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Humanism, the Early Church, and Rational Religion
The appeal of Christianity in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages was related
to a corresponding shift in cultural emphasis—a movement from reason
to emotion and revelation. Offering comforting and simplistic solutions
to the existential problems of life and death, revealed religion and
mysticism demonstrated a greater capacity to stir human hearts than
reason did. Classical Humanism (Hellenism) had invented the tools of
rational thought, science, and democracy, but the power of mythical
(Eastern) religion was never entirely subdued. By the Late Roman Empire,
science and philosophy were unable to compete with mysticism and myth.
Unfortunately for the Church Fathers, the Bible did not say what they wanted
to hear when read as written (Jesus was too Jewish). Concepts that
contradict reason, such as Original Sin and the Trinity, do not even
exist in the Bible and were never mentioned by Jesus. Many believed (and
still do) that revelation must overrule reason. But by rejecting all
humanism and reason, they rejected not only all learning, science, and
freedom, but Jesus’ message of love, as well as his humanity. The end
result was the Dark Ages.
The West today seems to be going through a similar cycle. New Age religion,
the occult, and other pseudo-religious systems, along with the usual
Eastern religions, have gained ground, while Christian conservatives and
Secular Humanists battle it out for control. The delicate balance of
classical humanism (also known as Hellenism) and Judeo-Christian
thought, the basis of civilized society in the West, is under assault.
Christianity and Classical Humanism must balance or we are threatened by
the very irrational forces that plunged the West into the Dark Ages.
To better understand the conflict today in the Western World, we must look
at the origins of this conflict. If we get beyond the culture wars and
all of the attacks, a startling pattern begins to emerge.
Humanism is a doctrine, attitude, or way of life that is centered on human
interests or values and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and
capacity for self-realization through reason. It was first developed in
ancient Greece and Rome. It is no coincidence that many of our legal
codes go back to Rome and many scientific and technical terms and ideas
back to ancient Greece. But Greece in particular has influenced
philosophy, which celebrates reason. We use the term Classical Humanism
to refer to the humanism of this early period.
Four influential Classical Humanists were Plato, Zeno,
Epicurus, and Aristotle. Plato promoted Idealism, the theory that the
essential nature of reality lies in consciousness or reason. Stoicism
was founded by Zeno, who greatly stressed ethics, and the Stoic schools
attracted many adherents in Greece and later in Rome, such as Marcus
Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Zeno claimed that everything exists in
Nature, and that Nature itself is a controlling intelligence (an early
form of pantheism). Epicurus followed the atomic theory and materialism
of Democritus. He rejected supernatural concepts — if there are gods,
he said, they are made out of the same stuff as the rest of us. The
prime good was pleasure, but a pleasure akin to Buddhist tranquility.
Aristotle contributed much to our understanding of science and human
nature. He saw mind and matter (body/soul) as inseparable and the
universe as a scale lying between the two extremes: form without matter
is on one end, and matter without form is on the other end. The passage
of matter into form must be shown in its various stages in the world of
nature. Everything in nature has its end and function, and nothing is
without its purpose. Everywhere we find evidences of design and
Though diverse, Classical Humanists were united in their belief that
individual worth came from the individual's capacity to reason, which
could shape character and life according to rational standards.
Despite all of their learning, science, and philosophy, Greece and Rome did
not achieve a higher moral standard. Both were brutal slave states.
Sexual perversion, including incest and pedophilia, was wide spread.
Unwanted children and infants were left to die in the countryside to be
eaten by dogs or starve to death. Reason alone does not create a moral
society and often reduces humans to little more than objects. God may be
either abstract, or uninterested in the world, or just a facet of
nature. Fortunately, God would become a significant part of humanistic
thinking later on.
Christianity and Classical Humanism:
Christianity and Classical Humanism together are the two principal
components of the Western tradition. The value that modern Western
civilization places on the individual derives from a balance of both
Classical Humanism and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christian Humanism
embraces both a God centered world-view and classical learning and
In the Late Roman Empire, classical values were in decay, and Christianity
was a dynamic and creative movement possessing both institutional and
spiritual strength. For these reasons, Christianity survived the fall of
Rome. Because it retained elements of Greco-Roman civilization and
taught a high morality, Christianity served as a civilizing agent in the
centuries that followed Rome's collapse. Indeed, Christianity was the
essential shaper of the European civilization that emerged in Medieval
Christianity and Classical Humanism represent two essentially different
world-views. Christianity inherited the Jewish view of the overriding
importance of God for humanity: God makes life intelligible and
purposeful. For the Christian, God is a living being, loving and
compassionate, in whose company one seeks to spend eternity; one knows
God essentially through faith and feeling. The Greek philosophers had
developed a pantheistic conception of God that was incompatible with the
God of Jews and Christians.
