The Humanist Manifesto and the Future
The Edwin H. Wilson Inaugural Lecture
by Sterling M. McMurrin
Address delivered to the Humanists of Utah, November 19, 1992, at the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City, Utah, on the occasion of the First Annual Edwin H. Wilson Lecture on Humanism, established to honor a pioneer and leader of the American humanist movement.
The Edwin H. Wilson lectureship honors a man whose impact for good on his society is beyond measure. Over a long professional life of service to others, his voice and pen have eloquently and forcefully and persistently championed the cause of human freedom—the “freedom from’s”: from political tyranny and economic need, from superstition and ignorance, and from religious and ecclesiastical oppression—and the “freedom for’s”: freedom for individual expression, for intellectual adventure, for creative action, and for independence of mind. Those who have established this lectureship have done a very good thing. Edwin Wilson’s name should be known and celebrated in perpetuity in this church and this city.
I became personally acquainted with Ed Wilson when I came to the University of Utah faculty in 1948. I admired his work as editor of the Humanist and his ministry of this church. It has been a great pleasure to renew association with him since his return to Salt Lake City. He is a delightful person. It is for me a great honor to give the inaugural lecture on the Wilson Lectureship.
Not the least of his accomplishments is Wilson’s important role in the composition and publication of the two Humanist Manifestos of 1933 and 1973. These documents are a magnificent expression of the human spirit and are a permanent deposit in our heritage of the literature of human values. For this occasion, I will discuss the Humanist Manifesto and the future. Manifesto II absorbed Manifesto I, so I will simply refer to the Manifesto.
But there is an important facet of Manifesto I that is not explicit in Manifesto II. Somewhere in the four decades that separated them, the earlier positive emphasis on religion seemed to fade. The 1933 statement is a clear call for a humanist religion, a religion “shaped for the needs of this age.” Although the traditional religions, even their modern versions, should be replaced by a religion that “must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method,” Manifesto I declares that “through all changes religion itself remains constant in its quest for abiding values, an inseparable feature of human life.” In contrast, Manifesto II seems to be somewhat negative and critical of religion in principle.
Now, I don’t mean to make an issue over the disappearance of the word “religion.” Among the signatories of the first document are persons well known for their strong opposition to all forms of theism and established religion, and among those who signed the second Manifesto there are undoubtedly many who regard themselves as religious and see their version of humanism as a form of religion. After all, there are no morals in definition, and we can use words any way we care to as long as they facilitate communication and understanding.
Nor am I arguing for a humanist religion. We have enough religions now and don’t really need another one. I think it would be most unfortunate if humanism were to add to the present religious confusion by aggressively competing with the churches. And it would do just that if it were to organize itself as some kind of church to contest with the other churches. I personally find humanism as set forth in the Manifesto immensely attractive morally and intellectually as an ethical philosophy. It is a philosophy that is entirely compatible with religious sentiment and feeling, as the framers of Manifesto I clearly recognized. But I would have nothing to do with a humanist church.
Organization and institutionalism can kill a good thing; destroy its freedom and vitality. They produce regulations, bureaucracies, hypocrisy, propaganda, dogmas, orthodoxies, and endless contention–all of the evils that can already be found in the majority of established churches.
Create a humanist church and soon there would be a multitude of different kinds of humanist churches, with excursions into metaphysics, arguments over religion and politics, and the whole works all over again. The religious qualities of humanism can be cultivated for the satisfaction of those with religious disposition without a movement in the direction of a church. One thing that should never be forgotten is that the churches with their priests and ministers and general authorities are not the proprietors of religion. Religion belongs to anyone who is religious, and it is freely available to the unchurched as well as the churched.
But in my opinion, the Manifesto would be greatly strengthened if, in its next revision, it at least gave expression to the human experience that lies at the heart of religion–the experience of the sacred. My concern is simply that the Manifesto should fully account for all the basic elements of human experience, and these include the experience of the sacred, the holy, the sense of mystery, the numinous. This does not mean abandoning nature for the supernatural. We commonly distinguish the sacred from the secular, defining the secular as whatever is natural and equating the sacred with the supernatural. But this distinction is far too simple. Things, places, and events are not sacred or secular in themselves. They are not sanctified by some sacralization that comes from on high. They are made sacred by the attitudes and actions of human beings, by human devotion and consecration. Insofar as religion is identified by these, it is a natural function of human beings and does not depend on the supernatural.
