UU Minute #118

Humanism vs. Theism, part 1

Curtis Reese brought humanism to the 1920 Unitarian Harvard Summer School of Theology. Reese said, “Liberalism is building a religion that would not be shaken even if the thought of God were out-grown.” One periodical that covered Reese's address reported the audience reaction: "The strong were indignant and the weak wept." Religious periodicals were still discussing – and usually denouncing – Reese’s address for years afterward.

In August 1921, in Chicago, the humanist-theist controversy hit the floor of the Western Unitarian Conference. Reese, the conference organizer, invited his friend Dietrich to address the conference on “The Outlook for Religion.” Dietrich, predicted that religion would have no outlook unless it could harmonize with modern thought and relinquish the idea of a divine being in control of the universe yet telling humans they are the masters of their own destiny. In other words, religion had an outlook only if it became humanistic.

The dispute over creed that a generation earlier had been resolved in favor of creedlessness broke out all over again. The theists acknowledged that liberty was important, yet they felt we must be able to assume a common faith in God among Unitarians. They understood that belief in God was not to be formally stipulated, yet the theists had never expected it to be denied. The theists mustered their forces. Two months later, October 1921, at the General Conference in Detroit, John Dietrich and Rev. William Sullivan spoke back-to-back: Dietrich representing the humanists and Sullivan the theists. Hopeful that their side would win the debate, the theist faction was prepared with a resolution that the conference should formulate a Unitarian statement of faith, a kind of creed that would at least assert belief in the existence of God.

What happened? Be sure to catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Humanism vs. Theism, part 2

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