Author Archives: Religious Naturalism Associates

What is the purpose of life?


Purpose - cartoon - that's it

“The more the universe seems comprehensible,
the more it also seems pointless.”
Steven Weinberg

With a naturalist view, it’s hard to see how there could be purpose in the cosmos. Particles, atoms, and molecules act in accordance with natural laws, assembling in varied ways with no intent or goal.

But, on Earth, purpose may have been introduced as something that accompanies life. As Loyal Rue described this:

Might it be that telos [a purpose or goal] is an emergent property of matter?
Maybe the universe was, as Steven Weinberg thinks, completely void of any point or purpose for most of its aimless and completely meaningless history. Maybe matter behaved exclusively, as Richard Dawkins thinks, according to a blind because-of logic [where things act in certain ways, simply because that is their nature] for billions of years. But then, quite unexpectedly, the odds favoring a new kind of causality came within reach. Could it be that a pointless because-of logic created the conditions for the pointful so-that logic of biological function?
Imagine that: a universe with no telos, no purpose, no agenda—a universe that just inadvertently made possible the spontaneous emergence of purpose. What is that? Irony? Paradox? Whatever it is, it’s weird, because it implies that if there is any genuinely purposeful behavior in the universe, it serves absolutely no purpose. An emergent theory of meaning implies that the existence of meaning is itself totally void of meaning.
Think about that!

Living things do have purpose. Based on drives that are shaped by DNA (and that have persisted due to natural selection), living things receive internal signals that inform them of needs, and they respond with purposeful actions – to obtain nutrients or to move away from harm – so-that they can continue to live and reproduce. This is present in all forms of life – from plants stretching toward the sun and sending out roots to reach water, to the actions of fish, reptiles, mammals, and humans as they seek food and acceptable temperatures, and as they mate.

Unlike the actions of atoms and molecules, these are actions that have purpose – with cells and organs, as well as organisms and groups, acting in coordinated ways to achieve this purpose. And, going beyond basic survival, they also act in ways that enable the beings (and/or their groups) to stay healthy and thrive.

This biological mandate gives purpose that guides the actions of living things. For most creatures, this is all there is. But many find it unsatisfying to think of ourselves, in the words of a Monty Python song, as “simply spiraling coils of self-replicating DNA” (or, in the words of Richard Dawkins, elaborate shells for a “selfish gene”). We want to feel that what we do matters in some way, and that our struggles and actions have some meaning.

Continued, in . . . 
How can I find a sense of meaning in my life?
Credo of Continuation – Ursula Goodenough 



John Muir

John Muir - 400 x 681

John Muir was a naturalist who called out – Go to the mountains. Go to nature. Drink her soothing waters. And learn the lessons she has to teach. He felt that something in us needs this and responds to it, even if we may not recognize this need.

He felt that understanding and accepting nature’s ways could lead to a special kind of faith. In this, recognition of beauty and order prompts a reverence, and appreciation of variety prompts respect for all forms of life.

Quotes, below, give a flavor for some of his views.

. . . . .

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.

. . . . .

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

. . . . .

Wander a whole summer if you can. Thousands of God’s blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted. If you are business-tangled and so burdened by duty that only weeks can be got out of the heavy laden year, give a month at least. The time will not be taken from the sum of life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.

. . . . .

One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature – inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.

. . . . .

By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs – now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life….

. . . . .

. . . all Nature’s wildness tells the same story – the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring, thundering waves and floods, the silent uprush or sap in plants, storms of every sort – each and all are the orderly beauty-making love-beats of Nature’s heart.

. . . . .

Gulls skimming the glassy level. Innumerable multitudes of eider ducks, the snowy shore, and all the highest mountains cloud-capped – a rare picture and perfectly tranquil and peaceful!

. . . . .

A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fibre thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves.

. . . . .

. . . this glorious valley might well be called a church, for every lover of the great Creator who comes within the broad overwhelming influences of the place fails not to worship as they never did before.

. . . . .

In our best times everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church and the mountains altars.

. . . . .

Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees.

. . . . .

