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Why Bother with Religious Naturalism? Answering a Critic
Posted By Ash On February 18, 2010 @ 10:28 pm In All Posts,Religious Naturalism | 4 Comments
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.
Article printed from Swimming the Sacred River: http://www.sacredriver.org
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