Nearly a century ago, three Unitarian ministers helped set the foundations of a new faith tradition, American Religious Humanism. The three ministers were the Revs. John Dietrich, Curtis Reese and Charles Francis Potter. They proposed a religion with a belief in human potential, rather than God, at its center. They came up with that radical notion partly through knowing about Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, none of which depends on a supernatural being.

Nearly a century ago, three Unitarian ministers helped set the foundations of a new faith tradition, American Religious Humanism. The three ministers were the Revs. John Dietrich, Curtis Reese and Charles Francis Potter. They proposed a religion with a belief in human potential, rather than God, at its center. They came up with that radical notion partly through knowing about Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, none of which depends on a supernatural being.


All three accepted another American religious idea, naturalistic humanism. At the turn of the last century, a number of people, including the great educator John Dewey, said the most helpful way for humans to understand the world is science. Naturalistic humanists see religion as a natural fact of human experience from ancient times. They argued that we must look at religion critically, to see how useful it is for humanity.


John Dietrich, Curtis Reese and Charles Potter all looked at religion in that way. All had been ministers in conservative Christian traditions before converting to Unitarianism. After they began serving Unitarian churches, the belief systems of all three continued to evolve (independently) towards humanism. All three served in the most radical of the Unitarian districts, the Western Unitarian Conference. Two served churches previously served by cutting-edge female ministers in the 1880s and 1890s.


John Dietrich began using the word “humanism” in his preaching in 1916. The next year, at a conference in Des Moines, Iowa, Dietrich and Reese discovered they had been preaching the same idea. They connected. In a 1920 address at the Harvard Divinity School, Reese said that liberalism had to be open on the question of the existence of God. At this point, the Unitarian debate over humanism went from private and quiet to public and noisy – using the catch phrase “religion without God.”


These early pioneers saw a religion without God in slightly different ways. Dietrich defined religion as the knowledge of humanity and our duties toward one another. He said that in a religion without God how we act matters greatly.


In 1934, Dietrich wrote, “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.” Therefore, he continued, 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.” His humanism is alive with creativity and emotion, as well as devotion to reason and science.


Curtis Reese wrote (in 1931), “The trend in modern religious developments is away from the transcendent, the authoritative, the dogmatic, and toward the human, the experimental, the tentative; … away from religion conceived as one of man’s concerns, and toward religion conceived as man’s one concern.” There is humility in this stance – it does not claim to know answers but to explore questions by all human means.


Charles Francis Potter once observed, “The ideal humanist is a well-rounded person, intellectually informed, keenly intelligent, intuitively developed, and emotionally sensitive. He is well-balanced, appreciative of beauty in poetry, music and art; that is, responsive to sound and harmony, form and color, and to the infinite inspirations of nature—sunsets and stars, mountain-tops and flowers—but, most of all, appreciative of the marvelous depths and heights and infinite possibilities of human personality.”


All three Unitarian religious innovators signed the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. Though personally a theist, I hold many of its words and beliefs dearly.


The manifesto states that we are part of nature, that mind and body are not at odds, and that you cannot separate the secular from the sacred. They believed as I do that all human positive endeavors are important, including art, philosophy, friendship and love.


The signers of the original Humanist Manifesto believed that religion must work increasingly for joy in living, and that it must foster creativity in all people. They believed that associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life, not humans for the fulfillment of institutions and associations. Their goal was a free and universal society where people voluntarily cooperate for the common good.


Religious humanism is alive and well within and alongside our tradition. Like the signers of the Humanist Manifesto, we affirm life rather than deny it. We seek out the possibilities of life rather than fleeing from them. We endeavor to establish a satisfactory life for all. We celebrate and affirm our common humanity. This is as it should be.


The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. For more information and links to this and other Unitarian Universalist churches, please visit www.uua.org. She can also be reached at easton@wickedlocal.com.