sinkford said he prayed, and his son recovered, and he has believed in god and prayed regularly ever since. In one of his first major sermons Sinkford strongly advocated for “more language of reverence” in the UU principles—more references to god and the holy (whatever that may mean).
In a UU World article in 2002 called “A Theology of the 21st Century”, Forrester Church said that “the worst thing we can do is to criticize each other’s beliefs.” Well, I thought Unitarianism was founded on the rejection of the Trinity and Universalism was founded on the rejection of a god that damns people to hell.
In 1966 George Marshall wrote: “UUs were a generation ahead of other churches with a nontheistic theology which we have called Humanism. (p.121) UUism is not a negative religion because it accepts the present life and the natural world. It looks upon traditional Christianity as negative, because Christianity rejects this world for an afterlife and is self defeating in relying upon divine intervention for solving problems which can only be solved by the application of human will”. (p.130)
Contrast this with Sinkford’s born-again experience where he attributes his son’s recovery to his prayers to god.
Marshall emphasized that UUism is NOT a salvation religion. He said, “We are concerned about this life, not an afterlife. We are concerned with the ethical relations and understanding of life, not about the salvation of souls.” That was UUism in the decades of the 60s and 70s. But at the 2003 General Assemble in Boston, I was shocked to hear President Sinkford say during his opening speech, “souls are saved one at a time.” He apparently believed the purpose of the religion he headed was to save souls.
The founders of Unitarian Humanism were ministers such as Dietrich, Reese, Wilson and others. In 1925 Dietrich said he wanted Unitarianism to become what he called, “a religion without god”.
Today, Humanism is on the defensive within UUism. Today there is a sense that the future of UUism lies with those who are comfortable with god-talk and with an uncritical acceptance of the Bible and the traditions emanating from that book.
Today we are hearing more and more statements from the UUA which, instead of being open and affirming, are obviously excluding Humanists. Statements such as:
“WE are a spiritual community of faith”. Or, “We are thankful to god” or “We are guided by faith without evidence”. Do these statements describe a community in which one can be a Humanist?
Unitarian Universalism, in its seven principles, avoids an explicit statement that reason—the application of the human intellect—is the SOLE means by which truth can be derived. And because of this, UU communities have become havens for unreason which may be quite damaging, including faith healing, alternative medicine, and other superstitious perspectives.
To attract new members, UU leadership has been using words with standard traditional meanings, such as god, faith, sacred, holy and have given them different meanings. Like Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking Glass”, we can say “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less”. This is not only hurtful to those Humanists still affiliated with UUism, but it is also confusing and misleading to newcomers who are hearing something different from what is meant.
Today, the UU ministerial schools are minimizing Humanism as a significant source from which they draw their beliefs. Go online and look at the courses for a Masters degree at Starr King, the major UU school, and you can get a good picture of the agenda of UUA. Instead of a rounded education in philosophy, the Humanities, history, humanism, some science appreciation—instead of these, here are the courses required for a Masters degree:
I. LIFE IN RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY AND INTERFAITH ENGAGEMENT
II. PROPHETIC WITNESS AND WORK
III. SACRED TEXT AND INTERPRETATION
IV. HISTORY OF DISSENTING TRADITIONS AND THE THEOLOGICAL QUEST
V. SPIRITUAL PRACTICE AND CARE OF THE SOUL
VI. THEOLOGY IN CULTURE AND CONTEXT
VII. EDUCATING FOR WHOLENESS AND LIBERATION
VIII. EMBODIED WISDOM AND BEAUTY
In January 2003, 2 weeks after I became president of the American Humanist Association, UUA President Sinkford gave a speech in Ft. Worth, Texas in which he expressed concern that UUs Seven Principles “use not one single piece of religious language”. He said UUs should “reclaim a language of reverence”. In that same speech he said, “Unitarian Universalism stands for one god, no one left behind.” No one left behind—strange choice of language. But of course his comment would exclude not only Humanists, but pagans, hindus, jainists, and others.
A week after that speech I wrote Sinkford a letter.
Six weeks later I received a response in which he described UUism as a “theologically pluralistic faith”. He said, “We are all theological minorities in the movement.” Sinkford just didn’t get it that many UUs are non-theists who he chooses to ignore. President Sinkford just didn’t get it that while UUism may be a religion, it is not a theology. The idea of a religion without a theology is what made UUism so unique.
James Haught, author, newspaper editor and longtime UU said, “When some UU leaders invoke god in an abstruse (difficult to comprehend) sense, they sound like orthodox bishops and TV evangelists, giving an erroneous impression that most UUs embrace the supernatural.
About 3 years ago Haught wrote a letter to UUA and UU World in which he said,
“Our quandary might be solved if our denomination adopted a statement something like this: ‘The UUA takes no position on the existence or non-existence of god. Members are free to reach their own conclusions about this profound question’. This would make it clear, he said, that UUism is different from all other faiths, and also explain its difference from atheist groups. He received no response.
In some UU churches it is becoming difficult to distinguish UUs from Methodists and Presbytarians and Episcopalians. Once all the Humanists have left the UU churches they will probably have to compete with those other denominations for the liberal Christians. And they will probably lose unless they eventually merge with a Christian denomination.
Today, some congregations are affiliated with both the UUA and the United Church of Christ.
On February 7, 2012, Peter Morales, the current president of UUA, along with some senior UUA staff members, traveled to the Cleveland, Ohio headquarters of the United Church of Christ to meet with the president and staff members of the UCC. The purpose of the meeting was stated to be about how the 2 associations could work together. I’ve been involved with enough non-profits to know that this is the first reason always given for merger talks.
There is history between the 2 denominations going back several hundred years. Andover Semoinary was founded in 1807 by Congregationalists who disapproved of liberal trends at Harvard College, where most ministers in Massachusetts were educated. The seminary’s founding was referred to as the “Unitarian controversy”. By 1825, when the American Unitarian Association was founded, more than 100 of the old Congregational churches in Massachusetts had embraced the liberal theology that came to be called Unitarianism. Many of the more conservative Congregtational churches later joined the United Church of Christ. Although the Andover Seminary was founded to train orthodox Congregationalists, it has become increasingly popular in recent years among students seeking Unitarian Universalist ordination.
A merger between the 2 denominations would finish the UUA’s transformation back to a Christian church that was started almost 30 years ago.
So, let me respond to the question in the title of my talk. Is UU Humanist an oxymoron? Well, maybe not yet but it certainly is very close to becoming that.