The Quiet Exodus: Where Have All The Humanists Gone?

This essay by Pat Duffy Hutcheon was submitted to the UU World in about 1995, but not accepted for publication.

KEY TERMS: Unitarian Universalism -- naturalistic humanism -- mysticism -- explanations -- transcendentalism

During the past year I attended two Humanist conferences: one in Canada and the other in the United States. I met a surprisingly large number of former Unitarian Universalists at both. All had left our churches or fellowships in recent years, and all for similar reasons. They had left not because our ministers are now seldom exposed during their training to instructors who are humanists; nor because these students are no longer required to read the great classics of philosophical naturalism; nor because scientifically oriented agnostics seem no longer to be entering our ministry or congregations; nor because the humanist perspective is seldom expressed knowledgeably in our pulpits: although all this does appear to be the case. No, there was another reason: a reason overwhelmingly cited by these people for their regretful departure from a beloved community. It was something they saw as far more serious than simply the neglect and ignorance of the humanist strand in Unitarian Universalism on the part of many of the younger ministers. They described the problem, instead, as the increasing dominance of mysticism in sermons and among the congregations.

Why should members who are naturalistic humanists find the increasingly mystical orientation of Unitarian Universalism offensive -- so offensive, in fact, that they feel unable to continue their association with us? Perhaps we should ask instead why humanists have always believed that mysticism poses a danger to humanity. Michel de Montaigne, registering words of warning in another age of social disintegration, thought that mysticism represents an attempt to escape from the problems and limitations of the human condition. Of the illusion that we can "know" what is beyond human sense experience, he exclaimed, "How absurd! To make the handful bigger than the hand is impossible and unnatural. Nor can the ...[human] raise himself above himself; for he can only see with his own eyes, and seize only with his own grasp."1 In a later century, Freud made similar comments. When attacked for being critical of mysticism, he responded that to be tolerant of claims not amenable to the test of reason and observation is a betrayal of humanity.

Perhaps George Santayana best expressed the humanist's opinion about the mystic's goal of shortcutting language and reason in order to achieve the immediacy of "Oneness with the Universe". He wrote: "The immediate is not God but chaos; its nothingness is pregnant, restless and brutish; it is that from which all things have emerged... so to lapse into it again is a dull suicide, and no salvation".2 Elsewhere he said that mysticism "sinks so completely into the subjective commotion as to mistake the suspension of all discriminating and representative faculties for a true union of things, and the blur of its own ecstasy for a universal glory."3

Bertrand Russell told how he had once felt the seductive pull of mysticism. In explaining the source of its attraction he concluded that, "the beliefs it inspires are often bad ones but the feelings are good ones."4 Julian Huxley (whose brother, Aldous was a mystic) thought long and hard about the subject. He became convinced that "the mystic experience is on a lower plane than logical thought or moral effort -- for it generally substitutes images for concepts, and is also in many ways a wish-fulfillment rather than a wrestling with fact."5

The journalist, William Shirer, in his diary of August, 1934, described clearly and devastatingly what mysticism can lead to. "There in the floodlit night, one massive formation, the little men of Germany, who have made Nazism possible, achieved the highest state of being ...; the shedding of their individual souls and minds -- with the personal responsibilities and doubts and problems -- until under the mystic lights and at the sound of the magic words of the Austrian, they were merged completely."6 He reported that no one, obviously, in that brown mass was in a mood to be analytical. (Of course they were not, for analysis -- in combination with empirical observation -- is the method of science, and the antithesis of that mystical Romantic Idealism which was to serve Hitler so well!)

Modern humanists tend to agree with their intellectual forebears that mysticism is not only fruitless but inherently destructive of human progress. And they agree that it is not in the fact that mysticism holds out the promise of an alternative source of intellectual and spiritual satisfaction to that offered by science that the danger lies. All human beings seek explanations that satisfy, and it is possible that the scientific one feels uncomfortable for some people some of the time. For humanists, the problem with the mystical explanation goes far beyond a mere difference in taste. We believe that mysticism is a threat to human culture not only because it circumvents the careful observation and analysis necessary for effective problem solving (which it does) -- but because it cripples curiosity!

The findings of modern science have made us even more aware than were earlier humanists of the importance of the innate curiosity shared by all animals. In humans this evolved into a drive to understand what we experience. It is the source of all progress in knowledge building and cultural evolution. Without it human beings would still be living in caves. When we sense a contradiction between our established beliefs and new experience, curiosity drives us to ask the question, "What is really going on here?". We look for new and better explanations: ones that will resolve the conflicts and thereby satisfy our curiosity.

But the kind of explanations that satisfy us is culturally determined. Mystically inclined cultures tend to produce people who prefer the certainty of untestable beliefs, and who are able to live happily with logical contradiction. For this they need the assurance of being surrounded by an unfathomable mystery accessible only to the initiated or singularly gifted. The explanations that satisfy such people are essentially magical in nature. That is, they rely on sources of truth that are beyond ordinary sense experience and therefore cannot be verified. They imagine various superhuman Spirits -- or infinite transcendental entities like a Universal Mind or Consciousness -- and then bequeath to their creations an absolute and arbitrary power to interfere in nature.

Would biology ever have got off the ground if we had been satisfied with the explanation that birds are guided in flight and in nest building by communication from a transcendental Mind? And how likely is progress in social science for any society that imagines behavior is caused by mysterious messages from beyond the range of the senses? Today's humanist UUs would agree with Karl Popper, who said that the one thing which most threatens the continued evolution of reliable knowledge, in any age, is the prevalence of mysticism. We believe that, for the individual, acceptance of the magical explanation marks the end of inquiry, and therefore the end of intellectual and spiritual development. For the culture as a whole it signifies the end of science and of that ongoing cultural evolution for which the individual problem solver has been the engine throughout the course of history.

This is why humanists conclude that the New Age mysticism of so many of our current ministers is profoundly harmful to our members and destructive of any potential leadership role for our denomination in the larger culture. We would like to see the pervasive influence of this latest revival of Emersonian transcendentalism balanced by a much stronger dedication to the other two major strands within our movement. Our denomination needs renewed input from liberal theists committed to reason and to the authority of science in the tradition of William Ellery Channing and Albert Schweitzer. And we need a greater recognition of the defining role within Unitarian Universalism of the philosophy of naturalism -- from its roots in the Renaissance Humanism of Erasmus (which inspired our founders and martyrs) to the analytical-empirical problem-solving approach of modern science.

  1. Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Trans. Donald M. Frame. (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1958), p.457.
  2. George Santayana, The Life of Reason. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1955), p.5.
  3. Ibid., p.65.
  4. Bertrand Russell, The Wisdom of Bertrand Russell. (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1968), p.61.
  5. Julian Huxley, Religion Without Revelation. (New York, NY: Harpers Brothers, 1957), p.151.
  6. William Shirer, Berlin Diary. (New York, NY: 1942), p.21.