We are at the beginning of an important movement to gather again, a spirituality that is fully natural and rational, yet not shallow or merely technical and descriptive – one that engages all of what it means to be a full and complete human being; not merely an intellectual exercise. Within Spiritual Naturalism, or Religious Naturalism, there are numerous emerging books and articles from a variety of backgrounds.
In these, we often speak of things like: ritual, meditation, awe and wonder, ethics, philosophy, practice, ego, non-attachment, science, virtue, religious experience, compassion, and more. While many of these may seem beneficial or important, it may be difficult to know how they all relate to one another. How do these pieces fit together into a whole system or practice? This big picture is what I’d like to outline, very briefly, in this article. Of course, each part of this can (and should) be expanded upon greatly. In fact, we are developing a course in Spiritual Naturalism that will go into this detail, but for now, let me try to give an outline of a possible system of practice for the naturalist…
We begin, first, with the entire goal of our effort: happiness. Or, the answer to the question as the ancient Greeks put it, “What is the best way to live?” The human being is a natural entity – a part of Nature and with its own objective nature, living in an objective environment. This is a world of consequences. Therefore, how best to live is a matter of engineering. That is, the engineering of our subjective experience, our habits, our character, and our life so as to yield happiness.
By happiness we mean, not mere pleasure or circumstantial delight. This has proven to be a poor predictor of well being or happiness. Rather, we mean a deep sense of inner peace and joy – a happiness that is not contingent upon the vicissitudes of external conditions but also inspires an engaged good life, in both senses of the word. We might call this True Happiness to delineate between it and the shallow forms of fleeting happiness with which many confuse it.
This kind of happiness is difficult if not impossible with the ‘default character’ that tends to emerge without a focused spiritual practice, or some de facto approximation of one. Normally, we are plagued with fear, greed, regret, anger, jealousy, concerns about what others think of us, and so on. These not only infringe on our happiness directly, but they encourage further behaviors and habits that are contrary to it. Such beings, unable to approach True Happiness, cling to the closest thing they can approach – pleasure derived from possessions, relationships, status, reputation, money, and so on. Yet, these are impermanent and shaky things on which to base one’s happiness. Disappointment and suffering are inevitable.
So, for a naturalist, a sensible spiritual practice will be a system by which we achieve character transformation. Perfection in this is unlikely, but the degree to which we can transform ourselves will yield a similar degree of freedom from that egotistical outlook and corresponding levels of True Happiness in life. Further, the practitioner may find that the degree of transformation possible in the human character can be astonishing.
How is such character transformation achieved? Experience will tell us that a few things are certain: reading is not enough, knowledge is not enough, intellectual assent (agreement) to even the best wisdom is not enough. You have read many wise things, and dutifully shared them (along with pretty pictures of sunsets) on social media, email, or in conversations with your friends. Yet you have found yourself acting in discord with them time and again when the rubber meets the road. You “know better” but knowing better is not enough. If you were truly enlightened, your character would be such that it would automatically and naturally react to real life situations in accord with the best wisdom you have read. There is no number of internet posts you can share or ‘like’ that will get you to this place. But this is what our spiritual practice should be designed to achieve.
The bottom line is that spirituality must include practice. By practice we mean your daily activities and your ways of thinking will need to change. And these activities cannot be merely the end products of ‘how a wise person behaves’. In other words, you can’t become more compassionate by beating yourself over the head yelling to yourself “be more compassionate!”
Rather, practice means engaging in practices and rituals designed to reformat your thought and judgment process, altering your inner value system. The key to understanding how and why these practices and rituals work, is getting over your dismissal of the subjective. Society has told you the subjective is ‘less real’ or ‘matters less’ than the objective. Yet, our very goal – happiness – is a subjective state. Therefore subjective things matter; things like: the language we use to describe and frame things, the categories we use, our perspectives on Nature and our place in it, simple outward movements and poses of reverence, how we feel about things, our speech and mannerism. For many, this may seem obvious, but for many naturalists, we are used to looking at the world scientifically and therefore tend to find comfort and refuge in highly technical and impersonal descriptions. Yet, one of the core aspects of Spiritual Naturalism is that we can have a role for good, solid, science – and – inner beauty with a sense of the sacred. One need not contradict or betray the other.
