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.