One Transcendentalist’s religious naturalism

The following is the text of a talk I gave at a meeting of Humanist Roots Group of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto on Saturday 2 February 2013.

Religious naturalism defined

Let me begin with a capsule definition of religious naturalism. This comes from Jerome Stone’s book Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative. The very first paragraph reads:

“Religious naturalism, a once-forgotten option in religious thinking, is making a revival. It seeks to explore and encourage religious ways of responding to the world on a completely naturalistic basis without a supreme being or ground of being.”

Jerome Stone then goes on to list some thinkers who might be considered religious naturalists. If you’re a philosophy or theology geek, some of these names will be of interest to you: George Santayana, John Dewey, Henry Nelson Weiman, Bernard Loomer, Randolph Crump Miller (someone who influenced me through his work in religious education theory), perhaps Gordon Kaufman, and biologist Ursula Goodenough.

Historically, Jerome Stone says the roots of religious naturalism go back to Spinoza, and he also includes Henry David Thoreau as a religious naturalist. He also points out that some (not all) religious naturalists may be willing to use the term “God,” suitably defined. He writes:

“On the topic of God, I find that religious naturalists tend to fall into three groups: (1) those who conceive God as the creative process in the universe; (2) those who think of God as the totality of the universe considered religiously; and (3) those who do not speak of God yet still can be called religious.”

The first group, which includes people like Henry Nelson Weiman, would say that while the creative process (whatever that is, in terms of their definitions) is not ontologically distinct from the rest of the universe, they still think it is useful to name that creative process “God.” I am not particularly interested in this group of religious naturalists, and cannot speak intelligently about them; if this is a topic that interests you, Jerome Stone’s book would be a good place to start to learn more.

The second group, the people who think of God as the totality of the universe considered religiously, I find far more interesting. If you have some familiarity in Western philosophy, you will want to know that Stone places Spinoza in this group. And this group intersects with those pantheists who understand God as being the totality of the universe, where the universe is understood in completely naturalistic terms. Those who are advocates of the “Gaia hypothesis” — that’s the hypothesis that the entire biosphere of the planet Earth can be understood as one vast, perhaps sentient, organism — might be close to religious naturalism, although true pantheists who include the rest of the universe beyond the Earth, too.

The third group, those who do not speak of God yet who can still be considered religious, might sound familiar to you — these are the religious humanists. From Jerry Stone’s point of view, religious humanism is a subset of religious naturalism.

Now at this point, if you are a religious humanist, you might be getting argumentative — “How,” you might be asking yourself, “can Jerome Stone lump together us religious humanists with pantheists, and with people who think you can call a creative process ‘God’? How can he lump together religious humanists with anyone who uses the term ‘God’?”

And he has an answer for you: “To conceive of God either as the creative process within the universe or else as the entire universe considered religiously fits into the definition of naturalism.” He recognizes that what he’s saying is controversial, yet he gives an interesting and compelling argument that works well within the strict limits of his definition of naturalism. And here’s how he defines naturalism:

“On the negative side, [naturalism] 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 the 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.”

This definition of naturalism means that if you define God so that God is not ontologically distinct from the world, then God so defined fits into a naturalistic category.

One subset of religious naturalism: religious naturalism and ecological Transcendentalism

Now that I’ve given you a capsule definition of religious naturalism, let me tell you why I’d consider myself a religious naturalist.

From a religious point of view, I find myself fairly closely aligned with Henry David Thoreau. I would say that when Thoreau uses the word “God,” he means the totally interconnected universe including the biosphere and everything in it; the sun and moon; by extension, other stars and planets and other possible biospheres; and and all non-organic aspects of the universe. Thoreau finds religious wonder in, and draws meaning from, the universe through close and careful examination of the organisms, processes, and events of this world.

