Project of IISHJ

Unitarians and Humanistic Jews

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1979, (vol. 7 no. 3, p5-8)


How are we the same? How are we different?

Many people ask me whether Humanistic Jews are nothing more than Unitarians who like Jewish holidays.

The question is not totally absurd. After all, Humanistic Jews and Unitarians get along very well together. They share many causes. They are comfortable at each other’s services. Some Humanistic Jews are even members of Unitarian fellowships.

However, there are important distinctions. In order for me to explain them, I will have to give you some background in Unitarian history and Unitarian doctrine.

The following events have contributed to Unitarian existence.

The Christ controversy. Many early Christians believed that Christ was a lesser god than Yahveh and did not deserve equal honor. They were named after a Greek heretic and were called Arians. In later years many nations rebelling against Roman rule adopted their cause to justify rebellion. In time the Arians were defeated. But their ideology lingered in the theological underground.

The Protestant Reformation. In Hungary and Poland the Protestant Reformers were more radical than anywhere else. Since their rulers were diverted by the threat of Turkish invasion, they found unusual freedom in these backward nations. Many of them, in their zeal to live by the Bible alone went farther than the Arians and refused to regard Christ as divine. They declared him human and denied him worship. Because they now denounced the idea of the Trinity, three gods united as one, they called themselves Unitarians. Still regarding Jesus as their chief prophet, they saw themselves as devout Christians. Ultimately, because of government persecution, they were confined to Dracula country, the mountains of Hungarian Transylvania.

The Anglosaxon Enlightenment. In the eighteenth century the progress of reason and science produced a dissenting minority among English Protestants. Turning from faith to reason, they found evangelical Christianity as distasteful as ritualistic Catholicism. In an environment of new civil liberties, many Presbyterians turned their churches into Unitarian chapels. Their connection with their Hungarian comrades was in name alone. English Unitarians tended to downplay Jesus and to emphasize their universal beliefs, which were rational and more than Christian. Their ideas spread abroad to the English colonies in North America primarily Massachusetts. In New England many Puritan churches, their old faith subverted by the Enlightenment, turned themselves into Unitarian churches. The Arian heresy in America became a discreet rational faith with a perfunctory God and with a diminishing interest in Jesus. William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson became the heroes of this new approach.

Freethinking and rationalism. By the middle of the nineteenth century rational philosophy yielded the freethinker, who was committed wholeheartedly to the scientific method and who dismissed the idea of God as either useless or superstitious. Starting in the 1800’s many Unitarian clergymen were seduced by freethinking. Inspired by the Ethical Culture of Felix Adler who preferred morality without God and by the bold ideas of the scientific revolution, they gradually shifted the religious discussion from Christian theism to rational humanism. With the decline of the Ethical Culture movement, many Unitarian ministers openly courted the humanist market. Dietrich of Minneapolis and Reece of Des Moines were pioneers in this movement. The traditional Unitarians were so weak and demoralized that they were unable to expel these rebels from their movement. The church that had been established to defend the pure divinity of God had now become the home for avowed atheists and agnostics.

Hostility to established denominations. The dogmatism of established religions, both Protestant and Catholic, produced a stream of refugees. Some of them became professional anticlericals and turned away from organized religion. Others yearned for some kind of religious connection that would involve no outer creedal commitment. The Unitarian church became the ideal home for the second kind of refugee. Because it was trying to arbitrate between Christian theists and scientific humanists, the leadership found it convenient to avoid stated beliefs and to emphasize the principle of individual freedom of choice. Those fleeing clerical oppression found that principle attractive.

Intermarriage. Since most religious groups disapproved of intermarriage, intermarried couples found themselves ostracized from organized religion. Conversion to one side or the other seemed arbitrary and without dignity. Since the Unitarians had a Christian history but no visible Christian symbols or creeds, they became especially convenient for Jewish-Christian unions.

Christian nostalgia. Since religion grows out of ethnic and family loyalty, Anglosaxon Christians who could no longer accept the formulations of their parent churches still yearned for some way to celebrate Christmas and Easter and for some procedure to put their children in touch with Christian mythology. The Unitarian experience allowed them this indulgence without requiring them to forego their integrity. Many churches have touches of universalism by giving equal time to Confucius Buddha and Mohammed.

