Humanism, the Early Church, and Rational Religion

by Lewis Loflin Bristol, Virginia


The appeal of Christianity in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages was related to a corresponding shift in cultural emphasis-a movement from reason to emotion and revelation. Offering comforting and simplistic solutions to the existential problems of life and death, revealed religion and mysticism demonstrated a greater capacity to stir human hearts than reason did.

Classical Humanism (Hellenism) had invented the tools of rational thought, science, and democracy, but the power of mythical (Eastern) religion was never entirely subdued. By the Late Roman Empire, science and philosophy were unable to compete with mysticism and myth.

Unfortunately for the Church Fathers, the Bible did not say what they wanted to hear when read as written (Jesus was too Jewish). Concepts that contradict reason, such as Original Sin and the Trinity, do not even exist in the Bible and were never mentioned by Jesus. Many believed (and still do) that revelation must overrule reason. But by rejecting all humanism and reason, they rejected not only all learning, science, and freedom, but Jesus' message of love, as well as his humanity. The end result was the Dark Ages.

The West today seems to be going through a similar cycle. New Age religion, the occult, and other pseudo-religious systems, along with the usual Eastern religions, have gained ground, while Christian conservatives and Secular Humanists battle it out for control. The delicate balance of classical humanism (also known as Hellenism) and Judeo-Christian thought, the basis of civilized society in the West, is under assault. Christianity and Classical Humanism must balance or we are threatened by the very irrational forces that plunged the West into the Dark Ages.

To better understand the conflict today in the Western World, we must look at the origins of this conflict. If we get beyond the culture wars and all of the attacks, a startling pattern begins to emerge.

Classical Humanism

Humanism is a doctrine, attitude, or way of life that is centered on human interests or values and stresses an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason. It was first developed in ancient Greece and Rome. It is no coincidence that many of our legal codes go back to Rome and many scientific and technical terms and ideas back to ancient Greece. But Greece in particular has influenced philosophy, which celebrates reason. We use the term Classical Humanism to refer to the humanism of this early period.

Four influential Classical Humanists were Plato, Zeno, Epicurus, and Aristotle. Plato promoted Idealism, the theory that the essential nature of reality lies in consciousness or reason. Stoicism was founded by Zeno, who greatly stressed ethics, and the Stoic schools attracted many adherents in Greece and later in Rome, such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Zeno claimed that everything exists in Nature, and that Nature itself is a controlling intelligence (an early form of pantheism).

Epicurus followed the atomic theory and materialism of Democritus. He rejected supernatural concepts - if there are gods, he said, they are made out of the same stuff as the rest of us. The prime good was pleasure, but a pleasure akin to Buddhist tranquility. Aristotle contributed much to our understanding of science and human nature. He saw mind and matter (body/soul) as inseparable and the universe as a scale lying between the two extremes: form without matter is on one end, and matter without form is on the other end.

The passage of matter into form must be shown in its various stages in the world of nature. Everything in nature has its end and function, and nothing is without its purpose. Everywhere we find evidences of design and rational plan. Reason is the source of the first principles of knowledge. Reason is opposed to the sense insofar as sensations are restricted and individual, and thought is free and universal.

The human soul shares the nutritive element with plants, and the appetitive element with animals, but also has a rational element which is distinctively our own. While assigning reason to the soul of humans, Aristotle describes it as coming from without, and almost seems to identify it with God as the eternal and omnipresent thinker. Even in humans, in short, reason realizes something of the essential characteristic of absolute thought-the unity of thought as subject with thought as object.

Though diverse, Classical Humanists were united in their belief that individual worth came from the individual's capacity to reason, which could shape character and life according to rational standards.

Despite all of their learning, science, and philosophy, Greece and Rome did not achieve a higher moral standard. Both were brutal slave states. Sexual perversion, including incest and pedophilia, was wide spread. Unwanted children and infants were left to die in the countryside to be eaten by dogs or starve to death. Reason alone does not create a moral society and often reduces humans to little more than objects. God may be either abstract, or uninterested in the world, or just a facet of nature. Fortunately, God would become a significant part of humanistic thinking later on.

Christianity and Classical Humanism: Alternate World-Views

Christianity and Classical Humanism together are the two principal components of the Western tradition. The value that modern Western civilization places on the individual derives from a balance of both Classical Humanism and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christian Humanism embraces both a God centered world-view and classical learning and thought.

