Over time, as I’ve pondered religion as a phenomenon, I am much less attracted to the idea of borrowing from its vocabulary. If anyone has looked into the work of George Lakoff, a cognitive and linguistic scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, you’ll be familiar with the idea of framing, which is “a schema of interpretation—that is, a collection of anecdotes and stereotypes—that individuals rely on to understand and respond to events.” Essentially, a frame is a conceptual framework that people use unconsciously to contextualize information. As such, certain words or phrases will evoke (and reinforce!) conceptual frames, which then impact how one perceives and translates new information.
I regularly argue against “god-language” when discussing non-theistic spirituality because it evokes the frame of a supernatural and paternalistic all-powerful being. It doesn’t matter if it is intended to be metaphorical, the frame will get evoked whether you want it to or not. The moment you say “God is love,” the average mind will instantly conjure up an objectively existing being—as well as any given conceptual frames regarding the religion through which that God was understood, such as the Catholic church. It doesn’t matter if you then say “this is a metaphor, don’t take it literally”; the frame will already be invoked and reinforced anyway, which will be used to then interpret what you have to say.
I now believe that using all religious language does the same thing, if to a lesser degree. Words like sacred, spirituality, faith, religion and so on will inescapably evoke a supernatural and/or traditionally religious frame in the mind of the average listener. Why is this bad? I argue that is it, in the aggregate, a bad thing because religious thinking often shuts down the critical faculty; it promotes credulity and wishful thinking. It dampens one’s appreciation for reality, as well as one’s curiosity about the natural world. Further, religious thinking often provokes an us-versus-them tribal mentality.
The challenge is to find new language and to create new frames that capture the beneficial elements of religion that are worth keeping. Ideas like community, inspiration, hope, morality, transcendence, wonder, justice, gratitude, comfort, and redemption need to be wrestled out of the dying grasp of religion. I’m happy to say that this project is already underway by people far more influential and intelligent than I. More and more people are reframing these ideas in ways that are secular and naturalistic. However, we’ve a long way to go…as of yet, there are no large-scale frames, which is something that will simply take time to form. And religion will not let go of these ideas willingly.
It has been far too long since I’ve updated the site…almost an entire year. In part this is because I’ve been spending my time finishing my pre-doc internship while helping to raise my rather, um, enthusiastic toddler. I also had hopes of redesigning the site, including rewriting a lot of the foundational material. When I started this site, I had a lot of different ideas about what I believed, and so I do need to go back and update where I stand on things. In short, I want to do a better job of integrating science into the site. My particular cup of tea is psychology, so that is where Sacred River will lean, at least as long as I’m at the helm.
Ironically, traffic to the site has been increasing since I stopped posting regularly. Not sure why. But I’d like to take advantage of the increased readership by getting out some of ideas that have been stewing. So, stay tuned…
There was, as we all know, a time when religion WAS science…and just now we are coming out on the other side, where science is becoming religion. That is to say, religion is starting to conform (or contort) itself to the scientific understanding of reality. God is harder to find in this model, so we hear science-y theories about God influencing our universe at the quantum level. Or rather than denying evolution outright, many believe that God *guided* evolution to produce us (neverminding that he killed off 99% of all existing species to do it).
Whenever I hear these kinds of theological conjectures, I can’t help but picture God in critical condition and on intellectual life support. I can fully understand the effort, though…there was a time when I eagerly sought out similar theories to explain Tarot divination and magic spells. We have a powerful attachment to our beliefs.
And it isn’t enough to say that religion is necessary to address morals and purpose…after all, upon what authority can religion decide such things? If a religion calls upon God or revealed scripture as the source of purpose and morality, as many do, then it is reasonable to question the reliability of those sources. If religion does not call upon such sources, then we can ask, why look to religion at all? Do we really think that morality requires a belief in a god in order to carry sufficient weight in society?
Or can we have a religion without God? Without magic, angels, and souls? Can we? That’s a serious question. No matter how far science advances our understanding of reality, will humans have an irresistible urge to find God in the gaps of our knowledge? Will we always look for Someone Out There?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. I hope, though, that it is possible to transform religion itself, just as we’ve transformed our understanding of the world. Community, purpose, meaning, and well-being do not require religion, but religion can play a positive role in their advancement, especially if it becomes fully informed by science. As a parallel, the practice of medicine is not, in itself, a science, but it is fully grounded in science. Why cannot religion have a similar relationship? I think it can.
Well, today is Draw Mohammad Day, and I am adding my own depiction.
I am not doing this with the purpose of offense, although I imagine some people will be offended, including non-Muslims. Normally I go out of my way to avoid offending people. Courtesy is a cornerstone of civilization and it’s a value I try to uphold, even when people cut me off in traffic. But I am not avoiding it today because I think there is an important message behind today’s project (for two great takes on this, read Hemant Mehta and Greta Christina).
That message is that courtesy towards religious belief does not extend to across-the-board censorship, especially when that censorship is enforced by threat of violence.
The image of Mohammad in this post is serving the purpose of illustrating that Islamic law does not apply to me. Freedom of expression is a vital liberty for any healthy culture and I am not willing to cede ground to Islam, even when doing so causes offense. And the only genuine way to protest efforts to curb freedom of expression is to freely express, and this is what I’m doing.
I do not hate Muslims as a people although I think their belief system is grounded in primitive superstition that too often promotes brutality and social injustice. I know that this drawing is poking at sensitive spots and I am sincerely sorry if it causes distress. But in this case, I think that censorship is worse than offensiveness. At the same time, I do not think that this drawing causes harm…it does not promote or even suggest discrimination, violence, or bigotry. It’s just a drawing of a man wishing peace on all people, and that it might inspire deep offense should be cause to consider the reasonableness of religious laws.
I suspect a deeper issue at hand is the notion that religions should be immune from criticism and that believers should be protected from offense. One effect of this sensibility is that many people resist opening critiquing religious beliefs which thereby undermines our ability to promote reason and scientific knowledge. Some people criticize my own orientation quite vigorously, sometimes to the point where I get distressed—should I demand they cease? Can I reasonably suggest that they have overstepped their moral boundaries by offending me? Of course not. In that light, I believe that Muslims are wrong to enforce censorship on me, either through social rebuke on one end to violence on the other, and the best way to make that point is to defy their expectation. I do not wish to offend, but I am willing to do so to make this point.
Peace be upon you.
Imagine for a moment a hypothetical religion. It is a major one with many millions of followers. One of the tenets of this religion states that wearing red clothing is disallowed, perhaps out of respect to its founder who died the bloody death of a martyr. Many adherents say that the ban on red clothing applies not just to members but to everyone and that for anyone to do so constitutes offensive disrespect towards their religion. A small but vocal minority go further and say that wearing red is punishable by death and regularly offer threats of violence towards those who refuse to respect their religious rule.
Now imagine someone saying, “Well, it’s a major religion and who am I to judge their rules, even if I don’t believe what they believe? I don’t want to offend anyone and religious people deserve respect, so I will stop wearing red and encourage my friends to stop as well. After all, there are many other colors to choose from, so it’s no real sacrifice to give up wearing red. True, it’s still within our legal right to wear red, but no good would come of intentionally offending these people by doing so; it’s best simply to comply for the sake of comity. Of course it’s wrong for anyone to threaten to kill people for wearing red, but they don’t represent the peace-loving majority. Frankly, anyone who would wear red is childish, rude, insensitive, and perhaps even hateful and bigoted.”
This hypothetical situation is, in principle, no different than the issue of creating images that depict Mohammad ibn ‘Abdullah, the founder of Islam. This practice is by many Muslims considered deeply offensive, and a small handful have issued and acted on threats of violence towards those who dare to do so. Even the more moderate Muslims claim that drawing a picture of Mohammad is insulting, hurtful, mocking, and so on.
A few weeks ago, Comedy Central infamously censored a portion of a South Park episode that illustrated Mohammad due, apparently, to a death threat from a handful of Muslims. Since then, various projects have sprung up in answer to this, including several secular/atheist college groups who have been drawing smiling Muhammad stick figures in chalk on campus sidewalks. The project that is starting to get a lot of press is “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day”, started by cartoonist Molly Norris, which is to take place on May the 20th. While Norris has since backed away from the project, it has taken on a life of its own, and naturally there are a lot of passionate responses to it on both sides, for and against.
The initial purpose was to show that we will not be intimidated by threats. Considering that artists have been physically attacked for portraying Mohammad, this is a real issue. It is fundamentally wrong to expect people not to exercise their right of free expression because of threats of violence, and this alone makes “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day” a worthwhile project. But I believe there are deeper reasons as well.
