Exploring The Religious Naturalist Option

By Ursula Goodenough, NPR, November 23, 2014  

Adam [Frank] recently wrote a nice piece on the “spiritual but not religious” distinction being made these days. He noted that “religious” is commonly used to connote being affiliated with a traditional religion and “spiritual” to connote some larger sense of awe and wonder.

I’m offering another take on these matters — one that incorporates the science-based understandings of nature that lie at the heart of 13.7 — by answering some questions here:

What is the standard understanding of being religious?

Most traditional religions have a core narrative (a mythos, a large story), usually recorded in texts or oral accounts. Interpretations of each account are embedded in the mythos and elaborated by clergy, spiritual responses to the account are elicited via art and ceremonies, and moral/ethical edicts are built into the fabric of the narrative.

A person adopting a traditional religion elects to believe in the mythos and its embedded interpretive, spiritual and moral/ethical parameters — and usually participates in a community of fellow believers.

Who is a naturalist?

Scientific inquiry has provisioned us with a mind-boggling new core narrative — the epic of evolution, the epic of creation, the universe story, big history, everybody’s story — where humans and human cultures are understood to be emergent from and, hence, a part of nature.

Naturalists adopt this account as their core narrative, with full recognition that these understandings will certainly deepen and may shift with further scientific inquiry. They adopt the story currently on offer and do not simply select features of the story that support preferred theories of nature.

Who is a religious naturalist?

A religious naturalist is a naturalist who has adopted the epic as a core narrative and goes on to explore its religious potential, developing interpretive, spiritual and moral/ethical responses to the story.

Importantly, these responses are not front-loaded into the story as they are in the traditions. Therefore, the religious naturalist engages in a process, both individually and in the company of fellow explorers, to discover and experience them. These explorations are informed and guided by the mindful understandings inherent in our human traditions, including art, literature, philosophy and the religions of the world.

What is meant by interpretive, spiritual and moral?

The interpretive axis entails asking the big questions along philosophical/existential axes. How do our science-based understandings inform our experience of self? What do they tell us about free will? Death? Love? The search for the meaning of life? Why there is anything at all rather than nothing?

The spiritual axis entails exploring inward religious responses to the epic, including awe and wonder, gratitude, assent, commitment, humility, reverence, joy and the astonishment of being alive at all.

The moral axis entails outward communal responses to the epic, where our deepening understandings of the animal/primate antecedents of our social sensibilities offer important resources for furthering social justice and human cooperation.

It also entails an orientation that can be called “ecomorality,” seeking right relations between the earth and its creatures, absorbing our interrelatedness, interdependence and responsibilities.

What is religious naturalism?

Religious naturalists seek to develop coherent and satisfying meta-versions of their interpretive, spiritual and moral responses to the natural world. Some may go on to produce books, articles, blog postings, films, art, music and poetry that offer these syntheses for others to consider and learn from. A given synthesis can be called that person’s version of religious naturalism, and many such offerings are available. (An analogy: There are many versions of environmentalism on offer, each written by an environmentalist.)

Importantly, all of these projects are proposals. At this stage in the journey, our core text is nature.

What about God?

The concept of a God who actively alters the course of natural events is not a naturalist view; persons for whom this concept is important will presumably prefer another religious home. At the other pole, naturalists who find the concept of being religious to be an anathema will presumably eschew the term.

Most religious naturalists do not elect to use God language, but some use the word as a personification of reality, or to connote the unknown and perhaps unknowable substrate of order (e.g., “God as the ground of being”), or to connote a large and important concept within the natural world (e.g., “God is love” or “God is creativity”).

Adam notes in his blog that a recent Pew Foundation survey on religion found that almost 20 percent of Americans placed themselves in the “unaffiliated” category.

Persons who consider themselves religious naturalists now have an affiliation option — to join (free) an organization called the Religious Naturalist Association, or RNA (pun intended). You can check it out here. The drop-down menu called “Varieties of Religious Naturalism” links to books and other websites that consider this perspective and the link to the RNA Advisors introduces some of the folks who are onboard — including our own Stu Kauffman!

Ursula Goodenough is a professor of biology at Washington University, where she teaches cell biology and molecular evolution. Ursula ended her run as a regular contributor to the blog in July 2011. She remains, however, a valuable member of the 13.7 community.


Belief Is the Least Part of Faith

By T. M. LUHRMANN, New York Times, May 29, 2013

Some Sundays ago, I was part of a sermon in my university’s church. It was the kind of ecumenical church in which I’d grown up. The minister and I sat on the proscenium above the congregation and below the stained-glass windows, and spoke about the ways that evangelical Christians understood God — a subject on which I had written a book. Afterward, there was a lunch open to the community. The questions people asked as we ate our avocado-and-cheese sandwiches circled around the puzzle of belief. Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?

These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.

You could imagine that if you were going to spend an hour or two each week fretting over one or the other, you might opt for the practical. This choice is more real for many evangelicals than most secular liberals imagine. Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches — churches that seem to have such clear-cut rules about how people should behave and what they should believe — have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists. In a charismatic evangelical church I studied, people often made comments that suggested they had complicated ideas about God’s realness. One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

It was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, but also a modern-day version of Pascal’s wager: in the face of her uncertainty about God’s existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real. She chose to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there.

The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

In fact, you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon. As the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, “to believe” meant something like “to hold dear.” Smith, who died in 2000, once wrote: “The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him. I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusting His mercy.’ Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is yes.’ ”

To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.

And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.

T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God,” is a guest columnist.