Religious Naturalism is a broad umbrella term used by many post-modern thinkers today. Defining Religious naturalism is a daunting task. It is a phrase that is not used frequently, but yet many people would find themselves within the broad category it encompasses. I've briefly explored the differences between religious humanism and religious naturalism in relationship to Unitarian Universalism in my essay “Multiple Cores of Unitarian Universalism.” Yet, I did little in defining religious naturalism. In someways the term religious naturalism is as broad an umbrella term as neopaganism. However, there are some unifying features among the strands of religious naturalists thought. Like Unitarian Universalism, religious naturalism is a simple idea which is complicated to explain. This could be due to its non-dualistic nature of not separating the religious from the scientific.
Scientific method and understanding is the primary filter of religious naturalism; however, like religious humanism, it finds value in the structures of religion. In this regards it emphasizes a religious experience that is grounded in the living world devoid of supernatural explanation. Though science is a driving force for religious understanding of life, the universe, and everything, religious naturalism also embraces the mystery within life, the universe, and everything. This mystery can be expressed in many ways among religious naturalists. Some prefer a more traditional God language, others prefer an atheistic approach lacking sacred language, and others fit somewhere in between.
In his essay “What is Religious Naturalism(PDF)” Jerome A. Stone does a better job at describing religious naturalism:
“Religious naturalism, a once-forgotten option in religious thinking, is making a revival. Very close to religious humanism, perhaps overlapping it, it seeks to explore and encourage religious ways of responding to the world or at least ways that are analogous to what we traditionally call religious [. . .] Words like "mystery" and "openness" are more likely to be used by religious naturalists. In the debates between humanists and theists.”
He continues to write:
“Religious naturalism is a set of beliefs and attitudes that affirm that there are religious aspects of this world which can be understood within a naturalistic framework. There are some happenings or processes in our experience which elicit responses which can appropriately be called religious. These experiences and responses are similar enough to those nurtured by the paradigm cases of religion that they may be called religious without stretching the word beyond recognition.”
Stone also mentioned the 4 observations about religious naturalism made by Charley Hardwick:
- that only the world of nature is real;
- that nature is necessary in the sense of requiring no sufficient reason beyond itself to account either for its origin or ontological ground;
- that nature as a whole may be understood without appeal to any kind of intelligence or purposive agent; and,
- that all causes are natural causes so that every natural event is itself a product of other natural events.
In my previous discussion of religious naturalism within Unitarian UniversalismI wrote about three main currents of religious naturalism and how their approach to sacred language and concepts of God:
- non-theistic: takes a agnostic approach to the concept of god as an unanswerable question and is thus irrelevant. Such proponents of this view include Stanley H. Klien and Stuart Kauffman.
- neo-theistic: is willing to explore the concept of the divine or God existing within the limitations of the natural world. Within this circle of thought, God is a metaphor for aspects of the natural world beyond human comprehension. Another group see the divine /God as being the evolutionary creative processes. Theologian Gordon Kaufman and Unitarian Universalist Karl E Peters have written on this subject.
- not-theistic: an atheistic view that denies the existence of god but holds the subjective experience of the natural world as having intrinsic religious value. Members of this perspective include Ursula Goodenough and Donald A. Crosby.
My views expressed as naturalistic polytheism fit somewhere within neo-theistic religious naturalism. In the book “Dancing with the Sacred” Karl E. Peters lays out a foundation of process theology within the framework of religious naturalism. He discusses god as evolutionary creativity itself which is more expressive as a continuing processes within the universe instead of a manifested being or force. In short, god is a verb not a noun. I have found this way of relating to god works on a more pluralistic level where there are multiple creative evolutionary processes working simultaneously with each other and the results of these processes are embedded within natural phenomenon.
Religious Naturalism is a diverse perspective which I feel can lend meaning to life in the 21st century and bridges the gaps between more traditional understanding and the evolving understanding of science. In fact it doesn't simply bridge the gap between religion and science, but affirms that the gap never existed in the first place. Religious naturalism has become a foundation of my understanding of both animism and Unitarian Universalism. I feel it is a perspective that needs to be broadened and discussed more frequently and openly and can fit into various world traditions without conflict. It does not attempt to divide the human drive for understanding the living world and our place within in into arbitrary divisions of science and religion; instead, it acknowledges they have always been the same.