Secular Humanism and Religion

By Daniel H. King

Upon first consideration one would think that secular humanism would have very little to do with religion. If both concepts are properly defined they appear to be mortal enemies. In fact, however, they have come to be friends in some cases. How that came to be was not because humanism changed so radically as to befriend religion. Nor has humanism surrendered its atheistic creed. It is the other way around. Religion, in many of its contemporary manifestations, has redefined itself to such an extent as to offer little or no threat to secular humanistic ideals. Humanism on its part has decided to accept this redefinition of itself by a new and secularized “religion” and make peace with this impotent brand of piety.

“Fundamentalism,” “traditionalism,” and “biblical literalism” are now the targets of those onslaughts once aimed at religion per se. It is our goal in the paragraphs below to explain the tie that binds some modern practitioners of religion to secular humanism. The most natural place to begin is with the Unitarian Church.

Unitarian Universalism

Unitarians have been in the forefront of the introduction of secular humanism into modern life. Their apparent connection with religion has given them a cloak of religious piety with which to deceive. It has made of them an ideological bridge over which has traveled, from German and American philosophical “think-tanks” into the mainstream of society, the most avant garde secularism. Where secular humanism is making great strides, whether in the political, social, or religious sphere, you can be sure there are Unitarian figures working either out in the open or behind the scenes to bring about those gains.

Unitarian and universalist tendencies were born long before our present era, but for our purposes it is not necessary to examine the essential roots of either. It will suffice to note that as early as 1553 there was a connection between Unitarian religion and humanism. Michael Servetus, a Neoplatonic Unitarian, i.e. one who denied the Trinity because of the acceptance of the “ineffable One” as the basis of reality, was burned at the stake in 1553. He had fled from the Roman Catholic Inquisition to John Calvin’s Geneva because he had been declared a heretic. His death caused Sebastian Castellio, a liberal humanist, to plead for religious toleration. Unitarianism found a friend in humanism from the outset. They were both based upon human reason rather than biblical revelation. Therefore, they were quite naturally drawn to each other.

In England a scientist and dissenting minister named Joseph Priestley began in the late 1700’s to preach an overt “Unitarian Christianity”: Jesus as man, the primacy of reason and morals, scientific determinism, materialism, and political reform. Out of this new preaching came the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (1825). After a period of division and controversy between warring factions, the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches was formed (1928). They remain an important movement in the British Isles today.

American Unitarianism developed out of the Congregational churches of eastern Massachusetts. Over against the preaching of revivalists of the 18th century, Congregational ministers stressed reason and morals and preached moderation. In 1803 conflict arose between liberals and conservatives over the appointment of a professor of theology at Harvard University, and unwillingly the moderates found themselves labeled Unitarians. Legal battles over church property left the Unitarians in possession of churches founded by their Puritan ancestors in and around Boston. In 1825, on the same day as its British counterpart, the American Unitarian Association was founded, with headquarters in Boston. In the mid 1800’s rationalist, biblical Unitarianism was gradually replaced by institutional religion and social idealism. Christianity and the Bible became obsolete as human aspiration and scientific theory took over. In 1900 the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom was established as this element in Unitarianism came to predominate. During the 1920’s “humanism” – a non-theistic, anti supernatural Unitarianism -arose and moved Unitarians suddenly into their present mode. In 1961 Unitarians merged with the Universalists in a new united church, the American Unitarian Universalist Association.

As Unitarianism became more and more liberal in its thinking, -its leading lights came to see God “not as First Cause prefixed to the scheme of things, but as Indwelling Life pervading it” (Martineau). One result of this view is the Unitarian concept of humanism, which is agnostic about God and emphasizes the human condition and scientific progress. According to the U.S. Unitarian historian E.M. Wilbur, Unitarian history shows a steady drive toward freedom, reason, and tolerance. Unitarians have been especially responsive to the spirit of the age in which they live, and have been leaders and transmitters of current thought.

