This post is the first in a series examining SN through the lens of the work of Loyal Rue. For an overview of Rue’s basic concepts, go here.
Help wanted: Manager of human nature
“The measure of a religious orientation,” says Loyal Rue in his book Religion Is Not About God, “is not whether it gives an accurate account of divine reality, but whether it effectively manages human nature.”
That effectively sums up what SN is all about: managing our human nature. That may not sound very lofty, but it’s true. When it comes down to it, we are managers of our own natures.
We manage our responses to our environment, to each other, and to ourselves. In so doing, we cultivate an amazing multiplicity of experiences, from the serenity of meditation to the joy of human bonding and the wonder of beholding the stars in the night sky.
Why manage human nature?
Why do we need to manage our natures at all? Hmm… well, let’s just say being human can be messy. We don’t find ourselves perfectly humming machines where all is accomplished flawlessly and without effort.
No, we find ourselves a bundle of impulses, full of conflicting desires and uncertainties. I want this cookie and that sexy piece of meat over there; I want to be loved, to become a respected member of society, and to feel at home in this universe. These goals may pull me in different directions, and the most efficient way to achieve them is by no means clear.
So, managing human nature is necessary as a basic matter of fact. It’s natural, in fact. We all do it to some degree; we simply couldn’t carry on without doing so. Managing human nature is itself part of human nature.
Like many abilities that come naturally to us, such as maintaining our health or courting a mate, managing human nature is a job that can be done better or worse. Instinct and socialization (which may include religion for some people) give us basic management skills. At the same time, we can always strive to improve beyond these basics. Adopting a personal path of growth is one way to continue learning to manage one’s nature better and better throughout life.
SN is a path of human nature management that gives special priority to naturalistic understandings of how the universe works. In this way, we cultivate human fulfillment, while at the same time maintaining an accurate and up-to-date picture of the universe.
To what end(s) do we manage?
At the most general level, Rue finds that humans have two basic ends or teloi that explain why we need to manage our natures. First, we want fulfilling lives full of meaningful experiences. This he calls the telos of personal wholeness. Second, we need a functioning society enabling us to pursue those experiences. This is the telos of social coherence.
These individual and collective interests often pull in different directions. Thus, in order to achieve these “twin teloi”, we must learn to manage our human natures. And the better we manage them, the better we achieve these ends. It’s as simple as that.
There is a third possible telos to consider: living sustainably within our environment. We can’t have either personal wholeness or social coherence if the land cannot support us. This third end is implied in Rue’s work, and Michael Dowd makes it explicit by adding ecological integrity to the other two.
Religions, when they function correctly, help us achieve these ends. They structure our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in such a way that we gravitate in the right direction. In Rue’s words, “It is about manipulating our brains so that we might think, feel, and act in ways that are good for us, both individually and collectively.”
Managers, not bosses
At this point, let’s clear up some potential misconceptions: we are not bosses of human nature. We can’t be, because we are not in full control of ourselves, if “we” means our conscious, rational, ego-directed selves. If we could just will ourselves to behave as we’d like, we’d have no need of spirituality.
Nor are we the rational charioteer reigning in unruly beasts, as Plato would have it. Often our most brilliant ideas seem to “come to us” as if from beyond. The conscious, deliberative self is neither the chief executive nor the brains of the operation. At best we are middle management (one view demotes us all the way to press secretary).
Rivers and forests are managed. Resources are managed. So too do we manage our own natures.
These are crucial caveats because a fundamental aspect of spirituality may well be that it connects us to something greater – the environment, society, and the vast unconscious.
So let’s be clear: SN is not about being the boss or the brains; it’s about managing how we relate to what ultimately transcends us.
Adaptive and maladaptive management
Not all religions manage human nature well. Some become maladaptive. Their pictures of how the universe works may be out-of-date, leading to a crisis of intellectual plausibility (in Rue’s terms). Or their ethics may no longer fit current social or ecological conditions, leading to a crisis of moral relevance. Many of today’s world religions suffer from both of these maladaptive traits.
SN attempts to right the course of our religious evolution. By embracing the naturalism of modern science, and foreswearing supernatural explanations, it addresses the issue of plausibility. By fostering deep affective bonds with each other, our environment, and ourselves, it addresses the issue of relevance.
Such affective bonds rearrange priorities, and ultimately motivate changes in behavior conducive to personal wholeness, social coherence, and ecological integrity. In this way, SN steers a course between supernaturalistic inaccuracy and nihilistic irresponsibility.
So now that we have this cushy managerial position, it’s time to relax and kick our feet up on the desk, right? Not quite.
As managers, we must produce results. On a very simple level, we can give ourselves a “performance review” now and then by simply observing what we do on our paths and how it makes us feel in response – both in the short term and in the long term. What’s working well, and what leaves room for improvement?
On a more complex level, as a community we can constantly work toward ever-more rigorous tests. As a path that values scientific investigation, it only makes sense that we should test our methods for efficiency. If we claim cultivating a relationship with mythology can enrich our lives, for example, we ought to develop ways to verify that hypothesis. That takes time and loads of effort, but it will be worth it if we can pull it off.
Now that we’ve got a job description, we can rate how well we’re doing. What we’re supposed to be doing as Spiritual Naturalists is managing our human natures toward personal wholeness, social coherence, and ecological integrity. So, as a final note, let’s ask:
Are we making progress toward that goal? How well our we doing? How can we do better?
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.
This article first appeared at Humanistic Paganism.