The Academy and the Pulpit: 1930s-Style Humanism at Columbia University

Stephen P. Weldon

Most accounts of religious humanism depict it as a radical movement. The humanist rejection of god-centered traditions places it far outside of the religious mainstream, thereby giving it an image of ardent iconoclasm. Reflected, thus, against a common culture of Christian belief, the tenets of humanism are indeed radical.

How does humanism appear, though, when reflected against a different background, say, against the ivied walls of the academy? Does that same radicalism manifest? That same iconoclastic spirit? I suggest, in what follows, that often it does not. Religious humanists have not necessarily been a radical force in the academic world; in fact, at times, they have opposed radicalism. Insofar as academicians hold to different ideals and goals from ministers, the humanism in the academy and that in the pulpit were bound to differ as well. These differences had significant ramifications for the history of the movement, for it was in the halls of the university that self-proclaimed religious humanists came to find some of their most vociferous opponents, not among religionists, but among fellow humanists.

Humanists have been debating the question of whether humanism is a religion for years, and many are now tired of that debate, considering it only a semantic question. The history of the debate should not be dismissed, however, for it has had a profound effect on the humanist community, the organizational and institutional forms that fostered humanism. These forms included religious groups such as Ethical Culture societies and Unitarian congregations, as well as organizations such as the American Humanist Association and the earlier Humanist Press Association. Often unnoticed in this community, however, were informal networks of scholars, composed of friendships, student-teacher ties, and professional connections, occasionally bridging whole academic departments. These informal networks, it turns out, can tell us much about the development of ideas in the movement as a whole.

I focus on two people in particular: J. H. Randall, Jr., and Corliss Lamont. Randall, a noted Columbia scholar, was one of the thirty-four signatories of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto and was active in a variety of humanist-sponsored activities. Lamont became one of the humanist movement's most important spokesmen through the publication of his Humanism as a Philosophy in 1949 as well as one of the movement’s largest financial backers. Below is an attempt to characterize a singular difference of opinion between the two men, a difference in the way that they understood and characterized humanism vis-à-vis its relationship to religion. At the same time it is an attempt to see through those differences to certain common assumptions about the role of scholars in the academy.

John Herman Randall, Jr., somewhat heavy and imposing in stature, was a quiet, reserved man. He had a wit and a memory that were the admiration of colleagues. And he was precocious. At nineteen, he took his bachelor's degree at Columbia University with top honors; at twenty-three, his doctorate there as well. And by the age of twenty-five he had already written a lengthy and amazingly ambitious history of modern philosophy, published a few years later as The Making of the Modern Mind, which fellow scholars, at the time, praised as a monumental synthesis of Western thought. Columbia was to be his lifelong home. Upon graduation, he joined the philosophy faculty and remained there until his retirement in the late 1960s. Trained as a historian, his primary study was Renaissance and early modern philosophy, where he argued that Aristotelianism (which he thoroughly imbibed) provided the foundation for the development of modern science. Randall's scholarship, which at times sought to encompass the entire history of Western thought, shaped the way that he looked at the world. In particular, his style of doing history emphasized sympathetic understanding of past thinkers.

That same holistic spirit and sympathetic eye manifest his approach to religion as well. Randall's father was a lapsed Baptist minister who had moved to New York to help establish an independent nondenominational Community Church in New York City under the direction of John Haynes Holmes, one of the period's most influential Unitarian preachers. Growing up around the radical religious spirit that guided his father and his father's associates, Randall embraced a cosmopolitan religiosity that emanated from the liberal Protestant theology of that era. In the mid and late twenties, Randall even collaborated with his father on several projects, including one notable but relatively unnoticed book, Religion and the Modern World, that epitomized this cosmopolitan spirit.

The book provides a useful entrée into the Randalls' understanding of religion as a universal human enterprise. Indeed, the point that best characterizes their view of religion is its universality and its ubiquity throughout human history. The social sciences&emdash;sociology, psychology, anthropology&emdash;had revealed the “source and foundation of all religion” in man himself, according to the Randalls. “Religion is primarily a thing, not of beliefs or organizations, but of the deepest emotions of human life, of emotional drives, attitudes, aspirations. . . . Religion is a way of life, not a kind of belief or a particular organization.” For them, then, science yielded new ways of appreciating religion, a point contrary to the oft-held view that science is by nature an antagonist of religion, not its helpmate. Far too often, the Randalls explained, a literal-mindedness tended to dominate thinking about religion. Both secularists and religionists alike tended to characterize individual religious faiths in terms of competing truth claims, both those between religion and science (over such issues as evolution, for instance) or those between different faiths (concerning things like different points of doctrine).

