History of Humanism in Utah
Organized Humanism began in the United States as an effort to maintain the Unitarian Church as the leading “creedless liberal religion” in this nation. Over the years since the Unitarian Church was established as a creedless religion several efforts have been made by over zealous Unitarian leaders to create a “statement of belief.” During the late 1920’s the movement to establish a Unitarian Creed appeared close to gaining approval by the Unitarian hierarchy in Boston.
A group of Unitarian Ministers in Chicago, strongly opposed to the effort in Boston, organized to halt the creedal railroading by the easterners. They were ridiculed as “The Western Movement.” Reverend Ed Wilson was a proponent of the Humanist Philosophy and a Unitarian minister. He and four other Unitarian ministers formed a loose organization including Chicago University professors to publicize the Humanist Philosophy and urge the Unitarian Society to adopt it’s ideas rather than adopt an authoritarian religious creed. Dr. Wilson was a leading spokesman for the group and helped to write a defining statement eventually referred to as The Humanist Manifesto.
The Western Movement was a major factor in defeating the effort in Boston to write a Unitarian Creed of Belief. The task of composing a Humanist Manifesto took about three years. It went through serious discussions, several drafts, and revisions. Some prominent philosophers eventually refused to approve it, some because it was too bold, some because it was too soft.
The final compromised document was signed by thirty-three liberal religious and educational leaders and in 1933 was published for the first time in a Chicago newsletter, The New Humanist, edited and published by Ed Wilson. Here are some highlights from this document:
- In every field of human activity, the vital movement is now in the direction of a candid and explicit humanism. In order that religious humanism may be better understood we, the undersigned, desire to make certain affirmations, which we believe the facts of our contemporary life demonstrate.
- Today man’s larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and his deeper appreciation of brotherhood have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion.
- We therefore affirm the following:
- Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.
- Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process.
- Humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.
- Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science make unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.
- Religious humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now.
- The enhancement of human life is the purpose and program of humanism.
- We assert that humanism will: (a)affirm life rather than deny it; (b)seek to elicit the possibilities of life, (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all.
- So stand the theses of religious humanism.
Ed Wilson continued his role as a spokesman for humanism, and his Unitarian ministerial career. In 1946 he was invited to be the minister of the Salt Lake City Unitarian Society. While here he continued his dual role as a Unitarian Minister and as editor of The Humanist magazine.
During his three years in the Salt Lake City pulpit his leadership in both capacities was instrumental in the acceptance of humanism within Unitarianism. This congregation was one of the first Unitarian Societies to adopt the Humanist Manifesto as an inspirational document. By the 1960’s, 80% of the US Unitarian membership identified themselves as humanists. Today that percentage is slightly less than 50%, but it continues to be the largest sub-group in the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Dr. Wilson remained as chief editor The Humanist Magazine for 16-years, from 1941 to 1956.He was one of the founders of the American Humanist Association and served as its executive director for 21-years, from 1949 to 1970. In 1952 he participated in the formation of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, uniting the humanist movement world wide.
The illness of his wife was a factor in Ed Wilson retiring from active leadership roles in both the Unitarian Ministry and the American Humanist Association. Upon the death of his wife, he decided to return to Salt Lake City where one of his sons was a physician at the Veterans Hospital. He was instrumental in forming this local chapter of the American Humanist Association.
I had the privilege of interviewing him after we had organized the chapter. That interview is available here.
He was a brilliant scholar, thoughtful, intelligent and an excellent communicator. He talked primarily about his early life
Ed Wilson’s goal was to live to welcome in the year 2000. He wanted to be one of the few people who could be recognized for living in three centuries, the 1800’s, the 1900’s and two-thousand. But his desires exceeded reality. He died shortly after our interview. Consequently his personal voice regarding the struggle to form the American Humanist Association was never electronically recorded. It is available in this book published a few years after his death but I would have been more than pleased to have had his personal observations of organizing the AHA recorded in the first person!
A few years earlier he did have an oral history interview at the University of Utah Marriott Library. In that interview he related some of the details about organizing humanism and he told Lorille Miller his ideas about how the words “religion” and “religious” have quite different implications. His comments reveal clearly, I think, how he felt comfortable being both a humanist leader and a Unitarian Minister. Here is an excerpt:
“The Humanist Association was intended to be an educational association, not a church or a denomination. We were not going to call it a religion, but did want religious values to be included in its general approach to life.
“Religions set up a creed which people are required to affirm. The emphasis in their faith is on ‘right belief’…it is often dogmatic and rigid whereas ‘religious’ is a quality of life and includes wonder, awe, and commitment to ideals.”
Ed was the energizer in organizing this chapter of his American Humanist Association. He and seven others met in the chapel next door on a November evening in 1990 and voted to organize the Humanist of Utah. Our charter was officially granted by the AHA May 9th 1991. Our Articles of Incorporation as a non-profit Corporation were granted by the state of Utah August 3, 1992. The chapter’s original statement of belief and purpose read:
Humanism is a natural way of life that promotes living joyfully and compassionately in the present, using innate intelligence, science, the humanities and experience as the methods for discovering truth.