For the Greek, God was a logical abstraction, a principle of order, the
supreme good, the highest truth; God was a concept, impersonal,
unfeeling, and uninvolved with human concerns. The Greeks approached God
through the intellect, not the heart; they neither loved nor worshiped
God. In addition, because religion was at the periphery, not the center,
of Classical Humanism, the idea of God did not carry as much
significance as it did for Christianity. Classicism held that there was
no authority higher than reason, while Christianity teaches that without
God as the starting point, knowledge is useless and prone to error.
The triumph of the Christian outlook signified a break with the essential
meaning of Classical Humanism. In the classical world, the political
community was the avenue to justice, happiness, and self-realization. In
early Christianity, the good life was not identified with worldly
achievement, but with life eternal, and the ideal commonwealth could
only be one that was founded and ruled by Christ. Christianity pointed
to the end of the ancient world and the beginning of an age of faith
It was entrance into God's kingdom that each person
must make the central aim of life. With the victory of Christianity,
In the classical world, history had no ultimate end or meaning. The
Christian view of history is filled with spiritual meaning as
individuals struggle to overcome their sins to gain eternal happiness in
heaven. History began with Adam and Eve's defiance of God and would end
when Christ returns to earth to eradicate evil and when God's will
Classical Humanism held that ethical standards were laws of nature that
reason could discover. Through reason, individuals could arrive at
values to regulate their lives and obtain happiness. Reason would enable
them to govern desires and regulate behavior. Individuals would seek
what was best for them and obey the "voice of reason."
Christianity in the Middle Ages, on the other hand, maintained that
ethical standards emanated from the personal will of God. Without
obedience to God's commands, people would remain wicked forever; the
human will, essentially sinful, could not be transformed by the
promptings of reason. Only when individuals turned to God for
forgiveness and guidance would they find the inner strength to overcome
their sin. People could not perfect themselves through just scientific
knowledge alone. Spiritual insight and belief in God must serve as the
foundation of our lives. For classicism, the ultimate good was sought
through thought and action; for Christianity, ultimate good comes
through knowing and loving God.
Early Attempts at Christian Humanism
Christian thinkers respected some aspects of Greek philosophy and did not
seek to eradicate entirely the intellectual heritage of Greece. Rather,
they wanted to form it into a Christian framework. By preserving the
Greek philosophical tradition, Christian thinkers performed a task of
immense historical significance.
Earliest Christianity placed great value on individuals. It taught that God
cares for each of us and wants us to behave righteously. Jesus Christ
died for all because God loves humanity and wants all to attain
salvation. Early Christianity espoused active love and genuine concern
for all people. With God people can undergo a moral transformation and
become loving, good, and free of sin. These elements of Christian
teaching coincided with emphasis on individuality found in Classical
Christianity adopted Plato’s concept of Dualism, which made a separation
between the mental and the physical realms, and led to the later
(neo-Platonic) theory that the Universe contains two different
substances: material substance and mind/spirit. Here soul as a piece of
the spirit is trapped in the material world, often considered corrupt.
Platonism had begun as a form of pantheism, but Philo of Alexandria
(first century AD) stripped out the pantheism and created a fusion of
the Jewish God, Greek Stoicism, and Neo-Platonism. In Stoicism as it
developed after the 4th century BC, the Logos is conceived of as a
rational divine power that orders and directs the universe; it is
identified with God, nature, and fate. The Logos is "present
everywhere" and seems to be understood as both a divine mind and at
least a semi-physical force, acting through space and time. Philo was a
direct influence on the writer of the Gospel of John, who developed the
concept of a Logos, a divine mediator (savior) between God and humans.
Neo-Platonism was favored by the Catholic Church into the Middle Ages
and was an influence on St. Augustine, who in turn greatly influenced
Calvin and Luther.
