Rev. David Breeden took some time for an extensive interview on the work and theological orientations, and social work, and the community life, of the Unitarian Universalists with a particular emphasis on the Unitarian Universalist community in Minneapolis. Breeden is a Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.
Here, we talk about his life, work, views, and a whole lot more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us start from the top. How did you become involved in the humanist and the Unitarian Universalist community?
Rev. Dr. David Breeden: I started attending a Unitarian Universalist Humanist group back when I was an undergraduate in the 70s. The group that I first met with was on campus. They were humanist from the get-go. I became a college professor and stayed with smaller groups.
My entire experience of Unitarian Universalism for 20 or so years was with a humanist group – several of them. That was always my experience with the Unitarian Universalists.
Jacobsen: How did you become a minister? What is the process? How did you form an interest?
Breeden: I was a college professor. I had an interest. I was with a Unitarian Universalist group. I retired after 25 years. I decided to go back to seminary–UU seminary Meadville Lombard in Chicago, Illinois. I got my M.Div. I started serving UU congregations.
Most of those congregations are a mixed group. Eventually I had the good fortune to be called by the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, which was the first congregational humanist congregation in the Unitarian tradition–back in 1916.
So, they have been humanists a long time, over a century now.
Jacobsen: When you are serving community, how do you develop a service? How does this differ from other religions?
Breeden: First and foremost, the great insight of my predecessor in the congregation, John Dietrich, was doing a Sunday morning service without reference to religion whatsoever. Mainline Protestant traditions can be removed from there. He had poems rather than scripture read.
You have a meditation in place of prayer. You have hymns rather than songs. Then you have positive messages. You talk about the positive things of the day. We talk about how to be a humanist in the world. We do not use any materials that have any reference to any religious tradition at all.
It might be much different than you might think.
Jacobsen: If you are looking at communities now, what are some of the positive developments?
Breeden: My congregation has about 450 adult members. We have about 75 children. Like many mainline congregations, though, we do have quite a few younger people there; we still do not have as many young people as we would like in the congregation itself. It is a very dynamic congregation, very alive.
I see it surviving into the future doing what it is doing. We, as an institution, have explored more secular ways of doing things. We encourage other groups, including the American Humanist Association group and Black Nonbelievers. We want them to survive and thrive.
I do not see the congregational model surviving all that well in the US. It is not doing well in other parts of the world. I suspect this will happen in the US as well over time. But for now we have a robust assembly every Sunday. We are looking for other ways of doing things as well.
Jacobsen: How does the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis work? What is its organizational structure? How does this organization structure influence its internal dynamics with community?
Breeden: It has an organizational polity. Its organization is democratic. It is why UU congregations can be explicitly humanist if this congregation wishes to be, if the majority wishes to be. The minister is called by majority vote.
That is what they did in my case. They made sure that I am a humanist through and through; that I represent humanist values. That is why they choose me. I was and will be a humanist. The First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis is an outlier because we are explicitly and completely humanist. Most UU congregations are not.
But that is part of the tradition. It was there in 1916. They have remained humanist explicitly.
Jacobsen: What were some momentous occasions on its centenary?
Breeden: We had humanist celebrations of when John Dietrich came. We had a conference that included some of his granddaughters to indicate the historical aspects of it. We had Tony Pinn come too. He talked about the future of humanism, as it has been over the century – what we should do to look at the future.
We continue to examine it. It is the most important thing for us. The thing is to be innovative and dynamic in humanism. We are going to keep working on that one.
Jacobsen: What are some taboos within a standard UU framework or community? What are some taboos within a UU humanist framework or community?
Breeden: We have a kind of tongue-in-cheek class called “7 Words You Can’t Say at First Unitarian Society.”
Jacobsen: Did it go to the Supreme Court? [Laughing]
Breeden: We really do. We avoid any reference to any religion, which is, in some ways, difficult because so many UUs come out of a religious tradition. They will call it a sanctuary, a church, a hymn, a prayer. We do not do that officially. But it still slips in sometimes.
We do try to stay away from that language. That we are not like the run of the mill or the ordinary Unitarians where Protestant liturgy terms are used with abandon. We try to stand as an example of how you do not have to do that, because I see it as a failure of imagination to have to fall back into that kind of language.
Jacobsen: What are some fringe communities with UU traditions with more strange beliefs? The ones that stand out based on their unique qualities.
Breeden: The congregational polity angle of UUism definitively gives rise to various flavours. It tends to be a regional difference very often. On the East Coast, UU congregations are still vaguely Christian very often in the way that they use language and practice from Sunday to Sunday.
Here in the Midwest, we have people who use theist and non-Christian language. Then there are some who lean more to a more humanist angle. Then there is a grab-bag based on the history of the congregation. Also, the California kind of vibe does seep in, sometimes, to the understanding there.
A humanist like me would consider this New Age. But again, each congregation can have its own flavour. It is really the people who make it up that choose these things. It is a wide range. Anyone who is checking out a UU congregation should check out the website and see how they are going about doing things.
Jacobsen: If we look at the flavours of atheism and their communities, and if we look at the flavours of agnosticism, of humanism, and of Christian and other traditions, there will always be a controversy arising in each period of development of those communities and worldviews, and traditions. What have been some controversies since 1916 with the UU Humanist tradition? How have those resolved in some ways? How have those not?
Breeden: Yes, one of the problems or challenges is if humanism equals atheism or agnosticism or both of those. I often say, “We have to remember that atheists have partners, spouses, kids, etc.” How do we, since we function as a congregation, manage those waters?