Religious Liberalism

Modernist thinking pervades most of the larger denominations today. And, wherever religious liberalism has become fashionable, humanism has moved in behind it. James Hitchcock, in his book What is Smular Humanism?, has confirmed this connection. He speaks of the “gradual abandonment of one wall after another,” that is, the giving up of one significant religious principle after another – until all is lost. He describes the progression in liberal religious thinking, beginning with the earliest positions and moving to the present (pp. 121-122):

1. While the Bible as a whole is inspired, certain passages not compatible with modern science, e.g. the creation accounts, are human inventions.

2. While certain miracles central to the Christian faith, especially Christ’s resurrection from the dead, must be believed, other miracle accounts in Scripture are merely expressions of simpler people.

3. Christians must believe that Christ rose from the dead. However, they need not believe that the tomb was empty on the morning of the third day. The Resurrection can be understood as his continuing spiritual presence among his disciples.

4. While Jesus was certainly the only begotten Son of God, secondary beliefs merely meant to reinforce that, e.g. his virgin birth, need not be believed.

5. While God was certainly present in Jesus in a special way, it is not meaningful to speak of him as the Son of God in the traditional sense.

6. What is central to Christianity is the message of salvation brought by Christ and uniquely achieved through him. The circumstances of this redemption are subject to varying interpretations.

7. To speak of man’s being “saved” by Jesus presents problems since many people do not feel a need of being saved. Jesus is better seen as the greatest moral teacher in the history of the world and Christianity as the pinnacle of world religions.

8. To regard Jesus as unique, and his teaching as superior to that of other religious leaders like the Buddha is arrogant cultural chauvinism. God reveals himself in every culture in different ways.

9. Whatever one may think about the various religions of the world, what is crucial is to believe in an all-powerful God who created the universe and sustains it in being.

10. The word “God” is one which men have used throughout history to refer to some ultimate reality which is the deepest dimension of existence. Personalization of God, and talk about his being creator and lord of the universe, are merely means men have used to make that awareness more vivid to themselves.

What has brought contemporary liberalism to this point? What has made liberals so disposed to “give ground” at every attack by modern thought upon Christianity and its most essential foundational principles? Basic presuppositions are the answer. Hitchcock (pp. 129-130) outlines the basic tenets of contemporary religious liberalism and through them explains this willingness to compromise at every juncture:

1. All religious beliefs are the product of developing human experience and inquiry and, as such, have no special authoritative status.

2. All moral principles are of the same nature. Hence there are no moral absolutes. Right and wrong are essentially determined in accordance with the needs and desires of individuals in particular situations.

3. Two thousand years of Christianity are largely irrelevant to the present, and those aspects of that history still relevant can be made so only by radical reinterpretation.

4. Christianity has no claim to superior status among the religions of the world. All the great religions partake of the truth in accordance with their own cultures and historical situations.

5. The history of Christianity is filled with errors and pernicious evils perpetrated by the church. This is true not only of unworthy behavior of individual Christians, or of distortion of Christian teaching, but of the very nature of historical Christianity.

6. Since religion is mostly the result of human searching and experience, men find their surest and most reliable guides not primarily in the church, or in Christian doctrine (the Bible) but in secular intellectual disciplines and human experience generally. The teaching of the church must be endlessly reformulated in accordance with these.

Such presuppositions logically lead liberals to sacrifice whatever element of spiritual truth the god of intellectual respectability demands. They have compromised with skepticism for so long that they have become skeptics themselves. There is little that they can say for sure any more. Everything is relative. Every truth is true only for now. Tomorrow it may be false. At any rate it will need to undergo some revision periodically, to bring it into line with the latest way of expressing what is true.

How is religion possible at all in an environment of this kind? Only through a complete overhaul of what religion once was. Hitchcock (pp. 130-131) offers this further characterization:

1. Authoritative Christian documents, whether the Bible, historic creeds, or other statements, are either ignored as irrelevant or employed only to the degree that they seem to fit with current secular preoccupations.

