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Becoming Aware of Religious Naturalism

Despite my background in religious studies, “religious naturalism” is a term that I encountered for the first time just several months ago. I’ve noticed that friends and relatives who share my interest in religion and spirituality weren’t familiar with it either.

The more I read about it, the more I find myself hoping that more people will find out about this concept. I think it could help unify a wide variety of religious and secular progressives if we simply noticed how well it holds us together, whether we’re oriented toward the contemplative aspects of a particular religious tradition, spirituality outside of organized religion or a wise and thoughtful atheism.

Here’s one way to quickly get a sense of whether you’re a religious naturalist. If you look up at the stars and they lead you to praiseful, awestruck thoughts about the supernatural God that you believe created them, then you’re a theist. If you look up at the night sky to find yourself awed by the stars themselves and the vast cosmological processes that eventually put you in a position to see them, then you’re a religious naturalist.

Instead of adhering to a set of supernaturalistic beliefs and narratives about the world that developed prior to the rise of science, religious naturalism takes science’s unfolding narrative as the most accurate one available—and one that can evoke deep religious sensibilities and ethical understanding. These occur not only in relation to our conduct toward each another, but in the conduct of our species toward this planet. Religious naturalism sees an urgency to large scale ethical action in the here and now that’s undiminished by belief in a supernatural entity viewed as ultimately saving the day for us while we get carried away by greed, materialism and activities that have started to endanger our own species as well as eradicate so many others.

At this point in human history we’re causing the greatest mass extinction since the asteroid eliminated the dinosaurs. We’ve also begun to understand the gathering adverse effects on humanity of our own emissions, pollutants and large-scale habitat destruction, including the fact that we’re leaving our descendants a more conflict-ridden world in which they’ll have to compete for diminishing resources. What are we doing about it? Not nearly enough to turn the tide. Religious naturalists would like to see more leaders in business, government and industry as well as members of the general public recognize that to perpetually act on short-term, narrowly construed self interest is a growing physical and spiritual blight on us all and a grossly negligent legacy to leave our children.

Contemporary religious naturalists include microbiologist Ursula Goodenough, theologian Wesley Wildman and evangelist minister Michael Dowd. Historically, before the term religious naturalism had seen much use, we can recognize the major contributions made toward this movement by thinkers like Albert Einstein, William James and French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. More on religious naturalism can be found at www.religious-naturalist-association.org and www.religiousnaturalism.org.

I’m still reading, but I’ve already seen enough to know that my own perspective falls within religious naturalism’s interestingly broad and varied domain. It’s the first time I’ve come upon a religious classification that I can say I belong to without lots of explanation and qualification. I hope that more of us who harbor expansive religious sensibilities, large ethical concerns and a respect for scientific knowledge become aware of religious naturalism as a movement with the potential to unite progressives from every walk of life in the absolute and yet enlightened commitment designated by pairing the words religious and naturalism.

Paul Martin 


Paul Martin is a writer of poetry and prose who has a master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School and another in counseling from the University of New Hampshire. His poetry and articles have appeared in posts to NPR’s On Being blog on 7/27/2014 and 3/22/2013 as well as in Crosscurrents, The Mennonite and Spiritus. Housebound and mostly bedridden from a rare disease, Paul has completed four book manuscripts in the field of religion and spirituality. For further information contact him at martin22204@yahoo.com.