In the congregation, there are about 80% agnostics-atheists. Most people do not want to talk about theism and do not even consider it very interesting to talk about. So, we do want to underline, however, that we do not in any way attack or denigrate different religions.
We are not in that mindset. We are, rather, in the view that human agency is important. I tend to say that as long as you as an individual believe human beings solve human problems, then you will be very happy in a UU Humanist congregation.
With people, we always get into our own hobby horses and into our own dogmatic mindsets. I think it is getting better as the US becomes secular. Fewer people are damaged by major religions. Fewer people who are angry at religion and more people who are interested in this old-fashioned flavour of thinking about things and without the emotional attachment that older people have with them.
Jacobsen: You mentioned fewer individuals damaged by the various religions. What are some ways in which people can be damaged by some of the standard or more dominant religions in the world?
Breeden: Myself, I grew up Pentecostal in the United States. It is a thing that you do not get over easily. You must come to terms with what it means for yourself. We have people who call themselves recovering Catholics. We have former JWs. We have former Evangelicals who discovered atheism or unbelief.
There are tough things that people face. They can face job loss or divorce. Religion has not stopped damaging people. That is for sure. So, we see a broad range of everything from people who have lost everything because they have stopped believing in people who have never even heard much about religion.
Their parents may have been something vaguely, but they were something vague, maybe. It is a broad range of damage.
Jacobsen: What about modern adaptations of religions onto modern problems? For instance, those with a New Age form of spirituality connected to traditional religious values with something akin to, or as, Indigenous Christianity for people who, within their worldview, see some reconciliation with “God’s Providence” as Indigenous peoples within the Christian tradition.
Breeden: Right, that is something that we are trying to explore increasingly. Humanism and UUism in American has been in reaction to Christianity. Since things are changing, we really need to get past that. We have increasingly people who have very different cultural understandings of religion. For us, as humanists, the way, I think, to do that is to look seriously at the ideas.
We, at our congregation, are grappling with this in the humanist tradition. It is outside of the understanding of the mainstream American religious tradition. People are trying to figure out how this fits in. I really see this as we are going or moving forward will be something in which there will be many kinds of humanism within the same framework.
It will be the same congregation and same tradition, but it will be various kinds of humanism expressed. We are just at the ground floor of that way of thinking. It is time that we begin to grapple with that.
Here in the US, we have a group called Black Nonbelievers with Mandisa Thomas. Her understanding and witness is that the black church in America is a very particular thing and leaving it has very particular kinds of challenges. Her organization is going to deal specifically with those things.
I can see that kind of developing here in the United States with Islam, for example, etc. I think we are just at the ground floor of that development. We need to keep looking at it. It is the challenge of the future.
Jacobsen: What will be some points that rub up against those movements and as they, potentially, diverge from one another?
Breeden: That is very interesting. I am trying to figure that out in my own mind. We are trying to do this through the AHA and Humanist UU-ism. It is to train the leaders of tomorrow – the multicultural and diverse folk who have the understandings of those traditions to work within them.
It is one thing for seminaries to train people who understand the various kinds of cultural standings that we have. I think that long-term; the walls will begin to fall. We see this in American Protestant denominations.
Nowadays, who knows the difference between a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian?
Breeden: American Protestantism is reflecting that. When you go to the congregation that has the best volleyball court [Laughing], people choose their congregations for very different reasons than they once did. If you were Scottish-American, you went to a different church.
I think it is going to become the same in the future congregations. There will be various kinds of humanisms growing together as we move into a more multicultural world. That is my hope, at least. I think it can happen.
Jacobsen: In the American traditions, we can see the obvious tie-in between the religions and the conservative orientations with an explicit move into the political arena. We are witnessing the live action of this now. I note some in Canada. However, I do not note the virulence in Canada as we see in America. What are some concerns around this in the United States, as you are in the United States?
Breeden: Yes, it is interesting to see the situation of the United States. We have always had the de facto Protestantism, which has held sway. Then that, of course, began to change in the 1970s from a very liberal president Eisenhower Protestantism into the more virulent forms that now support Donald Trump.
It is a very, very different understanding. I talk about the two Christianities. They do not even seem to come from the same root, even though they do. It is very, very strange. The Republican Party makes huge claims in terms of Evangelical Christianity.
Then the Democratic Party, essentially, acts as if it is secular, which is not true because, here in the US, liberal Episcopalians, and other mainline denominations, are very liberal. They just do not talk about or get involved in politics.
In the US, we have a situation in which people who are outside of Christianity think Christianity is only right-wing. Yet, the majority would say that they are, in some respect, liberal. It is very odd in this way. I understand the national Democratic Party has gotten themselves an executive to work on that problem to reclaim liberal Christianity within the party and begin to blunt that tool that the right-wing has used in being the only religious party.
It is an interesting turn because the liberal American religion has taken a back seat for so long.
Jacobsen: What about the political orientation of much of the secular communities? In general, they lean democratic or independent. What seems to explain this? Is it a reaction to some of the things? Or, is it based sincerely on policy, temperament, and beliefs?
Breeden: I think it is all over the map. The Humanist Manifesto came out in 1933. It was signed by the guy who founded my congregation. The first Humanist Manifesto was very explicitly a Democratic Socialist product of the Franklin Roosevelt New Deal.
They were explicitly Democratic Socialist. They were people who explicitly believed in restructuring the systems of society to become more democratic. That system is very much alive. A good many of my congregants and, frankly, myself, have been democratic socialists from the get-go and are happy to see the emergence of the conversation in the Democratic Party in the US.