2. Worship is regarded primarily as a human experience, not as a way of paying homage to God. Worship services (and sermons) are structured in such a way as to create a sense of community and belonging among the worshipers, with little regard for the transcendental dimension of the action.

3. Christians are not encouraged to have a strong personal sense of their dependence of God’s Providence. God is thought not to intervene in the affairs of men, so that human problems are to be solved through human means only.

4. A personal sense of fulfillment or satisfaction is taken as the ultimate criterion of truth. Thus religious doctrines and practices are kept or discarded to the degree that they seem “meaningful” to the individual. The concept of objective religious truth is effectively denied. The purpose of religion is thought to be the achievement of a subjective sense of spiritual well-being by the individual.

5. All morality is provisional only. Many of the past moral teachings of the church, especially with regard to sex, are now seen as pernicious and deforming. Since personal “need” is the ultimate guide to conduct and since personal fulfillment is the chief aim of existence the liberal often leads a life at odds with traditional Christian morality.

Much of liberal religion is now utterly empty, its content having been gradually drained away over the years. This has created a tremendous spiritual vacuum in the hearts of its people. Many members of liberal churches do not know why they belong. Membership is in fact on the decline. Hitchcock suggests that “by the end of this century, many of the liberal churches will no longer call themselves Christian and will make no special effort to keep alive Christian traditions in doctrine, worship, or ethics. Local churches will have allowed themselves to be transformed into all-purpose community centers in which many kinds of presumably beneficial activities go on but in which no special religious claims are made” (p. 138).

Unitarianism and Liberalism

In his book Our Liberalism Movement in Theology, J. H. Allen said: “The liberalizing of theology has been in some sense the work of Unitarianism from the first. That process includes two distinct steps. One of these steps must be taken by the aid of historical criticism, and the other by the aid of natural science” (p. 124). Allen is correct, in spite of the fact that scholars from other religious denominations have contributed to its progress. From the first Unitarians were not hampered by the theory of the verbal infallibility of the Bibles; and they were therefore prepared to advance the critical work of scholars as it came to them from England and Germany, as was no other religious body in this country.

Two men are illustrative of the leadership role of Unitarianism in this respect. The first is Professor Andrews Norton of Harvard. Norton, a Unitarian, was the author of several important theological works (Historical Evidences of the Genuines of the Gospels, 1837-1844; Internal Evidences of the Genuiness of the Gospels, 1855). In his books he discarded the first two chapters of Matthew, regarding them as later additions to the original document. Also, in an extended note in volume 2 of Genuiness of the Gospels, he denied the Mosaic authorship of Genesis and said that it was not to be accepted as genuine history. Statements of this type are commonplace today among biblical scholars, but then they were rare indeed.

Another Unitarian at Harvard who early showed a willingness to depart from the accepted limits of biblical studies was George Rapall Noyes. Noyes was professor of Hebrew and Biblical Literature in the Harvard Divinity School in 1840 when he wrote that the truth of the Christian religion does not in any sense depend upon the literal fulfillment of any predictions of the Old Testament by Jesus as a person. He said that the apostles partook of the errors and prejudices of their age, that the commonly received doctrine of the inspiration of the whole Bible is a millstone about the neck of Christianity, and that the Bible contains much that cannot be regarded as revelation.

Thus Unitarians, from the first oriented in the direction of humanism, were at the head of the movement which plunged contemporary theology into the mainstream of liberal thought.

Humanism and Religion

In the 1933 Humanist Manifesto I the authors of that document did not deny the existence of God. But the whole thrust of the document was to deny that belief in God could, or ought to have any practical effect. Whether or not God is thought to exist, man must live as if he did not exist. The Manifesto contained affirmations that pertained to religion. For example, there are the following:

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

5. Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values . . . . Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.

6. We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of “new thought.”

7. Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. It includes labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship, recreation – all that is in its degree expressive of intelligently satisfying human living. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no ionger be maintained.

