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Encounters with Nature

Much as entering a church or temple prompts attention to the divine, encounters with nature can shift focus from daily life. As they offer lessons and reminders and affect our focus and mood, encounters with nature can be parts of a personal sense of something spiritual/religious.

kao_pun_temple_waterfallsTracing back to ancient hunting rituals and gatherings in sacred groves, encounters with nature have long been parts of religions. Attention to nature was rekindled in the 1800s (described and inspired, in part, by Ralph Waldo EmersonHenry David Thoreau, and John Muir), More recently, Donald CrosbyMike Comins, and others have described aspects of religion that can be based in nature.

Gerald May described “the power of the slowing”, where nature can slow us down to its pace. The sound of waves and patterns of light can lead to a meditative state. (One form has been described as the “hunter’s trance”.) As Nirmal Kameth put it,

“There is a deep sense of quiet we experience in nature.
When our mind is quiet we can experience God in that silence . . .”

Encounters with nature can also prompt a sense of connection and belonging, and at times can provide types of satisfaction or comfort that may not be available in social life.

“I am a forty-two-year-old woman. I’ve never received a love letter, never received flowers from a man. I have attempted suicide and have contemplated it many times since. And yet these wonders I have known: a maple tree in autumn, each leaf exactly the color of gold; a weed-like microcosm whose perfect petals are no bigger than the head of a pin. The dawning of each season with its own unique perfume, spring and autumn bringing the strongest scents. These and many other moments of grace have kept me going.”*

E.O. Wilson used the term, biophilia, to describe an affinity with nature that he feels is based in evolution. (Being descended from ancestors who, for millennia,  lived near lakes and streams, we feel something right and good in natural settings.) Some feel that the modern absence of natural environments can cause psychic disorientation, and the term “nature deficit disorder” has been coined.

Activities as simple as gardening, gazing at starswatching birds, or a walk in the woods may be parts of personal spiritual observance. But, as occurs in services in churches and temples, the extent to which an encounter may be experienced as spiritual is often related to the attitude of the receiver. Some encounters with nature may be planned; others can occur by just stopping to notice.


EO Wilson. Biophilia.
Donald Crosby. A Religion of Nature.
Carl Von Essen. Ecomysticism: The Profound Experience of Nature as a Spiritual Guide.
Mike Comins. A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism.
Richard Louv. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.
Stephen Chase. Nature as Spiritual Practice
Sounds of trees
Children and Nature Network
Nature Rx website
Naturalism, Nature, and Ecology

     * Sam Keen, In the Absence of God, page 72

Religious naturalism and art

“How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another,
if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology?
In my view, it is the most important function of art and science
to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.”
Albert Einstein

venus_willendorf1With architecture, paintings, music, and other forms, art has long been part of religions. Art is likewise important to many religious naturalists – as a way of experiencing things that can’t be stated in words (or that use poetry, not precision, in words).

Unlike artistic themes that developed over centuries in relation to traditional religions, a relation between naturalism, religion, and art is fairly new. But nature has long been a focus in art, and many ancient and modern works can contribute to a sense of something spiritual or religious. Also, as is suggested in the quote from Albert Einstein, above, a challenge available to naturalists who are artistically-inclined is to create works that examine the beauty and spiritual meaning that can come from appreciation of the natural world.

Sunlight through treesLinks, below, show some examples.

Encounters with art 
…..(as a form of practice
…..for religious naturalists)

Hudson River school paintings
Art of science gallery
Mathematical art galleries
Snow art (Simon Beck)
Gallery (selected images)


 It should be noted that naturalism is a style in art that features realistic depictions. This generally does not include the religious sense that is part of religious naturalism. So, while the two share part of a common name, art related to RN is not the same as, and is not bound by, the style of naturalism in art.


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

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.


Some terms and distinctions – related to religiosity
Loyal Rue’s model of religion
Personal religion
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.