Opposing this literal-mindedness, the Randalls sought to understand religion symbolically and metaphorically in order to embrace religious diversity. Recent advances in psychology and other social sciences, they claimed, allowed one to see religion as symbolic manifestations of people's innermost strivings and desires. When understood this way, rather than as expressions of literal truth, religious worship could be opened up, and people could begin to understand the beliefs and practices of other times and places as more than just meaningless superstition. With that frame of mind, “the radical Protestant may read with sympathy and new understanding the history of the Roman Catholic Church. . . . The enlightened Christian can worship in the Jewish synagogue.” People could “see all religious beliefs as the metaphors of discourse, as the symbolic renderings of deep human experiences.”

This was a radical re-visioning of religious thought and practice. It suggests a profound faith in the ability of individual human beings to transcend their personal biases in order to appreciate some purported universalistic elements of faith. The Randalls had a similarly profound faith in the role of knowledge to affect religion in a constructive way. They placed science at the heart of this inner transformation; it was the social sciences, they said, that could direct people to this new perspective on religion. The younger Randall saw humanism as the result, and in the early thirties, he played an active role in promoting it.

In order to clearly understand this humanism, it is necessary to reflect on the religious context that gave rise to it. Randall and his father had come out of the Protestant modernist movement, and their humanism, like that of most religious humanists at the time, reveals more than a trace of that way of thinking. Liberal theology flourished in the seminaries and colleges of America in the early part of this century. That theology asserted that the Bible and Christianity had been in constant flux throughout their histories. Because this was the case, further change was thought to be inevitable and indeed necessary for Christianity to survive in a modern world dominated by scientific habits of mind. Christianity had to be “modernized” to make it compatible with new knowledge.

Modernists adopted a primarily naturalistic perspective on the world and toward Christianity. With regard to questions about God, positions differed significantly, but most of these theologians felt compelled to retain theistic language, albeit reinterpreting it in naturalistic ways. Many of them held God to be an immaterial force in the world, a plan, or a goal, toward which the universe and human history were progressing. Modernism gave rise to religious humanism. The early humanists were converts to modernism who believed that modernism did not go far enough. Why not, they asked, stop talking of God altogether and abandon the specifically Christian focus? Humanists embraced naturalism and universalism to an extent that most modernists would not. They thus formed one end of a spectrum of liberal religious opinion&emdash;primarily Protestant in form&emdash;that thrived in the early years of the twentieth century.

The question that guides us here, is how that religious movement was manifest in the academy. The younger Randall's activities provide an important insight, indicating the distinctive religious milieu that pervaded the Columbia philosophy department. First of all, Randall was a member of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, an explicitly nontheistic religious group, which counted many of the younger Columbia philosophy faculty among its membership. The founder of Ethical Culture, Felix Adler, was the son of a Reform rabbi; he had drawn on the ethical spirit of Judaism, the naturalistic conclusions of contemporary religious scholarship, and the activist impulse of the social gospel (a liberal Protestant social movement) to create an agnostic religion for modern times. The resulting Ethical Culture movement sponsored numerous projects, from settlement houses to education for children of lower-class working parents. Adler's Sunday lectures deemphasized traditional religious themes and often treated politics or other secular issues in their stead&emdash;”deed, not creed,” he proclaimed. Adler had an appointment on the Columbia philosophy faculty and played an active role in the larger philosophical community in this country. As a teacher, he only gave one seminar per week at Columbia, but his charisma captivated many students, and a number of them joined Ethical Culture as a result. One student of his, Horace Friess, a contemporary of Randall's, who like Randall became a member of the faculty after taking his doctorate at Columbia, also became one of Adler's most loyal protégé's and, eventually, his son-in-law.

Many of the faculty, including Randall, gave lectures at the Ethical Society on humanistic and religious topics. Although I have not discovered the content of Randall's lectures, their titles give a hint of his interests: “The Experimental Attitude in Morals,” “The Ethical Life and the Humanist Temper,” and “The Ethical Challenge of Pluralistic Society.” It is not clear how often Randall attended services&emdash;and a letter in the late thirties suggests that his interest had waned somewhat by that time&emdash;but, all indications point to him being active in the Society during the early part of that decade. All in all, Randall's work with his father, his membership in the Ethical Society, his lectures on religion to various groups, and his signing of the first Humanist Manifesto paint a picture of a man closely involved in the humanistic religious movement.