The historic roots of Unitarianism have produced a religion with a unique flavor. The taste of the Unitarian experience involves a mixture of the following.

Residual Christianity. The ethnic ambience of Unitarianism is still overwhelmingly Anglosaxon. Its ethnic nostalgia is best expressed around Christmas and Easter. Many churches in New England and all of the churches in England and Transylvania still profess attachments to God, Jesus and the Bible.

An alliance of convenience. Theists and humanists survive in the same denomination. Their separation would be too traumatic for existing congregations. They obviously stick together because their major agenda is not ideological. Like most religious organizations, it has become social and nostalgic.

Disguised humanism. Although the overwhelming majority of American Unitarians are humanists, they choose to call themselves Unitarians. Since the merger with the old Universalist Church which had gradually become a duplicate of the Unitarians they now have the burdensome title Unitarian-Universalist. The name no longer accurately describes those who bear it.

Liberalism. The members of Unitarian churches tend to be leftist in their politics and in their personal orientation.

Although they are recruited from the affluence of the educated managerial class, they tend to endorse personal freedom in life style and more power for oppressed minority groups. Female liberation and Black liberation have been important Unitarian concerns. Since their fervor cannot be directed to prayer and worship, it is often redirected to either social action or group therapy.

As a Humanistic Jew, I find many aspects of Unitarianism attractive.

Its hospitality to humanists, atheists, agnostics and secularists.

Its general indifference to theology and its resistance to theological tyranny.

Its creativity, which has often substituted group celebration and discussion for formal worship.

Its attempt to reconcile the spirit of rational philosophy with the tradition of organized religion.

However, as a Humanistic Jew, I find certain aspects of the Unitarian experience frustrating.

The name is annoying. The label Unitarian-Universalist describes a theological controversy about the nature of God which few Unitarians are interested in. The Unity of God is as meaningless as the Trinity of God. Names are not trivial. They are the bearers of history. Given the present state of the denomination, radical Hungarian Protestants are less the ancestors of the Unitarians than the philosophers and scientists of the last three centuries. The name makes them officially Protestant instead of humanist. The ideological difference is vast.

The principle of affirming no creed is cowardly. Agreeing to disagree is an appropriate principle for society as a whole. It is inappropriate for a religious denomination committed to community celebration and community action. Groups that stand for everything stand for nothing. Or else they deceive. It is quite obvious that devout theists and charismatic mystics would be uncomfortable in a Unitarian setting. They are obviously excluded by an unspoken ideology that prefers rational and humanistic approaches. Denying that one has a creed when indeed one has a functioning system of belief is neither brave nor effective. The Unitarians suffer from the same reluctance that Polydox Jews express. They refuse to openly admit who they are.

The alliance between residual Christians and avowed humanists is inhibiting. Neither side can behave boldly or creatively out of fear of offending the other. The net result for non-theists is a timid humanism that spends more time negotiating with the conservatives than inventing for the liberals. A hymnbook for both Protestants and atheists is not a miracle. It is a disaster.

The Christian nostalgia is inappropriate. If the church wishes to celebrate the ethnic roots of American Anglosaxons, it should do so boldly and more broadly than Protestant models allow. If, however, it desires to be universal, it should strive to develop a format of community celebration that is more than a potpourri of Christian holidays with dabbles of Passover and Buddha’s birthday. It should have its own purely humanist holidays.

On the whole, the positive side of Unitarianism outweighs the negative. As Humanistic Jew, we cannot share our Judaism with Unitarians, because they have no desire to celebrate their ethnic connection with the Jewish community.

But we can share our humanism. We can share our humanistic ideology, our humanistic holidays and celebrations, and our humanistic concerns.

Humanism as a religion transcends Jewish loyalty or Anglosaxon loyalty. It is the way we affirm our membership in the human race. The development of that religion should be a cooperative venture between Humanistic Jews and Unitarians, and among all religious humanists.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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