The Humanist Unitarian Meaning of God

by the Reverend Joseph Abraham Ben-David,

Founder and Senior Minister, The Church of Humanism, USA

Dean, The Humanist Theological Seminary

Minister Emeritus, Religious Society of Czech Unitarians, Czech Republic


In these days of great threat and urgency, when the world is moving towards global totalitarianism and with the possibility of the end of life as we know it, three areas of concern will be decisive: economics, science and religion. In this context, religious and secular beliefs will be all-important.

My hope in this article is to provide new insight into the humanist nature of divinity and a dynamic synthesis of humanism and Unitarianism. My thoughts are the result of having studied humanism and Unitarianism for many decades and my involvement in key organizational positions. I began to develop these ideas in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1937, under the mentorship and influence of the Unitarian leader Dr. Norbert Fabian Čapek, Prof. Alexander Sommer Batěk of the Charles University in Prague, and Prof. Martin Buber of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. My journey took me to Lazeshchyna in the Carpato-Ukraine in the former Czechoslovakia, Safed in Palestine, Jerusalem in Israel, and eventually to New York City. During a brief stay in Aguada, Puerto Rico, I completed the formulation of my thesis.



Human language, as important as it is, is an ambiguous modality that makes effective communication difficult to achieve. A reasoned discussion of a humanist Unitarian meaning of God requires, first and foremost, an end to the current semantic confusion.

The confusion goes much deeper than the question of a definition. The word God is all-pervasively embedded in the minds and the psyche of people, regardless of whether they are ‘theists' or ‘atheists.' In Western culture, people adhere to the Judeo/Christian experience and to the nomenclature of their upbringing or their later academic schooling. Their fixation on a particular terminology is the result of ongoing mental conditioning and social coercion that establishes a connection between words and the nervous system.

Most people freeze their usage of the word God in an inflexible formula that they attempt to impose on others.  Personal politics can lead to elaborate manipulations that allow them to survive or to be accepted and supported by the powers they serve or depend on. Furthermore, untold numbers of people use the word God for ruthless deceit and exploitation.


Only in an atmosphere free of semantic totalitarianism can the meaning of God be effectively discussed. Semantic totalitarians include:

  1. Dictionary Totalitarians, who define the word God according to the dictionary, completely disregarding the fact that dictionaries differ in their definitions and that dictionaries published under different regimes often contradict each other.

  2. Majority-Opinion Totalitarians, who define the word God based on the meaning attached to it by the particular society they live in. They staunchly endorse the rule of the majority and fail to recognize how easily the beliefs and opinions of the majority can be manipulated by an influential minority or by an individual tyrant.

  3. Submissive Totalitarians, who adopt whatever an authority - a person, a book, or an institution - considers to be the correct meaning of God.

  4. Legalistic Totalitarians, who use the law to impose definitions of God and morality that can be utterly unjust and inhumane. Conviction by a judge or jury does not mean that a person is in truth ‘guilty.’ A ‘legal’ judgment or opinion that is grossly uninformed or politically and psychologically motivated will lack both veracity and morality.

  5. Opportunistic Totalitarians, who insist on defining God according to their individual or collective sacro-egoism. Their ruthless pursuit of influence, wealth and other selfish purposes is often accomplished through lies, extortion and killing. The sale of indulgences in the Middle Ages and modern mega-church evangelists are notable examples.


Empathic, humanistic semantics, in sharp contrast to totalitarian semantics, is based on an approach to words, particularly complex and emotionally powerful words such as ‘God’ or ‘religion,’ with profound respect and with concern for how and why people develop their beliefs. Most importantly, empathic semantics recognizes that words aren’t in themselves realities, but merely inadequate tools for communication or symbols. With so many different and contradictory beliefs about the nature of God, the general use of the term ‘God’ becomes meaningless. To have real communication about ‘God’, we need to give the word a particular meaning.

The word ‘God’ is heavily prone to being misunderstood and to causing misunderstandings, and the presence of any aggressive, argumentative attitudes will subvert any attempts to constructively discuss its meaning and concept. A meaningful, empathic, humanistic discussion of God requires an honest, intellectually tolerant attitude and a steadfast intention to establish genuine dialogical communication. Unblocked and kindly feelings towards words and people are a prerequisite for the elucidation of the phenomenon of God.

