The mission statement and an overview of our organization can be read on our website, on the ‘About Us’ page, but this is only a cursory description. We believe we are doing something quite new; perhaps even revolutionary. More than simple ‘self help’, more than simply ‘secular meditation’, and more than merely providing inspiration – our intention is to serve a critical role for a growing number of people and help shape the very future of human spirituality. This vision statement is meant to share a little more about the underlying philosophy behind our founding, and the primary concerns of our purposes.
The following sections outline what could be considered the really high points – the most important things about the Society and what makes our mission so important…
1) Healing the Schism between the Natural and the Sacred
As one studies the history of ideas (philosophy, religion, spirituality, practices, ritual, etc) it becomes more and more obvious that something really strange and unfortunate has happened in recorded human history – what could be called ‘the schism’.
Consider ancient Eastern and Western philosophy; specifically Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and other schools of Greek philosophy. It seems that during the Axial Age (roughly 800-200 BCE) people like Socrates, Zeno, Heraclitus, Epicurus, Siddhartha (Buddha), and Lao Tzu were as close to naturalistic as one might imagine. Certainly they had some ideas about the world which science later showed to be inaccurate, and their work preceded the emergence of a formalized scientific method which the Enlightenment brought us. But their approach was largely rational – not faith-based. And, although their concepts were later adopted by faith-based supernaturalists, they were – at the time – naturalistic theories. The ‘Way’ (Tao) refers to the way of Nature, moving in accord to its own inherent patterns and principles. Anaximander conducted what could be the earliest recorded scientific experiment. The Stoics were materialists who viewed all of existence as one unified whole operating by natural law, defined as divine will by some and abstract necessity by others. Epicureans saw all things, including souls and ‘gods’ as products of the chance collision of atoms. When we read them speaking of ‘souls’ or ‘God’, it is common to envision these terms looking backward through time through a Christianized filter; a reinterpretation of these concepts that would come later.
Yet, despite this largely rational approach and natural integrated view, the tone was a sacred one. And, it was not only the Taoists and Buddhists who were spiritual in their approach. The ancient Greek ‘natural philosophers’, for example, were much more like monks than the academics of today. Folks like Socrates sought only to help others become more wise and was sentenced to death for it, Zeno preached Stoicism on the open steps in the marketplace, and Epicurus sought a flourishing life through clear thinking and serenity. Other philosophers took vows of poverty and simple living. These were times when the sacred was seen as existing within and as a part of nature. Even Pythagoras, known for his contributions to mathematics for example, saw mathematics as a gateway to sacred knowledge. His order, the Pythagorean Brotherhood, was as much a religious order as any – but rationality, observation, and proofs were their sacraments. Most importantly, these practitioners found meaning and value in a self sufficient Nature.
But eventually, in the West especially, a notion of the ‘super’ natural emerged – another unseen realm apart from the natural realm. Plato’s notion of ideal forms is thought to have had some influence in this, but some researchers say the emergence of a dualistic supernatural realm as conceived of today came surprisingly late – developing out of the Hebraic distinction between the Creator and the Created, aided perhaps by responses to the question of why Jesus never returned. Not until the 13th Century does the theology of Thomas Aquinas make the supernatural explicit. In many ways the origin of supernaturalism doesn’t matter so much as the methodology that supernaturalism encourages – the idea that we can know things apart from (and sometimes in contradiction to) the natural world of experience, observation, and rational assessment.
In any event, for whatever reasons and in whatever period, once this notion of an unreachable supernatural realm emerged, we tossed everything of meaning and value and intangible form into that black hole. In the mind of the supernaturalist (which became the dominant conception in the West), there was a natural universe that was a shadow – mere puppets of meaningless meat and matter. This world had become mere artifact; its meaning and value dependent entirely upon the intentions of an external Creator rather than inherent. Everything of the sacred, of meaning, and of value was cast beyond this ‘pitiful’ realm into a supernatural one. The natural soul that Socrates and his associates reasoned about became an immaterial ghost dominating a lowly natural body.
This was the schism between the natural and the sacred.
