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Reason and reverence

A new religious humanism is emerging that offers depth, meaning, and purpose without sacrificing intellectual honesty or the spiritual dimension.
By William R. Murry
Winter 2006 11.1.06

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Some time ago a neighbor, upon learning that I was a humanist, asked me what that meant. I replied that humanism refers to the affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person, a commitment to human betterment, and the necessity for human beings to take responsibility for themselves and the world. “Sounds like I’m a humanist, too,” he replied, seeming surprised. In this broad meaning of humanism, millions of people are humanists who do not identify as such, and humanist values permeate our cultural institutions.

I explained to my neighbor that there are many kinds of humanism and that some are theistic, whereas religious humanism and its cousin, secular humanism, are nontheistic.

Religious humanism is a life stance that exults in being alive in this unimaginably vast and breathtakingly beautiful universe and that finds joy and satisfaction in contributing to human betterment. Without a creed but with an emphasis on reason, compassion, community, nature, and social responsibility, it is a way of living that answers the religious and spiritual needs of people today. A new humanism is emerging among Unitarian Universalists, a religious humanism informed by cultural developments and recent discoveries in the natural and human sciences and grounded in the larger context of religious naturalism, a religious humanism that offers depth, meaning, and purpose without sacrificing intellectual honesty or the spiritual dimension.

Religious naturalism is a perspective that finds religious meaning in the natural world and rejects the notion of a supernatural realm. In recent years, religious naturalism has been enjoying a resurgence. Most religious naturalists are theists who understand God as belonging to the natural universe rather than as a supernatural deity.

I espouse a nontheistic faith, a perspective that I call humanistic religious naturalism. Like traditional religious humanism, it rejects the supernatural and maintains that there is only one reality, the natural universe. Traditional humanism, however, has historically been too anthropocentric, whereas for humanistic religious naturalism it is nature rather than humankind that is ultimate. This lays the foundation for a strong environmental ethic, a necessity in a world threatened by environmental destruction. Further, integrating religious humanism with religious naturalism results in a greater spiritual depth and a language of reverence, both of which many find missing in traditional religious humanism. This emergent form of humanism also provides a meaningful story, the epic of evolution. The differences with traditional religious humanism may seem subtle, but they provide a foundation for a more open, less rationalistic, and more inclusive humanism that speaks to the heart and the soul, not just the intellect.

At the same time, naturalism is not a sufficient source of religious meaning because nature is morally neutral or simply amoral. Its only value would seem to be creativity. Nature has produced what we perceive as the magnificence of the universe. Through evolution it created humankind, who in turn developed moral principles. But nature’s rain falls on the just and the unjust. Disease and death afflict everyone, regardless of character. Nature knows nothing of justice, love, kindness, or generosity. Humanism, with its conviction of the dignity and value of all humans and all that follows from this principle, provides the values that naturalism lacks.

Moreover, it seems to me that religious naturalism, in either its theistic or nontheistic form, is the basic theological perspective of liberal religion, particularly of Unitarian Universalism. The study Engaging Our Theological Diversity by the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations reinforces this conviction in several ways. The commission’s surveys revealed that the Seventh Principle, affirming “respect for the interdependent web of all existence,” is “at the center of our shared worldview” and that most respondents reject the idea of a two-story universe consisting of the natural and the supernatural. Further, most respondents who referred to God as part of their theology spoke of God in naturalistic terms as the power of creativity, an immanent force for good in the world, or simply as mystery. In a word, finding the sacred in the natural world appears to be one of the major characteristics of religious liberalism. This rejection of supernaturalism distinguishes liberal religion from other forms of Western religion.

Scholars often differentiate between two kinds of religion, mythos and logos. Mythos refers to imaginative religion based on myths, or stories with meanings. Myths provide an explanation of why things are the way they are and give a deeper meaning to life. The two creation stories in the Hebrew Bible are among the most famous myths in Western culture. I believe that myths were never meant to be taken literally but were probably understood even by a pre-scientific people as metaphorical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and mysterious to comprehend in any other way. It is only in a scientific age, with its emphasis on factual knowledge, that myths have come to be understood as facts. By taking myths literally, fundamentalist religion transforms mythos into logos.

Logos is rational religion, which in our time usually means religion based on the scientific-empirical worldview. Rational religion developed primarily in Greek philosophy, much of which is essentially a rationalized version of Greek mythology. It also arose to some extent in the Hebrew prophets, who rebelled against rituals and ceremony and emphasized moral living and social justice. Humanistic religious naturalism is a contemporary form of logos religion.

