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Sermon: WE ARE HUMANISTS Sept. 5, 1999

Dr. John Young, UUCJ

As Unitarian Universalists, a central element of our faith consensus is that WE ARE HUMANISTS. The fifth tradition in our Unitarian Universalist Association's summary of UU traditions affirms our faith in: "humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit." Today's sermon is an exploration of what humanism has meant in the past, and an explanation of what humanism means to Unitarian Universalists today. Historically, the ancient Greeks and Chinese, among others, had many outstanding thinkers who were humanists. Protagoras, for instance, made the classic humanist statement when he said: "man is the measure of all things." Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle provided a clearly humanistic framework for thought and living, and Confucius and Lao Tse also focused squarely upon this world and this life from a human perspective. For instance, Confucius said: "Man is born for uprightness. By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart." So, central elements of both some Western and some Eastern philosophies were firmly humanistic.

In the West, humanism became a clearly defined cultural movement during the Renaissance and the Reformation. Beginning in northern Italy and spreading throughout Europe, this humanism emphasized, at first, the revival of Greco-Roman-Hebraic antiquities, and the replacement of the Old Learning of the Middle Ages with the New Learning of the Renaissance. The printing press made wide circulation possible. Literature and art became ends in themselves. The preeminent northern humanist was Erasmus, who sought to advance piety and culture with his translation of the Greek New Testament. Slowly, rationalism and the new scientific methods began to become central. In both ancient humanism and Renaissance humanism, there also developed elements of skepticism and cynicism. Socrate's willingness to question anything and everything got him poisoned. Machiavelli's political realism seemed to destroy all idealism and to glorify self-interest. Traditional Western humanism, thus, combined an optimism about people based upon reason, freedom, and hopefulness, with elements of pessimism about the human uses of their powers, human laziness, and the difficulties of progress.

From the 17th to the 20th centuries, Western, and then world culture, have become progressively more: 1. rationally ordered, understood and organized, 2. dependent upon scientific methods and technological results, and 3. secular, or non-spiritual. As the modern dependence upon rational discourse and scientific experiments increased, humanism began to be considered by some people to be a secular alternative to religion, instead of a cultural purification or enrichment of traditional faiths. For some people, humanism became disconnected from, or even opposed to, transcendence and spirituality. Humanism began to suggest being non-theistic or even anti-religious to some people. Humanism began to be considered, both by some of its proponents and most of its opponents, to be an alternative to religion, or a haven for the anti-religious.

The Unitarians and Universalists have been central throughout these centuries in the religious uses of humanism. We have been religious people who based their religions upon reason, education, freedom, cultural creativity, optimism, and belief in the possibilities of human progress. We have perceived nature as a primary manifestation of reality. We have been enthusiastic in embracing scientific knowledge and experimentation as allies of true religion, instead of its enemies. We have focused our attention and energies upon this world, this life, individual liberation, and social and political cooperation. So, we have consistently been enthusiastic and active humanists, but we have, just as consistently, been enthusiastic religious activists and spiritual experimenters.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a few religious leaders, most of them Unitarian and Universalists ministers, began to identify their religions as humanism. In 1933, the first Humanist Manifesto was signed by 34 Americans, most of them Unitarian ministers and lay-persons. Its most prominent signer was John Dewey, whose memorial service was held at the Unitarian Community Church in New York City, which I served in the summer of 1972. My colleague, Rhys Williams, who has just retired from 1st and 2nd Unitarian Church in Boston, is among its signers who are still alive and active today.

Humanist Manifesto I said, in part: "Religions the world over are under the necessity of coming to terms with new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience. In every human activity, the vital movement is now in the direction of a candid and explicit humanism." This Manifesto rejected superstition and called for the exercise of reason in matters of faith, but it was also a profoundly spiritual document, arguing that our "larger understanding of the universe, our scientific achievements, and our deeper appreciation of the kinship of all people have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion. "It also argued for humanity taking responsibility for making a better world. "The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world....We assert that humanism will: [a] affirm life rather than deny it; [b] seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from it; and, [c] endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few."

Forty years later, in the late 1970s, Humanist Manifesto II was published. Again, many Unitarian-Universalists were signers, but there was a wider range of participants, including Ethical Culture Leaders [most of whom are ethnically Jewish], members of the American Humanist Association, and an array of unassociated secular humanists. This document admitted that Humanist Manifesto I had been "far too optimistic." It was still critical of a prayer-hearing God and of salvational religion, but it was much more aware of the wide variety of humanisms, and it asserted that "views that merely reject theism ....or are mere negation....are not equivalent to humanism." It had grasped that any philosophy or ideology could be dogmatic, and that some humanists want to reinterpret and reinvest traditional religions with meanings appropriate to the current situation. It still rested its hopes upon reason, critical intelligence and scientific methods, but it understood that these must be used in a context which cultivated emotions and love, the arts, and religion. It recognized that movements claiming to be human-centered and anti-traditional had caused immense suffering in the 20th century; so, Humanist Manifesto II was a considerably more humble and careful document.

This congregation has a proud humanist heritage. As in the humanist movement nationally, there may be some who were or are anti-religious, even vigorously non-spiritual; however, the vast majority of the laity who identified themselves as humanists, were and are clearly religiously active and spiritually interested.

What does humanism mean today in this congregation and in our Unitarian Universalist denomination?

Our humanistic faith is clearly centered upon human beings living responsibly during their lives in this world. We believe passionately in: a world community, the democratic process, personal freedom, and individual responsibility. Like classical humanists, we revere the wisdom of every person who has worked on behalf of all people from ancient times until today. We savor the arts and literature as worthwhile in themselves. We are thoroughly modern humanists: embracing a rationally ordered life, happily dependent upon scientific methods and technological results, but not secular, that is, neither non-spiritual nor anti-religious. Some of our membership may still be bitter about their own religious pasts. We are all concerned about religious and other ideological intolerances and spiritual and non-spiritual superstitions, but almost everyone of us is also actively religious and spiritually involved. Like our Unitarian Universalist humanist ancestors, we are religious and spiritual humanists, not anti-religious or non-spiritual secularists.

Few of us believe in a traditional deity, a salvational religion, or a hierarchical or orthodox spirituality, but almost all of us do believe that we are part of something larger than ourselves, or even of the human species alive today, that we can do much to save ourselves and the human future, and that spirituality is not only appropriate but necessary. This reflects significant growth and transformation since the old days. Since we have and are creating the new religious vision and spiritual practices that Humanist Manifestos I and II hoped for and visualized, we do not need to work so hard at rejection and cynicism. As survivors of the 20th century, we may be less optimistic, but we are more hopeful. We have seen human powers grossly misused, and we have also known the tendencies of human laziness to dominate human interactions. However, we have also seen human reason overcome massive oppressions; we have seen human creativity overcome habitual human entropy; and, we have not despaired when progress became far from inevitable.

Unitarian Universalist humanism is better balanced today. It is neither naive nor cynical; it is neither focused on the negative nor loud with the language of sarcasm. Yes, we are a reasonable religion, but we also embrace our emotions and depend upon our intuitions. Our religion is based as much or more upon our life experiences as upon our logical arguments. We continue to learn so much from science and to savor so much from technology, but, in the late 20th century, we know better than to act as if scientific fact can make our value choices for us, or that technology can make sacrifice unnecessary. We are clearer now, that humanism produces an appropriate foundation and an exciting context in which it remains desirable to depend upon Creation, to be in awe of Reality, to learn how to save ourselves by saving one another, and to enthusiastically live a fervent individual spirituality within the vibrant community of other active religious liberals. We are religious and spiritual humanists.

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