Religion Without God

Reading 1

A Humanist Code of Ethics:
By Arthur Dobrin:

Do no harm to the earth, she is your mother.
Being is more important than having.
Never promote yourself at another's expense.
Hold life sacred; treat it with reverence.
Allow each person the dignity of his or her labour. 
Open your home to the wayfarer.
Be ready to receive your deepest dreams;
sometimes they are the speech of unblighted conscience.
Always make restitutions to the ones you have harmed.
Never think less of yourself than you are.
Never think that you are more than another.


Reading 2

Humanist Manifesto I, 1933 Excerpts

… 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 deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion…To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present… We therefore affirm the following:

FIRST: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created. 

SECOND: Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process.

THIRD: Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected…

FIFTH: Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values…

SEVENTH: 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. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.

EIGHTH: 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. This is the explanation of the humanist's social passion.

NINTH: In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being…

TWELFTH: Believing that religion must work increasingly for joy in living, religious humanists aim to foster the creative in man and to encourage achievements that add to the satisfactions of life…

FIFTEENTH AND LAST: We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts of humanism will flow.


The Unitarians in the United States launched a new advertising campaign at the end of last year.  The advert, which appeared on a full page in Time Magazine places a bold question in the centre of the page:

“Is God Keeping You From Going To Church?"

Is God Keeping You From Going To Church?  Well, you are here in church, so if God were trying, God obviously failed, and I’m glad of that.

Of course, this is not really the meaning of the advert. Beneath the deliberately provocative question are serious theological issues. What does God mean to you and do your assumptions about that one crucial word keep you from an experience of spirituality and community that could enrich your life.

Although the advert appeared only in the US where nearly half the population attends church, it might be even more relevant here where only about one in twenty participate in a religious community. 

The question posed in this advert has been important in my religious journey. In fact, I wish that someone had asked me this many years ago. When I was a young man, I decided – resolutely and with the great certainty that only a teenager can muster – that I did not believe in the God I was hearing about at my synagogue and that I wanted nothing more to do with him.  That was it. That was the end of my involvement with religion until more than twenty years later when I finally stumbled upon Unitarianism.

The God I rejected as a teenager is one that you will probably recognise – although maybe not one that is meaningful to you today. He is most definitely a “he.”  He is white. He is old.  He has a long beard and sits in a throne somewhere in heaven surrounded by angels. From that regal position, he knows everything you think and hears everything you say.  

He watches your every move and he judges you. He can be loving and forgiving, but he can also be angry and vengeful – even jealous. If you do what he wants you to do, he rewards you. If you break his rules, he punishes you. 

And, like some imperious celestial DJ, this God sometimes takes requests. You can ask for health or happiness.  You can ask for money, success, love… anything. And if you are well-behaved, you might just get what you ask for.  This God can control everything in the world, but often chooses not to. He allows terrible suffering to occur and we are supposed to accept that puny humans simply could not understand God’s purpose.

Sigmund Freud took a dim view of belief in God, who he called “…nothing other than an exalted father.” Freud understood God to be a human creation related to childhood psychological conflicts. This version of God does indeed sound like an exalted father – setting rules and offering rewards for following them and punishments for violation.  With strong echoes of Freud, we might refer to this particular notion of the divine as “the big daddy in the sky.”

Of course, I was hardly but alone in wrestling with and then rejecting this particular image of God.  And this is one of the many reasons why I thank God – or whoever – for Unitarianism.  When I stepped hesitantly into a Unitarian congregation in 1993, I found, to my surprise and delight, a community whose many different understandings of God had very little to do with a big daddy in the sky. Their beliefs were varied and they were subtle and thoughtful and – to me – this new-found freedom from the stark choice of “big daddy in the sky” or nothing was a nothing short of a revelation.

Had I known more about Unitarianism, I would not have been surprised.  With our commitment to freedom of belief, Unitarians have been among the boldest explorers of changing notions about religion and God. Within Unitarianism, there is, as we know, a tremendous range of beliefs. Unitarianism even includes and welcomes those who rejected the concept of God altogether.  Indeed, Unitarians were among the pioneers of what came to be called humanism.

When we talk about Humanism, it is essential that we first distinguish two rather different varieties: secular humanism and religious humanism.  In general, when we hear the word humanist today, we tend to think of secular humanists. These are the people who want nothing to do with anything remotely like religion. They shun ceremonies and rituals and generally reject any notion of spiritual or mystical experiences. To them, the whole notion of anything sacred or holy is distinctly unappealing. 

In contrast, the early Unitarian Humanists were religious humanists. They were not looking to do away with religion or its practices and forms, but rather to create a new way of being religious. They looked towards a religion that emphasized human reason, ethical behaviour, and a striving for justice – without what they perceived as the baggage of supernaturalism and superstition.

The religious humanists did not want to replace awe and wonder and holiness with a cold scientific detachment.  As Einstein, a member of a humanist group himself, put it “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Humanists found the sacred in life itself, rather than a personified deity. As our responsive reading by Robert Weston so beautifully portrays, there is much to revere and even worship in this awe-inspiring universe, even without belief in a personal God.

Although there were earlier efforts, especially here in London, John Dietrich, an American Unitarian minister, has often been called the father of religious humanism.  This is a title that is well deserved. Although Dietrich certainly did not invent humanism, he was instrumental in establishing it on a solid foundation as a belief system and a movement.

