The Unitarian Rationalist Tradition: What We Can and Cannot Know


It is obviously not possible in this single presentation to provide anything more than the most introductory overview to the topic of the use of reason by Unitarian thinkers. Nonetheless in doing so, some groundwork will be provided to introduce the notion of 'formal pragmatics' - an advanced analytic method for determining what constitutes a rational or irrational word or deed. Finally, and working on the presumption that people will be a little mentally exhausted of theory by this point, some suggestions can be made for the practical orientation of Unitarians that is appropriate to the tradition and to a Church institution.

The Unitarian Tradition

Unitarian historians traditionally place the minority position of Arius at the formation of the Nicene Creed at 325 as our origins. As would be known to all present, Arius stressed the humanity of Jesus over the supposed divinity and in particular the claim that Jesus and God were of the same 'substance'. It is a pity that after his defeat the papers of Arius were burnt and their possession was made into a capital crime as clearly there is a glimmer of reason emerging at this point and it would be interesting to further investigate his logic, other than the few records available to us. For to claim that a human being is of a god-like substance beckons investigation, both empirical and rational. So let this be our first application of reasoning powers - those who claim special divine status or divine knowledge, unavailable to us mere mortals, should be subject to scrutiny and skepticism.

Complementary to the traditional and metaphysical debates of Arius are those of the first modern Unitarian thinker, Michael Servetus, who is also famous for the discovery of the circulation of blood (we note a significant number of prominent scientists in the Unitarian tradition). In Servetus' texts, 'On The Errors of The Trinity' and 'The Restoration of Christianity' he made the significant claims that whilst Jesus was human and therefore knowable, the external 'God' beyond space and time was unknowable - and therefore in unity. It is notable that later in both discrete mathematics and logic the 'unknowable' must be represented by a singular variable, as there exists no means to make distinctions. This is extremely important to note - hundreds of years before Immanual Kant's classic refutation of metaphysics as a matter of reason in the 'Prolegama of Any Future Metaphysics' the Unitarian Michael Servetus had made the same essential point. Whilst completely appropriate at the time, it is a pity that Servetus spent so much of his time debating the evidence from the scriptures as well as from reason.

In the sixteenth century, we find two prominent Unitarians making some headway in the political world, but also contributing to reason by questioning some metaphysical beliefs. Faustus Soconius in his book, "On Christ The Saviour" he rejected the popular idea at the time that possibility of salvation came from the suffering of Jesus. Somewhat more sensibly he suggested that the morally virtuous come through good deeds rather than the sublime transfer of one man's pain to cleanse the sins of others. Thus in this case the personage of Jesus was more one of an example of moral leadership and that all human beings were capable of virtue.

On a less philosophical level, but with greater success, the Hungarian Francis David, author of 'On The True And False Knowledge of the One God' successfully worked to achieve the famous edict of 1568, where for the first time in Christian Europe, religious freedom was enacted in law and practice. Seeking to emulate Francis David, the Englishman John Biddle authored 'A Confession of Faith Touching The Holy Trinity' in the mid-seventeenth century. In the same year of publication, the British Parliament passed what was could the 'Draconic Ordinance', which made the denial of the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit an offense punishable by death.

The contributions of two particular Unitarians of the eighteenth and nineteenth century are of particular importance to elaborate on the practical and systematic implementation of that 'simple' freedom of religious thought and conscience. The first is Joseph Priestly, who incidentally, also discovered oxygen and the consumption of 'injured air' by plants. In religious texts Priestly was the author of 'History of the Corruptions of Christianity' and 'The History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ'. As with previous Unitarians Priestly emphasized in these texts the human rather than claimed divine side of Jesus, but in a practical sense he was an ardent supporter of the French revolution, particularly the universalist notions of human equality and the opposition to state-sponsored religions and churches. Such radical notions earned him the destruction of the New Meetinghouse where Priestly spoke, his home, library and laboratory. Priestly, for the sake of supporting freedom of religion and the universal rights of all, was forced to flee to America in 1794.

The other Unitarian whom I think is worthy of particular note, not just for raising the idea of freedom of religion, universal rights and most importantly working for the practical and legal implementation is Thomas Jefferson. Whilst never formally joining a Unitarian Church himself (there were none near his home in Virginia), he made his opinions on the matter quite clear and indeed once stated that he dearly wished that one day everyone would be a Unitarian. This conviction was not based on sectarian doctrine but simply based on the fact that Jefferson supported the Unitarian propositions of the separation of Church and State, the recognition of the universal equality within all people and a commitment to reason.

Jefferson's most important religious work is now entitled 'The Jefferson Bible'. It is a recounting of the gospels and in particular the moral and ethical principles established through the teachings of Jesus, but with the supernatural elements excluded (those which, 'suspend the laws of physics'). In the realm of practical politics, Jefferson's campaign to separate Church and State was initiated in Virginia, where taxes were being spent to provide churches and salary for a minority religion. His ideas on freedom of religion, of conscience and universal democratic rights influenced James Madison. This led to the pivotal 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I'll move here from this brief overview of the Unitarian heritage to the discussion of what constitutes 'reason' following debates in the 20th century. I admit from the outset that some of this may seem a little difficult to follow, but I would like to point out that this excursion into 'formal pragmatics' does provide a basis from which contemporary Unitarians can derive justification for social action that equates with the Unitarian rationalist tradition.

