Religious Myth in Spiritual Naturalism

Myth is not primitive protoscience. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon. Science might be considered description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible or specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end). Myth can be more accurately regarded as description of the world as it signifies (for action). The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valence, their value, their motivational significance.      – Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning

The Power of Narrative
The meaning of the world is contained in stories. Of course, the world is made of things, but the meaning of those things, their connections and purposes, are revealed in stories. Our lives are meaningful to the extent the stories we see ourselves apart of are meaningful.

Some stories, the enduring ones, embody universal themes and patterns – these stories last, they permeate our consciousness, support our identities and become the underlying web of references on which we structure our interactions and our lives.

Some arguing from a naturalist perspective have criticized the role of religious myth, saying it’s not necessary and that humans should simply live according to the “facts” that science and experience provide.

Granted, openness to reality and the effort to avoid narrow ideology is the foundation of wisdom – we must allow ourselves to be informed by science and our experiences and by reflection on these – not by limited “isms” that attempt to force reality to comply with their theories – we must live according to the truth.

Yet humans encapsulate our core truths and find our meaning and place in the world through stories. The human person is a story-telling, metaphor-loving, symbol-making being for whom myth encapsulates information regarding fundamental, existential meaning. The human person relates on a psychological-spiritual level to stories, narratives, icons, and parables.

Myth provides a culture with its central narrative(s), thus establishing the framework for wisdom – a collective sense of purpose, place, identity, and shared values. Therefore, the language of spirituality is that of myth, metaphor, and symbol.

We live in the age when the Judeo-Christian mythos that sustained Western culture is decaying, most likely beyond the ability to revive and invigorate the culture. As our once central myths erode, the West currently suffers from an increasing anarchy of meaning and value, and is tending toward nihilism.

Shatter the shared mythic narratives and symbols that provide a culture with its basis for collective thought and action, and you’re left with a society in fragments, where a sense of unity and common purpose – participation in a share story – becomes impossible because there aren’t enough common meanings left to make that possible. Without widely shared myths, conflict, and even nihilism, become strong possibilities.

Today, we see the increasing cultural conflict as various narratives compete for our attention and allegiance. Our society is increasingly polarized, fragmented, and breaking into smaller, rival subcultures. To slow, or even reserve, this slide into fragmentation requires persuasive new myths to emerge. Myths rooted in the truth and not opposed to science and our modern sensibilities. And as human history attests, only myths with a religious nature can accomplish the fundamental unifying task.

What this means is that our scientific view of the world needs to be retold in a narrative with poetic overtones and a plot in which individuals can easily see their lives playing out.  Only a story that rises to the level of religious significance, a narrative accompanied by symbol and even ritual participation and enactment has the power to be transformative and unitive.

Evolution as Myth
Many spiritual naturalists have argued that evolution – the epic of cosmogenesis – offers itself as the new core myth by which we reorient ourselves in the universe. The narrative of evolution explains our common origins, emphasizes interconnectedness, allows for claims of human dignity and the value of all life, and therefore reminds us of our universal responsibilities to each other and the environment which supports our life.

From an evolutionary-mythic perspective, nature rises to a sacred status in that it is considered worthy of our ultimate concern – it is our source of origin and sustains us – its beauty, value, and awe inspiring qualities are worthy of spiritual respect.

The resulting evolutionary spirituality has the potential to be an integral way of thinking and being in the world rooted in experience of nature, the seasons, and the progression of our own life grounded in the ongoing, unfolding of nature and the cosmos.

Nature unfolds on an ever-turning wheel that spirals through time – and our lives are woven in these patterns that shape all life – birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth.

Granted, the transition to this myth will require time, poetic effort, clearer explications, and repetition and dissemination.

Initial Implications of Evolution as Myth
Evolution and systems theory go hand in hand. Evolution and emergence theory leads to the realization that everything that exists stands in relation to everything else in an interconnected, unified system. Everything is interrelated – any change within the system produces ripples that extend outward, eventually affecting everything else within the system.

From an evolutionary perspective, we are fully rooted in the ever-changing web of nature – interconnected to all things – this insight is foundational for the development of a meaningful, universal ethics as well as an integrated spirituality of wholeness. Our own well-being ultimately depends on affirming nature and the well-being of others.

Denying our interconnectedness with nature puts us at risk of peril. If our culture and spirituality is out of balance with nature, everything about our lives is affected; family, workplace, school, community–all eventually become unbalanced – because we are of the same stuff as is nature – neglect or abuse of nature is essentially neglect and abuse of self.

Denying our connectedness to others also risks peril. Humans are inherently natural, social animals – we are children of the Earth, of air, water, and land, who cannot exist without community; we engender culture with our very being.  Interconnected/Interdependent on one another, kindness and social cooperation make sense from a practical, evolutionary point of view – we can only truly thrive when others thrive.

Therefore, in the evolutionary narrative, a prime spiritual-evolutionary imperative emerges, calling us to strive for more humane ways of living characterized by love and justice – practiced both toward nature and each other – as the proper responses to human dignity and the sacredness of being.

The resulting evolutionary spirituality has the potential to be an integral way of thinking and being in the world rooted in experience of nature, the seasons, and the progression of our own life grounded in the ongoing, unfolding of nature and the cosmos.

As such, evolution is a story for all of humanity, capable of unifying people beyond national, political, ethnic, and cultural lines and identities – providing us with a common story and therefor a common purpose in striving to achieve the common good for all humans and the planet.

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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.

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