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?

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