The Third Way

A few years ago the so-called “new atheists” made headlines attacking belief in God and questioning the value of religion. Some of the books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens even made best seller lists. There is much to commend these works. They have managed quite well to tear down the edifice of traditional supernatural religious belief, but they have failed to offer anything to take its place. They have lumped all religious perspectives together and denounced them all as intellectually invalid and morally reprehensible.  

Humanism, however, offers a positive and affirming view of life without a supernatural God. I believe it is not enough to be critical of traditional religion and religious belief unless you can offer something to replace them. This is the difference between mere atheism, which is negative, and Humanism, which is positive and affirming. Humanism is much more than atheism. Atheism means denying the existence of a supernatural deity, but we human beings seek meaning and purpose, and we want to know how to live happy and fulfilling lives. Humanism offers those things, so I talk and write about what Humanism affirms, not what it denies, about Humanism as a morally responsible and joyous way of living.

A positive Humanism is not primarily about the supernatural beliefs we reject; it is about the values we stand FOR, and we stand for human well-being, human flourishing. We stand for social justice and equity for all people, for these affect the quality of life of everyone. Human-ism is about the worth and dignity of every human being. It is about respecting persons and caring about each person’s well-being, and it is opposed to whatever decreases the flourishing of any human being any where at any time.

When it comes to religion, most people, I believe, assume we have only two alternatives: either accept traditional religion or reject it. But there is a third alternative -- humanism, which includes the best values and principles of traditional religion without requiring us to believe in the superstitions, irrational beliefs and dogmas of traditional religions, but not leaving us adrift without meaningful convictions and a reason to live that is the danger of atheism and agnosticism. For those of us for whom the stories and myths of traditional religion have lost their power as well as their believability, and for whom reason and intellectual honesty are central, this third way can make a lot of sense.

Humanism has two branches -- religious Humanism and secular Humanism. They have the same beliefs. The major difference is that religious Humanists find value in being part of a community of people with similar values and beliefs whereas most secular Humanists choose not to be part of such a community. Some religious Humanists prefer to be known as “congregational Humanists” since the word religious has theistic connotations to most people.

Religious or congregational Humanists are found in three institutions: Unitarian Universalist congregations, Ethical societies (a.k.a. Ethical Culture), and Humanistic Judaism congregations.

So I suggest that Humanism offers a third way, a way that includes the best of the critique of traditional religions of people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and the best values of the traditional religions. It is a lifestance that makes sense today in the 21st century, that speaks to our time in a meaningful and powerful way, a perspective grounded in the natural, not in the supernatural; a perspective that emphasizes the worth and dignity of human beings rather than the glory of God; and a perspective that understands living well and social responsibility to be of far greater importance than personal piety.


About Bill Murry

Bill Murry's picture

Rev. Dr. William Murry is the Past President of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and Minister Emeritus of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Maryland. He has written three books: “A Faith for all Seasons: Liberal Religion and the Crises of Life”, “Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century”, and "Becoming More Fully Human: Religious Humanism as a Way of Life". Since retiring from Meadville/Lombard, Rev. Murry lives in Rockville, MD with his wife Barbara.


Traditional religions, the Abrahamic religions, find it sufficient and necessary to have enemies, adversaries to its faith. Religions divide us into the saved and sinners, those having God's favor and infidels, and even among their dozens of splits and thousands of sects.
It is tiresome and willfully uninformed to paint atheists as "negative" and without having joy in living. And it is simply not true. Read Richard Dawkins', An Appetite for Wonder, The Greatest Show on Earth, or The Magic of Wonder.

I love the FFD logo!

Coincidentally, I just read this blog the day after listening to Bo Bennett give a presentation on Positive Humanism which is the intersection of Positive Psychology and Humanism. He also brings out that as Humanists, we do not have to shame religious people, but rather seek for the aspects of Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Purpose, and Achievement (PERMA) that can be found in all religions and virtually all world views.

While he is not anti-religion, he is anti-anti-humanism. So those aspects of humanism that are denied by religions, such as "original sin", needing a god, non equality of all people such as women or gays, etc. deserve our passionate denials.

David Kimball