Religious Naturalism and Its Place in the Family of Religions

By Donald A. Crosby
From The Fourth R
Volume 27, Issue 1
January/February 2014

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least, they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says—he is my creature, and maugre [despite] all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson1

Religious naturalism deserves recognition as an important form of religious faith among the various religious stances and outlooks of the world. It does so especially today, when its significance is coming to be increasingly acknowledged, vigorously developed, and actively propounded. What is religious naturalism? Simply put, it is the recognition that to be is to be natural and the conviction that nature in all of its forms and manifestations is a proper focus of religious commitment. When I say that to be is to be natural, I am exempting from reality anything other than nature, meaning that, for religious naturalism, there is no such thing as a supposed supernatural being, beings, regions, revelations, origins, purposes, destinies, and the like. All of reality is natural, or, to state the matter negatively, nothing beyond, beneath, or above nature and its multifarious forms exists. This does not mean that there can be no deeply fulfilling and saving religious faith, outlook, or devotion. It means that the appropriate source and object of such faith, outlook, and devotion can rightly be regarded as nature itself.

Nature gives birth to each of us humans and to our species, nurtures us, supports us, surrounds us with rejuvenating beauty and awesome sublimity, and fills us with gladness and wonder—even in the face of loss, sadness, or pain. The words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the epigraph to this essay express this idea with forceful beauty and exactness. Nature can assure us, demand the utmost of us in loyalty and dedication, and empower us to live meaningful, constructive, and contributing lives. However, nature also allows us and other natural beings to die, and sometimes not in the fullness of time. And it not only permits but also warrants in numerous ways untold sufferings for the creatures of earth. I shall say more about this troubling fact later.

As natural beings among diverse other natural beings, we humans are at home in nature. We need not wistfully yearn for some other home or for some other form of existence. Religious naturalism maintains that our central task in life and the deepest fulfillment of our existence is to serve nature, not to think, act, or react as if nature were put here to serve us. Nature is not to be regarded as mere raw material for human use but is to be reverenced as having ultimate, abiding, and inexhaustible worth. Its vast reaches of space and time do not center on us, but we are products of its evolutionary processes here on earth and an integral part of the earth-wide community of living beings sustained by our respective natural environments. The environments of humans may be modified by human technology, but they are still at bottom aspects of nature turned to human use.

Should nature be worshipped or prayed to, then? Does it have an overall purpose? Can the fact of its existence be explained without recourse to God or to a transcendent, non-natural source or ground akin to God? Is religious commitment to the ultimacy of nature a form of pantheism? Can it have religious meaning without being acknowledged as the creation of God, without relying from moment to moment on the sustaining power and presence of God? Is nature not rife with indifferent danger, destructiveness, and waste, and thus hardly qualifying for religious reverence and commitment? Exactly how or in what ways can nature assure us religiously, call forth our utmost dedication and commitment, or empower us to live richly meaningful and amply fulfilling lives? In short, can nature save us? I shall spend the rest of this essay responding to these questions as a proponent of the version of religious naturalism I label as Religion of Nature.

Can we worship or pray to nature?
Religion of Nature does not expect us to worship or pray to nature. Worship is appropriate only for a personal being, and nature is not a personal being. And while meditation and prayer have an important place in the outlook and practice of Religion of Nature, they are focused on nature but not addressed to nature as if it were personal. There can be prayers of gratitude for nature’s magnificence and our place as humans within nature. There can be expressions of commitment to serving the well-being of nature and its creatures, including its human creatures. There can be meditations on the mysteries and wonders of nature. There can be confessions of failure to live up to the ideals of Religion of Nature. And so on. But petitionary prayers, as one type of prayer, can be addressed only to a personal religious ultimate, not to nature. We cannot entreat a non-personal nature to help us. But rituals of various sorts, both public and private, can be created and celebrated in Religion of Nature.