The same is true of spirituality. Spirituality is a quality of our attitude, commitment, or valuation. The very word “spiritual” and its cognates suggest to many something that is unnatural, mysterious, uncanny, occult, or bizarre. But “spiritual” is a word rich in connotation, and we should not be willing to abandon it to those who claim it for supernatural phenomena and those who mutilate it for the occult. It appears only once in Manifesto II, and then in quotation marks, almost as if to apologize for its use.
In 1954, in this chapel, I gave a lecture on religion that closed with a discussion of humanism. Afterward, a woman of obvious piety approached me with a serious problem. She wanted to be a Unitarian and also a humanist, but she desperately wanted to continue to believe in God. Couldn’t she also believe in God? To complicate matters, she was a Mormon and didn’t want to endanger her LDS membership. I told her that the Unitarians were not stuffy about these things and would no doubt put up with her as long as she believed that at the most there is only one God. And the humanists, I said, really are poorly organized, so there wasn’t anyone there in authority to cause her any trouble, though with her belief in God she might be a bit out of the mainstream of humanism. Her only real problem, I told her, was with the LDS Church, which is all too well organized. I said the main thing she faced was to make sure that her home teachers didn’t catch her in these shenanigans. She seemed very pleased and, unlike the rich young ruler, she went away quite satisfied.
The Manifesto was not composed in a day, or a year, or a hundred years. It is a summit in the centuries-long history of our culture that issued from the confluence of Greek science, art, and philosophic thought, Judaic religion and morality, and Roman jurisprudence and imperial statecraft and was finally energized by the individualism of the tribes of Northern Europe. Nearer our time, the cultural ingredients that went into the making of the Manifesto were the remarkable achievements of modern science and its related technologies, the rise of democracy, the wide extension of literacy, the powerful thrust of liberal religion, the social gospel, the secularizing impact of public education, and the social conscience of the labor movement.
The Manifesto is essentially a moral document. Even a casual reading reveals a surprising number of ethical principles that have played important roles in the moral philosophies which have gone into the making of our value culture. Dominating and permeating the entire statement is what Aristotle called eudaimonia, the end which is pursued not for the sake of something else, but for its own sake–happiness–a life of complete virtue, noble and just. There is also the Epicurean ideal of life lived free from mental pains, the fear of the gods and fear of death; the Stoic life of harmony with the natural world; Spinoza’s pursuit of intellectual love; the utilitarian’s insistence on the greatest good for the greatest number; the Kantian conception of the good as the good will; and the pragmatist’s insistence on moral freedom–to mention only a few of the Manifesto elements that are drawn from our intellectual and moral heritage.
Or consider the substantive values evident in the Manifesto –the classical cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice (adopted by the Christian philosophers as the natural virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice); and the Platonic triad of truth, beauty, and goodness. All of these with varying emphases can be found in this remarkable and admirable document.
Those who may not be acquainted with the Humanist Manifestos would be well advised to read them. They are an authentic American scripture that should be placed alongside the sacred books in any library. My teacher E. E. Ericksen, a man who did great things for the liberation of the mind in this region, used to say, “Religion is a crusade, not a consolation.” Ericksen was a pragmatist with a typical pragmatist’s preoccupation with moral values, moral in the large sense covering personal conduct and social structure and behavior. He would regard the Manifesto as a profoundly religious document. It is not simply a statement of ethical principle; it is a call for moral action.
Far too often humanism is judged and, for that matter, condemned, for what it denies, its characteristic disbeliefs, rather than being judged by what it affirms, its beliefs. It is the great virtue of the Manifesto that it concentrates on what humanism affirms, and here its strength lies in its affirmations of human personality and human values. It is life-affirming–in contrast with much religion, which is life-denying. It is this that makes it a lasting, living testament of the human spirit.