If you make the argument that every human being has inherent worth and dignity, it is difficult to say, “I do not need to do anything about that,” with the word “dignity.” Of course, in the wider agnostic-atheist world in the US, we have a libertarian edge to folks who see it as a freedom issue of keeping the government out of it and “leave me alone – so I have my freedom.”
I see this as a problem because I know there are oppressed people due to governmental policy. How do we fix that? Especially with the atheist community, there is more of a libertarian turn to things. We (humanists) are pretty much in the liberal political US spectrum.
Jacobsen: Does the superannuated nature and the premise of a greater naturalistic and scientific understanding of the world, and empirical understanding of the world, make Humanism and UU-ism, in some ways, almost an eternal super-minority in the US and elsewhere in the Western world?
Breeden: It certainly looks that way [Laughing].
Breeden: Curtis Reese, who was the partner in crime of Dietrich back in the 1920s who became the first president of the AHA, was calling what he was doing before—before he adopted the term “humanism”–was the “religion of democracy.”
He believed, as with Felix Adler before him with the Ethical Union side of things, that living in a democracy would eliminate the idea of a monarchical god. People would lose the ability to think of a king on a throne.
People would think of a more horizontal and relational world. I do not think that was the case. Christianity came along at a very particular time in the Western world. The emperors were absolute in their power.
That translated into European politics and translated into the colonialism that Europeans practiced and spread all over the world. We are still living with it. If you look at First Nations or African cultures, many are much more alive in the pantheistic view of reality.
In its nature, it is naturalistic rather than animistic, very often. Therein lies my hope, that people will awaken to the pre-Christian aspects of Western society and will wake up to their own cultural roots of pre-Christianity and begin to recapture a pantheistic view of the world.
It fits into religious naturalism and naturalism in general. Because, hey, we are just molecules floating. It makes sense. That makes sense.
Jacobsen: If we understand culture in a broad sense of the arts and humanities, ethics, science, philosophy including epistemology and ontology, and so on, if we look at some of the authoritarian regimes and some of the theocracies today on offer and in history, there seems to be a strong emphasis on powerful ruling classes and elites to keep the rest of the population at a low cultural level.
James Randi noted, to me, that there is, typically, an emphasis on the promotion of traditionalist or fundamentalist religion in societies by, sometimes, governments. Does this seem true to you, too? If so, why? If not, why not?
Breeden: [Laughing] absolutely. I think here in the US. We can track the rise of the Religious Right to Nixon’s Southern Strategy. It has a lot to do with racism in the US as much as it has to do with religion. But everything in the US [Laughing] has to do with racism and religion.
Breeden: That tradition continues in the US. The US is not a greatly educated country, popular image to the contrary. We have a fairly poor system of education in the country. As long as that is true, people will continue to look for absolutist answers.
Evidence indicates education is the first way out of a lot of things, including religion and binary politics. I think that is one reason liberals value education. Many of us found our ways out of right-wing ideas via learning and being open to innovative ideas.
Yes, I think it leans on the idea of the strongman, which is all over the world now. It is people looking for easy answers. The line is: All we have to do is do cruel things to people, and then we will be better off. Things run in cycles. It looked that way in the 1930s with the rise of Fascism and Communism.
It is looking that way, again, in a very populist way. My hope is that as these programs do not pan out–as I do not think they can–I hope more and more people will move towards the center and will try to think of more solid problems in the gray areas rather than black and white.
Jacobsen: If we take the split between the supernatural, e.g., praying for help with the spelling bee or to cure some physical ailment through an abrogation of the laws of nature, and the metaphysical, including larger frameworks for understanding the world including the laws of nature and the principles and constants of nature, does the UU Humanist view of the world provide room, not for the supernatural but, for the metaphysical in this sense?
Breeden: That is an interesting question. I talk about it from the angle of the ATM God. Many people think that if they just give the proper PIN number in there . . .
Breeden: . . . God will help them get what they want. That does not work, even in the most fundamentalist religions. Eventually, people are always going to say, “God does what God wants to do. You may not understand it.”
That is how people get around the fact that you can pray for rain for a very long time and it does not come.
Breeden: [Laughing] So, I think that the very idea of asking and donating and promising–this, again, goes back to the monarchical view of the Deity–“If I pray or sacrifice properly, then I will get the ATM to work.” Unfortunately, I think that is almost a basic wiring of humanity.
That we believe in some magic that way. It can be easily encouraged and triggered this way. We, in my congregation, never pray. I am asked to offer prayers publicly at times, for business people and such. When I get those invitations, I always take them because I want to model in a way that I do not have to be asking–begging and pleading–for these things.
My public meditations are mindful of what is happening in the world. I say, “Maybe,” as an aspirational: “Maybe, remember the poor.” It is different than thinking a prayer will lead to a dinner (for the starving). We need the difference between those two things made very, very clear in our own minds. Petitionary prayer, unfortunately, is there.
We humanists need to be the model for not having to do that. You can be intentional and think about and through things without bowing and scraping. That is what we try to do.
Jacobsen: When you are talking about leading the next generation of leaders in the UU tradition, who are they? How do you reach out to get the training done?
Breeden: The AHA, I am on the education committee. We have been working with Meadville Lombard, one of the UU seminaries here in the US there. We are developing a humanist concentration within the ministerial track, as an MA program.
We hope it will lead to certifying humanist chaplains and also humanist leaders. One of the problems of humanism that we have had is that we have not had any quality control, frankly. People can call themselves humanist–and do–because they are no longer Christian and have become angrily atheist.
