Category Archives: Uncategorized

Mystery

Stargaze-4418 (no telescope)Despite major advances in science and all efforts to understand, much remains unknown, and some things may never be known.

Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why are natural laws as they are?
How do thoughts and feelings come from neurons in our brains?

It can be uncomfortable to consider unanswered Big Questions. Western religion addresses these through images of God. In religious naturalism, the unknown is acknowledged and may be embraced; and feelings that come with this can be part of a religious sense,

“It was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”
…..Albert Einstein

Links
Ursula Goodenough. My covenant with mystery.
Steven Pinker. The mystery of consciousness. 
John Horgan. Science will never explain why there’s something rather than nothing.
Sarah Boxer. Science confronts the unknowable; less is known than people think.

Morality and values

Choosing The Right Way ……Values - angel and devil - 450x367 - 17625067_s

Some people fear that, without belief in God, there is no basis for values, no source of moral guidance, and no incentive for ethical behavior. Based on this, they may be suspicious of non-believers.

One way of responding is to look at results.

Naturalists (and atheists/seculars) are no more likely than believers to be criminals or cheats. Many are kind and giving and live exemplary lives. It is not just possible, but common, for people to be “good without God”.

Another is to recognize that values have a solid basis, separate from a presumed presence or role of God.

Part of this appears to be genetic, as in mothers caring for their children. Aspects of this can also be seen in some non-human species. Kindness, sharing, and other virtues are innate parts of human nature and, from an evolutionary perspective, it can easily be seen that groups whose members cooperate would have had an advantage over those who did not, and that these traits would be passed on.

Another part is social and learned, where a culture’s rules are taught to children, encouraged in schools, and enforced by peer pressure and law.

The main values of naturalists are seen in the customs and laws of their communities. Anthropologists have shown that these are similar in cultures around the world. All cultures value kindness, love, respect for others, seeking wisdom, perseverance, justice, and forgiveness. All have rules against murder, lying, incest, and theft. The Golden Rule is present, with different wording, in all major religious traditions.

Basis for values

Where believers feel that values are given by God, naturalists see values as grounded in nature. This begins at the simplest levels, where all creatures distinguish good from bad. Be it a single-celled amoeba or a plant, insect, reptile, or mammal, all are attracted to things that are good for them and avoid things that cause harm. A central principle and value lies behind this, in maintaining life and well-being.

Since humans are social creatures, this principle and value has two perspectives. One is individual, in acting in ways that are good for one’s own emotional and material well-being. The other pertains to groups where, as group harmony is desired, self-interest is constrained and behaviors like kindness and cooperation are valued. A tension often exists between self-interest and the good of the group (and, also, between the good of a small sub-group and the good of a larger group), and this accounts for many challenges and problems. Given a range of tendencies in individuals (in being selfish or selfless, in varying degrees and in different settings), groups tend to encourage and reward choices that contribute to the well-being of the group.

Comparison with traditional religion

Naturalist values are largely the same as those in Judeo-Christian tradition. Nothing unusual or worrisome is advocated. And, contrary to a misconception and false accusation, while a naturalist view recognizes “survival of the fittest” as a process in nature, it does not recommend this as a model for human behavior.

But while values are largely similar, some differences in emphasis can be seen.

One example is levels of respect for things that are looked to as sources of wisdom and truth.

Believers show greater respect for biblical writings and religious authorities, while a naturalist respect for science includes regular challenge to tradition, and claims may be rejected and practices are more willingly changed based on what best fits with available evidence.

Another example is that a naturalist focus on nature may include greater emphasis on ecology.

Environmental concern is also prominent in religions (with a mandate, in Judeo-Christian doctrine, of stewardship for the Earth). But, in traditions that see this world as a way-station to a greater and eternal world in heaven, concern may be less urgent than in a naturalist view that sees this world as all there is.

Links to full articles and web pages
Steven Pinker. The Moral Instinct. New York Times. 2008.
Frans de Waal. Morals without God. 2011.
Rights from Wrongs. Review of book by Alan Derschowitz.
Virtues and Vices

Additional reading 
Donald Crosby. A Religion of Nature. SUNY Press. 2002. (Values in Nature, pages 74-86)
Patricia Churchland. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Princeton University Press. 2011.
Frans de Waal. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton University Press. 2009.
Frans de Waal. Good Natured: The Origin of Right and Wrong in Primates and Other Animals. Princeton University Press. 1997.
Frans de Waal. The Age of Empathy. Crown. 2009.
Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Pantheon Books. NY. 2012.
Loyal Rue. Everyone’s Story. SUNY Press. 2000. (Chapter 4: What matters ultimately?, pages 99-108).
Jeffrey Moses, Oneness: Great Principles Shared by All Religions. Ballentine Books. 2002.