Relevant texts: S.I. Hayakawa: Language in Thought and Action; Kenneth G. Johnson: General Semantics; Wendell Johnson: People In Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment; Stuart Chase: Tyranny of Words; George Orwell: 1984; Carl Rogers: On Becoming a Person; Bertrand Russell: The Faith of a Humanist.



The purpose of this essay is not to redefine the word God but to find its deeper meaning. This task calls for the recognition that there are three basic ways of perceiving God:

  • God as an illusion;
  • God as a metaphor; and
  • God as reality.

The first two are familiar and self-evident, but in the contemporary Humanist context, the third is still in its formative stage.

To make sense in the framework of generic humanism, the concept of God or god must be based on two criteria: on reality – the comprehension of that which is, was, or will be; and on the highest values of being, including the global ecosystem and the cosmic sphere. For humanists who choose to use a religious language, the concept of reality in its ideal state can be called God. In secular language, reality in its ideal state can be called ideal reality or the highest, or ultimate state of being.

Thus, in the religious context, to strive to actualize the divine ideal becomes a sacred act of life, and to serve God means to devote one's time, space and energy to the highest good. In the social context, it means to struggle and labor to build a world of freedom, justice and peace. Serving God in the personal domain means to aspire to develop one's fullest human potential, individually and in the greater society. Individualism and social justice are inseparable.

The word ‘religion' can be seen as a corollary to the word ‘God.' In the humanist sense, religion is the sum of one's beliefs and feelings about the highest existential determinants of destiny. It is also the awareness of and response to the ultimate challenges of life. It is the answer to the perennial question: whom, or which powers, do you serve with your life? What is your life causing in this world? Religion manifests itself in the way people relate to themselves, to society, to nature and the universe, both practically and spiritually. From a humanistic standpoint, an important measure of people's humanity and religious aspirations is their readiness to take risks in the face of hostility or danger, as they strive for the realization of ultimate ideals.


Nature, simply put, is the physical world and everything inherent in it. This includes all living plants, animals, and humans, as well as the cosmos. There are basically two ways to perceive nature. The first is mechanistic and materialistic, where nature is governed by predatory and parasitic processes. The “law of the jungle” prevails everywhere, in the water, in the air, and on land. The stronger overpowers and devours the weaker in a constant process of breeding and decay and in the absence of empathy for the suffering of the victims. Animals’ instruments of slaughter and torture – claws, fangs, pincers, poison, etc. – are their means of survival. The Greeks called this general state of nature anoia. Individuals and societies have historically followed this pattern, often with a much greater degree of cruelty and sophistication than other animals. Such predatory and parasitic attitudes can be the basis of entire cultures and political power structures, sometimes using death-dealing strategies to achieve their goals. This pattern continues to the present day, where sophisticated technology often masks the true horror of these systems. Killing is impersonal, people are ‘collateral damage,’ and the sensory overload by the news media creates a sense of apathy and normalization among the general populace worldwide.

The other way to perceive nature is again taken from the Greek. Metanoia is the transcendence of the predatory and parasitic jungle system and has an existentially redeeming quality. Metanoia – transcendental naturalism – is a state characterized by conditions in which animals cooperate in a peaceful, moral fashion, protecting one another, and in which human beings behave in a rational-ethical manner, transcending self-centered inclinations in favor of humanitarianism.

The manifestation of the God of humanism as the creative process in nature poses a vital, existential challenge. It calls for the mobilization of all human faculties and the full integration of human beings into this higher realm of nature. In that sense, to worship and serve God as a humanist means to devote one’s life to advancing the highest, universal values. The creative process in nature, however, is not indifferent to the state of society. It has its own laws, demands, and obligations, the violation of which has consequences. By destroying nature, humans are destroying themselves. Humans and nature have a reciprocal relationship.

When expressed politically, the concept of God as ideal reality and the manifestation of God as the creative process are the source of all progress in the humanization of society.