As I have already noted, Randall was by no means alone in the department in his religious pursuits; a great many of the faculty embraced some form of religious humanism. In one notable address in a Columbia University chapel service in 1932 where Randall defended the vitality of modern religion, “about 100 persons, including virtually the entire Philosophy Department, attended.” The vigorous interest which the philosophers at Columbia took in religious issues was striking, so much so, in fact, that some of the members eventually established a separate department of religion at Columbia.

In another work, I have discussed at greater length the extent of the interconnections between the various contemporary humanistic religious groups and the philosophers at Columbia, and I do not have the space to do so again here. Suffice it to say that there were extensive ties between Unitarian humanist ministers, Ethical Culture Leaders, and a network of naturalistic philosophers around the country. Columbia became one vital node in this network.

Corliss Lamont, three years Randall's junior, presents a striking contrast to the reticent, round-faced prodigy. Lamont, tall and lean, had a blunt, caloric personality. Born into wealth, Lamont was the second son of Thomas W. Lamont, a well-connected and highly successful businessman, partner and later chairman of the board of the J. P. Morgan banking firm in New York. Corliss did not follow his father into business but turned instead to philosophy. He took his undergraduate degree with honors at Harvard University in 1924 and then returned to New York for graduate work at Columbia (where Randall had just joined the faculty). In politics, he rebelled from the liberal capitalism that had brought his family such wealth: reading John Reed and Karl Marx, he turned to left-wing politics and, ultimately, to outright democratic socialism. The irony of his upper-class privilege and his socialist idealism did not escape many people. But ironic or not, he stood by his ideals and remained a committed socialist the whole of his long life. Even in 1994, a year before he died, his cluttered, modest apartment in Morningside Heights reflected his politics: a series of recent snapshots hung on the wall that showed him standing beside a smiling Fidel Castro; and on his desk, a small photograph of Lenin.

Lamont eventually became one of the most important patrons of the humanist movement, giving it both his great energy and much of his inherited fortune. He discovered humanism during his years at Columbia as a graduate student and instructor, 1925 to 1932. That was the period when humanism was reaching its zenith. New books on humanism by popular and well-respected writers appeared monthly on bookstore shelves, the first explicitly religious humanist organization was established at the Unitarian Meadville seminary, and a small journal, The New Humanist, began circulation. Gradually, the network of scholars, ministers, and laymen crystallized, forming the intellectual nucleus of this movement.

Lamont embraced the idealism of the religious humanists but never accepted their particular stance toward religion. Since the philosophy faculty at Columbia, for the most part, were all humanists like Randall, the differences between Lamont and the rest became ever more apparent as he pressed forward in his graduate work. Lamont's doctoral dissertation examined the philosophical and scientific arguments over immortality: How, thought Lamont, could science and the scientific way of thinking be applied to the notion of immortality, which was so often tied to religious dogmas? And what ramifications would such an analysis have for the self-perception of modern men and women? Ultimately, Lamont concluded simply that there were no convincing arguments for immortality, either scientific or philosophical.

Immortality must have seemed like an obvious topic to present to a faculty of naturalistic, atheistic humanists, but this proved not to be the case. Although most of the faculty must have accepted his findings with few qualms, the endeavor did not sit well with them. They did not share his excitement over the project, did not see it as a proper device for advancing religious humanism. He was urged to tone down his characteristic bluntness. Some of the professors even cautioned him to not go around calling himself an atheist; it was bad manners, which they likened, he reported, to “going to a dinner-party in a golf-suit.”

Having been brought up in an environment infused with far less religious activism or idealism than any of the current faculty, Lamont had special difficulty understanding the religious culture that dominated the department. A maverick by disposition, and an inveterate arguer, he disapproved of the conformist impulses he detected in his friends and colleagues. He began to see that religious humanism harbored a latent passivity that he felt to be inimical to the spirit of true humanism. And he minced no words in his attack upon it.

In 1934, as a recent graduate and a lecturer in the department, Lamont voiced his views in a letter to Randall, whom he now considered a colleague and friend. This letter, composed while Lamont was rewriting his dissertation for publication, deserves careful attention as it reveals much about Lamont's relationship to the Columbia faculty. He was extremely angry at the way the professors had treated his work. The faculty, he charged, could not be moved to openly attack supernaturalistic religion even though they themselves adhered to atheistic naturalism and knew it to be the only defensible philosophy. Instead, they redefined “God,” “immortality,” and other religious terms solely, in his view, out of cowardice: it was “verbal hocus-pocus.” Questions about religion and death, he believed, were far too important to be left vague, discussed only in sentimental language. Even the very term “religion” was not adequately defined. What could people mean by religious humanism, which he took to be essentially atheistic? “I feel no compulsion to accept the verdict of anthropologists and ethnologists,” he stated. “But as a matter of fact I doubt very much if my definition [of religion] conflicts greatly with their theories. For every religion I have ever heard of in the field of anthropological investigation does have about it an element of the supernatural. Religion has other characteristics also, but empirically this is its dintinquishing [sic] feature, its essential proprium.” “I believe that my reaction to the Dept.'s general line on religion represents the common-sense honesty of the man in the street. I know that the thing is a fraud, a snare, and a delusion.” Lamont's iconoclasm shaped the way he believed humanism should be understood, and he was sorely disappointed in the faculty for taking what he considered to be an effete, timorous stance toward religion. Lamont had little sympathy for traditional religious belief, especially when it so obviously contradicted the scientific worldview.