At the heart of all this is the notion that a religion has the moral, if not the legal, right to demand that their own rules should apply to everyone. Just as it is absurd to demand that everyone stop wearing red clothes, it is equally as absurd to demand that everyone avoid drawing a picture of a specific person. The given justification for this demand, given by both Muslims and non-Muslims, is that to do so would be offensive to them. On the surface, this makes sense (just like our hypothetical person above does)—after all, we’re good, tolerant people who respect the right of others to live peacefully; why should we purposefully offend them? Why punish all the moderate Muslims for the actions of a few extremists?
First: I am personally and genuinely offended by the idea that I shouldn’t be allowed to draw Mohammad; why is it okay for me to be offended? It’s okay because people are allowed to express themselves, even at the expense of people being offended! This is because offense is not automatically harmful. Harm implies the undue infliction of pain or the theft of something valuable, such as property, opportunity, or dignity. Painting a swastika on a synagogue sidewalk is harmful because it indicates support of Nazism and the murder of Jews. Drawing a Black man as a monkey is harmful because it perpetuates the idea that one race is inferior to another. But drawing Mohammad is no more harmful to Muslims than drawing Jesus is to Christians or Siddhartha Gautama to Buddhists or L. Ron Hubbard to Scientologists, because doing so (a) is not directly harmful and (b) does not reflect or incite harmful action. Offense in this case does not constitute harm and so is insufficient reason to avoid drawing Mohammad.
Second: the aim of such projects (as I see it) is not to offend but to disempower a sacred cow that has far overreached into secular territory. In fact, a central point is for people not to be offended—it would be wonderful if May 20 came and went without a single word of complaint. But as long as Muslims are treated with kid gloves, they will continue to make oversensitive demands that intrude on basic liberties. If we can resist such unreasonable demands with persistence, humor, and yes, respect for Muslims as people, then the hope is that eventually the taboo will become tolerable.
Yes, many Muslims will be offended on May 20. One answer to this is, “you artists are childish, rude, insensitive, and hateful! See what you did? You offended Muslims!” But I think a better answer is, “We’re sorry you are offended, but we cannot apologize for a drawing that causes you no harm. You are free to believe Mohammad deserves the ‘ultimate respect’ but we are not obligated to agree with you. And that lack of agreement does not necessarily mean disrespect towards you personally; respect does not require compliance or immunity from criticism—it means that we will not demean you, steal from you, deceive you, or injure you. These drawings do none of those things.”
If peaceful Muslims really want to speak out against their extremists, as they often claim they do, they could sacrifice their comfort for one day and actually support the project. I don’t expect this, of course, although it would be an effective gesture. Rather, I expect many will don the robe of the martyr, woefully but courageously enduring the torture being inflicted upon them in the form of hundreds of badly drawn portraits. But people don’t have a right to be protected from offense, especially when the offense is not reflective of real harm—Muslims invented this rule out of thin air, not out of a history of injustice or injury. To cry racism! or hatred! or injustice! in this case is to utterly disrespect the real racism, hatred, and injustice that various peoples have endured through the years.
The fact is I have no real interest in drawing Mohammad. I don’t think I’ve ever drawn any religious leader and I have been an artist (doodler?) all my life. But I do have an interest in freedom of expression and in challenging religious dogma. So, I will be adding my contribution on the 20th.
The core metaphysical stance of Sacred River is naturalism. The shorthand definition of naturalism states that “the real is natural and the natural is real,” which lies in contrast to the supernatural, which naturalism posits is unreal. While this seems simple enough, things get sticky when we try to define exactly what we mean by natural and supernatural. This post does not try to provide any final solution to this question; it is part of an ongoing examination that will likely change over time. Much of what is here is a product of reading the ideas of Richard Carrier along with a wonderful conversation with Tom Clark who presides over at naturalism.org.
At a simple level, we can define the natural as that which mindlessly conforms to the fundamental laws that give rise to the cosmos. At this point in our scientific understanding, this means anything that fits within the model of matter/energy existing in space/time (as embodied in the Standard Model of Particle Physics). In order to be intellectually honest, we must admit that it is not impossible that we will discover something that will upset this model, say if we discover a substance that is not composed of the fundamental particles of normal matter. But even if we made such a discovery—as long as it could be shown that such a substance was an integrated component of the natural world—then the general definition of natural given above would stand.
It is also possible that our universe is only one such within a vast matrix of other universes, what is called the multiverse. If I understand what physicists are saying, then different universes can potentially have different laws (it’s even possible that there are distant parts of this universe that have variations on the laws we see). In such a case, the natural could be expanded to include that which mindlessly conforms to the laws that give rise to any given universe.
When we talk about what we mean by supernatural, we want to keep it reasonably consistent with how most people use the word and with common myths and superstitions. In that light, we can say that the supernatural is that which can interfere with the natural world but is not constrained by its laws. To be more precise, this definition is rooted in the following three propositions:
If the supernatural exists then:
(1) the natural and the supernatural are of two different orders regarding their underlying principles of existence, and
(2) the supernatural is unconstrained by our natural laws (i.e. those that underlie matter/energy in space/time), and
(3) the supernatural has the capability to cause physical changes by manipulating natural laws or bypassing them.
Let’s expand on these a bit more. If something exists or occurs—no matter how bizarre to our eyes—that is ultimately grounded in the same laws that give rise to our material universe, then it is a natural thing or occurrence. To the contrary, if a supernatural thing or event existed, that thing or event would not be reducible to our natural laws. It doesn’t matter if the underlying principles of its existence were, even in principle, explicable or inherently mysterious or even absent anything we would think of as fundamental laws—a supernatural thing would be utterly different than a natural thing from the bottom up.
The second point describes the basic freedom the supernatural has from what makes our universe possible. Whatever the properties of the supernatural thing or occurrence, it would not be constrained by our natural laws. For example, none of the four fundamental forces of our universe (strong, weak, electromagnetic, and gravity) would play any role in the behavior of the supernatural. In pragmatic terms, this means that the supernatural cannot be (unwillingly) affected by any natural event, including human actions (except in the case of the mind itself being a supernatural construct…more on this below).
Finally, while the supernatural is exempt from natural laws, it has the ability to influence our material world, to cause changes within our physical system of matter-energy within space-time. For the sake of clear communication, we can choose to put supernatural interference into two categories: magic and miracles. Simply put, it is a matter of the intentional source: it is magic if the intentional agent is a human, human-like being (e.g. a fairy), or object (e.g. deck of tarot cards). A miracle has its source in a non-material mind, such as an angel or god. Although the final effects can take a wide variety of forms, they all share a fundamental similarity: a non-physical (matter-energy) causal agent, even if the event itself is physically normal (such as being made to fall in love via a spell; falling in love is perfectly natural, but the cause is not).
It might be the case that there are objects or events that appear to violate natural laws but in fact are perfectly natural. Absent scientific validity or plausibility, we call such a claim paranormal. A paranormal claim might be true, of course, although the current strength of the Standard Model requires that such claims provide extraordinary evidence. And even if true, it might be either natural or supernatural, depending on its features and what we learn about the fundamental properties of the universe.
One of the key sticking points in discussions like this is the issue of consciousness. Because it is unknown how the brain produces self-awareness, it is very common for it to be used as evidence for the supernatural, a typical construct being an immaterial soul. Despite our incomplete understanding of sentience and subjective experience, we have compelling evidence for the mind’s source in the material brain. But this essay is not intended to make such an argument, only to articulate a natural/supernatural distinction. As such, I propose that consciousness is natural if it is an emergent property of electrochemical processes in a brain; it is supernatural if it arises from conditions outside the infrastructure of matter-energy in space-time. Any other explanation that doesn’t fit these two must fall into the paranormal category, at least for now.
Based on this idea of consciousness, we can say that a supernatural agent is one that has a mind (of some kind) existing independently of a material brain. Any event that occurs due to a supernatural mind would itself be supernatural, even if it was otherwise completely indistinguishable from a natural object. And yes, that includes our entire universe—if the cosmos was created by a god, say, then the cosmos is a supernatural event. The only events that are natural are those that come about in mindless conformity to the laws that underlie the physical world.
The natural/supernatural dichotomy presented here is certainly not the only possible one. But this particular model has two benefits: it is grounded in our best explanations for reality and it makes metaphysical naturalism falsifiable. It also conforms to common conceptions of the supernatural. As a reminder, here is the basic outline of naturalism:
(1) only the world of nature is real
(2) nothing outside nature is necessary to account for its origin or ontological ground
(3) nature as a whole can be understood without appeal to any kind of intelligence or purposive agent
(4) all natural events are caused by other natural events in accordance with universal physical laws
Said in simpler terms, the essential claim of naturalism is that the natural is real and the supernatural is not. This brief essay has attempted to define what we mean when we say “supernatural” in such a way as to make the naturalist claim wrong. Of course, we do not think we are wrong and for very good reasons; but unless we allow for it to be falsified, we’ve simply rigged the game and created another dogma. If the supernatural is real, then so be it. But without a working definition, we also make claims to the supernatural too easy to make.