In its strictly naturalistic form, humanism denies the supernatural; it is either agnostic or non-theistic. (I say non-theistic rather than atheistic because atheism and its cognates have taken on a pejorative meaning, as if a person who does not believe there is a God is for that reason a bad person–what nonsense!) humanism rejects the belief in a cosmic meaning or overarching purpose in the universe, that there are ultimate guarantees on the survival of whatever is of value to human beings. It holds that the material world of natural forces is totally without cosmic purpose or meaning, that the world is indifferent to the achievement of human values or the survival of the human race or of life in any form. When the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre was accused of pessimism for holding these and similar views, he replied that he was only facing consistently the obvious implications of atheism.
But this is only one side of the picture of humanism. One of my teachers, the American philosopher William Pepperell Montague, wrote that a person may believe that this “dreadful thing is true,” that everything of value is destined to perish, “but only a fool would be glad that it is true.” The humanists are not glad that the human race is alone in a morally indifferent universe. They have the courage to believe that this is true and yet pursue the high and heroic road of creating and preserving the things of human worth as if they were going to last forever.
To fully grasp the historic meaning of the Manifesto as a life-affirming document, it must be seen against the negative censure of humanity that has been the chief corrupter of the Christian religion: the belief in original sin that for centuries was a blight on Western culture. Original sin, arguably the most pernicious idea that ever infected the human mind, had a complex origin. But four persons stand out as the chief sources of its toxic impact on Christianity: the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, and the Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin.
The sin-obsessed Apostle to the gentiles, to rationalize his belief that Christ’s crucifixion was required for the salvation of humankind, held that Adam’s behavior in the Garden of Eden caused the entire human race to be in a condition of sin, of total alienation from God, having lost the freedom to do anything that could contribute to salvation. Today, with our emphasis on women’s rights, we should call it the sin of Eve, rather than Adam, because, after all, she got him to eat the apple. She was to blame; so she deserves the credit. As the preachers say, “It’s in the Book.”
Paul seems to have had no interest in Jesus as a human being in Galilee and Judea, having love and compassion for other human beings. Paul’s religion was the mystic identification of the sinner with Christ as the dying and rising savior God, and this became the central concern and meaning of historic Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant–that the Almighty God became incarnate in Jesus Christ to take upon himself the sin of the world, to bring salvation to those who cannot save themselves. For centuries this sublime myth has been the powerful moving force in Western culture.
The Catholic Church wisely refused to go along with St. Augustine’s insistence that in the Fall man lost all freedom to do good, became corrupt, and could only do evil. Original sin, the Church holds, as set forth in the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, is the loss of the supernatural gift of sanctifying grace which was added to human nature to assure salvation. But it does not entail the corruption of human nature or human reason, or the loss of human freedom capable of at least partially meriting salvation. As it is sometimes said by Catholic theologians, the Fall wounded human nature but did not corrupt it. Besides, the baptism of an infant removes the stain of original sin. But this kind of liberal theology didn’t sit well with Luther and Calvin, who wanted to get back to St. Augustine. They insisted that Adam’s sin corrupted the human race, that we are not sinful because we sin; we sin because we are sinful. Moreover, God elected some to salvation and others to damnation. Those who get to heaven will be there not because they are good. They are good because they were predestined for salvation, created to be in heaven. The rest of us do not go to hell because we are bad; we are bad because we are going to hell. Going to hell is our proper vocation, so it makes perfectly good sense for us to be bad.
Now, it doesn’t do any good to complain to Calvin that it isn’t very nice of God to predestine some of us to damnation when we haven’t even had a chance to sin on our own, because, insists Calvin, God is an absolute sovereign who wills as he pleases, and his will is inscrutable, beyond understanding. It is not possible for human reason to discern the ways of God. It is not within the province of human beings to question the divine will. “What can we expect in the face of God,” Calvin wrote in his Instruction in Faith, “we miserable ones who are oppressed by such a great load of sins and soiled by an infinite filth, except a very certain confusion such as his indignation brings? Though it fills man with terror and crushes him with despair, yet this thought is necessary for us in order that, being divested of our own righteousness, having given up faith in our own power, being rejected from all expectation of life, we may learn from the understanding of our poverty, misery, and infamy, to prostrate ourselves before the Lord and, by the acknowledgement of our inequity, powerlessness, and utter ruin, give him all glory of holiness, might, and deliverance.”
Even Jonathan Edwards, America’s foremost theologian, liked the idea of predestination to heaven and hell. “God’s sovereignty,” wrote Edwards, “used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to the sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure; … so that I scarce ever have found as much as the rising doubt of an objection against it … in God’s shewing mercy to whom he will shew mercy, and hardening whom he will… . The doctrine has very often appeared pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.” (Personal Narrative.)
