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Why UU Humanism Requires Rejecting Our Humanity

By David R. Burton

This essay discusses humanist beliefs, the rise of humanism within Unitarianism, and why those beliefs require the rejection of our humanity.


When we think about what it means to be human, about the things that differentiate us from inanimate objects or lower life-forms, we think about our capacity to reason, to exercise our freedom to make choices, our capacity to recognize right from wrong, our capacity to love and to create and appreciate beauty. It is these things that make us human. It is these things that constitute our humanity.

It is the contention of this essay that UU humanism necessarily requires the rejection of our humanity. The humanism that is now such an integral part of Unitarian Universalism, the humanism that has marginalized Christian and other theist thinking within Unitarianism and Universalism, necessarily and logically requires the rejection of the proposition that there is such a thing as right and wrong, the denial of our ability to make choices, and necessitates the view that love and beauty are not real. It is only by embracing the reality of God that we may retain our humanity, our capacity for moral choices, for love and for the aesthetic appreciation of beauty.

It is time for Unitarian Universalism to confront the fact that humanism is a moral and religious dead-end. It is time to rediscover instead the intellectual and theological roots of Unitarianism. For it is there, not the arid wasteland of humanism, that truth, insight and spiritual sustenance can be found. It is in a more traditional Unitarian understanding of our place in the Universe that we can find our humanity, not in so-called humanism. Only a God-centered Unitarianism allows us to find a fully modern religious understanding of mankind that retains our humanity.

The Rise of Unitarian Humanism

Humanism became an important force within Unitarianism early in the 20th Century. Despite a recent resurgence of "spirituality" within Unitarian Universalist circles that some observers claim is underway, humanism has become the dominant theological position in Unitarian Universalism as we enter the 21st Century.1 In any event, there is little doubt that humanists are a strong force within the majority of UU congregations and at the UUA. They are dominant in many congregations. They are sufficiently powerful at the UUA that publications and religious education materials informed by the Unitarian tradition are virtually never forthcoming.2 The humanists' work over the past century has been sufficiently successful that only a small fraction of UU congregations are explicitly Christian or avowedly theist or God-centered. As their power and influence has grown, the humanists tolerance for "outmoded" traditional Unitarian ideas about God has waned.

In 1927, Curtis W. Reese, then secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference and editor of the prominent Unitarian periodical Unity, edited a volume entitled Humanist Sermons. This volume, composed of 18 sermons or essays primarily by Unitarian ministers, is a testament to the strong influence of humanism within Unitarianism outside of New England and the South by that time.

Humanists did, and do, regard themselves as thoroughly modern, progressive and enlightened. The "time has passed," they opine, for theism and deism.3 They pride themselves in having dispensed with a supernatural God in their religion and look forward to building a religion with man rather than God as its centerpiece.4 They hold that "the chief end of man is to serve man." 5 They redefine religion as "the knowledge of man and our duties toward him."6 Causes, ideas and goals replace God as the means to redemption and salvation.7 Science, psychology and political action became the building blocks of the new religion.8 Unitarian Minister E. Burdette Backus wrote, "I belong to a fellowship that is greater than that of any religion that has ever existed. I am a member of the Church Universal that is yet to be; a worshipper in the Temple of Humanity, not yet builded, but building."9 Humanists possess a virtually unbounded faith in the goodness and potential of mankind. They shout "Glory to Man in the Highest, for Man is the Master of Things."10 The humanist pioneers regarded themselves as transcending the Unitarian past and, indeed, they jettisoned the Unitarian tradition. They created a God-free religion. It is their Unitarian Universalism with which we now must contend.

The Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933 in The New Humanist. It was signed by 34 prominent humanists, nearly half of whom were prominent Unitarians. Curtis W. Reese, for example, was a prominent Unitarian leader for decades. He was secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference for 11 years, editor of Unity for 8 years and one of four members of the Unitarian Commission on Hymns and Services that created, with the Universalists, Hymns of the Spirit that served as the Unitarian and Universalist hymnal until well after the 1961 merger.11 John H. Dietrich was the prominent Minister of the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Other Unitarian or Universalist signatories included E. Burdette Backus, Raymond B. Bragg, Ernest Caldecott, Albert C Dieffenbach (a former editor of the Unitarian flagship publication the Christian Register), R. Lester Mondale, Clinton Lee Scott, Frank S. C Wicks and Edwin H. Wilson.12

The Humanist Manifesto has the virtue of being clear. It does not obfuscate or temporize. Unlike the collection in Humanist Sermons, it also was a statement of common belief and has endured as a statement of humanist thinking, both within Unitarianism and beyond. The following points in the manifesto are of particular relevance to the concerns of this essay.

First: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.

Fifth: Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.

Sixth: We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of "new thought.

Ninth: In place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being

Tenth: It follows that there will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes of the kind hitherto associated with belief in the supernatural.

The humanists, then, denied that God created the Universe. They denied God, or at least denied God had any known religious relevance.13 They denied that religion was different from other human disciplines and they denied God as the source of human values. Instead, they put their faith in man and in their conception of the universal man and a good society.

Humanism and Science

In the words of the Humanist Manifesto, "humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values" and, further, that "there will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes of the kind hitherto associated with belief in the supernatural." But the science that Unitarian humanism embraces -- an atheist science, a science uninformed by religious insight, a science that rejects any role for God -- requires the rejection of our humanity. As more fully discussed below, traditional Unitarianism, in contrast, embraced both science and God, regarding both as critical to a proper understanding of the human condition.14

Make no mistake, modern physics implies determinism (or, as we shall see, randomness). Determinism is the proposition that all our actions are effects necessitated by preceding causes. In classical physics, the physical state of a system at time B is a function of the laws of nature applied to the previous physical state of the system at time A. Physical state C is a function of the laws of nature applied to the previous physical state at time B. And so on. There is no room for free will. Everything we do is a function of the laws of nature and the physical state of the universe from the beginning of the universe until the end of the universe.15 With sufficient information about the state of a system (including the universe, which is just a big system), the future state of the system could, in principle, be predicted using the laws of physics.16 One might not have enough information to accurately predict the future but, in principle, the future was pre-ordained by the past. The algorithm that connects the past to the present to the future is the laws of physics. This scientific view has been called the "clockwork universe".

Albert Einstein, for example, squarely stated this in the New York Times in 1930 and acknowledged its moral implications.

The man who is thoroughly convinced on the universal law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events -- provided of course that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the single reason that a man's actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God's eyes he cannot be responsible any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motion it undergoes.17

Einstein's views are not idiosyncratic but representative of scientists' views. Unless, that is, religious insights are brought to bear on the issue.

Arthur Stanley Eddington in his 1928 book The Nature of the Physical World wrote "religion first became possible for a reasonable scientific man about 1927" with "the overthrow of strict causality by Heisenberg, Bohr, Born and others." What he was referring to was the advent of quantum mechanics and, specifically, Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle."18

Without going into details unnecessary for the purposes of this essay, quantum mechanics stands for the proposition that it is impossible in principle to know with certainty both the momentum and position of a particle. The more accurately momentum is measured, the less accurately position can be known and vice versa. Now this can be interpreted as just a measurement problem. At the subatomic level, the act of measuring affects the particle. But physicists have generally adopted a differing view, known as the Copenhagen interpretation. The world, at its most fundamental level, is viewed by the vast majority of physicists as being extremely uncertain. At the subatomic level, the world is regarded as composed of a vast array of particles but these particles are not "real" in the ordinary sense. They are ghosts that simply represent statistical possibilities until they are observed and the act of observation "collapses the wave function."

Einstein, it should be said, rejected the Copenhagen interpretation with his famous dictum that "God does not play dice with the Universe." He preferred a more classically deterministic view of the universe and believed that quantum mechanics must be a manifestation of a deeper reality. But his rejection of the now dominant view is considered by most physicists as one of his lesser moments.