But, you say, Thoreau was a Transcendentalist; doesn’t that imply that he believed in some supernatural realm? Thoreau may have been a Transcendentalist (a very loosely defined term), but in his moments of transcendent awareness, it’s not that he is aware of some transcendentally distinct reality. Instead, in his transcendent moments, his awareness transcends the usual ways of knowing — that is, I believe he’s making an epistemological claim, not an ontological claim. All this is pretty straightforward:— Thoreau had some claims to being a scientist (he was well-versed in botany, and was a proto-ecologist); he had a naturalistic conception of the world; and he also had a religious understanding of the world that did not include a supernatural realm.

And I very much like that Thoreau that Thoreau does not put humans at the center of the universe. We humans like to think we’re most important, but when Thoreau goes into his transcendental state of knowing, he becomes very aware that we humans are nothing more than one tiny bit of the web of existence, and that many (maybe even most) of our human concerns are petty concerns when viewed from a Transcendental-level vantage point.

Ethical considerations of religious naturalism and ecological Transcendentalism

This brings me to a conversation I had with my dad a few years ago. He belongs to a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Concord, Massachusetts (Thoreau’s home town), and a decade ago he began attending his congregation’s equivalent of this Humanist Roots Group — except they call their group “The Ungodlies,” which I find entertaining. Anyway, Dad started hanging out with the Ungodlies, and every once in a while he and I would talk about humanism, and then finally after a couple of years we both came to the same conclusion — neither one of us wanted to call himself a humanist, because we didn’t believe that humans should be at the center of our religious orientation — because both of us are extremely concerned about global climate change, and both of us are very upset at the way human beings are screwing up Earth’s biosphere.

I remember one long phone conversation with Dad when he summed all this up, and said something to the effect that he didn’t want to call himself a humanist. Now I can assure you that when you say something like that to a group of religious humanists, you will likely get a reaction from at least some of them, who may feel uncomfortable that you are criticizing the term “humanism.” I think Dad’s solution to this — and you’d have to ask him yourself to see if this is correct — is that he’s still willing to call himself one of the Ungodlies, but he generally won’t call himself a humanist. Of course, our theologies change over time, so I can’t speak for Dad right now — he may well have changed his position.

As for me, my own theological position is pretty close to Dad’s, except that I’m willing to use the term “God,” pretty much in the way that I think Thoreau uses the term “God.” Why am I still willing to use the term “God”? Mostly because of my ethical position:— First of all, for me, being willing to use the term “God” is a nice shorthand way of reminding myself that the universe is a vast place, and from our human point of view, it remains a largely mysterious place about which we know so very little, and which causes us to be in awe and wonder. (I’ll note in passing that this awe and wonder is the same awe and wonder that you can feel when you’re doing science.) Secondly, the term “God” is a good way of reminding myself that the universe is not centered on human beings; that we are puny and insignificant; in other words, the term “God” — the way I use the term — is a reminder that from an ethical point of view, what humans want is relatively unimportant; what is most important is the interconnected web which includes both living and non-living things.

Ethical complications

I cannot resist a small digression here, which will serve to greatly complicate this discussion of ethics. We humans think we are so important, and we think that our actions on earth are going to lead to mass extinctions that will wipe out an incredible number of organisms. Well, that is true, but….

I have a friend who is doing his doctoral research at Stanford in biology, and he is studying life in the muck at the bottom of San Francisco Bay; specifically, he is studying organisms in the domain Archaea. So from hanging out with this friend of mine, I have learned a little bit about Archaea. This is a biological classification of single-celled organisms, which often live in extreme environments, and which by some estimates may constitute something like 20% of the biomass on this planet. Archaea don’t know that we exist, and don’t care. We humans still don’t know much about Archaea (and there remains substantial disagreement among taxonomists as to whether they constitute a separate domain, or whether they fit in with the kingdom of Bacteria).

