What follows is the text of Rev. David’s sermon manuscript from April 15, 2018. The sermon references an essay by Amanda Poppei: the leader/minister of the Washington Ethical Society. You can read an excerpt from Poppei’s essay here.
Resurrecting the Humanist Heart
Unitarian Universalism began as two liberal Protestant denominations: the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association. One of the defining characteristics of Unitarianism was and is the rejection of creeds: formal statements of what must be believed to be a member. None of that for us, thank you very much! Sometime in the mid 1800s, out in the Midwest, that creedlessness took a surprising turn. Many Unitarian churches decided that if we have no creed, then that applies to even major things like the existence of God or being a Christian. They decided to embrace Atheists and non-Christians into full membership. This radical wing called itself “Free thinkers,” “Free religionists,” and “Unity men” (as they desired a unity of fellowship across religious boundaries).
The result was decades of controversy, but, in time, the denomination decided to go with full freedom of membership and belief. In the 20s and 30s of the 20th century a new term was invented by Unitarians who wanted it to be clear that their religion was not about faith in God, but rather faith in the human being; not a religion for the next life, but a way of life in this world. They called themselves, “Humanists.” In time Humanism would become the dominant way of thinking in the Unitarian denomination. In the 50s hundreds of new congregations called “fellowships” were formed, including ours, UUFF. Many of these fellowships would be founded by and made up mainly Humanists.
In many of these fellowships, you’d never know Unitarianism had ever not been Humanist. Often services would feature no formal religious language, and any kind of ritual was taboo. I heard an older Humanist once tell me that in the fellowship he was raised in you only heard the words “God” or “Jesus Christ” in the service if the minister accidentally banged their knee on the pulpit.
But things seem to be changing. Over the last 20 or 30 years ritual has been returning in UU congregations. Fellowships and churches that once recoiled at any kind of “God-talk” now use terms like “worship” or “holy” or “faith.” This has been it’s own controversy. I once was trying to explain to some Baptists at my seminary what UUs are like. I said, “We’re the religious community where gay marriage is our safe issue we all agree on as totally ok, but what can really get us fighting mad at each other is whether or not it’s okay to pray in church.”
But, all joking aside, this is serious. Many Humanists and non-theists feel left behind. Many of have left. “I just don’t feel like this is my home anymore,” some have said. Is there a future for Humanism in Unitarian Universalism, given the rise in so-called “language of reverence” and more openly religious services?
To all the Humanists of this fellowship, let me be clear: This is your home. Period. You belong here. No amount of strange experimental services by the new minister, no tweaking to the Order of Service changes that you were here before me. This is your home. You belong. And I don’t want anything I do as your minister to change that. If you are a Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, and you feel left behind, that you don’t belong here anymore, I want to talk to you. I need to hear your story. Tell me where you feel connected to the services and tell me where you don’t.
The fact is, Atheism and Humanism are not minority points-of-view in this fellowship. According to the congregational survey you filled out as part of the search process for a new minister, if memory serves it was about 75-80% that identified as Humanist or Atheist, or as at least being influenced by Humanism or Atheism. 75-80%! That was far and away the highest number of Atheists & Humanists of any congregation I applied to. Bar none. We proudly name our welcome of non-theists in almost every Sunday morning welcome, and it’s featured prominently on the home page of our website. This isn’t a dirty little secret, and it shouldn’t be. In a world where nonbelievers are still mistreated and routinely ostracized by religious family, it’s important that we celebrate that this is who we are proudly. And if this is the majority view of the fellowship and more and more Humanists feel disconnected from the services than something serious needs to change. I care, and I’m paying attention.
We need to nurture and heal, and maybe even resurrect, the Humanist heart of our fellowship. And not just for us. Young adults and youth are increasingly growing up secular, and more and more of the younger generation identifies as Atheist. I have read so many articles and blog posts about young Atheists and secular folk yearning for community; some place they can be accepted for who they are, with their freedom of thought respected, but at the same time where they can be helped to ethically grow into their best selves. Do we want to be such a home for them?