The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts. A numerous class of men are painfully astonished whenever they find anything, living or dead, in all God’s universe, which they cannot eat or render in some way what they call useful to themselves. They have precise dogmatic insight into the intentions of the Creator . . .
Now, it never seems to occur to these far-seeing teachers that Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one. Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit – the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo Sapiens. From the same material God has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals. . .
This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. After human beings have also played their part in Creation’s plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever.

. . . . .

The water ouzel, in his rocky home amid foaming waters. How romantic and beautiful is the life of this brave little singer on the wild mountain streams, building his round bossy nest of moss by the side of a rapid or fall, where it is sprinkled and kept fresh and green by the spray! No wonder he sings well, since all the air about him is music; every breath he draws is part of a song, and he gets his first music lessons before he is born; for the eggs vibrate in time with the tones of the waterfalls. Bird and stream are inseparable, songful and wild, gentle and strong -–the bird ever in danger in the midst of the stream’s mad whirlpools, yet seemingly immortal. And so I might go on, writing words, words, words; but to what purpose? Go see him and love him, and through him as a window look into Nature’s warm heart.



Seeking knowledge

“In every true searcher of Nature
there is a kind of religious reverence”
…..Albert Einstein

In a number of religions, seeking knowledge is seen as an option for a spiritual path. In Hindu tradition, jnana yoga (the Way to God through Knowledge), is one of four paths toward the goal of unity with the ultimate. Seeking knowledge is also a focus in study of the Torah and in the mandate, “Know thyself”, inscribed at the ancient Greek temple at Delphi.

For religious naturalists, the study of origins, human nature, and the natural world can give emotional and spiritual satisfaction. As Stephen Hawking put it,

“ . . . ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from.”

Seeking knowledge can be done in a wholly secular way. But, when seen in context with a central myth, the urge to understand can be seen as a core part of who we are and what we do. In the spirit of “seek, and you will find”, active questioning and study can be part of personal spiritual practice.

This effort has provided advances in medicine and technology that let us to live longer and healthier lives. (For some, the “miracles” of modern medicine far outstrip the alleged miracles that once caused people to believe in the powers of gods.) Knowledge can also have psychic benefits, in leading to views that can help to minimize disappointments that come from misconceptions, and in leading to attitudes that can contribute to peace of mind. As it helps us to maximize good and minimize problems, seeking knowledge can be seen as a path toward salvation (as in the root word “salve”, to alleviate suffering or heal). Similarly, as part of the Buddhist 8-fold path, “right understanding” can contribute to avoidance of suffering.

Beyond practical benefits, understanding the workings of nature can prompt a deep sense of appreciation for the intricate order and beauty of the world. And, as partial answers uncover new questions, the quest to understand can prompt appreciation for the mysteries that remain. As Michael Shermer put it:

“It is not the answers of science that provide transcendence,
but the quest for those answers.”

stargazing telescope

Spiritual/religious experiences

Water and sky

Most people, at times, have feelings that can be seen as spiritual or religious.

With rituals, meditation, religious services, and prayer, these can be prompted by religious practice.

Similar feelings may occur with non-religious prompts, in responding to natural beauty, in encounters with art, and in marveling at the birth of a child.

These can also occur with use of some types of drugs, and for no apparent reason at all.

Feelings are often brief and mild, like moments of déjà vu. They can include a sense of reverence, appreciation, or wonder. In rare cases, they may be full-blown mystical experiences – timeless, with a sense of connection that can be powerful and in some cases life-changing. These can be beautiful, frightening, confusing, or full of meaning. Those who feel such things may want to experience them again.

In religious traditions, these may be seen in terms of contact with God. With a naturalist view, these are understood as particular types of activity in the brain.

One factor, for some, in attraction to religious naturalism is that it can provide science-based ways of understanding spiritual feelings. It can also identify activities that may contribute to these types of experiences.


