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.