UU Minute #117

Reese Shocks the East

When John Dietrich and Curtis Reese met – at the 1917 annual meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference – they got to talking and discovered that each had been exploring the idea of religion without God. Dietrich called it humanism, and Reese called it “the religion of democracy” because it did away with an autocratic ruler god. Eventually, it would be Dietrich's term that would win out.

Historians point to that 1917 meeting of Dietrich and Reese as the beginning of American Religious Humanism. In the years to follow, as Dietrich and Reese preached and wrote their humanist gospel, they gained adherents and opponents.

In summer 1920, Reese carried back to the stodgier East the kind of liberal thinking that was becoming common in our more western churches. At the Unitarian Harvard Summer School of Theology, Reese delivered an address, “The Content of Religious Liberalism.” For the Easterners, it was disturbing.

"Why? What did he say?"

He said: “Historically, the basic content of religious liberalism is spiritual freedom. Out of this basic content has come the conviction of the supremacy of reason, of the primary worth of character, and of the immediate access of man to spiritual sources.”

"I’ll cut him some slack for the sexist language. Otherwise, nothing controversial so far."

Reese continued: “Always religious liberalism has tended to replace alleged divine revelations and commands with human opinions and judgments; to develop the individual attitude in religion; and to identify righteousness with life. The method of religious liberalism has always been that of reflection, not that of authority...."

"I feel like he’s building up to something."

Reese then said: “Liberalism is building a religion that would not be shaken even if the thought of God were out-grown.”

"Oh, no, he didn’t!"

Oh, yes, he did.

"Well, that’s gonna call for an outrage graphic."


NEXT: Humanism vs. Theism, part 1

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