I hope this is not my final word on the matter…this is a philosophical exercise designed to bring greater precision to a physicalist naturalistic worldview, and as such should be amenable to improvement. With that in mind, I leave it here and invite feedback.
A wonderful video expressing the spiritual outlook of an atheist. Normally I don’t link to videos on Sacred River, but this one was too good not to share…
I have become a major fan of historian and philosopher Richard Carrier. He has done a tremendous job developing a robust set of arguments supporting the naturalistic worldview, and I imagine that he will get regular mentions on this blog. To start out with, I’d like to point you to his posting where he provides clear definitions for natural, paranormal, and supernatural. This is important because naturalism has rightly been criticized for having vague definitions, often described as simply being “not supernatural”, which is problematic when there is no clear understanding of that concept either. Carrier offers a way out of this loop in a way that is accessible and feasible.
To start with, Carrier defines paranormal, which might be either natural or supernatural. He writes:
What makes something paranormal is the fact that it exists outside the domain of currently plausible science. As such, it could just be a natural phenomenon we don’t yet understand or haven’t yet seen. But it could also be something supernatural. Or an entirely bogus claim. We won’t know until we have enough evidence to make a determination. But either way, the category of “paranormal” can be applied to phenomena (hence the mere claim that something happens or exists can be paranormal) as well as explanations of that phenomena, i.e. paranormal hypotheses.
The key phrase there is plausible science. There are an infinite number of potential ideas that fall outside strict scientific understanding but that don’t meet the criteria for paranormality, because (depending on the state of scientific understanding when a claim is made) they might be plausible. Carrier offers two examples: alien abductions and fire that burns underwater. In the former, there is simply no scientifically plausible reason to conclude that alien abductions are happening—but that doesn’t mean it is impossible or even untrue; if enough evidence came to light, then it would be understood as a normal scientific fact. Until then, it is paranormal. The latter example is something that philosopher David Hume once said was impossible, so that any claim of underwater fire would have been to him a paranormal theory—one that we now know in practice to be absolutely true. To reiterate, based on this definition, paranormal claims can be either natural or supernatural; the defining characteristic is that they fall outside of scientific plausibility.
Now then, what makes something supernatural or natural? First, Carrier contends that these are metaphysical distinctions, not epistemological ones (i.e. they describe what things exist, not how we know they exist). This effectively rules out testability as a defining feature. That is a big deal because it is common to hear that the supernatural is, by definition, that which is not testable via scientific methods. The counterargument to this definition is simple—it is entirely possible that things exist (such as what might happen at a subatomic level) that, for whatever reason, are beyond our ability to test, but wouldn’t be thought of as supernatural (in any meaningful sense). At the same time, we can imagine supernatural forces or objects that could be scientifically examined, such as the Jedi Force or Harry Potter magic (to use Carrier’s examples).
So, in the most simple terms, Carrier defines naturalism as the view…
…that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.
Within this scheme, beings such as gods, angels, demons, fairies, and so on, are supernatural insofar as they contain “any mental property or power that is not reducible to a nonmental mechanism.” This extends beyond beings as well—we can include substances and powers as well. Carrier gives some wonderful examples, such as a love potion that “knows” what love is, that it has been imbibed, and who the object of affection is; however, if the potion works entirely by the efforts of, say, a bizarre biochemical substance, no matter how strange, then it would be natural and not supernatural. Further, anything “that is the effect of a supernatural cause is a supernatural effect, even if the effect itself is not supernatural.” An example is when Gandalf causes normal wood to catch fire by speaking a magical incantation—the wood and the fire are fully natural in themselves, but their cause was supernatural, because the spoken words had a direct effect on the wood.
Naturalism understood in this way does not equate with scientism. This is because it is, in principle, possible to scientifically discover and test a supernatural being, substance, or effect, which would nevertheless remain supernatural. For this reason, it is entirely possible for science to negate metaphysical naturalism while maintaining scientific integrity. In such a world, the universe would indeed be dualistic, with natural and supernatural features—or we might even discover that the cosmos is entirely supernatural. It’s possible, although not probable.
Richard Carrier does not own the market on the definition of naturalism, of course, but he has done a superb job of articulating a coherent version of it. In fact, he has changed my mind on a key issue, that of real=natural. I have long held that if science were to discover, say, an immaterial soul, then that soul would become, by definition, natural. While I have held this opinion, I have also felt that it was somehow vacuous. If natural=real, then supernatural=unreal (or a subset of unreal), which is a trivial definition without much utility. Carrier has persuaded me to accept a conception of naturalism where the supernatural could, in principle, be real and yet not natural (although naturalism, as a worldview, would be thus disproved).
Of course, we have yet to discover any evidence of the supernatural whatsoever, and with the profound success of naturalism to date in regards to understanding reality, it is perfectly feasible and rational to adopt naturalism as a worldview. Yes, naturalism has not been “proven”; no one seriously claims otherwise—it is simply the best explanation for what we see in the universe. As Carrier writes elsewhere: “Every (I repeat: every) phenomenon we have been able to explore in the requisite detail has turned up naturalistic, without a single exception so far, in over three hundred years of concerted scientific investigation, by millions of experts, engaging the best methods imaginable, and with nearly unlimited resources.”
A person’s moral judgments can be changed almost instantly by delivering a magnetic pulse to an area of the brain near the right ear…
That is a finding reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, by neuroscientist Liane Young and colleagues, showed that manipulating a specific part of the brain (the right temporoparietal junction) with a magnet can change how someone morally judges a situation. Mature humans have the inborn sense to “know” that a person who intends harm, even when no harm is done, is more “bad” than someone who accidentally causes harm without intention. In this experiment, the pulse literally switched this mechanism in normal human participants, so that when judging a story, they found greater fault with the person who did unintentional harm.
Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene told NPR, “Moral judgment is just a brain process… That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain… If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.”
This is quite an astounding thing. It certainly puts a large dent in the claim that morality derives from a non-brain source, such as God or a soul. Of course, evolutionary psychology is making great strides in explaining how morality developed via natural selection, but it is this kind of experiment that illustrates evolutionary theories so vividly. As with every other branch of study, science continues to naturalize the brain and human functioning; we are moral creatures because we have evolved to be.
This is also a bit frightening. The study suggests that our moral reasoning is something not completely under our conscious control. This makes perfect sense, since it can be reasonably argued that nothing about being human is completely under conscious control. But there is something about moral judgment that strikes deeper. Our ability to think in terms of right and wrong, and then to act on those judgments even when it involves self-sacrifice, is one of our core traits that allows us to think of ourselves as noble. As being more than “mere animals”. Our brains have developed the useful cognitive illusion that everything we think and do is grounded in free choice. Obviously this is not the case, even when it comes to fundamental ideas about morality.
None of this lessens our obligation to act as moral agents. What it does do is demand that we inquire further in order to gain more insight into how we work. It also means that we will be well-served to think clearly and critically about our own personal ethics, and not to take any moral assumption as a given. And, you know, not to stand too close to big magnets…
Human culture is full of woo. Basically, woo describes ideas about the nature of reality that are irrational and that often run counter to critical thinking and scientific understanding. Woo is resistant to logic, dismissive of mainstream empiricism, and swims in a fuzzy stew of quasi-theories and unjustified assumptions. Woo is essentially a belief in magic.
Magic, in the context of woo, is a power or process that can subvert, bypass, or operate contrary to the laws of nature as understood by modern science. Woo magic can take on many forms, ranging from the mythological (e.g. guardian angels, ghosts) to the pseudo-medical (e.g. homeopathy, chiropracty). It can be external (such as in astrology) or internal (including the belief in souls or that thought alone can manipulate the physical universe). Whatever form it takes, in all cases woo magic involves some force interacting with the material universe in a way that cannot be explained by physics (although some woo theorists will try to use physics to justify their beliefs; quantum mechanics is their favorite go-to model).
A great deal of woo magic is described using models that might be impressive in scope and complexity, but they always turn out to be operationally vague or resistant to critical examination (for instance, the ability to create and test predictions). Definitions are fuzzy, causal explanations are obscure or missing altogether, and areas of ignorance are too often treated as fact. This is all dealt with by accepting a very different measure of evidence—subjective experience and anecdotal accounts are given priority over objective, transparent, replicable research. But make no mistake—if any such research were to one day support any given brand of woo, its advocates would accept it loudly and with pride.