Personal descriptions of spiritual experiences
Frequency of spiritual/religious experiences
Daniel Dennett discusses secular spirituality
Neurotheology: This is Your Brain on Religion. (National Public Radio online. December 15, 2010.)
‘Magic Mushroom’ Drug Study Probes Science, Spirituality. (HealthDay News. July 11, 2006.)
Religious experiences. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Added reading

Wesley Wildman. Religious and Spiritual Experiences. Cambridge University Press 2011.
Patrick McNamara. The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. Cambridge University Press 2009.
Ann Taves. Religious Experience Reconsidered. Princeton University Press 2011.
William James. Mysticism. Lectures XVI and XVII in Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902.
Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Mysticism.

The Ecozoic Era, by Thomas Berry

While many have voiced concern about how increasing human presence is causing dangerous changes on planet Earth, few have offered suggestions for a target to try to move toward. This essay, by Thomas Berry, presents an image of a potential future community that will include a sustainable balance between human and non-humans, with principles that will underlie this and attitudes that will be needed to achieve it.

“To achieve this intimacy with the Earth we need new religious sensitivities.”
“We need to recognize the story of the universe . . . as our sacred story.”
“ . . . our entry into the Ecozoic period can only come through celebration of the grandeur and loveliness and joy of existence on the planet Earth.”


As we think about the future form of an integral Earth Community we might begin with the observation that in the sequence of biological periods of Earth development we are presently in the terminal phase of the Cenozoic and the emerging phase of the Ecozoic era. The Cenozoic is the period of biological development that has taken place during these past 65 million years. The Ecozoic is the period when human conduct will be guided by the ideal of an integral earth community, a period when humans will be present upon the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner.

The Cenozoic period is being terminated by a massive extinction of living forms that is taking place on a scale equalled only by the extinctions that took place at the end of the Paleozoic around 220 million years ago and at the end of the Mesozoic some 65 million years ago. The only viable choice before us is to enter into an Ecozoic period, the period of an integral community that will include all the human and non-human components that constitute the planet Earth.

The first principle of the Ecozoic era is recognizing that the Universe is primarily a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. This is especially true of the planet Earth. Every being has its own place and its own proper role in the functioning of the planet, its own presentation of itself that might be identified as its voice.

Our difficulty is that we have become autistic. We no longer listen to what the earth, its landscape, its atmospheric phenomena and all its living forms, its mountains and valleys, the rain, the wind, and all the flora and fauna of the planet are telling us. Since the Seventeenth Century we have not heard, we have not understood the inner world about us. We have experienced the external phenomena. We have had no entry into the world of interior meaning. We have not heard the voices.

Until we do listen, until we do hear these voices and understand what they are telling us, our lives will continue to be shrivelled, our judgment as absurd, as destructive as we can presently observe in what we have done to the soil, the water, the air, and the living forms of this loveliest of planets. We will appreciate or revere the planet if we are to form a viable Earth Community.

To achieve this intimacy with the Earth we need new religious sensitivities. The redemption- oriented religions in their traditional forms have fulfilled a significant part of their historical mission. Cosmologically oriented religion is the way into the future. We need to recognize the story of the universe as we know it through our empirical sciences as our sacred story. From its beginning the universe has had a psychic-spiritual as well as a physical-material dimension.

Earth in a special manner has given expression to this psychic-spiritual dimension of the universe. The human belongs among these forms. It establishes with them a single community. There is no effective spiritual or religious mode of being for the human in isolation from this community. The visible world about us is our primary scripture, the primary manifestation of the divine, and this for human communities throughout the entire planet.

A second principle of the Ecozoic era that might be proposed is the ethical principle that beyond suicide, homicide, and genocide, there are even more violent crimes – biocide and geocide: biocide, the wanton killing of the life systems of the planet; geocide, the killing of the planet itself in its major forms of expression. Ultimately humans cannot extinguish life on the planet. What humans can do is to severely damage the planet beyond recovery to its former grandeur within any comprehensible period of human historical time. This in some manner deserves the designation of geocide.

We might indicate the third principle of the Ecozoic era by noting that the human is derivative, the Earth is primary. The primary concern of every profession, institute, and activity of the human betrays itself unless it makes this larger earth community its primary referent.

So with Economics, the first concern, the first principle of understanding, must be the economic integrity of the planet. Concern for the Gross Earth Product must be the primary concern, not the Gross Human Product. Only within the ever-renewing cycle of Earth productivity can human productivity be sustained.