Even if we humans totally screw up the biosphere with global climate change, there are plenty of extremophile Archaea that can live in temperatures over 100 degrees Celcius. This is a way of pointing out that our worries about human-caused global warming are in fact human worries about whether we are making life difficult for humans. Even our understanding of the interconnected web of existence is centered almost exclusively on where humans fit into that web. But it’s a big biosphere that we live in, and there are many organisms that we don’t know about, and that for there part aren’t aware that we exist. And this is only one tiny biosphere in a vast universe!

So this is one reason I find the term “God” useful — from a Transcendentalist’s viewpoint, the term “God” can be a good way of communicating how insignificant humans are in this biosphere, and how utterly insignificant we are to the vast universe outside our biosphere.

[In the question and answer session, this point was discussed in more depth. I said that the vastness of the Transcendentalist viewpoint can lead to quietism, although I myself am not a quietist; the point I’m trying to make here is that this all may influence how we ground our ethical principles. I also brought up Bernard Loomer’s insight that when Jesus was talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, he was really talking about the Web of Life, and thus from this perspective, human ethical concerns are fully integrated into wider biospheric ethical concerns. Thoreau is probably fairly close to Loomer’s Jesus; another nineteenth century Transcendentalist, Jones Very, was a quietist. For my part, that Transcendentalist viewpoint is helpful to avoid hubris while working to make the world a better place.]


With that digression, I’ll conclude this presentation. I’ve given a brief definition of religious naturalism; I’ve showed how religious humanism can be considered a subset of religious naturalism, or at least can be considered to partially intersect with religious naturalism; and I’ve given you my reasons why I am a religious naturalist who is willing to use the term “God,” based on my ethical concerns about human-caused global climate change, and why I can’t consider myself a religious humanists, based in part on how narrow-minded and silly I understand humans to be.

Now let’s open this up to your comments and questions, and further conversation about this topic.

9 thoughts on “One Transcendentalist’s religious naturalism”

  1. I don’t feel qualified to expound on your excellent post but I would like to express my gratitude to you for introducing me to Religious Naturalism. I first heard of it through your blog. It struck a chord with me and I have begun an earnest personal inquiry on the finer points of RN. I think there is great value in having a framework on which to base my personal theology and I feel comfortable in this sphere. Thank you for this gift. It has had a positive impact on me.

  2. Dan, thank you for posting this talk. Especially the distinction you made about Thoreau’s Transcendentalism (epistemology vs. ontology) and also your thoughts on the use of term “God” by religious naturalists. Quite helpful.

  3. Ditto to Al. I like RN and am grateful you alerted me to this thread of theological thought.

    Ethics and human impact on the earth’s biosphere: it is true, and good to remember, that we are not “destroying the earth.” Earth and most of its living inhabitants got along fine before we came on the scene and they will be here after we’re gone. The environmental crisis is largely about whether this planet will remain hospitable to human life. However, it is not only Earth’s habitability for humans that we’re affecting on our self-destructive march. Any course of action that drives tigers into extinction is a tragedy and a sin.

  4. The engagement of emotional spirit is attractive to me. RN validates the joy I find in the beauty of nature and my love for the arts, while still respecting rational thought. I am techie by trade but I am also a musician and an artist at heart. I experience life through my feelings and senses as well as with my analytical mind. I need both sides of my brain to naviagate through life. I wouldn’t be able to fly with only one wing.

  5. Great talk posted here. I find myself somewhere between types 2 and 3. Very true that we are just making life on this planet difficult for ourselves, as much of the planet’s life will survive us and continue to change over time just fine. I appreciate too the note that awe/wonder is the same emotion felt by scientists, and others. I think the sensation of awe is a common place where those of all beliefs or non-beliefs can meet and congregate together. Thanks for posting this.

  6. Another thought much later. Kurt Vonnegut is a humanist I greatly respect whose humanism clearly leaves plenty of room for not only acknowledging the deep stupidity of humans, but publishing novel upon novel about it.

    I think Ryan Bell, a former Seventh-Day Adventist pastor who is exploring non-theist alternatives in his “Year Without God,” sounds like a potential match for religious naturalism.

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