The Paulings and Unitarianism

Stephen Fritchman and Linus Pauling, La Jolla, California. 1969.

In Unitarianism I have found a religion without dogma: A growing, changing, open-minded willingness to learn and, above all, to work.

– Ava Helen Pauling, “Why I am a Unitarian,” September 18, 1977.

Though both Linus and Ava Helen Pauling were avowed atheists,  they did maintain a long and friendly relationship with the Unitarian Church.  This relationship was rooted in their friendship with Stephen Fritchman (1902-1981), a Reverend of the Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, as well as an active and influential member of several peace-oriented organizations.

When Linus and Ava Helen joined the Hollywood Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions in 1945, Fritchman held one of the vice-presidencies of the organization. Though they were familiar with Fritchman in this regard, the Paulings did not become better acquainted with him until after the memorial service for Linus Pauling’s trusted physician and friend, Dr. Thomas Addis, who died in 1949.

In the early 1940s, Pauling was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, a condition that most doctors at the time considered fatal. Pauling was referred to a specialist, Dr. Addis, whose alternative treatment is widely credited with having saved Pauling’s life. The respectful and dignified memorial service that was held by Rev. Fritchman for Dr.  Addis left the Paulings feeling comforted, hopeful and interested in the Unitarian Church itself.

Both Linus and Ava Helen had rejected organized religion at very young ages. Notions of an anthropomorphic god and salvation dependent on intercession from a third party were discarded, in favor of a doctrine of reason, ethics and morality. In various interviews over the the years, both of the Paulings evinced similar reasons for joining the Unitarian church, but took great care to mention that a creed or means of salvation were not among them.

To this end, Ava Helen once listed seven principles of Unitarianism, formulated by a Unitarian committee in 1930, to highlight the similarities of outlook between science, Unitarianism and her own personal beliefs. They included:

  1. Use of scientific method in approaching religion.
  2. Rationality of the universe and progressive discovery of truth.
  3. Humility and reverence toward vaster forces of the universe.
  4. Conviction of infinite possibility of human progress.
  5. Free exercise of intelligence in religion.
  6. Conviction of self-sufficiency of humanity to solve its problems.
  7. Sense of human brotherhood.

Linus Pauling claimed on several occasions to enjoy his independence within the peace movement, but he was also very fond of the connections that he sometimes made with the “like-minded individuals” representing any number of peace-oriented organizations. As with his participation in many other peace- and science-related activities, Pauling’s involvement in the Unitarian church offered an opportunity to network, share ideas and practice public speaking.

When Dr. Pauling spoke of the value of certain religiously oriented institutions, he sometimes likened them to gaps which he felt science could not fill. In a speech crafted for the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles in 1969, Pauling observed that “despite our increasing power over nature, the amount of suffering in the world remains very great…The major reason for the continued misuse of our power over nature, for the continued existence of a great amount of human suffering, is that the world is not operated on the basis of an accepted ethical principle.” Though he was openly averse to supernaturalism, mysticism and dogmatism, Pauling was a humanist who believed that both humanism and modern Unitarianism were rational philosophies that could be a source of good in the world.

In due course, the Paulings became active church members, and Linus was invited to join the Unitarian Service Committee, a “nonsectarian, voluntary agency whose purpose [was] to promote human welfare through service.” The Paulings also came to greatly admire Rev. Fritchman’s tolerance of diverse opinions, his respect for individualism and what they often referred to as his “great social conscience.”

Soon after the resolution of Linus Pauling’s initial bout of passport problems, Fritchman himself was denied a passport to Australia, where he was scheduled to speak at a Unitarian celebration. Pauling wrote a letter to the State Department, protesting the passport denial. In Fritchman’s defense, Pauling wrote:

I have known Mr. Fritchman for several years. I consider him to be a great man. He is one of the most honest, forthright, straightforward and high-principled men that I have ever known. He is an honor to the United States of America – the world would be a great world indeed if one percent of its people were comparable to Mr. Fritchman.

During the 1950s, the Unitarian church became embroiled in a controversy involving California loyalty oaths. A case condemning the group was brought to trial, but the church was eventually vindicated by a United States Supreme Court ruling. This event, among many others, did much to strengthen the bond between the Paulings and the church.

Above all, Linus and Ava Pauling found in Unitarianism a unique forum to fight against the grave problems facing the world. Their participation in the church was not often separated from fervent activism or an acknowledgment of difficult political realities. The connections that they made fit well into their condemnation of war, nuclear proliferation, militarism and inequality.

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