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.”
… 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:
- There is the conservative who thinks that the old garments of society are a perfect fit and should be continued in their present for;
- 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;
- 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.