Reason and Reverence

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century
Book Author: 
William R. Murry

A review of William R. Murry's fine book on humanistic religious naturalism. A summary of Murry's thinking on humanistic religious naturalism is here (link is external).

Religious traditions, with the notable exception of Buddhism, have usually tied spirituality, ethics and life’s meaning to the existence of something supernatural, such as god or the soul. But the rise of science has called the supernatural into question, since its naturalistic explanations now account for what were thought to be god’s actions (lightning, floods, pestilence), or the soul’s powers (thought, reasoning, emotion). Out of an explanatory job, the supernatural loses plausibility, and with it religions which make the ultimately factual claim that the supernatural exists.

The increasing pressure on supernaturalism has prompted the development of alternative religious understandings which are more or less naturalistic and thus hospitable to science. What’s called variously religious naturalism or naturalistic spirituality is slowly carving out a space for itself as a viable alternative to faith-based religions. Those who find themselves drawn to religious questions and spiritual experience (not everyone, but many) need not abandon empiricism, critical thinking or skepticism. Nature alone – what science tells us about the world – might well be enough to ground an authentic religious dimension of life.  

A fine recent expression of this relatively new tradition is Unitarian Universalist minister William R. Murry’s Reason and Reverence, in which he extends religious humanism using the resources of science-based naturalism, arriving at a humanistic religious naturalism. The book is well written, non-technical, and will appeal to those looking for a comprehensive exposition of a non-theistic religion consistent with science (a sermon by Murry that's drawn from the book is here). It includes chapters on humanism, naturalism, cognition, human nature, spiritual experience and ethics, and a bibliography of further readings. In what follows I’ll pick out some highlights, then offer a friendly critique that might help consolidate a fully naturalized approach to our ethical and existential concerns.

Although humanism is usually considered a secular philosophy, Murry gives a very interesting account of its religious manifestation, which first arose in Europe during the Enlightenment, then in the United States as developed by communities of freethinkers, many of them Unitarians. Those skeptical of supernatural divinity sought to recast the religious quest as a human-centered project consistent with evidence and reason, which finds the sacred within nature and which discovers sufficient meaning within this life. The rejection of the supernatural as a separate metaphysical realm is of course the essence of naturalism, so these humanists were de facto naturalists. Still, the first Humanist Manifesto (1933) set forth humanism as a progressive religion, one which, in Murry’s words, sought “to change the nature of religion from supernaturalism to naturalism, from heaven to earth, from personal piety to social responsibility.”

But Murry argues that religious humanism, originally defined in opposition to faith-based traditions, has become too rigidly rationalistic, failing to offer adequate spiritual and emotional resources. This has resulted in a resurgence of overt theism and quasi-supernaturalism within Unitarian-Universalist congregations, so that presently there’s somewhat of a divide between rationalistic humanists and those who are more relaxed, shall we say, about their epistemology and metaphysics.

Murry’s proposal, and it’s a good one, is for religious humanists to maintain their rational and scientific rigor, but to discover (or perhaps rediscover) the spiritual and emotional depths inherent in naturalism, as for instance expressed in Ursula Goodenough’s The Sacred Depths of Nature and Chet Raymo’s Skeptics and True Believers. By placing us firmly within the majesty of the natural world as depicted by science, naturalism gives us a rationally defensible basis for spiritual experiences of wonder, reverence and connection. In his chapter “Anchored in Nature” Murry writes:

Naturalism maintains that human beings are products of nature and natural causes. We are simply one of a prolific nature’s multitudinous creations, each unique and special, and all part of one interdependent web. Naturalism also rejects the idea that a human being consists of a separate entity called mind or soul or spirit temporarily dwelling in a physical body. Instead, naturalists believe in the unity of the mind and body, which means there is no life of the individual after physical death. This acceptance of human mortality and transience leads religious naturalists to feel gratitude for life and a commitment to make the one life have as meaningful and as joyful as possible.
       In addition to avoiding anthropocentrism, religious naturalism provides a deeper and richer perspective than classical humanism, and it also affirms a positive relationship with science…. (63)

