The core spiritual structure of Sacred River is religious naturalism, a movement that offers a reverent orientation towards the natural world (which includes humans and human culture) that is in harmony with reason and our unfolding understanding of the universe as informed by the sciences. It denies the necessity of the super-natural, including personal deities, non-corporeal intelligences, meta-terrestrial dimensions, or occult/New Age forces. At the same time, religious naturalism also recognizes the holistic, emergent nature of reality that is inherently dynamic and creative, and many religious naturalists advocate a set of ethics that promotes human flourishing and ecological stewardship.
Michael Cavanaugh offers this excellent definition: “Religious naturalism is a belief in the natural order as understood by ongoing scientific investigation, supported by a strong and positive emotional feeling about the wonder and efficacy of that natural order. Religious naturalism is philosophically materialistic but affirms the sense of mystery that accompanies our contemplation of the emergence of matter (and especially of life) from the Big Bang forward. Though largely informed by science for its cognitive understanding, it draws on traditional religious feeling for its artistic and emotional inspiration.”
To understand religious naturalism further, we must understand what we mean by naturalism and by religious.
Naturalism, in this context, does not refer to conservationist or Green movements or to religions that worship a deified nature, such as forms of neo-paganism. Rather, it is a philosophical perspective best summed up with the phrase, the real is natural and the natural is real. Four commonly accepted features of naturalism include:
(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
Theologian Jerome Stone explains that naturalism asserts that “there seems to be no ontologically distinct and superior realm (such as God, soul, or heaven) to ground, explain, or give meaning to this world” while positively asserting that “attention should be focused on the events and processes of this world to provide what degree of explanation and meaning are possible to this life”.
Philosopher Jon Jacobs explains that “naturalism is a conception of reality as homogeneous in the sense that there is one natural order that comprises all of reality. There are no objects or properties that can only be identified or comprehended by metaphysical theorizing or non-empirical understanding.” Similarly, Authur Danto described naturalism as a form of monism (as opposed to dualism) “according to which whatever exists or happens is natural in the sense of being susceptible to explanation through methods which, although paradigmatically exemplified in the natural sciences, are continuous from domain to domain of objects and events. Hence, naturalism is polemically defined as repudiating the view that there exists or could exist any entities or events which lie, in principle, beyond the scope of scientific explanation.” An example of the monist orientation is the assertion that mind (e.g. thinking, conscious awareness, and sense of self) emerges from electrochemical processes in the physical brain rather than from a non-material secondary source, such as a soul.
Andrew Melnyk further says that “naturalism implies that everything that has a purposeful explanation has it in virtue of non-purposeful facts—presumably, facts about the interactions of fundamental physical particles in accordance with impersonal physical laws.” Said another way, naturalism denies that there is any fundamental or external purpose behind physical events—the universe does not exist and things do not happen “for a reason”.
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 his words: “The ultimate function of a religious tradition is to enhance personal wholeness and social coherence by nurturing the conscious and unconscious lives of individuals…The therapeutic function of religion is to transform the individual from an orientation of self-centeredness to one of reality-centeredness” through the apprehension of and alignment with myth. The social function is achieved when individuals share, through adherence to myth, a common identity, perspective, expectations, and purpose; “When you and I share a myth, we affirm a common origin, a common nature, and a common destiny…By the power of myth I become whole and we become one.”
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.”
“The Epic of Evolution”—the Greatest Story Ever Proven
It is generally agreed upon that the central “myth” of religious naturalism is the story of the universe as told by astrophysics and our place within it as understood via evolutionary biology, natural selection, and the social sciences. As best-selling author and biologist Ursula Goodenough writes, “The Epic of Evolution is our warp, destined to endure, commanding our universal gratitude and reverence and commitment…The Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the origin and evolution of life on this planet, the advent of human consciousness and the resultant evolution of cultures—this is the story, the one story, that has the potential to unite us, because it happens to be true.”
Similarly, theologian and UU minister William Murry writes, “The epic of cosmic evolution is the narrative that underlies humanistic religious naturalism and that provides the individual with a meaningful worldview and a sense of belonging to a larger process. The epic of cosmic evolution that begins with the Big Bang provides us with a vision of the universe as a single reality, one long spectacular process of change and development—an unfolding drama, a universal story for humankind. Like no other story, it humbles us as we contemplate the complexity of the cosmic process, and it amazes us when we try to imagine its magnitude. Like no other story, it evokes reverence as we feel its power, and awe and wonder as we visualize its beauty. Like no other story, it gives us a scientifically based cosmology that tells us how we came to be and what we are made of… Like no other story, it teaches us that we are all members of one family sharing the same genetic code and a similar history; it evokes gratitude and astonishment at the gift of life itself and inspires responsible living. Like no other story, it gives meaning and purpose to human beings as the agents responsible for the current and future stages of cultural evolution.”
