The last time I was in the States, five years ago (almost to
the day in fact) I bought this book from the Unitarian Universalist Association
bookshop on Beacon Hill, Boston:
Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st
Century by William R Murray
I glanced at it sunbathing on Boston Common, and have not
really looked at it since then, until about a month ago when I started reading
it in preparation for a class I was teaching on humanism at my church.
So this is just some ponderous thoughts I’ve had while
reading it, in reaction to some of the ideas.
I have previously on this blog been a bit critical of
humanism within Unitarianism, so it was about time I gave it a good hearing.
It was helpful to understand how humanism began and grew
with American Unitarianism, but I’m still puzzled by how it came to British
Unitarianism, there’s a lot I don’t understand about the development of
Unitarianism in Britain in the twentieth century.
What interests me most is not secular humanism but religious
humanism. Secular humanism makes sense to me as a non-religious philosophical
and political position. What interests me is a humanism that claims a place
within religious liberalism, that wants to remain within Unitarian communities,
in communion with more traditional positions.
Religious humanism does beg the interesting question “what
is religion?” How can humanism be religious? William Murray provides an
intelligent response to this question, though I have some problems with some of
He writes “Every religious vision needs to be anchored in a
story” (66) – and I absolutely agree
with him. A point I have made numerous times on this blog is the that
Unitarianism has not yet learnt how to be truly non-creedal, and that we’re
still overly-obsessed with “beliefs” and “creeds” – and we need to find a
religious centre in stories and practices rather than personal credos. Stories
matter, stories are vital in religion.
Murray goes on to say that “modern science has given us a
new story with multiple layers of rich meaning.” (66-67). I’ve heard this
before in American UUism, that science and particular evolution provides us
with a “religious” story.
Now, I love evolution. I studied evolutionary biology for
many years, and I’m absolutely fascinated by it. BUT I don’t think this is a
religious story, I don’t think it’s a good enough story.
I love evolution – but I have to confess I watch many more
dramas on television than documentaries. Don’t you? Aren’t we all more
interested in human
Because we’re humans. Can a non-human story really provide us with ultimate
The Israelites escaping from Egypt is a story
, as we can identify with this story when we are oppressed and
need liberating (African American history shows the power of this story,
inspiring a new story of liberation).
Jesus’ death on the cross is a story because we can identify with this story when we are broken,
Socrates’ execution is a story
because we can identify with this story when our integrity and truth-telling
brings us persecutions.
Does evolution, the development of the cosmos and life,
really compare to these stories? Does it offer a compelling narrative that
speaks to the human condition? Honestly, I don’t think it does. Or if it does,
it only appeals to the most intellectual among us who think deeply about these
things. Such a religion only appeals to an intellectual elite, and I’m not
interested in that.
As much as I appreciate a religion rooted in nature – I
think religious humanism needs a human
story or stories.
The other thing I’m unsure of is the relation of ethics to
nature and evolution. Murray doesn’t really get into this, but it seems to me
that evolution can be used to justify some practices that we might consider
unethical. You can easily conclude from evolution that the world is about “the
survival of the fittest” and that we should let the weakest go to the wall to
create the progress of humanity.
This is a profound question that needs wrestling with. To
what extent are ethics in fact unnatural? In being ethical are we in fact
rebelling against the natural order of the universe? I have no glib answers to
these questions, I just point them out to make the point that having a religion
based on biological evolution may lead in fact to the opposite of a humane,
As I say, what interests me most is the question of what
makes religious humanism religious
answers this question in a chapter on “The Religious Dimension” and “Growing a
Soul.” These chapters were the most compelling to me, and I would have
preferred to have seen these topics expanded upon; I could have done without
some of the other chapters.
Murray expands the religious/spiritual dimension as being
about “mystery,” “oneness,” “values,” “meaning and purpose,” “community,”
“gratitude,” “depth,” “beauty,” “peak experiences,” “love of the universe,” and
I like these ideas, and I completely agree that a faith
position can be rooted in these things and be non-theistic and non-dual. This
is an approach that values the mystical and spiritual. And it’s certainly
possible to have profound mystical experiences that are felt as a deep oneness
with all that is, and these need not be theistic in any way.
I would have liked to have seen these ideas further
developed though. How do these things link together? Where is the ecclesiology?
How do communities cultivate gratitude, mystery, connectedness? I think the
answer to that should be “worship” but that’s not really explored here. For
religious humanism to be effectively religious it needs a worship practice that
opens the soul to mystery, depth, beauty, love and connectedness; worship that
is more than rational exposition of words. It also needs to teach personal
spiritual practices that cultivate these experiences. There is also a question
of how these things link with ethics, activism and justice-making. Murray
states some basic liberal positions, but doesn’t really provide a convincing
systematic system that says, exactly why religious humanism is (for example)
pro gay rights or pro-choice.
Overall I wish Murray had spent more time exploring these
religious dimensions and less time “arguing” with theism or orthodoxy.
Religious humanism (like much liberal religion) to me is still much too
co-dependent on conservative religion. There’s a lot of defensive rhetoric
about arguing for humanism and against forms of theism, and I’m not sure it’s
useful (is it a coincidence that the author is a former Southern Baptist?).
There’s too much negative definition against other forms of religion, and for
me that points to a kind of an immaturity in humanism. If you can’t write about
humanism without mentioning God, then is humanism a thing or simple the
negation of a thing?
If humanism, and especially religious humanism, seeks to be
a coherent thing in itself, then it needs to be a lot more than atheism.
Buddhism is non-theistic, but the Buddha didn’t spend ages teaching why the
Hindu religion was wrong, he taught a positive, practical, existential path to
the good life. That’s what any religion has to do.
Religious humanism certainly seems possible, but after
reading this book, I feel like it is has a long way to go to be a coherent
It does make me wonder whether religious humanism is a thing
in itself, or simply a “phase” that liberal religion goes through, before
grasping a positive path. That does seem to be what has happened to a lot of American
Unitarian Universalists. Is there a path from Christianity to humanism to
something like Buddhism and paganism? Is religious humanism a thing or is it
simply a gap between the rejection of the old and the embracing of the new?