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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