Besides, those of us who are consigned to hell really have no grounds for complaint. In the long run, we come off as well as those created for heaven. Man exists, say the Calvinists, to glorify God. The good people who will end up in heaven glorify his mercy, and we who are destined for hell glorify his justice. The point is that justice is just as important as mercy. So what’s the complaint? I have never found this argument to be very convincing and certainly not very consoling.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the generality of those today who are in the religious tradition of Luther and Calvin believe this kind of nonsense–far from it. There has always been the problem of reconciling such things as predestination with the freedom of will necessary to the meaning of moral responsibility, and the secularizing and liberalizing forces in Western society have eroded and transformed much of the theology, even in the churches. But the offending doctrine of original sin can still be found, though usually in a sublimated form, in the more recent interpretations and editions of the Creeds, and it is basic to much of the evangelical Protestantism today. Its impact on American culture has been very great. The Catholic Church never did officially hold a doctrine of human corruption, and the more liberal Protestant churches no longer advocate such doctrines as divine election, predestination, the perseverance of the saints, and salvation by grace only. In the case of Mormonism, a religion in the Calvinist tradition, even though there is a strong Puritan ethic, the fundamentals of Calvinist theology are explicitly denied. The Mormon theologian James E. Talmage wrote that the doctrine of original sin “with its dread incubus as a burden from which none can escape, has for ages cast its depressing shadow over the human heart and mind.” (The Vitality of Mormonism, p. 48.) I couldn’t have said it better myself.
But original sin is far from dead. It is the basic ingredient of Christian fundamentalism, with its come-to-Jesus movement on college campuses, much of the incessant preaching on radio and television, and even the so-called moral movement in right-wing politics. Nor is it simply the literalists and fundamentalists who have championed original sin in our time. The emergence of religious existentialism, especially following the Second World War, produced a sophisticated theology among liberals who were disenchanted with the optimism of liberal religion. I refer to theologians who believe, for instance, that the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve never existed, but who still believe that original sin properly describes the human condition. Consider, for instance, the leading theologians in this country, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, both of whom have argued for original sin as the fact of radical alienation. Original sin, for Niebuhr, is the pride and hubris that refuses to accept the condition of human finitude. For Tillich, the myth of the Fall is an attempt to account for the fact of estrangement–that man is estranged from God, from his fellow men, and from the ground of his own being and suffers the anguish of moral guilt and the anguish of annihilation.
The arguments of theologians like Niebuhr and Tillich may be tossed off by the liberals. But they should not be tossed off lightly. The liberal doctrine of man and history has often been superficial and has avoided the more profound psychological analyses of individual behavior and the moral indifference, even the demonic character, of human history.
But what a difference between the absurd ultra-nihilism of the Reformers and typical fundamentalists and the life-affirming character of the Humanist Manifesto! Or contrast it with the religious philosophy of Edwin Wilson, as expressed in one of his sermons: “The thought of nature’s grandeur, the sacrifice of men who gave their lives for freedom, the sympathetic figure of Jesus and others who exemplify the law of kindness, the disinterestedness of men of science, the ideals to which men have again and again turned as the opposite of cruelty and greed and hatred, the faith of progress–all these sources of inspiration are focused in the successful act of liberal worship. Knowing that we, by taking thought of the best, can gain power for better living, we seek to lift our lives to higher ground … . We draw strength from awareness that our roots are in nature.”
But it would be a mistake to suppose that all humanists radiate this life-affirming quality so evident in the Manifesto and in Wilson’s words and work. Some do and some don’t. One who does is Corliss Lamont, the humanist philosopher who over many years published extensively in advocacy of humanism as a philosophy. I well remember a conversation with Lamont in 1948 or ’49, when he argued that personal immortality, which is a basic factor in traditional occidental religion, should not be a crucial issue because it is possible for the individual person to find full satisfaction in this life. There need be no longing for immortality. “This life is all,” he insisted, “and enough,” a confident assertion which became the title of his most famous essay.