In these practices and rituals, we open both our thoughts and our feelings. We use metaphor, poetry, art, iconography, music, dance and other movement, and more. We use these because our minds have multiple ways of approaching the world. It is by a distributed connection to the deeper truths of wise teachings that all of these aspects of our natural soul are touched. And, in that multi-sensory and emotional/intellectual mixture, they become an increasingly deeper part of our way of looking at the world. Here, intellectual knowledge becomes intuitive. Character is transformed such that ‘ways of living’ becomes ‘ways of being’.
This is a path of continuous epiphany, profound experience, and deeper understanding. But to engage in such a practice requires a few things. For one, it requires the naturalist to give up any deep seated animosity and resistance to anything with the tinge of sounding too religious. This means not caring if others might misunderstand and think we have given up reason. It also means having the confidence that it is possible to set aside the ‘culture war’ against religion in our hearts but still be able to act in the world against ignorance, intolerance, and improper religious political actions.
Another thing this path requires is the willingness to change our life – you know, that thing that goes on when you finish reading this article and get up from the computer. It means doing something different when you wake up in the morning than you did before; and sticking with it. It means actually driving to new places, possibly bowing, ringing bells, lighting candles, vocalizing ritually, and so on. Many will read this and agree with it, but then their minds will resist change and quickly convince them that the answer is to click onward to read more things – as if that’s the next step. But you will never reach a point where you have read enough, fully understand, and then are ready to engage in practice. If that is your process, you will die having only read.
Practice as a System
So, as a system, this begins with the basic facts provided to us by reason. And, by reason, I mean that we believe knowledge comes to us through observation and what we can infer rationally from those observations. We are limited in our ability to know all things. This process includes science, but also the use of reason in our own lives, and most importantly – humility. That is, a humble approach to knowledge and the claims we make. In addition, humility in the sense that I focus on what I believe rather than worrying so much about telling others what they ought to believe.
But these facts about the world and ourselves are just the beginning of wisdom, not the end. From here, what is important is our perspective on those facts. Often, people point out that something is a ‘value judgment’ as a way of dismissing it. But value judgments are what we must make. They are critical. And, getting them right is critical to our happiness.
Yes, there are correct and incorrect value judgments; at least within such a system. We can say they are correct if they fulfill the purpose of humans making value judgments. In other words, if these judgments guide us toward positive thoughts and actions which are really conducive to a good life, then they are correct because they are consistent with their purpose.
For example, science will tell us there is a glass, and half of its inner volume is occupied by dihydrogen monoxide. We can look at that glass of water and we can judge that it is half empty or half full. This is the difference between a claim and a perspective.
One of the ‘advances’ of naturalistic spirituality is that we do not use our spirituality to make claims or rest parts of our spirituality upon those claims. Unlike some belief systems which get their facts from faith or revelation or scripture, we leave fact finding to those who are putting in the hard work of observing and recording them. But perspectives on those facts is where philosophy and our spirituality pick up. In this way, our spirituality is not opposed to science. Nor are the two “non-overlapping magisteria”. Instead, science has become a respected and functional department within our spirituality, with no need to put words in its mouth or corrupt the purity of its method.
Now, to the strict intellectual/skeptical naturalist, the question of whether the glass is half full or half empty is just a silly little word game and the terms are interchangeable and of little consequence. But another of the crucial realizations of Spiritual Naturalism is this: the difference is monumental. This principle, extrapolated to the rest of our life, can be the distinction between two people in the same external circumstances – one with a full and happy life, and the other ending it in suicide. When we come to terms with the significance of our conceptualizations and judgments, the rest of spiritual practice begins to make functional sense – from meditation, to ritual, to all of the other many practices, sacred language, and more.
As we build habits of value judgment through various practices, and find new perceptions of wise teachings through rituals designed to elicit epiphany and peak experience, our baseline responses will begin to shift. That deep perspective shift includes the little often subconscious judgments we make and the emotional responses that kick in following those judgments. There has been a wealth of wisdom developed along these lines, going back to Taoism and Buddhism in the East, and Stoicism and Epicureanism in the West, and many others. But, again, putting that wisdom into practice is when the process begins. Now that you’ve reached the end of this article, what you do in your life is what will make the difference.
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.