Saturday, November 19, 2011

Humanist Flavors

by Edd Doerr

Like Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Humanism comes in more than one flavor. The principal ones are Secular Humanism and Religious Humanism. The first is represented by WASH, the Center for Inquiry, and similar groups, the second by the over one thousand Unitarian Universalist, Ethical Society and Humanistic Jewish congregations in the US. Some Humanists are comfortable with either term, some prefer one term over the other, and some prefer to leave their Humanism unmodified, as is the view of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. The differences between the two are mainly matters of semantics and/or style and/or organization, not basic philosophy.

Secular Humanism's most well known explicator is philosopher Paul Kurtz, whose voluminous writings over decades need no introduction here. Religious Humanism is more defuse. Its most well known advocate is William R. Murry, who was president and dean of the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago from 1997 to 2003 and before that minister of the large River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, for many years. Both Kurtz and Murry, by the way, have been associated with Americans for Religious Liberty, which was founded in 1982 by Humanist leaders Edward Ericson and Sherwin Wine, and which I have headed since 1982.

Bill Murry is the author of two important books on Religious Humanism: Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century (Skinner House, 2007, 183 pp) and Becoming More Fully Human: Religious Humanism as a Way of Life (Religious Humanism Press, 2011, 217 pp -- may be ordered from HUUmanists, Box 185202, Hamden, CT 06518, for $16 plus $4 for s&h).

Murry's and Kurtz's Humanism both evolved from the 1933 Humanist Manifesto and are compatible with 1973's Humanist Manifesto II, which was mainly written by Kurtz. It might be noted that among the 34 signers of the 1933 Manifesto were philosopher John Dewey and 17 Unitarian ministers, and that among the throng of scientists, writers and others who signed the 1973 manifesto were a number of Unitarian Universalist ministers, Ethical Society leaders and Humanistic Judaism advocates. (Disclosure: I was one of the original signers of the 1973 Manifesto.) We followers of Darwin can appreciate the evolution of Humanism into varieties.

Murry's two books comprehensively cover every facet of Humanism as a lifestance, from the scientific naturalism that undergirds it to its applications to every aspect of everyday living. They avoid the rather sterile "Johnny-one-note" stuff of so much of the popular atheist writing of recent years, preferring to accentuate the positive.

Murry, like Kurtz, merits a wide readership.

Edd Doerr (;


Edd.Doerr said...

Oops, I forgot to add something important to this entry. The Unitarian Universalist Association's Commission on Appraisal's 1989 survey of UUs found that two thirds of UUs identified themselves as Humanists (by Corliss Lamont's definition) and this finding was confirmed by an informal poll of several thousand delegates at the UUA General Assembly in Phoenix in the late 1990s. The percentage of Humanists in the UUA seems to have slipped to parhaps 50% today.

lucette said...

There is another type of division within Humanism and I think that it is a very real problem: there are libertarian Humanists and Humanists who want social justice. They are not really compatible. UUs would be more attractive for socially conscious Humanists; WASH and especially CFI are more of the libertarian variety.

Don Wharton said...

There are those such as Tom Flynn who think that "religious humanists" who value a "spritual experience" are somehow not not good supporters of the secular world view. From what I can tell these religious humanists are typically quite secular. They just want the feeling of community with perhaps some ritual and music as in typical churches.

Don Wharton said...

I think Lucette is right that there is a disturbing increase in libertarianism. We are evolutionarily tribal creatures. My tribe is the community, state, nation or world as a whole depending on context. Shared action at these higher levels best goes through government.

lucette said...

Libertarianism is anti-government. And tribes are not libertarian since they imply tribal government. Libertarians are "me, me, me" people. Ayn Rand is a leader of this trend.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

I can think of the division between libertarian Humanists and Humanists who want social justice as more than desires or goals, but different theories about how and who to achieve them. Social just might be advanced by group action, but libertarians might argue that it more properly up to the individual or some non-governmental group.

If both subscribe to scientific naturalism and value what science can tell us, then the answer to these questions and differences becomes at least partially empirical - that is for the social sciences as sciences to investigate and inform.

lucette said...

My current solution is to join several humanist groups and extract from each one of them what contributes best to my view of a humane Humanism.