Religion, Spirituality, and Humanism. (Humanist Flashback)

By Sechrest, Jack | The Humanist, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview

Religion, Spirituality, and Humanism. (Humanist Flashback)


Sechrest, Jack, The Humanist


Many people use the related terms religion and spirituality almost interchangeably. I would like to take a look at this set of ideas through the eyes of the Unitarian ministers and philosophers who influenced the Unitarian denomination, and wrote and signed the Humanist Manifesto of 1933.

In reading this first Humanist Manifesto, I discovered that within the brief introduction religion or religious is used thirteen times. Also, among the fifteen principles in the manifesto, I found ten that made specific references to religion. That totals twenty-three such references in a four-page document.

What did the generation of manifesto signers, committed to naturalistic humanism, have in mind, and how did they define religion? A majority of the signers were Unitarian ministers and few were tenured university professors like Roy Wood Sellars. This fact is apparently significant for both the development of humanism within the Unitarian denomination and for humanism as a philosophical movement.

The six leading humanists of the time who had the most impact on the manifesto were John Dietrich and Curtis W. Reese, who were the main force in promoting humanism among the Unitarians; Charles Francis Potter, who established the First Humanist Society of New York as an independent humanist church; Raymond B. Bragg and Edwin H. Wilson, two Unitarian ministers who were instrumental in initiating the manifesto and seeing it through the several steps of writing, revision, signing, printing and distribution; and Roy Wood Sellars, who wrote the first draft of the manifesto.

The manifesto says that "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 seventh principle of the manifesto reads:

  Religion consists of those actions, purposes,
   and experiences which are humanly significant.
   Nothing human is alien to the religious.
   It includes labor, art, science, philosophy,
   love, friendship, recreation--all that is, in its
   degree, expressive of intelligently satisfying
   human living.

Curtis Reese writes, "The chief and avowed purpose of religion is coming to be the building of personality and shaping of institutions to this end."

Charles Francis Potter says:

  Humanist religion deals with the relation of
   the individual to [the] power or energy resident
   in himself and in the universe and concerns
   itself particularly with the growth of the
   higher consciousness or the personality of
   man, socially and individually, believing that
   man is potentially able by his own efforts to
   attain to the complete and perfected personality
   to which all religions aspire. … 

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