Many may not have heard the term yet, but Spiritual Naturalism is going to be something you’ll probably hear more about in the future. Also called Religious Naturalism by some, it’s basically a way of life that is spiritual in its tone, its practices, its ethics, and its focus – but which is based on a naturalist worldview – in other words, a view of the world either disbelieving or agnostic regarding the supernatural. Here are six reasons Spiritual Naturalism, of many varieties, will be big in the future – especially in the Western world…
1. The rapid growth of non-religion and non-belief
Secularism and irreligion have been more prominent in Europe for some time. For example, the British Social Attitudes Survey shows a sharp decline in the dominant religion in the area (Christianity) from well over 65% in 1983 to below 45% in 2009. Over that same time, those with ‘no religion’ went from a little over 30% to over 50%. In Norway a 2006 survey found 48% said they either didn’t believe in God or were in doubt. In France only 12% attend a religious service more than once per month.
The U.S. had been the oddball among Western nations, with its greater religiosity, but since the 1990’s the number of non-religious and non-believing has about doubled. The Pew Forum indicates that 25% of 18-25 year olds are nonreligious. In every branch of the U.S. military, those with ‘no religious preference’ are second only to Protestants, outnumbering Catholics and every other religious designation.
Of course, simple irreligion, non-belief, atheism, or agnosticism alone doesn’t get us to Spiritual Naturalism, which is where the other reasons come in…
2. The inevitable search for meaning in later life
It’s a pattern seen on the individual, as well as on a cultural level historically. The rise of religious conservatism in the 1980s consisted of many of the same individuals who had been highly liberal 20 years prior in the 1960s. These changes were likely influenced by the changing conditions and concerns of people as they enter different phases of life.
The young people currently leaving their family’s belief systems aren’t going to stay young and rebellious forever. Eventually, they’ll settle into more traditional roles and when that happens they’re going to start looking for something more than merely, “not that”. Will these people fall back into traditional faith-based religion in droves? There’s reason to suspect it won’t happen just that way this time around.
Unlike the 80s, we now have a thriving and robust internet community constantly exposing us directly to people of diverse beliefs. This casts doubt on older dogmas, even for an older person looking for community. Further, churches with their lower attendance today, aren’t the community fellowships they used to be. Meanwhile internet communities and internet tools for finding alternatives provide many more options than were available in the 70s and 80s.
Lastly, in general, our culture in the U.S. is simply more diverse. Many of us interact directly with people of all kinds of beliefs all the time, either because of immigrants from other cultures, or the greater acceptability of voicing divergent views. Many atheists come out of households of two different religions, and our American household is now that, on overdrive. So, unconvinced of faith-based cosmologies and claims, if other spiritual paths can provide what these groups will be looking for without demanding their intellectual integrity, those approaches will be in a good spot for growth.
3. Greater access to pre-supernatural philosophy
And what are those alternative approaches? There is a wealth of philosophy about ‘how best to live’ in fulfilling ways that are what one might call ‘pre-supernatural’. These include the atomist and materialist philosophies of ancient Greece, as well as many interpretations of early Buddhism and Taoism. While these have been around forever, the difference is that more people have access to these alternatives than they did before, and they are generally more known. Not only that, but these ideas have found their way into modern health guides. For example, the medical community has fully incorporated Yoga and is in the process of both studying and incorporating meditation into its programs. Meanwhile in the therapy field, things like Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) can be drawn directly back to many ideas in ancient Stoicism. All of these represent different ways of looking at the world, finding meaning, guiding our behavior than systems which required belief in the supernatural, and they all form a solid foundation to Spiritual Naturalism.
