Review: Becoming More Fully Human
When I write of religious Humanism … I am not referring to belief in a deity … Humanism is religious because it binds people together and helps people to reconnect with ultimate reality as understood as nature or as life without illusion. (31)
Bill Murry is an instructor at Meadville Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago. He has long been a thought-leader in nontheistic humanism including with the HUUmanists. He uses terms like religion, faith, and spirituality to explain an entirely nontheistic and naturalistic life stance. Hearing these same terms of religion, nontheists will aggressively distance themselves. This allergy to religious terminology on the nontheist community must be recognized, but Murry’s book is on the MAAF reading list to help the continuing effort to better accommodate religious terminology in appropriate ways.
In the new memoir “Faitheist”, Christ Stedman tells of his struggle to engage in service and community across religious boundaries. He is on the vanguard of attempts to break down those barriers of nontheist allergies to religion and religious allergies to naturalism. Alain de Botton famously suggested building a Temple of Atheism in Britain commemorating 4.6 Billion years of Earth among other scientific wonders. While de Botton limited his efforts to some drive-by commentary, Stedman has been a leader in the efforts to better socialize religious terminology among the atheist and humanist communities.
“Becoming More Fully Human” is an essay on Humanism as a naturalistic approach to life. Murry addresses values, meaning, and coping with a universe that is wondrous but uncaring. He is a senior scholar and fills the book with frequent references to philosophers and scientists from which he has drawn wisdom and evidence. He also writes from his own experience working with congregational leaders in the Unitarian Universalist and Humanist communities. It is somewhat difficult to quote Murry directly as he draws so reverently from quotes and short poems through which others have expressed humanist philosophy. The reader will be enlightened by Murry’s study and inspired by the sentiment of a meaningful, compassionate, and loving life through humanism.
Murry takes time to address directly the religious language many nontheists may find controversial. He shows a firmly naturalistic and atheistic treatment of traditional religious language while simultaneously being deeply ethical and focused on coping and thriving in the one life we have.
God without God and Spirituality without Spirits (61)
Spiritual Fitness has been fervently promoted by the military while being roundly rejected by the atheist and humanist community. This is an ongoing issue primarily because the military has failed to include our community in training development. Murry both asserts that humanists should find a home in our lexicon for spirituality and provides a discussion of spirituality we might be able to accept.
“Spirituality … is so widely used that we need to consider what it might mean for us. I suggest that spirituality refers to the longing for deeper and more meaningful relationships with others and with the natural world and to that dimension of our lives that deals with values, truth, meaning, love, integrity, joy, and happiness. It has to do with why and how we live… It is a way of being rather than a way of knowing.” (62)
Murry can provide his view and be an advocate for change to a military that has no institutional knowledge about the nontheist community. The military is a government agency attempting to force its members to accept a supernatural approach to spirituality. They have both exceeded their mandate and overestimated their ability to redefine words. All of the dictionary definitions of spirituality reference souls, the supernatural, and the incorporeal. The definitions and usage are not commonly related to values and meaning, especially not for young troops not trained in philosophy or psychology. However, in conjunction with the nontheist community and leaders like Murry, the military might be able to assess and train troops in areas of “values, truth, meaning, love, integrity, joy, and happiness” while avoiding confusing terms.
When I as a Humanist write about faith, I mean faith in one-self and faith that life is good and worth living and potentially meaningful despite the fact that there are no cosmic guarantees. (122)
“Fully Human” identifies 13 virtues, one of which is faith. Murry clarifies that faith draws from three roots, one meaning trust, one fidelity, and one related more specifically to assent. Faith in terms of assent speaks more to the blind faith commonly associated with the religious context. Taking pride in believing something without evidence is a celebration of gullibility – that type of faith is what atheists and humanists so rightly abhor. That type of faith is the kind that many religious folk so wrongly try to assign to scientific and evidence-based assertions of the humanist community. Murry does not support assent-faith but does recommend trust and perseverance in hard times.
Our lives gain meaning insofar as we participate in the process of life enlargement and enrichment … we understand ourselves as part of a universal process … part of a greater whole and that what we do matters. (192)
Murry asserts early in the book “We are not unbelievers” (21) and lays out 25 points of what humanists do believe. He presents the caveat that there is no one final statement or dogma of humanism, but that the points he provides are useful in understanding humanism. He emphasizes the each individual has worth, we are not inherently evil and can benefit from social support networks. He affirms our entirely natural functions, origins, and ends. He expands these concepts to affirm democracy, education, reverence for life, and gratitude to each other. He emphasizes the importance of truth, beauty, progress, and making meaning for our lives. This, he asserts, is why humanism can be called religion.
These assertions form the continuing narrative of the book. Part II includes virtues of a humanist like courage and compassion. Part III talks about living life well, including seeking not happy activities but investing time and effort to create meaningful change that will allow us to enjoy our legacy and our impact on the world in addition to fleeting pleasures. He also talks about coping with suffering and death. Our naturalistic world view requires us to deal with grief, loss, and mortality. Looking inward to ourselves and reaching out to others for help provide tools to handle reality without illusion.
This review is in a series of book reviews and is highlight because “Becoming More Fully Human” (William R. Murry, 2011) is one of the featured titles on the MAAF Reading List. On the list, Fully Human provides a religious humanist complement to “Humanism as the Next Step”, a publication of the American Humanist Association. These two publications along with Humanist Manifesto III, a short introduction to Humanism, combine to provide a more comprehensive primer into what are generally accepted as atheist and humanist values.