I see humanism as a way to treat the world and other living things in it. We are trying to get increased information our there about how to be good without god, as the AHA says. The broad training that we get. The broad visibility that we get with the programs is better.
There are a lot of young people who are very interested in getting involved in this project. A lot of dedicated young people are in it. A lot of people of colour are interested in getting involved in humanism. We must, as a movement, as I was mentioning earlier, about cultures must be ready to move over and accept that things can be done in a unique way.
That is the way to the future for humanism. Things worked in the past. Some things need to go out of the window as a new generation arrives.
Jacobsen: What are some social and communal activities of the congregation for you?
Breeden: The UU Humanist association formed in the 60s. For years, it functioned as, more or less, a way of celebrating our general assembly, getting major speakers in, doing a scholarly journal, and, more or less, that was the focus.
It was to do things at the General Assembly and to get scholarly work out to our membership. That model is changing. When I came in as president, my number one goal was to move things towards a unique way of understanding.
I see the need out there. I hear it all the time from all races and groups that exist within the larger UU congregations. They need material. They need ideas. So that, what I see as the future of the UUHA, there are fewer and fewer people going to GAs.
There are fewer and fewer who will read a scholarly journal nowadays. These are not the future. Certainly, social media has stepped in to get increased information out there and to make increased connections between vast distances.
That is a process that I began doing. I very much encouraged that other people different than myself–an old white guy–I have encouraged them to enter the organization and transition it. The current leader of the organization is Amanda Poppei. They are coming at it from her direction now.
It is a needed direction. I was pleased that I was able to move it from a direction of mostly older white guys to something that will be supportive of a new generation of humanists who are often people of colour and a lot of women.
It is not just for the cranky scientist type guys anymore. That was my push. I think we are going in that direction.
Jacobsen: What would you consider the largest existential threats not to the livelihoods but to the ways of life of the UU Humanists in America?
Breeden: I think the biggest threat to UUism is a little bit different from the threats to humanism. The threat to UUism is that as the mainline religious traditions have really collapsed here in the US. I think the general idea of liberal religious stances will get lost.
I had a good friend who is a United Methodist minister saying to me one morning, “Oh yes, my 9:30 service is a Unitarian service.” The United Methodists know what they are doing. They are around the world. As liberal denominations get more liberal, where is the space for UU pluralism?
It is a question that UUs need to look towards. I think the answer is more of a humanist answer because it is distinctly different from the others. It is about human responsibilities. We can address those problems. We can be different than super-liberal Episcopalians and super-liberal Catholics.
I think there is a threat in UUism itself–Can it change fast enough away from a simply liberal Christian model?
Jacobsen: There is no inevitability to any growth, maintenance, or collapse to the humanist traditions. Do the more fundamentalist traditions of the world have a greater chance of in effect ideologically surviving compared to the mainline denominations or traditions, or those found in UU, in UU Humanists, and humanism?
Breeden: I do not think there is a real possibility of liberal religions disappearing soon. However, in the US, we know the Evangelical fundamentalist traditions are growing. There are a lot of Ex-vangelicals who do not buy the right-wing exclusionary ideas.
There is a future for liberal Christianity – to use a negative idea – Christianity Light.
Breeden: I do not think our humanist message will become the dominant one. But we will survive as a different kind of organization than we have had in the past. I think that we have a bright future. I do not think that we have a dominant future.
Jacobsen: What are some weaknesses in a humanist philosophy? In other words, not necessarily wrong or incorrect in any necessary way. Those points of contact in the premises behind the general philosophy, worldview, and life stance that can be okay but necessarily a firsthand truth.
Breeden: I think we are going through those right now in the UU tradition. The Steven Pinkers among humanists [Laughing[. They are optimistic about the human future in the big view. Pinker is a perfect example of that. Jonathan Haidt is a good example here in the US.
That kind of liberalism and humanism is “true,” but it also leaves out so many social problems that are so real for poor people. I think those who are going to see their philosophical traditions in an abstract way are almost not communicating with the people who are suffering from all kinds of economic issues, etc.
We must pull ourselves back from that edge from being overly scholarly, overly academic, and just pull ourselves back and remind ourselves that it may be true that people are living longer. But when a loved one dies; it does not matter [Laughing].
Day-to-day life is not always like this golden life. I do not think that it’s appropriate all the time to be overly academic. Humanism must deal with the everyday of depression and poverty from the viewpoint of “we’re going to do this,” but “we can fix this.”
We have the tools. But we do not communicate this, except in the sense of an academic and ivory tower sense.
Jacobsen: How does this myopic and pollyannish view of the world simply not deliver emotionally for the needs of most people most of the time in those important points of life, whether marriage, death, birth, baby namings, and so on?
Breeden: One of my favourite philosophers is Martha Nussbaum. Her philosophy has been to say, ‘Reason and rationality are only another piece in the range of emotion.’ I think that through a strict materialist view; it cannot be denied. We have not grappled with that fact yet. Martha Nussbaum is not the figure who is going to be read in book clubs. I think we need to get those ideas out there. Reason is also an emotion. Reason is also embodied, as is everything else.
Once we begin to look at things from that viewpoint, I think the humanist position will be more successful. Daniel Kahneman, I think, has shown definitively that we do not have reason and unreason. It is that we have thinking fast and thinking slow.
Jacobsen: Is this in that famous book?
Breeden: Yes, thinking fast is the gut, it is intuition; it is our emotions. Those work for us most of the time. We need to use them. But thinking slow, it is the way that we have figured out how to keep the water out of our bedrooms. It is how we figured out how to water fields.