Our purpose is to offer an affirmative educational program based on developing one’s natural inner strengths in order to practice the art of living; to promote meaningful activities and compassionate services which champion Humanism; and to be an association where all can have a sense of belonging to a larger community that supports a positive philosophy of reason, integrity, and dignity.
Membership growth was slow but by 1996 one-hundred-and-forty people had paid dues to be recognized as members supporting humanist principles. The main characteristic shared by all humanists is ‘an inquisitive mind seeking rational answers to life, nature and the universe.’
Humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, their intellectual ability to determine moral values, their emotional strength to determine right and wrong based on human experience and evolution, rather than ancient Biblical dictates.
Humanism entails a commitment to the search for truth and morality thru reason rather than revelation, human means in support of human interests. In focusing on the capacity for self determination, Humanism rejects the validity of transcendental justifications such as faith and supernaturalism. They respect reason and reject revelation as a source of discovering truth.
Humanism features an optimistic attitude concerning the capacity of people. Their ultimate goal is human flourishing, making life better for all humans. The focus is on doing good and living well in the here and now, and by their efforts leaving this world a better place. They believe the rewards of living the good life will be enjoyed during this life, not in a life after death.
At the conclusion of a recent panel discussion of several Utah religious leaders the moderator invited each of us to respond to the question:
“How would Utah be different if 70% of its citizens were members of your religion or philosophy?”
My response was:
- Education would be tuition free thru college graduation.
- Students would be encouraged to develop their innate talents and self esteem.
- Sex education would be a subject of public education where students would learn the responsibilities of sexual expression.
- Public housing would be available for the homeless.
- Meals would available for the hungry.
- Medical services would be available for everyone.
- Appropriate jobs would be available for the unskilled.
- People would be required work no more than 8-hours a day, nor more than 5-days a week.
- Public transportation would be affordable for everyone.
- Electronic media would be required to present all sides of political and social questions.
- Prisons would be operated for rehabilitation rather than punishment.
I feel fortunate to have been a charter member of this organization; to have had an opportunity to serve on the board of our national organization for 8-years; To have served as a certified Humanist Counselor and officiate for fifteen years; and most of all I feel a deep gratitude for having had the personal guidance and wisdom of one of the outstanding world leaders of humanism.
The characteristic shared by all humanists is an inquisitive mind seeking reasonable answers to the questions of life, nature, and the universe.
Puttering among his barnacles (so many to keep!)
He pondered more than the shells
Like them, once free swimming, but now firmly fixed.
Yes, in a fix,
not evolving, his own shell covering the dark comprehension.
“Stomach troubles.” More like stagnant wells
Ah! What he had gradually realized as a rover…
He knew there would be hell to pay
when natural selection naturally had its say.
Thus ten years’ Darwin dammed. Delay, delay, delay.
Say, who could blame the former Unitarian?
“Blasphemy, anathema, vulgar contrarian!”
He could hear them in his troubled sleep.
Then the shocked shell shattered.
(After all, what really mattered?)
The thunderclap of Wallace woke the deep
somnolence, dragging truth into the light.
A long, long night
I got inspired to write this poem while reading that amazing book by Homer Smith, Man and His Gods; he wrote a brief biographic sketch of Darwin and I was once again made grateful that Darwin was both brilliant and heroic.
As you know, November brings the sesquicentennial of the publishing of his earthshaking On the Origin of Species.
This Thursday, October 8, 2009, Humanists of Utah will present our second annual Thomas Paine Day. Professor Bruce Dain from the History Department of the University of Utah will be our speaker. He will no doubt add to our knowledge of Thomas Paine and the era of the Founding Fathers.
In discussing Thomas Paine with others, I often state that it is unfortunate that his essential role in the creation of this nation is at best glossed over. It is not only unfortunate but down right shameful that the man who first coined the name “The United States of America” has been “shelved”, whose pamphlets and other writings connected with the Colonists and gave inspiration to the Revolution. This marginalizing of Thomas Paine is largely the result of his work The Age of Reason in which he criticizes religion. This is apparent from this passage:
“I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.
“But lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe and my reasons for not believing them.
“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
Understandably, he wrote these words late in life knowing the great disdain he would receive. It is my hope that our annual Thomas Paine Day will help to take him off the shelf and bring him back to his deserved place in history. We also hope to clarify as best we can the character and philosophy of the founding fathers and to challenge those who would rewrite history to their liking.
On Thomas Paine Day we will also have the winners of the Marian Craig Essay Contest read their essays and present them with their awards. Finally, along with our usual fare of refreshments we will have a cake with Thomas Paine’s likeness on it and ice cream to go with it.
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