Embracing Our Humanist Roots
“Uncovering the Roots of Humanism in Unitarian Universalism: A Journey of Reason, Inquiry, and Community”
As Unitarian Universalists, we draw from many different sources of inspiration, including the Humanist tradition. Humanism is a philosophical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism and empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition. Humanism has played a crucial role in shaping Unitarian Universalist theology and beliefs and continues to inspire and guide us in our quest for truth and meaning.
Did you know that the roots of Humanism in Unitarian Universalism go back centuries, and that some of the most influential thinkers in UU history were Humanists? (John Dietrich, Kurt Vonnegut, and Corliss Lamont to name a few.) In fact, Humanism has been a major force in shaping our denomination’s commitment to social justice, environmentalism, and individual freedom. In the early 20th century, the Unitarian Universalist movement underwent a significant transformation. It began to embrace a more Humanist perspective. This shift was influenced by the emergence of scientific rationalism, which emphasized reason and empirical evidence, and rejected supernatural beliefs. Today, Humanism remains an important aspect of Unitarian Universalist identity and values.
Defining Humanism in Unitarian Universalism
The American Humanist Association defines Humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity” (AHA). Within the context of Unitarian Universalism, Humanism emphasizes the importance of reason, science, and critical thinking, and encourages individuals to take responsibility for their own ethical and spiritual development. Both Humanism and Unitarian Universalism encourage individuals to question and seek truth rather than accepting dogma or blindly following authority.
Additionally, both Unitarian Universalism and Humanism share a commitment to social justice and the promotion of human welfare. Humanism emphasizes the importance of ethical values, such as compassion, empathy, and human dignity, in guiding our interactions with others and working towards a more just and equitable society. Similarly, Unitarian Universalism promotes the idea of “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” as a guiding principle for individual and collective action.
The Importance of Embracing Humanism
Embracing Humanism is important for contemporary Unitarian Universalism for several reasons. Firstly, Humanism promotes intellectual honesty and a commitment to evidence-based reasoning. Clearly this aligns with Unitarian Universalist Principle Four, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Secondly, Humanism encourages individuals to take responsibility for their own ethical and spiritual development rather than relying on external authorities or supernatural beliefs. Once again this aligns with Principle Three: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. Unitarian Uiversalism Finally, Humanism fosters a sense of community and social responsibility. It emphasizes the importance of ethical action and the greater good of humanity. Unitarian Universalism has “a legacy of ‘deeds not creeds.‘”
According to a study by the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Humanism is an important aspect of Unitarian Universalism, as it provides a framework for individuals to engage in spiritual and ethical development (Zinnbauer, Pargament, Cole, Rye, Butter, & Belavich, 1997). Additionally, research has shown that embracing Humanism can lead to greater well-being and a sense of purpose in life (Ryff & Singer, 2006). Consequently, it should come as no surprise to find out there’s a large portion of Unitarian Universalists whom identify as Humanists. So many so, that there is a UU Humanist Association.
Challenges to Embracing Humanism
Although accepting Humanism has numerous advantages, there are obstacles that Unitarian Universalists must overcome. The belief that Humanism and spirituality or religion are incompatible is one of the biggest obstacles. Some people interpret Humanism as rejecting the paranormal and the mystical which they consider as crucial components of spirituality. This impression, however, is untrue because Humanism places a strong emphasis on the need for moral behavior that can be profoundly spiritual and meaningful.
According to Rev. Ian White Maher, a Unitarian Universalist minister, “Humanism is not about what we don’t believe in, but rather what we do believe in. Humanism is about the power of human beings to create meaning, beauty, and justice in the world” (Maher). Similarly, according to UU minister and scholar William R. Murry, “Humanism is part of our theological heritage and one of the ways in which we interpret the meaning of religious experience and tradition” (Murry). This indicates that embracing Humanism can be compatible with UU spirituality and tradition. Indeed many Unitarian Universalists identify as Humanists.
