Many in the secular movement are well aware of the “New Atheism” that emerged a decade ago when Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens each wrote scathing books about religion. Their brash critiques brought national and international attention to atheists as well as more scrutiny to the latent but growing demographic of “nones”—those who have little to no interest in traditional religion. The story often missed in the narrative of the new atheism, however, is that quietly and steadily people have been moving away from religious dogmatism and traditional theism in very significant ways since the beginning of the twentieth century. And one of the key early leaders in that movement was John Dietrich.
Dietrich was part of a small but growing cadre of clergy and intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century who had lost their “faith” and embraced an intellectual approach to religion by way of scientific empiricism and philosophical naturalism. Having started his ministry in the Reformed Church in 1905, Dietrich was charged with heresy early on in his career. Instead of fighting the charges, he resigned his position and found refuge among the Unitarians—first in Spokane, Washington and then in Minneapolis at the First Unitarian Society. There his theology further evolved and he began to articulate and champion a religion without god through his “Humanist Pulpit.”
Up until this point in time, “humanism” as a distinct world-view had not yet been articulated. Of course, various materialist and naturalist schools of thought had existed since antiquity across the globe. These have been enumerated, for example, through the seminal works of Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History and Gerald Larue, Freethought Across the Centuries: Toward a New Age of Enlightenment. But none of these earlier philosophies in the end captured the zeitgeist of the rapidly changing times. How then did “humanism” emerge as the pre-eminent naturalist philosophy of the new century?
The turbulence of the mid-19th century certainly helped set the stage. In Europe the foundations of traditional theistic religion were being bombarded from all sides. A new biblical scholarship was taking hold in academic communities undermining a literal view of sacred texts. Revolutionary economic and political ideas, such as those espoused by Karl Marx, challenged the very social structures and religious scaffolding of Western Civilization. And the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species introduced a profoundly new way of thinking about our humanity.
Meanwhile philosophers and theologians struggled to articulate a new way of making sense of the world. Auguste Comte, perhaps the first philosopher of science and founder of sociology, established a Religion of Humanity in France as an attempt at secular religion to supplant the function of theistic religion. He influenced other philosophers and freethinkers of the time including the social activist and atheist, George Holyoake who first developed the concept of secularism in Britain. In Germany Ludwig Feuerbach, another philosopher and budding theologian--turned atheist, debunked Christianity and god through his writings and essentially helped spur the use of the term “humanism.” His critics in England used the term as an epithet to disparage the ungodly materialist and naturalist worldview emerging among social reformers and intellectuals of the mid-nineteenth century. (See Joseph Blankholm, Secularism, Humanism, and Secular Humanism: Terms and Institutions)
The freethought movement in the United States was on its own course. While Robert Ingersoll was the “Great Agnostic” traveling the lecture circuit in the late nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson had wide influence as unconventional naturalists, philosophers and writers in American culture. As Susan Jacoby recounts in her book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, the nineteenth century is replete with reformers and freethinkers (both women and men) who rattled the social, political, economic and religious bastions of the country. And often it was those unorthodox Unitarians and Universalists who with their reasoned approach to religion welcomed these freethinkers to their pulpits.
By the time John Dietrich got to Minneapolis, people were ready to listen to this religious intellectual expound on pressing issues of the day—evolution, birth control, world government. Dietrich’s congregation met at a couple different theaters on Sundays in downtown Minneapolis to accommodate audiences that regularly exceeded 1,000. Over the course of his tenure at First Unitarian Society (1916-1938), Dietrich helped coalesce scientific empiricism and progressive values into the well-defined world-view of humanism through his lectures. Other ministers and non-theists followed suit and started using the term “humanism” also. In 1933, Dietrich and over two dozen other philosophers, intellectuals and liberal ministers signed the first Humanist Manifesto. In the decades to follow, distinct secular humanist organizations emerged across the country.
Humanism was never meant to be a static worldview. Hence at this juncture when First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis (FUS) celebrates 100 years of humanism with the installation of John Dietrich as minister in the fall of 1916, it is an apt occasion to think about humanism going forward. Our collaboration with FUS for the conference The Future of Humanism: New Voices of the 21st Century promises to be an enriching and provocative day.