That was all well and good until the modern era, where we have since begun to cast off unsubstantiated beliefs. But many of us, including many hard atheists, continue to view the world through that Christianized filter. So, when the supernatural was discarded by some of us, so was the traditional source of meaning and value, and spirituality and sacredness.
Now we live in a state where those who don’t have supernatural beliefs are afraid of, or resistant to, using any kind of terminology that might be associated with religions or spirituality of the past, for fear of being thought a faith-based supernaturalist. But this ties our hands in incredibly damaging ways. Anyone who has had profound experiences in a ritual or extensively engaged in spiritual practices will tell you that language (really our mental ‘framing’) matters. The technical, philosophic, clinical, and scientific language many secular people prefer simply doesn’t cognitively do the job. And, by ‘doing the job’ we don’t mean ‘making us feel good’. We mean the very real and practical job of cultivating character transformation. That is, changing our deep perspectives, value systems, and life experience through engaging all parts of our minds, not just the analytical.
Fortunately, deep knowledge of those systems of thought and practice that existed before the schism show us an example of how the natural, rational, and the sacred can co-exist – not merely as ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ – but actually be the very same thing.
So, we reclaim our spiritual heritage with our heads held high. We do not put quotation marks around spirituality – we use it for real, as it was originally and properly used. And we engage in myth, ritual, language, and practices unapologetically. Is this religion? The word means too many things to too many people – let each decide for themselves. In the meantime, we will live better.
More and more people are leaving their traditional faiths, or leaving less-rational versions of them. Encouraging this is not part of our mission, as we are not evangelical. But it is happening and this is a fact we must acknowledge. As people do leave their older faiths, this is not – in itself – necessarily better. Even for us naturalists, there is such a thing as a lost soul – a person without meaning or purpose or hope. Our consumerist culture aims to make us all good Walmart shoppers but not good or happy people.
As these droves leave supernaturalism, they need (more than ever) a rational alternative approach to the sacred that their modern minds can embrace. This alternative cannot only consist of intellectual philosophizing about the shortcomings other people’s beliefs. It must be a genuine, moving, effective, and transformative alternative. And that is perhaps the larger overarching way in which we hope to contribute with the Spiritual Naturalist Society – to aid in healing the schism between the natural and the sacred.
2) A Place for Naturalists Seeking Better Lives
Aside from abstract intentions to unite thoughts and themes in our civilization, our Society must be about people. The Society should be a place for naturalists who are beyond that rebellious anti-religion stage. Surely, fighting for the rights of non-believers and against institutional evils in religion or elsewhere are noble and worthy causes. But more and more naturalists are moving beyond this being their sole interest. Aside from that, naturalists are human beings, with need of community, compassion, and more.
Many Humanist, atheist, Freethought, and other organizations believe in this too, but the experience of attending them is all too often one of coming together to commensurate in the mutual bashing of religious people. Even in a best case scenario, one leaves these gatherings with the thought ‘that was a good debate’. This doesn’t come close to the uplifting sense of rejuvenation for the coming week and inspiration one experiences when, for example, attending a Buddhist temple.
The difference is in our genuine effort to build relationships and treat one another in compassionate and loving ways, and to share more than just philosophical discussion, and share in applicable techniques that improve lives.
3) A Think Tank for Spiritual Naturalist Thought & Practice
Spiritual and Religious Naturalism are relatively new (and very new in any kind of organized sense). Communities will need to develop SN ideas, practices, and traditions more fully going into the future. Our aim in the Society is to contribute to that development through forum discussions, which culminate eventually into publications, thus giving us a ‘think tank’ function as well. The goal of this think tank cannot be to generate dogma, or to encourage homogenization of the many diverse cultures and traditions that inform naturalistic spiritual practice. But, rather, to bring together that diverse collection and share the many elements and routes along that broad perennial path for the benefit of individuals seeking to build their own practice and find a way that resonates with them, but also give opportunity for communal expression. There is much work yet to be done in development of Spiritual Naturalist thought and practice.