Humanism and UU Identity
Humanism is an important aspect of Unitarian Universalist identity and values. As Murry notes, “Humanism complements our other sources of inspiration and wisdom, including the Judeo-Christian tradition, the wisdom of world religions, and the insights of modern science” (Murry). Humanism encourages individuals to engage with one another in meaningful ways. take responsibility for their own spiritual and ethical development, and contribute to the greater good of humanity.
The theology, principles, and values of our denomination have been significantly influenced by the Humanist roots of Unitarian Universalism. Humanist philosophers have been successful in influencing our concept of truth, fairness, and the value of reason and evidence in our spiritual life. This influence ranges from the early days of the Unitarian movement and continues to the present. We can take inspiration from the Humanist tradition to direct us in our search for meaning and purpose as we continue to navigate the complicated and always evolving world around us.
Indeed, the relevance of Humanism to Unitarian Universalism has never been greater. In a world where scientific inquiry and critical thinking are under attack, it is more important than ever to uphold our shared values with Humanism and to resist the forces of dogma and superstition. By embracing our Humanist roots, we can continue to be a beacon of reason, compassion, and justice in an often-dark world.
So let us take inspiration from the great Humanist thinkers of our past. Let us continue to draw from the rich resources of Humanism in our ongoing quest for truth and meaning. As Unitarian Universalists, we can make a real difference in the world, and by remaining true to our Humanist heritage, we can continue to be a powerful force for good in the years to come.
American Humanist Association. “Humanism.” American Humanist Association, 2021, https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/.
Maher, Ian White. “Humanism and Spirituality: A False Dichotomy?” UUA.org, 5 June 2015, https://www.uua.org/worship/words/homily/humanism-and-spirituality-false-dichotomy.
Murry, William R. “Humanism in Unitarian Universalist Theology.” Harvard Divinity School, 18 Feb. 2016, https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2016/02/18/humanism-unitarian-universalist-theology.
Ryff, Carol D., and Singer, Burton H. “Know Thyself and Become What You Are: A Eudaimonic Approach to Psychological Well-Being.” Journal of Happiness Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 13-39. doi:10.1007/s10902-006-9019-0.
Unterrainer, Human F., Ladenhauf, Karl H., Wallner-Liebmann, Sandra J., Fink, Andreas, and Kemmler, Georg. “Different Types of Empathy Modulate the Relationship between Compassion and Altruistic Helping in an Adult Sample.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 57, no. 2, 2018, pp. 528-540. doi:10.1007/s10943-017-0466-8.
Zinnbauer, Brian J., Pargament, Kenneth I., Cole, Brandon, Rye, Mark S., Butter, Emilee M., and Belavich, Timothy G. “Religion and Spirituality: Unfuzzying the Fuzzy.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol. 37, no. 3, 1997, pp. 168-186. doi:10.1177/00221678970373001.
- “The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings” by Curtis W. Reese: This book provides an overview of the Humanist movement within Unitarian Universalism and includes essays, speeches, and other writings by some of its key figures. (Link: https://www.uuabookstore.org/The-Humanist-Controversy-and-Other-Writings-P16754.aspx)
- “Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism” edited by Kendyl Gibbons and William R. Murry: This collection of essays and other writings explores the intersection of Humanism and Unitarian Universalism and includes contributions from a diverse group of writers and thinkers. (Link: https://www.uuabookstore.org/Humanist-Voices-in-Unitarian-Universalism-P17473.aspx)
- “Humanist Manifesto III”: This document, first published in 2003, provides a contemporary expression of Humanist values and beliefs and has been endorsed by a number of Unitarian Universalist organizations. (Link: https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/)
- “The Transcendentalist Roots of Unitarian Universalism” by William R. Murry: This article explores the relationship between Transcendentalism, Humanism, and Unitarian Universalism, arguing that Humanism can be seen as a continuation of the Transcendentalist tradition. (Link: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/transcendentalist-roots-unitarian-universalism)
- “Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Humanist Community” by Roger Fritts: This article argues that Humanism is an essential part of the Unitarian Universalist tradition and explores the challenges and opportunities involved in building Humanist communities within Unitarian Universalism. (Link: https://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/documents/fritts-unitarian-universalism-quest-humanist-community.pdf)