Does nature have an overall purpose?
For Religion of Nature, nature as a whole has no purpose. But there are ample purposes within nature, that is, in the distinctive modes of aspiring, acting, and flourishing among sentient beings and especially in the lives of human beings. So purpose has emerged in nature even though there is no overarching purpose of nature. It is natural for us humans to live purposively as we go about planning our lives, rearing our children, relating to one another, devoting ourselves to our careers, involving ourselves in creative activities, and committing ourselves to moral and religious ideals. The absence of an overarching purpose of nature as a whole does not disqualify Religion of Nature from having profound and lasting religious significance.

Nature may not focus primarily on us or care for us in the way a personal God could be expected to do, but it should be remembered that the personal God of traditional religion has today to be conceived as presiding over a universe of well over a hundred billion galaxies, each with at least a hundred billion stars, and who knows how many planets. (Just to give some image to these overwhelming numbers, there are more stars in the universe—100 billion × 100 billion—than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on earth.) It seems unlikely that such a God could be intimately concerned exclusively or even primarily with the human species on one small planet or with the relatively parochial concerns of individual human beings. It may be claimed that such a God has a comprehensive purpose for the universe as a whole, but that purpose may be so radically general as not to be directed specifically to human beings. At any rate, nature does “care” for us in the perspective of Religion of Nature by providing us with the nurture, support, resources, abilities, and motivations to find our own purposes in life and to pursue those purposes in challenging and meaningful ways.

Can the existence of nature be accounted for apart from a divine creator?
It was traditionally believed that the existence of the universe could only be explained if there is a God to create and sustain it. The universe was viewed as contingent or critically dependent on God for its existence and persistence in being. Only God exists necessarily, it was believed, meaning that only in the case of the existence of God does it make sense not to require a reason for that kind of existence. To refer to God as a necessary being is to assert that it is impossible for God not to exist, precisely because God does not depend on anything else for existence. By contrast, it is possible for everything other than God not to exist. That is why everything else, and the universe as a whole, could not have come into being or continue in being unless it depended throughout on God’s providence and power. Or so we have frequently been told in past religion and philosophy.

But there is no compelling reason, from the standpoint of Religion of Nature, to conceive of the universe as existing contingently rather than necessarily, and thus as requiring a transcendent ground and reason for its existence. If there is such a thing as necessary existence, it can apply to the universe itself rather than to God. The universe in some shape or form has always existed and always will exist, according to this view. It did not arise from nothing, nor was it created from nothing by a God. In fact, sheer nothingness is not even a meaningful conception, as is shown by the theist’s felt requirement to posit the prior existence of God. There is no need to explain the existence of the universe any more than there is need for the traditional theist to explain the existence of God.

What about the supposed Big Bang origin of our present universe, as argued for by contemporary science? Does that not strongly suggest origination out of a prior nothingness? And is that idea explicable apart from the existence of God or some sort of previously existing ground? In today’s physics, the Big Bang is not held to have originated out of sheer nothingness. Theories of its occurrence tell us that our universe resulted from fluctuations within a so-called “quantum vacuum” or empty space, or that it was a tiny cosmic nugget of incredible density and potential power. But neither the vacuum nor the space is really claimed to be completely empty or devoid of character, and the nugget is acknowledged to have previously existed. The laws of physics by which the Big Bang occurred must similarly have existed prior to its occurrence. In all these cases, something is alleged to have given rise to something else. Religion of Nature takes this way of thinking into account and is open to the possibility, if not probability, that this universe and its rapid expansion arose from the crunch or collapse of a previous universe, and that universe from another universe, and so on back into infinite time. The universe as a whole in all of its successive guises and forms has therefore always existed, and our universe is a phase of this ongoing process of the creation and destruction of universes over endless time.

For Religion of Nature, therefore, all meaningful explanations are those relating one part of the universe to some other part. The universe is the given context within which all explanations should take place. To have recourse to God is to seek to explain one alleged inexplicable mystery (the existence of the universe) in terms of another one (the claimed existence and nature of God) that is in many ways even more deeply uncertain, mysterious, and elusive. So it is not entirely clear that anything is really explained. In saying these things, I do not mean to demean or dismiss out of hand theistic belief or those who hold to it. I mean only to show that it is possible to be authentically religious and philosophically coherent in the absence of such a belief. I respect those who think differently, even though I am not swayed by their reasoning. I am seeking here to exhibit the rationale for a satisfying and fulfilling religious vision that does not require belief in God.

