One Hundred Years of Humanism

One Hundred Years of Humanism October 13, 2016

Humanism is a product of Unitarian thought. The first Humanist congregation was a Unitarian one, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.

The group that would become First Unitarian Society began meeting in the 1870s under the auspices of an association known as the Liberal League, a secularist gathering of freethinkers, agnostics, and atheists advocating for the separation of church and state. The Minneapolis Chapter began studying the writings of Charles Darwin, and invited a Unitarian minister named Henry Symmons to lecture on Darwin in the city. Symmons helped the group start a Unitarian congregation.

So from its founding in 1881, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis was a group of agnostics, atheists, infidels, Darwinists, Marxists, and freethinkers. But . . . no one had yet called such people “Humanists.”

Though the people in the above list were and are a fractious group, they tend to agree on certain core commitments—that all human beings must be treated as ends in themselves, not the means of another’s ends; that reality is best explored naturalistically; that reason is the most efficient method of exploring ethics; that church and state must stay separate.

When the congregation gathered to vote on calling John Dietrich as their minister at their annual meeting in August, 1916, Dietrich had some marks against him . . .

For instance, he was a pacifist–and most understood that the US would soon be involved in World War I. Some feared Dietrich might even be “a Red.” It was, after all, the second year of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

In addition to pacifism and purported communism, as a minister Dietrich had been tried for heresy and de-frocked. Dietrich was also rumored to be an agnostic at best and at worst . . .  an atheist.

Then there was the other thing: He was calling himself this weird and unknown label, “Humanist.”

Despite these red flags . . . and I do mean “red” flags—the people of First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis voted to call Dietrich as their next minister, and thus, when he began speaking there on November 1, 1916, the congregation became the first to call itself “Humanist.”

Dietrich was what the French liberation philosopher Michel Foucault would later call “the founder of a discourse.” That discourse is Humanism.

Humanism was then and still is what entrepreneur Seth Godin metaphorically calls an FPO—“for position only:”

When creating a layout, designers put low-resolution, imperfect, non-final images, all marked “for position only” (FPO).

They exist to help the client understand the gestalt of the piece and to give feedback.

They’re temporary, parts of a whole ready to be replaced with the real thing once the big picture is locked down. (

The people at First Unitarian Society have practiced the discourse called Humanism ever since, knowing all the while the the label “Humanism” has always been marked FPO, “for position only.”

As one of Dr. Dietrich’s successors, my deepest truth is that Humanism is nothing if not extreme. Extreme in theology. Extreme in philosophy. Extreme in politics. And extreme in insisting upon living a shared life in a shared world.

Humanism’s deepest commitment was—and is—that no human being should EVER be treated as a means rather than an end—that end being a free, independent, self-actualized, and self-determining human being.

Looking around the First Unitarian building today, you will notice a couple of things about our commitments—there are no religious symbols . . . and there are no flags, symbols of civil religion. In our building, we worship none of those things. No gods; no masters. We honor only the human spirit . . . truly and thoroughly free.

On November 1, 1916, Dr. John Dietrich and his new congregation set a fire that is still  burning. Then it was known as “religious humanism.” In the 1960s a new branch formed, “secular humanism.” And we at First Unitarian now use the the term “congregational humanism” (because we really can’t figure out what the word “religious” means anymore).

We go on, watching the powerful and liberating idea called Humanism morph and grow. Yet all forms of Humanism retain some core commitments: that all human beings have worth and dignity and must be treated as ends in themselves, not the means of another; that reality is best explored naturalistically; that reason is the most efficient method of exploring ethics; that the human mind is endlessly creative; that church and state must stay separate.

Now for the next hundred years . . .11183466_724137381025212_6708460655169389501_n

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