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Naturism: Crosby’s religion of nature

by Mars Lewis

. . . Crosby describes his religion of nature as a faith without many traditional elements of faith: without gods, without the supernatural, without revelation, without an afterlife of bliss, without purpose, without design. Since nature is metaphysically ultimate, it is the ultimate source of value and meaning, and is therefore “the appropriate focus of religious faith and dedication.” Nature can be viewed religiously as “unambiguously right or good… [a]nd viewed religiously, it is unambiguously right or good. Nature is therefore entitled, in these respects, to be the focus of religious faith.”

Crosby calls his version of religious naturalism naturism to differentiate it from other forms which retain some form of deity, and in his writings he is explicit that no form of god is part of his religion.

“Thus, I am neither a monotheist, a polytheist, a pantheist, a panentheist, nor an animist, and yet I claim profound religious value and meaning for the immanent, self-contained powers of nature – admittedly impersonal though they may be – that produce, suffuse, and sustain us and all other forms of being.”

“For me, nature is sacred but not divine.”

Crosby summarises his choice of nature over god:

“Nature is every bit as mysterious and wonderful as traditional concepts of God, and perhaps far more so in that it is not the outcome of deliberate purpose or design but of self-contained, incredibly self-transcending creative processes.”

Crosby shapes his religion of nature first by attributing a set of values to nature, and then by demonstrating that nature fulfills all of the functions required of an object of religious concern. Here I will summarise both of these approaches.

Values in Nature

Crosby clusters one set of values around life in general, these include: life itself, biological species, the conditions necessary for the maintenance of diverse life forms, the biosphere as a whole, diversity of life forms, and creativity. These values are founded on the observation that life affirms life, that all organisms strive to live, and that, therefore, life is a value. Particular species strive to procreate, and progeny are clearly valued by their parents. Therefore, the ecological conditions for such living and procreating must also be valued, as must the entire biosphere, since all ecosystems are interdependent. Diversity is a value because, like ecosystems, life forms are interdependent with other life forms; for example, animals require plants for oxygen, and other plants and animals to eat. Crosby includes creativity in this cluster of values because the novelty generated through the mutation of genes yields the diversity of life. Fundamentally, for Crosby, life is the source of value – without life-forms, there would be no values:

“Organisms can be said to make assessment of value and disvalue in their ongoing lives, some of which are borne out in their experiences and other of which are not. Usually these assessments are unconscious and instinctive, but they still must meet such tests as compatibility with patterns of the past or suitability for new circumstances. Living beings, then, are preconditions for values, since in order for values to exist, there must be valuers or assessors of value. Living beings are of incontrovertible importance and value, because they are the necessary basis for the existence of all other values. If anything else is to be of value, life must be of value.”

In addition to the above life-oriented values, Crosby adds splendour (e.g., vastness, complexity, and beauty), practical value (e.g., provision of food and shelter) and moral value. All of the values mentioned, he notes, point toward nature’s moral value, since “they imply urgent obligation on the part of humans to recognize, respect, and seek to preserve them.”

Crosby’s final value attributed to nature is religious value, which he establishes by demonstrating that nature fulfills “role-functional categories” of any object of religious concern. These categories include: uniqueness, primacy, pervasiveness, rightness, permanence, and hiddenness. Crosby considers each of these from a personal perspective (i.e., how each impacts individual religious people), and from a cosmic perspective (i.e., how each relates to the entire cosmos). Crosby stresses that these are functions and not attributes of religious objects. In other words, these are functions that gods perform – not characteristics of particular gods; of course, in this case, he is applying these functions to nature.

Uniqueness refers to way in which the religious person would know of nothing else like this object; it would be radically different than everything else. This, Crosby claims, applies to nature, which can serve as a focus of “piety and reverence.”

Primacy refers to what is most important – of greatest interest or concern. Cosmically, it serves as the “root principle” from which everything depends. For Crosby, this refers to the ultimacy of nature which “does not require anything beyond itself in order to exist.”

Pervasiveness refers to the way in which nature touches every aspect of the person’s life; cosmically, this means that nature “establishes a bond between the deepest levels of the self and what is believed to be the core of reality.” Crosby believes that nature satisfies this function as the source and sustainer of everything.

Rightness means that the goal of human existence is defined by nature, and that nature is responsive to strivings. Also, nature is the standard of goodness. For Crosby, faith in nature includes recognition of the harmony from which we arise and on which we depend.

Permanence refers to the way nature is either everlasting or timeless.

Hiddenness refers to “mystery and awe” and to the ways in which causality and chance mysteriously yield human freedom. For individuals, this mystery is inexhaustible.