Is Religion of Nature a kind of pantheism?
It might seem to be the case that Religion of Nature is a kind of pantheism. Pantheism means literally that everything (pan) is God (theos). But there is no God of any sort in Religion of Nature, whether God be conceived as one with nature or whether nature be conceived as contained within God (panentheism). In other words, there is no divine spirit pervading nature and giving guidance and support to nature. Spirituality is contained within nature and provided by nature quite apart from the existence of a deity of any kind. In Religion of Nature, nature is deemed worthy of the religious devotion, loyalty, and commitment accorded to God in theistic religions. But Religion of Nature is not a theistic religion.

For people of Western and Middle Eastern cultures, long accustomed to having religion closely associated with belief in God and commitment to the will and purpose of God, it may seem strange to speak of a religious outlook that does not focus on God or assume the ultimacy of God. But there are Eastern religions that do not devote their reverence and loyalty to God but are nevertheless deeply and undeniably religious in character. Examples are Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism, and Daoism. Atheism or the absence of belief in God is not equal to non-religion, even though it is often assumed to be so here in the West. This idea is provincial and ill-informed. The increasing interdependence of various parts of the world with one another should help to disabuse us of the notion that belief in God and religion are synonymous.

To be free of this misconception is to attain an important new level of religious literacy. Religion of Nature is admittedly a godless religion, but it is not, by virtue of that fact, lacking in profound religious meaning and value. Atheism and irreligion are not one and the same, and there is no good reason to designate positive religious outlooks, that are alternatives to types of religious theism, solely with the negative epithet of atheism. This is especially so in view of the fact that nontheistic religious outlooks and commitments have nourished millions of the world’s peoples over extremely long periods of time.

Is nature not rife with indifferent danger, destruction, and waste?
It could be argued that nature is hardly fit to be the object of religious commitment. It is dark, threatening, and even terrifying in some of its manifestations and not focused directly or primarily on human well-being. It is shot through with danger, destruction, and waste. Unpredictable and hugely destructive catastrophes occur frequently in nature, sweeping everything before them: ecosystems, plants and animals, including insects, sea creatures, and humans. Examples are forest fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions, droughts, and plagues. Predatory practices abound in nature, with routine sacrifices of one life for another. Innumerable creatures—human and nonhuman alike—also die from such things as birth defects, lack of adequate food, or disease. How can such a seemingly uncaring, harshly destructive force be a candidate for religious veneration?

Apart from the fact that we could also ask such a question of a God who is said beneficently to rule the universe in which such things occur, we need to recognize that nature’s awesome power is such that its creations and its destructions go hand-in-hand. Nature’s laws are generally supportive and beneficent, but they can also have destructive effects. Moreover, laws and chance go necessarily together. The human species would not be around if nearly 99% of previous species had not become extinct, including the dinosaurs of 65 million years ago, whose extinction prepared the way for the flourishing of mammals. Momentous natural forces have carved out river valleys, upthrust and chiseled out mountain ranges, routinely rid forests of old, decrepit trees and choking understory, and so on. Ecosystems are dynamic and ever-changing, not static. Malformed creatures are born as well as normal ones, although in far less numbers.

As creatures of nature, humans can find ways sometimes to anticipate and perhaps mitigate such natural disasters, but they are part of the creative processes of nature. Everything in nature is subject to natural laws, and the human species is no exception. The destructiveness of nature is part of its majesty. And its destructiveness must be weighed in relation to its pervasive nurturing and sustaining power. As for the charge of nature’s wanton wastefulness, we should note that everything is efficiently recycled in nature, much more consistently and thoroughly than by human beings. It may seem easy to imagine a better world here on earth than the one we live in, but on reflection, it is not as easy overall as we might have thought. And we should note soberly that as precious as our human autonomy and freedom is, it also contains the seeds of disastrous evil and rampant destruction. We cannot have the gift of freedom without its potential misdirections and misuses. Even the lazy or indifferent failure to act can in many instances have disastrous consequences. Our present ecological crisis testifies to this truth.

