Humanism and Me

Nancy SullivanHumanism and Me

By Nancy Sullivan

Delivered on a Sunday in February, 2011 at the Marquette UU Congregation, Marquette, MI.

Some time ago, a person in the congregation said to me, “You’re a Humanist, aren’t you?”  I paused, I was reluctant to commit,  I think so…“I think so. Yes!”  But to tell the truth, I was feeling a bit fuzzy about what humanism is and isn’t.  I wasn’t sure where humanists stood on the idea of a spiritual journey or sensations of transcendence…I was afraid to answer more definitively.  So my subtitle today actually could be “Humanism for Dummies.”   Here is my level of expertise on the topic…. 15 years in this congregation, two weeks of reading about humanism and one week of trying to decide what kind of humanist I am.

So let me tell you…I googled Humanism….and I found seven types of humanism…and some of these had four or five synonyms. And I then I started finding the new variations of humanism…So much came up on the search…It was more than I felt I could deal with.  But, as you know we, UUs, are committed to a free and responsible search for meaning and truth (that’s principle # 4 for those of you who don’t have it written on your palm!) and I had committed to doing a service on humanism…so, took a deep breath and dug in.

I learned that while there are many kinds of humanism, including theistic & Christian humanism…a possibility I hadn’t fully understood…given that humanists are called “godless” by the conservative media and others.  But currently, religious humanism and secular humanism are the most predominant types of humanism and both are non- theistic.  The difference b/t the two is that secular humanists see humanistic ideas as a useful and a critical philosophy with which to live life, whereas  Religious humanists take the stance that humanism is a religious worldview and a spiritually rewarding path.  Indeed, it is one of the cornerstones for Unitarian Universalism.

There is tension and a conflict, between the secular and the religious view of humanism…which I think would be helpful to understand.  To do that….I think it’s easier to consider the philosophical or secular of view of Humanism first.

This philosophy is most easily described by looking at the Humanist Manifesto which is a statement of the major beliefs of Humanism put out by the American Humanist Association.  (I also want to point out that there are other declarations of what humanism by other societies…the AHA’s effort probably most well-known a number such efforts).

The Humanist Manifesto was first written down as such in 1933 and there have been two versions since.  One in 1973 (40 yrs later) and another (30 yrs later) in 2003.  All three versions have been signed by both religious and secular dignitaries of their time.

That in itself is important…Humanists believe that the philosophy which shapes their worldview changes with new knowledge, experience and reflection … and to them it seems appropriate that the document will evolve as more is learned about our world and each other.   In other words, it is not a holy, sacred, unchanging document.  This Humanistic viewpoint has evolved from before Greco-Roman times and will continue to develop.

So the six major points of the Humanistic Manifesto are on your insert today…

1. Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. 

Humanists use science and rational thinking to determine this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies to help mankind. They recognize the value of new ideas from one’s inner experience.

But they make no claim to possess or have access to transcendent knowledge.   This is a philosophy of reason and science in the pursuit of knowledge.

It is a philosophy of skeptics…

So when it comes to the question of the most valid means for acquiring knowledge of the world, secular Humanists reject arbitrary faith in deities, authority, revelation, and altered states of consciousness… rather they would say they just don’t see the evidence for supernatural deities, etc.

They might get comfort from prayer, meditation or experience an altered state of awareness, but they would not attribute that feeling or insight or new idea to supernatural intervention…rather attribution might be unknown or attributed to the behavior preceding the insight or feeling.

To say “It’s a philosophy of skeptics” may sound rather negative….But consider what Robert G. Ingersoll writes.  (He was a 19th century Presbyterian preacher whose views changed over the years….google him…he has an interesting personal story.)

“When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free-free to think, to express my thoughts-free to live my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination’s wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope, free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was free! I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds.”  

Secular Humanists can shout here, “Hallelujah!”  (Frederick Edwords,  executive director, of the American Humanistic Association at

  • Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. 

They are clear that they accept the science of evolution and say they recognize nature as it is.  They accept our life as everything and it is enough. The distinguish things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. They welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to the yet to be known and the mysteries of the unknown. 

  • Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.

Read:   Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.  (Copied the Humanist Manifesto, version III).

Now these values are being extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. 

(I would suspect this language about the planet’s ecosystem will be expanded in the next version.) 

  • Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. 

Everyone here today knows the joy of helping other people…Humanists do it for the joy, not to satisfy supernatural deities.

  • Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. 

So unlike many religions, humanists believe there should be No focus on having a personal relationship with Jesus or God….rather they find meaning in human relationships, primarily.

  • Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. 

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.  Go to the AHA website and you will see a huge overlap in issues humanists works on with what our UU Social justice organization works on.

So that is Humanism as defined by the AHA…secular and philosophical…but many religious leaders signed this document as well.  So how can humanism be religious?  What is Religious Humanism?

