From Our Humanist Roots

BLOG: Thoughts on God

Excerpts from an unfinished (undated) manuscript written by Rev. John Dietrich, sometime well after his retirement from First Unitarian Society in 1938, and before his death in 1957. Find the full 33-page manuscript here.

His background philosophy

For many years, I believed and taught a philosophy and religion, which I called Humanism — a religion that was man-centered rather than God-centered, a doctrine that man has within him the ability to work out his own salvation if only he will call it forth and use it. I did not believe that the particular theory of the universe which man may hold was important. I believed that it was man’s business, regardless of his belief or unbelief concerning God, to use his intelligence and his energy to develop human personality to the limit of its capacity, and to create a social order in which this would be easy and not difficult. I believed that if we could coordinate all the new ideas, new idealism, new methods and new values that have been brought to light as the byproducts of the sciences, philosophies, religions, arts and practical adventures of the modern mind, and use them wisely in the rearing of our families, the administering of our schools, the running of our governments, our industries and our professions, we might remove most of the evils which tend to destroy us. Man’s chief business was to discover and disclose the unused resources of vitality and power in human nature and in our civilization, and suggest a working technique for using them. It was not a philosophy of either blind optimism or dark despair, but it did believe that we are the architects of our own future and within certain limits of our environment and of our own natures, we could gradually fashion it to our desires.

His shift in thinking

I still think that the positive side of that program is valid – its insistence upon the enrichment of human life in its every form, but its negative side, cutting itself off from all cosmic relationship and denying or ignoring every influence outside of humanity itself, was and is very shortsighted and ineffectual. I see now how my utter reliance upon science and reason and my contempt for any intuitive insights and intangible values, which are the very essence of art and religion, was a great mistake.

… I do not assert that I have made a discovery. But I am exploring. I am a finite intelligence reaching out for a reality that extends infinitely beyond me. The further I go the more I am conscious of the inconceivable vastness that lies beyond the borders of our knowledge. But we try to express our attitude toward it by symbols and myths, through which we make some contact with it, but we must not identify these with the reality itself. We get occasional glimpses through the curtain of mystery – sometimes from the search of the scientists, more often from the intuition of the mystics, but no humble and honest person would have the temerity to attempt to describe it and claim that his description represented the reality.

I would not attempt to define it or even explain its workings, but I believe that by meditation and reflection, we can experience its presence and bring ourselves into harmony, in rapport with it. I have become convinced that this all-penetrating and all-embracing spiritual power, in spite of all the ups and downs of evolution and of human history, is slowly but surely driving toward excellence in every form.

Structure of Universe?

I am convinced that there is at least a trend, a forward pushing principle… I have come to the conclusion that our life on this planet is not the result of mere chance, the succession of lucky coincidences. Somehow behind it and part of it there has been an irresistible organic drive toward an ideal end…

It was natural in earlier times that men should think of God as an absolute monarch, all-wise and all-powerful. To them the world was a finished product, which had been created at some time and was then left to run according to certain fixed laws. But a tremendous revolution in human thought occurred when the theory of evolution was established. We learned then that this is not a fixed static world, but an organic world, which is constantly growing and changing all the time, and the old figure of a machine running according to fixed laws is displaced by that of the growing plant.

John Fiske described the change in our point of view when he said: “[The] simile of the watch must be replaced by the simile of the flower. The universe is not a machine, but an organism with an indwelling principle of life. It was not made, but has grown.” So the world is at every level, limited, imperfect, incomplete.

Why then may we not assume that God is similar to his universe? Perhaps he too is evolving and growing all of the time… [it] helps to answer a good many questions, such as the problem of evil, which the older absolutist concept was never able to explain satisfactorily. This theory assumes the immanence of God, and suggests that God needs our cooperation and help for the fulfillment of his purposes, and this greatly emphasizes the importance of human life. So we may think of God not as the goal but the road, not the victory but the struggle.

On Atheism

Frequently the repudiation of God is the repudiation of a kind of God that deserves to be repudiated… In most cases I think atheism is largely a difference of vocabulary. It drops the word “God,” but selects another and imbues it with the essential qualities of Godhood. Vitalism, order, energy, cause, intelligence.

Practically everyone believes in an indwelling spirit or energy in the universe, which they call by different names. It is the “Everlasting Yea” of Thomas Carlyle; it is “the Categorical Imperative” of Immanual Kant; it is “the Will to live” of Schopenhauer, and the “Will to Power” of Nietzsche; it is the “Absolute” of the Platonist; it is the “potent felt interior command” and the “urge and ardor” of Walt Whitman; it is the “power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness” of Matthew Arnold; it is the “passionate aspiration after the perfect from which all great work springs” of Bertrand Russell; it is the “presence that disturbs… with… elevated thoughts” of Wordsworth; it is the “Elan Vital” of Bergson and the “Vital Force” of Bernard Shaw; it is the Force of the scientist and the God of the religionist.”

… So whether they call it force or power or energy; mind or will or love; truth or beauty or good, they are using different terms to describe the great Reality which is in all and though all.

On personal evolution

I would take no pride in belonging to that group of men whose ways of thinking were set in their youth and who react at sixty as they did at twenty. I pride myself in thinking that I have made some progress in thought. If I thought exactly as I did 40 years ago, it would perhaps be a sign that I have not given those ideas enough attention.”

… All of history has taught us that… the placement of man or the state at the heart of the universe results in a paralyzing self-glorification and mass selfishness, and the first signs of it are already frighteningly evident. It is high time to realize that the man-society relationship is not enough, but in order to save our civilization we need to restore the man-universe relationship… whereby man may regain his spiritual inheritance, which he has lost during this materially prosperous scientific and technological age, in which he has developed a dangerous self-sufficiency… Our country, and in fact the world, has sunk to a new low ethically and spiritually. Opportunism has displaced ethics, violence selfishness has overcome altruism, and a crass materialism has supplanted all spiritual values until our civilization stands on the brink of disaster for want of moral integrity and spiritual fibre.

On morality

I believe the religious experience is not an exceptional thing reserved for privileged souls, nor exceptional even in the sense that it occurs only at rare moments in life. It is the normal experience of the ordinary man, grasped in its entirety and deeply felt.… In short, I believe that all human experience, when deeply understood, turns out to be spiritual.

… Morality has in it something permanent and yet is subject to change. The principles are always the same, but the way in which they are applied at different times is somewhat determined by the circumstances… We can still believe that the moral life is rooted in the cosmos… I think that we must believe that our values, our moral ideals, are not mere empty conceits, mere products of human assertion, but are indicative of the true nature of reality.

… The conviction that the whole of which we are a part shares with us in ideal-achieving capacity gives indispensable courage and comfort.

What is life?

… What is life? We know it only as animating force appearing in matter. It is intangible, not to be measured, and known to us only as it manifests itself in and through matter. Whether it exists or could exist apart from matter no one knows because it has never been identified apart from matter… Even though science may throw doubts about things that cannot be seen or touched, it certainly denies these doubts by asserting unseen things all about us, more active than the seen. It tells of atoms never seen, yet assures us that they are about the most active things in the universe.

… Water only becomes a mighty force as it vanishes into steam, and still more powerful when dissolved into its elements, for one of those invisible hydrogen atoms, we are told, is the mightiest of all forces. Gasoline in its liquid form is powerless and harmless, but when it evaporates into an invisible gas it propels most of the wheels of modern industry. So matters seems to become vigorous by vanishing, and to become most active when on the edge of annihilation. The evidence of things growing active when they slip beyond the reach of sense and science gives hope that a human life may survive in some form even though we may not see or touch it after the dissolution of the body.

… Life has been defined as a function of matter, like the flame of a candle, and we are told that when the flame is snuffed out the function ceases and no longer exists; yet that flame has released energy in the forms of light and heat, which is not and cannot be destroyed.


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BLOG: McCarthyism Revived

From March 1, 1953, “McCarthy and McCarthyism”

It was the hope of many last fall that Joseph McCarthy would not be re-elected to the Senate of the United States. Sharing this hope were Republicans as well as Democrats… and included were some who had given support and early approval to McCarthy’s initial election to the Senate in 1946 and had been quickly disillusioned. In his first term of office, McCathy had established a record of brazen disregard for truth, vicious character assassination and unethical practice. The hopes for his defeat were dashed in November when he was re-elected to office on a general wave of Republican unity and by a typical McCarthy campaign of blasting all opposition as being communist inspired or controlled.

There are some who would prefer to ignore McCarthy as a distasteful spectacle upon the American scene. Someone asked me the other day, ‘why lavish attention on McCarthy when there are so many decent people who are worthy of consideration?’ Well for one thing, because it grows increasingly difficult to ignore a demagogue whose charges spread everywhere, and because ignoring McCarthy at this stage of the game does not remove him from his position of influence any more than ignoring disease removes it, or the past attempt to ignore Hitler made Hitlerism any less real.

Peter Viereck, in a recent book “Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals,” says that “every balloon ogre looks terrifyingly enormous until the right person pops it.”  Maybe so. But as yet no one has succeeded in popping the balloon ogre named Joseph McCarthy.