We need not set up such a dichotomy that we do not think that when we are thinking slow then we are not human anymore; because we are. Our thinking is emotional. We have motivated reasoning. The more we have found that we have fallen into things that we thought were completely rational, but were in a European colonialist viewpoint.
I think as we discover this more–the more the logic side will become more gentle. We will become more humble. We will become a full body again. That we are a complete organism here. That we need to focus on both of those things at the same time, if that makes sense.
Jacobsen: Who is the most popular UU humanist author?
Breeden: That is a wonderful question. I am so glad that we have moved beyond the New Atheist period. I do not know if we have someone like Dawkins and Harris who have been popular among us. I would want Martha Nussbaum to become popular. But her philosophy just does not do it.
I do not think we have a book that quite does it. It is out there. The book Sapiens by Hariri is a good introduction to thinking like a humanist in an effective way. It was on the New York Times bestseller list.
Jacobsen: What about speakers or high-level orators?
Breeden: I think the best articulation of humanism is Anthony Pinn. He went from the black church experience to the UU experience to the humanist experience. I think he understands all of those. I think he understands the limitations of all of those.
I could listen to him all day. He is a brilliant articulator and a clear humanist mind of where things need to go currently.
Jacobsen: Who has done a disservice to the UU community?
Breeden: It is broader than that. In the UU, as the humanism got rolling with the religious humanists, as they were called in those days, after the Cold War, as the idea spread, it became a particular thing. That particular thing reflected a white flight, upper-middle-class, very privileged, suburban mindset.
There were very particular reasons for that. The US government was spending a lot of money on science, whole suburbs grew up around universities and institutions; those people became UU humanists. That set a tone for the kind of humanist who was upwardly mobile and believe in reason, music, and the great Western art museums.
All of these things that were part of the American middle class at a time when it was reaching to achieve more, and more, and more. That is gone. It no longer exists in the US. You could get an education and still be in grinding poverty, as you know.
So, the upwardly mobile and then going to the burbs no longer exists. There is an attitude that continue to live out of that. Even though, those people are extremely elderly or have died. There is still a piece of UU Humanism that is what Humanism is. It is not.
It never was. It, certainly, was not in the early days of the John Dietrichs who were seeing it as a Democratic Socialist proletariat. It exists in UU. The Steven Pinkers really reinforce that kind of humanism in a very unfortunate way.
That is the greatest challenge for those of us who want to change into a new Humanism. So much of UU Humanism is the past, of the glory days of the US, which is no more.
Jacobsen: Some things to bring together. North American, Western European, and East Asian nation-states do not replace themselves at a sufficient rate. They are below the replacement fertility rate, as many know.
At the same time, those subpopulations within those nation-states with the above replacement rates tend to be on the more fundamentalist and religious sides or orientations. With that, in the long to medium term, what does this portend in terms of the religious and the secular populations in these regions? Also, the demographic statistics tend to indicate individuals who grow up in a religion stay in it, to add to that argument as well, or that question moreover.
Breeden: Yes, one could become very depressed at that. But if we look at the history of ideas, one thing that becomes clear is that liberal values have never been popular. They have never been majority. They have been localized and marginalized over time.
In the Middle Ages of Europe, it was education and the idea of education. I think we forget the changing nature of reality if we think, “The Middle Ages or Dark Ages are upon us,” as we have the information before us. If the information stays readily available, you will have people who become atheists.
It is just that simple. Just as a kid in Mississippi who is gay can look up information online and has a normalization of being gay, which is good, similarly, if a kid in Mississippi can look up humanist materials that normalizes the idea of unbelief, that human experience is the basis of reality rather than some supernatural reality.
If the information is out there, I believe people will come to it. Never a majority. I think, it was, again, a mistake of Europeans and North Americans after the Second World War to think everything would, eventually, become secular. Peter Berger was the scholar who came up with the Secularization Theory as it was called after the Second World War.
He thought social safety nets and secularization would destroy religion. He was wrong. Before his death, he recanted the theory. It does not mean that people are not going to figure out that we are making this up ourselves.
That edge of people will always be here, I believe. What we must do moving into the future is guaranteeing the ideas of secularity, separation of church and state, work against theocracy whenever we see it, I believe the future can be bright.
We must figure out a way to get out of the Anthropocene. If we get together and start talking to each other, we can do it.
Jacobsen: You have mentioned the Anthropocene. Some have called this the Capitalocene as well [Laughing]. If we look at the UU community, is it more capitalistic, socialistic? What are the economic orientations of the UU community?
Breeden: I think the broader UU community is compassionate capitalism. Among humanists, there is much more of a Democratic Socialist view of things. Often, I think that is because of the analysis. We know from economists that, in a capitalist system, money keeps going towards the top. Until you do something.
The best thing to do is tax . . . because bloody revolutions are not good for anyone. You must get a tax structure that takes the top off and redistributes downwards. I think a large majority of humanists do believe that that kind of intervention is necessary to a future . . . or a humane future.
Otherwise, we will have gated communities, and inequality will rise if we do not do it. That is the way that I see it, anyway. One cannot be a brutal capitalist and be a Unitarian Universalist or a Humanist. That is what we do. We bring in the voice of the oppressed.
Keep working with that in mind, keep working for more equality.
Jacobsen: How does the UU community incorporate more modern definitions and movements of gender equality?
Breeden: One of the interesting things about UUism–my congregation, when it started being a Unitarian congregational group, was on the left fringe. In 1950, the average Unitarian was probably a centrist Republican in that way.