But hear me friends, we cannot go back to the past. The old model of just being “anti” any religious language or talk of the sacred won’t work anymore, if it ever did. Why? Because Unitarian Universalism is growing to include more and more Theists of many persuasions: Christians, Neo-Pagans, as well as, in some places, young politically liberal Muslims. But how can we truly hold and include all this diversity?
I believe the answer is Humanism. But just as there are many kinds of Theism there are also different kinds of Humanism. What kind of Humanism do we need?
Amanda Poppei in our reading talks about the need to go beyond the old paradigm of imagining that you have a see-saw with Theists on one end and Humanists on the other. Instead she asks us to imagine Humanism as a way of life open to all, theists and non; an outlook on life that everyone has access to. The kind of Humanism that can be the dominant language of our services and covenant by fully including and celebrating all ways of being that dignify and enoble human life. I think she’s on to something.
Poppei says that, seen in this expansive way, it’s clear that Unitarian Universalism is a humanist religion, and I agree. Not that we all individually claim to be Humanists, but that every UU believes that the criteria for what I believe is my own experience. I am my own sacred authority. and THAT is a Humanist way of thinking!
But if that’s true, how do we make that real in our Sunday services? I think the solution lies in the past: in those “Free thinkers” and early Humanists in our Unitarian heritage. Many of them were Agnostics and Atheists, but rather than angrily reject anything that smelled religious, and banish all ritual, they invented new rituals we still observe, such as our Child Dedication ceremony. They also enjoyed reinterpreting religious language. They weren’t afraid to refer to themselves as having “faith,” though in humanity rather than a supernatural Deity. They saw concepts like “the sacred” and even “God” as deep metaphors with lots of room for creative reimagining.
What I’m reminding us of is that, in the beginning, the heart of Humanism was about centering whatever enhances human life. What if we tried to do that more intentionally?
Imagine if we approached religious words and rituals in our services by asking in curiosity: how can this enhance human life? How can it help us love more? How can it open our minds to new ideas so we can reason more clearly? What if we gladly read sacred texts not because a God is thought to have written them but because we wrote them, and since humans wrote them they may have something to say about the human condition? What if we played with religious words because they are human words, articulating aspects of the human condition? Whether or not there is a God it is clearly a fact that humans are very religious animals. To not explore the religious experience is to ignore a big part of what makes us human. How is that Humanism?
Now to be clear, I’m not saying you individually have to start praying, or using religious language to describe yourself or your views. That’s an individual choice, and we must try to honor each other’s individual choices on this matter. What I’m talking about is the language and actions we use when we come together as one on Sunday mornings. Can we move from asking “what language do I like or dislike?” and instead ask “what language or rituals connect us to each other and to our common humanity?” These are very different questions.
This won’t be easy. And it’s far beyond the scope of a single sermon. In our journey ahead I want us to have an ongoing conversation about how to best honor and nurture the Humanist heart of the fellowship in such a way that no one is left behind. Finding ways to not leave our brain at the meetinghouse door, but not leaving our heart either. Valueing without shame that Atheism and Agnosticism are respectable ways of thinking that should have no stigma AND committing to doing all this in a way that never shames Theists. Let there be no closets here. The Theistic experience after all is a human experience, and that means the Theistic experience is something a Humanist should really want to know more about!
I believe Unitarian Universalism needs Humanism, and I believe Humanism is still the heart of our fellowship. And what we need is a Humanism that leaves no human behind. But this will take work, so let’s together commit to this. In a dehumanizing world let us be the place where people discover their worth and learn to love themselves and value themselves. In a world of moral laziness and casual cruelty let us be a lighthouse of human-enhancing moral values and inclusive healing love. In a world of pseudo-science and “alternative facts” let us be a place where critical thinking, reason, and respect for science are nurtured, promoted, and celebrated. In a world where many arrogantly sneer and mock their neighbors for thinking or believing differently, let us be a place where we approach religious diversity with curiosity and humility, eager to learn what is noble and true in all the wisdom of this world, religious and secular.
I commit as your minister to trying my best to get this right. Will you commit to doing this with me?
*The “Happy Human”: a common symbol of Humanism, here merged with an atom to stress the high value Humanists place on the scientific method and the use of critical thinking