In the Late Roman Empire, classical values were in decay, and Christianity was a dynamic and creative movement possessing both institutional and spiritual strength. For these reasons, Christianity survived the fall of Rome. Because it retained elements of Greco-Roman civilization and taught a high morality, Christianity served as a civilizing agent in the centuries that followed Rome's collapse. Indeed, Christianity was the essential shaper of the European civilization that emerged in Medieval Europe.

Christianity and Classical Humanism represent two essentially different world-views. Christianity inherited the Jewish view of the overriding importance of God for humanity: God makes life intelligible and purposeful. For the Christian, God is a living being, loving and compassionate, in whose company one seeks to spend eternity; one knows God essentially through faith and feeling. The Greek philosophers had developed a pantheistic conception of God that was incompatible with the God of Jews and Christians.

For the Greek, God was a logical abstraction, a principle of order, the supreme good, the highest truth; God was a concept, impersonal, unfeeling, and uninvolved with human concerns. The Greeks approached God through the intellect, not the heart; they neither loved nor worshiped God. In addition, because religion was at the periphery, not the center, of Classical Humanism, the idea of God did not carry as much significance as it did for Christianity. Classicism held that there was no authority higher than reason, while Christianity teaches that without God as the starting point, knowledge is useless and prone to error.

The triumph of the Christian outlook signified a break with the essential meaning of Classical Humanism. In the classical world, the political community was the avenue to justice, happiness, and self-realization. In early Christianity, the good life was not identified with worldly achievement, but with life eternal, and the ideal commonwealth could only be one that was founded and ruled by Christ. Christianity pointed to the end of the ancient world and the beginning of an age of faith.

It was entrance into God's kingdom that each person must make the central aim of life. With the victory of Christianity, the ultimate goal of life shifted away from development of human talent or earthly fame to gaining salvation in what St. Augustine called a heavenly city. Worldly accomplishment amounted to nothing if one did not accept God and His revelation.

In the classical world, history had no ultimate end or meaning. The Christian view of history is filled with spiritual meaning as individuals struggle to overcome their sins to gain eternal happiness in heaven. History began with Adam and Eve's defiance of God and would end when Christ returns to earth to eradicate evil and when God's will prevails.

Classical Humanism held that ethical standards were laws of nature that reason could discover. Through reason, individuals could arrive at values to regulate their lives and obtain happiness. Reason would enable them to govern desires and regulate behavior. Individuals would seek what was best for them and obey the "voice of reason."

Christianity in the Middle Ages, on the other hand, maintained that ethical standards emanated from the personal will of God. Without obedience to God's commands, people would remain wicked forever; the human will, essentially sinful, could not be transformed by the promptings of reason. Only when individuals turned to God for forgiveness and guidance would they find the inner strength to overcome their sin.

People could not perfect themselves through just scientific knowledge alone. Spiritual insight and belief in God must serve as the foundation of our lives. For classicism, the ultimate good was sought through thought and action; for Christianity, ultimate good comes through knowing and loving God.

Early Attempts at Christian Humanism

Christian thinkers respected some aspects of Greek philosophy and did not seek to eradicate entirely the intellectual heritage of Greece. Rather, they wanted to form it into a Christian framework. By preserving the Greek philosophical tradition, Christian thinkers performed a task of immense historical significance.

Earliest Christianity placed great value on individuals. It taught that God cares for each of us and wants us to behave righteously. Jesus Christ died for all because God loves humanity and wants all to attain salvation. Early Christianity espoused active love and genuine concern for all people. With God people can undergo a moral transformation and become loving, good, and free of sin. These elements of Christian teaching coincided with emphasis on individuality found in Classical Humanism.

Christianity adopted Plato's concept of Dualism, which made a separation between the mental and the physical realms, and led to the later (neo-Platonic) theory that the Universe contains two different substances: material substance and mind/spirit. Here soul as a piece of the spirit is trapped in the material world, often considered corrupt.

Platonism had begun as a form of pantheism, but Philo of Alexandria (first century AD) stripped out the pantheism and created a fusion of the Jewish God, Greek Stoicism, and Neo-Platonism. In Stoicism as it developed after the 4th century BC, the Logos is conceived of as a rational divine power that orders and directs the universe; it is identified with God, nature, and fate.

The Logos is "present everywhere" and seems to be understood as both a divine mind and at least a semi-physical force, acting through space and time. Philo was a direct influence on the writer of the Gospel of John, who developed the concept of a Logos, a divine mediator (savior) between God and humans. Neo-Platonism was favored by the Catholic Church into the Middle Ages and was an influence on St. Augustine, who in turn greatly influenced Calvin and Luther.

