Vague Theism Threatens Humanism

Ten years ago, when I finally settled on Humanism as my world outlook (that I finally found a label for the view I had) and I joined my local Humanist group, The Humanist Community of Central Ohio, and I got really involved by joining the Board of Trustees of the group and editing the member’s newsletter. It was at that time I was exposed to the internal politics of the Humanist movement.

All movements have factions. They all have a common goal but different beliefs and methods to get that goal. These internal conflicts tend to hold back the movement as people make power plays to try and get their agenda to the top. Each side is so involved in the internal fighting that they miss the goal right in front of them.

In Humanism the factions are Religious Humanists and Secular Humanists. Religious Humanists tend to still keep the structure and function of a church while Secular Humanists, in general, throw anything “religious” out.

Religious Humanism was the initial flavor of the Modern Humanist movement and most if not all the signers of the first Humanist Manifesto, in 1933, were religious Humanists. The Manifesto and Modern Humanism were based within the Unitarian-Universialist church tradition.

Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a faith with no creedal requirements imposed on its members. It values religious pluralism and respects diverse traditions within the movement and often within the same congregation. Many see it as a syncretic religion, as personal beliefs and religious services draw from more than one faith tradition. Even when one faith tradition is primary within a particular setting, Unitarian Universalists are unlikely to assert that theirs is the “only” or even the “best” way possible to discern meaning or theological truths. There is even a popular adult UU course called “Building Your Own Theology”.

Many Unitarian Universalists consider themselves humanists, while others hold to Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, natural theist, atheist, agnostic, pantheist, pagan, or other beliefs. Some choose to attach no particular theological label to their own idiosyncratic combination of beliefs. This diversity of views is usually considered a strength by those in the Unitarian Universalist movement, since the emphasis is on the common search for meaning among its members rather than adherence to any particular doctrine.

Unitarian Universalism

In regard to religion, the Humanist Manifesto (1933) states:

The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world. The time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes. Science and economic change have disrupted the old beliefs. Religions the world over are under the necessity of coming to terms with new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience. 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.

Humanist Manifesto (1933)

Secular Humanism, as a label, came into the vernacular of the Humanist Movement during the 1970’s as opposition to Religious Humanism. The term Secular Humanism:

…was embraced by some humanists who, although critical of religion in its various guises, were deliberately non-religious, as opposed to anti-religious, which means that their humanism has nothing to do with spiritual, religious, or ecclesiastical doctrines, beliefs, or power structures. This is how “secular humanism” is most commonly understood by humanists today.

What Is Secular Humanism?

Basically Secular Humanists don’t have a church, don’t sing hymns, and don’t support or use “god” talk.

The internal conflict between Religious and Secular flavors of Humanism came about because of disagreements on “god” talk, rituals, and criticism of religion in general.

Religious Humanists seem to find any criticism of religion to be an attack on religious people and indirectly on them while Secular Humanists find Religious Humanists stuck in the mud – clinging onto the functions of religion.

Also increasing the conflict is a trend in UU churches to move away from Humanism as a foundation to more of what Marilyn Westfall, founder of UU Infidels, calls “vague theism.”

Given that only 20% of the ministers self-identified as humanists, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that they also had a weak affiliation with the UU source of humanist teachings. There are five sources for the tradition of UUism (these are included on the handout); and in the survey of ministers, humanist sources ranked 5th out of the five sources. The complete wording of the humanist source is as follows: [We covenant to affirm and promote] “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” The highest-ranked source, by the way, was the first: “Direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder …”

From Humanism and UUism: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

For many years the Unitarian Universalism Association – the central governing body of the church – has certified many former Christian ministers as pastors of UU churches. That and the move toward “vague theism” has led to an obvious move away from the science and reason basis of knowledge as the following quote from Westfall’s talk points out:

[Recent UU seminary graduate named Matthew Gatheringwater said:] My school used to be notable for innovations in religious humanist theology. We used to be at the forefront of efforts [to] reconcile science and religion [my emphases]; now, visiting scientists reported that seminarians lacked basic scientific education. Humanist was a word often used in a derogatory sense in my UU classes and it was more often than not preceded by adjectives like “old”, “crusty”, “corpse-cold”, “bloodless”, and “unfeeling.” It was creepy to hear people use expressions like, “the congregation is waiting for the old humanists to die off before it changes the order of service.” It was more popular among students to be a Universalist … than a Unitarian, a feeler than a thinker, a prophet than a pastor, a theist than an atheist, and anything but a humanist.

UUs at local church here Columbus also expressed those same kind of negative views of Humanists and also Atheists when they called a friend of mine names such as “bigot” and “arrogant” when he questioned some religious “god” talk at what was suppose to be a free discussion at the church.

When I was President of HCCO and I gave a talk at the same church I had a debate with a member who claimed that because science didn’t have all the answers then its value wasn’t any better than someone who didn’t use science to get to the truth. It was the first time I had experienced the postmodern thinking infecting the UU church.

Recent conflict has been as a reaction to the rise of certain Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University Greg Epstein, in a news report about the 30th Anniversary of the Chaplainacy at Harvard, said:

“At times they’ve [atheists] made statements that sound really problematic, and when Sam Harris says science must destroy religion, to me that sounds dangerously close to fundamentalism,” Epstein said in an interview after the meeting. “What we need now is a voice that says, ‘That is not all there is to atheism.’ ”

Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion?