What is Religious Naturalism?

 “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever.
This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”
Albert Einstein

As is contained in its name, religious naturalism has two central aspects.

One is a naturalist view of how things happen in the world – in which the natural world is all there is (and that nothing other than natural, including an active personal God, may cause events in the world).

The other is appreciation of religion (which, for many, is mainly personal), with a view that Nature can be a focus of religious attention.

Naturalist views, grounded in science, provide a framework for understanding what seems real. These include a central story, the epic of evolution, that explains the origins of the cosmos and humans, with perspectives from which to consider why we do what we do.

Religious orientation includes spiritual responses, which can include feelings of appreciation, gratitude, humility, reverence, and joy at the wonder of being alive. It also includes moral responses, involving values rooted in nature – to seek justice and cooperation among social groups and balance in ecosystems.

Beyond these basic premises, religious naturalism has no dogmas or specific beliefs, and it includes a range of views on different topics.

As is explained throughout this website, for those who do not participate in organized religion, and for many of those who do, religious naturalism can serve as a basis for personal spiritual/religious orientation and a foundation for considering life questions.

For more information and other perspectives, go to the recommended books and open forum pages at this website and click on links, below.

Ursula Goodenough, Are you a religious naturalist without knowing it?
Jerome Stone, What is religious naturalism?
Donald Crosby. Religious naturalism and its place in the family of religions
Donald Crosby, Religion of nature as a form of religious naturalism
Micheal Battenberg, Confessions of a religious naturalist
Tom Clark. Spirituality without faith
Religious Naturalism: A Balance (UUgateway video, Reverend Ron Phares)
Religious Naturalism Resources – Boston University
Descriptions and definitions (WikiQuotes)  
Wikipedia. Religious naturalism
Roots of religious naturalism

Being religious

Candle in hand - 700x464 - iStock_000012660966XSmallWhen considering religious naturalism, and not just a naturalist worldview, it is useful to have a sense of what it can mean to be religious.

No clear definition exists, but some parts may include:

attention to the ultimate
interest in or actively caring about things that are essential to our lives; may include concern with values and meaning and questions of why things are as they are (envisioned by some in context with images of a creative force or God, and by others as in principles of nature)

responses to mystery
ways of envisioning and acting with respect to things that are unable to be known

existential questions and ideals
concern with purpose and meaning; responses to loss;
a basis for hope

Being religious has been described as not “a special way of knowing, but rather a special way of being”.

Part of this is attitude which, in some traditions, focuses on compassion. Another aspect of attitude can be caring, as in Loyal Rue’s view that a religious person is “one who takes ultimate concerns to heart”. It may also include a desire to understand and act in accordance with the ways of the perceived source of all that is, and a sense of personal or emotional connection to this source. As William James put it, “The relation goes direct from heart to heart, from soul to soul, between man and his maker” howsoever that “maker” may be envisioned.

Being religious can also include practices – as ways of re-orienting the mind, encountering the ultimate, declaring one’s faith, and putting values into action. A focus in this can be self-transformation, as religious orientation may highlight ideals and offer practices that can help people move toward their better selves.

Whether they consider themselves to be religious or not, each person, at times, considers religious questions. Each forms a view of how things are and what may be possible or not, and a sense of what is important, right, and good. If they consider the order and beauty and unanswered questions about the world, they may encounter a sense of mystery and appreciation and wonder. And, as they stand with others to mark life events (the birth of a child, a wedding, or a funeral), they may acknowledge some things as important, or “sacred”. With these types of responses or feelings, and as they act in accordance with their beliefs, each person can be seen as having their own spiritual sense, or their own personal religion.

Links

Some terms and distinctions – related to religiosity
Loyal Rue’s model of religion
Personal religion
Spirituality
Wonder
Neuroscience and religous faith (ISSR)
Additional reading – perspectives on religion

A problem and a path

Problem and path - 450x338 - 23067297_sReligious traditions can give a sense of direction. They point to problems – with ourselves and in our world – and they offer a path to set things right. For example:

In Buddhism, the problem is suffering. The reason is selfish craving. A solution is the 8-fold path.