Religious naturalism provides humanism with both a solid philosophical foundation and an inspiring sacred story. It gives humanism a cosmology, a deeper spiritual dimension, an environmental ethic, and a larger vision. Humanism is deeply enriched by grounding it in religious naturalism. I call this melded theological stance humanistic religious naturalism…(72)

He goes on to list 15 “essential affirmations” of humanistic religious naturalism (henceforth HRN). This constitutes a manifesto, more or less, which declares our embeddedness in physical nature, a commitment to science and reason, and a naturalized ethics – no need for god’s backup. It also declares the “inherent worth and dignity” of all humans as the basis for a progressive agenda of securing global peace, democracy, social justice and environmental sustainability. The rest of the book defends and expands on these declarations, for the most part convincingly, although supernaturalists and libertarians won’t be persuaded. They don’t, after all, share Murry’s foundational commitments to science and collective social responsibility.

All told, Murry’s vision is very much what I and (I suspect) many other humanistic naturalists would endorse as religious stance (if they are inclined to religion) and as an ethical, social and political framework. As he points out, while naturalism affords us spiritual resources consistent with science, connecting us with something far greater than humanity, humanism contributes the necessarily human-scale values that, again, are consistent with what science reveals about human nature and culture. Along with Goodenough, Raymo and other writers such as Loyal Rue, Jerome Stone and Paul Woodruff, Murry articulates a viable religious response to the growing understanding of ourselves as fully natural, physical creatures.

There are, however, a couple of respects in which Murry doesn’t quite get science and naturalism right, and correcting these will ultimately strengthen HRN. Most striking is his insistence that human beings are in some sense causal exceptions to nature, a doubtful claim since science shows we are fully included in the cause and effect working out of physical, chemical, biological laws. His 15 point manifesto includes the declaration that we have contra-causal freedom: “Human beings are not totally determined by nature or nurture but have some degree of genuine freedom of choice, which can be increased by knowledge, education, and critical thinking.” At several other points in the book he reiterates the claim of human causal exceptionalism, saying for instance that “To be human is to be able to transcend ourselves, to stand outside ourselves to some degree and to stand above the situations in which we are involved” (80). This capacity makes us “ultimately responsible for our choices. Freedom is the essence of our humanness” (81). It also explains sin and evil: “Without an understanding of the human capacity for free choice, it is not possible to account for evil” (48).

Murry properly criticizes humanists for often being too sanguine about human nature (84-90), but it isn’t contra-causal free will that explains “the depth and pervasiveness of evil in human kind.” It’s rather the aggressive, tribal, chauvinistic side of human nature itself, which when combined with the wrong sort of culture can unleash horrific behavior. Chalking up such behavior to free will makes it an inscrutable mystery, beyond our control, very much like the theological evil of Satan. What’s puzzling is that at many points Murry explicitly dismisses the idea of the immaterial soul or spirit, acknowledging that we’re fully physical creatures. This science-based insight should decisively put to rest any notion that we somehow escape determinism, even in our highest capacities for thought, deliberation and choice. After all, however complex it may be, the brain is a physical object; the operations of our neural processes don’t escape physiological cause and effect. This doesn’t mean we don’t think and choose, but only that our reasons-based abilities don’t transcend the increasingly well-documented causal regularities exhibited by our brains, nor the nature and nurture that shaped them.

Murry says late in the book that “Religious humanism has always disagreed radically with all deterministic philosophies and theologies” (132). If so, this will have to change. If indeed they accept naturalism, humanists must also accept what science, the basis for naturalism, increasingly suggests is the case about ourselves: that we aren’t causal exceptions to nature. True, our reasoning allows us to virtually transcend (“stand outside”) our situations in our imaginations, and this gives us tremendous powers of prediction and control, but the reasoning process itself doesn’t causally transcend the brain, body, and the situation in which it occurs. That would make it supernatural magic.

