Episode 65: All Our Solutions Are Incomplete with Dr. Rev. David Breeden
Join us as we delve into an insightful conversation with Dr. Reverend David Breeden, senior minister at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. Listen as he walks us through the fascinating history of congregational humanism and shares the ways in which his congregation has been a part of the humanist community since 1916. Discover how his poetic writing has shaped liturgies for a secular audience, and get a better understanding of the difference between religious and secular humanism. Listen as David shares his unique experiences and insights as a humanist minister, and learn about his work to foster a safe and inclusive environment for his congregation.
This episode isn’t just about congregational humanism. We also discuss Mary Midgley’s idea that all solutions are incomplete, and how this thinking can inform humanist thought and our decision-making process today. Learn how the “feminine arts” were used by the Cambridge women of the World War II generation to question virtue ethics, and explore the potential impact this could have on our current view. We’ll also touch on the possible implications of new discoveries in astronomy on our understanding of the universe. Lastly, we consider why some governments might hesitate to implement solutions that could reduce poverty, and explore the potential for a society that empowers individuals to make their own life decisions. This thought-provoking episode is a must-listen for anyone interested in humanism and its potential role in our society.
01:57 A Humanist Liturgy
11:18 UU Bylaws Removing The Word Humanism
17:50 Four Assertions and Aspirations of Humanist Ethics
20:33 All Our Solutions Are Incomplete
29:06 How We Express Our Humanism Is Going To Be Unique
Rev. Breeden was born on a family farm in southern Illinois. Most of his childhood was spent on the road, with his parents moving from job to job in the South. Farming, growing up in mobile home parks, and attending Pentecostal congregations, deeply informs his sense of justice and his belief in the inherent worth and dignity of each person. Rev. David has an MFA from The Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, a Ph.D. from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, with additional study at Breadloaf and in writing and Buddhism at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He also has a Master of Divinity from Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Rev. David is a published poet and author. He is committed to asserting the historic role of Humanism within the Unitarian Universalist tradition and getting the good news of Humanism out to the world.
He is Chair of the Education Committee, the American Humanist Association
A humanist liturgy: “Congregating for Secular People: Theory and Practice”
Acceptance and Calling In (acceptance speech 2023 AHA Conference)
First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis Archives (includes digital collection of John Dietrich addressess)
Humanist Manifesto I (1933) [Dietrich and Reece played large part in development]
Read full transcript here
[0:00] This is Glass City Humanist, a show about humanism, humanist values, by a humanist. Here is your host, Douglas Berger. We have an insightful conversation with Dr. Reverend David Breeden, Senior Minister at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. We talk about the history of the modern humanist movement and how the first manifesto was a response against the growing fascism in Europe. Breeden explains what congregational humanism is all about, and how Mary Midgley’s idea that all solutions are incomplete fits in with humanism. Glass City Humanist is an outreach project of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie, community through compassion and reason for a better tomorrow.
[1:00] Our guest today is Reverend Dr. David Breeden. He is the senior minister at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and as a Congregational Humanist community, FUS, fosters a free speech search for knowledge and meaning and strives for justice and serves each other, the Twin Cities and beyond. David has also graduated from the Writers Conference at the University of Iowa. He has a PhD also from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, Masters of Divinity from the Meadville Lombard Theological School, which is the main Unitarian school in the country. And you are on the you are the chair of the Education Committee for the American Humanist Association. Mm hmm. And I wanted to thank you for joining us today. Well, it’s a pleasure to be here.
[1:57] Yeah. And I’ve been wanting to talk to you because when I was looking for material because I have to program my humanist group and and talk to other people about humanism, I’m always looking for material to use or to borrow as it were and I came across your, Was a liturgy, called congregating for secular people theory and practice, Yeah, and I usually blanch at anything that is like a church. I don’t go to church. I’m an atheist Yeah, but you had a lot of stuff in there that I really liked, sayings songs, particular songs, Order of Service, and particularly the quotes I really liked. And what led you to write and publish that in the first place? Yeah. Well, you know, um… First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis became humanist in 1916, and John Dietrich was the humanist’s name, and he came, was called as the minister, so they became the first.
[3:08] Intentionally humanist, overtly humanist congregation. But back in 1916, really the the congregation was still the focus for most Americans in terms of their community. So for Dietrich, what he was really doing was recreating a liturgy, quote unquote, that would be completely humanist. No God talk, no God in the hymns. We call them songs as a matter of fact. And so really I’m continuing that tradition that had already developed and has been going on for well over a century at First Unitarian. But you know, we still do there what I guess would be considered old fashioned by most humanists today. And we basically do a Protestant service even though we call it an assembly. And it’s completely secular but we do still follow certain rules. We light a candle, I have joys and sorrows, we remember people.