What has happened over time, and this is true of most mainline denominations, I count UUism in that category, is moving more in a Left-Right split. The war in Vietnam was very divisive among UUs. Many people simply left because of the anti-war stand of the UUA.
Nowadays, as it turns out, the current UU congregant is very left of centre. We see this in the US. The centrists are problematic. We know a centrist group voted for Obama and then for Trump. It is almost mindboggling for those on the more extreme left how those people can make that move.
To them, it makes a great deal of sense. That person is not in a UU congregation nowadays. Moderation is a challenge among UUs, increasingly so, as we find in the United Methodist Church as the question LGBTQ rights has become the catalyst of left and right.
The Methodist denomination is splitting, but not in half. It is going to be more to the right than to the left. There was a book called Saving Grace that looked at American religion after WW II.
The fact is before WWII, Americans chose their politics based on religion. After it, they now choose their religion based on their politics [Laughing]. We do not have many Trump supporters jumping into UU congregations.
Breeden: My minister friends who have more moderate political divisions–Episcopalians and Presbyterians, and such–here is a problem there.
In the US, two groups are facing some turmoil and identity crises. One is the Reformed Judaism, which is going further and further Right because of the Israeli question.
Also, the more middle-class African American congregations. I have a good friend who leads an African American congregation. He says that he does not really preach anymore because he has a lot of Trump supporters now.
It boggles his mind. It boggles my mind. But American politics has gotten very strange in that. You cannot walk into an African American congregation now and assume you can preach the Social Gospel. Things are becoming more polarized and stranger.
Jacobsen: What myths do the secular have about the religious? What truths dispel those, and vice versa?
Breeden: Yes, the great cliché about humanists is that we do not have any place to base our morality. That boggles my mind; that that argument is still in place, as it was disproved by about 1650. Among humanists, there is a misunderstanding of liberal Christianity and liberal Islam as well.
People can be devoutly religious and know all about science. They can live in the doubt, often, as some do. Others live in science, religion, politics, and have different rooms in their brain – compartmentalization. I know people who remain liberal Christians because they believe the tradition has value.
They believe the teachings of Christ as leftist radical visions of equality in the world. They are very sincere about that. I, often, get very angry and tired at both sides of that argument. There is a middle ground, where someone can be devoutly Muslim and still not hate homosexuals.
It is possible. People will believe devoutly and, also, be people who allow difference in the world and do not force their views on others. We need to get the word out. I wish more people understood it.
Jacobsen: In the United States, we can see Liberty University, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the like. In Canada, we can see Trinity Western University and a variety of other institutions oriented around fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. What are some issues for the LGBTI+ community in those areas?
Maybe, what are some nuances some of the secular, maybe, do not understand?
Breeden: That is interesting. I have a transgender child who converted to Reformed Judaism. It makes perfect sense to her, to do that. There are nuances within all these traditions that are not immediately apparent. One of the oddities, I think, of right-wing religion is that the United States is, in many ways, the inventor of the fundamentalist thing.
It may be our most dangerous export after munitions. You know?
Breeden: [Laughing] it can be accentuated in African nations where the fundamentalist narratives go in and rile up the nation. Hate of that sort is hate [Laughing]. It is not religion. It is hating. It is fearmongering. It is using the base reactions of people’s humanity. I just do not think that is where religion lives.
Of course, it (the origin of religion) was not about hating people. There simply was no discussion of many of the issues that nowadays define fundamentalism. It was not discussed. We do not have to be that to be who we are. A fundamentalist or Pentecostal person can be a good, accepting, and loving person. But the politics have gotten involved and turned things in a particular way.
They did not have go that way. They do not have to stay that way.
Jacobsen: You are describing two more fundamentalist, traditionalist, and conservative religious groups. One, LGBTI communities do not exist. You are going to hell, not because of what you believe but, because of who you are. In fact, we do not believe who you are because you are simply living a lifestyle rather than living inside a lived experience and identity.
On the other side, we can see concern and complaint in overweening, supplicant, and guilt and shame ridden progressives around the LGBTI+ communities. It is too much in the opposite direction. What are some palliatives to that latter issue?
Breeden: In the state of Minnesota, where I live, we had a ballot initiative. Should gay people be able to get married? I was, as a minister, on the forefront of that battle to get things changed, so that gay marriage would be legal in the state.
One of the ways that we went about doing that was not by talking about rights, and not by talking about the law, but simply having people talk about their lived experience. They had a thing. One initiative was “be gay at work day” [Laughing].
Breeden: Just talk about it. And the change that I began to see working on this day after day was that I began to hear in church basements older ladies who were saying, “My granddaughter, she is a lesbian. She is okay.” Or, “My grandson is gay.”
This was in the Methodist and Baptist churches.
Breeden: The real thing that must happen is that we must be brave enough to be out there, so people know gay people. They do know gay people. Every statistic tells us everyone knows gay people, in Iran too. So, of course, how do you cross that line? That is the issue and the problem.
I think that family bonds are, in many ways, the answer to that. We just must keep talking. In the States here, one thing going down in history as beginning the move towards gay rights is a TV program called Will & Grace. It was network television show. It had a gay guy.
Gayness was being normalized on the American television screen. That is what we must do. It is to get the information out there. We know that homosexuality is an absolutely natural thing for animals to do. We know that. But religions have, traditionally, condemned it.