Relevant texts: John Dewey: A Common Faith; Roy Wood Sellars: Next Step in Religion; Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; Alfred North Whitehead: Process and Reality; F. Muller-Lyer: The Meaning of Life and Science (available only in German); Martin Buber: I and Thou; Gary Kowalski: Science and the Search for God; William F. Schulz: Our Humanist Legacy.



There is a major difference between the symbolic and substantive modes of perceiving God. Symbolic perception of God is an abstraction, a word, a name, a pictorial image, a statue or a religious artifact. Such symbols may be endowed with magic powers and worshipped as God. The perception of a symbol as reality is idolatry. Although symbols can descriptively project reality, that is not their function in most religions. It is therefore necessary to distinguish among three kinds of symbols:

1. Abraham Maslow compares empty symbols to “helium-filled balloons.” They are void of any meaning, yet they deceptively appear to be valuable and important entities. They are used to control and exploit uninformed people who hopefully will in time realize that they are victims of belief in nothingness. Empty symbolism such as the crucifix and religious garb in any religion can have tragic consequences, both personally and collectively.

2. Pseudo-symbols have an external appearance that contradicts or masks their true content. The complexity of interpretative conceptual possibilities means that pseudo-symbols, such as the concept of the Jews as the chosen people of God, or Mary’s virgin birth, can cause significant scientific, philosophical, medical, socio-political, or economic havoc.

3. Authentic symbols reflect congruence between content and image. Veracity, logic, rationality, justice, love, dialogical communication, and many other intra-, inter- and trans-personal processes depend on the application of symbolic congruence. Examples might be the dove of peace or the scales of justice, but only if people regard such symbols with genuine respect and as a call for action for the sake of ideal good. `

True education, in its essence, is a process of rooting out empty symbols and replacing them with symbols that represent realities.


The substantive mode of perception is quite different than the symbolic mode. Symbolic perception is verbal and conceptual; substantive perception is non-verbal, sensory and experiential. It is a person’s relation in both mind and body not to an image but to the very gestalt or core of an actual being. It’s like the difference between viewing the picture of a horse, vs. standing before and feeling the presence of an actual, live horse. The God of humanism is substantively perceived as the creative process in nature, and activity that leads toward ideal reality can be understood as a godly pursuit. Thus, the God of humanism can be perceived universally, regardless of language or abstract conceptions. Substantive perception evokes vivid awareness of the full creative process in nature, or God. God, therefore, assumes an awesome social, political, psychological and philosophical dynamic.

Since the substantive mode of perception is non-symbolic, the contradictions caused by erroneous abstract reasoning and totalitarian linguistics are eliminated. In this way, there is synonymity between ethical atheism and naturalistic theism, between science and religion, mind and body, reason and feeling, etc. For a person to reach this level of awareness requires having an organismically unified character structure, free of unconscious hostile impulses.


In a non-totalitarian semantic framework, the word ‘theology' means something different than is usually accepted. The root word ‘theo' means ‘God,' and ‘logos' means ‘reason,' ‘logic' or ‘science.' Logos in ancient Greek philosophy was the controlling principle in the universe or the divine wisdom manifest in the creation and redemption of the world.

The antithesis of the God phenomenon is the idol phenomenon. Thus, idolatry is the belief in unreality – the worship of an entity that is different than, or the opposite of, what it purports to represent.

Theology is the study of God. Calling an idol ‘God’ does not make it so. The study of idols, even if they are named God, should be therefore called "idology". This word doesn’t exist in the dictionary, because what is commonly understood as ‘theology’ is the study of idols that are misleadingly represented as gods. Thus, most theological seminaries are idological seminaries, even though the Prophets of Israel, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed were staunch opponents of idolatry.

In the secular sense, ideology, as the study of ultimate values and highest purposes of life, is substantively the equivalent to theology.


Among the determining factors in life are myths and imagination. Their effects can be either liberating or enslaving and dehumanizing. Myths often contain an element of truth, and they can affect the feelings and thoughts of individuals and the masses.

In Western culture, the ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, and Old and New Testament myths have given rise not only to science, philosophy and socially redeeming movements but also to holocausts and apocalyptic visions of global catastrophe, nuclear or otherwise.

