Humanist Musings

This month’s theme—“Science and Religion”—prompts me to think more deeply about Humanism, which is the philosophical position that most closely fits my beliefs.

Humanism and Unitarian Universalism have long been intertwined. The UU merger in the early sixties can be thought of as tripartite: the theists among the Unitarians and Universalists explicitly acknowledging the many humanist members on both sides.

Humanists generally reject the idea of a religious way of knowing. Reason, facts, experience, evidence are the sources of knowledge.  There is room for the affective as well as the rational, but no room for the supernatural, miracles, or some other realm of being other than the physical universe. Moral guidance, for the humanist, stems from reason as well and needs to be continually tested through experience.

Humanism is listed as one of the six UU sources: “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”

From the 1930s onward American humanists have fallen into two categories.  The pioneers who wrote and signed the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933 were Religious Humanists. They were part of liberal churches, like the Unitarians, because they believed in the effectiveness of joining together to do social justice work and in the power of ritual to bond a community.  This was a radical notion at the time and continues to be today—religion without supernatural deities or spiritual elements.  Religious humanists find meaning in purposeful action, not in the transcendental.  Intellectual humility is also part of this view: religious humanists embrace the idea that individuals may responsibly shape their beliefs in many ways and that no one has exclusive rights on claims to truth.

Secular Humanists, on the other hand, focus on the harms of traditional organized religions and work to maintain separation between church and state.  Whereas religious humanists are likely to say they are theological agnostics–finding too many mysteries to feel that they have all of the answers–secular humanists are decidedly atheists.

Secular humanists are often plaintiffs in legal actions challenging prayer in public schools, government support for religious organizations, and the encroachment of religion into public life.   They feel they are playing Wack-a-Mole with conservative Christians who want to express their faith in every aspect of the public arena.  The American Atheists Association, for example, maintains a legal office that is very busy challenging proposed statutes and actions by public officials.

Secular humanists may be uneasy within religious organizations. They typically bristle at the casual use of traditional Protestant terminology, like worship, prayer, spiritual, faith, sacred, ministry, and, of course, any mention of God or gods. Rev. William Sinkford has called this the language of reverence; in this regard, secular humanists often wish to be very irreverent. So how can they fit in into a congregation like UUFA?  In asking this, I am also asking how it is that I fit in.

Probably secular humanists come for the people and the social justice work, for the explicit welcome extended to all, for the willingness to embrace difference.  These alone may be enough. Certainly they are not available elsewhere in Athens.  They may skip Sunday services as too “churchy,” but enthusiastically participate elsewhere. Or they may sit through services to see what they might learn, or for the music (but probably not the more traditional hymns).  I have found a home here at UUFA because the people are great and our efforts to better the community are significant. And I am happy, in the words of the UU sources, to help warn against “idolatries of the mind and spirit,” although I am still not sure what this phrase actually means. –Bob McArthur, President, Board of Trustees