So with the healing professions, the primary concern must be to maintain the integral well-being of the planet. Not even with all our medical sciences and technologies can we establish well human beings on a sick planet.

A fourth principle might propose that in the future the Earth will function differently than it has functioned in the past. Throughout the Cenozoic the Earth evolved independently of the human. In the emerging Ecozoic period almost nothing will happen that will not in some manner be related to the human. Not, however, that we will control the inner workings of the planet. We cannot make a blade of grass. But there is liable not to be a blade of grass if it is not accepted, protected, and fostered by the human. We have completely new and comprehensive responsibilities now that we never had before. Ultimately we should be diminishing the domestication of the planet and assisting the wilderness to reactivate itself. A contradiction, perhaps. Yet what is needed is that we accept and foster the wild fertile forces of the planet that are consistently being weakened, unless humans withdraw their terrifying presence and grant to the other members of the Earth Community their rights to habitat and their share of the Earth’s benefits.

A fifth principle might propose that any valid Progress must be progress of the entire life community, not progress of the human at the expense of the non-human members of the community. To designate human plundering of the planet as Progress is an absurdity beyond description.

A sixth principle guiding the future might propose the need for celebration. The universe throughout its vast extent in space and its sequence of transformations in time might be considered a single multiform celebratory event. The very purpose of the planet Earth seems to be to exhibit a culminating celebratory mode of expression, something to justify the emergent galaxies, the supernova explosions wherein the elements were formed, the shaping of the solar system, the emergence of this privileged planet. When we ask what is the meaning of the flight of the birds, their song; what is the meaning of the quiet gliding of fish through the sea; what is the meaning of the evening song of the cicada: we can indeed assign some pragmatic answer, but that would not go to the deeper meaning of the phenomena. This we find under the rubric of celebration.

So with the human, our entry into the Ecozoic period can only come through celebration of the grandeur and loveliness and joy of existence on the planet Earth. Once we begin to celebrate, all things become possible – even an Ecozoic era.

Thomas Berry


Natural wonders

Part of religious perception can include a sense of wonder and appreciation at the order and beauty in the world.
earthrise_wallpaper_by_rushfreak2-d3blr36 - 284 x 160 pixels  HumanFetus20wks- from Tsiaras TED talk - half size 50 x 50 pixels  sunrise_birds_by_regayip-d5ubgut - 268 x 160 pixels

These links show photos, video, and audio that give glimpses and reminders of some of the wonders of nature.

Surface of the Sun as you’ve never seen it
Conception to birth (video: starts at 2:00) 
“Murmuration” (changing formations of a flock of starlings in flight)   
Nature sounds
Sierra Club – Daily ray of hope
Small world (winners of the Nikon photomicrography competition)
Mandelbrott set – deep zoom
Cosmos – NASA space images
Virtual voyage across the cosmos (narrated, video begins at 1:37)
….(or, video and music only)


Frequently asked questions

A number of questions are often asked after people are introduced to religious naturalism:

What is religious naturalism?
What do religious naturalists believe?
What do religious naturalists do?
What does it take to become a religious naturalist?
What do religious naturalists think about God?
Why use the term, “naturalist” instead of “atheist”?
Why should religion be considered, along with a science-based view? Why not just be secular?
If there is no belief in God, what is the basis for values?
What is the history of RN?
How can I learn more about religious naturalism?

General answers to these questions are shown below.

What is religious naturalism?

Religious naturalism is a view, including attitudes and beliefs, that combines a science-based understanding of what seems possible and real with appreciation of goals, concerns, and feelings that are parts of religion. It understands the origins and nature of ourselves and our world in ways that are grounded in the core narrative of evolution. It examines ways of being spiritual that do not include belief in a God that may actively alter the course of natural events. More detailed descriptions are provided at:
What is naturalism?          What is religious naturalism?

What do religious naturalists believe?

Religious naturalists believe that all that exists and all that occurs is in accordance with natural processes. They value the scientific method as a way of considering what is real, but also recognize emotional and intuitive ways of understanding and the value of art, ritual, and symbols.

