April 1996

Religious Humanism

April 1996

What is Religious Humanism? I can offer here only the sketchiest outline of the most salient features of this distinctive approach to religion, which originated in the U.S. among Unitarians at about the time of the First World War. The movement eventually embraced two groups: one consisted of some Unitarians, Universalists, and Ethical Culturalists; the other was a group of academics. Notable among them were Roy Wood Sellars, a member of the philosophy department at the University of Michigan, A. Eustace Hayden, professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, and John Dewey, a member of the philosophy department at Columbia University. All three signed a very controversial document in 1933 entitled A Humanist Manifesto and all three wrote books contributing to the literary canon of religious humanism.

The development, of course, was far more complex and less progressive than I have suggested, but the early religious humanists were historicists and nominalists. Sellars, for instance, said, “Once we have cut the supposed bonds with the supernatural world, we see that religion is, and always has been a social product.” They also thought that the metaphors of past religions were dead, and that the new metaphors created by the religious humanists provided an appropriate direction for religion in their time.

The religious humanists were convinced that religion was created by humans, not gods, who always speak the words of humans. These humanists provided a functional interpretation of religion: it was created by humans to serve certain purposes. Hayden spoke of religion as “the mother of dreams.” The task is to impose human purpose upon the cosmic process, to shape the course of the flowing stream of life with its millions of conflicting drives, so that it will converge toward the practical expression of creative idealism. Sellars maintained the function of religion was to preserve and further human values. Generally, humanists thought of religion as intelligent participation in the human quest for the good life in a shared world.

Theirs was a religion without God. True, Dewey employed the word God to designate the process whereby the actual is transformed into the ideal, but his friend and colleague Corliss Lamont maintained that Dewey used the term to avoid offending the sensitivities of friends who were theists. However, the word caused such controversy that he repented of having used it. Several statements in A Common Faith about religion require no concept of God, for instance, “Any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and enduring values is religious in quality.” Hayden used the pragmatic test to judge claims about the helpfulness of the gods: What the gods have been expected to do, and have failed to do through the ages, man must find the courage and intelligence to do for himself. More needful than faith in God is faith that man can give love, justice, peace and all his beloved moral values embodiment in human relations. Denial of this faith is the only real atheism. According to the religious humanists, people can be moral without belief in God. Sellars said, “Morality is primarily a group affair. It is a term for the customs which have grown up through the generations and which are absorbed by each new born individual in his term, much as he takes in the air he breaths.” Conscience, rather than being the voice of God in the soul of the believer, was viewed by the religious humanists as a reproduction of tribal morality. To be moral, people do not need the supernatural sanction of a heavenly policeman. Morality must justify itself by its actual working in human life. It is primarily a social product, a historical achievement.

By repudiating the notion of a brain/mind dualism, the religious humanists also repudiated belief in personal immortality. According to Sellars, the new naturalism has realized that personality is in large measure a social product rooted in the social history of the group. The humanists were convinced that consciousness was totally dependent upon the brain; if the brain is dead, so are the mind and consciousness. Sellars maintained, “True religion and the spiritual are within you. They are the only Kingdom of Heaven.” But beyond these considerations, the concept of personal immortality had become a dead metaphor. The goal of religion is to promote the spiritual in humans, understanding that spiritual has relevance only between birth and death. In this broad and general sense, the spiritual emerges when there is intelligence of a fairly high order, a sense of right and wrong, an ability to set standards, a drive for creation in art and in social relations, a wealth of imagination. In summary, religious humanists viewed religion as a human creation to contribute to both personal and social well-being. Unlike the traditional understandings of religion, even the more liberal ones, it repudiated belief in God, the belief that humans could not be moral without the concept of God to support morality, and the belief that humans were immortal in any personal sense.

–Mason Olds
Religious Humanism, Autumn 1995

Editor’s Note: The AHA issued a statement against “hyphenated humanism” in The Humanist magazine November/December 2002. President Ed Dorr concluded the announcement with the words, “The American Humanist Association therefore stands for Humanism without modification and without reservation.” The entire text of this proclamation can be read here on the AHA website.

Gays Need Our Understanding

Science seems near to establishing that most if not all homosexuality is the result of nature and not nurture. There has been evidence of the genetic basis for homosexuality tendencies. If homosexuality is genetic, as the evidence seems to indicate, then our sexual orientation is what it is, like the color of our eyes, hair and skin. Homosexuals do not choose their sexual orientation. If they did, I would not understand why they would choose to be gay in a society that is so intolerant of them, especially when heterosexual relations are presumably just as gratifying.