McCarthy has become the symbol for America cast adrift from democratic moorings, blown by the wind of intimidation, lost in a fog of fear, and moving toward reefs that threaten the destruction of many once-prized values. Today McCarthy is a power more dangerous and ruthless than ever before. He has come a long way in a relatively short period of time.

… What he is doing is playing into the hands of communism by undermining morale at home and making us appear more frightened and foolish than we can afford to appear in the eyes of the world.

McCarthyism in the person of Joseph McCarthy is a combination of brazen arrogance, insatiable ambition, the exercise of the big lie and the multiple untruth.

From 1961, “McCarthyism Revived”

When Senator Joseph McCarthy, from our neighboring state of Wisconsin, finally went into decline, after censure proceedings in the Senate, and not long afterwards passed from the earthly and political scene, there was a wide-spread sigh of relief. For a decade and more, he had ridden rough-shod, not only over the common decencies of life, but over legal procedures and Constitutional safeguards; and had bullied into silence, if not submission, a considerable part of the population.

There is an element of demogogy ever present in our politics because in our somewhat open political framework there is the felt freedom of any politician to be in H.L. Mencken’s phrase ” the pumper-up of popular fears and rages.”

It was too much to hope or believe that with the decline and physical disappearance of McCarthy, that McCarthyism had completely come to an end.

We have the growing crises of the present moment: Berlin and Red China, nuclear tests, desegregation, a struggling United Nations — all of which creates worry and concern, but fortifies those who presume to righteous simple answers. If no one else knows what to do or where to go, at least they can speak with certainty and they can denounce and they can say what to do.

… Almost completely ignored and certainly not publicized by Goldwater, Thurmond, and Mundt was the finding of a House investigating committee last year that 762 former top-ranking military officers were currently employed by the county’s 100 leading defense contractors. And likewise not emphasized was the fact that President Eisenhower in his talk to the nation in January very unexpectedly but very bluntly warned of the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” and went on to say “we must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

… In a recent commentary article, Alan Westin, associate professor of Public Law and Government at Columbia University, lists characteristics of the fundamentalists — whether left or right.

  • “They assume that there are always solutions capable of producing international victories and of resolving our social problems, and when such solutions are not found they attribute the failure to conspiracies led by evil men and their dupes.”
  • They refuse to believe in the integrity… of those who lead the dominant social [undecipherable] — the unions, the churches, elements of the business community] and declare that the American “establishment” has become part of the conspiracy.
  • They reject the political system; they lash out at “politicians,” the major parties, and the give-and-take of political compromise as a betrayal of the fundamental Truth and as a circus to divert the people.
  • To break the neck of conspiracy they advocate “direct action” often through push-button pressure campaigns and front groups. Occasionally “direct action” will develop into hate propaganda and calculated violence.

…. There is finally appearing once again on the campuses and in the halls of Congress a sense of liberal social purpose. Whatever one may think of the Kennedy Administration, and its first year in office has been a good deal less than spectacular, nevertheless there is little likelihood that it will allow itself to be bullied and cowed in the degree that the Administration was under McCarthy.

The right fundamentalists are in no way to be lightly dismissed. They constitute a real threat to democratic rights and procedures. But there is reason to believe that with courage and conviction they can be exposed and curbed, and can be kept from running away with the ball. We have plenty of problems, but hate-mongering and the big lie provide no constructive answers or solutions.

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BLOG: Humanist Thoughts on Coping With Evil and Pain

Part of an ongoing series that examines the wisdom from our Humanist Pulpit roots.

On Coping With Pain

There are three appalling evils connected with affliction. The first is the actual pain and suffering; the second is the shadow which is tends to throw over the universe, the doubts, the loss of faith it engenders; and the third is the prostration, the sense of impotence, which suffering produces.

Now as regards the first two, the idea of God has been very helpful. It does not make the pain any less but it helps people to bear it. It does not dispel the doubt or solve the riddle of the world, but it induces people to be willing to live on without the solution…

… Worse than the hurt of pain is the thwarting of high purpose. We feel that we are called upon to work for certain ends, to put our whole hearts into the service, and then we see that the course of events often thwarts our high purpose… There is a third evil besides the pain and the doubt, namely the sense of impotency, the sense of being utterly broken, a kind of blight or palsy that overspreads the faculties…

In affliction, the Humanist view would seize a man and lift him up from the ground, where he is lying prone. It then commands: Do something; do not merely accept the fact that smites you. When you are plunged into the sea of affliction, do not float, do not wait for arms to be extended from above to draw you out of the waves; spread forth your own arms and swim.

And so Humanism in affliction, as in everything else, would teach men not to depend upon some outside power, but to depend upon themselves. What mans needs above all else is to develop within himself the stamina necessary to bear his own burdens, to achieve that manhood which rises above the circumstances of life. There are no explanations that justify the fearful tragedies of life — they are simply the result of certain chains of causes, many of which are beyond our control.

… Marcus Aurelius has admirably described the Humanist’s attitude towards the trials of life. He said, “When a calamity has happened to you, be content that it has not conquered you. What has happened to you has happened to others, but they may not all have risen above it, and if you have, your calamity has already become a blessing.”

…. I have laughed some in my time, and so have I wept; and from my experience I can testify that I have never been so encompassed by loving friends as in the hour of sorrow. To feel this thrill of human sympathy, to experience this mystic oneness with other human beings, if it does not justify, it at least compensates for the ‘stings of an outrageous fortune.’

— “Meeting Trouble Without God,” by Rev. John Dietrich, delivered in the Garrick Theater, October 28, 1928

On Identifying Evil

How then are we to explain the existence of evil? Evil is those processes and social activities and individual behavior which are horrible, unpleasant, undesirable to men… What we call evil is… maladjustment… When man is rightly related or properly adjusted to real facts of the universe, the man finds security, health, happiness. When wrongly related or maladjusted, he finds calamity, sickness, disturbance. This principle explains evil, both physical and moral…

… Water is one of the crowning blessings of life and when properly controlled turns the wheels of factories, but if the laws are not observed in building our dams it devastates an entire city. Famine sweeps away millions… because agriculture is crude and means of transportation inadequate…

Our knowledge of the best modes of behavior for the good of mankind is as yet very meagre, but man’s interest has only recently been enlisted in this direction, and I believe that we shall rapidly gain light through the new sciences of psychology and sociology and all those social sciences which devote themselves to a study of human nature and human relationships.

— “The Life and Works of the Devil,” Rev. John Dietrich, delivered in Garrick Theater, November 27, 1927

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BLOG: A 1922 Address About Morality

Excerpt of a Humanist address, “What’s Wrong With the World,” delivered to First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis by Rev. John Dietrich, January 29, 1922. This is an excerpt of an excerpt, focusing on morality. 

… Our problem today is not so much that of freedom from political tyranny (in spite of the temporary reaction during the war) but rather that of safeguarding the individual from other and more subtle forms of tyranny and exploitation.

We are beginning to realize that the truly democratic state is not the one that leaves all the people free to do as they please, but the one that is so organized that all of its people are made free from the encroachment of selfishness and greed in any form; that provides for all of its citizens, even the lower in the social scale, absolutely justice and equal opportunity. All the protests and revolts and violence, if you please, against existing wrongs and injustice today are simply proof that men have outgrown the old conception of democracy, which was content to let all people do as they please. The demand today is for such a reorganization of the state as to make all forms of injustice and inequity impossible.

The old idea of democracy was based upon the extremely optimistic view of human nature taken by the philosophers of the French Revolutionary period; that if man were only given perfect freedom [from every kind of social and political restriction, as well as from prevailing custom and habit] he would be good. But we are living in a world where human nature must be taken for what it is and not for what we should like it to be. And so our present day political philosophers point out the changes, which are necessary if justice is to be secured. The fact is that the old garments of democracy have been outgrown and humanity must fashion for itself new political garments which will democratize the whole of human life.

… Modern science, modern men of transportation and communication, the development of world trade and commerce, have brought even the remotest corners of the earth into one intimate neighborhood. The nation no longer lives an isolated and separate life. Its very existence is bound up with that of other nations so that the different nations are mutually dependent upon one another in a sense that could not have been dreamed of in the beginnings of national life. …

Today the nations, in their desire to get raw materials and trade, are jostling each other on every sea and rubbing elbows in every corner of the globe. So it is no longer a question of how one nation can develop a strong and independent life, but rather how small and weak nationalities that are mutually dependent can live together in the spirit of cooperation and mutual helpfulness, without dangerous frictions and ruinous wars.

…. As Professor Ross of the University of Wisconsin says: “My vital interests are now entrusted to others. … I rely upon others to look after my drains, invest my savings, nurse my sick and teach my children…” This interdependence puts us at one another’s mercy and so ushers in a multitude of new forms of wrongdoing with the result that people do not see that “… blackmail is piracy, embezzlement is theft, speculation is gambling,  tax dodging is larceny, railroad discrimination is treachery, child labor is slavery.”

The mob is infuriated at one who murders another individual, while it views with indifference the venal mine inspector, the seller of infected milk, the maintainer of a firetrap theater. The petty shoplifter is more abhorred than the stealer of a franchise.

And so we find ourselves every day facing situations with which our old morality does not deal and the old question of right and wrong is not so simple as it once was. This does not mean that there is any variation on the principles of right and wrong…but they must be translated into their social equivalent so that we will cease to condemn the man who steals a loaf of bread while we pay honor to the man who steals a million dollars.

