Tossing Out the Supernatural Bath Water, While Keeping the Baby

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns — about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering — in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.                                        – Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

Starting with a Question
Is spiritual naturalism a religion or spiritual tradition of its own? To answer that question, we must ask what we mean by religion or spiritual tradition.

Human beings appear to be naturally religious, in the sense that evolutionary psychology and human history show an enduring propensity toward religious formation, expression, and practice.

Yet I still haven’t defined what I mean by religion.  So, let’s dig a little deeper. 

In my thinking, religion and spirituality are roughly the same thing (although the terms can be used to express subtle and not so subtle differences). Religion and spirituality are the result of normative human activity typically expressed in mythic narratives and centered on a body of wisdom teaching on how to live a meaningful, whole, and good life.

Most religions generate symbols, rituals, and practices aimed at reinforcing the practical wisdom and understanding of the human condition particular to the specific traditions and cultures from which these arise.

Religion Today versus Religion Yesterday
The majority of our significant religious traditions – Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed and took root in a world very different from our own. 

The origins of these major religious traditions are within the ancient world. Civilization at the dawn of the Common Era operated under a different worldview than our own, contemporary, scientific, postmodern mindset. Therefore, the foundational claims of these religious traditions were made from within a worldview different from our own, by individuals operating from within a significantly different intellectual milieu.

The ancients reasoned differently than we do, employing a greater amount of mythopoetic language than we do today. Mythopoesis is the description of reality in the language of myth and poetics. It is the employing of metaphor, simile, and symbol to help explain the meaning of things. It can be argued that it might be more accurate to speak of mythopoetic language as opposed to mythopoetic reasoning. Yet language and reason are so entwined, that making the distinction may not be significant.

There were also what appeared to be strong supernatural currents operating within the ancient world, and reports of these carried over for centuries after.  Gods and Goddesses, miracles, magic  — all  sorts of divine interventions and happenings in an enchanted world full of strange powers and spirits. 

My argument is that despite the supernatural content of most major world religious traditions, the central focus tended to mostly remain practical — how to obtain a good and meaningful life, how to be fully human, how to treat one another, and yes, within a supernatural context, how to prepare for a future existence in heaven, nirvana, or so forth.

The Spiritual Naturalist Insight
Spiritual or religious naturalism operates from a worldview that accepts science and the scientific method as a vital part of postmodernity. Evidential reasoning, justifying arguments, providing evidence for our claims, including our religious and spiritual claims, is a formative and foundational feature of our approach to the world and to reliable human knowledge. 

This acceptance of the reliability and validity of the methods of the sciences requires that we look critically at supernatural claims. And that critical gaze cast upon religion and spirituality finds the supernatural content of the world’s major religious traditions, lacking and basically unacceptable. We lack repeatable evidence for miracles, magic, or the existence of gods or spiritual beings. 

Therefore, religion and spirituality, for the religious and spiritual naturalist, is the human arena of meaning, purpose, and values. It includes the human  experiences of awe, gratitude, and wonder. It understands the primacy of love and the importance  of forgiveness, mercy, and generosity. It therefore admits that naturalized religion and spirituality are valid, natural, human activities.

Does it Produce a Tradition of its Own?
Now, we return to our initial question — is religious and spiritual naturalism a religious tradition of its own? The answer is a strong maybe. This maybe is predicated on the individual choices of those who ascribe to the basic approach of religious or spiritual naturalism.

Some spiritual naturalists develop their own, unique, spiritual and religious practices, wedded to no tradition in particular, but perhaps borrowing bits and pieces from various traditions along the way.

Other spiritual naturalists operate within a specific religious tradition, but engage in naturalizing it — meaning, removing the unjustified supernatural elements and presuppositions, while focusing on the core, practical wisdom. These individuals likely participate in rituals, relate to traditional  symbols, and find meaning in their chosen tradition’s mythic narratives. In other words, they’ve found ways to keep the religious baby while tossing out the supernatural bathwater. 

There are naturalist Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims – nearly every tradition can be meaningfully approached and practiced from a naturalist perspective, with a little (well, sometimes a lot of) work and ingenuity. For example, I’m a naturalist Christian. I continually wrestle with new understandings of so-called supernatural claims on the Christian tradition, while trying to keep the moral, social, and human aspects of Jesus’ teaching central. 

Spiritual naturalists accept the reciprocal obligations of the rapprochement between science and religion, requiring the sciences to recognize a positive role of religion when it’s speaking (correctly, of course) to issues of normativity, morality, and human purpose and meaning. The same reciprocity requires religion to formulate its claims in accord with scientific and reasoned evidence and differentiate or indicate when it’s speaking mythopoeticly.

Religious thinking does not happen in a vacuum, nor is theology exempt from complying with the insights from other forms of human knowledge. Theology does not override, trump, or cancel the verified findings of other branches of knowledge. 

The purpose of theology isn’t to intervene in science (or other disciplines) over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern — of value and meaning — which science can’t fully address and are instead the proper sphere of religion and philosophy.

Much of theological reasoning wrestles with normative and qualitative claims that cannot be deduced or induced or justified through scientific method. Such thinking is not simplistic spiritual assertions into “gaps.” We are not speaking here of practical problems in need of theological answers — science will continue to provide refined answers to practical questions — rather, we are speaking of mysteries that call for reflection and meditation. Mysteries of existential meaning and purpose do not cry out for solutions or scientific answers — they (may) find their resolution in awe and wonder and a willingness to engage the question why? And this why? is not simply the curious probing of science (although such may help), it is the subjective yearning of each human heart. 