Attacks on Humanism in Christianity
When Alexander the Great conquered Judea in 332 BC and
went all the way to India, he opened the door to Eastern religion into
the West. Later Rome’s vast system of roads and commerce enabled the
Apostle Paul and anyone else to spread their
Gnosticism was a religion of spiritual knowledge, not a “church” as many
have tried to define it. It was a broad mixture of Eastern religion, the
occult and mystery religions, pantheism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism,
Egyptian religions, astrology, Greek philosophy, and Christianity. It
created scores of cults and it varied almost from individual to
individual. It emphasized “spiritualism” and “intuition” over
reason and tradition. Gnostics not only mixed together all kinds of
beliefs and philosophies, but also reinterpreted traditional teachings
into meanings (allegory) the original writers could never have intended.
Though eventually condemned as a heresy, Gnosticism had a tremendous
influence on Christianity. While Judaism believed in a direct
relationship between God and man, Gnosticism, drawing on Greek
Platonism, believed God was so remote a divine mediator was needed to
bridge the gap. Christian dogma incorporates Platonic mysticism and
spiritual speculation along with elements of Stoicism and Gnosticism.
Christian monasticism is patterned after practices from Eastern
religion. Zoroastrian Cosmic Dualism, which taught that a good God and
an evil God are in constant conflict, was meshed with Plato’s
dualistic concept and resulted in the widespread belief that everything
spiritual was good and everything material was evil. Thus those aspects
of life related to physical pleasure, like food and sex, were seen as
evil. This concept stands in contrast to the description of creation in
Genesis, where God calls everything “good.” This thinking gave rise
to Manicheanism, which for a time became a world religion. It was an
enormous influence on St. Augustine and his views on sin.
Egalitarian Christianity, which emphasized the individual, gave way to
hierarchical Christianity, which emphasized the institution. After the
Council of Nicaea in 325, Christianity became an instrument of power and
control. Individual interpretation was outlawed as heresy. For a
thousand years (about 450 AD to 1450 AD), the theocentric outlook would
define the Western mentality. It was a time of little learning, gross
superstition, and religious intolerance. The church went to extremes
rejecting humanism and reason alike. Revelation must overrule reason,
even that of the Bible itself.
By rejecting humanism in any form, the Christians of this time also rejected
Jesus and His moral teachings. What little that was left of the humanity
of the real Jesus became only a mere shadow.
Rational Religion and the Reemergence of
During the period of the Italian Renaissance, an awakening began to stir in
Europe. Aristotle greatly influenced medieval thinkers in Christianity
(St Thomas Aquinas and Scholasticism), Judaism (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon,
also known as Maimonides or Rambam), and Islam (Avicenna, Averroes,
etc.). These thinkers laid the foundation for the Italian Renaissance
and the rational religious movements of Christian Unitarianism (via
Michael Servetus, etc.), Deism, Quakerism, and later Reform Judaism (via
The Reformation led to the open questioning of religious authority and
scripture. This rejection of authority generally led to advancements in
scientific thought, empiricism, critical thinking and reason. The two
earliest movements would be Unitarianism and Deism, both a reaction to
Calvin’s extremist Reform Theology (called Puritanism in England).
Jesus would be reborn, and his moral teachings would finally take center
stage from Calvin's angry god. When Christians began to examine the
Bible, they found many of the claims of the official Church were false.
There was no real support for the Trinity; Jesus never mentioned
original sin. In the 17th century, as a result of freer inquiry,
Christian denominations continued to proliferate, as did the persecution
Unitarianism in various forms emerged across Europe and was ruthlessly
suppressed. The most notable early Unitarian was Michael Servetus
(1511-1553). Among his most noted works were De
Trinitatis Erroribus in 1531 and Dialogues
on the Trinity in 1532, which drew attention to the
irrationality of the Trinity doctrine.
In 1553, after Servetus published Chriatianismi
Restitutio, he was condemned to death at Vienna and burned at the
stake at Geneva, October 27.
In Poland, Socinus (d. 1603) united all the Antitrinitarian factions in
1588. This Unitarianism (called Socinianism) survived for about 100
years in Kracow (Racov) before being stamped out by the Catholic Church.