Whence the differences between Lamont and Randall?

Part of the answer has to do with upbringing. Randall and Lamont came from such different family backgrounds that their later ideological differences should not be surprising. Consider the contrast between the upbringing of the liberal minister's son and that of the wealthy banker's. Randall's father was of the middle class, a writer and preacher whose work brought him into contact with prominent American intellectuals. His work showed how religious institutions could affect people and communities directly. He and John Haynes Holmes had created a strong social reform program within a church context. Both Randall's father and Holmes were ardent pacifists, and Holmes was instrumental in many reform movements in New York at the time, including the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. Randall's youth, then, brought him a picture of religion as a powerful social force that could be wielded for many laudable, progressive ends.

By contrast, Lamont encountered an environment that had little if any strong religious forms, his father's work manifestly areligious, residing wholly in the secular sphere: the elder Lamont's involvement in social concerns ranged from educational and cultural philanthropies (he gave money to Harvard, his alma mater, and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art) to economic and political projects (he owned a newspaper for a while and served as economic advisor in Europe to President Wilson during and after World War I). Further, he was an ardent internationalist and promoter of the League of Nations. Corliss Lamont's involvement with religion was thus only peripheral, and he grew up with none of the faith in its world-redemptive promises that Randall had. As an institution, religion meant totally different things to Randall and Lamont.

Lamont placed great weight on these genealogical differences in his 1934 letter to Randall, Randall's situation being quite typical of the rest of the faculty: “Most of the members of the Department are either sons of ministers, son-in-laws [sic] of ministers, or ex-would-be ministers. Only, I suppose, when one is no more than the grandson of a minister, like myself, is it possible to view religion as objectively as any other phenomenon.” The faculty, he claimed, were still too closely attached to their Protestant roots to be able to think about religion in an unbiased manner. His point is well taken; personal background contributed greatly to the faculty's stance on religion.

Of course, Lamont himself held quite a strong bias in a different direction. His Marxism shaped his outlook in concrete ways. Randall's liberal religious meliorism could not match the zeal of Lamont's revolutionary iconoclasm. Once again his letter to Randall illuminates the point, for here we see Lamont's religious iconoclasm side by side with his political iconoclasm, both wielded against the rationalizations of his Columbia colleagues. This letter was written while Randall was on an eighteen-month sabbatical in Europe, so Lamont took the occasion to comment on the inherent political conservatism of the department. He observed that faculty members always spent their trips to Europe in “fascist” countries, and he chastised Randall and several others for not making an effort to visit the Soviet Union. Most of the faculty in the department, he declared, were “so far removed and out of touch with human realities and the central movements of human progress that a trip to Russia . . . might constitute an almost fatal shock.” His bitterness and frustration with his colleagues arose out of his disillusionment with what he saw as a timorous bourgeois attitude that pervaded the academic climate at Columbia. Far too much worry about “hurting people's feelings” at the expense of frank dealings with the pressing matters of real life. Far too much condescension toward the masses.

Lamont's political views were not out of place in the academy in the 1930s; nor was his general line on religion unique. First of all, demographic changes affected the composition of intellectuals, especially in New York City, the most cosmopolitan of American cities. Since America's founding, Protestantism had enjoyed a dominant position in the culture, producing far and away most of the country's prominent and influential men and women of letters; but a wave of immigration beginning in the 1880s changed all that. The obvious presence of Catholics and Jews in the society in the thirties made it impossible to any longer assume that the intellectual center of the nation had an uncontested Protestant or even Christian heritage. Second&emdash;and at least as significant&emdash;other secularizing tendencies influenced the ideological perspective of intellectuals. Scientific naturalism, on the one hand, and Marxism and socialism, on the other, eroded commitment to religiously based reform projects such as the Social Gospel, which had been so dominant in the previous decades. Against such changes, the humanist movement could not but be affected.