4. The overlap of modern science and ancient philosophy
Not only are the practical methods and practices of ancient philosophy finding their way into modern fields, but their worldviews are looking very compatible with some of the perspectives of modern science in their essential aspects. For several hundred years many of the fields of science had become highly specialized and segregated. But in more recent times with movements like the founding of the Santa Fe Institute and other multi-discipline endeavors, these very different departments are starting to look for overlap and more large-scale syntheses that look at the big picture. Complex Systems Theory brings together fields as diverse as economics, environmental science, computer science, biology, cognitive science, and cosmology. They study the commonalities in these systems like brains, societies, ant colonies, storm systems, and more. In the process, they talk about things like bifurcation, emergence, indeterminacy, and so on. Oddly, many of these kinds of observations run highly parallel to the observations made by ancient philosophers as they studied nature around them. Taoists describe the ‘flow’ of natural systems. Autopoeisis is the concept in complexity science whereby systems can eventually replace all of their components while the overall systems’ structure remains. This is, quite literally, what Heraclitus observed when he stated, “A man cannot step twice into the same river”.
Why does that matter? Because these kinds of observations about nature formed the basis upon which the ethics of Taoist, Epicurean, Buddhist, and Stoic philosophy were based. As these concepts become more central to the thrust of the scientific perspective, the same kinds of life principles will naturally begin to follow more prominently. Ancient philosophers were not like the academic philosophers of today. Even in the West, they were more like monks – guides to happy living, practicing what they preached. This is a spirituality, and it will be no wonder if similar orders begin to emerge, based on the latest scientific understanding – not a distortion of it or an opposition to it.
5. Spiritual Naturalism crosses traditional boundaries
Many different traditions and faiths have within them, subsets which are drawn toward Spiritual Naturalism. The Center for Naturalism and the author’s own Humanist Contemplative efforts reflect one end of the Humanist and atheist spectra which, though naturalist, reach out for more ritual and spiritual practices in both function and flavor. Unitarian Universalists, though they are not exclusively naturalist, have long had many similar members in their fold. Many Buddhists have within them those who have very empirical and naturalistic views, but find Buddhist principles and practices to be true and useful. In fact, Buddhism has a skeptical heritage in the Kalama Sutra, which instructs us to investigate for ourselves rather than accept things based on dogma, tradition, or authority. Further, Buddha himself is said to have specifically avoided questions about the ‘beyond’ saying that true religion is about how to live happy and productive lives and escape suffering now.
Pagans of various sorts are rising up all over the country as well, and many of these look at their pagan cosmology in very metaphoric ways, essentially accepting the naturalistic view of the universe. Many Pantheists also have naturalistic interpretations for their pantheism which are consistent with empirical methods.
Cultural Judaism has been a phenomenon for quite some time now. Here we have people who may have discarded the supernatural aspects of belief, or are at least agnostic to them, but who still practice the rituals and traditions of Judaism as an important part of their culture. Meanwhile, a ‘cultural Christianity’ is forming by which many call themselves Christian but in actuality have much different beliefs. There has even been a substantial case made by Lloyd Geering for a non-theistic form of Christianity in his book, Christianity Without God. This, in fact, may not be a new idea when we look at Thomas Jefferson, who considered himself a Christian in the sense that he followed the ethical teachings of Jesus, but did not see him as divine.
So it is that, across many demographic pigeonholes as they are currently drawn, there are people on the naturalistic ends of their respective communities. Many of them are beginning to see more kinship with their counterparts across those traditional labels than with those they are currently grouped. You can recognize the consistency of their ‘spirituality minded’ demeanor, the way they try to live their lives, the tolerance, the openness, and the joint partnership of both compassion and reason as a goal. These people gravitate toward a spirituality based on one whole natural universe accessible by our senses and reasoning minds, and seen as wondrous and awe inspiring in its own right. When people from these different traditions come together, there will be the potential for a new and exciting project of thought and discovery in Spiritual Naturalism.
6. The strength of the positive over the negative
Ultimately, the more substantial of traditions are those that answer questions for their adherents in a way that makes sense to them, but also offers them positive hope and practical ways of living more happy and compassionate lives. This cannot be accomplished through mere anti-ism. Carl Sagan was a master at illustrating the grandeur and beauty of our natural universe, and the inspiring effort to learn more about it. These kinds of thoughts can induce something akin to a religious experience, and form a superior foundation for meaning and living. Philosophies that rely on and build on that inspiring foundation, and go further to mine the treasures of our collective history for wisdom will comprise the many shades of Spiritual Naturalism. If such a philosophy can emerge, there is good reason to expect it will grow considerably in the coming century.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Photo: (cc) Matt Lehrer