Tag Archives: religious naturalism

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. Continue reading

Theological disunity

In a previous post, I looked at some areas where Unitarian Universalists have a great deal of theological unity. Now I’d like to turn to four areas where there is far less unity.

(1) Unitarian Universalists are not in agreement regarding a fundamental ontological claim of process theology. To oversimplify, process theology asserts that God is in the process of evolving. Therefore, a Unitarian process theologian like Charles Hartshorne might call the concept of omnipotence a “theological mistake”; God cannot be omnipotent because God is in process. By contrast, many Unitarian Universalists today will argue that if you’re going to talk about God, one attribute that God must have is omnipotence; this is the foundation for many arguments by Unitarian Universalist atheists or humanists showing that God must not exist.

This represents fundamental theological disagreements about the nature of God, and about the nature of reality (ontology).

(2) Unitarian Universalists are not in agreement regarding one key component of most liberation theologies. Continue reading

“Religion Is Not About God”

Dick said I should read the book Religion Is Not About God by Loyal Rue (Rutgers University, 2005). Dick is right, I do need to read this book: Rue manages to link two of my primary concerns, religious naturalism and the growing crisis of overpopulation. I’m slowly working my way through the book — slowly, because periodically I have to stop and think about what Rue is saying.

To tempt you into reading the book, I found a 5 minute online video in which Rue presents one of the key concepts of the book. Come on, you have five minutes — sit for a moment and watch this video:

By the way, Jerome Stone, a recognized authority on religious naturalism, passes this positive judgment on Rue: “One of the best treatments of religion by a religious naturalist is Loyal Rue’s Religion Is Not About God” (in Religious Naturalism Today [SUNY Press, 2008], p. 4).

Man is not the measure of all things

Dad and I have been talking for some time about our discomfort with the term “humanist” (a term which, by the way, can be applied to both Christians and atheists). Neither one of us seems to have much interest in putting humanity at the center of the universe; we’re both more willing to call ourselves religious naturalists.

My fever came back this afternoon, and I slept through the time I usually talk with dad. But late in the evening, I came across the following in a book of critical essays on science fiction; it begins to express some of the feelings I have about the position of humanity in the universe:

It isn’t that mankind is all that important. I don’t think that Man is the measure of all things, or even of very many things. I don’t think that Man is the end or culmination of anything, and certainly not the center of anything. What we are, who we are, and where we are going, I do not now, nor do I believe anybody who says he knows, except, perhaps, Beethoven, in the last movement of the last symphony. All I know is that we are here, and that we are aware of the fact, and that it behooves us to be aware — to pay heed. For we are not objets. That is essential. We are subjects, and whoever among us treats us as objects is acting inhumanly, wrongly, against nature. And with us, nature, the great Object, its tirelessly burning suns, its turning galaxies and planets, its rocks, seas, fish and ferns and fir trees and little furry animals, all have become, also, subjects. As we are part of them, so they are part of us. Bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh….

Ursula K. LeGuin, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” [1975] in The Language of the Night (Ultramarine Publishing, 1980), p. 116.

Moving away from the humanist-theist debate

Tonight Amy Zucker Morgenstern, the senior minister at the Palo Alto church, and I led a class on humanism, theism, and naturalism, part of a series of classes we’re doing on current issues in liberal religion. We each began with a presentation on the topic; the text of my presentation is below. Our presentations were followed by a lively and enjoyable conversation with the 14 people who came, a conversation that ranged from metaphysics to demographics.

When Amy and I started talking about this class, I knew right away what I wanted to talk about: I wanted to talk about religious naturalism. I wanted to talk about religious naturalism because at the moment it is the only theological “ism” that I have any interest in associating with.

The reason I wanted to talk about religious naturalism is because in my experience it is the only theological position within Unitarian Universalism that doesn’t by definition shut out one or more other theological positions. Humanists and theists each want to shut the other group out, even force the other group out. Humanists and christian theists want to keep those doggone pagans out, and pagans, given half a chance, would shut out the humanists and christian theists. The Buddhists sit there smiling smugly at everyone else as if they have the real answers, and they’re willing to tolerate us until such a time that the rest of us get with their program. And so on.

This is all very fine and good. I like a good knock-down, drag-out argument as much as anyone. (Though I will admit I prefer theological bar fights to what academic theologians do — that is, I prefer an out-and-out fight with shouting, throwing of bar stools, and fisticuffs, to the refined intellectual backstabbing that is too often characteristic of the academy.) In fact, I think arguments are a lot of fun, as long as those who are involved are all basically healthy, and all basically want to get involved in the fight. Continue reading

Magical thinking

Unitarian Universalists tend to hold the irrational belief that human beings are predominantly rational. Unitarian Universalists also tend to have faith in scientific insight, yet scientific investigations in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, cognitive science, etc., reveal that human beings are not predominantly rational beings.

This being the case, the belief that a determined individual can conduct his or her life on a rational basis is an example of magical thinking. And such belief is not in essence different from a belief in a supernatural deity, transubstantiation, reincarnation, etc. What do you think?

Humans at the center of the universe

Dad made an interesting suggestion this afternoon when I was talking with him. He suggested that calling oneself a humanist might tend to indicate that one assumes that human beings are at the center of existence. This might imply that those who are committed to environmental justice and ecological repair might prefer to call themselves naturalists (as in, a religious naturalist or theological naturalist).

Dad put it much better than that, but I think I’ve managed to communicate his basic idea. And I think he’s identified some of my discomfort with the term “humanism” — I don’t want to be associated with a theological label that puts humans at the center of the universe, because in my opinion a big part of the problem with Western culture is that it makes humans more important than any other kind of life form, an attitude that has gotten us into global climate change, denial of global climate change, release of toxics into the environment, etc.

What do you think? Does humanism put humans at the center of the universe? Is that a bad thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d particularly love to hear from someone who strongly identifies with both humanism and deep ecology, mostly because from my point of view those two positions would be mutually exclusive.

Bernard Loomer reading list

I’ve been reading Jerome Stone’s Religious Naturalism Today, and through it I’ve gotten even more interested in theologian Bernard Loomer. Loomer is the theologian who probably introduced Unitarian Universalists to the web of life as a theological concept. But Jerry also points out that Loomer helped originate another concept that has proved invaluable in liberal religious social justice work:

[In 1976] Loomer also wrote a seminal article on the distinction between unilateral and relational power, which may be the first statement of the distinction between power-over and power-with…. [Religious Naturalism Today, p. 96.]

Jerry’s referring to “Two Conceptions of Power” by Loomer, published in Process Studies 6:5-32, 1976. I’m going to have to add that to my Loomer reading list, which already includes Unfoldings, two booklets of transcriptions of talks Loomer gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, and The Size of God, the long essay that revived religious naturalism when it was published in 1987.

By working through these relatively short works by Loomer, it looks like I can (1) gain a richer understanding of “web of life” as a theological and ethical concept; (2) take another look at a key ethical distinction around use of power; and (3) work through a key statement of religious naturalism that uses the concept of God without going beyond the world of nature. All this for less that 200 pages of reading!