Humanism and The Tradition of Dissent

Because evangelical Christians have wrapped themselves so securely in the banners of Wycliffe’s spiritual rebellion, and have taken his biblicism as their intellectual redoubt, freethinkers have neglected to recognize their own inheritance in a social and libertarian movement that contained a radical as well as a conservative wing. The fundamentalist-tending biblicism of the conservative separatists was paralleled by the anti-authoritarian “spirituals,” who despite their subjectivity and extravagant fantasy succeeded in eventually making personal experience and the informed conscience the seat of moral and religious authority. While conscience was initially “informed” or illuminated by a supernatural light, as in the doctrine of the Quakers, this was the launching of a steady and inevitable historical glide into the free flight of the (intuitive) sense of the right. By the time of Winstanley, three and a half centuries ago, the preoccupation of the radical tradition was clearly turning from heaven to earth, from theology to sociology – or rather to a secular theology of class liberation in the here and now. Crushed at the end of the Commonwealth, these dreams rose to live again in the century that produced the Enlightenment and the revolutions in America and France.

Humanists, who have done well in cultivating their classical heritage from Greece, the Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment, might look more closely and sympathetically at what might be called the maternal side of the ancestral family.

In recovering that historical identity as our own, humanists can gain a sense of institutional continuity with the culture in which we live. Without that identity, as humanists, we remain “outsiders,” disinherited progeny alienated from their past and therefore lacking the cohesive powers to unite sufficiently, even among themselves, to build future community.

Our destiny involves recognizing that Jefferson and his circle laid the foundation upon which contemporary American humanism stands, continuous with a moral and intellectual tradition that has wended its course over nearly a thousand years to arrive at a principle of freedom that is beyond mere tolerance or “Christian liberty,” an inherent right to be free that, as Jefferson and his compatriots conceived it, is ours by virtue of the conjunction of our social and rational natures. The way we proceed to justify rationally the ground of that right may have changed as science and philosophy have changed, but we remain within a tradition that has worked its way relentlessly to a more adequate way of addressing the two interrelated questions that remain for us the key issues of life itself: personal liberty and the social good. In the tradition that asks those questions and answers them in a historically distinct way, we find the elements of our “second nature,” building blocks with which we can construct the institutions of a surviving community.

Edward L. Ericson has been a member of the American Humanist Association for twenty years and is still finding new and creative ways to promote nontheistic humanist thinking.  He got his start as a college student in 1949, and with encouragement from the AHA’s executive director at the time, Dr. Edwin Wilson, he attended the Star King School for Ministry.  After graduation, he served Unitarian congregations for several years before joining the Ethical Culture Movement, where he served as a leader for the Washington and New York Ethical Societies for twenty-five years– and was president of the American Ethical Union–before retiring to write full-time.

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