Many Socinians escaped to Holland, some to Transylvania, while some
converted to Judaism or back to Catholicism. Socinianism set the stage
for later Unitarians. They were notable for religious tolerance, belief
in Jesus as human, and placing higher priority on the Gospels than on
Paul. In their view, all religious authority depended on applying reason
to Scripture. They rejected the following doctrines as false: original
sin, predestination of the elect, the inherent depravity of human
beings, and eternal damnation. Their printing press produced the most
feared and burned books in Christian Europe.
In Transylvania Unitarianism would be founded by Francis David (1510-1579).
For about three years under King John Sigismund, we had a Unitarian
nation. Unlike what happened in Poland, the Ottoman Turks (Muslims that
also protected Jews) prevented the Catholic Church from wiping out the
Unitarians. Transylvania in general became isolated from the West until
Unitarians in England and Transylvania found each other in 1821.
In England Unitarianism got off to a bad start. Most notable is John Bidle
(1615-1662), who looked to reason, rather than tradtion, for guidance,
and ended up dying in prison while others like him were burned at the
Richard Hooker (1554-1600) was the premier Anglican theologian standing
against Calvinism. He placed reason above scripture trying to curtail
rampant superstition and religious intolerance alike.
Another heretic was Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), who wrote "History of the World"
while in prison between 1613 and 1616 for treason and questioned the
story of Noah's Ark. Although he was often accused of being an atheist,
he was actually a Deist. Raleigh wrote an essay called "The
Skeptick," which said, "The skeptick doth neither affirm nor
deny any position but doubteth of it, and applyeth his Reason against
that which is affirmed, or denied, to justify his non-consenting."
He was beheaded in 1618 for treason on other charges.
It is not really clear where the lines between Unitarianism, Arianism
(belief in Jesus as a pre-existent divine being, but not as God) and
English Deism should be drawn. John Locke was an Arian, but was close
friends with Isaac Newton, a Unitarian. However, Locke’s Reasonableness
of Christianity (1695) makes Locke sound like a Deist. Locke
knew the first of the English Deists, Lord Herbert of Cherbury
(1582-1648), and was friends with Deist Anthony Collins (1676-1729).
Deism is badly misunderstood. Deism was a reaction to church conflict and
infighting that sought a common ground. Once the controversy between
Anglicans and Puritans subsided and Unitarianism and Arminianism
moderated Christian thought, Deism was absorbed into the fringes of
The ideas of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), physicist and
philosopher, helped popularize scientific Deism. Only when it was
exported to France and stripped of its theistic roots (belief in an
afterlife, punishment for sin, and divine providence) French
In America Unitarianism emerged from the Congregational Churches of New
England in response to the Great Awakening of 1740. Thomas Jefferson,
often considered a Deist, called himself a Unitarian. Jefferson
considered Jesus human, but held him in highest regard as a moral
example. Jefferson’s friends included English Unitarian Joseph
Priestley (1735-1804), whom he encouraged to immigrate to America.
After George Fox (1624-1691) was imprisoned for forming the Society of
Friends (Quakers), many of his followers emigrated from Europe to
America in an effort to escape persecution. Fox objected to political
and religious authority and opposed war and slavery. Fox was imprisoned
several times for interrupting and rebuking a minister, and for
blasphemy. The Society of Friends continued to grow while Fox helped
lobby for the Act of Toleration, which passed in 1689.
William Penn (1644-1718), who founded Pennsylvania in 1681, was another
famous Quaker who had been imprisoned for his views, and who helped pass
the Act of Toleration. Many Quakers opposed the doctrine of the Trinity
and religious formalism, and emphasized pacifism and socially
progressive issues, such as the protection of the Native Americans and
the improvement of prison conditions. The Society of Friends was the
first Christian denomination to give women equal rights with men within
the church. Modern Quakers are located mostly within the United States,
where the Hicksite sect, founded later on in the 19th century,
especially embraces humanism.
Penn, along with Roger Williams (1604-1683) introduced the concept of
separation of church and state in America. Roger Williams was a Puritan
minister, who described himself as a "Seeker" after the true
church. He opposed Rev. John Cotton's concept of a Christian theocracy.
Cotton's state of Massachusetts punished the following crimes by death:
blasphemy, idolatry, witchcraft, heresy, and worshipping a graven image;
he proposed banishment of anyone who disagreed with the established
church. Roger Williams was banished, but escaped. He became impressed
with the religious tolerance of the Native Americans. He wrote "The Bloody Tenet of
Persecution," which argued that everyone had the natural
right of religious liberty. A great deal of Deism seems to run among
Quakers, and one Quaker son, Thomas Paine, wrote The Age of
Reason to refute the violence of atheism.