[4:22] And then of course I also do weddings and memorial services, funerals. So there’s a lot of occasion for relatively formal language, in a liturgical way. And being a poet myself, I really enjoy thinking this through in writing those, so, and I’ve been fortunate to publish some, and other humanists, secular people have used them, so that’s very gratifying.
[4:52] Now, you mentioned it before, that the congregation is the focus of a Unitarian church. And you’ve been using the term, and it was new to me until I heard you use it, congregational humanism. I’m familiar with religious humanism. Is it the same thing, or is it slightly different? Well, it’s the same thing on a historical continuum.
[5:17] When John Diedrich and others, another Unitarian minister named Curtis Reese was in Des Moines, Iowa. He was doing kind of the same thing and he would later become the first president of the American Humanist Association. So right there, the two friends essentially who form modern American humanism, Midwestern ministers, went their separate ways early on. Dietrich was always into congregation. He never wrote a book. He only wrote these what he called addresses, these long talks that he would do. He was always researching, researching, researching. But he stuck with the congregational model. Curtis Reese was not nearly as into that. You know, it’s a personal preference thing, really. And so he began looking at ways to to spread humanism outside of the Unitarian congregational way of doing it. So he helped form the American Humanist Association. Early on, they did think of those more as more than just lectures. They also saw them as more in a small congregation model.
[6:36] But that was just not practical for them. There was no training for leaders. You know, there was no certificate program or anything of that nature. And so they just kind of gave up on that idea. And so the American Humanist Association. Developed as it did. But the term secular humanism wasn’t invented until the 1960s. So religious humanism is what you have from the beginning of this idea, this concept. And the 1933, the first Humanist Manifesto talks about religious humanism. And what they really saw themselves doing is they were setting up a counter religion, essentially, right? They were what later would be called the religion of no religion, basically. They were setting that up, and that was what was in their imaginations. But the secular arm of this begins to develop later and really has become, of course, much more popular. There are many more secular humanists today than religious humanists. But because the term religious humanist was the early one, it also began to sound a little bit antique. And so what’s the difference between a secular humanist and a congregational humanist?
[7:56] I mean, if you say religious humanist and secular humanist, well, it’s the religion that’s the difference. But I don’t have a religion, even though I’m a, yes, I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister, but I’m a humanist. I don’t do religion in that way. So, I now say, well, the difference is that a congregational humanist congregates, and a secular humanist doesn’t congregate, right? And- Yeah, I would agree with that, yes. Yes. But you know- A secular humanist doesn’t normally do church and congregational humanists typically do church. Yeah, yeah. And in some way, shape or form. Yeah, yeah. And you mentioned John Dietrich and Carl Reese, right? I wanna get the name right. Curtis Reese. Curtis Reese. And they met and kind of hatched this new type of religion.
[8:57] Why do you think that it took off, particularly in Minnesota? Because there’s a lot of history, humanist history in Minnesota. Why do you think it took off in Minnesota? Well, yeah, I’ve thought a lot about that. And there’s no official historical reason, but I think I get it. And the reason is that Minnesota is so cold that it was one of later places that was invaded by Europeans. And the Europeans who came here tended to be from, Scandinavian countries. And those Scandinavian countries all tended to have state churches.
[9:41] Lutheran state churches. So when Swedes got here and when the Finns got here and the Danes got got here, they were all part of national churches. But when they got here, they were jumbled up. I mean, we do still have Swedish Lutheran churches, they’re around, but those were really from the early settlement period when people were really bringing their norms, social norms to this country. Nowadays, what’s the difference in Lutheranism, right? So I think what happened is when people got here, they were tired of the national religions and they just said, you know, we’re done with that. So actually they formed a reading group.
[10:31] First Unitarian Society was first part of what was known as the Layman’s League, which was formed in the 1870s to fight censorship in the U.S. mail. And then they lost that battle And then they became a Darwin reading group. And so this group has always been different and always been interested in the kind of cutting edge thinking, Not necessarily science, but cutting-edge thought. So yeah, so I think that’s probably why and the same was true in Des Moines, Iowa as well. Very harsh climate, mostly Scandinavians And then it you know, then it began to sink in and become popular in Chicago at the University of Chicago.