Attacks on Humanism in Christianity

When Alexander the Great conquered Judea in 332 BC and went all the way to India, he opened the door to Eastern religion into the West. Later Rome's vast system of roads and commerce enabled the Apostle Paul and anyone else to spread their respective faiths all the way to Britain. As Classical Humanism declined, the growing popularity of Eastern religions and the occult transformed philosophy. While the Greco-Roman world had conquered the Middle East militarily, the oriental world and its religions waged a counteroffensive that eventually overwhelmed a decaying Greco-Roman civilization.

Mystery cults promising personal salvation were spreading and gaining followers. The cults would win over reason, and Western Civilization would go into a death-like coma for centuries. It all but destroyed classical learning and reason, heavily infiltrated and altered Christianity, and decimated Judaism. Today we would call it broadly New Age religion; back then it was commonly known as Gnosticism.

Gnosticism was a religion of spiritual knowledge, not a "church" as many have tried to define it. It was a broad mixture of Eastern religion, the occult and mystery religions, pantheism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Egyptian religions, astrology, Greek philosophy, and Christianity. It created scores of cults and it varied almost from individual to individual.

It emphasized "spiritualism" and "intuition" over reason and tradition. Gnostics not only mixed together all kinds of beliefs and philosophies, but also reinterpreted traditional teachings into meanings (allegory) the original writers could never have intended.

Though eventually condemned as a heresy, Gnosticism had a tremendous influence on Christianity. While Judaism believed in a direct relationship between God and man, Gnosticism, drawing on Greek Platonism, believed God was so remote a divine mediator was needed to bridge the gap.

Christian dogma incorporates Platonic mysticism and spiritual speculation along with elements of Stoicism and Gnosticism. Christian monasticism is patterned after practices from Eastern religion. Zoroastrian Cosmic Dualism, which taught that a good God and an evil God are in constant conflict, was meshed with Plato's dualistic concept and resulted in the widespread belief that everything spiritual was good and everything material was evil.

Thus those aspects of life related to physical pleasure, like food and sex, were seen as evil. This concept stands in contrast to the description of creation in Genesis, where God calls everything "good." This thinking gave rise to Manicheanism, which for a time became a world religion. It was an enormous influence on St. Augustine and his views on sin.

Egalitarian Christianity, which emphasized the individual, gave way to hierarchical Christianity, which emphasized the institution. After the Council of Nicaea in 325, Christianity became an instrument of power and control. Individual interpretation was outlawed as heresy. For a thousand years (about 450 AD to 1450 AD), the theocentric outlook would define the Western mentality. It was a time of little learning, gross superstition, and religious intolerance. The church went to extremes rejecting humanism and reason alike. Revelation must overrule reason, even that of the Bible itself.

By rejecting humanism in any form, the Christians of this time also rejected Jesus and His moral teachings. What little that was left of the humanity of the real Jesus became only a mere shadow.

Rational Religion and the Reemergence of Christian Humanism

During the period of the Italian Renaissance, an awakening began to stir in Europe. Aristotle greatly influenced medieval thinkers in Christianity (St Thomas Aquinas and Scholasticism), Judaism (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or Rambam), and Islam (Avicenna, Averroes, etc.). These thinkers laid the foundation for the Italian Renaissance and the rational religious movements of Christian Unitarianism (via Michael Servetus, etc.), Deism, Quakerism, and later Reform Judaism (via Rambam).

The Reformation led to the open questioning of religious authority and scripture. This rejection of authority generally led to advancements in scientific thought, empiricism, critical thinking and reason. The two earliest movements would be Unitarianism and Deism, both a reaction to Calvin's extremist Reform Theology (called Puritanism in England).

Jesus would be reborn, and his moral teachings would finally take center stage from Calvin's angry god. When Christians began to examine the Bible, they found many of the claims of the official Church were false. There was no real support for the Trinity; Jesus never mentioned original sin. In the 17th century, as a result of freer inquiry, Christian denominations continued to proliferate, as did the persecution of heretics.

Unitarianism in various forms emerged across Europe and was ruthlessly suppressed. The most notable early Unitarian was Michael Servetus (1511-1553). Among his most noted works were De Trinitatis Erroribus in 1531 and Dialogues on the Trinity in 1532, which drew attention to the irrationality of the Trinity doctrine. In 1553, after Servetus published Chriatianismi Restitutio, he was condemned to death at Vienna and burned at the stake at Geneva, October 27.

