Robert B. Tapp

Acceptance of Horace Mann Humanist Education Award

American Humanist Association

Albuquerque, NM

May 7, 2005



“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity”. Not my words but Horace Mann’s, as first president to Antioch’s graduating class in 1859, just 2 months before his own death. I could not imagine a greater, and more humbling honor than to receive this award bearing his name. He was an educator, a Unitarian, a social radical, a feminist. Alas, I have had to try to carry on many of his battles—not against slavery but against the racism that has sustained its grim heritage; not simply to establish universal education but to maintain the quality of our schools against a corporatization that wants them to sink into vocationalism.


All of us live simultaneously in several worlds. There are the traditional worlds that dominate that society into which sheer biological chance threw us. Holy water was sprinkled on me in the First English Lutheran Church of Hollywood. I mention this partly to explain that I have always been marginal. California Lutherans were too far removed from their first immigrant stops to remain apart as Swedish or Finnish or Norwegian or German. But they were very different from the Baptists and Methodists of the US frontier. In fact, I never heard the hymn about The Old Rugged Cross until I went to YMCA camp!


Fortunately I had a minister during my highschool years who told me to spend my 16th summer reading all of Ibsen and all of O’Neill before I even thought about becoming a minister. And even more fortunately, my highschool debate coach had written his dissertation on Robert Ingersoll.  I was now spending part of my time in a “post-traditional” world—no longer able to accept any Christian label. World War II saw me rushing through college as a commerce and naval science major. I was lucky to take some electives with Walter Muelder (who would later be a doctoral adviser to Martin Luther King Jr.) and Floyd Ross (whom India has cured of his Methodism).


After the war, I started graduate studies in comparative religion. India fascinated me and I was the only student who hadn’t already graduated from some seminary. I had been awarded an undergraduate teaching assistantship in world history. But I spent my first year in a newly-created job as Faculty Adviser to Religious Activities. This gave me wonderful access to rabbis, Jesuits, and fundamentalists—and to a superb young philosophy professor Sterling McMurrin who supervised me. Yes, the eventual Secretary of Education and Mormon academic. But with him I studied logical positivism and pragmatism—issues that never left either of us. One semester I was exploring, in different courses of course, John Dewey and Karl Barth And I dreamed of being able to live in this third world, the academic one.


Finally I had a PhD but, without religious affiliation, no job! I had been a volunteer in Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations (today we might call it race or ethnic relations), and agreed to be a salaried assistant to the director. Suddenly an opening appeared at St. Lawrence University in its Universalist seminary. Although it was in theology, and there already was a professor of world religions, I jumped at the chance. It afforded me 8 years of enormous freedom to teach social ethics and pioneer a course in science and religion. It also gave me a chance to develop Universalist and Unitarian involvements and be part of their merger process. My most anxious moment came when the school received a large endowment and my chair was under consideration for renaming. The son of a Universalist minister graduate had become head of American Standard Radiator and wanted to honor his father. Had the name been attached to my chair, I would have been the Wooley Professor of Theology!


A sabbatical year in Switzerland at Albert Schweitzer College gave me a chance to explore European liberalisms, and my next position was back in California at Scripps College. While there I headed a 3-year study commission on theology and science for the new Unitarian Universalist Association. One outcome was that Meadville Theological School at the University of Chicago decided to make the sciences central to their education for ministry and asked me to join their faculty.


After a bold start, we founded Zygon, Journal of Religion and Science in 1966 with me as managing editor. For complex reasons, the anticipated restructuring of the curriculum never succeeded. (By that time I was learning to describe the sciences as enterprises that learned as much from their failures as from their successes). The UUA created a long-range planning committee with me as chair. We spent over 30 days together over the next 18 months, conducted a detailed survey of a sample of 12,000 UUs (the largest denominational survey of record as of 1967), and made some revolutionary proposals. Just as the implementation process was to have begun, the UUs became involved in an angry and almost bankrupting Black-White struggle of integration versus separatism. Serendipitous failure again!


By 1967 I was using the label “post-traditional” and “liberal religion” to describe that large segment of UUs who were nontheistic and did not describe themselves as Christian. Many of them used the “humanist” descriptor, other simply preferred “liberal.” While they clearly rejected any religious creeds, those groups in the study that were the most post-traditional were also the groups that had the greatest homogeneity on a wide range of social values. These were fresh findings of something new. Newsweek described UUs as “atheists who hadn’t shaken the church habit.”


The Committee on Goals report spoke of a “new religious liberalism” and adopted my phrase that this represented “a commitment to the expansion of the quality of life.” At that time, the phrase was innovative. But it was too radical for some of the conservative UUs. Apparently I remained a persona-slightly-grata and spent several subsequent years chairing one of three commission, on Dialogue of World Religions, for the International Association of Religious Freedom. After many meetings  of exploring possibilities, we proposed a “dialogue of mutual search.” That still remains perhaps as too ambitious, and certainly has had no appeal to mainstream religions that, already possessing some alleged truth, respond  by saying “What for?”