The moral unrest of our times grows out of the inadequacy of the old system, which deals only with individual relations and knows nothing of our complicated social relations.

Click here for thoughts from the same address about labor.

The original introduction and concluding remarks are here.


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BLOG: A 1922 Address About Labor

Excerpt of a Humanist address, “What’s Wrong With the World,” delivered to First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis by Rev. John Dietrich, January 29, 1922. This is an excerpt of an excerpt, focusing on economics. 

…. There are some people who think that the present economic system was foisted upon society by a group of men who had deliberately made up their minds to exploit humanity for their own private gain. Such people reflect more heat than light in the study of this problem, for nothing could be father from the truth. The present system grew up naturally in response to certain vital needs of that time and with all the faults that the system contains for us today, it was probably as good a system as could under the circumstances have been devised for those earlier times. …

With the invention of all kinds of machinery the doors were thrown wide open for the mechanical production of goods on a scale never before dreamed of. The immediate problem was to interest men who had the money and brains and executive ability in the building of factories, the installation of machinery, and the organization of plants. In addition it was necessary to have raw materials from which to produce the goods and this meant the building of railroads and steamships and the opening up of communications to the hitherto inaccessible portions of the earth. In short, the great immediate problem 100 years ago was the problem of production.

…. The system of private control which was the natural outgrowth from previous conditions provided itself to be highly successful because it furnished the necessary incentive for men to devote themselves and their money to building up the new industry, and that incentive was largely the desire of the individual to make profits. This profit-incentive was a most effective motive and did result without question in the rapid building up of the machine basis of production.

In the same way the principle of free competition stimulated men to produce as large a volume of goods as possible and as cheaply as was consistent with profit-making, and at the same time served the best interests of society, thus meeting the problem of that day in a natural way.

… The principle of free contract between employer and employee was also a perfectly natural development since each manufacturer gathered his individual workers about him to help him run his factory. There was no association of employees on the one hand or union of employees on the other. The relations between employer and employee rested on a purely individual basis… The new industrial system that grew up with the coming of the new industrial age was not deliberately and maliciously planned. As most things in this world it came as natural response to the needs of that time.

Now, 100 Years Later, in 1922

But not only have 100 years rolled by, but greater changes have come into human life in these 100 years than in thousands of preceding years, and we are … seeking to make ourselves believe that they are still fit for our needs today, whereas the fact is that they have been entirely outgrown and are no longer adequate for man’s needs. The results of that society today is about as restive as a 16-year-old boy trying to wear an 8-year-old suit.

… The thing most needed today in the industrial world is not any longer to furnish incentive to men to invest their money, but rather to furnish incentive to the worker to do his best and also to awaken in him the fullest measure of cooperation… In this respect what real incentive can there by under the principle of private control where the worker has no share in the profits and no voice in the shaping of conditions under which he works? …

So long as labor was willing to be treated as merely a tool of production, subject to the beck and nod of the employer, this problem did not exist; but today the worker knows himself to be no longer a tool of production but primarily a human being, entitled to all the rights and privileges of other human beings; and as such he will not do his best nor be inclined to give his hearty cooperation until he feels that he is also sharing some of the responsibility and reaping some of the rewards of the business.

It is this fundamental human need that causes the increasing demand on the part of labor for some share in the control of the means of production and a larger part in the product itself. The principle of private control that still exists utterly ignores this human need and thus fails to meet in any true sense the problem of today.

Freedom of marketplace?

Free competition is still supposed to operate, in theory, but in fact we know that it has entirely disappeared. As industries multiplied the competition became more and more keen and bitter until finally it was necessary to form associations of combinations of allied industries in order to keep prices high enough to insure a sufficient profit. These combinations grew larger and larger until they culminated in the gigantic trusts that today control the price of practically all our commodities… with the small shopkeepers in combination to protect themselves from free competition. This has given opportunity for profiteering in every line, which no one even attempts to conceal, until in every kind of business the slogan today is “Charge all the traffic will bear.”

In regard to the third principle of freedom from government restriction the problem today seems to be reversed. It is not so much the problem of how to keep the restricting hand of industry off of industry, as how to keep the restricting hand of industry off of government.

With the tremendous growth of our large industries and the centralization of large amounts of capital in the hands of a few people, and with the interlocking directorates of the various industries until all of the economic power in the world is concentrated in a few offices and banks, so-called “big business,” as Mr. Roosevelt suggested some years ago, has become the invisible power behind the political throne, to the absolute ruination of all our political ideals.

These are the reasons why I venture to affirm that society has outgrown its economic garments. We are seeking to live our economic life in a system, the fundamental principles of which were adapted to the problems of 100 years ago, but which do not in any sense meet, or satisfy the very different problems of today; and our widespread industrial unrest grows out of the fact that we are seeking to wear the old garments which are utterly inadequate to the vastly changed industrial life of our times.

Click here for thoughts from the same address about morality.

The original introduction and concluding remarks are here.

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BLOG: What’s Wrong With the World?

A Humanist address delivered to First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis by Rev. John Dietrich, January 29, 1922. Like most of Dr. Dietrich’s addresses, this one was written for an hour-long talk, for an audience of hundreds that eventually filled a Minneapolis theater and a readership of thousands. Because of the length, each of his talks here is excerpted. In this case, there was so much of interest that there are two links in the middle for more depth of content.

In this quaint philosophy of clothes [“Sartor Resartus,” by Thomas] Carlyle points out that just as all the clothes we wear are sooner or later outgrown or become threadbare and have to be discarded for new and more fitting garments, so it is with all the institutions, systems, laws, customs, beliefs and ideals in which man has from time to time arrayed himself. … He recognized that humanity is an organism, and grows like every other organism. … Now we are living in one of the periods when a change of clothes has become absolutely necessary. Humanity has been rapidly outgrowing the laws, institutions and beliefs that have been the basis of civilization in the past century. The clothes of a 19th century civilization are no longer suitable to the life of today.

… About the middle of the 18th century the genius of man turned itself to the invention of machinery and thereby completely transformed the methods of creating and distributing all the material necessities of life. Men found themselves working, thinking and feeling in relation to an environment that, both in its worldwide extension and its intimate connection with all sides of human existence, was without precedent in the history of the world. The little individual workshops in which each man worked for himself gave way to the great roaring factories in which each man became the wage-subject of an industrial monarch. The little cottages scattered throughout the country in which each man was his own landlord disappeared and the great industrial centers with their crowded tenements arose. Now the great majority of people in the industrial countries live in huge, commercial cities or in densely populated industrial districts.

…. Perhaps the best illustration of this great change is to be found in our own country. One hundred years ago the population of the United States was about 5 million. Today it is 105 million. One hundred years ago it was chiefly agricultural and the cities were few and comparatively unimportant. Today more than one-half the people live in cities and more than one-tenth of the entire population of the country live in the three largest cities… Here on the banks of the Mississippi there was absolutely nothing 100 years ago, while today we have the Twin Cities with a population of nearly three-quarters of a million. …

The real significance is suggested by Woodrow Wilson in his “The New Freedom.” He says, “Ever since society began, men were related to one another as individuals. Now the everyday relationships of men are largely with great impersonal concerns, with complex organizations, not with other individual men. This is nothing short of a new social age, a new era of human relationships, a new stage setting for the drama of life.”

A look at what is wrong with our global, industrial economic system

A look at what is wrong with our morality

… The same principle lies underneath the religious unrest that is depleting the congregations of our churches and that is inspiring the organization of so many new and fantastic cults. The old ideals and forms of religion were formulated before men knew anything of science or of the operation of natural law. They were formed in an age that was steeped in superstition and that attributed every unusual happening to some supernatural power. Not knowing how to explain the universe otherwise, men presupposed some supernatural being who created the thing, who sustained it, and controlled it. The whole structure of religion is built upon the theory that this being can be placated, can be supplicated, can be coaxed and influenced, and practically all the forms of religion are for the purpose of influencing this being for the benefit of the worshipper.

But about 60 years ago there occurred the greatest revolution in human thought that the world has ever seen. Charles Darwin wrote his “Origin of Species,” and Herbert Spencer worked out his synthetic philosophy, founded upon Darwin’s scientific inquiry. …

I think the future is bright for religion but whether it will find its home in the churches or be forced to fashion for itself new channels through which it can more adequately find expression depends upon the churches themselves, whether or not they possess the faith and courage to lay aside the old outworn garments and fashion for themselves new ones.

In view of these illustrations of the causes that lie at the source of the world’s unrest today in all of the realms of life, the intensity of the struggle between the conservative and radical forces in society become apparent.

There are really three elements in human society:

  1. There is the conservative who thinks that the old garments of society are a perfect fit and should be continued in their present for;
  2. there is the progressive who feels that the old garments which society is now wearing can be patched up and made to do service a little longer;
  3. and then there is the radical who believes that the time has come when the old garments should frankly by discarded for new and better ones.

And whether one should take one or the other of these positions should not depend upon the familiarity of the old nor on the novelty of the new but rather on what seems to us to make for the largest possible coming of justice and right and goodwill into the life of all men.


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BLOG: Mixed Feelings

Excerpted from Rev. Jim Foti’s talk “Mixed Feelings,” on the eve of Memorial Day 2016.