These are Western religions, monotheisms. We have to say, “You got that wrong, culturally. Here are some reasons why you got that wrong.” I keep hammering on it. Evangelicals become Ex-vangelicals because they realize the Evangelical stance on homosexuality is dumb, just dumb.
I think the newer generation is more prepared for that. Max Planck, the physicist, talked about how science advanced one funeral at a time. Gay rights, they have too. They must advance one funeral at a time. I wish it would not [Laughing].
Jacobsen: [Laughing] that is true.
Breeden: I wish that people would reconsider just by looking at the simple science. That may be a little optimistic.
Jacobsen: That Max Planck quote was actually very good. One can say the same for Einstein on Quantum Theory. He would not accept it. He would not accept the idea, not of epistemological chance as in statistical mechanics but, in ontological chance. In that, the universe simply works and exists with incomplete knowledge of itself.
So, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Well, you advance that field, even Einstein had to die in a way. To pivot from that particular point, if we look at some definitions of God, if we look at individuals who identify as elite religious scientists with a serious intent to discover principles about the dynamics and operations of the world, they could define a God in such a way that they could take their standard understanding of “theology” as “the study of God” into the scientific arena.
It would be relatively trivial and a truism in terms of its definition, in the ways in which we naturalistically understand the world empirically through the methods of science, but it may provide a framework for those, probably, with a UU and other similar orientation to become or aspire to professional and elite, if very talented and hardworking, scientists in the future or at present. Does this seem to jive to you?
Breeden: Absolutely. One thing that we forget is that the assumption that God, the Maker, made things logically and, therefore, we can figure out those laws; it led to science [Laughing]. It led to understanding. The whole key to the whole scientific project in the Western world was from the idea that God created these laws.
Spinoza–many of us have gone on from there to completely materialistic viewpoints. But I believe that I can prove there is a god, simply by saying that I define God as the observable universe. If I want to define God that way, then God exists, because the universe exists. I am not against that idea. I just think that, sometimes, it is a little bit condescending to define “god” in such a specific way.
In that, I can go around and say, “I am a theist, therefore… I understand God in a more unique way than you do, and then I am going to play your game.” I do not do that. I think many UUs do. By saying, “I understand God that is completely naturalistic.” John Dewey started it. He probably started that in A Common Faith. He says, “Atheists should and can use the word ‘God.’’ I find that a little wonky. I think there can be a case made for a materialistic God. But that is not the God that many people want to exist.
It is usually about magic and miracles, and the moral laws of human societies. I do not think you can get that from a naturalistic understanding of God.
Jacobsen: Pivoting further from the idea of a future redefinition, in a way, of theology, if we are looking at, simply, social life and secular communities, what are some failures? What can we learn from those? For example, the treatment and inclusion of trans people, of the transgender community at large. I ask this because you are the father of a trans child.
Some of those things would be important for some to hear, to read about, and, maybe, to reflect on a bit.
Breeden: The more stories that we can get out there, the better. I try to be mindful that my child’s story is not my story to tell. I am a parent. The most telling thing in my experience–I was not a minister yet–I had been a UU for many years when my child came to me and told me this. I did not have any trouble accepting it, fine with me.
I worried about my child, of course, because it is dangerous, physically and psychologically. The most telling moment for me: As I told you, I came from a Pentecostal background. I was terrified that my kid would tell my mother. She was illiterate and a fundamentalist Christian. I never told my mother that I was an atheist, “I will not confront them. I will not tell them. They won’t understand.” My kid said, “I can’t do that. I have to tell grandma.”
That kind of family bond, of understanding, that goes beyond the extremely oppressive black and white thinking of fundamentalist Christianity. It is there. Of course, I have had transgender friends who were disowned by their parents and shunned by their family. That happens too. Yet, there is always going to be that edge of love, which trumps all of that.
That is what we must believe in, finally. I must admit–I was completely and wrong. My kid was right. My mother died in the full knowledge of who my kid was; my kid was proud of that. It worked out well, I think.
Jacobsen: What book has blown you away, recently?
Breeden: I get blown away by books all the time. I am an inveterate grazer of books.
Breeden: I cannot help myself from reading the latest one. A book that I just got in the mail, which I am really enjoying the heck out of. It is Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. It is a brand-new book. It just came out. It is a look at the history of ideas. How ideas come about, become socially commissioned, this book is just amazing.
Everybody who has any interest in the history of ideas should read this book. Go for that; it is a brilliant book. Another one along the way that I found was Selling God from a while ago. It is looking at how American religion, because it had to live in the marketplace, became commercial. That is a fascinating book. The 7 Types of Atheism that came out a few months ago.
I thought it was a very good book about how atheism can be misinterpreted and weaponized, shall we say, and how it can be made into a very compassionate humanism. I read all the time.
Jacobsen: Who do you consider the most impactful UU individual in the history of Unitarian Universalism?
Breeden: Wow! That is interesting. There are several of them. Ralph Waldo Emerson drew me into UUism. I took an introduction to American literature class as an undergraduate and went into Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville, and the American transcendentalist thinkers from the time. I think Emerson still stands out in American political thought and social thought, and theological thought.
He was someone able to think outside of the box. It was probably coming from a lot of colonialism– translations of Hinduism and Buddhism began to come in. He probably would not have thought what he thought without the critical work being done at that time.
He is someone who you can go to. You can read his 1830s paper Nature. It is still good.
Jacobsen: New Atheism, or Firebrand Atheism and Militant Atheism, did a service in this sense. They blasted the door open for a marginally wider acceptance and knowledge of the meaning of atheism in many contexts.
