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.
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.