Even though most humanists agree that this life is all, not all humanists are as sanguine as Lamont about life’s satisfactions. Consider, for instance, Bertrand Russell, an agnostic, naturalistic humanist and arguably the foremost philosopher of this century, who was acutely conscious of the tragedy of human existence. In the closing passages of Russell’s famous essay “A Free Man’s Worship,” he pronounces a judgment on life that is the diametric opposite of that of Corliss Lamont: “Brief and powerless is Man’s life,” wrote Russell, “on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way … the trampling march of unconscious power.”
Russell’s friends called him Bertie, and on one occasion at a social a friend asked, “Bertie, what if you die and get on the other side and find that you were entirely wrong?” Replied Russell, “I will simply say, ‘But God, you didn’t give us sufficient evidence.'” It seems to me that Russell has a good point there. I certainly agree with him that God keeps herself well hidden.
If Corliss Lamont can be called the “cheerful,” or at least the “hopeful” humanist, Bertrand Russell is the “tragic” humanist. Contrary to Russell’s despair, the Manifesto resounds with optimism and hope, for both the individual and society. But lest we be too easily seduced by the attractiveness of that optimism, we should remember that not only much profound philosophy and religion but most of the world’s great literature, music, and art are on Russell’s side–they eloquently express the consciousness of tragedy in human existence; the Book of Job, for instance: “Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and withers… . For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not die… But man dies and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he?”
This sense of tragedy is found in the great Greek dramas, as in the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus, in Shakespeare, as in Hamlet, in Goethe’s Faust, and in countless others. Or consider the tragic character of the great operas, for instance, Aida, Lucia di Lammermoor, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, Tosca, Il Trovatore, or the Wagnerian Ring. It isn’t simply that tragic literature and art have a strong appeal to our reason and emotions, as if we had an abnormal liking for the morbid. The ground of tragedy is that human experience is in fact infused with pain and suffering as well as good fortune and happiness, and that none can escape the fact that life must end in death. The argument of Epicurus that we cannot experience death so why be concerned about it is entirely logical but not always consoling.
The tragic is recognized in Lamont’s essay, but it can be transcended by the hope for a just society, as in Christianity the failure of Christ’s mission in his crucifixion is transmuted into the victory of his second coming. The trouble is that the “second coming” is always coming, and we may safely assume that it will never get here. I’m afraid that that is also the case with the Manifesto’s just society. The Manifesto seems to be strangely indifferent to the tragedy of the individual, almost as if the hope for an eventual good society, the ideal society which will never be real, can erase the pain and suffering of individual experience. But we are haunted by the pronouncement of the existentialists that society does not really exist, and humanity as a universal does not exist. That only the individual person truly exists, the individual person who knows he or she is going to die. While I was writing these words, Superman, the hope of the world, died.
What might be called the sociohistorical optimism of the Manifesto is an inheritance of the liberal doctrine of progress that achieved its high point at the turn of the last century, a product of two centuries of scientific and technological accomplishment, the spread of democracy, the extension of education, and the improvement in conditions of living. Just prior to the First World War, a leading American educator made a celebrated speech assuring his audience that the world had now achieved a level of sanity and knowledge that made war on any serious scale an impossibility. He had overlooked what Paul Tillich has called the “demonic” factor in human history.
The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr held that the optimistic doctrine of historical progress was a dogma of the humanists who, as they gave up belief in God, turned to history as the instrument of salvation. “The dominant note in modern culture,” he wrote in 1949, “is not so much confidence in reason as faith in history. The conception of a redemptive history informs the most diverse forms of modern culture… . The uncritical confidence in historical development as a mode of redemption may have … contributed to our present disaster by heightening the historical dynamism of Western civilization to the point where it became a demonic fury.” (Faith and History, 1949.)
In 1907 the leader of the American Social Gospel movement. closed his famous book Christianity and the Social Crisis on this sanguine note that was echoed in countless other publications and in the general consciousness of the nation. “In the intellectual life,” wrote Walter Rauschenbusch, “there has been an unprecedented leap forward during the last hundred years… . If the twentieth century could do for us in the control of social forces what the nineteenth did for us in the control of natural forces, our grandchildren would live in a society that would be justified in regarding our present social life as semi-barbarous… . Perhaps these nineteen centuries of Christian influences have been a long preliminary stage of growth, and now the flower and fruit are almost there. If at this juncture we can rally sufficient religious faith and moral strength to snap the bonds of evil and turn the present unparalleled economic and intellectual resources of humanity to the harmonious development of a true social life, the generations yet unborn will mark this as the great day of the Lord for which the ages waited, and count us blessed for sharing in the apostolate that proclaimed it.” (421f.)
