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The adjective “religious” in religious naturalism

by Michael Cavanaugh

My personal emphasis is on the noun Naturalism. My particular orientation within Religious Naturalism is best labeled – plain vanilla naturalism. It does not use god-language to express the positive philosophy of Religious Naturalism. Despite that orientation, however, I’d like to use this space to share my perspective on the adjective Religious in Religious Naturalism. I do that mainly because I am confident others here will articulate views I share about Naturalism, whereas my views on the adjective may not be as widely understood or shared.

So what are the religious impulses that make me call myself a Religious Naturalist? There are many, and there is no perfect way to spell them out short of writing a book, but here are seven impulses I consider religious impulses, which require a modifier for my basic naturalism. All of them have innate roots but function best with cultural training:

1. The impulse to connect with one another is a religious impulse. Historically, the Latin word ligere meant – binding together. A ligament is a structure that binds muscle to bone, and in molecular genetics a ligase is a biologically active molecule that connects one chemical to another. In Religious Naturalism the lig highlights the extent to which we live in community, connected to one another, appropriately connoting our evolution-mediated desire to live in society.

2. The impulses to awe and gratitude are religious impulses. The religious impulse features many grand psychological responses which Religious Naturalism claims as our own – a sense of awe, of gratitude for existence, of participation and involvement with the earth and with one another, and an affirmation of the natural order. An old Christian song proclaims “This world is not my home; I’m just a-traveling through.” I prefer to re-word that song radically, to say “This world it is our home, we’re not just traveling through.”

3. The affirmation of and discipline of emotion are religious responses. Loyal Rue has a great chapter on the use of religion to train the emotions, so I won’t go into great detail here. I will say that even though there are harmful tendencies within humans (such as the tendency to xenophobia, the tendency to eat too many fats, etc.), and even though those harmful tendencies are “natural” in a real sense, the “religious” part of Religious Naturalism means we have to train the emotions relying on rationality and contemplation and group processes (all natural themselves) to shape our emotions in positive ways.

4. The search for wisdom is a religious impulse. Much as I value science to inform my naturalism, I also value sources of wisdom, including our 40,000 years of religious tradition, to help me live my life. In particular, dealing with evil requires wisdom, especially the evil that arises from human conflict. But I include in evil anything that reduces the quality of life on this planet, be it global warming or cancer or tsunamis or untimely death (ordinary death is not evil per se – indeed it is good). All of this evil (including the evil within humans) is natural, and we have to work hard to change what we can, and learn to cope with the rest. A “religious” naturalism keeps us from merely accepting the glorious parts of nature and ignoring the rest – it requires us to sensitively and intelligently deal with the not-so-wonderful parts. But this use of tradition itself requires a very contemporary wisdom, because one must exercise wisdom to avoid buying into the dangerous and erroneous aspects of cultural and religious traditions that are contradicted by sciences, including especially the “soft” sciences like sociology, political science, and economics.

5. The need to manage motivations is a religious task. This religious impulse obviously overlaps with emotion and with innate tendencies and with our wisdom traditions, and it is deeply underscored by modern psychology, especially by biology-literate modern psychology. Motivation has deep roots, and it is not easy at all to understand or manage it, either in ourselves or in our groups. It is “where the rubber meets the road” in terms of how our scientific understanding intersects with personal choice and even governmental policies. Thus Religious Naturalism must accept the challenge of demonstrating how our scientific knowledge can support and impact our human sense of motivation.

6. Uncertainty is a religious impulse. It may sound strange to say that uncertainty is a religious impulse, and I do NOT mean that one is responding religiously if one is indecisive or wishy-washy. What I’d really rather say is that humility is a religious impulse, but that word will need some explanation, but it is indeed a kind of uncertainty that is the core of humility as I understand the word.

Some naturalists, perhaps the kind that Willem Drees calls “straight naturalists,” are very certain about almost everything they believe, and may fittingly be accused of being very similar to fundamentalists in that regard. But while Religious Naturalists also have good reasons for the things we believe, including for many a disbelief in God, we are not nearly as inclined as other naturalists to be certain. We might (as Ursula Goodenough does) simply have a “covenant with mystery” and don’t go into areas we don’t think we know anything about.

And some Religious Naturalists (including me) have adopted W.W. Bartley’s pancritical rationalism stance, which says that “every statement is criticizable, including this one.” Bartley’s book “The Retreat to Commitment” is a classic critique of modern liberal Protestants and others who take what he calls a justificationist stance – they try to prove their position conclusively. Bartley, a student of Popper, doesn’t believe this can be done, and thinks philosophies should do what science does, by holding our beliefs lightly though firmly, ready to change them if and only if someone makes a stronger claim.

So Religious Naturalists may not believe in God, and of course we are not required to re-examine their beliefs moment by moment whenever anyone wants us to, but in principle we are ready to change our beliefs if they can be shown to be wrong.

What is interesting about adopting humility and uncertainty as religious values is that it contrasts so completely with religious believers who KNOW they are right, whether they be fundamentalists or scientists. Indeed one could make an argument that such fundamentalists are NOT religious, but are idolatrous, creating artificial god-concepts and doctrines out of their own hard certainty.

Note finally that Paul Woodruff, who has written a wonderful book about reverence, takes this same approach when talking about both ancient Greeks and modern politicians, who were (or are) willing to substitute their own ideological certainty for deeper social values. A religious naturalist will strive, I think, to be reverent in THAT way, largely by recognizing his or her own lack of absolute knowledge and feeling appropriately humble about his or her beliefs, and I would also suggest that this humble mind-set is a precondition of other religious values Religious Naturalists affirm, such as awe and wisdom.

7. Finally, our inclination to morality and ethics is a religious impulse. I have more to say about this elsewhere, but here I’ll just say that a thoroughly naturalist understanding of morality, which includes cognitive and emotional aspects and which is informed by traditional wisdom and by a traditional study of philosophy modified toward a consilience with a modern understanding of human nature, makes me say (contrary to Jack Haught) that “Nature is Enough” – enough to sustain us, to explain our existence and nature, and enough to provide meaning in life. If anything, it is so awesome as to be more than enough.