In Jewish and Christian traditions the problem is separation from the love and goodness envisioned in God, and problems that come with living in such a world. The reason, shown in Eden, is human sinfulness or weakness. The path, in Jewish tradition, is following the guidance in the Torah. In Christianity, the focus is acceptance of Christ.

The problem

From a religious naturalist perspective, several aspects of a problem can be seen.

On a personal level, varying levels of suffering, anxiety, confusion, and alienation are part of the human condition. We wish for satisfaction, health, peace of mind, and a sense of belonging.

In relations with others, we have frequent conflict and would like to feel safe and get along with those around us.

In relation to our environment, we observe climate change, destruction of natural areas, and extinctions. We fear that, with overpopulation and pollution, we may permanently damage our home.

In all of this, we seek transformation or re-orientation that will point to a better world. We may also seek salvation – not as defined in Christian doctrine, but as based in the word root, salve, to soothe or heal.

Reasons for the problem

The reasons for these problems can be seen in a naturalist sense of being human, grounded in evolution.

One part is biological, where disease, decline, and death are inevitable parts of life, and where our genetic make-up sets aspects of what we want, how we feel, how we’re inclined to react, and what we do. This includes chemical imbalances that can play roles in mental distress.

Another part is psychological, where the self-conscious awareness that emerged as part of the function of our brains gives the ability to question and doubt. Some confusion and conflict are unavoidable, as we try to determine what is right and balance what is good for ourselves and what is good for our groups.

As advanced primates, our minds and bodies took form through countless generations as hunter/gatherers. Rules of culture formed during centuries of rural life. As technical skills have advanced, our environment has changed – to increasing concrete and noise and diminished contact with nature. Social groups have changed – from lifelong contact with tribes and families to a world increasingly populated with strangers. By controlling disease, population has exploded. We have grown rapidly, with no plan. The lives we live are not the lives our species evolved to.

Paths toward solutions

With no view that a deity shapes what will be, we are on our own. As some aspects of human nature are causes of the problem, other aspects may contribute to solutions.

The best tools we have are knowledge and potential for cooperation and wisdom.

In seeking knowledge, we try to understand elements of problems and how attempts at solutions have succeeded, or not. An important part of this is self-understanding, with attempts to recognize the implications of traits that we inherited from a pre-human past.

In seeking cooperation, we can act socially and politically to try to move toward approaches that may help.

As we consider issues and make decisions, attempts at wisdom can draw from varied perspectives – some based in evidence from science, some drawing from literature, philosophy, history, parables, and myth – with images to try to move toward.

For personal well-being, we may aspire to enlightenment, self-actualization, mindfulness, and compassion.

For social harmony, we can consider images of utopias and targets for social justice, and we can look to examples in Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Moses, Jesus, and other ancient and modern prophets.

Regarding ecology, we can consider the respect for nature described by Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, Thomas Berry, and many others, and images of balance in a beautiful, sustainable world.

In efforts for transformation, one approach is top down where, by restoring balance to the environment and justice in social relations, personal well-being may improve. Another approach is bottom up where, in improving awareness and actions as individuals, social interactions can improve and environmental preservation may occur.

For those who do not believe in the traditional religious view where direction and purpose are seen in relation to God, religious naturalism can give a framework that may contribute to transformation and well-being on personal, social, and environmental levels.

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Being Human

Being Human -  (man and woman) from Pioneer 10 - 1000pxA naturalist sense of being human differs in important ways from traditional images in Western culture and religion.

A central part of this is a sense of ourselves as a particular kind of primate. Tracing back further through evolution, we can also see ourselves as sharing wants, needs, and some types of feelings with a wider range of creatures. But, with well-developed brains, we also have something more.

At some point, a line was crossed in the nature of the human mind – to distinctly human types of intelligence and awareness. Due largely to shared genetics, people in cultures around the world act in similar ways.

With a naturalist view, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, mental abilities, and behaviors all originate in the brain. No homunculus, spirit, or intangible “ghost in the machine” animates our bodies. No immortal soul will live on after we die.

This is less glorified than seeing ourselves as being created in the image of a perfect God. But it also avoids some views that may contribute to unease, such as being told we are innately sinful and may potentially burn in hell.