Religious humanism is a melding values and a worldview with the functional aspects of religion.  Religion is a practice.  It is nothing unless is practiced by people….and it functions in peoples’ lives to serve the needs of a group of people sharing the same philosophical world view. (From Karen Anderson’s book, The History of God)


Indeed, that is why our visioning committee is working so hard to have us identify our core values.  Just what are the core values of the group of people who make up this congregation?

Humanist religious communities (such as most UU churches) offer a sense of belonging, provide a setting for the moral education of children, offer special holidays shared with like-minded people, a unique ceremonial life, the performance of ideologically consistent rites of passage (weddings, child welcomings, coming-of-age celebrations, funerals, and so forth), an opportunity for affirmation of one’s philosophy of life, and a provide a historical context for one’s ideas. And indeed these are all things we attempt to do here at Marquette UU.

So what are some of the controversies…and where I stand?  Where do you stand?

Well, is Humanism a religious stance or purely philosophical stance?

Secular Humanists often refer to Unitarian Universalists as “Humanists not yet out of the church habit.”  But Unitarian- Universalists sometimes counter that a secular Humanist is simply an “unchurched Unitarian.”  “They are a Unitarian, they just don’t know it yet,” they say.  There is a little bit of ribbing here.  Secular humanists generally like the social causes UUs take on and how we teach moral values and responsible behavior to our youth.  But they also strongly feel that religion has done so much harm in the world that one should not mess with a perfectly good philosophy by calling it religious.

I clearly stand with the religious humanists.  That is why I am a member of MUUC.  While some say that this functional definition of religion amounts to taking away the substance and leaving only the superficial trappings.  Frederich Edwords, executive director of the AHA, believes it is just the opposite.  He says that “The true substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of individuals and the life of the community …. doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace old ones, but the purpose religion serves for PEOPLE remains the same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core of it.”


Indeed, on our last congregational survey, some of the most commonly mentioned reasons for attending MUUC were Community and Shared Common Values and Moral/religious education of children.

Edwords goes on to note…”Because meeting human needs is our highest purpose, this why Humanist child welcoming ceremonies are geared to the community and Humanist wedding services are tailored to the specialized needs of the wedding couple. This is why Humanist memorial services focus, not on saving the soul of the dear departed, but on serving the survivors by giving them a memorable experience related to how the deceased was in life. Humanists don’t proselytize people on their death beds.  We find it better to allow them to die as they have lived, undisturbed by the agendas of others.”

Religious humanist, UU Minister Kenneth Phifer declares — in his essay “The Faith of a Humanist,” that..

“Humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act for us. We must act to stop the wars and the crimes and the brutality of this and future ages. We have powers of a remarkable kind. We have a high degree of freedom in choosing what we will do. Humanism tells us that whatever our philosophy of the universe may be, ultimately the responsibility for the kind of world in which we live rests with us.”

Finally, as I read more over the past two weeks, I learned a bit about another branch of humanism which seems to becoming more a focus of UUism.

It’s called, humanistic religious naturalism. (I know!  These names are challenging, but I really felt this particular branch was worth mentioning b/c I sense a current of it in our group and I think it is a direction that some in our  UU denomination may be going.)  

First of all, what is it?  Let’s break it down…

Religious naturalism is a perspective that finds religious meaning in the natural world and rejects the notion of a supernatural realm.

This view actually started out as theistic view.  Even though religious naturalists reject a supernatural realm, they understand God as belonging to the natural universe rather than to an upper tiered supernatural world.

They might say “god is all around us”  or “I think we find a part of god in every person…or maybe …god is in the leaves, the rocks…you get the idea.  “Or god is an integral part of the natural universe.”

Non-theistic humanists may also adopt a related view.  The Rev. William Murray proposed it in his 2006 article in the UU World, called “Reason and Reverence.”

He writes that humanism is too anthropocentric, too human-centered.  And indeed every point of the Manifesto has humans at the center.  Rather he believes that nature rather than humankind what should be central. He believes that this lays the foundation for a strong environmental ethic which is essential in this time of gargantuan threats to the environment.

He believes that, “integrating religious humanism with religious naturalism will result in a greater spiritual depth and a language of reverence, both of which many find missing in traditional religious humanism” and that “This emergent form of humanism also provides a meaningful story, the epic of evolution.

He feels this melding of ideas provide a foundation for a more open, less rationalistic, and more inclusive humanism that speaks to the heart and the soul, not just the intellect.”

Frankly, I am inclined to agree with him…and find his essay very compelling.  Our 7th UU principle is so present in my mind that I do not need to write it on my hand.  It says…we affirm and promote…respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

But, the choice is yours.  Are you a Humanist?  Are you a more secular humanist…a more religious one?  More naturalistic?  Something different altogether?

It’s up to you … which is one of the things I love about Unitarian Universalism.  I’d like to open this to comments now.