My Theological Quest Ends in Secular Humanism

Paul Heffron

Some people come to secular humanism through a theological quest. I am one of them.

In the 1950s, my older brother, some friends, and I were drawn to a Congregational church because it had a basketball court. The minister got us into the youth group, the youth choir, and the church’s sports teams. He was like a social worker. He, the church building, the community, and the various activities were a big influence on me. This led to my working on the staff of a YMCA camp led by an inspirational Evangelical camp director. He, the camp, and the camp community were also a big influence on me. I had a not-very-coherent mix of liberal and conservative Protestant beliefs as a result. I decided to go into the ministry.

I went to Yankton College of Liberal Arts (now a federal prison) and majored in English and philosophy. That pretty much eliminated the conservative Evangelical beliefs but left me with a not-very-well-founded liberal religious outlook. I expected seminary would clear things up.

At Andover Newton Theological School (now closed) and then in the parish ministry, I was affected by the newer trends of the Ecumenical Movement, the critique of liberal theology, and the attempt to somehow make neo-orthodoxy palatable. But there was a counter-trend that shaped my theological quest. That trend was nicely summarized in a small paperback best seller, Honest to God, by Anglican bishop A. T. Robinson. He singled out three theologians I had read, thanks to a seminar by Harvey Cox.

First there was Rudolf Bultmann, known for demythologizing the New Testament. The three-story universe with demons coming up from the first story and angels coming down from the third story was something a modern person had to reject, but one could find meaning in the second story. For Bultmann, that led to Christian existentialism. For me and other Americans, it meant an empirical-humanitarian approach to the world and message of the gospel.

Second was Paul Tillich with his elimination of theism and supernaturalism. Tillich famously said that God was “not a being among beings” but was “the Ground of Being or Being itself.” That sounded profound, but no one explained exactly what it meant, including Tillich. Still, at the very least it meant that there was no supreme being and no supernatural realm. Modern monism meant that theological ideas had to be about some aspect of the natural world, something foundational.

Third was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his last letters from prison, he called for a “religionless” Christianity, for worldliness, for a concept of Jesus as the man-for-others and of the church as a community that served the secular needs of modern individuals and society. He defined religion as seeking salvation (answers, solutions, rescue, etc.) from God. He claimed that modern people were no longer capable of that experience or belief system and had to take responsibility for themselves, for each other, and their world. There was need for a moratorium on the concept of God, he argued, and for an end to religion.

I adopted but struggled with these ideas as an assistant minister for two years and then as a pastor for three years in the United Church of Christ. After demythologizing, de-supernaturalizing, and de-religionizing, what was left? I had wanted to believe and loved the church as a human community, and I especially wanted to believe the core idea of the gospel that somehow God through Christ would make me into a new being, something like the minister and the camp director who so inspired me. The results of my quest all welled up at one very intense moment, and I said over and over, “God ain’t doing a damn thing.” The theological quest was over.

That was in 1967. I left the ministry and did a PhD in American studies at the University of Minnesota, seeking a secular way of life and thought. In 1980, the first issue of Free Inquiry came to me out of the blue. It all came together right there in the Secular Humanist Declaration and the articles that followed. I knew my place in intellectual history, my community, and the identity for my views and values.

More recently, I talked about the result of my theological quest on a radio program. Hearing it, a freethought musician, composer, and vocalist wrote a song called “God Ain’t Doin’ a Damn Thing” and dedicated it to me. Through song, I will be immortal.

Some honest seekers have come to secular humanism, or close to it, through theological pursuits. It happened in the liberal Protestant movement beginning in nineteenth-century Germany (Friedrich Schleirmacher, Ernest Troeltsch, and their ilk), in the Unitarian humanist movement of the 1920s and 1930s (John Dietrich, Edwin Wilson, and their ilk), in the radical theology of the 1960s (“Death-of-God,” Thomas Altizer, William Hamilton, Paul van Buren). Some went all the way to secular humanism and left religion, theology, and the church behind. I was one of them.

Paul Heffron

Paul Heffron was a founding member of Humanists of Minnesota and served in various positions. He’s been a professional musician and was the pianist and composer with the Freethought Band. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Shoreview, Minnesota.

How an eclectic ecumenical minister’s theological quest ended in secular humanism.

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