4) More Than a Website or Publisher
It is easy in our internet age to get too obsessed with the website of the Society – especially since we span many areas and often can only interact online (aside from the local chapters). But we must always remember that the Society is more than a website, and even more than merely a publisher of articles. The articles are a part of our mission to help spread SN in the world, and they also provide an attractive draw of like-minded people into our organization. But there is more to us than that.
In addition, we should always focus on community and our developmental functions as outlined above. We should also work to continue the spread of local chapters into more places. And hopefully we can eventually manage many public events, speaking engagements, and compassionate projects for the benefit of others. If we ever retreat to merely another website with articles (important though they are), then we will fall far from our mission and this will be the beginning of the end for our efforts.
5) Atmosphere and Sincerity are Crucial
Part of the realization of Spiritual Naturalism is that the subjective matters. It matters in terms of spiritual practice, our value systems, our quality of experience in life, and our deep happiness – the aim of spiritual practice. Therefore, organizationally, we must realize that intangibles matter as well.
This means how we express, speak, and write to others, the kinds of projects and events we try to do (both internally and in the public eye) and so on. But, more importantly, it begins with our own personal way of being. It begins with our own individual demeanor as Spiritual Naturalists. And that begins with our true internal motivations and feelings.
Therefore, to be truly effective agents of our mission, we must endeavor in our own practice. Through this, we can cultivate true love and compassion for all beings and act from a genuine hope to do good in the world by bringing more happiness to more people and working to make the world a better place (as the unfolding of the universe permits, of course). That is what our mission is really about, and we can’t accomplish it without that genuine and deeply true intention in our hearts.
Whenever someone speaks with a Spiritual Naturalist, let it be immediately obvious that this is a different kind of person – a person who does more than talk the talk. When they attend a Spiritual Naturalist gathering, let the feel of the event be guided by an atmosphere of loving-kindness, sharing, and patience – not a debating or overly-academic tone. Our very way of being should convey the equanimity, compassion, and familial love we seek to cultivate in ourselves and help others who wish it to do the same. None of us are perfect at this, of course, but the effort is what counts. And that effort should color everything the Society does and puts out into the world.
6) Less Talking, More Doing
There have been, for decades now, many secularists and atheists who repeatedly make the arguments that we can lead fulfilling and moving lives of inspiration; that we can be compassionate; that we can do all of the things faith-based religion does. At the Society, we have decided to stop talking about or making arguments that we can do these things. We do them. We practice meditation. We engage in rituals. We conduct ourselves with a compassionate, loving demeanor toward all. We cultivate mindfulness. We appreciate the sacred.
We specifically reject articles and publications that seek to argue why a person should be a naturalist or reject the beliefs of others (because we take this for granted, as we are here to serve naturalists). We specifically reject writing that tries to build arguments proving that a naturalist can still be good. Instead, we ask for works that give the naturalist practical methods of being a better person. We do not engage in the ‘culture wars’. We trust our living example will be a testament sufficient to make these truths undeniable.
7) What We Are Not
It goes without saying that we are not a political organization. We also dwell on who we are, our values, and what we do believe. Our niche is a very tiny one, which is why our mission is so important. It lies between two dominant and powerful niches, both of which would be easy to slide into and which we must avoid with a laser-like focus.
On the one side are the ‘nones’. The atheists, secular humanists, freethinkers, skeptics, etc. These are not bad groups to be in. Many of us enthusiastically continue to support them with our own money and participation, and the Society considers many of them partner-organizations. But they are simply not who we are or what we do here. It is true that these groups almost universally agree that compassion and kindness are good, and are composed of many good people. They also largely agree that there should be some role for a kind of “ritual” and “spirituality” (they do often use quotation marks), and most are starting to see the benefits of ‘secular meditation’ for example. This is all good, but they also engage in things like political lobbying, putting up controversial signs, debunking, and religious criticism (all within their rights and important in certain contexts). These may also be good but they are simply not what the SNS exists for, and we must be ever conscious of that.