While woo is certainly plentiful in organized religions (especially the granddaddy of woo—belief in a personal god), it has a quality that allows people to feel autonomous. Woo is not dependent on dogma or cultural traditions, so anyone can adopt their own unique form of woo (which generally falls within the realm of New Age). In many cases, woosters attach themselves to a guru or two—such as Deepok Chopra, Rhonda Byrne, or Ken Wilbur—or to an organization of some kind—such as the Esalen Institute, a pseudoscience center, or one of the many occult-based orders. But because woo is not grounded in reality or logic, woosters can mix and match woo-elements to create any stew of woo that catches their fancy.
It must be stated that there are things that might resemble woo but aren’t. There is a long list of accepted scientific theories that were once on the woo list, such as plate tectonics. As another example, the therapeutic practice of mindfulness, which originated from yoga, was long considered to be woo in the field of psychology, but is now accepted as a mainstream treatment that is demonstratively effective. The difference between woo and not-yet-mainstream science is not always clear, but it is possible to look at the underlying assumptions for clues: while plate tectonics has been well established as fact, the idea would have originally been pure woo if it was assumed that the plates floated on whipped cream and were pulled around by gnomes. The point here is that just because an hypothesis about what we observe might be based on woo doesn’t mean that something isn’t really going on, so be careful not to assign the label of woo prematurely.
One of the unfortunate misunderstandings of woo is the false notion that it includes emotional states. It doesn’t. Positive or profound feelings grounded in experience are not woo. The delight that comes from connectivity, art, meditation, discovery, or play is not woo. Such emotional experiences might not be your thing but that doesn’t make it woo. If someone says, “I just sat watching the stars for hours and was overcome by a deep sense of peace, like I was connected to the entire universe,” is not woo. But it would be if that person then goes on to say, “…and that made me appreciate that I must have a special destiny in this cosmos that God created.”
Despite the irrational nature of woo, one possible reason for its ubiquity is its ability to bestow a sense of specialness. Woo can give color and sparkle to an otherwise mundane life; for many, a world without woo is not a world worth living in. It is not clear why so many people, including very intelligent folks, feel this way and are therefore susceptible to woo. It probably comes down to the same things that formal religion thrives upon—existential anxiety, the need for a sense of agency and purpose, and the drive to be connected in a meaningful way to something larger than one’s own self. Woo allows one to (apparently) bypass the unending frustrations of reality by imagining access to control and insight not easily attainable in every-day life, which can lead to increased health, power, happiness, and personal worth.
Compared to science and other formal disciplines, woo “logic” is relatively easy to grasp, and this becomes ever more true as our knowledge of the world grows ever more complex and strange. This is perhaps woo’s essential allure—its ability to provide a sense of understanding without the need for empirical or intellectual rigor. But the cost is substantial. Woo inhibits curiosity and critical thinking; it dulls the majesty and splendor of the natural world as it really is; it promotes social factions that manifest pointless yet frequently damaging in/out rules; it is a standard required for political service so that public servants either lie about their worldview or (much more often) actually allow their irrational beliefs to influence their decisions. This is why our world would be, on the whole, a better place without woo.
The cosmos really is an exhilarating, magnificent, beautiful place. True, understanding it to the degree that science currently allows, even on a lay level, takes substantial effort. But doing so is incredibly liberating. It honestly is. Letting go of woo means peeling away the gauze that blurs interpretations of events. It means losing fear of divine judgment or supernatural threats. It means that one can adopt ethical guidelines that are rational and pro-social. It opens the eyes to the wonder of reality in a way that woo cannot.
I would like to offer an addendum to my outline of varieties of naturalists in my last post. Although I do not believe in any gods, I do not like the term atheist because it sets me up in opposition to theism. In other words, theism is the ground against which I am pushing when using that term. As a naturalist, I do not see myself in opposition to theism because I consider that hypothesis to have failed; it makes as much sense to call a chemist a nonalchemist. Rather, theists are in opposition to naturalism, the de facto standard for objectively understanding reality. Within this context, I categorize people into four main groups.
Naturalists (including religious naturalists) come in two primary flavors: literal and poetic. Literal naturalists articulate their understanding of nature using literal terms (eg. “Creativity is an amazing universal process”). A poetic naturalist might apply an extra layer of symbol on top of the more literal understanding (e.g. “God is my name for the universal process of creativity”). Both are naturalists insofar as they affirm the four basic principles of naturalism:
(1) only the matter/energy world of nature is real
(2) nothing outside nature is necessary to account for its origin or ontological ground (a theoretical multiverse is included within the definition of nature)
(3) nature as a whole can be understood without appeal to any kind of intelligence or purposive agent
(4) all natural events are caused by other natural events in accordance with universal physical laws
Of course, these two categories don’t have hard boundaries. A literalist might not use the word God to describe nature, but she could certainly look to other symbols when expressing sublime concepts or transcendent experiences. These words are just general descriptions—there is no need to apply the literalist or poetic label to any given naturalist. Making the distinction is simply a way of helping us understand that a person who employs traditional religious language can still be a genuine naturalist.
A close cousin to naturalism is paranaturalism. The prefix para- is being used here to denote two meanings, beyond and beside. As such, a paranaturalist might affirm the basic story of the Epic of Evolution, or large chunks of it, but also accepts constructs that are not supported by evidence (e.g. “God is the source of creativity”). For example, someone who believes that consciousness arises from an immaterial soul or that magic ritual can cause change at a distance does not accept naturalist principle #4. Another paranaturalist might think that the “Universe” has a plan for him or that human evolution was guided, both violating principle #3. Or another might deny principle #1 by believing that she can consciously visit astral planes or that spirits reside in a nearby dimension. A deist is a paranaturalist because of #1-3. They might all agree with a great deal of what science has to say about nature, but they aren’t naturalists, religious or otherwise.
The final category is antinaturalism, which explicitly denies most or all of the four naturalist principles. An antinaturalist doesn’t have to be a stereotypical Evangelical Christian; it is anyone who understands the world in a way fundamentally opposed to naturalism. An antinaturalist can even be an atheist in the strict sense of disbelief in a god (Scientology qualifies here).
Antinaturalism is a more useful construct than supernaturalism because it references more than specific non-naturalist beliefs. Antinaturalism dictates how the world is interpreted, how behavior is guided, and how meaning is constructed. As such, it is a fully-formed worldview.
The difference between a paranaturalist and an antinaturalist is often one of degree, since both accept constructs that violate naturalism. Perhaps one useful difference is that paranaturalists generally want their non-naturalistic beliefs to be natural. Paranaturalists often look to pseudoscience for validation of their beliefs; they might give credence to, say, parapsychology, paranormal investigation (i.e. ghost hunting), or Ufology. Intelligent Design advocates might fall somewhere in the middle—they believe that their hypothesis is scientifically valid, but the underlying precepts are clearly non-natural. Antinaturalists, on the other hand, reject the method of science altogether. They will outright deny even the most validated of scientific theories—such as natural selection, basic astrophysics, or even geology—when they contradict their religious beliefs.
To summarize, there are two brands of naturalists—literal and poetic—and two kinds of anaturalists—paranaturalists and antinaturalists. The difference between the naturalist and anaturalist categories is based on fidelity to the basic principles of naturalism. The difference between the two in each category is not so straightforward and will frequently be a matter of degree. But by adopting such terms, we can begin to reframe the conversation away from theism as the standard to naturalism being the standard. This is long past due.
There are two perspectives regarding religious naturalism. One is that religious naturalism is a label applied to a range of general ideas and beliefs. In other words, people write about ideas and beliefs and it is possible for an observer to fit them into a category called “religious naturalism.” This can be and is done retroactively; for instance, we can call Spinoza a religious naturalist thinker. We can call this perspective academic religious naturalism (ARN). ARN does not have any strong commitment to religious naturalist principles, it is simply a useful descriptor of a cohesive range of ideas and beliefs, many of which might not have any connection to or even awareness of religious naturalism as a category of thought.
Now we are seeing a new mode of religious naturalism, one that is bound up in human experience and not just abstract conceptions. We can call this mode movement religious naturalism (MRN). MRN emerges from commitment to religious naturalist ideals and establishes social affiliation among committed adherents. MRN is already off to a good start—there are multiple religious naturalist communities, both virtual and real space. And RN now has a Statement of principles.
ARN and MRN are dynamically related but are not the same thing; they have different tasks, goals, and structures. They also have different requirements for success. ARN requires things like intellectual rigor and critical openness (to borrow from Stone), whereas MRN requires social engagement and commitment to clear ideals. Someone coming from the perspective of ARN might be put out by the idea of commitment to ideals, whereas one coming from MRN might be frustrated with the cautious, tentative aspects of ARN.