Now let us look at the implications of all of this for us. Whether Einstein was right or the current interpretation of quantum mechanics is right, free will is a casualty. In the classical deterministic physical world, the past determines the future. The neurons in our brain fire as a direct result of the physical state in a previous period of time. Subject to the problem of insufficient information, the future can be predicted by a rigorous application of the laws of physics. The future is determined. All that quantum mechanics really does is replace classical determinism with a statistical function. Randomness replaces hard determinism.

If matter and energy is all that exists, if everything is a matter of physics and there is no other force or realm that influences real events in the universe, then our humanity is a necessary casualty. Whether our actions, thoughts, and feelings are a function of classical determinism or quantum indeterminance, we are not free in the sense that we mean when we talk about free will in religion, philosophy or law. Whether our actions are function of physical states in a previous period or the function of purely random quantum events, in no meaningful sense do we have a choice about our actions. Therefore, in no meaningful sense can we be held morally accountable for our actions because we had no choice over them. It is not just, after all, to hold someone accountable for an action over which they had no control.19 Similarly, concepts like love and beauty begin to rapidly lose coherence and meaning if the Universe and everything in it simply had to be the way that it is or, in the alternative, is a function of random interactions at the subatomic level.

Affirming Our Humanity: Rejecting Humanism and Embracing God

William E. Channing, in the introduction to his Collected Works wrote:

One of the greatest of all errors, is the attempt to exalt God, by making him the sole cause, the sole agent in the universe, by denying to the creature freedom of will and moral power, by making man a mere recipient and transmitter of a foreign impulse. This, if followed out consistently, destroys all moral connexion between God and his creatures. In aiming to strengthen the physical, it ruptures the moral bond which holds them together. To extinguish the free will is to strike the conscience with death, for both have but one and the same life. It destroys responsibility. It puts out the light of the universe; it makes the universe a machine. It freezes the fountain of our moral feelings, of all generous affection and lofty aspirations.20

Channing was responding to Calvinists and others that adopted the position that the future was pre-ordained by God. His criticism, however, is no less valid of humanists who substitute Science for God. An affirmation of our free will, our moral responsibility, our capacity for self-culture and self-improvement and our humanity is an absolutely central tenant to a traditional Unitarian understanding of mankind. In the absence of some means for us to exercise free will (however, constrained by physical reality our range of choices may be), we cannot be human. We cannot make choices. We are automatons. Our humanity is not real unless free will is real.21

Humanists have no means of explaining free will. They have no way out of the box they have created for themselves. As noted above, they reject God the creator.22 They reject a supernatural God, a God beyond matter and energy, a God that can influence the physical universe. They reject God as a source of values. They reject any uniquely religious insights. They reject the idea of a soul or of the Holy Spirit. They must, if they are to be intellectually honest, reject our humanity because their position requires that they follow Einstein (or the quantum theorists) and reject our free will.23

American Unitarians, however, can affirm our humanity by embracing God. God is the source of our free will. Our freedom is a central fact of God's creation. One may express this insight in traditional terms as God infusing us with the holy spirit, or as our soul being the source of free will. Or one may adopt a process theology perspective based on the work of Alfred North Whitehead.24 In either event, God has given us the gift of free will.25 By exercising that freedom, we influence the future course of the Universe. Just as God created the universe, we create the fabric of our lives and become cocreators of the Universe of the future. We are indeed, in that sense, created in God's image.

This creativity is a fact of the human condition. This creative reality is the source of not only decisions about our daily lives but of our great art, of institutional innovations, even of scientific and mathematical insight. Its reality is a manifestation of divine love. This creativity is wholly inconsistent with Unitarian humanism.