Having noted all of this, can we imagine a better world? And would we, after careful reflection, want to live in a different world? A nature without potential disaster could not be a nature ruled in general by natural law. We could not execute our choices without the expectation of lawful regularities in the world. For example, I might try to lift a chair, wash a dish, design a machine, or bestow a kiss but find that I could not do so. Without natural laws, the world would not even be a world; it would be sheer chaos. But these regularities can, on occasion, hurt us or even kill us. Gravity and fire, for example, are of great use, but they can also have destructive and even disastrous effects. And the gift of meaningful freedom also contains within it the seed of its misuse, and even of its rampantly destructive misuse—as human history sadly testifies.

Were there no risks or uncertainties in our lives, we would have lost many of our lives’ most admirable aspects, such as the challenge of creativity accompanied by the risk of failure, courage in the face of danger, acts of temperance and honor despite temptations to the contrary, the overcoming of odds by dint of sustained effort, the effortful building of character and of a way of life in the face of an uncertain future, and the like. In fact, the very notion of freedom is unintelligible if there is no liability to make mistakes in choosing between better and worse, reasonable and unreasonable, true and untrue, and so on. I could not write this article without the assumption of my having such freedom, but my freedom exposes me to the risk of unclarity, mistakes in reasoning, and error in what I write. A world that guarantees only good outcomes would be one in which human effort and freedom could make no difference. In such a world, we humans would be robots, not persons.

With the ambiguity of the world goes genuine responsibility in and for the world. Without it, such responsibility, and in fact the very meaning, value, and importance of human life, would seem to be lost. It is highly doubtful, therefore, that we would want to live in a world devoid of ambiguity. The traditional religious depiction of heaven seems often to be oblivious to this observation. The world of nature is in many undeniable ways threatening, sobering, and precarious—replete with systematic natural evils and the doleful evils brought about by human misuses of freedom. But it is also in many other equally undeniable ways welcoming, joyful, and sustaining. The evils and the goods are woven inextricably together. The possibilities for the bad allow for innumerable, otherwise unattainable possibilities for the good.

Does nature have saving power?
Can nature provide deep and lasting assurance? Can it place rigorous, soul-searching demands on us? And can it empower us to respond effectively to such demands? These three questions encompass what it would mean to find salvation in Religion of Nature. The answer to all three is affirmative. Let us see why. The assurance that nature provides to the human spirit is aptly depicted in this essay’s epigraph, where Emerson speaks of the lovers of nature as experiencing “wild delight” in their close attunements with nature over the course of their lifetimes and of the intimate “intercourse with heaven and earth” that has become an essential part of their “daily food.” We fail to give due recognition sometimes to how extraordinary it is to be not only alive but consciously alive and to have the ability to reflect upon, marvel at, and settle gratefully into our place in the natural order. What a spectacular gift this is for any reasonably thoughtful human being! We have the assurance of being at home in nature and of being in need of no more than this cherished fact to confidently live our lives, exercise our choices, and make our contributions to our fellow humans and to other living beings of this planet.

But what about the hope of an afterlife? How can nature assure us if absolute extinction of our existence and bodily consciousness awaits us at the end of our lives? My answer to this question is that we need to free ourselves of the assumption that salvation means going to heaven when we die. For Religion of Nature, we—like all creatures of nature—have a finite span of life. We come into being and we pass away. But while we are here we can strive to make the most significant contributions we can to the ongoingness of life on earth. The meaning of our lives is measured by the quality of our experience and awareness here and now and by what we give to the earth and its creatures, not by expectation of an endless life to come. Our influences can live after us and be sown into the fabric of lives of those who come after us, humans and nonhumans alike. The emphasis throughout is not on egoistic preoccupation with endless personal survival but on doing as much with our relatively brief lives as we can for the good of others. This is privilege enough and more than gift enough.