If homosexuality is indeed genetic, it is not a question of choice and therefore not a question of morality. The problem, then, is not with them but with us. The problem is our treatment of homosexuality as a moral problem. We will solve our problem by dealing with homosexuals as fellow human beings who just happen to born that way. We will know we have solved our problem when gays and lesbians no longer need their clubs because we treat them with understanding and compassion

–Earl Wunderli
Letter to the Editor
Published in the Deseret News
February 21, 1996

Religion’s Contribution to Homophobia

~Nancy’s Corner~

Homophobia: A behavioral syndrome involving intense fear, hostility, hatred and intolerance of homosexual behavior.

The most recent and divisive issue in Utah is the proposed organization of gay and lesbian clubs in public high schools. Last December, an East High student in Salt Lake City petitioned the school to form a gay and lesbian club, justifying its need because she believes “many gay students feel like they’re alone.” Studies verify the fact that gay teens are ridiculed and rejected more often than others, and as a consequence, lose self-esteem, frequently fail classes, drop out of school, or even commit suicide.

State Senator Charles Stewart, Provo, (over)reacted to the student proposal by labeling homosexuality as “bad” and “bestial.” The church-owned Deseret News followed with an editorial urging the Salt Lake City School Board to “draw a clear line” against such clubs because homosexual activities are “an abomination.” The article even suggested that homosexuals should get help to change their orientation. This admonition was congruent with the 1991 Mormon First Presidency’s statement which reads, “such thoughts and feelings, regardless of their causes, can and should be overcome, and sinful behavior should be eliminated.”

On February 20, the Salt Lake School Board decided by a 4-3 vote to eliminate all student clubs in order to keep the gay/straight club out of the schools. Three days later, hundreds of students from both East and West high schools protested the Board’s decision by walking out of school, some marching to the Capitol where Utah legislators were meeting. There appeared to be two reasons for the student walkout. One side supported the gay alliance, and the other side was angry about the banning of all clubs in school.

On the same day of the protest, the Utah Senate passed Bill 246, which “prohibits school employees from supporting immoral or illegal conduct.” As an educator, I am offended with the implications in the Bill because of its effect on our First Amendment right to express a private opinion. I am also disturbed with the hasty, and allegedly illegal manner in which our senators passed the Bill, which brings me to my premise: Religious belief can contribute to the irrational fear called homophobia.

John Boswell, a historian, asserts in his book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, that “for many centuries Catholic Europe showed no hostility to homosexuality. The primary ammunition for the Church’s position against homosexuality came from the writings of Saints Augustine (b. 354 AD), and Thomas Aquinas (b. 1224) who both suggested that any sexual acts that could not lead to conception were unnatural and therefore sinful. Using this line of reasoning, the Church became a potent force in the regulation (and punishment) of sexual behavior. While some homosexuals were mildly rebuked and given prayer as penitence, others were tortured or burned at the stake.”

It is high time we recognize that homophobia is a maladaptive fear-a vestige from the ancient, superstitious past which needs to be eradicated because it results in hostility, hatred, and intolerance of others. Those civic leaders who use scriptures or ecclesiastical edicts to justify their legislative decisions need to realize they are favoring the majority and ignoring many citizens who do not believe in their prejudicial premise. We should be wary of politicians and religious leaders who imply they know what god wants for all of us. Carol Tavris, social psychologist, writes, “There’s a difference between what God wants and what fallible humans believe God wants to suit their own purposes.

What we’re contending with is a State Legislature whose composition is 90% patriarchal, the majority of whom believe have they have a direct line to the Almighty. However, Supreme Court Justice Blackmun reminds us of the dangers when religion attempts to supersede the democratic process. “Democracy requires the nourishment of dialogue and dissent, while religious faith puts its trust in an ultimate divine authority above all human deliberation. When the government appropriates religious truth, it transforms rational debate into theological decree. Those who disagree no longer are questioning the judgment of the elected, but the rules of a higher authority who is beyond reproach.” (1992) In the long run, it will be interesting to see if “theological decree” will overrule the democratic principle of “equal treatment under the law.”