Far more than is generally acknowledged, mental activity and actions are unconscious and automatic. And, in contrast to view of free will with decisions guided by rational thought, emotional and intuitive processes drive much of what we want and what we do.

A naturalist view prompts questions that go to the heart of a sense of ourselves.

If all in a human is biochemistry, then who or what am “I”?

If all in our brains occurs with rules of chemistry and physics, was the “choice” I made the only choice that could have been made?

This view has bearing on morals. As we try to encourage our better selves, naturalist views begin with human nature, not a standard of godly ideals, as we consider when to embrace or repress “animal” impulses. In deciding when to punish and when to forgive, we increasingly recognize mental illness as part of the basis for violence and other problems.

A modern sense of human nature can also expand ways of looking at religion. As we recognize aspects of brain activity and ways of interpreting what we see that contribute to religious perceptions, those who are baffled by or critical of implausible beliefs may come to see these not as “delusion”, but based in patterns of perception that they themselves, in varying levels, share.

Links 

What does it mean to be human? (Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)
Hall of human origins (American Museum of Natural History)
How do humans differ from other animals?
Bonobo apes – Our closest relatives (PBS/NOVA video)
Does evolution explain human nature?
Wonder – a feeling as inspiration for science, art, and religion
Human universals (traits seen in all cultures)
Human nature and morals (Frans de Waal – “Good Natured”)

Life

In a naturalist view, life is a wholly biological process. Some aspects of this can give a sense of wonder; some others raise questions and concerns. Ways that we appreciate and wrestle with a sense of what we are can be part of being religious.

protocell 350 x 350Part of the nature of life traces back to origins, where life is thought to have emerged when types of nucleotides (similar to RNA) formed in ways that were able to copy themselves. When these were surrounded by a lipid membrane, they acted as protocells, taking in nutrients and converting these to energy, to form proteins and act in ways that enabled the cell to reproduce.For hundreds of millions of years, single cells were the only forms of life – all composed of the same few substances (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, adenosine phosphates, nucleic acids, and water) which, in turn, are composed of a small number of atoms (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulphur). As one author put it, the chemistry of life is the chemistry of carbon and water.

A major change occurred as cells mutated in ways that enabled them to act together. In time, these evolved into millions of forms of multi-cellular life – some as plants, some as animals, and some including specialized nerves that formed as complex brains. These all grow, mature, reproduce, and interact. All are attracted to things that are good for them and avoid what may cause harm. Some have impressive abilities – in perception, problem solving, and ways of acting in social groups. But, a price is paid in return as, unlike single cells that can reproduce and live forever, the varied cells that enable complex life require that these beings all must die.

Some aspects of this view can feel deflating. Rather than being created in the image of an all-knowing and loving God, life can be seen as types of chemical reactions. But this has a flip side, with a sense of wonder at the intricate processes involved, and the more we learn, the more we may be amazed and impressed. As Fritjof Capra described this:

ecosystem“When we look at the world around us, we find that we are not thrown into chaos and randomness but are part of a great order, a grand symphony of life. Every molecule in our body was once part of previous bodies – living or nonliving – and will be a part of future bodies. In this sense, our body will not die but will live on, again and again, because life lives on. We share not only life’s molecules but also its basic principles of organization with the rest of the living world. And since our mind, too, is embodied, our concepts and metaphors are embedded in the web of life together with our bodies and brains. We belong to the universe, we are at home in it, and this experience of belonging can make our lives profoundly meaningful.”

Chimp and baby - 722x663 - 15412407_mA biologic view of life has led to “miraculous” advances that, along with relieving suffering and prolonging life, include new possibilities, with in vitro conception, transplantation of organs, and potential for cloning and genetic manipulation.

A biologic view also highlights things we share with other creatures, with some common tendencies and needs and, with primates and some other mammals, similar types of awareness and feelings.

This view also puts focus on ways that living things all nourish and depend on one another, and how, in ways we are only beginning to understand, the well-being of humans depends on other living things in complex ecosystems.

Links

Exploring Life’s Origins (Boston Museum of Science)
The Line Between Life and Non-Life (TED talk, Martin Hanczyc)
Emergence (Wikipedia)
Emergence (NOVA video)
Life’s Greatest Miracle (NOVA video)
Life (Discovery Channel online video series)