[11:15] Which has always been a very important theological school in the US the Unitarian Universalist, Association which your church and you are a part of are revising their bylaws working on revising their bylaws I recently, a few months ago, interviewed Michael Werner, who’s a long-time Unitarian and past president of the AHA. Yep, I know Michael. And he believes that it’s an effort to update the Church’s bylaws will extinguish the strong history of humanism and leave the Church open to the evils of post-modernism. That’s his thing, post-modernism. And he also believes that the church is abandoning enlightenment principles of reason, science, tolerance, affirming the inherent worth of all people and replacing it with the work on social and racial justice. What do you think about the proposed revisions, and what would you say to members like Michael about it? Yeah. I’ve had various humanists around the country ask me about this since I’m a known humanist in the movement. I have just the exact opposite reaction to be honest with you.
[12:32] I think that it’s the victory of secularism and humanism because, no, this new document does not mention humanism. It also doesn’t use the term religion. Right. So it’s essentially a sociological document. Now, we humanists tend to think that most a subject for psychology, don’t we, you know, and don’t we think social problems are the work of, non-profits, of working with government to improve things, and that’s what the new bylaws talk about. So I say we won. You know, every, I would argue that every liberal, Presbyterian, Methodist, whatever, any liberal in the United States, I would argue, is a little-h humanist, right? Because you have to accept multiculturalism in order to be a liberal, basically, right?
[13:44] And that’s what this document is doing. It’s a little-h humanist document that I believe builds the way for increased humanist efforts in the future. I mean, many UUs developed sometime, in the 1980s and 1990s the attitude that humanism was old-fashioned. And the reason, I think, for that is that our humanists in UUism tended to be disconnected from the larger humanist movement, which, you know, is nothing, is not much like it was in 1950. And so, they simply lost the, lost the plot as it were. And we have, I think, gone on from there. In terms of postmodernism, you know, I consider myself a postmodernist. I mean, Wittgenstein is my hero, you know. but so I can’t argue against postmodernism. I think, yeah, in one way it questioned science, yes, but it questioned science in some very positive ways, I believe.
[14:58] And, you know, yeah, it caused a lot of misunderstanding, but if you really get into the depths of postmodernism, it’s acting as a corrective to a kind of overweening structuralism that is very western-based and, you know, very reason-based. On the other hand, I’m talking too long, but on the other hand, you know, I do, you know, Even though the enlightenment, I think we should always be very, very… Suspicious of the Enlightenment, because it did power some real atrocities in the world. There’s no doubt that it did. And the scientism that grew up out of that, that proved, quote, that women were inferior, that, you know, etc., etc., just some really horrendous, awful, awful things. But our central principle is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That is an enlightenment. Christianity never said that. That’s humanism. That’s humanism. Christianity would never say that. But humanism does say that. And we have to hold on to that.
[16:13] If there’s one thing that the Western world did for humanity before we died out tomorrow or or whatever, it would be that we insisted that the individual is a being unto themselves and free therefore. And that is a truly revolutionary, enlightened thing to think. Yeah, and I understand Michael’s point that the word humanism will not be in the bylaws in the proposed change. But I read the proposal and many of the points sounded like humanism to me, even if it wasn’t saying this is humanism. Right, right. And I think that people missed that point. Right, right, right. Well, and it’s the because. I mean, if the United Methodists were to write that, they would be doing good in the world because God, right? And they would be acting ethically because God, well, that’s not in there. And that is, in the religion business, that is a big darn victory. And it took a century to do it.
[17:33] For more information about the topics in this episode, including links used, please visit, the episode page at GlassCityHumanist.show.
[17:50] You just recently received the Humanist Distinguished Service Award at this year’s AHA conference. In your speech, you said at one point, humanists will always quibble, but at the foundation of humanist ethics are four assertions and aspirations. Humanists call you in to trust that human beings matter more than ideas. Each and every person is precious and unique, having unique human genetic and social composition and individual rights and collective responsibilities. Freedom of speech and thought are essential to human flourishing, and human beings can solve human problems. Our goal is flourishing for all sentient beings.” And I think that’s just a great summary of what humanism aspires to. Does it trouble you today how some people will put politics above the dignity and worth of other people? And what do you think we should do about that? Yeah, well, that’s, you know, the love your neighbor as yourself is a wonderful thing to start with. But if you say human beings matter more than ideas.