The Society of Friends (Quakers) was one of the first religious groups to
speak out against slavery. Another was the Mennonites of Germantown,
Pennsylvania who adopted a resolution challenging slavery in 1688.
Some white churches were using the Bible as "proof"
that the black race was cursed and that slavery brought them
"within the reach of God's grace." This view was rejected by
John Wesley, and the Methodists in general, along with Unitarians and
Quakers. Evangelical Christians in Great Britain eventually joined the
abolitionist movement, but not until 1787 when they joined with the
Quakers in the formation of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave
The Philosophes, Enlightenment thinkers who believed in human progress, were
also active in various social causes. Condorcet, in particular, was a
French Philosophe active in the movement against slavery. Marie Jean
Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) spoke out
against organized religion and superstition, as well as slavery, and was
active in promoting religious toleration. He promoted the use of reason,
democracy and especially the idea of human progress and perfectibility.
He advocated the use of the social sciences to implement a liberal
democracy that would increase human progress. One problem with French
secularism is that it led to the violence and terror of the French
Revolution and anything but freedom and tolerance. Many of the French
Philosophes were religious bigots or led debauched private lives.
William Pitt (1759-1806), the twice Prime Minister of Great Britain, also
spoke out against slavery and in favor of equal rights for Catholics.
However, his measures failed to pass. British statesman Charles James
Fox (1749-1806) was more successful. He ensured passage of a law
abolishing slavery and helped repeal laws that discriminated against
In the U.S., Thomas Paine, whose Age of
Reason helped popularize American Deism, wrote an article called
"African Slavery in America," condemning the practice of
Secular (“Religious”) Humanism
Corliss Lamont defines modern humanism as "a naturalistic philosophy
that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and
science, democracy and human compassion." It’s another term for
atheism. There are two sub-categories. If considered a philosophy,
it’s called Secular Humanism and if considered a religion, Religious
Humanism (even though God plays no role whatsoever). They are identical.
Secular or Religious Humanism claims to have its roots in the Enlightenment,
also known as the Age of Reason, and in the movements of the Unitarians,
Quakers and Deists, as well. This suggestion is questionable.
Secular Humanism is a product of 19th century Ethical Culture and 20th
century Unitarian Universalism that invaded and undermined Unitarian
churches. This nation's founders would never have identified with the
Secular/Religious Humanism of today. It was the belief in God, held by
the enlightened Christians and Deists, that ended slavery and brought
religious freedom, not non-theistic secular humanism. Reason makes us
all human, and God makes it worth being human.
If we truly wish to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers of the Age of
Reason, we should practice religious tolerance, but not religious and
moral relativism disguised as tolerance (which ends up being less
tolerant in many ways). We must make clear and unambiguous moral choices
and stand by them, not play political correctness. Unitarians have a
great challenge and a great opportunity. We are not atheists. We have
only one God, the God of Jesus, God the Father. We maintain the basic
beliefs of our forefathers. Jesus and His teachings are the basis of our
faith and lead us to make wise choices. Finally, we must reach out and
present the alternative for liberal Christians, Deists, Jews, and
Muslims that want a belief in God, but are fed up with fundamentalism on
the one hand, or having to embrace leftist and secular politics they
disagree with on the other. God is not a Democrat or Republican.
Moreover, as in Late Antiquity, spiritualism is on the rise. The West again
has been flooded with new forms of Gnosticism in the form of Eastern and
New Age religion, which deemphasize reason. Equally threatening to the
use of reason are earth-worshipping pantheism, sometimes disguised as
environmentalism, and Islamic fascism. The reaction against these, at
least in America, has been a growing fundamentalist backlash, which can
be just as unreasonable.
It is time Unitarianism stands for something again, and the formation of the
American Unitarian Conference is a good first step. Let’s not fall
back into the same mistake Christianity did in Late Antiquity by turning
our back on reason, or lose the firm monotheistic foundation that adds
the necessary moral element that gives value and impetus to that reason.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP)
Our Unitarian Heritage (1925)
by Earl Morse Wilbur
At the Origins of English Rationalism by
History of Western Civilization by
Apostle Paul, Founder of Christianity by
© 2004 American Unitarian Conference™