Academic and Movement Religious Naturalism
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.