Conversations about America’s greatness can deteriorate very quickly. One problem is when we take the step of labeling ourselves as “the greatest nation on earth.” It’s not a good sign when any country feels a need to assert its superiority or its supremacy.

…Another danger is that the military-industrial complex relies on the idea of the greatest. Greatness becomes a justification for so many things, such as invasion, conquest, imperialism. We’re here to take over, because it’s our job as the greatest to try to fix things. As the greatest, we must know best, and everything we do is unquestionably great.

…To the vast majority of Americans who are not directly involved in the military, seeing our country as the greatest can provide a different form of comfort. If we’re the greatest, there’s nothing to fix. There’s no reason to get out in the streets, to work for change, to ask hard questions, or even vote. If our country is the greatest, it must be all those struggling individuals who have flaws. Many among us can be complacent consumers and compliant citizens, content to know that we’re already part of the best, viewing our own comfortable lives as proof.

But the biggest question that the “Make America Great Again” hat raises is “great again for whom?” “There’s never been equality for me,” Langston Hughes wrote in 1935, and he could say it still today. “America was never great,” says Krystal Lake’s hat. For large segments of society, the “again” is what seems off.

But I have an idea of whom the original hat is addressing, of what the hat is referring to; I have an idea about what “greatness” used to look like and why a person might dream of its return. I see this and understand this whenever I go to my mom’s hometown, when I drive past the site of the motel we used to stay at when I was a teenager, the motel that has since been chopped up and carted away. I see it when I drive past the bars that used to be open, the gas stations now abandoned, the industrial sites now closed. Even the newer motel, the one I stayed in just last year for my uncle’s funeral, has gone out of business.

Working-class people never got rich in my mom’s hometown, but they have seen better times – earlier, more prosperous decades when America, to them, seemed greater than it does now. This underscores the fact that feelings about one’s country are rarely separate from what one has seen with one’s own eyes.

If you’ve witnessed a great economic decline in your hometown, the idea of making America great again is an acknowledgement of the reality you’ve lived through, and you may have been very hungry to have that acknowledged. If you’ve been in the military and traveled overseas and witnessed the difficult daily lives of the citizens of Afghanistan or Iraq, the relative peace of daily life back in America can seem miraculous, though you might at the same time question the greatness of the country that keeps redeploying you, and refusing to fund services for veterans.

And while white working-class Americans are in increasingly bad shape, blacks in America can see how much more prosperity and freedom the average white person still has. It can be hard to think of America as ever having been great, given that true justice has yet to be achieved. No full freedom in this “homeland of the free.”

My ambivalence about the United States of America, my inability to see it as uniformly great or as the greatest, has less to do with my direct experience than with my empathy. If I paid attention to only my own life story, to my own personal trajectory, I really should think America is the greatest. I grew up safe in the middle of the middle class, I went to good public schools and a good public university, I’ve never been downsized. My many privileges – being a nondisabled, cisgender male from a European-American family – have contributed to this narrative of my life. Being gay did reduce some options for me, particularly in terms where I felt I could live openly. But my privileges helped me find safe places to be.

… I had the ability to learn about and feel what other people were going through. That’s what leads to ambiguous feelings – to grown-up, complicated feelings – about one’s country.

Ambivalence comes from understanding the problems, the misery and deprivation and death caused by American policies and actions, both within our borders and well beyond them. Understanding all that and how it co-exists with all the goodness that Americans have done and can do can make ambiguity the only choice. Even if one’s individual life is fine, America has not fully realized the dream the dreamers dreamed.

… One thing we can do, and one thing this congregation has always done, is continue to be keepers of the truth. This flame we light every week is a symbol of truth, something reason-based humanists hold dear. And truth is in grave danger right now. We have reached a point at which facts and fact-checking do not change Americans’ minds about public figures or major issues.

Earlier this month, Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, implored Americans to ask ourselves: “How can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?” It’s a fair, and scary, question.

We may not be able to get everyone to accept facts. But we can start by making sure we’re being truthful with ourselves. Michael Moore says this in his film: “The first step to recovery, the first step to being a better person, or a better country, is to be able to just stand up and honestly say who and what you are. I am an American. I live in a great country that was born in genocide and built on the backs of slaves.” Acknowledging such truths can inform our decisions as citizens and demonstrate how to live with ambiguity and integrity.

The second thing we can do is to remember that positive change is possible. As Moore points out in his movie, the Berlin Wall came down quite quickly. I’ve already mentioned the sweeping legal changes for GLBT people. We are on the cusp of seeing our first female major-party presidential nominee. Such stories of human progress are good to keep in mind in times like these.

And a final thing is to remember that all the struggles are interconnected. Economic inequality makes it easier to recruit lower-income Americans into the military. Public military spending boosts private corporate profits. Corporate profits fund the political campaigns of public officials who see nothing wrong with inequality. Around and around it goes, these systemic cycles of greed and exploitation. It usually takes some concerned citizens or a civic-minded public official to throw a wrench into the works, in the form of a lawsuit, or legislation, or protest.

The gears may not grind to a halt immediately – in fact, it can take generations — but the work of change is worth doing. There’s no one but us to do it, but we are enough.

QUESTION: If ambivalence is a kind of inoculation from ‘we are what we are’ — in what way are you a change agent that gives a vitamin boost to change?

Hear or read Rev. Foti’s talk in full here.


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BLOG: Change and the Progressive Mind

Excerpts from a talk presented by Rev. Dr. David Breeden, 4 September 2016, at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis

“Are you discontent with the lot the universe has given you? The universe is change; life is opinion.”– Marcus Aurelius (Meditations IV.3)

Humanism is a progressive philosophy—we believe in change as basic to both human knowledge and social wellbeing. Humanists are skeptics, after all, and the skepticism that is a foundational part of Humanism provides an important idea: we must think outside of the box all the time.

Progressivism begins not from “how do we get back to the past” or “how have we always done it?” but from the question of human flourishing in the here and now: “Here’s where we are; we can do better; what do we do now to enhance human wellbeing? That’s Humanism.

We are celebrating 100 years of Humanism in this congregation.  Humanism was a forward-thinking idea a century ago. The Humanism hatched here in the Midwest by John Dietrich and Curtis Reese and a few other Unitarian ministers and academics spread across the nation and around the world. It was a modern outlook for a modern world… it offered freedom from superstition, freedom from traditional social structures, and an ethics built on dealing with real problems in the real world, right now, rather than trying to make out what to do by reading Iron Age scripture.

That early Dietrich period was a heady time for this congregation. And hundreds of people showed up every week to hear the good news of Humanism. Humanism taught people to be world citizens, and that especially resonated with the next generation, who came of age during the Second World War and found themselves navigating the Cold War.

Humanists were free people in oppressive times, resisting the bigotry of religions; resisting the fear tactics of the Cold Warriors. Resisting the xenophobia of McCarthyism. Resisting the ravages of uncontrolled Capitalism. Resisting racism, sexism, and homophobia during the years of the Culture Wars.

But Humanists must avoid golden-age thinking and traditionalism. What was true a century ago or sixty years ago, only partially reflects our world today. Humanists must always be the change agents in the room.

Why It Is Not Reason and Science Alone…

Humanists must remember the lessons of history as much as we do the lessons of science and reason. It has always been apparent that reason can lead to irrational behaviors: confirmation bias, for example—that we notice what reinforces our preexisting beliefs, our prejudices, and forget the facts that argue against our prejudices. Motivated reasoning.

French social scientist Daniel Sperber has invented what he calls the “argumentative theory” to explain why we do irrational things and why we don’t change our minds, despite evidence.

According to Sperber, we don’t routinely reason in order to improve our thinking but rather to prove our opinions. We want to disprove the arguments of others and prove our arguments. Reason, then—according to argumentative theory—is not about an individual discovering truth, but is about a social animal proving a thesis to others.

This theory makes evolutionary sense. If I believe everything I hear, I’m easily manipulated. But if I can use reason to convince you of my point of view, I gain power.

But what is Humanism if we begin to question reason? I define Humanism this way: “Humanism is a way of life based in the best of human thought and dedicated to the well being of humanity and the planet.”

When we believe in the best of human thought, we aren’t afraid of new ideas. We aren’t afraid to change our minds. We aren’t protecting our beliefs, but rather we are opening ourselves to new thoughts.

Our Secular Humanist Roots

When John Dietrich arrived here in the autumn of 1916, he had been tried for heresy in a Christian denomination and defrocked. He joined the Unitarians, got a preaching job out in Spokane, Washington, and there began to read up on this thing that had been called Humanism way back at the end of the Middle Ages and more recently by some secular thinkers in England.

“Humanism.” Dietrich began to see it as a way of doing religion without reference to the supernatural. He began calling himself a Humanist. Then in the 1916, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis called Dietrich as their minister. And thus, by vote of the congregation, FUS became the first explicitly Humanist congregation in the United States.

That was a big change, becoming Humanist. And this congregation has held onto that spark of creativity and edginess ever since.

Change is what this congregation creates. And today we are the bricks and mortar of Humanism and we are the largest Humanist congregation in the United States (and therefore the world, for that matter).