The humanist concept of creative imagination stresses its positive intuitive aspects. Humanistic psychology affirms intuition as a fact and asserts that it can be trained. Whole areas of the human sensory apparatus, eidetic imagery and the supersensory domain call for further serious and competent research.

Relevant texts: C. G. Jung: Psyche and Symbol; Mircea Eliade: A History of Religious Ideas; Joseph Campbell:The Power of Myth; David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner: Personal Mythology; Akhter Ahsen: Imagery of Prayer: A Pilot Experiment on Concept and Content; Richard Henry: Norbert Fabian Capek; Karel Haspl: Mental Hygiene; Charles Francis Potter: Beyond the Senses; Ruth C. Cohn: Training Intuition; Sophia Lyon Fahs: The Beginnings of Mysticism in Children’s Growth.


God, as the creative process in nature, is an awesome, all-inclusive phenomenon. It encompasses everything that helps to transform a state of aggressive, chaotic wilderness into an environment of freedom, justice and peace. People of conscience, who are intellectually and emotionally aware, fuse their lives with this process and become creative themselves. They become God’s allies and coworkers by dedicating their lives to the actualization of ideal reality. However, it is important to understand that, from the substantive point of view, to devote oneself to living for the highest good in no way necessitates using the word God. This applies to all creative pioneers who serve to advance social justice, accomplish important scientific work or who bring people in touch with reality through the arts, particularly literature, painting, drama, music, poetry, etc. To see oneself as part of the creative process is the greatest experience one can have. The conscious attachment to God – to the highest good – will fill a person with a profound sense of purposefulness and gratification. Regardless of the religious or secular terminology they use, these people of the spirit are helping to advance philosophy, psychology and religion. It is, however, not necessary to perform acts of great magnitude; the creative process also includes small deeds of everyday life.



As noted earlier in this essay, there are two meanings of the word humanism: generic humanism, which has evolved over many centuries; and, organized Humanism, written with a capital ‘h’.

Traditional American Humanism arose from the work of two pioneering philosophers: John Dewey and Roy Wood Sellars. Sellars drafted the original Humanist Manifesto of 1933. An unfortunate serious flaw in Sellars’s thesis was his use of the distorted syllogism “theism or humanism.” Also, that first Humanist Manifesto contains an assertion that the time for theism has passed. This thinking refers to conventional theism and excludes other, rational, naturalistic views of God.

Generic humanism is symbolized by such archetypes as Prometheus, Antigone and Socrates. Operative in history, it can be best defined succinctly as follows:

“Humanism is the ultimate and active concern for the human condition in the universal context.”

Although general, this definition conveys a point of departure for meaningful communication. Humanism as “the ultimate concern” – Paul Tillich’s definitionof religion – has both a secular and religious meaning. I am adding the words ‘active’ and ‘in the universal context’ to make this definition more specific and all-inclusive.

A more comprehensive definition, I suggest, states:

“Humanism affirms the primacy of the human being over any other social factor, especially church, state, law and custom. It pursues that which is in the interest of the individual without violating the universal interest of society or damaging the environment.

“The method humanists use to achieve their goal of humanizing themselves and society is based on reason (the scientific method), love (social and sexual feeling) and wisdom (intuitive awareness), and it includes evolutionary as well as revolutionary processes.

“The development of the fullest human potential and the liberation of human beings from all arresting forces are therefore elementary objectives of the humanist movement.

“One of the supreme qualities a true humanist will display is that of humility prompted by the awesome recognition and ultimate challenge of the creative process in nature, which is greater than humankind itself.”

From where does contemporary theocentric humanism evolve? Alfred North Whitehead's process theology was a breakthrough in theological realism. John Dewey indirectly suggested theocentric humanism. Julian Huxley at one point uses the term "sacred reality." Henry Nelson Wieman subjects the knowledge of God to the scientific method. More recently, David Bumbaugh, although a non-theist, has elaborated on enlightened religious humanism metaphorically in terms of a language of reverence.