Formal Pragmatics

The idea of 'formal pragmatics' of reason, or to translate, the 'ideal situation' from which rational judgement can be made can be distinguished from the related term 'formal semantics', the ideal meaning of words. The term has been coined by the highly influential German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas, whose English translations are invariably published by Beacon Press, the publishing house of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Indeed, if I my make a point of it, it is through the Beacon Press publishing house that I first encountered and became interested in Unitarianism. Of course, it took me about ten years to act on it, which I now regret a great deal.

In a nutshell, formal pragmatics relies on two dimensions that form a matrix. One of the dimensions refers to the type of 'world' that one is speaking about. Habermas derives this idea from the famous philosopher of science Karl Popper, but with a stronger foundation in the social sciences. In this schema, the world dimension consists of the physical world of objects and artefacts, the social world of institutions and laws, and the individual world of morals and senses. But of course, these things do not exist in isolation. We do not consider an object in the abstract; rather we human beings also assign a particular means of evaluation. In this dimension, Habermas applies the ordinary language philosophy of Austin, Moore and Searle and others to derive three means of evaluation namely; constantives, regulatives, and expressives whose validity claims are based, respectively, on the truth of a statement, the justness of a course of action, or of the beauty of an expression, a triad which we may note has existed since Socrates.

From this matrix 'rationalization complexes' arise from the intersections of the world dimension and the orientation dimension. These are seen as possible points where reasonable comments can be made and points of both unity and distinction. In this schema, the following are "rational complexes": aesthetics (expressions to the physical world), science (constatives to the physical world), institutions (constantives to the social world), laws (regulatives in the social world), morals (regulatives to the individual world) and senses (expressions to the individual world). In addition the following “irrationalisable complexes” can be elaborated, that is metaphysics (regulatives to the physical world), cultures (expressives to the social world) and personalities (constatives to the individual world).


1. Physical

2. Social

3. Individual


1. Constantive




2. Regulative




3. Expressive




To see why these are 'irrationalisable' consider making statements to this world and discovering how they breach the pragmatics of ordinary everyday life. A regulative statement to the physical world 'It is evil that the storm occurred', 'Culture X is more beautiful than Culture Y', 'It has been predicted that Citizen Jane will do action 'B'”.

The key difference distinguishing a rational complex and an irrational complex is that knowledge can be derived from investigation, testing and falsification of the former, whereas the latter depend on asserting statements of belief. Belief itself isn't necessarily a bad thing – many scientific discoveries have been based on 'hunches', 'second guesses' and so forth. Indeed, the very possibility of demarcating and test the limit where a rational statement begins is dependent on making hypothetical statements that have an assertion as if they were true.

Rationalism and a Unitarian Agenda

In my opinion, both the Unitarian rationalist tradition and the contemporary schema of formal pragmatics provide an opportunity to justify an interest in civil liberties and social democracy. This interest can be summarized in general and in particular instances. In the general sense, the interest is the demarcation between irrationalisable 'beliefs' and rationalisable 'knowledges', where freedom of individual conscience remains of import for the former (belief), but also where the latter (knowledge) must have priority in all our social institutions. In the particular instances, it refers to what sort or proirities we can have.

We, as a liberal Church, need to counter conservative religious interpretations 'at home' and fundamentalist regimes 'abroad' primarily with the continued action to support the separation of Church and State, freedom of conscience and universal rights. The importance of Unitarian intervention and lobbying in this field should not be underestimated – for it will never be possible for the people to experience personal freedom, a democratic society or scientific investigation without these rights. And notably our finest hours are when Unitarians have been the most ardent defenders of these rights.

We thus defend belief as a matter of principle and seek this right to be implemented as a practical political goal. To attempt to curtail this right is a grave political error – we would be acting beyond what is the ken of normal human beings. Yet to seek social and institutional endorsement of a particular belief system – that is, something that cannot be universally applied from the autonomous knowledge of each and every individual subject – is likewise a form of oppression we must resist, with all the energy we can muster.

I will beg to differ at this point with the recent suggestion of the esteemed Rob Watts from the School of Social Sciences at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology who also often speaks at this Church. In a recent presentation, Mr. Watts emphasized a priority towards local affairs and local action. Whilst I give some credence to his statements, it should also be acknowledged that Australia is still a very democratic country with most of the necessary criteria of freedom of religion, conscience and universal rights. Some other nations, indeed some very close to us, do not have the same luxury and in an increasingly globalised world this will become more evident. Thus, a sense of balance is needed between the very critical needs of our neighbours who are yet to achieve even the basics of religious freedom and universal rights and the defensive actions in advanced nations against attempts of fundamentalist resurgence and the push towards inequality.

In conclusion, the prospect of Unitarianism engaging in more traditional 'church-like' activities also needs to be considered. To be sure, Unitarians respect the autonomous decision making of individual congregations, within the basic premises of what constitutes the religion. Therefore these comments are not universally applicable. However the notion of this Church engaging less in an outward and expressive orientation and adopting instead an inward, introspective and ritualized service seems quite antithetical both to our own history and necessity. As has been shown today, the Melbourne Church is thus continuing a tradition of religious freedom and universal rights and members of the congregation may feel justifiable pride for the work they have done and continue to do. Long may it continue!

Derived from a presentation to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, September 8, 2002