I’m inclined to believe Professor Sperber’s “argumentative theory” and it’s account of reason — that reason is first and foremost a tool of argument rather than a tool for finding truth.

But rather than spelling doom for Humanism, I think it further underlines the need for the Humanist project, because we are poised always on the knife’s edge, ready to learn that next new bit of knowledge, and more interested in knowing what is to be known than in proving ourselves right.

On our FUS tee shirts, it says “reason, compassion, justice.” We trust all three of those.

In our fearful, torn world, more argument isn’t useful. But conversation is. Reason won’t get us out of our current political woes, but conversation might . . . and a truly deliberative democracy.

There have been a lot of plays on Obama’s campaign slogan “change you can believe in.” My favorite shows Charles Darwin’s profile and says, “slow change you can believe in.”


Are there new ideas you are afraid of?
Do you change your mind?
Are you protecting your beliefs, or open to new thoughts?


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BLOG: What If the World Went Humanist?

Excerpted from Rev. John Dietrich Sunday morning address, as compiled May 1930 in Humanist Pulpit XIII. The full transcript is here. A book version is now in FUS bookstore. This is the first archived talk to be discussed in the 2016-17 monthly Dietrich Centennial series, third Sundays, noon, at FUS.

The Idea of a Humanist World

I have no illusions about the world, at least within my lifetime, giving up what it conceives to be the consolations of theistic religion…

Very few of its critics touch the heart of Humanism or understand its reasons for being. Some seem to think that it is merely another interpretation of the traditional ideas, leaving out the consolations and guarantees that made the earlier ones meaningful… One critic says it is not humanistic enough because it has not solved all the problems of our tangled social complexity… One critic is sure that it can only be acceptable to the intellectual elite and could never be made comprehensible to the common people…

They fail to realize that Humanism is really the attempt to conserve all the human values that humanity in its age-long struggle has built up, and in addition create such new values as will add to the significance of human life on this planet. It prefers to depend upon human loyalties and human intelligence rather than on faith in any unseen fate or supernatural control. It carries the torch of the age-old human quest for the good life into the midst of the new world of complex civilization. It dares to believe that it is possible to organize the world in such a way as to make material and machines, scientific knowledge and technology serve the higher life of man. Its optimism lies in the fact that it dares to believe that today , if man will himself assume the responsibility, it can make that ancient dream come true.

What, then, if the world went Humanist?

…Suppose, for instance, that we should wake up some morning and find that belief in God had completely disappeared, what would be the effect?

It would not affect any of the fundamental processes of life. The drama of life would go on very much the same; it would run through the same number of acts and end in the same happy or unhappy manner. Human beings would still be born, they would grow up, they would fall in love, they would marry, they would beget their kind, and they would in turn pass away. …Human society would continue; all the glories of art, the greatness of science, all the marvels and wonders of the universe would be there whether we believed in God or not.

The only difference would be that we would no longer associate these things with the existence of a God. And in that respect we should be following the same course of development that has been followed in many other departments of life. We do not nowadays associate the existence of spirits with a good or bad harvest, the anger of God with an epidemic, or the goodwill of deity with a pleasant spell of weather…

Human nature will be the same then as now, as it has been for thousands of years… There would be a rise in the scale of truth-seeking and truth-speaking… A very high value will be placed on the duty of investigation and the right of criticism… A receptiveness to new ideas, a readiness to overhaul old institutions, a toleration of criticism such as would rapidly transform the whole mental atmosphere…

Humanism: Working Together

If the world went Humanist, it would simply mean that mankind had settled down to the job of living… that this little planet, on which we live, is almost lost in our solar system with its thousands of millions of miles of space; and that this solar system is merely a point of light in the vast deeps of the stars which form our universe; and that beyond our universe are others, universe beyond universe. Yet here on this little, tiny, lost world man is battling for life, trying by cooperative effort to build a home…

Humanism means the realization of racial destiny, the general agreement that we shall all work together to make the best of the human situation. We are all in the same fix, all in life’s predicament, all confronted with insoluble problems, unanswerable questions, unrealized ideals. We all have a common origin, a common purpose, a common destiny.

…We are so sensitively related to each other that we can make each other miserable, adding to the hardships which existence already involves. On the other hand, we can ameliorate those hardships, cooperate with nature and with one another, gradually discover and chart the paths to happiness, mark the danger points for those who follow, become more and more at home in the universe and more and more expert in dealing with our fellow human beings and more and more approach the ideal of a satisfactory human society.

We are precisely like a group of men and women isolated on an island in the Pacific who, instead of dreaming of what they would do if they ever escaped, set to work in the endeavor to make the place habitable and living comfortable.

… It would mean that the whole of mankind had agreed to work under the banner that reads, “A better world for better people, through better cooperation.”

Life, Then and Now

In our international relations men are considered only means, and are gathered up and hurled into battle by governments who have economic interests to protect or nationalistic aims to further…. Most of the age-old brutalities of history, as well as the cruelties and foul-play of the present time are but examples of human beings using others as means to carry out their purposes and designs. …Every institution which now exists would be placed under the closest scrutiny to determine whether or not it is making a real contribution to human life, and if not, they would have to give way to institutions which did.

This means an entire reconstruction of the ideology of our industrial system. Look at the present hour. The need of the world for all kinds of goods is just as great and imperative as it ever was. Millions of human beings are crying out for food and clothing, and the nations of the earth are in just as great a need of commodities. What strange reasoning is it that tells us people must be out of work? Why are mills shutting down and plants closing? At this moment we have all the factories and mines, all the machinery for production and distribution; some people need the goods, others need the work. What explains this strange situation?

The simple fact that our whole industrial system is built around the idea of property instead of human life. Our captains of industry will not embark on new enterprises, will not set the wheels going until they are convinced that by so doing they will make profits… the question of human needs is not the primary consideration, whereas it would be if the world were Humanist.

… If the world went Humanist, all the immense fortunes that have thus far been swallowed up in the engulfing crater of war and the billions of dollars now being spent in preparation for the next war would be expended in the intensification of agriculture, the building of roads and waterways, municipal projects, and all that goes to improving living conditions.

Recognizing Unity

If the world went Humanist, there would be recognition of the essential unity of mankind. We would realize that there flows through the whole human race, from the lowest to the highest, one life and one blood, that we have a common life and a common interest, and we would all march on together toward our common purpose and common ideal, realizing that what hurts one hurts all. …

Men will have discovered the secret of life – that they themselves must do the things they crave, and that they who created the kingdom of God in heaven can create the commonwealth of man on earth.

QUESTION: At root, what do you think stands in the way of building unity on earth?

Find other Humanist posts here.


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BLOG: Are You Building a Shelter?

Carl Storm and FUS youth

An interesting snapshot of the early 1960s, when nuclear war seemed inevitable. This excerpt of “Are you building a shelter,” is from Rev. Carl Storm (pictured with FUS youth here), delivered at First Unitarian Society on November 5, 1961:

After a decade of almost complete apathy about civil defense, and even a somewhat slap-happy dismissal of it, the subject has rather suddenly become of widespread concern. Triggered by the Berlin crisis and the resumption of nuclear testing, it has taken on tones of seriousness and of frantic desperation as the feeling grows that nuclear war is not only probable but inevitable.

Along with the concern, however, is no small amount of confusion and difference of opinion….

… Beyond the deception of leading people to believe that shelters will save up to 97% of the population and that life inside shelters can even be somewhat glamorous, there is another aspect of the matter that is even more shocking. And that is the repeated expression of a save-your-own skin morality.

All along the line the major emphasis of the civil defense program has been do-it-yourself — build your own shelter. And not just save your own skin, but be prepared to do it with gun and violence and murder.

The outcome has been one of the most nauseating displays in various quarters of callous individualism that we or anyone else has witnessed among a people presumably somewhat civilized and touched in some measure with ethical and religious principles.

Not only are communities, such as in California and Nevada, preparing to repel refugees by gun and armed militia, but individuals are building their shelters in secret so no one else will know where they are, and they are stocking their shelters with guns with which to repel any, even neighbors and friends, who might seek to get in.

There “is nothing in the Christian ethic,” says Civil Defense Coordinator Keith Dwyer, “which denies one’s right to protect oneself and one’s family.”

… I myself have not built a bomb shelter and I have no intention of doing so. First, because I am very susceptible to claustrophobia and not convinced that a bomb shelter will be anything much more than a mausoleum. I would prefer to be upstairs murdering Beethoven at the piano rather than my neighbor at the bomb shelter door. Second, because the shelter program puts fear into the saddle and diverts from steady sustained effort to put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind. The answer to nuclear war is not shelters, but disarmament and peace….

… Admittedly it is no easy task, and the times are indeed perilous. Yet it is along this path that hope and survival are really possible, and within the building and strengthening of this kind of world shelter that a world community of men, truly worthy of the terms “community” and “men,” must be established.

Question: Rugged individualism has been a hallmark of America since our beginnings. How does the ethic to protect one’s family and the ethic to protect one’s community/country transform into the ethic to protect one’s planetary community? Do we need alien invaders and superheroes to bring us together in movie theaters? Why do you think there is a disconnect between local and global? How do we, as Humanists, bridge that?

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Related Resources

See this Bob Dylan song about bomb shelters from 1962.