But the two can work together when members understand that each has an important role to play. There will always be new ideas and beliefs, especially with the existence of an energetic movement, so ARN will have no end of examination and analysis. As new ideas are explored and put through the ARN intellectual wringer, MRN can absorb them into the committed movement, making it more robust and mature. If done well, the two perspectives support each other.
For MRN, it is a serious mistake to soften a commitment to naturalist ideals in an attempt to artificially wrap it around a larger constituency. While this might broaden the constituency, it will result in an anemic affiliation. A better strategy is to establish a firm commitment to well-defined ideals and then to (a) try to inspire those on the fringe to enter into the fold, and (b) partner with aligned movements when there is a shared aim and enough overlap to allow for committed action.
While commitment is good, intractability is not. Flexibility is also required for success. Fortunately, that flexibility is inherent in religious naturalism, due to both its humanistic roots and to the scientific humility that emerges from the awareness of our ignorance. Science changes the landscape of our worldview nearly every day, and we should extend that condition to the movement as a whole. This is why we want various branches off the central religious naturalist trunk, so that variety of thought and practice will lead to overall health in the movement.
There are two brands of religious naturalists: literal and poetic. The literal RN calls things by their proper name, so that love=love, beauty=beauty, and so on. A poetic RN chooses to use “god-language” to describe religiously-salient feelings or things, so that love=god, beauty=god, and so on. A poetic RN remains naturalistic as long as the language remains metaphorical; once it becomes explanatory (e.g. God is the source of beauty), she is no longer naturalistic.
Now then, there is also a group of people who can be called near-naturalists. Any given near-naturalist can choose to affiliate with religious naturalism, especially in the poetic neighborhoods, if she finds it meaningful and fulfilling. But that does not require MRN to then abandon its philosophical commitment to naturalism; rather, it is the task of the near-naturalist to come to terms with being a religious naturalist while holding on to supernatural constructs. Every movement has a set of soft adherents around the edges; changing the boundaries of the movement to fully include them will only result in a new set of soft adherents even further away from core principles, making the movement ever more insubstantial.
Academic religious naturalism is well-established; movement religious naturalism is not, and it will continue that way as long as it remains uncommitted to a central set of principles that is clear, accessible, and inspirational. This won’t happen on its own—it will take religious naturalists deciding to do it. And yes, people will get cut out because religious naturalism isn’t a wastebasket for any naturalistic-sounding beliefs, it’s a container for genuinely naturalistic views. Rather than appearing to grow by adopting people outside core religious naturalist principles, MRN should actually grow by inspiring people to join its ranks by the use of persuasion and good modeling. If we can show that a naturalistic orientation can provide a substrate for a fulfilling, meaningful spiritual life, then it will continue growing into a robust movement.
The following statement has been written as a declaration of the fundamental principles of Religious Naturalism. It is currently residing on its own page, which includes the following text and where people can sign their endorsement. You are also invited to sign...
Religious naturalism is the name given to a general set of ideas and beliefs that combine religious/spiritual elements with a scientific, non-supernatural understanding of nature. For most of its history, religious naturalism has resided quietly in the academic halls of theology and philosophy, and not always under that name. This collection of ideas started to take on new life when biologist Ursula Goodenough published The Sacred Depths of Nature in 1998, a wonderful book juxtaposing science and spirituality. This book pushed religious naturalism out of academia and made it accessible to a general audience.
Since that time, we have seen websites and communities adopt religious naturalism explicitly. And yet, even with its rich intellectual history, religious naturalism suffers from a conceptual vagueness. For any movement to mature, it must have a clear understanding of its core commitment, the banner under which its advocates rally. This is the purpose of A Minimal Statement of Religious Naturalism.
The Statement is not a creed nor a test of membership. It is a concise reflection of a broad collection of ideas, perspectives, and ethical stances that has been given the academic label “religious naturalism.” To speak metaphorically, this statement is intended to reflect the trunk of the religious naturalist tree, with many possible branches growing from it.
The Statement is not the only possible articulation of religious naturalism, nor is it in any way perfect; no such statement could be. The goal is to have a conceptual starting point, a place where we can build the religious naturalist movement.
You are invited to endorse A Minimal Statement on Religious Naturalism with your virtual signature. Signing proclaims endorsement of the statement as being a good enough representation of religious naturalism; it does not require being in perfect agreement with it. A signature does not imply that the signatory could not concurrently affirm different articulations of religious naturalism or some other set of ideas. The statement is not affiliated with any organization or group, and so signing it does not imply endorsement of any group or affiliation with other signatories except as fellow supporters of the statement. Signing does not imply membership in any organization and will not result in such, not even an email list.
This is an opportunity to come together as religious naturalists to establish a foundation for our beliefs and our movement. The world is changing rapidly and now more than ever we need new ways of fulfilling our spiritual needs, ways that looks to science for knowledge, to reason and compassion for solving problems, and to each other for making life meaningful, fulfilling, and joyous.
As a reminder, the signatures live on the Statement page, not here…
Recently, a gentleman with whom I’ve corresponded for the last couple of years offered a rather blistering comment in a Sacred River post. My initial response was to blow it off, which is my usual policy when I feel a comment doesn’t meet a simple standard of courtesy (I’m sorry, but you can’t separate what you are saying from how you say it). However, upon reflection, I thought it would be worthwhile to address a couple of the core questions since I imagine other people probably have similar questions about religious naturalism and the work here at Sacred River. And so, he writes:
Religious naturalism, you tell us, needs “an established set of spiritual practices or traditions”, but currently has none; needs “stories, both personal and mythological”, but currently has none; needs a “particular set of moral values or principles” but currently has none. Yet you talk of religious naturalism “becom[ing] a mainstream movement.” Isn’t this putting the cart before the horse, a little? … I’m confused as to how and why one would want to turn into a “mainstream movement” something that not only does not yet seem to exist in any meaningful form, and not only has no firm definition for what it would be even if it did exist, but something of which only the vaguest of statements can be made as to what even that definition might one day look like.
So, allow me to paraphrase a bit. Essentially, the claim here is that there is nothing to religious naturalism, therefore how can one promote or build upon that which is empty. In the brief time I have I will do my best to show that religious naturalism, while it does lack some key elements for it to qualify as a full-blown religion, has a firm foundation from which a mainstream naturalist religion can emerge.
As I see it, religious naturalism is not a religion per se, it is a religious orientation. By this, I mean that it is a categorical descriptor of belief that, in essence, rejects supernaturalism, dualism, and any form of personal god and yet views Nature as an object of reverence and a source of meaningful inspiration. It marks the difference between being religious and belonging to a religion—within religious naturalism, the former is possible while the latter is not, at least not yet.
Religious naturalism does have a rich intellectual history. Some scholars point to Baruch Spinoza (d.1677) as the grandfather of religious naturalism due to his concept of Deus sive natura (“God or nature”). Emerson is also considered a proto-religious naturalist who falls outside of its scope due to his idea of the Oversoul, although his spiritual response to nature is perfectly in line with it. Starting in the 20th century, an increasing number of thinkers started developing what is now considered contemporary religious naturalism.
George Santayana (d.1952) was a firm naturalist who spoke of the difference between idealism and facts, where religion (at its best) promotes the former and science promotes the latter. The problem, as he saw it, with most religions is that they confuse the two, which leads to supernaturalism. A rational religion, according to Santayana, does not confuse ideals with facts, and manages to balance them within a harmonious whole. Such a religion would be one that inspires us to discover what is true and best in ourselves and to pursue transformation into ever-more ideal states of being while keeping a critical mind on what we know and don’t know. Spirituality is the relationship between the self and the world via a central myth, piety is the acknowledgment of the wonder of incarnation, and justice (which he called charity) is the foundation of moral goodness (side note: I myself maintain that truthfulness, fairness, and compassion comprise the foundation of morality).
I can then point to more modern thinkers, such as the pragmatists Mead and Dewey, Sellars (religious humanism), Smuts (holism), and other significant naturalistic philosophers. The alignment of religious naturalism and humanism began here and is not arbitrary—starting with Sellars, several early prominent humanists, such as John Dietrich and Julian Huxley, advocated for the naturalization of religion and drew the basic conclusion that a religion which no longer focuses on a supernatural god or an afterlife should focus instead on the here-and-now well-being of humans. The Chicago School of Theology in the 1930s and 1940s produced a great deal of religious naturalist thinking, especially from Henry Wieman (this essay doesn’t have the space to consider all these people in full. Stone’s recent book is recommended).