In Poland, Socinus (d. 1603) united all the Antitrinitarian factions in 1588. This Unitarianism (called Socinianism) survived for about 100 years in Kracow (Racov) before being stamped out by the Catholic Church. Many Socinians escaped to Holland, some to Transylvania, while some converted to Judaism or back to Catholicism. Socinianism set the stage for later Unitarians. They were notable for religious tolerance, belief in Jesus as human, and placing higher priority on the Gospels than on Paul.

In their view, all religious authority depended on applying reason to Scripture. They rejected the following doctrines as false: original sin, predestination of the elect, the inherent depravity of human beings, and eternal damnation. Their printing press produced the most feared and burned books in Christian Europe.

In Transylvania Unitarianism would be founded by Francis David (1510-1579). For about three years under King John Sigismund, we had a Unitarian nation. Unlike what happened in Poland, the Ottoman Turks (Muslims that also protected Jews) prevented the Catholic Church from wiping out the Unitarians. Transylvania in general became isolated from the West until Unitarians in England and Transylvania found each other in 1821.

In England Unitarianism got off to a bad start. Most notable is John Bidle (1615-1662), who looked to reason, rather than tradtion, for guidance, and ended up dying in prison while others like him were burned at the stake.

Richard Hooker (1554-1600) was the premier Anglican theologian standing against Calvinism. He placed reason above scripture trying to curtail rampant superstition and religious intolerance alike.

Another heretic was Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), who wrote "History of the World" while in prison between 1613 and 1616 for treason and questioned the story of Noah's Ark. Although he was often accused of being an atheist, he was actually a Deist. Raleigh wrote an essay called "The Skeptick," which said, "The skeptick doth neither affirm nor deny any position but doubteth of it, and applyeth his Reason against that which is affirmed, or denied, to justify his non-consenting." He was beheaded in 1618 for treason on other charges.

It is not really clear where the lines between Unitarianism, Arianism (belief in Jesus as a pre-existent divine being, but not as God) and English Deism should be drawn. John Locke was an Arian, but was close friends with Isaac Newton, a Unitarian. However, Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) makes Locke sound like a Deist. Locke knew the first of the English Deists, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582-1648), and was friends with Deist Anthony Collins (1676-1729).

Deism is badly misunderstood. Deism was a reaction to church conflict and infighting that sought a common ground. Once the controversy between Anglicans and Puritans subsided and Unitarianism and Arminianism moderated Christian thought, Deism was absorbed into the fringes of Protestantism.

The ideas of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), physicist and philosopher, helped popularize scientific Deism. Only when it was exported to France and stripped of its theistic roots (belief in an afterlife, punishment for sin, and divine providence) French Deism became a type of anti-religion used to attack all religious faith.

Nowhere was this more so than with Voltaire and his rabid anti-Semitism, which drew strong attacks from American Unitarians such as President John Adams. French Deism, regardless of rhetoric, was anything but tolerant of other faiths. Deism reached its peak in the 18th century and survives today through its influence in science and on Christianity and Judaism.

In America Unitarianism emerged from the Congregational Churches of New England in response to the Great Awakening of 1740. Thomas Jefferson, often considered a Deist, called himself a Unitarian. Jefferson considered Jesus human, but held him in highest regard as a moral example. Jefferson's friends included English Unitarian Joseph Priestley (1735-1804), whom he encouraged to immigrate to America.

After George Fox (1624-1691) was imprisoned for forming the Society of Friends (Quakers), many of his followers emigrated from Europe to America in an effort to escape persecution. Fox objected to political and religious authority and opposed war and slavery. Fox was imprisoned several times for interrupting and rebuking a minister, and for blasphemy. The Society of Friends continued to grow while Fox helped lobby for the Act of Toleration, which passed in 1689.

William Penn (1644-1718), who founded Pennsylvania in 1681, was another famous Quaker who had been imprisoned for his views, and who helped pass the Act of Toleration. Many Quakers opposed the doctrine of the Trinity and religious formalism, and emphasized pacifism and socially progressive issues, such as the protection of the Native Americans and the improvement of prison conditions.

The Society of Friends was the first Christian denomination to give women equal rights with men within the church. Modern Quakers are located mostly within the United States, where the Hicksite sect, founded later on in the 19th century, especially embraces humanism.


enn, along with Roger Williams (1604-1683) introduced the concept of separation of church and state in America. Roger Williams was a Puritan minister, who described himself as a "Seeker" after the true church. He opposed Rev. John Cotton's concept of a Christian theocracy. Cotton's state of Massachusetts punished the following crimes by death: blasphemy, idolatry, witchcraft, heresy, and worshipping a graven image; he proposed banishment of anyone who disagreed with the established church.

