Religious Naturalism

One of the papers that’s on my summer reading list is “Religious Naturalism in a Unitarian Universalist Context,” a paper presented at General Assembly under the auspices of Collegium, June 23, 2006, by Jerome A. Stone [full text]. Here’s a short critical summary of my reading:–

“Naturalism,” according to Jerry Stone, is a “set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world.” Stone says that naturalism rules out an “ontologically distinct and superior realm.” Religious naturalism, of course, concerns the religious aspects of this world “which can be appreciated within a naturalistic framework.” [p. 2]

Religious naturalism is of particular interest to Unitarian Universalists for two reasons. First, there are many people associated with Unitarianism or Unitarian Universalism who can be considered religious naturalists, including: Henry David Thoreau (raised Unitarian), Henry Nelson Weiman (theologian who joined a UU fellowship), Frederick May Eliot (president of the AUA), Stone himself, and others.

Secondly, religious naturalism is a theological position that encompasses both those who include the concept of God, and those who don’t, in their theologies. Many people think that if you believe in God you can’t find common theological ground with those who don’t spend time thinking about God, but religious naturalism proves this need not be so.

Stone identifies three basic types of religious naturalists, and his typology has to do with how different religious naturalists deal with the concept of God.

(1) The first type includes people like Henry Nelson Weiman, and they conceive of God as creative process within the world. Weiman was committed to common sense empirical inquiry and to scientific method. In the context of this kind of inquiry, Weiman wondered what allowed human beings to escape form evil (which we occasionally do manage to do). Weimen felt that individual human beings were not always capable of extricating themselves from evil, but that there was a transformative principle that could and did pull us out of evil. This he called “creative interchange” in his book The Source of Human Good; this he was willing to call by the name “God.”

(2) The second type of religious naturalist considers God to be the totality of the world, considered religiously. Stone gives Bernard Loomer as an example of this type of religious naturalist. In a 1987 essay, Loomer wrote: “If the one world, the experienceable world with its possibilities, is all the reality accessible to us, …then it follows that the being of God must be identified in some sense with the being of the world and its creatures.” Loomer, too, is committed to empirical inquiry as opposed to metaphysical speculation.

Stone believes Loomer coined the phrases “power with” and “power over” (the second phrase implies a relationship wherein one party has the power and uses it to dominate another party; the first phrase implies a relationship where the party with the power shares it with others, thus avoiding domination). Loomer also refers to an inter-connected or interdependent web of existence, and Loomer identifies this interdependent web with the concept of God. Thus, Loomer appears to be somewhat interested in creating a liberative theology.

(3) A third type of religious naturalism sees no need to use the concept or terminology of God. Stone himself is an example of this third type. He writes:

I hold that many events have what could be called a sacred aspect. I am not talking about a being, a separate mind or spirit. I am saying that some things, like justice and human dignity, and the creativity of the natural world, are sacred. This vision is very pluralistic. What degree of unity there is to this plurality I am reverently reluctant to say.

Stone is willing to allow for transcendence, but only relative transcendence. In other words, there isn’t anything that is absolutely transcendent, but in certain situations there are things that surely do feel transcendent. Stone says that if he were forced to choose between humanism and theism, he’d reluctantly choose humanism; but really he’s somewhere in between the two positions. Indeed, he has what he calls a “minimal definition of God” which he uses in ordinary conversation, when leading worship (he’s in fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister), and when talking with other “religious voices.” His minimal definition is as follows: “God is the sum total of the ecosystem, community and person empowering and demanding interactions in the universe.”

In order for me to be interested in a new theological position, I have to be able to understand how it will contribute to liberation. In this short paper, Stone does not adequately go into how religious naturalism might be applied to liberation (perhaps that will be a part of his book-in-process). But Bernard Loomer’s religious naturalism has definite implications for liberation; and Stone’s own religious naturalism could have as well. As attractive as I find religious naturalism to be, I can’t call myself a religious naturalist until I know more about how it will contribute to liberation.

6 thoughts on “Religious Naturalism

  1. ck

    Dan, I just read the paper and am intrigued. I have to get myself educated more with regard to some of these writers. One question that immediately sprang to mind was:

    How are these categories of religous naturalism helpful if we step outside of a Western tradition? (I know that’s the original locus of the paper) I think of the map metaphor (subway/streets), and I wonder whether the points of contact (subway stations) could be some of the similar feeling-respones of practicioners. They’re set within very different contexts, though–especially the ideas of ‘worship’ and ‘transcendence.’

    I do need to look up Dr. Goodenough, especially since she’s at Wash U! Mabe I will be writing a bit more about this on Arbitrary Marks, if I can find the time.

  2. Administrator

    Hi ck,

    It would be interesting to ask Jerry Stone that question, given that one of his areas of expertise is world religions (that’s what he’s been teaching at Meadville/Lombard).

    Here’s a question for you: To what extent do you think the empirical method has a Western bias? Since a big element of religious naturalism according to Jerry Stone is emprical method, that might be one area of commonality. Which is maybe saying something different from your map metaphor?

    Like you, I want to read some of the people Jerry Stone mentions — especially that late paper by Bernard Loomer.

    I’ll keep an eye on Arbitrary Marks to see what you write….

  3. Administrator

    Received email from a reader who asks, “My question is, what do you mean by liberation?”

    My quick response: “Liberation” in (Western) theological circles has become a kind of shorthand term meaning: seeking justice for all people. Because of its Christian roots, Western theology has always had a major interest in helping the poor and any similarly downtrodden group — “liberation” would be what ideally happens, when the poor and downtrodden get to be as comfortable and secure as everyone else (since more than half the world’s population lives in poverty, this is a daunting and admirable goal). Usually, if you talk about liberation, you’re also expressing the desire that liberation is going to happen in this life, not in some afterlife.

    Many Western theologians are not particularly interested in liberation, but are more interested in metaphysical speculation. Part of what I’m doing in that post is asking if Jerry Stone’s religious naturalism is more about metaphysical speculation, with little or no implication for what goes on in real life. It feels to me as if he’s gotten a little too abstract.

  4. Pingback: » Blog Archive » The Sacred Depths of Nature

  5. Tom Moore

    Check out the web site for a like minded group, who also have a discussion group at There’s a link at the site above. The group numbers over one hundred, including Ursula Goodenough, author of “The Sacred Depths of Nature”, which I recommend heartily, along these lines.

    BTW, your second type of religious naturalist is essentially a description of Pantheism, about which more can be found at

    Hope to see you there,

    Tom Moore
    Crofton MD USA

  6. Administrator

    Hi Tom,

    Not sure that Jerry Stone’s second type of religious naturalist is “essentially a description of pantheism.” You’d best go read Jerry’s original paper before you make that assertion — my summary does oversimplify his original argument. While Jerry does include Spinoza as part of this second type (and Spinoza is considered by many to be a panteist), Jerry includes other people whom I have never heard called pantheists. Furthermore, I think if Jerry had wanted to call this second type “pantheists,” he would have used the term. But he doesn’t. So I’m cautious about your assertion — you should ask him directly to be sure.

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