In speaking of the importance of the contributions we can and should make to the well-being of earth and its creatures, including its other human creatures, I have already alluded to the demand aspect of salvation, as envisioned by Religion of Nature. Any so-called religion without rigorous demands is not worth the name. If it demands little or nothing of us, it can have little or no transformative power in our lives. Salvation is a gift, in this case the gift of being alive and aware, and of experiencing on every side the wonders of the natural world. But it is also a requirement, a challenge, a task—with deeds to be performed that adherents of Religion of Nature must determine for themselves, in light of each person’s particular talents and abilities. But in all cases the task should include profound care for the ecosystems of earth, especially in this time of grave ecological crisis.

In the perspective of Religion of Nature, human ethics is a subset of ecological ethics, and ecological ethics is conceived in the context of a powerfully demanding religious outlook and commitment. There is much suffering, pain, and deprivation in the nonhuman aspects of nature and among human beings, and we should devote our energies to preventing or alleviating these sufferings, pains, and deprivations as far and as appropriately as we can. Religion of Nature demands this of us. An essential part of the meaning of our lives is what we do and are called on to do to address and minister to the needs of others.

But in the midst of its strenuous demands, Religion of Nature also highlights our empowerment to respond positively and effectively to them. What is the source of this empowerment? Fundamentally, it is the love of nature in all of its aspects, a love that courses in the veins of all who are genuinely attuned to nature and deeply aware of its splendor and magnificence. This love can be awakened by the steady hum of cicadas on a warm summer night; by the rise of an orange moon in the mists of an early evening; by a snowcapped mountain range towering in the distance; by the white-capped waves of a wind-swept sea; by the playful antics of a puppy or kitten; by the light steps and easy bounds of a mule deer; by the ratta-tat-tat of a ladderbacked woodpecker on a sweet gum tree; by the sparkle and rush of a waterfall cascading over a cliff; by the miracle of birth, whether of animals or humans; by the delicately linked tendrils in the orb of a spider’s web; by the human facility for language and other forms of symbolic thought and expression; and by countless other miracles. The list is endless.

The empowerment of such love is all around us, and it dwells within us, only awaiting fuller and richer sensitization and development. If we humans lose our instinctive capacity for intense imaginative love as we grow into maturity and take on the responsibilities of adult life, as Emerson suggests we are apt to do, then this regrettable situation calls for concerted, effective cultivation of such love by every individual and cultural means available. Such cultivation is essential for every human life and for every human culture. It is deeply engrained in the rituals of Paleolithic cultures, and we have much to learn from them.

Enlivened, fully aware, childlike appreciation and imagination in the presence of the marvels of nature can have great and lasting effects for good in the world and in the lives of humans as integral parts of nature. Stimulations of nature’s empowering love are no deep secret and are not in short supply. They lie ready at hand. We have only to wake up and see, to become fully alive in order to experience their luminous meanings and to understand.

On the basis of these all-too-brief musings, I argue that the three components of religious salvation—assurance, demand, and empowerment—are readily and fully available in Religion of Nature. And I am convinced that this religious perspective should be welcomed into the world-wide family of highly significant religious outlooks and commitments. When we are deeply convinced of the truth of a particular religious outlook, as I am of this one, it is all too easy to become intolerant or even contemptuous of religious views other than one’s own. This tendency must be strongly resisted. No one religious faith, however compelling or conclusive it may seem, is adequate to capture the full range of the mysteries of life or the meanings, prospects, and demands of human existence. We can share our various perspectives and commitments even as we are centered within them. And as we do so, can continue to learn from one another and experience ongoing transformations and enhancements of our respective outlooks on the world.

Want to know more? Watch for another article on religious naturalism in the May/June 2014 issue of The Fourth R, or read this Evolution 2014 interview with Westar Fellow Lloyd Geering.

Donald A. Crosby is emeritus professor of philosophy at Colorado State University. He has expounded religious naturalism in three books: A Religion of Nature (2002), Living with Ambiguity: Religious Naturalism and the Menace of Evil (2008), and The Thou of Nature: Religious Naturalism and Reverence for Sentient Life (2013). He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.