Contemporary religious naturalism really got off the ground in the 1990s. Writers like Stone, Drees, Barlow, Swimme, Cavanaugh, Dean, Murry, and Milligan have begun a rigorous academic conversation. I am a fan of Henry Levinson, who is developing religious naturalism within a Jewish context. He says (and I paraphrase) that the goal is to celebrate joy without transcendence, responsibility without theology, science without scientism, holism without essentialism, chance without chaos, sufficiency without certainty, and the love of life in the consciousness of impotence. Further, that religious naturalists “love what good life there is and seek to protect and enlarge it.” Finally, Ursula Goodenough is probably the most well-known religious naturalist writer out there. She has begun to describe not just a philosophical construct, but a description of how a religious naturalist might experience the world (what I see as a foundational element to religious naturalist practice).
This has been the most bare survey of religious naturalist writing. The object was not to offer a comprehensive outline of religious naturalist thinking, but to show that RN does have a substantial history of robust thought. This is not to say that it is complete: far from it. In fact, I consider much of the theological writing to be a bit off-center from genuine naturalistic thinking (see this essay about RN and god-language for example). However, as with all systems, they are but the sources upon which a maturing religious naturalism will evolve.
Now then, the critic’s question made the error of taking my earlier observation that we do not have an adequate store of established stories, ethics, and practices to mean that we are completely absent of them. This is obviously false. First, we have what some theorists believe is a core requirement for a religion, which is a central myth or story, ours being The Epic of Evolution. The scientific story of the universe is our central “myth”, and (to paraphrase Dr. Goodenough) it is not only inspiring and majestic, it has the benefit of being true. We have a profound and factual tale involving the components and processes of Nature, and the growing size of the religious naturalist (proto)movement is a testament to its power to inspire and amaze.
What we do need are specific stories that can accomplish what Santayana saw as a chief function of religion, the poetic illustration of ideals. But again, we are not completely absent of them: Goodenough’s The Sacred Depths of Nature provides a wonderful example of looking at a scientific understanding of nature and responding with reverence, awe, and gratitude. My wife put a book on my desk not three days ago, The Whole World Kin, filled with naturalistic essays and stories. The story of Charles Darwin himself is fully legitimate as a religious naturalist tale, one that espouses the struggle towards understanding and surrender to empirical truth, even when it flies in the face of our most cherished beliefs. Finally, any inspirational story about nature absent the supernatural is a religious naturalist story, or at least one that an RN can adopt (this practice is not unlike what the Unitarians commonly do). This shouldn’t stop us from writing stories that are specific to religious naturalism, of course, but we have a rich ocean of material from which to draw.
It is also true that a basic foundational ethics exists within religious naturalism. It is not complete by any means and it does not exist in the form of dogma or a creed (which I imagine won’t happen anytime soon, all for the good). But religious naturalism is not ethically empty as the our critic suggests.
Theologian Roger Gillette speaks on the ethics of religious naturalism, which he says “provides superior directions and incentives—superior in that they more clearly govern behavior toward non-humans as well as humans, and offer the achievement of justice and mercy as its own reward. Religious naturalism does so by calling for religious or spiritual intellectual and emotional reconnection and love (agape) that leads to concern for and thus ethical behavior toward self, family, local community and ecosystem, and global community and ecosystem.” And further, “ethical behavior will be directed and driven by scientific knowledge of the consequences of various kinds and modes of actions and a desire to choose those actions that will best further the well-being of those affected by the actions. The resulting religious ethics thus will include social/political, bio/medical, engineering/developmental, ecological/environmental, and economic/business ethics, as well as what may be called population ethics. This religious naturalist ethics can be expected to provide principles and rules for decision-making and behavior that differ markedly from those provided by traditional theistic religion-based ethical systems.”
Jerome Stone also does a good job of detailing other ethical precepts that can be drawn from religious naturalist thinking:
a) “We should adopt and continually nurture a stance of critical openness and commitment”
b) It is good to “struggle for liberation against all forms of oppression.”
c) The spiritual ideal “is expressed in the drive toward concern for the [well-being of the] universal community of all beings.”
d) It is necessary to “avoid both despair at the enormity of our problems and fanaticism of assuming that we have the answers”
e) Many RNists “have a strong sense of urgency in protecting, nurturing, and renewing the natural systems and ecosystems” of the planet.
But at the same time, religious naturalists acknowledge that there is no perfect moral system, in part because the human condition constantly changes as society does, and because we continue to learn more scientifically about the moral function itself and the issues that moral systems focus upon (here is a wonderful overview regarding the evolution of morality). This is why critical openness lies at the heart of our approach to ethics, and can be seen as an ethical precept in itself (Openness is one of Sacred River’s Four Virtues). But religious naturalism does promote the moral imperative—the importance of being good, of striving for a more noble life, of helping to make this world a better place, even while we do not lay down hard and fast rules on what defines goodness. This is why Sacred River offers virtuous principles rather than rules: although not the only “formula” for goodness possible, we maintain that a moral life can be led by cultivating courage, integrity, beneficence, and (critical) openness within one’s self.
Are the ethical details of religious naturalism worked out? No. But the foundations are there and numerous religious naturalists are not idle—the project continues apace (here is an interesting example by David Tarbell). I am not an ethicist, so I don’t pretend to offer any ethical contributions of academic substance. But I do my best to explore ethics as I understand them and to encourage people to develop their own sense of morality grounded in naturalistic thinking.
The final components mentioned are traditions and practices. Traditions are grounded in culture, so to criticize religious naturalism for not having an established set of traditions before a culture of RN has had a chance to develop seems premature. This issue is relevant to religious practice as well, since rituals and celebrations largely develop within communities, even those that are intended for isolated practice. So, a priority of Sacred River is exactly that, the development of religious naturalist congregations (although this effort is on hiatus at the moment, alas), and I try to promote this effort in the existing RN community.
At the same time, I am not convinced that religious naturalism requires a standardized or codified set of spiritual practices. The world does not lack for such practices and anyone can adopt and convert them to work within a religious naturalist context. There is already much discussion about various forms of mindfulness and non-petitionary prayer. I initially created the Spiritual Streams to function as a backbone for creating a wide range of practices (eventually I want to create example practices, but that is also on the back burner). Over time, I am confident that we will see more ideas in this area.
Religious naturalism has no “established set of spiritual practices or traditions”, no “stories, both personal and mythological”, and no “particular set of moral values or principles”. You, I assume, consider yourself to have a more-or-less “spiritually fulfilling” life which you have clearly managed to achieve and sustain without any these things that you acknowledge religious naturalism cannot yet provide. That being the case, as a genuine question, why do you think that a “mainstream movement” is needed to provide such things if you’ve managed to do perfectly well without them yourself?
Religious naturalism is, at this time, mostly a robust religious orientation, a way of spiritually interfacing with the world. It has developed a core set of ethical principles (although more work needs to be done) and has a powerful central story. The potential of religious naturalism does not come in the form of dogma, creeds, or set practices, but in a spiritual perspective towards life and the world that eliminates the supernatural yet inspires awe, creativity, and even reverence (which is why RN is not simply atheism, which is nothing more than a lack of theistic belief). As more people are discovering religious naturalism, it is moving from the theological/academic stage to the real-world/movement stage, even while philosophers, theologians, and scientists continue to work on the intellectual infrastructure.
Now then, to the question at hand—why do I think a larger-scale movement is “needed to provide” a spiritually fulfilling life, especially since I’ve been able to get by without those things that RN is missing? I think the problem is in the word “needed”…let’s take that out and substitute it with “worthwhile.” So, why do I think it is worthwhile to continue developing religious naturalism with the hope that it will become a mainstream movement, even when I cannot say what form it would finally take and am more or less satisfied with the system as it is?
First, I am not satisfied. I firmly align with religious naturalism’s core spiritual/ethical orientation, but I very much want to see more of the components that successful religions enjoy. And so, I advocate for their creation—the only other option would be to abandon the effort, which I see no reason to do, especially since I do find it fulfilling to do this work. Further, I want me and my family to have access to a real-world religious naturalist community (i.e. not just online), so it makes sense to try and actually build one. Second, I think that an increasing number people in the world are seeing the danger and irrationality inherent in theistic religion and yet want something more than materialistic atheism, and I believe that religious naturalism can be an attractive “landing pad” for many of them.
To summarize, religious naturalism does come from a considerable intellectual tradition, has a basic set of rational ethical principles, offers an outline for potential religious practice, and is rapidly developing a compelling spiritual worldview that sits in tight alignment with reason and a scientific understanding of nature. Is it enough to call it a full-blown religion? Some say yes, while I say no—I think religious naturalism does need certain things before we can say that, including more stories grounded in the Epic of Evolution, a firmer science-based ethics, a collection of rituals and celebrations, and active real-world congregations. However, what religious naturalism does have is more than enough to exist as a firm, compelling religious orientation from which further stories, practices, and communities can emerge. It is that process that I am personally inspired to work on and is the reason Sacred River exists.