Notably, Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture movement, was an intellectually deep and highly sensitive thinker who created a humanistic/unitarian idea system. His philosophy of life was based on two elements: the spiritual numen and the ethical manifold. He rejected the idea of God as a personal being and replaced it with the idea of a universe of spiritual beings that interact in infinite harmony.“The controlling idea is that the numen in the self is raised out of potentiality into actuality by the energy put forth to raise the numen in the other, - the two divinities greeting each other as simultaneously they rise into the light.” And: “All that has been said has to do with arousing in us of the desire to see in others the god, the numen, the master end. But what is the spiritual nature? The spiritual nature is the unique nature conceived as interrelated with an infinity of natures unique like itself.” Further: “Salvation is found in the effort to save others!”


Adler’s philosophy is a classic example of the ability to substantively perceive ultimate reality and to project a vision of hope in an era of the eclipse of ethics.


“God is One.” This idea constitutes the origin and the very essence of Unitarianism. Perhaps no other element of contemporary American Unitarian-Universalist religious thought and practice deserves more attention than the concept of the oneness of God. Why was the idea of one God so important to the Renaissance humanist Michael Servetus that he gave his life to defend it? Why should anyone be ready to die in order to fight the Catholic or Protestant concept of the Trinity? Why were Ikhnaton, Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza, Giordano Bruno, Francis David and many other spiritual pioneers and rebels ready to suffer extreme persecution for the idea that God is one? This seems implausible today, and most UU congregations emphasize worship, community and social action. But the unity of God has not lost its central significance and remains at the core of Unitarian faith.

There are two quite different concepts of unity, however, which touch on the very question of existence: monolithic unity and unitary pluralism. Monolithic unity, in a sociological sense, is an approach used by dictators and totalitarian regimes. It relies heavily on slogans and culminates in the mental and physical massification of entire populations. It is, so to say, the rigor mortis of the democratic spirit and political humanism. In contrast, unitary pluralism asserts the organismic nature of living beings. Living bodies consist of many organs that together form a functioning and unified organism. As long as the organs cooperate harmoniously, the body and the psyche of a person will function optimally. The same is true on the societal level – that society functions with harmony and justice.

Unitary pluralism is not a mechanistic structure similar to a clock. It is cosmically inclusive and has an evolutionary transformative effect. It is congruent with the creative process in nature, God, and thus serves the highest purposes of life. Thus, in essence, unitary pluralism is a generic unitarianism, with a lower-case “u”, as distinct from organized Unitarianism, or Unitarian-Universalism.


God-affirming humanist unitarianism offers a synergistic power that synthesizes the generic modalities of humanism and God-affirming unitarian-universalism to create elemental catalytic energy towards achieving ideal reality. Billions of people consider the word God as supremely important in the conduct of their lives. Being human is a common denominator to us all, and "humanism" could become the rallying point to unite people of compassion and lead to peaceful relations between nations, ethnic groups and other social entities. Moreover, God perceived as the creative process in nature, rather than beliefs in a multitude of idols, would also have a profoundly liberating effect on humankind.

An extremely important factor for readying people to embrace and engage in the creative process in nature is the comprehensive study and application of humanistic psychology. The human potential movement represents a unique and particularly apt modality for enhancing human growth and social advancement.

There are many local, national and international organizations that are substantively humanist unitarian. Although they use different names, their mobilization under the humanist banner could stem the downward spiraling trend of history.

In this hour of decision, the emergence of an effective God-affirming humanist unitarianism is a matter of utmost importance.

Relevant texts (partial list): Roy Wood Sellars: Theism or Humanism; Paul Kurtz: Exuberance; and Eupraxophy; Earl Morse Wilbur: Our Unitarian Heritage; Mason Olds: American Religious Humanism; Thomas Garrigue Masaryk: Humanistic Ideals; Abraham H. Maslow: Religions, Values and Peak Experiences; John A. Buehrens: Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals; Lancelot Law Whyte: The Next Development in Man; Felix Adler: An Ethical Philosophy of Life; David Bumbaugh: Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence; Corliss Lamont: The Philosophy of Humanism; Lloyd and Mary Morain: Humanism as the Next Step; Edward L. Ericson: The Free Mind through the Ages; Forrester Church: Lifecraft –The Art of Meaning in the Everyday; George Kimmich Beach: Transforming Liberalism – The Theology of James Luther Adams.


Copyright (c) 2019 by Joseph Ben-David. All rights reserved.


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