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BLOG: Cooperating With Natural Law, Not Deity (1930)

The following comes from “The Supreme Discovery of the Ages: The universe is governed by natural law, not by a deity,” delivered by Rev. John Dietrich on March 9, 1930.

… Natural laws are not the same type of thing as statute laws — they are merely the expression by man of fixed relations existing between things.

… For instance, under certain conditions two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen unite to form a molecule of water. That is a constant relationship, that is, under the same conditions this always takes place, so we call it a chemical law. This does not mean that this relationship was previously and consciously designed.

… It is only because we can thus depend upon natural law that life and civilization are possible. It is because we know that the laws of sunshine and soil and seed and moisture are always and everywhere the same that we are able to plow and sow and reap and harvest, giving food to the whole earth. If these laws controlling the growth of grain were subject to change we would not know how to produce food.

…By the laws of nature we erect our houses and towering office buildings, and lay out the streets of our cities. It is the unchanging law that makes us rest at night, with no fear that it will change before morning, and permit our houses to tumble down about our heads.

…If this law could in the least be disturbed, either by miracle or by prayer, this would, indeed, be a sorry world in which to live. There would be no assurance of anything… Everything that is done in this world is done just because men depend upon the unchangeableness of natural law.

… Suppose a farmer wants to raise a successful crop, in recognition of the reign of law, he will not pray for the crop, nor will he expect God to grow it for him in any unusual way. He will find out the laws of soil and seed and culture and comply with them. If a man wishes to fly in the air, he does not pray to God to give him the wings of an angel, he studies the laws of power and air resistance and planes, and builds himself an aeroplane.

…Suffice it to say that all success, all progress, all happiness depends upon knowing and co-operating with the laws of the universe.

It means that we no longer depend upon some outside force, but upon ourselves; it means that we transfer our efforts from seeking help from God to seeking help in knowledge of the laws, which control this universe; it means that the minds, which have heretofore been occupied with the methods of gaining divine favor must be occupied with the study of the methods of the universe… that prayer will be replaced by effort.

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BLOG: Darwin and Evolution a Century Later (1959)

On February 8, 1959, FUS minister Rev. Carl Storm delivered the talk “Darwin and Evolution: A Century Later.” This is an excerpt.

… If life derives from life, how could the process have started unless there were some life-giving power behind it? To postulate some divine and supernatural life-giving force in now way provides an answer to what was the nature and form of the first living substance.

Studies of the properties of living substances have already reached the point where it is difficult to draw boundaries between living and non-living. This is the case with some of the viruses and all the more so in the study of the chemical composition of the gene. Although the nature of the first living substance remains conjectural, there is every reason to believe that it must have been at a very elemental level, and not inconceivable is the speculation that it was in the form of some chemical combination. In the chemical soup of the primeval world there were undoubtedly any number of potential combinations, and over a vast period of time the particular combination might have occurred not just once, but several times, and not just in one place but in several places. Whatever the original living substance, it had the very considerable advantage, in all likelihood, of no bacteria behind around to break it down.

Be that as it may, it is with the other end of the scale that we should be more concerned. There have been some who have interpreted evolution to mean that there are no values except survival values, no escape from a ruthless struggle for existence, and justification for the destruction of the weak and the unfit in human society.

Such interpretation has undoubtedly been a convenient rationalization for the exercise of ruthless power and the exploitation of human beings and the plundering of nature and the rest of the animal kingdom. But this is far from what Darwin himself thought and what modern evolutionists have to say about evolution.

Darwin, particularly in his volume “Descent of Man,” emphasized that man is not only a biological animal, but also an intellectual and social being, and the standards of fitness differ in these three aspects.

Biologically the fittest are the most capable of living and leaving offspring; intellectually the fittest are the most rational; socially the fittest are the most ethical. The attempt to measure mental and social fitness by standards of biological fitness is to confuse hopelessly the whole matter and to fail utterly to recognize that human evolution has progressed in these three directions.

Man is an animal, but he has characteristics not shared with any other animals, and these are the measure of this unique nature. The accumulation and transmission of knowledge, the rise of values, conscious choice and ability to plan in terms of social need and ethical well-being, have all been elements in the evolution of man.

Evolution is not something that just happens to him. With him it is a process in which he not only can but also is forced to play some role in determining his history. Whereas, says Julian Huxley, biological evolution is directed by the blind and automatic force of natural selection, psychosocial evolution can be directed by the anticipatory force of conscious purpose.

Thus man’s destiny is to act as the agent of the evolutionary process on this planet, by enabling it to realize new and higher possibilities.

The theory of evolution stands as one of the greatest achievements of the human mind. It is still being modified and refashioned and refined, by new and developing knowledge, but it remains only the more firmly established.

Has it robbed us of anything? On the contrary, it has opened thought, as scarcely any other theory has, to the dynamic, developing process operating in all nature.

… Is man’s place in nature that of a mere accident without significance? Writes George Simpson, “Man was certainly not the goal of evolution, which evidently had no goal. He was not planned, in an operation wholly planless… But man did originate after a tremendously long sequence of events in which both chance and orientation played a part… The results is the most highly endowed organization of matter that has yet appeared on earth…”

It is up to man himself what he does with his highly endowed organization of matter. It depends upon him what amount of value and worth can be given to evolution.

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BLOG: The Roots of Unitarianism

A summary of a lesson offered in a Unitarian Universalist Association workshop

Before setting its roots in Humanism, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis was founded on a legacy of Unitarianism.

Unitarian Christianity was the talk of a title by William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) — also known as the Baltimore Sermon — on May 5, 1819. Orthodox and liberal factions had been debating after the liberal-minded Henry Ware was elected in 1805 to the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard College, which was the training ground for New England ministers.

Some of the points of contention:

  • Some churches had been moving toward a unitarian notion of a singular nature of God, which contrasted with the trinitarian understanding of God as three (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).
  • Was God a benevolent and loving presence, or a wrathful God?
  • Are some saved and others damned?
  • Was Jesus divine, or human — or a little of both?
  • Were humans good and capable of distinguishing right and wrong, or depraved and captive to sin?
  • Was the Bible alone the basis for religious knowledge, or was God-given reason and conscience needed as well?

By 1812, young William Ellery Channing was the leader of the liberal voice. He talked about a benevolent God who endowed humanity with innate goodness, rationality and the ability to discern between good and evil. His infamous Baltimore sermon took place at the ordination in a new liberal church of minister Jared Sparks in 1819.

His 1.5-hour address (typical of the time) took on two tasks to place Unitarian Christianity as the leading platform, no longer in the defensive position in relation to orthodox views:

  1. Establishing reason as necessary for interpreting scripture, as an aid to revelation, and as the basis for religious belief. “Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books.”
  2. Laying out four reason-based conclusions of Unitarian Christians: the unity of God, Christ as fully human, the moral perfection of God, and the purpose of Jesus’ mission on earth. He rejected the idea that Jesus’ death atoned for human sin. He made the point that Christian virtue was founded in the moral nature of humans, defined by the love of God, love of Christ, and moral living.

The Baltimore sermon did not settle simmering arguments, but brought them to a boil. The controversies raged for 25 years. New England churches continued to split along theological lines. (The American Unitarian Association was established in 1825.)

Within two decades of Channing’s talk, one-quarter of Massachusetts Standing Order churches were openly Unitarian.

Related Notes

Some notable Unitarians went on to develop in 1840 as Transcendentalists, who believed in the individual’s direct experience of the divine, unity with nature, and religious duty to provide witness to social issues of the day.

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • William Cullen Bryant
  • Louisa May Alcott
  • Margaret Fuller
  • prominent abolitionists
  • early supporters of women’s rights
  • social reformers in education and mental health

After the Civil War the Unitarians and Universalists followed similar paths in thinking around evolution and science. Many Unitarians developed — especially at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis — a humanism approach, which placed human welfare solely in human hands. Universalists remained primarily Christian, but were open to insights from other world religions.

During World War II, Unitarians founded a group to aid those in European who were escaping Nazism, and eventually joined in efforts to support the establishment of the United Nations.

In 1961, the Unitarians and Universalists combined into the UUA. Within a few years, 500 UU members went to Selma and Montgomery to participate in the civil rights campaign alongside Martin Luther King Jr. (including several FUS members). Notably, two UU members were killed in that effort: Rev. James Reeb and Viola Gregg Liuzzo.

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BLOG: Who We Are and Who We Have Been (2015)

On February 15, 2015, Rev. Dr. David Breeden delivered a talk at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis about our roots and shoots as a congregation titled “An Accident Called Intelligence: Global Climate Change and Stewardship.” Here are some of the highlights.

Our Roots

“It’s easy to feel hopeless. But this congregation over the years has faced a lot of hopeless situations and often done the impossible.”

  • This congregation grew directly out of the Minneapolis Chapter of an organization called the Liberal League, dedicated to the separation of church of state and freedom of religion. It opposed in 1873 the Comstock Law, passed by the U.S. Congress, to ban from the U.S. mail contraceptives, erotica, sex toys and information about these things. It had previously been a large market, developed during the Civil War. The Liberal League thought the government should not be deciding what was moral and what was not. But it lost that case.
  • The Minneapolis Liberal League spent a great deal of their time reading and discussing Charles Darwin. They invited a Unitarian minister from Madison, Wisconsin to speak on Darwin and after hearing what a convincing speaker he was concerning natural selection, they decided they had to keep him. “Sure,” Henry Simmons said, “I’ll stay, but you’ve got to be a Unitarian church because I’m a Unitarian minister.” So, the Liberal League chapter became a Unitarian congregation in 1881. [Learn more about Unitarian roots here.]