As a Secular Humanist those kinds of negative comments bother me as I am also an Atheist.

The problem is that people like Epstein continue the wrong assumption that Atheism is a world view. All Atheism is, is a lack of a belief in a “god”. I am a Secular Humanist because it provides me a frame work for my world view.

My atheism is my view on “god” and humanism is my philosophy on life.

It is simply sad when Religious Humanists fall for the same trap that god believers fall into when they try to paint Atheism as some kind of satanic negative religion. It also doesn’t seem ethical to complain about intolerance by being intolerant.

I want to work with Religious Humanists but as they move further away from science and reason, I find it harder to work with them on issues we agree on.

Related posts


Sound observation of the state of things, Doug! Secular humanism is a worldview of people who experience great awe and appreciation of the wonders of nature, and who have a strong connection to their fellow humans, without turning to mysticism and irrationality. I have also been surprised and dismayed at the antagonism of religious humanists toward their secular brothers in the movement, and I’ve heard many stories of UU’s migration away from science and reason. It would be nice if those who demand their right to determine the course of their own path would respect the rights of others to do the same.

Doug – I have been a professional humanist for years now. I only just left a paid position with a Humanist organization last June.

The internal conflict within Humanism isn’t between Religious Humanists and Secular Humanists. It is between Secular Humanists and everyone they perceive to be religious Humanists, which in my experience is anyone who doesn’t use the word secular in front of their Humanism.

I have had many conversations with secular Humanists who keep telling me I am a religious Humanist because I don’t use add the word “secular.” The fact I have been an atheist since the age of 17 and an agnostic before that, and was raised as a Humanist and have never been a member of anything remotely resembling a church is irrelevant. They have created a false dichotomy in their head that there are secular Humanists and religious humanists and can’t let go of it. So, if I say I am a Humanist and don’t include secular, they assume I am a religious Humanist and can’t let go of that despite all evidence to the contrary. It is truly very annoying.

You do yourself a disservice by falling into this same logical fallacy. There are only Humanists. The whole religoius dichotomy was made up by the founder of the secular humanist movement to distinguish his efforts from the other Humanist efforts. He himself acknowledges that all Humanists, by definition are secularists. But by making this non-issue an issue, he gave his followers something wierd to latch onto and well, the rest is history.

I can tell you that honestly, the rest of the Humanist movement isn’t in conflict and never has been. The rest of us have been getting along fine regardless of venue, adjective etc. If you are a Humanist, that is all that matters. The only people who seem to care, and care rabidly are the secular Humanists. At the national level, it is almost always just one organization that refuses to play nicely with the others and that is the secular humanists.

The exclusionary policy of the secular Humanist movement is finally starting to soften thanks mostly to thoughtful Humanists within that sub-movement. Also, the founder has made motions himself to heal the rift he was at least partially responsible for causing.

Jennifer Hancock


First of all thank you for the comment to my essay. I published it fully expecting differing views to come across in the comments. You did mention some things that I just couldn’t just leave unanswered.

I am NOT one of “those” secular humanists who you’ve talked to who were wrong to assume that if you don’t have secular in front then you are a religious humanist. I would never make that assumption. That’s why I was careful to define the terms I was using.

While I wish there were just “Humanists”, there are just too many differences – some more serious than others – that keep up a need for adjectives. I am assuming you were talking about Paul Kurtz as being the one to make up the division. While he did promote Secular Humanism, he did so as a direct response to what he saw happening within the AHA – the very thing I mentioned in my essay – the vague theism creeping in. I am not nor never will be a member of his group simply because I like groups who are democratically run and his is not. I also like groups who want to work with others for a common goal and his doesn’t. My main group work comes in the local group I belong to. The national groups just don’t interest me.

The 2nd issue of major concern to me is the common idea among some Religious Humanists and UUs that all stories are sacred – that they should not be questioned or they are all of equal value etc… Humanist principles call for all ideas to be open to question, even our own and for a segment to refuse that makes a mockery of Humanism. I simply can’t smooth that over.

I can’t speak to your personal experience and if you have no issues with other Humanists then I am glad. I wish your experience was the norm but I have found it isn’t and I have talked to my share Humanists in this country.

The main thing is that some Religious Humanists want me to change my ways. If they would acknowledge my point of view as fervently as they do all kinds of New Age clap trap and “different ways of knowing” then there wouldn’t be much if any conflict and we could have the “Big Tent” they prattle on about. They would rather exclude people like me.

Interesting. I have apparently had a completely different experience from you. Those few people who consider themselves religious Humanists (not the UU’s who rarely consider themselves Humanists, and I have spoken in front of at least 15 different UU groups) dont’ care whether someone is a secular humanist or not. It is only the secular humanists (those who use the adjective in front of the word humanist) who seem to care.

As I said, I have been a professional humanist organizer (and yes, that was my full time job) for several years, and the only humanists who were ever concerned about the adjectives were the secular humanists.

You seem to be confusing what is happening in the UU movement with religious humanists, who are all secularists. Yes, the UU movement has some religious leaning and that comes from them being a combination of unitarians and universalists, who don’t always believe the same thing. Every person I have met who calls themselves a religious humanist is in fact an atheist, so the term is a bit meaningless.

Anyway, interesting thread.