In the final analysis, trying to dispense with God and replacing God with science as the Unitarian humanists did, was an intellectual and spiritual failure. Trying to paint man as entirely self-sufficient and worthy of worship in Backus' "Temple of Humanity" is shallow and, ultimately, does not comport with reality.26 We all know that we are finite and limited. We are not gods. We are sophisticated enough to know that there is something greater than ourselves. We know that in the absence of a faith in that sustaining reality, we do not feel whole or at peace or even fully human.

We must embrace science but must understand its limitations as did the early American Unitarians. Science is reason applied to the physical world. It enables us to understand one aspect of reality, but there is more to the world than just matter and energy and the laws of physics. God is a necessary hypothesis unless we are willing to abandon our humanity. Since we know that our humanity is real, we must add religious insight to the insights of science. Our own experience and reason tell us that we are more than rocks, that there is such a thing as right and wrong and beauty and love. The experience of many of us confirms a divine presence of sustaining love.

Those of us who are engaged in the religious enterprise are truly affirming our humanity and seeking after truth. It is not a particularly easy or simple task but it is a worthy and necessary one. As James Freeman Clarke once wrote, in language that must be regarded as very un-UU:

Use and improve the powers which look up to an infinite truth, beauty and goodness, and they lift you towards these. Let them sleep, and they cannot see this Kingdom of God, this Divine element in the universe. The fool, who has not developed his spiritual nature, says in his heart, "There is no God."27


1. For example, in the 1997 Unitarian Universalism Needs and Aspirations Survey, which surveyed about 10,000 Unitarian Universalists, 46 percent of UUs described themselves as humanist and 19 percent as earth/nature centered. 13 percent described themselves as theists, and 9.5 percent described themselves as Christian. Thus, humanists constitute by far the largest group within Unitarian Universalism and are approximately twice as numerous as those holding traditional Unitarian beliefs (broadly defined). Although there is renewed interest in the traditional Unitarian understanding of God, the primary cause, so far, of a resurgence in "spirituality" with Unitarian Universalism that some have observed is, in the author's judgment, the new prominence of new age, pagan, Wiccan, other "earth centered" and Buddhist practice and beliefs within UU congregations.

2. The work of the UUA affiliate, the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship is an exception.

3. Humanist Manifesto, Sixth Article, 1933.

4. "Humanism does not recognize the existence of any supernatural." John H. Dietrich, "Unitarianism and Humanism, in Humanist Sermons [Chicago, 1927], p. 97. "We will need no other god but the ideal of perfection for the whole human race - the universal man," Eugene Milne Cosgrove, "The Architecture of Humanism," Humanist Sermons [Chicago, 1927], p. 144.

5. Ibid, p. 104.

6. Ibid, p. 96

7. "Causes, ideas, goals have regenerative power," Curtis W. Reese, in Preface, Humanist Sermons [Chicago, 1927], p. xv.

8. See, e.g. Eugene Milne Cosgrove, op. cit., at pp. 141-145.

9. E. Burdette Backus, "Christianity and Humanism," Humanist Sermons [Chicago, 1927], p. 73.

10. Dietrich, op. cit., p. 111.

11. It still does in more traditional Unitarian and Universalist churches such as King's Chapel and Universalist National Memorial Church.

12. Their institutional affiliations at the time of the Manifesto, as best the author can determine, were: Backus (former Minister, First Unitarian Church, Los Angeles), Bragg (Secretary, Western Unitarian Conference), Caldecott (First Unitarian Church, Los Angeles, California), Mondale (Minister, Unitarian Church, Evanston, Illinois), Scott (Minister, Universalist Church, Peoria, Illinois), Wicks (All Souls Unitarian Church, Indianapolis), Wilson (Minister, Third Unitarian Church, Chicago, Illinois). Reese, then Dean of the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago, Dietrich, Backus and Caldecott were among the 18 contributors to the 1927 Humanist Sermons, op. cit. Interestingly, the extraordinarily influential Frederick May Eliot, President of the American Unitarian Association from 1937 to 1958 was also a contributor, contributing "Humanism and the Inner Life." In his contribution he certainly sings the praises of the "Humanist Faith" and makes it clear he does not expect divine intervention in human affairs but, he steers clear of the militant atheism found in most of the other sermons in the volume.