9. In place of the old attitudes 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.

One may note that under point number seven the word “religion” is redefined so as to make of it no religion at all (which is the only way secular humanism can coexist peacefully with any sort of religion). Yet “religion” is, by definition, “the personal commitment to and serving of God or a god with worshipful devotion . . . ” (Webster’s Third). It is only from this meaning that others derive. In the vocabulary of humanists, however, it has become a term with which to deceive. Humanistic “ministers” go about putting on a facade of piety’, utilizing the vocabulary of religion, and denying the very existence of the One whom religion itself is supposed to honor. They are the most transparent case of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” in religion today (Matt. 7:15).

About the only religions with which secular humanism can feel comfortable are those that have been emptied of their content by rationalism and modernism. The Unitarians, Universalists, and a few others are among the few that qualify. Other large denominations, especially those associated with the World Council of Churches, are already so completely humanistic in their orientation that there is little real “religion” left in them.

The most recent of the humanist declarations, published in 1980, is A Secular Humanist Declaration. Among its signers are: Khoren Arisian, Paul Beattie, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church and president of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists; Joseph L. Blau, professor emeritus of religion, Columbia University; Joseph Fletcher, theologian, University of Virginia Medical School; Herbert Schneider of the Freedom from Religion Foundation; and Sherwin Wine, rabbi for the Birmingham Temple and founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. These names certainly illustrate the close affinity that exists between some religion and Secular Humanism. These men signed their names to a document that expressed “religious skepticism” in the following words:

As secular humanists we are generally skeptical about supernatural claims. We recognize the importance of religious experience: that experience that redirects and gives meaning to the lives of human beings. We deny, however, that such experiences have anything to do with the supernatural. We are doubtful of traditional views of God and divinity. Symbolic and mythological interpretations of religion often serve as rationalizations for a sophisticated minority, leaving the bulk of mankind to flounder in theological confusion. We consider the universe to be a dynamic scene of natural forces that are most effectively understood by scientific inquiry. We arc always open to the discovery of new possibilities and phenomena in nature. However, we find that traditional views of the existence of God either are meaningless, have not yet been demonstrated to be true, or are tyrannically exploitative. Secular humanists may be agnostics, atheists, rationalists, or skeptics, but they find insufficient evidence for the claim that some divine purpose exists for the universe. They reject the idea that God has intervened miraculously in history or revealed himself to a chosen few, or that he can save or redeem sinners. They believe that men are free and responsible for their own destinies and that they cannot look toward some transcendent Being for salvation. We reject the divinity of Jesus, the divine mission of Moses, Mohammed, and other latter day prophets and saints of the various sects and denominations. We do not accept as true the literal interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, or other allegedly sacred religious documents . . . (pp. 17-18).

Two other brief points of current news are noteworthy in connection with what we have said above:

Walter Mondale’s brother Lester is a Unitarian minister, Ethical Culture leader, and current Chairman of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists. Walter Mondale, in a speech given to the Fifth Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in 1971, said: “Although I have never formally joined a humanist society, I think I am a member by inheritance. My preacher father was a humanist … and I grew up on a very rich diet of humanism from him.” His father’s name appears on the list of those who signed Humanist Manifesto I in 1933. One can be assured that if Mr. Mondale is elected president he will throw his weight behind every liberal cause around and will return us to the days of the Jimmy Carter presidency, a time when Secular Humanism reigned supreme in government.

The North American Man/Boy Love Association, the organization which feels that it should not be illegal to have homosexual relations with children of any age, recently held its seventh annual meeting in Boston. Charley Shively, a leader in the Boston area, speaking to the conference said he wished to attack a presupposition . . . that parents have a hereditary right to their children, that parents have a right to their children that we do not have.” The National Coalition of Gay Organizations has officially supported the Man-Boy Love group since 1972. The International Gay Association recently voted the group into its membership. And the New York City Community Council of Lesbian-Gay Organizations also has admitted the Man-Boy group. Special note should be taken at the fact that the meeting of the homosexual group was held at the Arlington Street Unitarian Church in Boston.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 14, pp. 419-422
July 19, 1984