My copy of the Rauschenbusch volume was published in 1909. Five years later the First World War was under way, and now the great day of the Lord seems farther away than ever.
It was during that war that the German philosopher Oswald Spengler, serving in the German Army, began to write his ominous prophecies on the coming death of Western culture. His logic and method were seriously flawed, but his penetrating insights were a quite sure sign of the coming times, of the threat of death to a high culture of religion, science, art, and philosophy confronted by a threatening civilization of commerce, power, monstrous cities, and the devastations of war.
“The dictature of money marches on,” wrote Spengler,”… the last conflict is at hand in which the Civilization receives its conclusive form–the conflict between money and blood …The coming of Caesarism breaks the dictature of money and its political weapon democracy . . The sword is victorious over the money … Money is overthrown and abolished only by blood . . World-history is the world court . .. Always it has sacrificed truth and justice to might and race, and passed doom of death upon men and peoples in whom truth was more than deeds, and justice than power. And so the drama of a high Culture–that wondrous world of deities, arts, thoughts, battles, cities–closes with the return of the pristine facts of the blood eternal that is one and the same as the ever-circling cosmic flow…For us, however, whom a Destiny has placed in this Culture and at this moment of its development–the moment when money is celebrating its last victories, and the Caesarism that is to succeed approaches with quiet, firm step–our direction, willed and obligatory at once is set for us within narrow limits, and on any other terms life is not worth the living. We have not the freedom to reach to this or to that, but the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing. And a task that historic necessity has set will be accomplished with the individual or against him.” (Decline of the West, vol. 2 , pp. 506f.)
Today there is little incentive to believe in general social progress. Most historians and philosophers of history have been severely chastened by the wars, the Holocaust, economic failure, famine, and now even by the trivialization of our culture and the current political failures that threaten to destroy what yesterday had such great promise. But still in 1973, Manifesto II closed with words that, while in secular rather than religious language, are in their optimism remarkably like the closing words of Rauschenbusch’s book. Here is the close of the Manifesto:
These are the times for men and women of good will to further the building of a peaceful and prosperous world… We urge recognition of the common humanity of all people. We further urge the use of reason and compassion to produce the kind of world we want–a world in which peace, prosperity, freedom, and happiness are widely shared…. Let us work together for a humane world by means commensurate with humane ends… We will survive and prosper only in a world of shared humane values. We can initiate new directions for humankind; ancient rivalries can be superseded by broad-based cooperative efforts… What more daring a goal for humankind than for each person to become, in ideal as well as practice, a citizen of a world community. It is a classical vision; we can now give it new vitality. Humanism thus interpreted is a moral force that has time on its side. We believe that humankind has the potential intelligence, good will, and cooperative skill to implement this commitment in the decades ahead.
Now, it is obvious that there has been much progress in our century–in science, technology, and transportation, for instance, or in the spread of literacy and education, and most of all in medicine and electronics. But we live in the century of the Holocaust, of the atomic bomb, of genocide, of the starvation of millions, and of unspeakable violence–violence both fictional and real that, like starvation, is daily before our eyes. In our own time we have become acutely aware of the capacity of the individual and society to commit the most obscene and unthinkable evil. We have seen so much suffering, hopelessness, and despair that we are in danger of becoming insensitive to it. To say the least, we have been chastened in our optimism. Notwithstanding our great intellectual, moral, and spiritual resources, there are no guarantees whatsoever on our future. We live in a world of great danger. We no longer talk about such things as human perfectibility, or Manifest Destiny; we no longer believe in automatic progress, if we believe in progress at all. Only a few fanatics now look seriously for the second coming just around the corner. I rather think that with all its virtues, the optimism of the Manifesto can stand a similar chastening.
I want to comment very briefly on a deficiency and a major strength of the Humanist Manifesto. The primary concern of the Manifesto is essentially ethical, as it should be, the hope for an eventual good and just society. It’s a little short on the individual, but perhaps that’s not serious. But what is regrettable is its virtual neglect of the aesthetic element of human experience. Of the classical value triad of truth, beauty, and goodness, it comes down hard on goodness, and the concern for truth permeates the entire document. But beauty and the arts receive short shrift. The affective side of human nature deserves equal billing with the rational and moral sides.
