The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb

Community Church Unitarian Universalist/New Orleans



Although we like to think and talk as if we are equally influenced by the truths in all the world’s religions and philosophies, the fact is that there are and have been, throughout the history of both Unitarianism and Universalism, only three primary strains of thought, all of which are based on some form of critical thinking, and all of which have been present in some form from the beginning. And all of which, when they became significant enough to attract attention, became the source of contention and a crisis of identity. That is the basic Unitarian Universalist, as old as the movement, and as old as each of the various elements it contains: What do we stand for? What are the boundaries that identify us and give meaning and purpose to our existence? This is the third and last of my sermons examining the history and continuing tradition of those three strains: Christianity, Transcendentalism and now Humanism.

At the present time a majority of Unitarian Universalists still identify themselves as humanist, and yet people I respect and admire tell me that humanism is dead in our movement. On occasion when humanists are mentioned in Unitarian Universalist gatherings — particularly gatherings of ministers — there are groans and hisses. Something weird is going on here. We frame our contemporary argument about identity in terms of inclusiveness (an inappropriate frame, I think, since it allows us to deny what it is we’re actually talking about), and yet many of our leaders would love, it seems, to be able to exclude the majority of our members. So let’s look at the history of humanism in Unitarian Universalism and see if we can discover what is going on today.

Humanism was not invented by the signers of the Humanist Manifesto. In the 5th century BC Protagoras said, (The human) is the measure of all things. Christianity, with its emphasis on the irredeemable sinfulness of humankind, or redeemable only through the direct action of God, suppressed the humanistic spirit of the classical age, although it continued to resurface now and then, but it was reborn in the Renaissance with the ideas of human beauty of the mind and spirit as well as the body. The possibility of human moral and intellectual achievement without supernatural assistance started to look like a reasonable idea. To a humanist a human being is no longer a wretch or a worm, but truly a being who is made in the image of God. Or at least (if you don’t like that language) one who is the center and focus of our human life’s meaning. Universal education to help human beings realize their holy purpose of progress toward the kingdom of God on earth took the place of insistence on unquestioning acceptance of the authority of the official interpreters of God’s revelation. Despite his belief in the absolute wretchedness and sinfulness of human beings, it was the influence of the humanism of the Renaissance that led Martin Luther to proclaim the priesthood of all believers, the idea that there need be no mediator between human and God. The rise of the scientific method in learning about the physical world which produced the philosophical Enlightenment was humanistic in its assertion that observation by human beings was more likely to be productive of truth than reliance on hearsay, however authoritative.

The rational Christianity of Channing was essentially humanistic in its teaching that human reason can interpret the Bible in the light of its context and authors and the ways in which it should be applied. Emerson’s Transcendentalism was humanistic in its understanding of the direct human experience of the holy, human integrity and human self-reliance.  Humanism was always a part of Unitarianism.

At the time of the second Unitarian controversy and the founding of the Free Religious Association, Transcendentalism was only one of the modes of thought that traditional Unitarianism, Unitarian Christianity, attempted to purge from its ranks. The other was scientific humanism. There is no one leader to whom we can point, no single person such as Channing who spoke for rational Christianity or Emerson who defined transcendentalism, who articulated the tenets of scientific humanism. It seemed to be a natural and spontaneous growth within the movement, widespread from its inception. It was the notion that questions of fact are answered through scientific investigation and supersede any beliefs that religion —any religion —teaches about the physical universe. Its ethical and moral values tended to be the same as its more traditional co-religionists, but began to be based on pragmatic logic rather than divine fiat, and declared that the desired end was the progress of humankind. Theodore Parker, himself, shunned for his transcendentalism, can be said to have fired the first shot in the battle of anti-supernaturalistic humanism when he preached his most famous sermon, “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in which he argued that the miracles of Jesus were probably not true, and if true, irrelevant.

This kind of humanism was very widespread in the Western Conference of the American Unitarian Association. This did not include California, which under the influence of Thomas Starr King, a minister in fellowship with both the Unitarian and Universalist organizations, who personally founded a large number of California churches and almost single-handedly retained California for the Union during the Civil War, remained more traditionalist.  Since they were so far away from the headquarters of the movement, seldom even attending the May meetings (the predecessor of our General Assembly, continuing as such until the merger in 1961) which were always held in Boston, they were able to ignore the fulminations of the Unitarian Christians against their apostasy, and to shrug off the mission statement which specifically excluded them and the liberal theists, giving birth in the east to the Free Religious Association. They had their controversies on the subject, too, but in the west the broad church movement won out and humanism throve in the Unitarian Churches there. It also began to invade the Universalist thinking, and by the time of the merger as high a percentage of Universalists were humanists as the Unitarians. Even the Free Religious Association, which had begun as the organization of the Transcendentalists who had left the American Unitarian Association had become not only humanist but essentially atheistic.

