Religious Humanism: What Was Old is New Again

Church Attendance Free Fall

The Barna Group, a research group that keeps up with trends in religion, estimates that 48% of Millennials (born 1984-2002) are “post-Christian.” Forty-eight percent. “Post-Christian” means that they have heard of Christianity; know its claims; swim in its assumptions; and have little to no interest in it as a method for providing meaning and purpose in their lives.

The study point out, “if unchurched Americans were a nation, they would be the eighth largest nation on earth.” The study also shows that statistics indicating “church growth” are actually church transfers. There are few new conversions.

Thirty-five percent of Boomers, forty percent of Busters, and forty-eight percent of Millennials are unchurched, and many of those have no interest in searching for a church. (source: barna.org/churchless)

Until the mid-Twentieth Century, what congregation you belonged to was a defining social marker, leading to a great deal of socially-induced piety. In much of the United States—especially in urban centers—this is no longer the case. However, while churches and synagogues no longer meet the needs of roughly half of Americans, the human need for community has, if anything, gotten stronger. This is where the tradition of congregational humanism comes in.

Congregational Humanism

What is nowadays called “religious humanism” developed in two distinct locations—in Ethical Culture Societies and in Unitarian and Universalist congregations. The religious humanism practiced by the Ethical Culture movement was envisioned by Felix Adler, a man who studied to be a rabbi, then became a humanist.

Religious humanism as developed by Universalists and Unitarians such as John Dietrich was Protestant in nature. John Dietrich developed his concept of Humanism when he was the minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis—the congregation I serve.

It is important to note that neither Felix Adler nor John Dietrich were in-your-face atheists. Felix Adler believed that the god concept would slowly disappear as more and more people found no need for it. Dietrich sought to reinterpret the concept into a descriptor for the natural processes of the universe. There was nothing supernatural in the concept for either man.

What both were clear on is that “god” does not appear to have ever intervened in human history—what is best described as a Diest or Naturalist position. Both men saw religions as older interpretive traditions that were based in specific geographic and cultural locations. Both men saw Humanism as a universalizing of “truth.”

Religious humanism, then, is not—as is often supposed—of necessity “godless.” It is based rather in the idea that we don’t really know what god is up to—if anything—and that we are pretty well on our own in figuring out how to live in the world. Both men saw congregational life—community—as important, hence the “religious” in “religious humanism.” (It should be noted that the term “secular humanism” developed later, in the 1970s.)

Also, I suspect that “religious” may have overstayed its welcome as a descriptor and that “congregational humanism” is a considerably better term going forward.

Felix Adler was a more systematic thinker than John Dietrich. Adler was an academic philosopher; Dietrich’s element was the weekly struggle to write a sermon that dealt with the current headlines and questions of ethics that occur in the general mess of daily human life.

Both men thought that Humanism, shorn as it was of the ceremonies and terminologies of various religions, could serve to unite humanity across cultural divides. Ethical movements with the characteristics of Humanism have, after all, developed across time and cultures, from the Hindu Carvaka movement, an atheist ethical movement from around 600 BCE, to Daoism and Confucianism from around 400 BCE, to Ubuntu, a humanist movement in Africa.

Both men noted the similarity of a “golden rule” across cultures. Adler summarized his key to ethical behavior as: “Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in thyself.”

An Alternative

Humanist Rev Carl Storm and college students, mid-Twentieth Century
Humanist Rev Carl Storm and college students, mid-Twentieth Century

One of the major changes in humanism from the time of the founders to our own time is the developing post-Christian and secular Jewish majority. For Adler and Dietrich, Humanism needed to offer a clear alternative to religion. As we know, however, ideas that oppose other ideas often come to resemble what they oppose. In fighting religious dogmas, humanism became dogmatic. Attacks on religious claims; attacks on scriptures; claims and counter-claims became part of humanist practice. This is old fashioned now, at best.

But that was then. Now, humanism has a whole new world to dwell in. A world in which religions are interesting antiques and we humans can finally get around to exploring ways to make life better . . . here and now.

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