As much as I identify as a religious naturalist, I must confess that I do not like the term. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that religious naturalism be eliminated, only used in the way other categorical terms are used, such as Abrahamic Religion. I can’t say that I have a better choice, but I do hope that one comes to light.
First, the term is blandly descriptive—it fails to evoke the deep emotions that many of us actually feel about nature. It simply does not reflect the life and majesty inherent in its object of reverence. Second, the use of the term “religious” is for many naturalists a source of dissonance, in some ways requiring a redefinition of the word. Third, “naturalism” is a poorly understood and confusing construct—because of that, its boundaries are too porous for my own taste (e.g. does it include pantheism or is it somehow distinct?). Finally, the term is an academic one, mostly referring to dry concepts found within the pages of theology journals, untethered from the personal and cultural experience of adherents.
Alas, I believe the term is becoming solidified in the wake of recent publications, most notably The Sacred Depths of Nature, by Ursula Goodenough, and Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative, by Jerome Stone (both excellent books). But rather than address religious naturalism as a religion, or even a religious movement, these books use the term to describe a religious orientation within an intellectual or academic framework. There’s nothing at all wrong with this, but it places RN more in the realm of philosophy or academic theology, places generally inaccessible to the average person.
Another major drawback with the term is that it describes an attitude towards Nature as a whole, offering little in terms of what we think about each other. From what I can tell, many religious naturalists have adopted some form of humanism into their worldview to fill in the ethics gap. But it really becomes a mouthful to say I am a Religious Naturalist Humanist.
Words matter. Names matter. The best names are symbols, which is why I chose Sacred River for this venture rather than “Ash’s Religious Naturalism Project”. It’s hard to imagine an inspiring symbol for “A scientifically-informed, reverent orientation towards Nature absent of the supernatural yet worthy of awe and wonder.” If there is an answer, I think it lies within the Story of Everyone, also known as The Epic of Evolution—not just natural selection, but big-E Evolution, the process of change that resulted in everything there is, including us. Something that embodies the experience of discovery, the thrill of progress, and the mystery of emergence—the sheer majesty of this universe and an utterly complex brain that allows us to contemplate and study it. What name could possibly encapsulate all of that?
I’m certain that the answer is out there, waiting to emerge from our movement. Until that happens, I’ll have to be satisfied with our working title.
In general, Sacred River is not intended for intellectual meta-discussion of religious naturalism, but this is an interesting issue that is worth exploration. Naturalism, as a philosophical orientation, explicitly denies the existence of anything that is outside of nature, and at this point in our scientific understanding of the universe, that includes personal deities, non-corporeal intelligences, meta-terrestrial dimensions, and occult/New Age forces. At the same time, religious naturalism recognizes that Nature includes a large dose of mystery—while our store of reliable knowledge increases daily, there are questions for which we might never know the answers. For some people, the way of articulating this sense of mystery, and the awe and reverence that attends it, is to use “god-language”. The question is, how does such language fit within an orientation that does not recognize the objective existence of personal gods?
For the most part, this discussion takes place in the rarefied atmosphere of theology and philosophy journals. We can read about how God is used metaphorically to describe authenticity, freedom, process, unity, goodness, energy, connectedness, love, or the sacred object of worship. But there are several problems with this approach, the worst perhaps being the usage of a vague term to describe something that is already vague or intangible. Rather than bringing clarity, saying “God” further diffuses the object of consideration.
This is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of people in the world do not use God as a metaphor. In general use “God” is first and foremost a pronoun, a name for an objectively-existing Supreme Being. Second, it is a homonym for deity, of which many in human culture are not necessarily “Supreme” but nevertheless are superordinate to the normal order of physical reality. When a religious naturalist uses god-language, a general audience will likely not understand that it is metaphorical, thereby undermining one of the key elements of RN, namely that it rejects supernaturalism.
This is not to say that metaphor doesn’t have a place within religious naturalism. Sacred River actually makes this idea a core component of its approach. Perhaps the one thing that makes humans special is our use of symbol, which arguably underlies language, logic, mathematics, music, art, poetry, and even culture itself. It is important for religious naturalists to develop stories, icons, and experiences that can provide social cohesion, ethical illustrations, and opportunities for meaningful profundity (a sense of deep significance or transcendence usually involving a change of perspective different from ordinary states of awareness). This is how a religious movement is able to mature.
However, using god-language is neither necessary nor advantageous for our movement because, at its root, the concept of God is antithetical to naturalism. It is fair to say that we currently lack adequate language to describe the more sublime elements of the religious experience within a naturalistic orientation. But using God does not advance the development of such a language; rather, it keeps us stuck within a pre-scientific context. It is akin to using God to fill in the gaps of scientific knowledge, which is neither accurate nor useful in terms of promoting understanding.
Another issue to consider is cultural. One of the greatest benefits of the RN perspective is its universality: nature is nature everywhere. However, “God” is largely a construct of the West—by using it, the speaker is limiting the context to those places where god has meaning. It seems obvious that religious naturalism has much more in common with Eastern religions than with Abrahamic. Using god-language to describe the RN perspective excludes a large portion of the Earth’s population who see the world in a similar way as we do, at least when compared to Western theists. By using naturalistic language only, we universalize our message.
Carl Sagan once said, “A religion old or new, 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.” I believe that religious naturalism, or some variant, will be that religion. Like it or not, science and the concept of God, even as a symbol, are not compatible frames of reference. In the deepest parts of our minds, God is both a stand in for a lack of knowledge and a non-conscious elevation of our parents to the status of immortality and omnipotence. For us to mature as a naturalistic religious movement and also as a species, we must let go of God. It is not enough to transform him (and God is a “him”) to a metaphor, claiming that the supernatural elements have been banished. As long as God is used to describe the sublime within nature and ourselves, supernaturalism will survive, even if only in a silent form. We no longer need to anthropomorphize the universe.
Naturalism states that only the natural is real; that the universe as a whole lacks purpose and intelligence; that nothing exists, in principle, beyond the scope of scientific examination; and that all physical events are caused by other physical events in accordance with universal laws. Religious naturalism is a reverent orientation towards Nature that excludes supernaturalism; that responds to Nature with awe and wonder; that recognizes the mysteries inherent in existence; and ideally will develop a morality grounded in promoting human flourishing and ecological stewardship. The concept of God is not necessary and does not advance any of these principles, while it can be said to work against them. Yes, that includes the issue of mystery. Using God to explain mystery (such as why there is something rather than nothing) is generally just a way of trying to dispel mystery rather than accepting and abiding in it.
Letting go of God is necessary to fully embrace naturalism—which I write with a full understanding of how easy that is to say and how difficult it can be to accomplish. Rather than using a supernatural term to describe that which we see as sacred within Nature, let us instead consider those those things as sacred in themselves. That is what religious naturalism is all about, discarding the supernatural and exalting the natural. Instead of “Love = God = Divine”, religious naturalism says “Love = Divine”.
There are, of course, religious naturalists who do not have a problem with god-language, Dr. Goodenough being one of them (edit: although she herself does not use the term to describe her own beliefs). In no way is this essay an attempt to censure them. Neither am I calling for a “war” against believers in God (or those who use that term metaphorically), except perhaps in those cases where faith is used to justify hatred, suffering, discrimination, or willful ignorance. What I am attempting to do here is to persuade religious naturalists and those of like-mind to consider letting go of a word that muddies the waters, evokes supernaturalism, and inhibits the development of a naturalistic language of reverence. Chet Raymo said it best—When God is gone, everything is holy.
Generally I dislike receiving lists of advice, so I’m a little embarrassed to be offering one. I wrote this list in response to an email sent to me with a lot of (mostly Christian) suggestions that I didn’t particularly care for. Obviously this list only reflects my own personal values and preferences. Also, as far as I’m concerned, this is open source, so feel free to send any of it along. If you are so inspired, please feel free to add your own pearls of wisdom in the comments…
1) Develop mindful gratitude and express it often
2) Get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise regularly
3) Find beauty and joy in simple, every-day things
4) Practice courtesy, even in the face of rudeness
5) Read more
6) Make time for pleasures that enrich your life
7) Always be learning how to do something new
8] Don’t waste your time with people you don’t respect, but be willing to know people who seem different from you
9) Before passing judgment, remember that there is always more than meets the eye
10) Cultivate wonder and curiosity; be open to new knowledge but avoid credulousness
11) Look out for patterns that keep you stuck; growth requires going outside your comfort zone from time to time
12) Think for yourself; develop your ability to question and reason
13) Occasionally write down your life goals and best imagined future; research shows this is associated with increased health and well-being
14) It’s okay to get your needs met, but let go of any sense of entitlement; it’s healthier to think in terms of what you can offer rather than what you are owed
15) Be serious-minded but light-hearted; protect yourself from both bitterness and sanctimoniousness
16) Always be honest, loyal, and true to yourself and your word. Always.