While on the Meadville faculty, I had the great pleasure of teaching psychology of religion in the University of Chicago while David Bakan was on leave. At Meadville I pioneered a course in Theology and Sexuality. Several priests from the new Catholic seminary enrolled, and said they wanted to learn “what will take place after monogamy?.” It became an exciting seminar.  Hugh Hefner was then publishing his serious essays in Playboy, but our librarian wanted a written order from me before subscribing.


My colleague and friend Peter Rossi headed the National Opinion Research Center and became my mentor in survey research. My resultant study of Religion among the Unitarian Universalists was published in his Studies in Quantitative Sociology. His wife Alice was pioneering studies of the perceived morality of abortion, and the positions of this large sample helped refine what are still national questions. By the way, the primary reason that the Unitarian Universalists joined and stayed with their churches was “to be with like-minded persons.”


My move to the University of Minnesota in 1972 was a new challenge. A religious studies program was getting underway, and the dean committed a full 50 percent of my time to the project. We borrowed scholars from a number of disciplines and eventually created an MA program. Dubious deans resisted since one of this ad hoc faculty was a rabbi and another had grown up in a missionary family. Other deans realized that there really was an academic discipline here.


I also chaired a humanities department. At that time, my 19th century course was the only place in the whole university where students read Darwin. Sad to say, that department eventually dissolved under the stresses of postmodernism. Most of my colleagues had decided that Western culture was simply racism and imperialism and therefore not worth teaching! Postmodernism had struck with a vengeance!


Let me turn from this academic world, surrounded as it was with traditional worlds, to my post-traditional world. In 1982, a group of us gathered at the University of Chicago to reassess our humanist response to a rising fundamentalism and conservatism in our society. Our humanist groups were small and overly-competitive, and we were being elbowed aside in the Unitarian Universalist Association. Ethical Culture was small, as was Humanistic Judaism. We agreed that providing a serious and common education to our leaders might change matters, and the Humanist Institute was born—with a 3-times-a-year, 3-year curriculum. Over 100 students have completed this, and our adjunct faculty has produced 15 volumes of Humanism Today. The new volume, The Fate of Democracy, will appear this summer from Prometheus Books. This educating and publishing has strengthened humanism, and I hope you will all spend some time with our website and consider supporting us and maybe even enrolling. End of commercial.


Let me now try to say some things that might be deserving of this Horace Mann award. We humanists are a cantankerous and individualistic bunch. Sometimes our adjectival modifiers (religious, secular, nontheistic, atheistic) are useful, but often they are simply divisive when we should be mounting common offensives.


As if that weren’t bad enough, too many of us continue to remain “religion-bashers” long after our own scars have healed. That stance brings us few converts. My perspective has been that we should shift from challenging beliefs to a focus on values—and that we frame our programs in terms of promoting those values.


This means continually working with two sets of values. One set roots in history, at least since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.


The potential dignity of all humans (every value struggles against negating values, and I will leave those listings for when we have more time). In this case, for instance, dignity has historically be limited to believers in religion x, or to males, or to those with some correct skin or hair color

Freedom that can only flourish in a society committed to liberty for all

Equality that involves an equal playing field and the education that can profit from it

Democracy that respects human choosings—now and in the future

Reasoning as the appropriate way to assess claims and evidences, and is particularly evidenced in the modern sciences

Pleasure as an individual right that mutually respects the pleasures and freedoms of others


These Enlightenment values are under heavy attack today—especially in the United States, but in many societies and from many religions. We have allies, however,  among secular neighbors and those belonging to liberal, progressive, and modernized religions—and we must work together with them. We do share values of universal education, gender equality, rights to health, eliminating racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination, protecting the natural world and its diversity by sustainable development.


While working with these allies to defend and extend these values, however, we must nevertheless not neglect those values that have emerged precisely because of our humanist orientation—a lifestance freed of theisms and supernaturalisms.


In 1952 at the founding of the International Humanists and Ethical Union Julian Huxley reminded us that once we knew how evolution worked, we were responsible for it. And he meant social as well as biological evolution. This was his response to the then dominant Anglo-American philosophical positivism that said that ethical ideas were nonsense and that science was purely descriptive. UNESCO may not have been ready for Huxley’s humanism, but many of us saw it as a way to start from the improved pictures of the sciences and move to a new ethic of human fulfillment that was contingent upon a commitment to the human fulfillment of all of our neighbors.


Richard Dawkins has coined the word “meme” to label those ideas that persist and compete, that self-replicate. Fair enough. I would add another Briticism. Loudspeakers in London’s subways, as straight trains stop in stations with curving tracks, are continually reminding passengers to “Mind the gap.”  We humanists must start saying “Mind the meme!” That English verb 'mind' carries a number of powerful meanings: be sure to see; watch over; obey; take care of; watch out for.