CONGREGATION SIDENOTE: Noted author/journalist Brenda Ueland (1891-1985) was a member of the FUS congregation. She wrote of Dr. Simmons that he was “a wonderfully sweet-natured man and a remarkable scholar, whose sermons were about evolution, history, Matthew Arnold, Emerson and such things.” Brenda’s mother was the first president of the Minnesota League of Women Voters. Brenda is said to have lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn’t want to. She set an international swimming record for people over 80 years old.

  • It was the Comstock Law that was used to suppress the birth control activist Margaret Sanger. That’s why it was at one point illegal for Sanger to speak publicly anywhere but Unitarian churches. So it was that when Sanger was run out of St Paul by an angry mob, she was invited by our Women’s Alliance to speak at First Unitarian Society.
  • In the 1920s there was a kerfuffle over whether or not the Theory of Natural Selection could be taught in Minneapolis Public Schools. This congregation was the leader in getting Darwin into public schools.
  • Women from our Women’s Alliance (guys can join now too) transitioned the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association into the Minnesota League of Women’s Voters after women got the vote.
  • At a time 100 years ago when Vivekananda of the Hindu community could not appear on many segregated train platforms, this congregation asked him to speak. He was a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world and is credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the late 19th century.
  • When Pete Seeger was banned from public performance in the U.S. because he was a Communist—he performed here.
  • In the 1960s in Minnesota it was illegal for gay people to congregate. This congregation had a gay mens support group.
  • Transgender couples support group? The only one in the state meets here.
  • We house MUUSJA—Minnesota UU Social Justice Alliance—free. We have office space of Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice—free. We house the worldwide movement called Sunday Assembly, the so-called “atheist church.” They meet here on Sunday afternoons once a month. Free.
  • Opposing the US invasion of the Philippines back in 1899? OPPOSING the First World War? Being a conscientious objector during the Second World War? Saying there’s no god during the McCarthy Era? (Or any time for that matter.) Refusing to eat Freedom Fries? Believing in single-payer health care?


It’s been a long fight just to be human in this nation if you are in any way “different” . . . and then there’s the fight to be a thinking person. The fact that some of the things we stand for are still a bit dicey . . . that just indicates what it means to be out on the edge.


CONGREGATION SIDENOTE: We were early proponents of marriage equality and transgender rights. In 2016, one of the currently less-than-centric positions taken at FUS is about Compassion & Choices — allowing those facing end-of-life decisions to die with dignity at their choosing.


You remember The Matrix: “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

The people who have made up this congregation have not “believe(d) whatever you want to believe.” They’ve always taken the red pill.

What’s real. What’s true. What’s right . . . matters here. That’s what it’s about.

Our Today

We human beings are still very much tribal animals. National allegiance; political affiliation; sports teams; race; religion; which generation you are; which popular or unpopular singer you listen to; which computer company you buy from . . . there’s an endless list.

… Fifty million Americans have no religious affiliation. Fifteen million of those identify as atheist or agnostic. One third of Americans under thirty have no religious affiliation.

… One advantage we have is that First Unitarian Society declared itself explicitly humanist and post-religious . . . [in 1916]. We have been doing child dedications and weddings and memorial services without invoking any of the gods for nearly a century, if not more.

… My suspicion is that the “butts in pews” measure of congregational success is fast approaching its end. Saving that model is not the point, any more than saving a building has a point other than as a place for people to gather into a tribe dedicated to purposes other than consumerism and identity politics.

The question I ask myself is: What do we offer the world?


Here’s what I hope we offer and I’m going to continue working at it until we do offer it: a post-religious, post-Eurocentric, post-colonial ethics that provides meaning and purpose to individuals, humanity, and the world we live in. People gathering in support of each other. People thinking about the way we act in the world and what we do on this planet. That’s what matters.


“Living the now. Building the future.”

A lot has happened in this congregation. And a lot remains to be seen . . .


QUESTION: One advantage of brick-and-mortar community around ideas is finding inspiration and like-minded energy to recharge each week. Where do you find community around your passions or ‘the impossible’?

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BLOG: Humanism as a Bridge (5/15/16)

This is an excerpt from a talk delivered May 15, 2016 by Rev. David Breeden. It is a good introduction to our humanist focus at First Unitarian Society. Full podcast and text of FUS talks here.

…I like the way the British Humanist Association summarizes humanism. They have three points and the third goes this way: Living things matter more than ideas, including religions, philosophies, differences, and nations.

That’s what makes us good at multi-faith work. My conviction is that a predominately  humanist congregation is a perfect place to explore religions and philosophies NON-judgmentally.

Humanism takes one step back from the religious battles that still rage in our nation and in our world. Ideally, humanism provides a religiously neutral zone in which we can do that work of seeking answers to complex questions. It’s a post- religious space.

Here’s the most important thing for religious liberals to remember: religions are abstractions. They take very different forms according to which cultures they’re in. As you know, London just elected its first Muslim mayor. A majority of Londoners got it, despite the fact that the opposition kept throwing around stereotypes.

In your order of service this morning you’ll see that the writer Aaron Hill also got it back in the 18th century: “I see too plainly custom forms us all. Our thoughts, our morals, our most fixed belief, are consequences of our place of birth.”

…. So, if we’re not planning to bludgeon others into doing what we want, what do we do to change things?

As many of you know, I’m involved with Compassion and Choices, a group lobbying for an individual’s right to end their life when there is no hope of recovery. I preached on the topic last fall. I’ve written letters to the editor. I testified before a state senate hearing; I spoke at the Day of Reason. For a UU Humanist, it’s a no brainer—if I’m on hospice, I want choices concerning my death.

That’s logical. That’s reasonable. What’s the big deal? Well, many (most) religions are against it. I’m on a clergy group bringing other clergy into the coalition for Compassionate Choice. The first thing I ask is if the person agrees that choices at end of life are a good idea. Among the liberal ministers I talk to, “yes” is nearly always the answer. Then I ask: Might you preach a sermon on the topic? The answer is usually “no.” Will you publicly support us in a letter of the editor? “No. Can’t.”

The reality is that individuals understand the need for the legislation. But the institutions they serve either have not reflected on the issue or reject compassion in dying out of hand. Only Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ have come out in support of the issue.

Why bother working with those who disagree with us or who want to avoid the issue entirely? Because in this case we are not asking individuals to change their minds. We are asking individuals to use their influence on their larger denomination. Which brings me to the title of my talk today: “Tolerance, Acceptance, and the Place for Heretics in Multi-faith Relations.”

“Heretic” is from Greek, hairetikos, meaning “able to choose.” If you listen to your own conscience rather than tradition, you’re choosing for yourself. You’re a heretic.

No, the Roman Catholic hierarchy isn’t going to change. But the Episcopalians might. The Presbyterians might. The ELCA Lutherans might. That’s how change happens. It’s slow buy inexorable. We saw it in the fight for gay marriage. We’re seeing it in the fight from transgender rights. It’s what’s happening with Black Lives Matter. And it can happen in the case of end of life choices.

Nothing will change until the vast middle moves toward the progressive edge . . . But: that’s how it’s done.

…Multi-faith work is not easy. But it creates change. That’s the good that staying in the conversation can bring. That’s the method that First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis pursues, as we have for over 100 years—we take one step back from religion in working with those of other faiths and we are the bridge between the religious and secular worlds.

The Principles of Unitarian Universalism require us to concretize our commitments to the inherent worth and dignity of every person; to justice, equity and compassion for all; and to that free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Good mission, difficult to concretize.

… An explicitly humanist congregation such as ours has a slightly different and more focused mission. As I said before, we must bridge the gap between the religious and secular worlds, two groups that don’t tend to speak to one another. Ours is an increasingly multi-faith nation and at the same time an increasingly secular nation. We are here to bridge the gap.

An explicitly humanist congregation must get out the good news that meaning and purpose lie in embracing reason, science, and the humanities. Trusting these are the surest way to further human flourishing and save the planet. Yet we have to leave space for all those alternatives out there—because it’s pointless to be trolls.

As I say each week, we provide a safe place to share dangerous ideas….

This is part of a Humanist blog series that celebrates our roots as a humanist congregation for 100 years. Click here to see highlights from other talks. 

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BLOG: Our Physical and Spiritual Energy Force

We continue our excerpts of the Humanist talks delivered at First Unitarian Society, starting with the founding Humanist minister John Dietrich. He originally delivered this talk on April 14, 1929.

Put a nonliving object in an environment and nothing happens. Put a living object in this environment, and something does happen. Energy, in other words, or life in terms of energy is a creative principle. It has the capacity to start itself; and when it starts, a long series of results transpire. Sometimes these results seem altogether out of proportion to the cause. The electric energy transmitted through a small copper wire is capable of moving a long and heavy train of cars. The energy hidden away in a microscopic atom, we are told, might blow the earth to bits. But the connection between cause and effect here is always real.