Myths and stories are important to religion, for they speak to our subconscious minds and therefore affect us at a deep level and influence our basic assumptions and attitudes. Although humanistic religious naturalism belongs to the logos type of religion, it does have stories that serve the same function as myths in providing a narrative understanding of the origin and meaning of the universe and of human life. One of these is the story of cosmic and biological evolution. It is the story of the creative, emergent powers of nature, and that story continues today in the form of the moral, spiritual, social, and cultural evolution that human creativity is bringing about. A second story, one consistent with the values of humanism, is the remarkable history of the expansion of human freedom in the world, both religious and political freedom.

Humanism has long been a target of the religious right. Several years ago the Rev. Tim LaHaye proclaimed that “Humanists are the mortal enemy of all pro-moral Americans, and the most serious threat to our nation in its entire history.” LaHaye is a leading evangelical Christian minister and co-author of the Left Behind series. LaHaye, Jerry Falwell, and others have blamed humanism for everything they believe to be wrong with America, such as reproductive choice, anti-poverty programs, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, laws against compulsory prayer in public schools, gun control, and sexuality education.

They are both right and wrong. They are dead wrong in calling humanists a threat to the nation’s morality, for humanism is a highly ethical way of life, but they are right in giving humanists credit for bringing about social change. By articulating my understanding of the emerging humanism, I hope to help others see it as a viable option for today’s world.

In her monumental study, A History of God, religions scholar Karen Armstrong writes:

When religious ideas have lost their validity, they have usually faded away painlessly; if the human idea of God no longer works for us in the empirical age, it will be discarded. Yet in the past people have always created new symbols to act as a focus for spirituality. Human beings have always created a faith for themselves, to cultivate their sense of the wonder and ineffable significance of life.

It is my conviction that in this empirical age, humanistic religious naturalism can and should be that faith.


I believe a viable religion of the twenty-first century must include the following five characteristics:

First is the affirmation that human beings are an integral part of nature. We are not separate and distinct from the rest of the natural world; we are part and parcel of it. We are related to every living creature, both plant and animal. The elements of which we are composed—carbon, calcium, iron—are the same elements of which the rest of the universe is made.

The second characteristic follows from the first: We are not dominant over nature, as we once believed; we are its stewards and trustees. A religion of the future will affirm humankind’s responsibility to preserve and sustain the natural world. The future of life on this planet and indeed of the planet itself depends on it.

Third, any viable future religion must take seriously the implications for religion of the remarkable discoveries of the modern natural and human sciences. The world of modern science is a different world from that of our ordinary perceptions and that of the ancient peoples who gave birth to Western religions. The religion of the future should be a religion that learns from science and adapts its teachings accordingly. And since every religion needs a story, the story of the religion of the future will be a scientific story with mythic significance.

Fourth, such a religion will recognize the importance of both reason and reverence. The human ability to think critically and constructively has made possible our many artistic achievements and medical and technological advances, but it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished. As Paul Woodruff writes in his elegant little book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virture, “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations.” He goes on to note that reverence keeps human beings from acting like gods. It is thus essential to our true humanity. I also think a strong case can be made that lack of reverence is a major cause of all forms of human violence throughout history and in family and community life as well as with respect to the natural environment. And while reverence is not only a religious quality, a religion without a profound sense of reverence is no religion at all.

Finally, the religion of the future must affirm those values that help to make our lives more fully human. In her spiritual autobiography, The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong writes:

In the course of my studies, I have discovered that the religious quest is not about discovering “the truth” or “the meaning of life,” but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch onto some superhuman personality or to “get to heaven” but to discover how to be fully human.

This is precisely what humanistic religious naturalism is all about. Becoming more fully human involves the transformation of the mind and heart from self-centeredness to a sense of one’s self as part of a larger sacred whole and to a deep commitment to the human and natural worlds. It is about the transformation from a shallow life of fear, greed, hedonism, and materialism to a meaningful life of love and caring, gratitude and generosity, fairness and equity, joy and hope, and a profound respect for others.

Humanistic religious naturalism promotes an ethical life in which one thinks and acts from a larger perspective than one’s own egoistic interests, a life that affirms the worth and dignity of each person, a life filled with wonder and reverence for the extraordinary magnificence of the natural world and human creations. It includes gratitude for the gift of life itself and the capacity to enjoy it.

To be fully human is to develop and use our minds but not neglect our emotions and intuitions. To me, it is a religious responsibility and a joyful challenge to learn all I can about human beings and the world in which we live and to think critically and constructively about what I learn. But we are also emotional beings who need to use our feelings in the service of the best that we know. A fully human person has both an open mind and a warm heart as well as a social conscience. As Bertrand Russell suggested, “The good life is one guided by reason and motivated by love.”

The grounding of religious humanism in religious naturalism makes it possible to affirm a perspective that includes these five characteristics and thus qualifies as a religion for the twenty-first century. As the late Carl Sagan wrote, “A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” Humanistic religious naturalism is just such a religion. I believe it is emerging among us today.


Adapted with permission from Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the Twenty-first Century by William R. Murry (Skinner House, 2006). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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