By ‘laser-like’ focus, we mean there is no way to do a ‘little bit’ of bashing or even dispassionate criticism ‘on the side’. It will overtake and paint everything else a group does. To those in the crosshairs of that, it is like being given a nice big bowl of soup with ‘just a little’ feces. So, for example, in our writing it may be tempting to say things like, “we do things rationally, which is much better than proceeding on fantasy”. But a laser-like focus would simply talk of the benefits of rationality. No need to bring up others or speak in comparative us/them terms. We also avoid negative language, like “we don’t believe in…” or words with “a-“, “non-“, “anti-“, or “without”. We are not nonbelievers – we are believers in the values of Spiritual Naturalism. We are not ‘without’ – and a Spiritual Naturalist should be as content being only referred to as an “a-theist” as a Christian would be content being referred to as merely a “non-Hindu” or an “a-empiricist”, technically applicable though the terms may be.
These are just some of the ways that large neighboring niche is always tempting us. Often we may think a light-hearted approach may be the way to come at ‘showing others how deluded they are’. But this ‘humor’ is even worse in that the target sees it as highly disrespectful. Add to that the subtle but beguiling distraction that we forget ‘convincing others of their bad ways’ is not part of our mission. Rather, it is to promote ‘good ways’ for those exploring, ready, or anxious to make use of them.
If all of this seems overly restrictive, it should be noted we are referring here to how our organization conducts itself and encourages behavior at our events and in our publications. Individuals who may be members are, of course, free to act as they choose. And, it is not that these ‘things we are not’ are necessarily bad or wrong. But our Society, if it is to be an example of a sacred space must live up to the etymology of sacred, as in ‘set apart’. There needs to be a space apart from the sectarian strife, the conflict, the political rants, and so on for naturalists. In that space we can focus on compassion, listening, inspiration, and love for all people regardless of their beliefs. This is what naturalists have not had and many of these aims I’ve described are an effort to give them that.
The large niche on our other side are the mystics – the ‘Spiritual Supernaturalists’ one might say. Like us, these folks are into spiritual practices and may even be focused on cultivation of the self for greater happiness and a better world. But they also believe in other unfounded ‘ways of knowing’ which might include pseudoscientific, paranormal, or supernatural means. Or they might have these views and mistakenly believe them to be scientifically verified. Also, many of them don’t even know they aren’t naturalists in the sense we mean. They may see the word and think it means merely ‘lovers of nature’.
These folks may not share our spiritual practice of Epoche – humbly withholding assent to that which has not been proved. These, like those in the niche to our other side, are not bad people. Many of them may be more likely to see the value in ‘humility in our claims’ and in reason, than those on the other (atheist/skeptical) side seeing the value of spiritual practices and rituals. To use the vernacular of many spiritual groups, which already embrace a wide diversity of paths – ours is the naturalist path and should be able to exist in their communities with equal tolerance on both sides.
Many of these people may come our way and we should treat them as we treat all human beings: with kindness, patience, tolerance, and compassion. Many of them may even find our teachings useful and helpful and this would be wonderful. But like an openly non-Christian who attends a Christian church service, most churches would welcome this person into the service; but that doesn’t mean they will be giving the sermon. Nor would they be invited to debate the foundational beliefs of the church in the middle of the service. So, while we welcome and are kind to all, and share with those interested, we must stay solid and clear on our course and with all we put out. We are a place where naturalists can come to get useful help from others and from our publications, without having to sift through or take on supernatural or faith-based claims. Our naturalism is a defining characteristic of our niche, and will probably be easy for us. But we also must focus on welcoming spiritual supernaturalists who are searching and asking questions, and joining with them around the drums and bonfires and incense with jubilation and a loving spiritual attitude.
That is some of the philosophy on which our organization is based, and it is our vision for moving forward. There is much to be done to provide the world a living example of a true and deeply spirituality naturalist tradition with a sense of the sacred. The benefits to naturalists will be great and even more needed as we continue into the future. This is why we are dedicated to our mission, and invite you to become a part of it to whatever degree is right for you!
Many thanks to B. T. Newberg for his edits, suggestions, and additions to this statement.