A great strength of the Manifesto, one that I can enthusiastically endorse, is its insistence that morality does not and should not require a religious sanction. Religion and morals are obviously intimately involved. They support each other and give meaning to each other. Religion can and has and does provide morality with a powerful motivation, and a religion without moral substance would simply be a set of cult beliefs and practices, with no real living strength. But morality, which has to do with “oughts” and “ought-nots,” issues from human experience. Whether it is the law from Mt. Sinai, a judgment of priests or prophets or of an authoritative scripture, it is the product of human experience, reflecting and expressing the value experiences and judgments, large and small, arising from personal conduct, social behavior, and human aspiration and idealism. The word of God heard by the prophets is their own voice echoed back to them from the encircling void.
I have a volume entitled I Yahweh, the autobiography of God. It’s getting so everyone is writing his or her life story these days. The problem is, this book was ghost-written by a writer named Grey. But Grey really knew the story of the life of the God of the Bible–from the time that he was awakened in the Ark of the Covenant and tutored by the prophets and Jesus, to his maligning by the theologians, to his resuscitation by the social gospelers. Fortunately, he didn’t stay around long enough to be insulted by the televangelists. God’s last contact, according to his autobiography, was with that remarkable evangelist of the Four-Square Gospel, Aimee Semple McPherson. When he got to Aimee in the line after the service in Angelus Temple and shook hands with her, she said to him, in her inimitable way, “God bless you, brother.” He replied, “God bless you, sister.” When God asked her what she was doing to hasten the coming of the Kingdom, she said, “I’m packing ’em in, brother, I’m packing ’em in.”
I’m told that there are some who think that because humanism is a reasonable, scientifically oriented, highly moral, idealistic religion or philosophy, it will eventually, in our advanced society at least, drive the Judeo-Christian religion into retirement if not oblivion. This is a vain hope, because it’s not likely to happen. We do not live by reason alone, and scientific advancement only enhances the mystery of reality that nourishes religion. Besides, the radical modern de-sacralization of life has failed to obliterate religion even in the irreligious, who live by the vestiges of sacred symbols and sacred times and places. We cannot know what the world will be like a thousand years from now. If any of our cultural descendants are still around and in their right minds, they may all be humanists, though I doubt it. But we may hope that any religions that survive will show considerable influence from today’s humanism. Where is the force that could destroy the Jewish religion–the faith that survived the Babylonian captivity, the Greek suppression, the Roman destruction, the Inquisition, the medieval pogroms, and, in our own century, the Holocaust, the most unspeakable evil in human history? And, as for Christianity, it should be a crusade, as Ericksen held, but the Christian religion is also a consolation. A faith that the Eternal became incarnate in time to overcome the agony of sin and death will be around in some form for a long time to come, bringing strength and consolation to those who face the tragedies of human existence. The dogma and the sacramental cult may fail, but the profound faith and hope that the things that matter most will not ultimately be destroyed by the things that matter least will not die easily. We can hope that in the years ahead religion will shed the remnants of the negativism that still clings to it and radiate the life-affirming, humane character that is the heart of the Humanist Manifesto.
Dr. McMurrin earned a B.A. and M.A. at the University of Utah, and a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California where he was appointed to the faculty of the School of Philosophy. In 1948 he accepted a position as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah.
At the University of Utah, Sterling McMurrin has held faculty appointments in the Departments of Philosophy, History, and Educational Administration and administrative appointments as Dean of the College of Letters and Science, Academic Vice President, Provost, Dean of the Graduate School, and founding Director of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Dr.McMurrin has lectured and written extensively on the history and philosophy of religion. He now holds the title of E.E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor Emeritus.
The Humanities Center of the University of Utah recently established the Sterling M. McMurrin Lectures on Religion. An inaugural set of lectures will be given by Dr. McMurrin, who states: “…It is time for us to give the study of religion the attention it needs—serious, reasonable, knowledgeable study—unless we are resigned to becoming victims of the irrationality and emotionalism in religion that are already so much in evidence.”