Becoming More Fully Human: Religious Humanism as a Way of Life

“The human being is by nature a social animal (Ho anthrōpos phusei politikon zōon).”
—Aristotle, Politics (see also Nicomachean Ethics)

In 2006, three years after retiring as the head of the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, humanist William R. Murry published his highly influential book, Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century. In it he coined the phrase “humanistic religious naturalism,” justified his emphasis on each of its three words, and proceeded to explain the many implications of this phrase and the book’s title. Of the problematic word “religious,” Murry wrote:

If religion is equated with belief in a supernatural deity, religious humanism cannot be considered religious. But while such a definition of religion is the popular one in the United States, it is not universal. Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, and some forms of Buddhism, for example, are not theistic. Moreover, numerous definitions of religion do not include reference to a deity.

He gave some examples and then concluded, “As I see it, religion refers to becoming more fully human [emphasis mine] by living as intensely, as joyfully, and as responsibly as possible, and it includes the affective and the ethical as well as the intellectual dimensions.”

Five years later Murry wrote yet another timely—even prescient—volume, setting forth in greater detail what he means by “becoming more fully human,” and so delineating what might well become the dominant future style of American humanism. If you’re skeptical, consider the following anecdotal evidence: on December 28 of last year the New York Times carried a somewhat paradoxical article about the horrific massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, headlined “In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent.” While on one hand the author, Columbia University journalism professor Samuel G. Freedman, acknowledged that the victims’ parents had not gone to humanist counselors in their grief, he nevertheless appeared to single out humanists—compared with traditional religious groups—as somehow unresponsive to this tragedy.

When Freedman invited several prominent humanists to comment on his thesis, they voiced their own concerns that humanists are often poorly prepared to console their fellow humanists when they need it most. Psychologist Darrel W. Ray, founder of the organization Recovering from Religion, conceded that “there are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.” Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein suggested that, “what religion has to offer [in such cases]…is community. And we need to provide an alternative form of community if we’re going to matter for the increasing number of people who say that they are not believers.” Freedman noted that Epstein “is currently involved in a three-year, $2.5-million project to study, develop and spread the concept of nonreligious community.”

I have cited this article because the caring style of Epstein’s “alternative form of community” appears to align closely with the caring style of Murry’s nontheistic “religious humanism.” And both stem from concepts originally put forward eighty years ago and endorsed by John Dewey and thirty-three colleagues (seventeen of whom were Unitarian ministers) in the first Humanist Manifesto (HM-I). In fact, HM-I was essentially just a longish definition of religious humanism as understood in 1933. Over the next thirty years religious humanism gradually grew in influence among Unitarian ministers and congregations, especially from the Midwest to the Pacific.

Presumably, Epstein avoids the phrase “religious humanism” because it’s become an oxymoron to many humanists, who might, understandably, interpret it to suggest a fake humanist edifice superimposed upon a theistic religious foundation. In 1933, however, it was exactly the opposite. Most signers of HM-I, particularly those who were ministers, clearly had in mind actual religious communities that had evolved over decades into nontheistic communities by gradually abandoning all theistic trappings while retaining a religious form.

Since the Enlightenment, and especially since Darwin, psychologists, sociologists, and other thinkers have sought to explain the origin and persistence of traditional religions in scientific and, ultimately, evolutionary terms. One prominent example is the sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), who attempted to discover what today we might call a nontheistic functional equivalent of religion (to paraphrase William James’s “moral equivalent of war”). In his 1939 work, Emile Durkheim and His Sociology, Durkheimian scholar Harry Alpert identified Durkheim’s four major functions of religion as:  “disciplinary, cohesive, vitalizing, and euphoric social forces.” Freedman, Ray, and Epstein, as quoted in this review, affirm that traditional religions are able to provide psychological functions like pastoral care, consolation in a time of grief, and community, all of which support group cohesion. The issue is whether and how well these functions can be handled by humanisms.

The humanism of HM-I clearly aimed to perform most psychological and social functions of traditional religions with no need for theism or other supernaturalisms. In 1961 “religious humanism” entered the Merriam-Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary with this barebones definition: “A modern American movement composed chiefly of nontheistic humanists and humanist churches and dedicated to achieving the ethical goals of religion without beliefs and rites resting upon supernaturalism.” Note that functions other than “ethical” were overlooked here. Consolidation of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations took place in the same year, altering the complexions of both. Two years later the Fellowship of Religious Humanists was formed to support and strengthen religious humanism in the new Unitarian Universalist Association, attracting nontheist members not only within the UUA but also from two other congregational-styled nontheistic organizations, the American Ethical Union and the newly founded Society for Humanistic Judaism. All fit the description “functionally religious.”

In both Reason and Reverence and Becoming More Fully Human, Murry spells out many of those psychological and social functions for people who nowadays may wish to practice humanism in what he calls “alternative forms of community.” And he does so in simple language with warm, gentle elegance and satisfying clarity.

Affectionately known by some as “the Green Book” for its cover, or BMFH for short, Becoming More Fully Human is divided into five parts, each with an introduction and several brief but meaty chapters. Part One, “Toward a More Vital Humanism,” contains ten chapters on the basics—religious humanism, religious naturalism, community, humanist spirituality, and the relation of science to religion and humanism. Part Two brings together essays on ethics in general and thirteen specific virtues ranging from reverence (Paul Woodruff’s “forgotten virtue”) to patience (tough one there!) to a sense of humor. Parts Three, “Humanist Ethics,” Four, “Becoming Fit to Live With,” and Five, “Matters of Life and Death,” complete this richly populated book.

Together these sections comprise essays averaging slightly under five pages long, just about the right length to stimulate a private “thought for the day” or a lively group discussion. Despite the easy conversational tone throughout and the deceptive familiarity of some topics, no subject is treated in a trivial manner. It’s clear that Murry, who was the minister of River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, from 1981 to 1997, has gone far beyond any of the Humanist Manifestos in scope. A colleague of mine who found himself in an energetic disagreement about “gratitude” at a Thanksgiving observance was dismayed and incredulous to discover in a thorough search that none of the manifestos mentions gratitude. But it is in BMFH (Part Two, Chapter 6), along with many other topics similarly neglected in those necessarily limited sources.

Full disclosure requires me to reveal that I was one of the pre-publication readers of BMFH, and I praised it then as I do now. But don’t take my word for the quality of Murry’s work. Get a copy of BMFH and judge for yourself.