[19:02] There’s not a lot more to fight about, right? They need to be killed because they are blank, cannot occur in that, or this is a surgical strike just to kill blank. No, all human ideas from the sacred to the profane, from the sublime to the ridiculous, it’s all human. And we’re all human together. So if we can only say, you know, you’re human first, I have great compassion for you, now let’s talk. You know, and you know, being human, I just don’t see it as full of problems as, you know, and you know, I mean, what matter, I don’t care if I’m a communist, if I’m a fascist, if I am a loving human being who also believes in a particular social structure.
[20:09] As long as I’m working in a democratic fashion for that social structure, that’s what we call freedom. I mean, I can be completely convinced that communism is the only way. And as long as I’m working within the system You know in the marketplace of ideas. It’s it’s when you start suppressing ideas that things get nasty, right? Right, right And I also noted too in the conference speech and this was published in the humanist magazine excerpt from it You told the story of Mary Midgley. Did I get that? Yeah, I’m right Yep, and she wrote in her last book, It is that all solutions are incomplete for reasons that can often be understood The area of our ignorance is enormous and by its very nature has no outward frontiers, Now she wasn’t saying That we accept all points of view without question, No, only that we need to have more points of view when trying to solve some issues Is that is that what she and you indirectly were saying? Correct? Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. The idea that everything is true is is.
[21:16] Is spurious at best uh, but yeah, but you know, I mean what the The the cambridge women, you know of that generation the world war ii generation they were students, and they were able to be real students in the university because of World War II, and the men were mostly gone. And so suddenly women had a voice for the first time in a major university that people were listening to. And they were very clear, wait a minute, that your virtue ethics may just lead you to being a really good Nazi. Let’s think about this. Let’s think of the outcome of your actions, you know? You know, and so, you know, they began to apply things from what was at that time seen as the feminine arts, right? That, you know, the parlor, the kitchen, you know, and nowadays we don’t see it that way, but we don’t see it that way because of them, right? So there you go, right?
[22:21] Now, and I always tell people, probably not phrasing it this distinctly, all our solutions are incomplete. Usually I just say, all our ideas are open to question. How does, if that’s the case, how does a humanist get through our day? Doesn’t it seem like we’re hitting our head on a wall if all our solutions are incomplete? Nope, because it’s just so very cool to keep going. I literally showed a headline from the New York Times the other day on the screen at, First Unitarian, and it said, all of our thinking about the cosmos may be wrong, you know, and it was about what the new telescopes are showing us that are contradictions in the models that we’ve had. And I said, how does that make you feel? And because it makes me feel cool. I’ve got wow, wow, man. Everything I’ve learned about the universe, you know, may may may be wrong. I mean, you know, how cool is that? If I were a high schooler, I would I’d be signing up, you know, for astrophysics classes right now. I mean, that’s the future, man, right? Right. I mean, how amazing and but you know, But we know that when certain scientists went to the Pope, the Pope did not think that.
[23:48] Right, I mean, he had them murdered or put in prison. Yeah, so the news for the fundamentalist that all of our ideas are wrong is always dangerous. But for us, I think it opens up the world of possibility. I’m just, you know, I’m really excited by the facts of the ideas and the tools that are opening up for us. And we do know that some solutions in the world could work, but why do you think that some people and some governments are too afraid to implement them, such as reducing poverty, that sort of thing? Why aren’t we rushing to solve all these problems that we know we can solve?
[24:34] Well, you know, I do think that is an interesting question. I’m just looking around. There’s a book that I’m going to try to work on this year. I don’t see it, but it’s called Poverty by America. I don’t remember the author, but it came out fairly recently, and it talks about how we have created social class systems as we have created them. I come from the working class myself and worked so that I could go to school and could learn and all those things. I am totally dedicated to the idea of John Stuart Mill, that an individual is not actually free until they can make their own decisions about how they wish to live in life.
[25:28] You have to have some ability, some background, some knowledge in order to do that. And how many Americans just go with their parents’ religion or just, you know, or stay within their social class and the oppressive circumstances, you know, only because? Because it’s so darn hard to get out, for one thing, right? But yeah, so I think, you know, we have to develop a society in which people, the average person, has the ability to decide for themselves what would make their life have meaning and purpose. Yeah, because I mean, you did. Your family is from a family of farmers. You’d still be a farmer today if you didn’t get out in the world and see what was going on, right? Exactly, exactly. So, and everyone needs to have that opportunity to get outside. And in America, our class system works on what you do, right? We don’t have a born peon, but we do have people who are born, probably are gonna drop out of high school or just finish high school. And we’re gonna assign them jobs that for the most part, keep them within a narrow range of economic possibilities all their lives, right?