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5 thoughts on “Tossing Out the Supernatural Bath Water, While Keeping the Baby”

  1. Gregory, I agree with most of what you say here, but I want to comment on the distinction between religion and spirituality. While in popular usage, these terms are often used synonymously, it is not uncommon to here people say that they are “spiritual but not religious.”

    In an article titled “Religion and Spirituality,” published on Aug. 1, 2019, I argue for why that is a perfectly sensible thing to say and bring up a variety of ways in which religion and spirituality can be distinguished. Such distinctions include that religion is more about belief while spirituality is more about experience.

    More centrally, it is my understanding that in the naming of The Spiritual Naturalist Society, the choice of the word “spiritual” was a very deliberate choice and based on something like the distinctions made in my article. By and large, this choice is a way of saying the SNS is not a religion but it is a form of spirituality.

    That aside, I hope that sometime you will write an article about naturalistic Christianity, and just how one can mentally get around the supernaturalistic claims that seem so integral to that Christianity.

  2. Thomas,

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. As you note, and as I briefly mentioned in my article, I accept that the terms spirituality and religion and spiritual and religious are not strictly synonyms. But I passed over the distinction for the sake of brevity for the article.

    I understand spirituality, in its best senses, to refer to the existential arena, the human search for meaning and purpose, the desire for truth, and the collection of human responses that often accompany those searches – gratitude, awe, wonder, fear, hope, despair, and so on.

    I understand religion, it its best senses, to refer to structures and systems of narratives, rituals, symbols, and related teachings that develop over time, typically undergirded by spiritual motivations.

    So, yes, I fully agree that a person can be authentically spiritual while not belonging to any specific religious tradition.

    And while I appreciate that many find religion too structured, too rule bound, too narrow, I also grasp how for some, spirituality without structure can be amorphous and simply a collection of vague feelings. Spirituality, it seems to me, when taken earnestly, should lead to expression in actions, perhaps even rituals loosely defined, the development of personal wisdom about life and the world, and personal transformation and growth. And for many, it does.

    As I may have shared with you, and in previous articles, I’ve wandered in and out of many religious traditions. My experiences have been overwhelming positive for the most part, benefiting from the wisdom, insights, and teachings, and the kindness of the communities. I’ve engaged Buddhism, Taoism, forms of neo-paganism and nature spirituality, and Judaism.

    This period of wandering was prompted by the collapse of my earlier held, moderate, but serious, supernatural Catholic worldview. That worldview became untenable for me in the late 1990s. I formally exited the Catholic Church, where most of my spiritual, intellectual, and personal formation occurred.

    Throughout my wanderings, I formed a sure foundation of spiritual naturalism and made serious efforts to understand naturalism and spiritual naturalism. These are my default positions and greatly inform my own thinking and personal philosophy.

    But Christianity always held an allure for me. Some of that allure was the comfort of familiarity, family tradition, and so forth. Some of it due to seeing tremendous value in the Christian tradition. As one who has always been a deep admirer of Jesus’ teachings – properly understood, I made several efforts over the years to formulate and understand Christianity in a naturalist, humanist manner. I believe I’ve reached that point and have been working on my own Christian naturalist theology, which I call a form of Christian humanism.

    Obviously, many greater minds than mine have gone this path – Dowd, Spong, Kaufman, Tillich, Geering, and Broadhurst, to mention just a few.

    My Christian humanism is still a work in progress, and will likely always remain one. I’ve been collecting my thoughts and weaving them together on a personal website, – and again, these are essays and thoughts still in draft form, still rough around the edges, still containing typos and small errors. It’s my hope to turn more sustained attention to this project shortly. I always welcome any input and feedback.

    As for my personal practice of religion, I’ve returned to the Anglican tradition (here in the US, the Episcopal Church) and attend a local parish. I had been formally received into the Episcopal Church in 2000, so it was a natural place to return and a tradition that I deeply appreciate, and one that can accomodate someone like me.

    My personal leanings are Anglo-Catholic, but my lens for personal interpretation and understanding are spiritually naturalist. I enjoy and benefit from ritual and Mass, and all the other aspects of the tradition, but I engage all of these from a psychological, existential, philosophical, practical, and naturalist perspective.

    Again, thanks for your thoughtful comment and input, as always.

  3. Religion = Beliefs about the divine often anthropomorphic in nature. Spirituality = Connection Connection with oneself, others, the cosmos/divine. Spirituality is an experience rather than a belief.

  4. Terminology. At several points in this nice essay you speak of “religious and spiritual naturalism,” where it’s not clear to me whether this means that you consider them as two separate orientations — religious naturalism being one, spiritual naturalism being another — or whether you consider religious naturalism and spiritual naturalism to be synonyms. FWIW, some of us have suggested that the religious naturalist orientation be considered the catch-all category, within which are embedded spiritual responses, moral responses, and interpretive responses (how does one interpret our science-based understandings of the natural world). The spiritual denotes “inward” religious responses — awe, reverence, humility, etc. — while the moral denotes “outward” responses — compassion, responsibility, etc. Using this frame, spiritual naturalism would be a component of religious naturalism but not a synonym. Thoughts?

    • Thanks for the comment, Ursula. I agree with your distinction between spiritual naturalism and religious naturalism. I go into a bit more detail in my response to Thomas, in the comment above. Again, thanks!


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