Part of what caused that was Darwin and The Origin of Species. It’s hard to believe it now, when the San Antonio church could make money selling a bumper sticker to fellow Unitarian Universalists that says “Honk if you love Darwin,” but his findings were almost as shocking to the Unitarians and Universalists of his day as they were to more traditional Christians. Well, how would you feel if you’d spent your whole life believing that the human race had been specially created by God to fulfill a divine purpose, even if he then went off, as the deists believed, to let us work out our own destiny, and all of a sudden a previously somewhat obscure biologist informed you that you had evolved from an ancestor shared with all the other primates? Gorillas and monkeys! Chimpanzees and baboons! Well, maybe orangutans, but that’s as far as I’d go, if succeeding scientists had not shown pretty conclusively that he was right. 

However, the groundwork for the acceptance of the findings of scientific research had been laid long ago, and at last it had to be accepted. With the findings of the theory of evolution, many felt that they no longer needed any supernatural explanation of the origins of the physical universe or the existence of humankind. Even their more traditional brothers and sisters had, to be intellectually consistent, eventually to accept the findings of Darwin, so when the humanists glorified humankind as the goal and end of evolution, the others’ only argument was that it was a part of God’s plan, and Jesus was the exemplar.

They did, after all, all believe in progress, whatever their particular theology. It was the late nineteenth century when everybody believed in progress. A saying blossomed on the walls of Unitarian churches from Maine to California: “We affirm our belief in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Jesus and the progress of mankind, onward and upward forever.” Everybody, in those days, could accept some of that at least, and whether they were theists or nontheists, they were all humanists with their abiding belief in human possibility and human freedom and thus human responsibility for moral outcomes. I found a plaque with that slogan relegated to the basement of the All Souls Church in New London in 1981. I’m not actually sure why the plaque belonging to the New London church found its way to the basement —whether its repudiation was based on an increase in atheism, a failure of belief in progress, or a rejection of non-inclusive language, but they have almost all disappeared from our churches for one or all of those reasons.

The nontheists were in the ascendant and their ascendancy culminated in the publishing of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. Humanism was a good word, a word which showed respect for human beings, and the recognition of whatever might be transcendent in the universe through human action and creativity and evolution. Those who rejected the supernatural adopted the name humanist to mean that ideas of anything transcending human possibility were unnecessary to religious belief and action. All Unitarians and Universalists were humanists as we are today, but the ones who took the name of Humanism with a capital letter and formed the Association of Religious Humanists did so on the basis of the rejection of the supernatural. It became a synonym for atheist, and it became arrogant, suggesting that anyone who had any inkling of the possibility of something outside of the material were simply self-deluded and perhaps not wholly evolved. They weren’t “real” Unitarian Universalists. Shades of the 19th Century Rational Christians! At least they never suggested a formal purge. That is why calling oneself a humanist is no longer fashionable among some of our members.

That is only one strain of humanism, however. Humanism is far broader than either the first, or even the second Humanist Manifesto. There are only two things that I believe are required to claim the name of humanism. One is that we accept the scientific world-view and the use of human reason and the other is that we do not expect divine intervention in our lives, that we understand that we ourselves are responsible for the moral outcomes that we desire. Our Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws list of sources states that humanist men and women have warned us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.  One of my colleagues asked me if I thought that was really true. I said I did, so long as they didn’t fall into the idolatry of anti-religion, which is the tendency of our more atheistic humanists. True humanists in our movement focus the concern for the purest truth, unbiased by tradition or desire. They carry the critical thinking which is, and has always been, our essential process, to its greatest heights.

Some time ago one of our ministers was quoted in Newsweek as saying that Unitarian Universalists are at their best when they are celebrating their diversity. I disagree. I think that we are at our best when we can comfortably celebrate, not our Judeo-Christian heritage, or our transcendentalist roots, or our humanist tradition, but an amalgam of the three, the wellsprings of our faith, along with both our Unitarian and Universalist traditions. This rich, growing Unitarian Universalism would recognize and re-appropriate the best of its Judeo-Christian traditions, be informed with the immanence as well as the transcendence of the sacred, and remain unblemished by superstition and with faith in human possibility as well as human responsibility. Let us so worship.