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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)

Ways of the world

Electron Cloud 1 Viz Lab

With a view that the cosmos emerged from events that followed the Big Bang, a naturalist sense of how things occur is grounded in some general principles. These can be seen as core premises, that:

all things are composed of natural substances and act in accordance with natural laws, and

all things are dynamic and interdependent.

Rules of nature bring ordered patterns and cycles. But, some events also include elements of chance.

This view of how things are can spark spiritual perceptions, with a sense of wonder, illusion, and mystery.

World of wonder

A naturalist understanding shows a world of impressive order, with massive power and scope, infinite time and space, and intricate action and interrelation. This can be recognized as magnificent and beautiful, and worthy of appreciation and reverence.

World of illusion

Much of what exists is not as it appears to us to be. Part is tied to limits of our perception. (We cannot hear a dog whistle and, without special tools, we cannot see microscopic objects.) Beyond this, many things are more or different than they appear. (A rock that appears to be motionless and solid is actually an amalgam of activity, with electrons orbiting atomic nuclei.) Beyond this, the matter in a particle is actually energy (as in Einstein’s E=mc2). The empty space we see as air if full of substance. For practical purposes, most things act in ways that fit with how they seem. But, consistent with the Eastern concept of Maya, much in the world is different than it appears, and what we perceive can be seen, in part, as illusion.

World with mystery

Despite attempts to understand, some important things are not yet fully understood. These include fundamental aspects of nature – matter, energy, and time – and consciousness and thought.

With this, a realm of mystery exists beyond what is able to be known. Rather than viewing this as a limit or weakness, many embrace acknowledgement of mystery as humble and realistic. (Imagine – mere humans able to decipher and grasp the forces that guide the cosmos?) As they recognize feelings of wonder and awe that may accompany this sense, some experience a sense of appreciation and reverence.

Links

Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra
…..Overview (Wikipedia)
…..Online sample chapters
Nature’s Sacred Undercurrent, Lawrence W. Fagg
…..Electromagnetism and a sacred presence in nature
My Covenent with Mystery, Ursula Goodenough
Ode to a Flower
…..(animated version of Richard Feynman’s description
…..of how scientific understanding can add to perceptions of beauty)

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Image: Electron cloud simulation
Courtesy of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Visualization Group
, and is
© University of California,
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

John Muir

John Muir was a naturalist who called out – 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.

Using the imagery of his times, he saw wilderness as the Earth as God made it. And 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.

Selected quotes

John Muir - 400 x 681Climb 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.

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. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.

We find in the fields of Nature no place that is blank or barren; every spot on land or sea is covered with harvests, and these harvests are always ripe and ready to be gathered, and no toiler is ever underpaid. Not in these fields, God’s wilds, will you ever hear the sad moan of disappointment, “All is vanity”. no, we are overpaid a thousand times for all our toil, and a single day in so divine an atmosphere of beauty and love would be well worth living for, and at its close, should death come, without any hope of another life, we could still say, “Thank you, God, for the glorious gift!” and pass on. Indeed, some of the days I have spent alone in the depths of the wilderness have shown me that immortal life beyond the grave is not essential to perfect happiness, for these diverse days were so complete there was no sense of time in them, they had no definite beginning or ending, and formed a kind of terrestrial immortality. After days like these we are ready for any fate – pain, grief, death or oblivion – with grateful heart for the glorious gift as long as hearts shall endure. In the meantime, our indebtedness is growing ever more. The sun shines and the stars, and new beauty meets us at every step in all our wanderings.

. . . 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. The glory of the Lord is upon all God’s works; it is written plainly upon all the fields of every clime, and upon every sky . . .

Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees.

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

No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening – still all is Beauty!

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. . .

In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.

You are going on a strange journey this time, my friend. I don’t envy you. You’ll have a hard time keeping your heart light and simple in the midst of this crowd of madmen. Instead of the music of the wind among the spruce-tops and the tinkling of the waterfalls, your ears will be filled with the oaths and groans of these poor, deluded, self-burdened people. Keep close to Nature’s heart, yourself; and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean from the earth-stains of this sordid, gold-seeking crowd in God’s pure air. . . Don’t lose your freedom and your love of the Earth as God made it.

Links

The John Muir exhibit – Sierra Club
(including biography, tributes, media and educational resources,
and
complete text of all of Muir’s writings – free online – including:

The Mountains of California (1894)

Our National Parks (1901)

My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)

The Yosemite by John Muir (1912)

A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf  (1916)

Origins

This site presents information and links designed to introduce religious naturalism (RN) to those who are not yet familiar with it. And, for those who respect science as a foundation for understanding what is real, it provides resources for exploring an orientation that appreciates the mystery, order, and beauty in the world and the spiritual part of ourselves, .

Menu options, shown above and to the right, identify topics that can be examined. And, every week or two, as is shown below, a new featured topic is presented on this home page. The current topic begins at the beginning – to review a modern story of our origins that has a grandeur that matches and, in some eyes, may exceed the biblical description, and has the added benefit that, based on all we’re able to understand, is also real.

Origins

The modern story of the origin of the cosmos and human beings is taught in science classes around the world. This has been described as a modern myth, the “epic of evolution.”

The broad outline of this story is familiar but, as a central point in a naturalist view, it bears retelling. The version below is by Carl Sagan*.