My listing of values that stem from the Enlightenment are really memes that today need minding. Their enemies are well-trained and well-funded. Humanists and their allies must make our memes and their consequences clear.


But we must also continue our pioneering of new memes. Our humanist freedom from theisms lets us—no makes us—expand our basic ethic into new areas. Let me suggest a few.


1. humans have a variety of sexual orientations (by nature and nurture and simple survival), and a mature culture will find ways to respect these within the broad limits of cultural advancement. Our sexuality is a major source of desirable pleasure throughout he lifecycle

2. humans deserve educations that comprehend the full range of religions and ideologies of human cultures and their consequences and thus facilitate their choices of best fits

3. democracy, undergirded by this kind of education, is the government best suited to human fulfillment

4. sciences are our best way of understanding the indifferent nature in which we are evolving, and of proposing modifications based upon desired consequences

5. all humans possess a potential for reasoning, and reason is the wisest guide in all human actions—not power, faith, instinct, or tradition

6. all of these values presuppose the exercise and maintenance of human freedom and social liberty

7. the preservation and expansion of culture is the supreme human achievement


Now religions may have been the focus of my life in my academic world, but they always function in concert with political and economic and social forces. Societal breakdowns often forge new combinations. In 1933 a brilliant young psychoanalyst realized the similarities in emerging recombinations struggling in Weimar Germany. Wilhelm Reich called it “red fascism.” Beneath the seeming differences of Nazism and communism he detected common needs to control persons and prevent the rights to freedom and pleasure that had been Enlightenment values. The enforced atheism of the Soviets and the Aryan religiosity of National Socialism might have seemed quite different, but both were committed to  the suppression of human individuality and freedom. In the end, neither was able to transform the bleak religiosity of its society.


Back to the academy. The monumental study of fundamentalisms recently completed by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby is must reading for humanists, especially the summarizing volume where they describe these religiosities as “strong religions” (Almond, Gabriel Abraham, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan. Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). Their common denominator is not necessarily an ancient scripture but a rejection of the modern world of the Enlightenment, the world that is the very foundation of our humanism.


US society today is strongly attracted toward a theocracy that finds absolute truths and values in a past that is imagined by very vocal and very effective religious leaders. Their success rests upon ignorance. Those deistic Christians that framed the US revolution knew all too well the dangers of priestly tyranny, inquisitions and holy wars— and they insisted upon a neutral federalism that could surmount the sectarian pretensions and competitions. But they could not have foreseen our time when a trivialized mass media has allowed the most loudest and least educated to define Christianity, patriotism, science, history, and morality. In the meantime, the populace is being regaled with celebrities and sports. We are indeed “amusing ourselves to death,” as Neil Postman put it.


The Enlightenment pioneers of  democracy took an educated populace for granted—a populace that knew its history and knew the continual struggle against the “interests” that wanted to restore their privileges


A careful observer, Fareed Zakaria,  describes “illiberal democracy” as the downshifting of power to populations who are uneducated and therefore unconcerned, Think of the ways that onetime intense theological rivalries have been consolidated into a “Christianity” that cares about little beyond anti-abortionism and homophobia. This is not just the world of the new megachurches. The dumbing-down promulgates from TV and from radio and press.


Today’s theocrats spend little time with doctrine. They are absorbed in the costly marketing of a few morality slogans that are, in actuality, barely observed by their own flocks. The real power here is corporate, with its political allies. How can the few defend their privilege? How can growing inequality of wealth be concealed? How can free market slogans obscure the domination of the undeveloped world and despoliation of the non-human environment?


Humanists may be few in numbers, but I hear them rising to expose this creeping theocratism with careful analyses. And I hear them analyzing the concentrations of transnational corporate powers and the resultant autonomy of the few. And I hear them laying bare the foundations of militarism and US exceptionalism upon which it rests. Some of us have been using the word “fascism” to describe this concentration of wealth, power, and privilege. The brilliant framing, packaging, and marketing needs to be called what it most closely resembles—theofascism.


Matthew Arnold spoke of “acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit” (Literature & Dogma-preface to 1873 edition). Today I would add a third verb—known and said AND built. Scientists, architects, painters, poets, playwrites, composers—they too create culture.


Were it not for us evolving humans, none of these bests would exist. They reside not in Plato’s Forms, not in Jehovah’s mind, not in any alleged eternal and absolute truths. Cultures are, if you will, adaptive combinations of those strange quarks—whose kingdom shall have no end—as one of the ancient texts put it.


Humanists do believe in locating bests. And in the tradition of the Enlightenment, we know that “bests” only emerge comparatively, when we have compared alternatives, when we have moved from being “faith-based” to “reality-based”— only emerge when we have evaluated honestly and openly the effects of our actions.