Dietrich began his ministry not in Unitarianism, but in the Reformed Christian church in 1905 in Pittsburgh, in his home state of Pennsylvania.  The first few years of his ministry went smoothly and the congregation experienced steady growth. But then Dietrich crossed the line… He committed perhaps the most grievous sin that a minister may engage in.  He chose a new hymnal!  Well, it wasn’t just that, but before long, Dietrich – who had in six years tripled the attendance at his church – was brought up on charges of heresy. He chose not to defend himself and was defrocked.  

That might have been the end of the story had Dietrich not made a favourable impression on Walter Mason, the minister of the Pittsburgh Unitarian church.  By the autumn of the same year, Dietrich had become the Unitarian minister of the First Unitarian Society of Spokane Washington.  When Dietrich arrived in Spokane in the early years of the 20th Century, the congregation of about sixty people met in a run-down old building. When Dietrich left in 1916 he they were a congregation of over fifteen hundred – so numerous that Sunday services were held in an 800 seat theatre.

While in Spokane, Dietrich’s views began to evolve and change.  As he learned and lectured about comparative religions, Dietrich questioned his prior liberal Christian stance that Jesus was – while not divine – the greatest spiritual leader of all history.  Now, he came to recognise the great contribution of others, such as the Buddha, Confucius, the Hebrew prophets, and the great philosophers of ancient Greece.

No longer content to rely on a single tradition to provide all the answers, Dietrich recognised a need for a more objective means of finding truth. He came to embrace the scientific method as the best means of learning about the world. His services began to include secular readings, and it was at this time that he started to describe his faith using the word humanism.  He was moving away from his liberal theism and toward a humanistic stance that rejected all supernaturalism.

In 1916, Dietrich moved from Spokane to become minister of a congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Once again, a small congregation grew dramatically under Dietrich’s leadership, and again, they needed to move to a theatre to accommodate the Sunday service crowds, which were usually more than 1,000 people.  Dietrich also began broadcasting service on radio, a move that infuriated Catholic and Protestant clergy who felt that Dietrich’s views were dangerous and worse – they were afraid that their own members were staying home from church to listen to Dietrich on the radio!

Dietrich summarized his own beliefs in this way:

“If we live in a great impersonal universe with no friend to guide, it matters tremendously how we conduct ourselves, for we are actually the makers of human destiny…Our responsibility… is to put beauty in place of ugliness, good in place of evil, laughter in place of tears; to dispel error with knowledge, hatred with love; displace strife and contention with peace and co-operation.”
Humanism, he said, brought him “a feeling of bliss, and with it the intense longing that I may so live that posterity may have this feeling more fully and more often, in the better world we ourselves must build.”

Today, we often hear conservative religionists denouncing humanism as a selfish and immoral approach to life. In their world-view, only the God-fearing person can be moral. They hold that it is God that tells us what is good and God’s system of reward and punishment that makes us toe the line.

On the contrary, the religious humanists were motivated not by self-interest, but by their dedication to humankind. In the humanist view, theistic religion actually inhibited believers from helping to make a better world. With its focus on a next world and salvation, the humanists saw religious people become passive in the face of suffering and injustice. As Dietrich says, it is our responsibility to right the world – not to wait for God to do it for us.

1933 was a watershed year for humanism. In that year, a group of humanist leaders including John Dietrich came together to elucidate their beliefs and make them known to the world.  The result was the Humanist Manifesto, much of which we heard earlier this morning.  The overall sense of this document was a rejection of traditional religion’s focus on death and afterlife in favour of a life-affirming activist approach to creating a good life for all in this world.

Dietrich retired from Minneapolis in 1935 and soon after moved to California.

A friend who visited Dietrich just a few days before his death at the age of 80, found this remarkable man standing by the side of his bed teaching himself Italian and investigating the humanist implications of Sartre's Existentialism.  Dietrich died in1957.

Dietrich’s work and writing, and the work of a few others key people, sparked a a great deal of controversy within Unitarianism. Many felt that, despite Unitarian freedom of belief, humanism was beyond the pale. They felt that Unitarianism religion should require at minimum a belief in God. But our tendency to include rather than exclude and our commitment to religious freedom eventually won out and Humanism became a thoroughly accepted and sometimes dominant part of mainstream Unitarianism.  

The story of the evolution of humanism and its acceptance in Unitarianism is a tale of courageous and dedicated leaders and thinkers.  Humanism provided one of many tests of Unitarianism’s openness – a test that it eventually passed, although not without great unease and considerable disagreement.

And what of Humanism itself?  Can we live good, meaningful, ethical lives without belief in God? Clearly, the answer is yes.  There are many paths that one may travel and live in right relationship with humankind and the interconnected web of all existence.  There can be awe and wonder and reverence without God. We can find world filled with the sacred and the holy whether we identify it with God, with love, or with life itself.

But many questions remain…  Is there a God? If so, what do we mean by that word?  How can it be that we can have such varying different views of the nature of the world and of the divine?  Can humanists and theists both be right?

You know that I won’t even try to answer those questions.  In fact, these are among the many deep questions that should occupy our time together here, as we explore together, support one another and learn that sometimes, even to question truly is an answer.