My Journey Toward Spiritual Naturalism

(cc) Alice Popkorn

Here is part of the opening of this site’s thoughtful introduction to spiritual naturalism.

Spiritual Naturalism… is a worldview, value system, and personal life practice. …Spiritual Naturalism sees the universe as one natural and sacred whole – as is the rationality and the science through which nature is revealed. It advocates principles and practices that have compassion as their foundation…The focus of Spiritual Naturalism is happiness, contentment, or flourishing in life, and a relief from suffering.

The words here capture many of the facets of spiritual naturalism. Moreover, for the most part, these facets fit together. That is, they are consistent with one another. They follow from the starting point that the universe is a natural phenomenon and not a supernatural one. But how they fit together, what the connections are among them, is not always evident. In my own spiritual search, it is such connections that I have struggled hardest to find and I would like to tell some of that story here.

Ever since I was a boy, I have liked science (although it hasn’t been my career) and I have had no belief in god. But it has been only in the last couple of decades—I’m 70 now—that I have felt an urgency about finding more clarity about the purpose of my life, how best to live it, and how to face death.

So I have looked to nature and science for spiritual meaning. I have not, though, felt especially drawn to the cosmos in its totality as a source of inspiration. True, the universe is the ultimate reality in which I am only the tiniest speck. But this perspective hasn’t helped me answer my questions. The universe is too big, and it’s not alive.

What is alive is the evolution and the history of earthly life itself over 3.8 billion years. Here is the aspect of nature that has felt relevant to me, the history of things that twitch and struggle and reproduce and die. So I’ve thought hard about whether and how science’s portrayal of the history of life sheds light on my personal questions. Could the facts of evolution and biological history (during the first two billion years of which life was little more than bacteria!) tell me anything about my purpose and my values?

Here is where I’ve come so far. I have to be brief here and the summaries may not be the clearest. My blog explores these topics more fully.

My first question has been, What is the purpose of my being alive? What does the information we have about life on earth tell us about what the purpose and meaning of that life is? Everything follows from this question. If science and nature can not tell us or even suggest anything about the question of human purpose, then there may not be much point in looking to them as the foundation for spiritual pursuit. But if science and nature can give us a clue about our meaning and purpose as humans, then other aspects of a science/nature-oriented spirituality can fall into place. And the clue that I see, right under our noses, is that what every living thing has in common is the effort to stay alive. From bacteria to human beings, living things strive non-stop to survive, to thrive, to reproduce, and to avoid suffering—to carry out the continuity that is the essence of being alive. Life’s purpose is being and remaining alive. That may be a case of stating the obvious. But it helps me answer my second question, about how to live a worthy life.

If the purpose of life is essentially this self-perpetuation, then whether something—an action, a relationship, a goal—is worthy or not depends on how effectively it might lead to a more flourishing of life for ourselves and for others who we touch. As science tells us, organisms survive by pursuing two main strategies dictated to them at least in part by their DNA. One is competition (including, for humans, envy, greed, and vengefulness), which is necessary at times and tempting much of the time but often leads to suffering and death. The other path pursued by organisms in a wide variety of ways is cooperation, which, if it is successful, results in survival and flourishing for most of the organisms involved.

To me, then, for this basic Darwinian reason—that cooperation leads to a higher “rate of flourishing” than competition—compassion, community and love provide the better of two paths for our pursuit of our own well-being and that of others we are connected with. Here, for me, is the link between spiritual naturalism’s basis in nature and science on the one hand and its advocacy for the principles and practice of compassion and happiness.

The third question is not mentioned in the site’s introduction to spiritual naturalism but has an obvious importance: is there any consolation out there for the hard fact that I will die? Here it has not been Darwinian evolution but rather the sheer length of the history of life that has spoken to me. By the history of life I mean the continuousness of organic survival, the “chain of life” made up of one living link interlocked with another, the endurance of Dawkins’ selfish genes. I count as my ancestors those who lived not just a few hundred or a few thousand years ago but also those who lived 3.8 billion years ago. That is a stunning heritage for us all. And while immortality may be a wishful figment of the theist’s imagination, the chain of life of which we are links has not only an incredibly long and evidence-based past but also a promising future.

At the start of this essay I cited some of the components and values of spiritual naturalism. For me to understand how they rest on the foundation of nature and how they connect with each other, I have needed to see some clues and signposts from science. I have seen enough to be convinced, enough for science to become, along with nature itself, food for my spirit.


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2 thoughts on “My Journey Toward Spiritual Naturalism”

  1. I think as I read your piece that to be spiritual is a choice. Though the spiritual path may be a different one, we may all be on the
    same road. We share the experience of life with so many–everything living now and all life that’s gone before back into deep time.

    The difference is our openness to spiritual nurturance. That openness is how we orient ourselves spiritually to life and the world. It is the path we choose.

  2. Forgive me for not seeing your comment earlier. I appreciate especially your comment about the totality of living things both now and in the past that we share the experience of live with.


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