For Crosby, the values previously outlined and the functions which nature fulfills – the same functions as fulfilled by the gods of traditional religions – sum to yield nature as a worthy object of religious focus. However, nature is also fundamentally ambiguous. Given that nature is all change, creativity and newness, the old is being replaced as the new emerges. Therefore, along with creativity comes destruction. In this way, “reality and ambiguity go necessarily together.” This ambiguity yields pairs of “profound oppositions”, including:

“…creation and destruction, order and disorder, stability and change, causality and chance, plurality and unity, beauty and ugliness, the fixity of the past and the openness of the future, continuity and freedom, evolutionary emergence and evolutionary extinction, life and death, disease and health, satiety and starvation, pleasure and pain, and moral goodness and evil.”

Therefore, Crosby concludes, nature contains moral evil, as it must. However, he insists that nature is perfectly good in the religious sense of the term, and therefore deserving of our reverence and devotion. Distinguishing between these two senses of evil allows him to claim that his religion of nature is not challenged by the problem of evil as are some religious traditions. Natural processes contain moral evils, but nature, as a whole is perfectly good.

Cosby’s metaphysics of nature connects the characteristics of novelty, creativity and unpredictability with feelings and convictions which he claims are part of a religious outlook. For example, given nature’s ongoing evolutionary change, we can hope for a better future; given free will, we can live with a purpose of (and responsibility for) creating a better future; and given the profound role of chance, we can feel compassion for others, and gratitude for “transcendent events of grace” in our lives.

Crosby offers reasons why it is appropriate to place one’s religious faith in nature. Among these are his contention that, “we owe everything we are and have to nature.” We are fully embedded in nature, and all of our capabilities, our cultures, and our histories come from nature and are supported by nature. “Should we not, therefore, reverence it and meditate upon its gifts with intense religious gratitude and fervor?” “We are at home here;” there is no other place, no supernatural dimension, nothing outside of nature. In contrast with other objects of religious concern, we do not need to struggle to prove the existence of nature. Finally, Crosby argues for a new perspective on salvation:

“…nature can be saving for those attuned to its presence and influence.
It has the power to inspire, enhance, and renew our lives.
We are natural beings in the deepest recesses of our bodies and spirits,
and learning how to live in accordance with that fact
provides us with both profound challenge and profound hope.”

What exactly does it mean, though, to have such faith? Crosby defines such faith as: conceiving of one’s life within nature as something of momentous value and importance, using all of the resources and capacities of one’s being. Such faith means being open to events of grace in one’s life, “transformative gifts which we can humbly accept and for which we can give hearty thanks.” These events provide opportunities for reflection and growth. Crosby offers examples of such triggering experiences:

“…a casual meeting with someone that unexpectedly turns into a lifelong and deeply meaningful relationship. Or a teacher might have said something early in one’s life, perhaps only in passing, that opened up new possibilities and set one’s life on a new course…a passage in a book that points the way to new, enriching ways of thinking and acting, sometimes in respects quite difference from those intended or envisioned by the book’s author… being forgiven…the sight of a cardinal at the feeder in the back yard, a sight that we may have enjoyed in the past but that on this occasion is suddenly full of ecstatic joy and meaning.”

Faith in nature also entails engaging in what Crosby calls a religious search “for values and modes of awareness that can provide basis, orientation, and direction for the whole course of our lives.” Such values and modes include: “issues of birth and death, meaning and despair, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, hope and frustration, forgiveness and guilt, honor and shame.” The quest is also for a sense of attunement, responsibility and purpose, and seeks answers to fundamental questions:

“By what or whom have we come into being, and by what or whom are we most profoundly guided and sustained?
What, at the most fundamental level of our lives, should we live for and aspire toward?
Who are we, and what ought we to become?
How can our lives be most creatively and fruitfully directed and transformed?
What is to be valued above all else in the living or our lives?”

The result of this search and this faith in nature can include lifting us “out of moods of hopelessness and futility, encouraging us to continue to have confidence that moral progress is possible and that our moral strivings continue to be worthwhile.”

In summary, naturism is Crosby’s proposed religion of nature; his metaphysics of nature – including the paradoxical combination of consistency and radical change – yields a view of nature that includes religious values, a religious sense of ultimacy, and his case for nature as a appropriate object of religious concern.

Sources of quotes from Donald Crosby:
A Religion of Nature, p. 81
Living With Ambiguity, p. 2-3, 24, 27, 48, 50, 51, 56, 59, 63, 80-83, 85
Transcendence and Immanence in a Religion of Nature, p. 245, 253

This paper is an excerpt from:
Lewis, Marshall. ‘The Atheistic Religious Naturalism of Goodenough, Crosby and Rue’.
Post-Graduate Dissertation. University of Otago, 2013.