It’s often hard to define spiritual naturalism. Movements like Stoicism or Westernized Buddhism are pretty clear. Stoics have a well-defined set of texts and a pretty clearly defined system of psychological ideas and practices. You can learn how to be a Stoic. The same holds for Westernized Buddhism. It’s defined around the practice of meditation. It has a well-worked-out system of background ideas to motivate the practice. You can learn how to meditate; moreover, it’s a skill that can be taught to you. The community of people who go to Burning Man is also fairly well defined. To be a burner is to participate in Burning Man. If you want to go to Burning Man, you need to learn how to do many things. You need lots of skills. And there are burners who can teach you those skills. Transhumanists have fairly well-defined agenda, and hackers have a well-defined methodology. Hackers include body-hackers, neuro-hackers, consciousness-hackers, and others who apply the experimental method to their own minds and bodies. You can learn how to do this. Hackers can tell you how to quantify your body, how to study it, how to work on it.
But what about spiritual naturalism? It’s hard to point to any specific skill that defines it. It’s hard to say that you can learn to be a spiritual naturalist. What are you learning? What are you being taught? The naturalism part of spiritual naturalism does involve a way of thinking that you can learn from others. You can learn that naturalists avoid certain types of assumptions in their thinking and acting. You learn to be a naturalist by learning that any effects in your body are caused by physical events in space and time. If something is going on in your body, then it has a physical cause. If you want to change your life, you need to change the causes that are acting on you. You can be taught how to look closely at your body and the causes of your experiences. This can be an extremely liberating approach to living. However, while the naturalism part of spiritual naturalism is clear, the spiritual part is opaque. Spirituality often looks like just having fine feelings. Spirituality is about your emotions. Like something about happiness or about being nice to other people.
Spiritual naturalism doesn’t seem to make promises like other groups. Stoics promise liberation from enslavement to circumstances. They promise freedom. Buddhists promise a similar liberation. They say you’ll become enlightened. Both Stoics and Buddhists imply that you will be happier if you follow a specific system of practices, backed up by a specific system of ideas. Burners make promises too: if you go to Burning Man, you will have a transformative experience: you will come back having gained an extraordinary perspective on your life and society. This perspective will reveal to you that another way of life is possible. And participating in the event may help you overcome personal problems like addiction or grief. Hackers promise you that you will be able to better cope with chronic illness. You will gain as much power as you can over your migraines, your diabetes, your obesity, your arthritis. You will learn how to live well. All these promises are open to empirical testing and refinement.
So far spiritual naturalism seems mostly to be the absence of anything. It doesn’t have any learnable or teachable skills or practices. If somebody asks you what spiritual naturalists do, you can’t say something like: we learn how to walk on only one foot. And spiritual naturalism doesn’t promise you any relief from the bad parts of living. It doesn’t say that if you learn how to walk on only one foot, you’ll be happy, you’ll be free. We don’t promise you that you’ll lose weight, cure your diseases, get a better job, get more money, find a mate, be able to raise better children, or anything.
The positive side of spiritual naturalism comes from its inclusiveness. It includes things like Stoicism, Westernized Buddhism, burners, hackers, transhumanists. It includes secular humanists, humanistic Judaism, humanistic paganism, and so on. As I see it, spiritual naturalism involves several positive commitments: (1) You are entirely based on your body. Perhaps you’re strictly identical with your body, or you emerge from your body, or you are somehow constituted by your body. Spiritual naturalists are open to various ways of thinking about being a person, but they will all be very closely based on being a body. (2) You have the power to change your body in positive ways. (3) You change your body in positive ways by applying scientifically-validated techniques to your body. These techniques may be Stoic practices, Buddhist practices, pagan rituals, self-hacking strategies, and so on. Spiritual naturalism is a kind of physical self-transformation that aims at the good. It aims at health and virtue.
The problem is that this conception of spiritual naturalism remains too abstract. But this abstractness can be a strength. One way to think about spiritual naturalism is to think of it as an umbrella group. It’s a group that includes many other more specific groups. As an umbrella group, spiritual naturalism tries to figure out how these groups can all work together. Spiritual naturalism includes different departments. It has a Stoic department, a Buddhist department, and so on. One of the main purposes of spiritual naturalism is to get these departments to talk to each other. What do Stoicism and Buddhism have in common? How does Burning Man relate to Stoicism? How does humanistic paganism relate to Buddhism? Thus spiritual naturalism focuses on the intersections of these many different departments. And it asks questions they do not ask by themselves: are there common ideas behind their practices? If spiritual naturalism is going to flourish, one strategy is to develop these different departments.
Another way for spiritual naturalism to flourish is to develop its ways of thinking about specific problems of life. So another way to think about the departments of spiritual naturalism breaks them down according to the acts of our bodies. Our bodies are bound to sexual reproduction; so we need to think about the spiritual aspects of sex and reproduction. How do spiritual naturalists think about sex, infertility, pregnancy, and child-rearing? How do we think about the relations between men and women, between children and parents? How do we think about families? Our bodies have daily needs: the need to breathe, to eat, to drink, to be sheltered, to keep clean, to sleep. So how do we think about the issues associated with those needs? Our bodies have social needs, such as having friends, working together with others, living in cities or nations, engaging in politics. How do we think about the spiritual issues of those needs and the ways that we satisfy them? Finally, our bodies age and die. How do spiritual naturalists think about aging? About death? About grief?
The group-departments intersect with the life-problem departments. How do Stoics deal with grief? How do Buddhists deal with it? How do humanistic pagans deal with it? What are the commonalities in these strategies for responding to the problems associated with aging and dying? How do different groups recommend overcoming problems like divorce, unemployment, chronic illness, opioid addiction, sexual abuse? If spirituality has any value, it has to be that it aims to transform darkness into light, evil into good. Our promise can therefore be: we help to show you how to apply strategies from various naturalistic spiritual traditions to the problems of your life.
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.