Roger Williams was banished, but escaped. He became impressed with the religious tolerance of the Native Americans. He wrote "The Bloody Tenet of Persecution," which argued that everyone had the natural right of religious liberty. A great deal of Deism seems to run among Quakers, and one Quaker son, Thomas Paine, wrote The Age of Reason to refute the violence of atheism.

The Society of Friends (Quakers) was one of the first religious groups to speak out against slavery. Another was the Mennonites of Germantown, Pennsylvania who adopted a resolution challenging slavery in 1688. Some white churches were using the Bible as "proof" that the black race was cursed and that slavery brought them "within the reach of God's grace."

This view was rejected by John Wesley, and the Methodists in general, along with Unitarians and Quakers. Evangelical Christians in Great Britain eventually joined the abolitionist movement, but not until 1787 when they joined with the Quakers in the formation of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

The Philosophes, Enlightenment thinkers who believed in human progress, were also active in various social causes. Condorcet, in particular, was a French Philosophe active in the movement against slavery. Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) spoke out against organized religion and superstition, as well as slavery, and was active in promoting religious toleration. He promoted the use of reason, democracy and especially the idea of human progress and perfectibility.

He advocated the use of the social sciences to implement a liberal democracy that would increase human progress. One problem with French secularism is that it led to the violence and terror of the French Revolution and anything but freedom and tolerance. Many of the French Philosophes were religious bigots or led debauched private lives.

William Pitt (1759-1806), the twice Prime Minister of Great Britain, also spoke out against slavery and in favor of equal rights for Catholics. However, his measures failed to pass. British statesman Charles James Fox (1749-1806) was more successful. He ensured passage of a law abolishing slavery and helped repeal laws that discriminated against religious minorities.

In the U.S., Thomas Paine, whose Age of Reason helped popularize American Deism, and he wrote an article called "African Slavery in America," condemning the practice of slavery.

Secular ("Religious") Humanism

Corliss Lamont defines modern humanism as "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion." It's another term for atheism. There are two sub-categories. If considered a philosophy, it's called Secular Humanism and if considered a religion, Religious Humanism (even though God plays no role whatsoever). They are identical.

Secular or Religious Humanism claims to have its roots in the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, and in the movements of the Unitarians, Quakers and Deists, as well. This suggestion is questionable.

Secular Humanism is a product of 19th century Ethical Culture and 20th century Unitarian Universalism that invaded and undermined Unitarian churches. This nation's founders would never have identified with the Secular/Religious Humanism of today. It was the belief in God, held by the enlightened Christians and Deists, that ended slavery and brought religious freedom, not non-theistic secular humanism. Reason makes us all human, and God makes it worth being human.

If we truly wish to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers of the Age of Reason, we should practice religious tolerance, but not religious and moral relativism disguised as tolerance (which ends up being less tolerant in many ways). We must make clear and unambiguous moral choices and stand by them, not play political correctness. Unitarians have a great challenge and a great opportunity. We are not atheists. We have only one God, the God of Jesus, God the Father.

We maintain the basic beliefs of our forefathers. Jesus and His teachings are the basis of our faith and lead us to make wise choices. Finally, we must reach out and present the alternative for liberal Christians, Deists, Jews, and Muslims that want a belief in God, but are fed up with fundamentalism on the one hand, or having to embrace leftist and secular politics they disagree with on the other. God is not a Democrat or Republican.

Moreover, as in Late Antiquity, spiritualism is on the rise. The West again has been flooded with new forms of Gnosticism in the form of Eastern and New Age religion, which deemphasize reason. Equally threatening to the use of reason are earth-worshipping pantheism, sometimes disguised as environmentalism, and Islamic fascism. The reaction against these, at least in America, has been a growing fundamentalist backlash, which can be just as unreasonable.

It is time Unitarianism stands for something again, and the formation of the American Unitarian Conference is a good first step. Let's not fall back into the same mistake Christianity did in Late Antiquity by turning our back on reason, or lose the firm monotheistic foundation that adds the necessary moral element that gives value and impetus to that reason.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP)
Our Unitarian Heritage (1925) by Earl Morse Wilbur
At the Origins of English Rationalism by T.E. Wilder
History of Western Civilization by C.H. Perry
Apostle Paul, Founder of Christianity by Lewis Loflin

2004 American Unitarian Conference

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