It isn’t surprising that Murry and most humanists, perhaps, still balk at a naturalism that in accepting a causal account of ourselves, provides no loopholes for a special sort of metaphysical freedom. That prospect, at first glance, seems too depressing, too limiting, too close to a fatalistic resignation to being mere puppets of fate who don’t really act or choose. But being determined in our character, motives, and actions is not to make us disappear as identifiable agents, or to make our actions less essential in getting what we want. Nor is it to undermine our status as moral beings, since we must be held responsible so that we’re caused to behave morally. Our ethical standards, our powers, individuality, dignity, inherent value and real freedoms, personal and political, all survive the apparently corrosive effect of determinism. Moreover, if we evaded causation in some respect, that wouldn’t give us more control or make us more free, powerful, or valuable; it would only insert an element of randomness. But a full response to these concerns is well beyond the scope of this review, so I’ll refer readers to The Viability of Naturalism page and to Encountering Naturalism.

What Murry and other humanists might come to see is that understanding and accepting our full causal connection to nature, far from dehumanizing or disempowering us, offers a direct route to more compassionate attitudes, greater self-efficacy, and more effective, progressive social policies, all things most humanists want. Seeing that people are not ultimately self-made, but rather fully determined to be who they are and act as they do, undermines the traditional justification based in contra-causal free will for embracing anger, contempt, self-righteousness, and related responses that marginalize and demonize others. It likewise keeps us unself-important, less prone to unproductive guilt, shame and self-flagellation, and more realistic and self-accepting about our faults and virtues. Understanding the cause and effect relationships between genetic and environmental factors and human behavior also makes us far smarter in creating conditions that bring out the best in ourselves and others, and in developing effective social policies. Again, the full story of how a thorough-going naturalism might shift attitudes and behavior in a more humanistic, effective direction can be found in the references mentioned above and at Naturalism.Org.

There is, therefore, nothing to be feared and much to be gained by staying true to naturalism, so I invite Murry to reconsider his human causal exceptionalism and spread the good news that we need not hide from anything science says about us. A fully naturalized conception of ourselves is exactly what’s needed to realize the ethical potential of humanism. Moreover, accepting our complete causal inclusion in nature cements the powerful, spiritually compelling insight that we are completely at home in this universe; we are what nature is doing from moment to moment in our human form. The personal is fully integrated into the impersonal, like a wildflower spontaneously blooming in a meadow.

My other worry is that Murry, concerned about the overly rationalistic and individualist side of humanism, concedes too much to “emotional intelligence” and postmodernism. He thinks we must balance cold reason with a dose of compassion and empathy (101-105), and that objective science needs mixing with a tad of cultural relativism in order to counter our prejudices and moderate our will to power (57-59). But it isn’t as if reason and emotion are antagonists in the progressive quest for a compassionate, humane society, it’s rather that some competing, anti-humanistic worldviews and values have regressive cultural agendas. We need not give up a tough-minded commitment to objectivity in order to protect our humanistic heart, rather the opposite. Our common humanity is exactly what science reveals, and the basic value of individual freedoms, balanced by a concern for the welfare of all, finds more than sufficient support within an unflinchingly naturalistic understanding of ourselves. It’s that understanding, after all, which has called into question the repressive social hierarchies historically mandated by faith-based religions and pseudo-scientific secular ideologies, and it’s that understanding which best motivates empathy for the other, as suggested above in the discussion of free will. Murry clearly recognizes the progressive, humanistic implications of naturalism, but I don’t think he needs to compromise, at all, the scientific, rational empiricism at its core in order to secure the world humanists want.

These criticisms should not obscure Murry’s important achievement in this book, which is to set forth the rational plausibility of HRN and then explain how it supports both a satisfying spiritual response to life and a progressive ethical, political and environmental stance. Skeptics, freethinkers, atheists and humanists who doubt the possibility of religious naturalism might find something here to change their minds.

Certain aspects of the human condition – suffering, uncertainty, transience, mortality, made all too vivid by our intelligence – drive many of us to wish for something more, something that will finally redeem our unremitting struggles and quandaries. But there is no such thing; there’s nothing more for us out there (god) or in here (the soul). There’s only the natural world, doing what it does, sometimes in human form. Naturalists have courageously forsworn the supernatural as false comfort, and seek instead a graceful accommodation to the fact that some of our deepest hopes, installed in us by nature herself, probably can’t be fulfilled. But there’s joy and satisfaction and wonder enough in seeing what hopes we can fulfill, given our mortal limitations. A humanistic religious naturalism, as Murry expresses it, is perhaps the best we can do, and it is very good indeed.

TWC, March 2007