Life is energy, by which we mean it is the creator or initiator of movement, change, development. We are different from moment to moment because the life principle is at work within us.

…Steam, electricity, muscular contraction, are not the only forms of power which are moving the world. There is another kind of power — that which we think of as the mental or spiritual life. What it is we do not know. How it works we cannot say. But that it is a reality is a fact we cannot deny.

…Think of the energy that is released by a thought, and how this energy sweeps through the centuries like fire across a parched prairie. “The power of thought,” says Bertrand Russell, “is greater than any other human power . . . . It is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.” Think of the teachings of Socrates, how they have come to human ears in every generation like chords of noble music, lifting men to dreams of beauty and deeds of sacrifice. Take Jesus for example, and think of the changes that have taken place in the world because of the thoughts which have been ascribed to him. Or think of Tolstoy or Voltaire, or Abraham Lincoln or Ingersoll, and the tremendous influence of their thought and the changes brought about in the world as a result of their words.

…It is possible that the words of Socrates might have endured had he not drunk the hemlock; but it is certain that this martyrdom added an incalculable amount of energy to what he taught. So with Jesus. It is hardly likely that his words would have been treasured and elevated had it not been for the deed of heroism which brought his life to a termination. Or as an example of the deed without the word, take John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. What this old man was able to do in the flesh was trivial; he was seized and put out of the way very easily, but what about his spirit? This was a force so great that it moved armies, shook continents, and turned the fide of history. It was more valuable to the northern cause in the Civil War than a hundred regiments. It was true that John Brown’s body lay a mouldering in the tomb; but it was also true that his soul went marching on.

…Is there any one of us who has not met this energy in his own experience as surely as he has felt the shock or seen the illumination of an electric current?

Cannot you remember hearing a word or reading a thought which has transformed your whole life? Have you not encountered some noble deed which has lifted you above the ordinary affairs of life? Have you not met men and women whose personalities have literally poured strength into your lives, so that you have found it possible to do things which you could not do before?

Talk about spiritual life as energy!

Hitherto we have always divided our world into two parts, theologically speaking — the natural and the supernatural, the earth here and the heaven up there, man here on earth and God up there in heaven… The Bible is a sacred book because written by God, while other books are secular because written by men; the church is a sacred institution because supernatural in origin and dealing with spiritual things; while the state is a secular institution because natural in origin and dealing with worldly things; a sermon is a sacred discourse because it deals with heavenly or eternal subjects, while a lecture is a secular discourse because it deals with worldly or temporal subjects. In the same way we have conceived of man’s religious or spiritual life as the problem of conversion or regeneration — that is, the problem of getting rid of the nature of which he was born on the earth and which is therefore “of the earth earthy,” and substituting in its place a new nature which has its origin in heaven, and is therefore heavenly or spiritual.

We see today that there is no such thing as this arbitrary division between natural and supernatural, flesh and spirit. All the spiritual there is, is right here in this world and definitely connected with the flesh. With this standpoint we see how ridiculous and false is the arbitrary between things sacred and things secular. Everything in the human world has come from the life process that is behind. Everything that is a part of the man is a creation of his being and a projection of his spirit. In this sense every thing is neither sacred nor secular but just natural and normal, because it is all the outgrowth of the same thing. Plato is as sacred as the Bible, the state as divine an institution as the church, a sermon no more spiritual because it talks about man’s soul and heavenly mansions than a political address which talks about man’s body and earthly tenements.

Question: Do you agree that the spiritual is inextricably linked to the physical energy that is our individual life as men and women — and that a good Sunday talk is no more spiritual than a good political address? What is a pivotal moment of inspiration that impacted you?

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BLOG: Is the Universe Friendly?

We continue our excerpts of the Humanist talks delivered at First Unitarian Society, starting with the founding Humanist minister John Dietrich. This was re-published as a series compilation that started in the late 1920s.


Our whole system is but a speck of light in the infinite reaches of space.

… To be tumbled out of the unfolding arms of a kindly cosmic purpose into a world where evil and wrong must be faced as real and actual, where there is no fore-ordained triumph for man as the darling of the universe, where all of man’s values must take their chance in a complexity which gives them no final validity or eternal guarantee, is naturally disconcerting to an idealistic person.

… Humanism says: “Let man stand on his own feet and trust his own powers. The universe may not be friendly, but it is not unfriendly either. Rather, it is the natural scene of man’s birth and achievement. It is a place in which to work in a human way, bravely, creatively, gently, wisely.”

We are an inseparable part of the universe. We are not alien children in a strange and foreign land. We are a product, the natural development of its forces and conditions. We were with it when our universe was stardust swinging out in the open spaces… Out of the damp places of the sea, life began to crawl, up through the single-celled amoeba, it passed from form to form — and we were there. Monsters lived in the slime of swamp, fighting, breeding, dying, and then ceased — and we were there… We are a part of the great cosmic process from the very beginning, and we stand today as the sum total of the best it has produced, at least on this planet.

… We are links in the endless chain of life. If we keep it whole and clean and strong, and give it added refinement and power by our efforts, we are potent elements of human destiny.

To discover the way of life and to create and preserve those things which are of value to the enrichment of life in this indifferent universe — this should be our purpose. We should seek those associations which serve to arouse this spirit, stir this aspiration, and consecrate us to the great adventure. This is not a philosophy of despair… it is a philosophy of hope and inspiration. It means that we are making man today… Decade by decade, new and wonderful vistas are unfolding. We are part of a great triumphant procession through time, and the splendor of its distant goal already shines upon our lives and labors. Let us proceed strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Question:  How do you enrich your life in a sometimes indifferent universe in order to arouse your spirit, stir aspiration, consecrate to great adventure?

For deeper conversation, also consider reading this Salon Q&A with Sean Carroll.

“I’ve often thought of science as a special kind of story-telling in ‘assertion mode.’ And the story it tells — involving quivering atoms, swirling galaxies, and evolving organisms — is without a doubt the ‘greatest story ever told.’ But what’s missing from the story is a transcendent source of meaning for our lives. Without such a source — usually said to be God — how can our lives have true meaning? If the ultimate fate of the universe is a state of infinite entropy, then what makes life valuable and worth living? The trick here is ‘true’ meaning. My life has meaning without any supernatural guidance, no matter what anyone else might say about it. The meanings that we finite human beings attribute to our lives are the only kinds of true meanings, because those are the only kinds of meanings there are.”

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BLOG: Evolution and Progress

John Dietrich

In launching this series in 2016, in what feels like a churning time for progressive society, we open with an excerpt of Dietrich’s talk on “Evolution and Progress,” from the compilation The Fathers of Evolution (Pioneer Press, 1927).

A Parallel Universe?

“In the beginning of the 20th century, men began to look back over the last century and feel as Alfred Russell Wallace expressed it in his last book, Social Environment and Moral Progress – the gist of which is that there is no question about the immense advance made in the arts and sciences, especially in the realm of technical knowledge; there is no question about the advance made in the field of inventions or in the contributions to the comforts of life;

but in the existence of misery, of injustice, of human exploitation, of deadening competition, of preparation for war, Mr. Wallace tells us we have not progressed.

“And yet the general optimism of the first decade of this century was quite universal. Of course, the chief emphasis was laid upon the mechanical improvements, but the majority of people really believed in an actual intellectual and moral progress in the life of men and of nations. And people were looking forward at least in a theoretical way to the unity of mankind and believed that the world was almost ready to join hands in the realization of human brotherhood, and that the future of mankind would be happy and peaceful and bright.

“Then came the war with all its tragic events and men seemed to be thrust back into barbarism. The whole world spent nearly five years in a stupendous attempt to destroy almost everything that had been gained in centuries.”

What Is Progress?

“Perhaps the most significant thing about all this discussion of progress in the past is the fact that no one has ever really defined what the word is supposed to mean…”

“Some believe that all the life-saving and life-protecting devices and methods, in addition to those things that make life easy and comfortable, are a sure sign of progress; while others tell us that these things are merely pampering and enfeebling us physically and mentally and morally….

“The socialist sees no signs of progress so long as capitalism holds sway, and thinks of it in terms of a gradual approach toward a socialistic state, while the capitalist looks upon the rise of socialism as a sign of impending doom.

“The militarist sees racial disaster in the growth of pacifism; and the pacifist sees it in the lingering of militarism.

“The critic of birth control swears that our empty cradles mean calamity; and the eugenist sees the calamity in the overcrowded cradles of the poor.

“The Puritan looks upon the statistics of the divorce court as a sure sign of moral degradation; while others see in this the transition toward a higher and better basis of sex relationship.”

I have always liked the definition of progress which I once found in a book by Sigurd Ibsen… He said, “Progress is the realization of the possibilities and demands of our nature.”…

“I do not believe with Herbert Spencer that evolution means eternal progress toward some perfect end… As I look back over the past and survey the progress that has been made, I do not see either an omnipotent power or a cosmic principle at work; I see only the determined effort of human beings…

“Our trust in some outside power that will achieve the progress of humanity is shattered forever. That perfect order of things which for centuries men believed God was to produce for us in another world, we ourselves must produce in this world…

And I believe in progress because of my faith in the powers of human nature, in its ability to do almost anything once it wakes up to a consciousness of that ability.”

Question:  How do you define progress?


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