Origins - Big Bang - Smoot and Davidson - large“For unknown ages after the explosive outpouring of matter and energy of the Big Bang, the Cosmos was without form. There were no galaxies, no planets, no life. Deep, impenetrable darkness was everywhere, hydrogen atoms in the void.

Here and there denser accumulations of gas were imperceptibly growing, globes of matter were condensing – hydrogen raindrops more massive than suns. Within these globes of gas was first kindled the nuclear fire latent in matter. A first generation of stars was born, flooding the Cosmos with light. There were in those times not yet any planets to receive the light, no living creatures to admire the radiance of the heavens.

Deep in the stellar furnaces the alchemy of nuclear fusion created heavy elements, the ashes of hydrogen burning, the atomic building materials of future planets and lifeforms.

Massive stars soon exhausted their stores of nuclear fuel. Rocked by colossal explosions, they returned most of their substance back into the thin gas from which they had once condensed. Here in the dark lush clouds between the stars, new raindrops made of many elements were forming, later generations of stars being born. Nearby, smaller raindrops grew, bodies far too little to ignite the nuclear fire, droplets in the interstellar mist on their way to form the planets. Among them was a small world of stone and iron, the early Earth.

Concealing and warming, the Earth released the methane, ammonia, water and hydrogen gases that had been trapped within, forming the primitive atmosphere and the first oceans. Starlight from the Sun bathed and warmed the primeval Earth, drove storms, generated lightning and thunder. Volcanoes overflowed with lava. These processes disrupted molecules of the primitive atmosphere; the fragments fell back together again into more and more complex forms, which dissolved in the early oceans.

After a time the seas achieved the consistency of a warm, dilute soup. Molecules were organized, and complex chemical reactions driven, on the surface of clays. And one day a molecule arose that quite by accident was able to make crude copies of itself out of the other molecules in the broth. As time passed, more elaborate and more accurate self-replicating molecules arose. Those combinations best suited to further replication were favored by the sieve of natural selection. Those that copied better produced more copies. And the primitive oceanic broth gradually grew thin as it was consumed by and transformed into complex condensations of self-replicating organic molecules. Gradually, imperceptibly, life had begun.

Single-celled plants evolved, and life began to generate its own food. Photosynthesis transformed the atmosphere. Sex was invented. Once free-living forms banded together to make a complex cell with specialized functions. Chemical receptors evolved, and the Cosmos could taste and smell. One-celled organisms evolved into multicellular colonies, elaborating their various parts into specialized organ systems. Eyes and ears evolved, and now the Cosmos could see and hear.

Plants and animals dissolved that the land could support life. Organisms buzzed, crawled, scuttled, lumbered, glided, flapped, shimmied, climbed and soared. Colossal beasts thundered through the steaming jungles. Small creatures emerged, born live instead of in hard-shelled containers, with a fluid like the early oceans coursing through their veins. They survived by swiftness and cunning.

And then, only a moment ago, some small arboreal animals scampered down from the trees. They became upright and taught themselves the use of tools, domesticated other animals, plants, and fire and devised language. The ash of stellar alchemy was now emerging into consciousness. At an ever-accelerating pace, it invented writing, cities, art and science, and sent spaceships to the planets and the stars.

These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do, given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution.”

An important part of this story is emergence, in which relationships among component may produce properties that go beyond what is present in the parts. For example:

  • Water has qualities different from those of hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
  • A living cell has qualities beyond those of its molecules.
  • Multicellular beings are capable of actions and intentions that are not possible in single cells.
  • The human mind, with intelligence and consciousness, has properties that are not present in nerve cells in the brain.

With these and many other examples, the sum is not just greater than the parts; it is fundamentally different from the parts. Or, as some have put it, “something more” results from “nothing but” when particular combinations and relationships result in new qualities.

As Loyal Rue explained it, emergence is not about “new kind of stuff”, but “new relationships between components that are already there”; “when existing parts enter into new dynamical relations, new realities appear.” As Philip Clayton put it, “The nature of the world is such that it produces, and perhaps must produce, continually more complex realities in a process of ongoing creativity”.

Links

Video
Big History
…..The Universe
……….The Big Bang
……….Formation of stars and galaxies
…..Our solar system and Earth
The history of our world in 18 minutes. David Christian. TED talk. April 2011.
Origins (NOVA series)
…..Back to the beginning
…..Earth is born
The Most Astounding Fact About The Universe, Neil DeGrasse Tyson
……(3 minute video; “We are part of this universe. . . The universe is in us”)
Journey of the Universe
Evolution Will Change How You See the World

Books
The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry.  
Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution. Loyal Rue. 
A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. Lawrence Krauss.
Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (P.S.). Simon Singh.
The first three minutes. Steven Weinberg.
The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet. Robert M. Hazen.

Emergence
NOVA website: Emergence (video, examples, Q&A)
Emergence (wiki)
The Sacred Emergence of Nature. Ursula Goodenough and Terrence Deacon
Beyond Reductionism – Reinventing the Sacred. Stuart Kauffman

Emergence of Life and human beings are examined from other pages:
…..Life
…..Being human

*  Carl Sagan, in Cosmos, 1985, pages 337-338

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For a direct link to the website of the
Religious Naturalist Association
click here.

Photo: Pauline Rosenberg