UU Humanists elect new president, hold day-long conference
On Saturday, more than 100 members and friends of the HUUmanist Association “came home” to the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, the congregation where John Dietrich became known as the “father of religious humanism” during his 1916-1938 ministry.
The day-long Humanist Homecoming conference began with UUA President Peter Morales answering questions during breakfast and concluded ten hours later with the election of John Hooper as the new HUUmanist Association president. More than two dozen speakers and moderators—including Good Without God author Greg Epstein—discussed the past, present, and future of Humanism in the world and in the Unitarian Universalist movement.
The event marked the conclusion of the HUUmanist presidency of David Schafer, who presented an optimistic picture in his opening remarks. “The subtext of this meeting today,” he said, “is that the UUA is changing and UU Humanism is changing, and it has turned the corner in the last year or so.” He pointed to “programs that have been well-attended and well-appreciated” as well as a “more cordial” relationship between the HUUmanist Association and the UUA. That cordial relationship was symbolized during the breakfast session, when questioner Woody Kaplan thanked President Morales for saying “we Humanists.”
The Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, senior minister of First Unitarian Society, said in her welcoming statement that hosting the conference was “part of fulfilling our mission to be the flagship congregation of Humanism in the UUA.”
The morning session covered the history of Unitarian Universalist Humanism, highlighted by historian Mason Olds’s review of the career of John Dietrich. A double session broken up by lunch showcased “Voices of Reason, Cooperation, and Community Service” in present-day Humanism, including Michael Werner’s description of SMART Recovery as a reason-and-evidence-based alternative to 12-step addiction programs and Sean Faircloth’s discussion of his work as executive director of the Secular Coalition for America.
“I’m a lobbyist for atheists,” Faircloth told an amused audience. “That’s tough. Take something unpopular and add something else unpopular and you’ve got me.”
Two afternoon sessions were oriented towards the future. The first highlighted Humanist education, including P. J. Deak’s talk on Humanist education for second and third graders, and Dan Schlorff’s introduction to the New Liturgical Movement—a “rebellion against rebellion” in the Millennial generation that sweeps across the religious spectrum, from the Emergent Church movement among conservative Protestants to desire for ritual and transcendence among liberal youth. Schlorff called for “new ways to transmit our humanist values and naturalistic worldview in a way that reaches younger generations.”
The conference’s final speaker was Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and author of the recent book Good Without God. He used the fantasy of a 21st-century John Dietrich to illustrate the new realities of building a movement. Dietrich’s famous sermons, Epstein imagined, “might get a million hits” on YouTube without drawing new people to his congregation.
Epstein predicted that crowds will come to the 21st-century Humanist meetings “not to hear something worthwhile,” but “to experience something worthwhile . . . to connect to other human beings.”
Two well-known speakers, the Rev. Dr. Khoren Arisian and the Rev. Dr. Bill Murry, were listed in the program but unable to attend. Each promised to make his remarks available to the HUUmanist Association in writing.