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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