13. Reese, for example, in his preface to Humanist Sermons denies that humanism can be equated with atheism. He simply argues that humanists do not regard God as relevant to religion and maintain a stance of inquiry as to whether or not God exists. This statement can be regarded as an attempt to immunize humanists within Unitarianism from the charge of being atheists; they adopted, instead, the posture of agnostics. During the six years that elapsed between the publication of Humanist Sermons and the Humanist Manifesto, Reese seems to have become more willing to embrace an explicit atheism (as, of course, did the many other prominent Unitarians who signed the manifesto). Many UU humanists today have a nearly violent reaction to so much as the mention of God in a Sunday service and many, perhaps most, would deny the existence of God rather than merely professing doubt or ignorance. In any event, the distinction between a confirmed atheist and an agnostic that regards God as irrelevant to religion is probably operationally unimportant.

14. For an example of early Unitarians embracing science while also recognizing its limits, see William Ellery Channing, "The Present Age," in The Works of William E. Channing, With an Introduction (1841), (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1898), pp. 160-161.

15. If there is an end. The universe may end in a big crunch or it may expand indefinitely and die as entropy steadily increases in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics. In the later case, the universe would exist but no order or life would remain.

16. Naturally, in a system as large as the universe, acquiring enough information becomes an issue even in principle.

17. "Religion and Science," New York Times, Nov. 10, 1930.

18. A revolution occurred about the same time in mathematics with the publication in 1931 of a paper by Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel. Godel showed that in any formal system adequate for number theory there exists an undecidable formula that is not provable and whose negation is not provable. A corollary of this theorem is that the consistency of a formal system adequate for number theory cannot be proved within the system. Godel's work is generally accepted and stands for the proposition that mathematics cannot be proven true. There are always unprovable assumptions that need to be made or, more accurately, mathematics cannot be formalized within one system. Thus, uncertainty or indeterminacy was introduced into deductive systems like mathematics in a manner analogous to that of empirical sciences.

19. In fact, it is almost incoherent to talk about an action unless it is paired with volition.

20. Introduction, The Works of William E. Channing, With an Introduction (1841), (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1898), p. 4.

21. This essay necessarily simplifies, given its length. Philosophy (as opposed to religion or science) has grappled with the "problem of free will" at least since ancient Greece. Modern philosophy does not appreciably help resolve the issue of whether we have free will although it does help to clarify the issues involved. For a basic introduction to the philosophical perspectives on this issue, the reader may find helpful Roy C. Weatherford, "Freedom and Determinism," and "Determinism" in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ( 1995) or Richard Taylor, "Determinism," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967).

22. Science, of course, tells us that the universe had a beginning the Big Bang. This is primarily a function of the fact that the universe is observed to be expanding but is also a necessary implication of thermodynamics. The Big Bang, however, is a violation of the known laws of physics since anything as massive as the universe and as small as the universe at the beginning would be a black hole from which nothing could escape. It is difficult to make sense of these scientific fact without positing a creator God.

23. They do not, of course, reject free will. They simply adopt the inconsistent positions that there is free will and that there is no God and continue merrily along. Scientists do the same. Einstein, for example, wrote of right and wrong in his book Ideas and Opinions and elsewhere notwithstanding his New York Times article above. A philosophy that is inconsistent with how one leads one's life should be regarded as suspect.

24. See, e.g., Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929); Sceince and the Modern World (1925).

25. See American Unitarian Conference Religious Principle No. 3, "Free will is a gift from God."

26. Humanists have an almost irrational faith in man. Dietrich's "Glory to Man in the Highest, for Man is the Master of Things" rings hollow when one reflects on man's inhumanity to man and all of the evil done by man. Is man a god any of us would really want to worship.

27. From James Freeman Clarke, "Man's Duty to Grow," in Self-Culture: Physical, Intellectual, Moral and Spiritual, 1892.

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