17) Every now and then, reassess your own values, beliefs, and goals
18) Build the courage to face your fears and to take full responsibility for your life
19) Do your part to fulfill our role as stewards of the Earth
20) Make a difference—do what you can to reduce suffering and increase fairness, opportunity, prosperity, and freedom in the world
Ursula Goodenough has a wonderful essay up on the NPR website called, “Are You A Religious Naturalist Without Knowing It?” A short snippet:
…Nature is all that we know there to be; its source is a mystery; its dynamics generate emergent phenomena of increasing complexity. Full stop. How might one find Purpose and Value in such a perspective?
There are many responses, but my own is to see purpose and valuation in every biological trait, every adaptation, every humming bird dipping into a flower with its exquisitely shaped beak. Traits are about something, for something. They have been evaluated and selected in their ecological contexts. Therefore, for me, the flourishing and continuation of life has deep intrinsic Value and Purpose.
The spiritual entails inward responses to one’s core narrative, and here the menu is rich. Nature elicits both awe and humility, as lifted up beautifully by Marcelo; there’s the gratitude and astonishment of being alive at all; there’s reverence for nature’s outrageous beauty and complexity; there’s the joy of participation.
The article is very worth reading; it is not long but it packs a punch. It concisely lays out the core positions of religious naturalism. Except the end—in the last paragraph she writes:
So what’s the difference between a naturalist and a religious naturalist? Both take nature seriously; both adopt Everybody’s Story as their core narrative. And then, in the words of Loyal Rue, the religious naturalist also takes nature to heart. Taking something to heart means that your heart can be broken: you can experience moral outrage when that which is revered is desecrated.
To me, this is not an adequate answer. I think that non-religious people can be heartbroken by the desecration of nature. As it happens, I have written about this very issue, what it means to be a naturalist of a religious kind.
How can naturalism—a perspective that ignores the supernatural—be religious? It requires a different definition of religion, one based on function and experience rather than on traditional faith-based assertions. Loyal Rue (Pulitzer Prize winning author and professor of religion and philosophy) proposes that religion is, at the core, about a relationship with a central myth or story…In discussing religious naturalism specifically, Rue says that as “the gap between the natural and the sacred narrows—as God is naturalized and Nature is divinized…the central core of religious naturalism becomes clear: Nature is the sacred object of humanity’s ultimate concern.” Theologian Roger Gillette offers this: “Religious naturalism is a religion in that it is a system of belief and practice that demands and facilitates one’s intellectual and emotional reconnection with one’s self, one’s family, one’s local and global community and ecosystem, and the universe of which the global ecosystem is a part.”
Those who offer commentary on religious naturalism largely agree that the movement has a long way to go in terms of developing an established set of spiritual practices or traditions. Such practices can be placed into four major categories: ritual, celebration, mindfulness, and works. Religious naturalism has, of itself, nothing to offer in the first two categories, except perhaps when attached to an existing institution, such as the Unitarian Universalist church or a Reconstructionist Jewish community. This does not mean, of course, that individual adherents cannot create or transform religious rituals and celebrations to fit within a naturalistic frame; as they do, perhaps they will spread into more general use.
The third category—mindfulness—does not require any kind of institutional structure. Mindfulness encompasses a range of experiences, such as contemplation, reflection, meditation, and non-petitionary prayer; it is through such activities that the religious naturalist can experience the awe, wonder, inspiration, serenity, and reverence that nature and raw existence can evoke. Through certain mindfulness practices, even the most dedicated materialist can experience a mystical sense of union with everything—of this, Chet Raymo writes, “Every object of the natural world bears within itself a mostly hidden relationship to every other object. In attending prayerfully to these webs of relationship we integrate ourselves more fully into the fabric of the universe.” Naturalistic philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville speaks of the oceanic feeling of unity—”When you feel at one with the All, you need nothing more. Why would you need a God? The universe suffices. Why would you need a church? The world suffices. Why would you need faith? Experience suffices.”
Many religious naturalists have no calling for such mystical experiences and instead choose to express their spirituality through works. Since religious naturalism does not include the idea of an afterlife or alternate planes of being, the focus shifts from hope or faith to action. As with rituals and celebrations, there is no established set of proper works, nor should there be. At Sacred River, we have offered a template for works called the Spiritual Streams—being Self, Relational, Work (labor), Epicurean, Intellectual, Sociocultural, and Natural (environmental)—designed to help people determine for themselves where they can best spend their time and resources. But wherever one finds inspiration, the religious aim is to act with intention towards fulfilling one’s potential as an individual and as an integrated member of humankind and the planet.
Religion arguably exists in order to address certain human needs, such as assuaging existential anxiety, maintaining a sense of purpose and agency, developing an understanding of the workings of the world, and feeling connected to others. At another level, it is possible to surmise that people often desire what can be called a religious experience, here defined as a profound and meaningful shift in perspective involving an embodied sensation and a resultant interpretation that is explicitly religious in nature. Stated more simply, religion can potentially provide a sense of meaningful profundity, a sense of deep significance and/or transcendence from normal states of being, involving a connection with, experience of, or insight into a perspective of reality that is normally outside of everyday awareness.
Religious Naturalism states that all of these needs, desires, and experiences can be had without the need for a belief in the supernatural. Nature, as well as we understand it, is fully worthy of awe, gratitude, and reverence. But more than that, we maintain that nature is all that is real. In other words, we are merely acknowledging that which is, without needing more. Part of this recognition involves our own place within the biospheric narrative, our emerging understanding of human nature and the infinite variety of potential human activity within the world.
Naturalism alone is a philosophical position; religious naturalism offers a meaningful connection to Nature. It allows me to integrate my understanding of Nature into my life in a way that is emotionally salient, even profound—it is not just an intellectual pursuit, it becomes ingrained into the architecture of my life and sense of self. Whether through celebration, ritual, mindfulness, or works, religious naturalism seeks an ongoing experience of Nature that is meaningful, fulfilling, and joyous.
Freud famously hypothesized that God is little more than a projected father figure. This idea was given within the context of his psychosexual theories, which have largely been outmoded as the science of psychology has progressed. Nevertheless, Freud was probably on to something in this case.
As children, our parents are, in essence, gods to us. They are not only all powerful, but are possessed of incomprehensible knowledge and mysterious abilities; they also regularly transport us to strange new places. It is not such a far leap to suggest that a belief in a god allows us to keep a sense of the awe and safety that we are designed to feel when we are kids. There is some part of us—even as mature, educated adults—that craves a relationship with a larger-than-life being that can handle the chaos, danger, and mystery of life, that we can depend on, that will love us without limit.
It is possible that this effect goes beyond a belief in a god. It might also lead to magical thinking, even absent of any belief in a supreme being. This kind of thinking is typified by New Age practices, such as astrology, tarot cards, and candle spells. Occult-style systems can be understood as a transference of magic from the parent to the child. No longer content to leave power in the hands of humanized parents, nor to elevate it to an invisible deity, magical-thinking adults appropriate the flame of godhood for themselves. The illusion is essentially the same as that of the mainline theist, that mysterious, supernatural forces can be used to understand and effect change within the material world.
Naturalism is the only orientation that truly bucks the system—it states that there are no mysterious powers, no access to special knowledge, and no non-material parts of reality. This perspective is threatening to believers of both theistic and occult stripes, not only because humans are designed to have durable worldviews and group affiliations, but because naturalism “takes away” the sense of control and specialness that comes with supernaturalism.
That is the cost of maturity: giving up fantastical thinking. But that doesn’t mean that we have to give up any of the awe and wonder or even reverence! True, we have to learn how to cope with a lack of afterlife and control over the chaos inherent in life, but what we gain is the ability to live in reality and to bask in the majesty of Nature on its own terms. We can make choices and develop understanding grounded in observation and reason rather than scripture or divination. Instead of prayer or magic, we can adopt pragmatic action for when we wish to affect change.
There is much discussion of late about the nature and source of religion. Even if true, it seems highly unlikely that the hypothesis presented in this essay is the only element behind supernaturalism. More likely, there are numerous components, including potent sociocultural influences. It is important that social scientists continue to study religion—the more we understand that supernaturalism is a product of human thinking, the more we can transfer it’s positive elements—such as reverence, compassion, and profundity—to the actual source of reality, the natural world.