What Does Humanism Mean Today?

John H. Dietrich

John H. Dietrich, courtesy of First Unitarian Church of Minneapolis

I am pleased to say that I have won the Rev. Dale Arnik Annual Humanist Sermon Award for 2019. This comes with a bit of fanfare and a modest cash prize. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, now retired, I have considered myself a religious humanist since I first discovered Unitarianism as a teenager. I have also come to believe that the Transcendentalists were the precursors of the religious humanist position. As Emerson wrote in his journal in 1864: “Calvinism rushes to be Unitarianism as Unitarianism rushes to be Naturalism.” Transcendentalism and Free Religion were steps along the way toward a full-blown religious naturalism. Here are a few paragraphs from my sermon (you may also download a PDF copy of the full sermon):

“In American culture as a whole, religious humanism contends with those who argue that there can be no morality, no sense of absolute right and wrong, without God. Many evangelical Christians believe that AIDS, natural disasters, abortion, and promiscuity are attributable to wide-spread atheism. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2017 there were no self-professed humanists or atheists in Congress. There may well be non-believers but it would be the kiss of death for anyone to admit it. Apparently it is more acceptable to be a hypocrite, a bigot, and a sexual predator than it is to be an atheist.

“What, then, does humanism mean? Secular humanists deny the existence of anything supernatural, God included. Religious humanists see no evidence of the existence of a supreme being who created the universe and rules over it, granting favors to some, punishing others, promising everlasting life to the devout. We are atheists with respect to that notion of God, and we are reluctant to use the word God because it is so often understood in that way. But there are aspects of nature and human experience that, while difficult to explain, are nevertheless numinous. They have a spiritual quality. They give rise to religions and notions of deity, but they are prior to them. They are intimations of a reality that eludes any final and conclusive definition, either scientifically or theologically. Gods and religions are examples of what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called “misplaced concreteness.”

“If I prefer term “religious naturalism,” it is not because I no longer consider myself a humanist, but because the word humanism seems to put humankind on a pedestal. We are and must be concerned for the welfare of humanity, but we must be aware of our shortcomings as well as our achievements as a species. We are not set apart from the rest of nature; we are part and parcel of it. We are co-dependent, not only with the whole of nature, but also with the rest of humanity. We rise or fall together. And if there is any meaningful sense of morality it consists in allying ourselves with the creative forces that uphold our world and not the negative ones that threaten to destroy it. Transcendent experiences of union with these creative forces both affirm our relation to a greater whole and give us hope that the forces of life are stronger than those of death. In this sense, religious humanism is a form of this-worldly spirituality, honoring both reason and science and our need for connection to one another and the cosmos that is our home.

“Walt Whitman was a poet of the soul and a religious naturalist. He wrote:

…having look’d at the objects of the universe, I find there is no one nor any particle of one but has reference to the soul.
Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands.

Like Whitman, I find the soul nowhere else but here, in this life, in this earth, in this body. And this is what humanism means to me.”