Religious Practice and Spiritual Experience
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 object is to act with intention towards fulfilling one’s potential as an individual and as an integrated member of humankind and the planet.
Religious naturalism asserts that spiritual experiences are possible without any acknowledgment of God or supernatural, occult, or “New Age”-type forces (a la Reiki, crystals, chakras, astrology, reincarnation, teleology/synchronicity, ESP, the “Law of Attraction”, and so forth). It should be mentioned that many RN writers also say that they are open to these things being true as soon as there is compelling empirical evidence for them—such things simply aren’t seen as necessary for a profound spiritual life and the first obligation is to our growing store of empirical truth as it unfolds via the scientific method.
Religious Naturalism does not have a codified set of ethics or any established creed. But there seems to be a growing consensus that we have a shared responsibility towards the natural world (i.e. ecological stewardship) and towards other humans (i.e. humanism). Without God or any purposive consciousness ordering things, it turns to us to create meaning and value; without angels or magic, it turns to us to act with reason and love, to assume responsibility for doing good, realizing justice, and coping with the pain and loss inherent in the human condition. Comte-Sponville offers an ethics of fidelity to truth (rationalism, the rejection of sophism) and to love (humanism, the rejection of nihilism). Murry says that the basic ethical principle should be “reverence for life”, which assumes the form of justice when applied socially and essentially means working towards optimizing opportunity and dignity for every person.
Ursula Goodenough has tackled the question of a naturalistic morality and begins with the aim of human flourishing, both individually and as communities. She proposes six “moral capacities” that undergird human flourishing: strategic reciprocity (or reciprocal altruism), humaneness, fair-mindedness, courage, reverence, and mindfulness. Goodenough asserts these capabilities are natural to the extent that they appear, albeit in less complex forms, in other animals. Speaking of mindfulness, Goodenough offers a standard definition, being the “capacity to take in the understandings of reality without the distortions introduced by need, bias, and prejudice.” This essential capability unifies the religious and the naturalist, since “scientists, trained in a particular kind of ‘pure observation,’ have provisioned us with stunning understandings of the natural world, and these understandings then provision the religious naturalist with countless substrates for mindful apprehension.” She then proposes that “the cultivation of mindfulness and the cultivation of virtue must go together as an essential collaboration if we are to attain moral maturity.” Finally, she discusses the moral imperative to remove those things that inhibit human flourishing, such as poverty and ignorance.
Who are Religious Naturalists?
According to Jerome Stone, the historical roots of religious naturalism can be found in the writings of Spinoza, John Dewey, Henry Nelson Wieman, Roy Wood Sellars, Mordecai Kaplan, Paul Tillich, and George Santayana, although inspiration has certainly been found within Buddhism, Transcendentalism (especially R.W. Emerson), Confucianism, Pantheism, and Whitehead’s process theology. Contemporary writers who have addressed religious naturalism (although not all affiliate with that term personally) include Loyal Rue, William Dean, Willem Drees, Ursula Goodenough, Charley Hardwick, Henry Levinson, Karl Peters, Chet Raymo, Michael Cavanaugh, and Jerome Stone. We can also include authors who write within a naturalistic orientation, even if the term itself is not used, such as Andre Comte-Sponville and Brian Swimme.
There are a number of organizations and communities that have explicitly adopted religious naturalism, including:
Other groups that are known to be welcoming of Religious Naturalists include:
A Short Reading List
* The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough
* Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative by Jerome A. Stone
* When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist by Chet Raymo
* Living With Ambiguity: Religious Naturalism and the Menace of Evil by Donald A. Crosby
* The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville
* Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century by William R. Murry
* Religion is Not About God By Loyal Rue
For more books you might enjoy, check out the Sacred River Book Store…
Recommended readings on the web:
* Theology Of, By, & For Religious Naturalism by P. Roger Gillette
* Religious Naturalism on Wikipedia
* “Nature as the Focus of Religious Faith” from Crosby’s Living with Ambiguity
* “Anchored in Nature” from Murry’s Reason and Reverence
* “Religious Naturalism and Science” by Drees in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science