[26:56] So within that structure, what choices do you have, right?
[27:04] And so to me anyway, we must guarantee human flourishing. How we do that is the question, right? And unfortunately the white upper middle class has hoarded those privileges. I mean, that’s what all of this college stuff, admission stuff is about now. We all knew that all along. In order to be upper middle-class, you have to keep achieving. It’s not like royalty where you’re just born that way. And so that striving has led to an extreme, social distance between us, you know.
[27:48] And I noted in your biography that you graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop. I can’t believe I couldn’t remember it. And I am so jealous because I dreamed in my younger days of doing that. Do you get more satisfaction writing or speaking during your services? Oh, oh, wow. Oh, that’s, that’s interesting. I, I was also a disc jockey in my earlier days. That’s how I worked my way through school back in the day. I see them as totally different. I see the vocal as a performance. And I approach it as a performance, just like just as I would spoken word poetry as a performance. So I think it through, I think, you know, I just naturally wave my hands around because I, you know, I grew up Pentecostal, so we just move. It’s just what you do, you know. But yeah, no, I see that as a vocal performance. And I love writing because I see that as, you know, a writing performance. And, but no, I, poetry has always been my first love. And I write poetry almost every day. So it’s a practice. Yeah.
[29:06] And finally, if we haven’t talked about it yet, or maybe we did, what is one major point you think that people considering humanism should know about it?
[29:19] The major point for people to remember is that there are many humanisms. Because humanism is flowing from the human rather than flowing from some presumed, you know, white guy in the sky, because it’s flowing from the human, and every human is unique, so how we express our humanism is going to be unique. Nigerian humanism is not going to be like Brazilian humanism, is not going to be like Midwestern humanism, is not going to be like East Coast humanism. You know, humanism is, it always ought to have an S on it in that way, right? There are many humanisms. And we have to forget about the atheist or non-theist thing, I think. What we have to focus on is human agency. Do you believe that we together can change things for the better.
[30:20] If you believe that, join in. And I see our future much more as the religion of no religion than being an alternative religion as my predecessor John Dietrich saw it. I don’t see us that way anymore. We are the religion of no religion.
[30:40] And I also noted too on the website for the Unitarian Society, you’ve been digitizing John Dietrich’s sermons or talks or whatever he gave? Yeah, he called them addresses. No, he was just absolutely, you know, I mean, he was reading everything. And so he’s absolutely fascinating. And another thing that people don’t necessarily remember, both Dietrich and Ries grew up in German speaking homes. And I have a suspicion that’s how they got together. They were German boys who liked their beer, you know, probably. But Dietrich was able, because you know, in the early AM radio days of the 20s and 30s, people could listen to shortwave radio, so you could listen to European radio. So Dietrich was listening to Adolf Hitler early, early, early, and he knew this guy was a shyster from the beginning. And so So to read his material as with the rise of Hitler is absolutely fascinating.
[31:44] Because here’s a guy who got it. Yeah, that was one of the things that I noticed too, especially when reading Manifesto One, that it was kind of a response to fascism. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We are going to create the fair and democratic, you know. And, you know, I mean, Curtis Reese, before he called it humanism, he called it the religion of democracy, you know, and he believed that thinking democratically fundamentally changes our ways of thinking.
[32:17] And, you know, on my good days, I believe that. All right. Well, I really appreciate you spending time with us today. And you’ve got a really positive outlook, which I like. And it’s always a pleasure to talk to somebody who knows their humanist history. And hopefully the changes in the association, don’t cause too much trouble as they move along, because I know it’s a long process. And I really do. I really appreciate you joining us today. Well, keep it up. Humanism is the way toward a flourishing life. So welcome everyone to it.
[33:06] Thank you for listening. For more information about the topics in this episode, please visit the episode page at, glasscityhumanist.show. GlassCityHumanist is an outreach of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie. Surely can be reached at humanistswle.org. Humanist is hosted, written, and produced by Douglas Berger, and he’s solely responsible for the content. Our theme music is Glass City Jam, composed using the Amplify Studio. See you next time!
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Written, produced, and edited by Douglas Berger and he is entirely responsible for the content. Incidental voice overs by Shawn Meagley
The GCH theme is “Glass City Jam” composed using Ampify Studio
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