Jacobsen: How did this movement differ from previous forms? What were some successes? What were some failures?
Breeden: Of course, as someone who was already a humanist, though I was not a minister but a college professor at the time, it was good to hear smart atheists speak to the viewpoint. It was very empowering. There were books. There were people reading and talking about them. The first blast, I loved it. As it went on, the Sam Harrises and Dawkinses began to say more, and more, and the more I began to cringe.
I do not think that anyone can be argued into atheism who has not been already exposed. I do not think browbeating is the way to go. I think we need to take a stand as to how we do things with invitational stances. I think they simply went too far. They armed the angry atheists among us in some unfortunate ways.
It was good for those of us who were already convinced. I know some people who read the books and became atheists. They did ‘convert’ some people, but those were probably already questioning, frankly. I do not believe in the confrontational way of doing it.
Jacobsen: If we are looking at the massive rise of the Nones, which is at an incline of 8-figures worth of Canadians and Americans combined coming along a concomitant decline in believers, what are some positive lines being drawn there? What are some potential misinterpretations in terms of looking at the data, at the superficial analysis of it?
Breeden: I keep a pretty close eye on the data. In fact, I have been trying to figure it out. It is not as positive a reflection on humanism as one, at first, thinks. It has more to do with, I think, a general secularization of North America, but in a way that is moving more towards a completely syncretic religious understanding.
When I became an atheist in the 1970s, only 1% of the population was atheist.
Breeden: You did not talk about it outside of universities [Laughing]. Now, we are around 10%. That is exponential growth in my lifetime. People are now openly atheist. That exponential growth is still a tiny group of people. We know the Nones are predominantly not atheistic and believe in someone like a deistic god that makes things go right. You can make a prayer, so things feel better.
So, you can rely on external help and that kind of understanding. This is my old Pentecostalism speaking: There is no cost to it. You can be theistic, and God wants you to do well in the world, but you do not think you have to do anything. We old Pentecostals think you must pay for your faith. We atheists think that you must pay for yours.
I think there is an ease to the Nones. That they just do not think about it. I am glad that American society is no longer as it was when I was a kid, ‘Do you go to church?’, was considered a valid question, even for job interviews.
Nones are not joining congregations of any sort. They are less likely to become involved politically. People who do not join congregations. That is not good.
I do not think the current trend is a win for atheists, agnostics, and humanists as a community. I do not think we are winning because somebody stays home on Sunday morning and plays video games or because brunch has replaced communion. We are not winning that; we are not winning souls and minds in that equation. We must keep reaching out with a positive image. That a positive secular community does positive things for society and you.
Jacobsen: As you look at statistical data from Pew and elsewhere, in general, most of North America is scientifically illiterate in several ways. If we look at Liberty University, Trinity Western University, and elsewhere, and if you look at the offerings, it will have a proposal as if creationism and evolution are on the same footing, but they are not.
Even though, internationally, evolution via natural selection is in the minority view in the world. What are some effective ways to get the message across about scientific principles, methodologies, and general theories that bind together the findings to a wider section of the general population?
Those that have not been reached so far.
Breeden: That is a very good question. One of the oddities of my congregations here in Minneapolis, Minnesota: They started as a Darwin reading group in the 1870s trying to grapple with the book and what it meant. We are still grappling with the book and what it means. Even though, we know Darwin had some missteps as well.
The amazing thing is that almost everything that we do in terms of applied science, medicine, etc. It assumes that this is true. So, you are going to get things back from the scientific assumptions; that natural selection is how it works. So, we have this view on creation. Our scientific community depends upon it. Our health community depends upon an idea that the general population really cannot grasp.
One of the things that I talk about in my congregation is the theory of natural selection. I keep up with evolutionary biology, neurology, because we simply learn increasingly about why human beings act as we do, as we get deeper and deeper into our understanding of how evolution plays out in the human family.
It explains increasingly why we do what we do. There is a little kerfuffle going on with how much evolution affects the political parties and partisanship. Is it a lot? Is it a little? If a lot, can we change political views? Or did you walk into the politics exactly how your genes came together? It is all fascinating stuff. As we see and explain increasingly about human behaviour based on the use of the ideas from natural selection, it increasingly normalizes those ideas.
We must keep talking about that.
Jacobsen: What are some exciting and positive developments in the UU community?
Breeden: With the American Humanist Association and the UU Humanist Association, they are getting some education in place for some future humanist leaders. I find that exciting. That we will institutionalize humanism and how to minister humanism. We have increased people of color coming into the humanist community to be out and proud as a naturalistic thinker.
I think that is great. I think we have increased with people like Mandisa Thomas out there. We have more people of color. It is supporting a move toward a naturalistic understanding. The secular humanist groups sponsored by the American Humanist Association and the American Ethical Union are all growing. I see all of that in a positive light.
We must get the message out. We must keep talking, not isolate ourselves by bomb throwing…
Breeden: …the more that we do this. The more people think, “Wow. This is comfortable. I am not sure what I believe, but I want stand up here as a questioner.”
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the extensive conversation today?
Breeden: Your questions are great. Back when I was in the radio business, I was not an interviewer like you, believe me. You are doing great. One thing, I guess, I would reflect on, which I think about a lot. It is very unfortunate that humanism became the name that we call it. Some people or many people interpret it. I really like the term freethinker so much better.
Freethinker, someone who thinks freely, even thinks different things tomorrow than they think today, which is not always a bad thing. Freethought is where it is at as far as I am concerned. It is why humanity has achieved what it has achieved. Let us keep thinking freely.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Minister.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.