One might argue that the Ethical Culture Society with its Jewish connections would tend to minimize the unspoken Protestant tenor of the Columbia humanists. There are two reasons why I think this did not happen. First, Ethical Culture was the product of genteel, upper-class Jewish society and attracted well-established families who did not identify themselves as strongly with their Jewish heritage as they did with the established moneyed elite. Second, Ethical Culture rapidly absorbed gentiles into its movement, many of whom became Leaders. These non-Jews brought with them their ex-Protestant outlook and ideals, shaping Ethical Culture to more nearly fit the dominant liberal religious forms. Randall, I suggest, provides an excellent example of this.

Although, as we have seen, Lamont retained a view of humanism quite similar to that of the religious humanists, he was sensitive to a certain exclusivity and bias inherent in that form of humanism. Lamont, I am suggesting, was merely the spokesman for a growing secularism in the academy. Ironically, despite his genealogy, which firmly rooted him in the American aristocracy&emdash;that upper-class Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment&emdash;Lamont became a leader in the revolt against that very establishment. I suspect that Lamont's privileged upbringing allowed him to see the class-based and religiously based inequities in American society more clearly than did some of the middle-class religious humanists on the Columbia faculty. Later, the divide between humanism in the Protestant mode and other humanisms would become more pronounced as a younger generation of intellectuals joined the movement, people with very different backgrounds&emdash;vocal Jews from working-class immigrant families such as Sydney Hook, for example. These newcomers would have little sympathy for Protestant modernism or the church model of social reform.

Demographics, personality differences, and upbringing affected how Lamont, Randall, and the rest of the Columbia faculty viewed religion and dealt with religious issues. But these influences alone do not tell the whole story. The debates over religious humanism were tied to a broader cultural transformation that exacerbated the differences between the two groups. That transformation&emdash;namely, a shift in the religious center of gravity of the country toward more conservative theological views&emdash;was only just beginning to surface at this time. This conservatism threatened to undermine the liberal religious foundation upon which humanism was based. It would be ten years before the full impact of these conservative changes was to be felt, but some effects were clearly in evidence by the mid-1930s.

The conservative reaction to religious modernism arose out of concerns about the decadence and hedonism of post-World War I materialistic culture, the crippling economic depression, and the rise of totalitarian governments around the globe. None of these conditions readily lent themselves to the melioristic rhetoric of the modernists, which had been spawned in more optimistic times. Traditional Christian concepts of evil and sin, discarded by liberals, were revived; progressivism, reconsidered. An ever-growing number of people came to see naturalized religion as cold, uncomforting, and inadequate to the conditions of the day. This rethinking of modernism, whose theology had been built around the idea of radical change, evolutionary development, and the reconstruction of religion, had serious implications for those who claimed religion was not a fixed entity. Many people, it became clear, sought in religion a fixed foundation, not an ever-moving platform. Perhaps religion was not as malleable as the modernists and humanists had declared. As mainstream religion came to be identified more and more with neoorthodox theologies, the word “religion,” at least in its popular form, took on more conservative connotations, and it became obvious to people like Lamont that the circumscribed, metaphorical language used by so many of the humanists was bound to be misunderstood by the masses.

This theological conservatism took a variety of forms, but in the early 1930s it was probably the neoorthodox views of Reinhold Niebuhr, rapidly gaining notoriety, that caused the greatest worry among humanists. The increasingly popular Niebuhr, a preacher at Union Theological Seminary across the street from Columbia, posed a considerable threat to humanism, against which he leveled many attacks. Niebuhr's widely read Moral Man and Immoral Society of 1932, which laid the groundwork for his neoorthodox theology, explored the complexities of the moral nature of human beings. Shunning the easy optimism of the modernists and humanists who insisted that the solutions to humanity's most serious problems could be achieved through better education, he rejected the Enlightenment view of human nature with its faith in the infinite malleability of man and the efficacy of reason. In addition, Niebuhr counterposed the Enlightenment view that reason could reform politics to his own belief that reason and politics represented unbridgeable oppositions. Social change, according to him, could not stem from rational argument; reformers would always need to use raw power and coercion to make change, and it was naive to think otherwise. Christianity had much to teach modern man about human nature, he claimed; it recognized the existence of sin and did not gloss over the inherent tragedy in human affairs. The Christian teachings of contrition and humility could provide the antidote for the arrogant attitude spawned by humanism. All in all, the combination of growing conservatism alongside societal and demographic shifts led the way to a series of questions about the nature of humanism and religion.

The differences between these philosophers surfaced in their sympathy for or antipathy toward traditional religious beliefs.