Beyond a naturalist worldview and appreciation of religion, RN has no specific dogma or creed and includes a wide range of views.

For more, see Worldview pages and Tenets of religious naturalism at this website.

What do religious naturalists do?

Nothing is required. Religious naturalists tend to be interested in learning – about human nature and the natural world – and when they consider religious types of questions (relating to values, purpose, coping with loss, and other challenges), they do so in ways that draw from perspectives from science, the humanities, and art.

No churches or temples exist, but people may gather at conferences and they may share information and ideas in internet chat rooms (including one conducted as part of the  Religious Naturalist Association. Some appreciate activities that may contribute to a spiritual sense and have their own forms of religious practice. These can include meditation, marking special events, and encounters with nature and art, with paths of community and action.

What does it take to become a religious naturalist?

Nothing is required. There is no need to join a group and no dogma to affirm.

People with this orientation may describe themselves as religious naturalists, or they may use different terms to describe what they believe. (See Atheist, secular, naturalist – what’s in a name?) People can see themselves as religious naturalists and also as Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or members of other traditions.

Those who would like to affirm that they see themselves as religious naturalists and join with others who share similar views may consider joining the Religious Naturalist Association.

What do religious naturalists think about God?

Religious naturalists do not believe in God as a type of consciousness or being that may cause events in the world. But differences of opinion exist regarding use of the term, God, as the creative force that causes things to be as they are. Some find this useful as a symbol, or have senses of God that do not conflict with a naturalist view. Others disapprove of this usage and avoid all reference to God.

For more on this, see Images of God at this website.

Why use the term, “naturalist” instead of “atheist”?

Both terms share active disbelief in a traditional image of God, but the words have different connotations.

Atheism positions belief in God as the norm. It rejects this view, but says nothing about what an atheist does believe.

Naturalist positions nature and natural laws as a foundation for belief. Rather than focus on and rejection of a traditional view, it presents and affirms a modern alternative.

For more on this, see Atheist, secular, naturalist – what’s in a name? at this website.

Why should religion be considered, along with a science-based view? Why not just be secular?

Most people, at times, consider questions or experience feelings that can be seen as spiritual or religious. This may occur when a loved one passes away, or when moved by nature or the beauty of art, and in other settings. We all have a framework for what we believe is possible and real, and for what seems right and good. These can be seen as secular (normal day-to-day parts of life). Or, with an attitude that looks at things in the context of something larger (with connection to others, and future and past, and values and ideals, or a sense of some things as sacred), they can be seen as spiritual or religious.

Perspectives from science show that religion has been present in all cultures and times and, like art, can be seen as a part of human nature (and, like art, exists in a variety of forms and is of greater interest to some than to others). Science has also shown that aspects of being religious can contribute to social and personal benefits. Rejection of particular forms of religion does not require rejection of religion overall. Part of the goal and focus of religious naturalism is, along with a naturalist worldview, to acknowledge, appreciate, and take advantage of some of the positive things that can come from religion.

If there is no belief in God, what is the basis for values?

Humans, like other creatures who live in social groups, have consistent ways of behaving with others. Separate from religious beliefs, similar values and ideals have been seen in different cultures and times. Some parts of this (like a mother caring for a child) appear to be genetic. Other parts are learned and enforced as part of the rules and laws in a culture. A theme in this is based in a principle of life – to seek the well-being of individuals and groups.

For more on this, see the Values page at this website.

What is the history of RN?

Religious naturalism has been discussed by name, for more than 100 years, as part of the effort reconcile religion with science. It draws from ancient traditions that gave prominence to nature, and from scientists who have tried to understand religious feelings and perceptions. Popular recognition and interest has built since the 1990s, when increasing numbers of articles and books began to refer to and focus on this view.

How can I learn more about religious naturalism?

Pages and posts at this website give a good start, with discussion on many topics and links to sites with additional information. Also, the Religious Naturalist Association (RNA) website has information and links. Click on titles on the top and right-side menus on the home page to get an overview of RN. Then, for topics that are of interest, check out articles, books, and other resources – and explore . . .