Another Alternative: Religious Naturalism

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading was from the essay “What Is Religious Naturalism?” by Jerome A. Stone:

“Religious naturalism is a type of naturalism. Hence we start with naturalism. This is a set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world. On the negative side it involves the assertion 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. On the positive side it affirms 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. While this world is not self-sufficient in the sense of providing by itself all of the meaning that we would like, it is sufficient in the sense of providing enough meaning for us to cope.”

The second reading was the poem “In the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, Thinking of Rachel Carson,” by Anthony Walton.

Sermon: Another Alternative: Religious Naturalism

Probably most of us here this morning are firm believers in science. We believe that science is firmly grounded in the natural world. Science doesn’t need any supernatural elements — there’s no need of an afterlife, for example; no need for angels or demons or genies; no need for gods, goddesses, or other deities guiding our lives. As a result, many people give up on religions, because religions always seem to be full of supernatural elements.

This is a social trend that has been going on since at least the seventeenth century in Europe, when Baruch Spinoza rejected the idea that the Bible was divinely inspired, and raised questions about the nature of God. By the eighteenth century, a growing number of freethinkers, people who rejected many of the fundamental doctrines of Western religion, began to emerge. One such freethinker was Thomas Paine, who wrote the pamphlet Common Sense which did so much to further the cause of independence from Great Britain. Paine also wrote a treatise titled “The Age of Reason” which called the supernatural elements of the Bible:

“If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so entirely out of the course of what is called nature, that she must go out of that course to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such a miracle by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is,– Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.” (Pt. I, Ch. 17, The Age of Reason)

Paine said that while he liked the teachings of Jesus, many of the stories about Jesus found in the Bible are lies. It’s worth knowing about Paine because in today’s political debates we hear arguments that America was founded on the tenets of orthodox conservative Christianity; yet here is one of America’s founders arguing quite forcefully against orthodox Christianity.

The debate about miracles and supernaturalism continued in nineteenth century New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who served as a Unitarian minister for eight years before becoming a full-time writer, infuriated the religious establishment when he said that the miracles of the Bible have been grossly misunderstood. Here’s Emerson from his Divinity School Address:

“Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul…. The idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. [Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle… and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Emerson’s younger colleague Henry David Thoreau found miracles in his close observations of the natural world. Thoreau said we need to face up to reality as it actually is. This is what he wrote in his book Walden:

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Thoreau was telling us that this life has miracles enough in it, and we don’t need to add any miracles to it. Thoreau remained open to the insights of traditional religious and spiritual wisdom — not just Christian wisdom, but the wisdom that can be found in all spiritual and religious traditions — but he kept his focus firmly on this world. This present life is sufficient, said Thoreau: “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” So he did not reject religion. He simply wanted his religion to remain focused on this world, the world he could directly experience.

Many other religious naturalists emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Walt Whitman, whose poetry dealt with the here and now, could be called a religious naturalist. Sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois has been called a religious naturalist. Religious naturalists often felt uncomfortable in organized religion. So for example the poet James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the words to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,” felt he lacked religiosity, but to me it seems like he was forced into that feeling because the only definition of religiosity that he knew involved supernatural religion.

In the late twentieth century, the philosopher Jerome Stone began researching the various people who could be classified as religious naturalists. One of Jerome Stone’s most interesting discoveries was that religious naturalists cannot simply be lumped in with religious atheists. Some religious naturalists choose to use the word “God,” while others feel “God” is not a useful concept. So the biologist Ursula Goodenough, who calls herself a religious naturalist, and who feels that the natural miracles investigated by the science of biology are sufficiently miraculous, sees no need to use the word “God.” By contrast, Bernard Loomer — he’s the person who gave us the phrase “the interdependent web of existence” — is a religious naturalist who feels that God is a useful and important philosophical concept.

Thus religious naturalists interpret “God” in a variety of ways. Some religious naturalists interpret “God” as the natural laws of the universe, or as a human social construct, and so on. Other religious naturalists get along fine without God. So if you’re a religious naturalist, you can decide whether to use the word “God” or not. Yet all religious naturalists find common ground in their rejection of the supernatural and their embrace of this world. I like this aspect of religious naturalism, because it can facilitate communication across divisions. The search for truth is always communal, and anything that helps us talk across our divisions helps the search for truth.

As I’ve said before, I’m a devoted follower of Haven’t-figured-it-out-yet-ism — in other words, I don’t want to put a name to my ill-formed thoughts and feelings. But I guess I’d call myself “religious naturalism-adjacent.” I like the religious naturalists I’ve met in person; I took a class with Jerry Stone twenty years ago, and admired his humane and unpretentious attitude towards life.

And I appreciate the way religious naturalists have dealt with arguments about the existence of God. I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, and the old battle between humanists and the theists doesn’t seem to have progressed much since I was a child. Instead of arguing about the existence of God, the religious naturalists want you to define what it is that you mean when you say the word “God,” and that has deepened my own spiritual life.

I also appreciate that religious naturalists focus on this world. And if we don’t have to worry about some supernatural afterlife, this releases our energies to deal with the problems we face here and now. This also releases us to appreciate the beauties of the here and now. If there’s a heaven, or an afterlife, or reincarnation, it will come in its own good time; in the mean time, here we are with reality all around us waiting to be experienced. Even when beauties exist side by side with horrors, it is better to face up to the horrors and do what we can to end them, than to wait for some heaven which may never arrive.

Our contemporary society does not encourage us to face both beauty and horror. Instead, our contemporary society encourages passivity and quietism. Religious quietism pervades our society, as when we say: “It’s in God’s hands,” or “It was meant to be,” or “Whatever happens, happens for the best.” Belief in the supernatural need not deteriorate into quietism, and I am firmly allied with those who believe in a God of justice and truth and love. But we live in a world where some religious people use quietism to prevent necessary change, religions that teach that women are meant to be subordinate to men, that White Christians are meant to rule everyone else, that rich people are rich because they are favored by God. Quietism is also encouraged by secular society, by a secular culture that teaches us to remain passive consumers of media. This is a form of anesthesia no different from the numbing effects of religious quietism; both forms of quietism want to convince us that we cannot change the world.

Instead of anesthetizing us, religious naturalism encourages the kind of spiritual practices that keep us engaged with reality, with the here and now. Think of Henry Thoreau next to his cabin at Walden Pond, kneeling down in the woods in order to the closest attention to the natural world, then writing about what he observed in his journal. Remember, too, that his cabin was a station on the Underground Railroad. Thoreau was not escaping from the world through supernatural beliefs, nor was he escaping from the world by ignoring the realities of injustice. Obviously, religious naturalism is not the only kind of religion that engages fully with this world — but it does set a high standard for other religious attitudes to match.