This volatile issue also raises the question, “Shouldn’t lawmakers, school boards, and other civil leaders make decisions based on the most recent scientific data available, rather than rely on the medieval, and harmful opinion that homosexuality is sinful, bestial, and abominable?” Scientific studies now indicate that sexual orientation is mostly determined by the time of birth, through hormonal factors and/or genetic coding; and that trying to change one’s nature through a zapping behavior modification program is almost impossible.

We have an obligation as human beings to behave in a rational and civilized manner by providing equal treatment and equal access, especially in our schools. It’s contradictory and discriminatory to provide one group an incredible amount of State support (such as the LDS seminary program, where use of public school personnel is an everyday occurrence) and not provide the gay/straight alliance any recognition at all. Our school boards and legislators need to be reminded that the purpose of the First Amendment and the function of the Supreme Court is to protect the rights of unpopular minorities.

We should be comforting the lonely and confused by practicing the democratic and humanistic principles which help people function better. Bette Chambers, editor of Free Mind, put it well when she wrote, “All human life must seek a reason for existence…and it is love coupled with empathy, democracy, and a commitment to selfless service, which under gird the faith of a humanist.” We can only have faith that reason will prevail as the powers in Utah wrestle with the realities of this important Civil Rights issue.

–Nancy Moore

If You Meet The Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“I prefer the madness of Don Quixote de la Mancha to the sanity of most other men,” says Sheldon B. Kopp, author of the book discussed at our March meeting.

Cervantes’ Knight of the Rueful Countenance was alleged to have become deluded by the brain-addling effects of his continued immersion in the reading of chivalric tales. Ignoring the dissuasions of family and friends, this country-village gentleman sallied forth as a knight-errant on an adventurous quest to set right whatever wrongs he might encounter; all in the name of social justice and for the attainment of personal glory. The world which he was to encounter was really, like our own, unjust. Perhaps it demands such a holy fool as he was to take the evil of the world seriously enough and to imagine himself as willing to dedicate his life to improving the suffering of others.

Don Quixote’s family and community were upset to learn that he had chosen to believe in himself. His madness and loss of contact with reality are played off against the down-to-earth sanity of his squire Sancho Panza. Sancho goes along with Quixote’s mad sallies into the illusion of adventure because he is driven by greed. He wants worldly power, to become governor of an island that Quixote promises as a reward for Sancho’s service. Time after time Sancho is unnerved by Quixote’s impulsive challenging and attacking of swineherds, mule drivers, innkeepers, and windmills, whom he mistakes for enchanters, evil knights, lords of the manor, and lawless giants.

“…in a world in which true madness masquerades as sanity, creative struggles against the ongoing myths seem eccentric and will be labeled as ‘crazy’ by the challenged establishment in power.”

After his zany misadventures, Don Quixote also achieved sanity. On his death-bed, he endured the admonishments of his deadly sane housekeeper: “Stay at home, attend to your affairs, go often to confession, be charitable to the poor.”

And so, safe from further threat of madness, he died “having gained his reason and lost his reasons for living.”

In many cases psychotherapy patients are seeking some hidden order to be discovered that will provide the key to happiness, to perfection, to a problem-free life. If we are to live our own lives, we must trade the illusion of certainty for the holy insecurity of never knowing for sure what it is all about. As we gain a deeper sense of our own identity, a sense of self based upon knowing our own wishes and trusting our own feelings, we may develop a framework of situational ethics. Rules will come to serve as tentative guidelines.

The Zen Master warns: “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!” This admonition points up that no meaning that comes from outside ourselves is real. The Buddhahood of each of us has already been obtained. We need only recognize it. Killing the Buddha on the road means destroying the hope that anything outside of ourselves can be our master. We must each give up the master without giving up the search. The importance of things lies in the way we have learned to think about them. How often we make circumstances our prison and other people our jailers! At our best we take full responsibility for what we do and what we choose not to do. The most important struggles take place within the self.

“Once, in the Orient, I talked of suicide with a sage whose clear and gentle eyes seemed forever to be gazing at a never-ending sunset. ‘Dying is no solution,’ he affirmed. ‘And living?’ I asked. ‘Nor living either,’ he conceded. ‘But who tells you there is a solution?'”

Some of the 927 Eternal Truths:

1. This is it!

10. The world is not necessarily just. Being good often does not pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.

11. You have a responsibility to do your best none-the-less.

18. If you have a hero, look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.

28. The most important things each man must do for himself.

29. Love is not enough, but it sure helps.

31. How strange, that so often, it all seems worth it.