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What Is Spiritual Naturalism?

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Spiritual naturalism, also called Religious Naturalism, is a path that finds deep inspiration in nature. It holds that modern science is the best way to understand nature, and that nature is worthy of the kind of awe and reverence traditionally reserved for God or gods.

Spiritual naturalism embraces modern science. The scientific method has made remarkable discoveries, revealing an orderly and breath-taking universe. It is the best way we have at present to discover our world. In light of this, adherents reject supernatural conceptions of “God,” “gods,” “spirits,” “magic,” and the like.

At the same time, they feel something like the feeling traditionally called “religious.” The universe revealed by science is not just orderly, but beautiful beyond comparison. From the wonder of the butterfly’s chrysalis to the terrible power of the black hole, the universe is awe-inspiring. Before it, one may feel the mysterium tremendum described by Rudolf Otto. Thus, the universe is worthy of being called divine. Without any supernaturalism, the universe that we can see and touch and feel is sacred.

These are the two core ideas of spiritual naturalism: science and spirituality. There is much variety among adherents about how exactly to work out the balance between them. Varieties generally fall into two groups: those who embrace religious language and practice, and those who do not.

Those who embrace traditional religious language, albeit under a naturalistic interpretation, include the various “humanistic” varieties of religions, such as Humanistic Judaism, Humanistic Buddhism, Christian Humanism, and Humanistic Paganism. Some forms of Pantheism may also fit in this category.

Those who reject all that smacks of traditional religion, and speak only of awe and reverence for nature, tend to go by terms like “spiritual naturalism,” “religious naturalism,” “spiritual humanism,” or “religious humanism.” Many emerging authors are bringing this perspective to life, such as Ursula Goodenough, Chet Raymo, Loyal Rue, Jerome Stone, Michael Hogue, and Donald Crosby.

That is a solid, if brief, overview of Spiritual Naturalism. Its two core ideas are embrace of modern science and an attitude of awe and reverence toward nature. While this does not do justice to the great variety and nuance of views, it provides a basic launching point from which to explore this exciting movement in spirituality.

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About B. T. Newberg

  • http://www.pantheism.net Paul Harrison

    The above perspective appears to be absolutely identical with Naturalistic Pantheism, the position of the World Pantheist Movement, which has been prominent on the Internet since 1996. Are there any differences, other than the name?

  • http://humanisticpaganism.com B. T. Newberg

    >The above perspective appears to be absolutely identical with Naturalistic Pantheism, the position of the World Pantheist Movement, which has been prominent on the Internet since 1996. Are there any differences, other than the name?

    Yes, apparently there are differences. In theory, they may not look so different. But in practice, if you look at the WPM, and then look at the traditions listed here such as Humanistic Judaism or Humanistic Paganism, the differences should become more visible. Can you honestly see Humanistic Jews or Pagans feeling comfortable in the WPM?

    I can only speak for Pagans, since that’s my community. While the WPM does not reject Pagans and in fact actively recruits them, many Pagans seem to feel their focus on ritual and mythical language is unwelcome, and end up directed toward the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo list, effectively frozen out of the WPM.

  • http://www.pantheism.net Paul Harrison

    There’d be no problem with Humanistic Paganism or Naturalistic Paganism, except in cases where people appear to be taking the symbols with an intensity that’s much stronger than their interest in the underlying realities of Nature and the wider Universe. We focus on the latter.

    However those pagans who simply like the fun, the dressing up and so on are welcome and there are plenty of them.

    We don’t have a problem with people who combine, eg, aspects of Buddhist practice with Naturalistic Pantheist beliefs.

    We don’t have a problem with people celebrating the traditional holidays of their individual cultures.

    Are you saying that spiritual naturalism can have, as it were, factions like pagan spiritual naturalists, buddhist spiritual naturalists etc?

    I guess it’s the difference between starting out as a coalition, and starting out with a specific clear identity.

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. So far the “big umbrella” approach or RN has not had a wide popular appeal. Will it have more appeal with the new name do you think?

  • http://humanisticpaganism.com B. T. Newberg

    >Are you saying that spiritual naturalism can have, as it were, factions like pagan spiritual naturalists, buddhist spiritual naturalists etc?

    Yes. For example, check out the new Spiritual Naturalist Society organized by DT Strain. As far as I have ever known, Spiritual Naturalism, also called Religious Naturalism, is as you say a “big umbrella” coalition-type approach.

    >So far the “big umbrella” approach or RN has not had a wide popular appeal. Will it have more appeal with the new name do you think?

    I don’t think it’s a new name. Spiritual Naturalism and Religious Naturalism seem to be synonyms, and people use them according to their preference. As far as whether it will achieve wide popular appeal, I think that largely depends on whether it can develop effective shared symbols and emotionally-gratifying community-bonding rituals/ceremonies/meetings.

    >However those pagans who simply like the fun, the dressing up and so on are welcome and there are plenty of them.

    It most certainly goes deeper than such a superficial level as that implies. It is not “dress up”, it is not “fun.” Our symbols and rituals move us and change our lives. We do not invoke any supernatural or non-scientific content, to the best of our ability. Our symbols and rituals are psychological in nature.

    Note this does *not* hold true for the larger Pagan community. I’m specifically talking about naturalists.

    >There’d be no problem with Humanistic Paganism or Naturalistic Paganism, except in cases where people appear to be taking the symbols with an intensity that’s much stronger than their interest in the underlying realities of Nature and the wider Universe. We focus on the latter.

    You might try joining the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo group, and asking people about their experiences with the WPM. It might be enlightening.

  • http://www.pantheism.net Paul Harrison

    I am familiar with the Nat Pag yahoo group and I am a member. In fact I invited the group creator Jon Host to be a WPM director at one point. He was too busy at the time, but he has written for our magazine Pan.
    I concede that there have been a few instances with poor outcomes and those people we specifically referred to the Nat Pag group.
    The WPM is not a pagan organization, and in a few cases (two that I can recall) pagans have wanted to have a pagan group inside our social network. Once we start this, there would be no reason to refuse a group to others such as Buddhists or even liberal non-theist Christians.
    Our goal is eventually to develop our own shared symbols and community-bonding traditions/calendar customs etc, rather than becoming a patchwork quilt of diverse group practices that might have difficulty gelling into a compelling whole.

  • http://humanisticpaganism.com B. T. Newberg

    >Our goal is eventually to develop our own shared symbols and community-bonding traditions/calendar customs etc, rather than becoming a patchwork quilt of diverse group practices that might have difficulty gelling into a compelling whole.

    How have you been coming on that? I am a member of the ning but I don’t get to follow discussions as much as I’d like.

  • http://www.pantheism.net Paul Harrison

    There is a kind of outline of meeting formats, a list of suggested traditions, and a calendar of significant dates.
    Our original “non-plan” was for local groups to devise their own preferred formats and not to push any central approach.
    However, without any strong central guidance, things have not developed much at all.
    On top of that it’s clear that we have probably a majority of friends and members who feel no strong need for anything resembling ceremony, nor any strong impulse to create local groups.
    That’s the trouble with Naturalistic Pantheism – you can just go on a hike, hug a tree, pet an animal and you already get high rewards.
    The beliefs are so obvious and in plain sight that people do not need the confirmation of others to maintain their set of implausible beliefs.
    I think in future there will have to be more central guidance but it will always be in the form of suggestions not requirements.

  • http://www.pantheism.net Paul Harrison

    I’d like to ask you B. T. how you envisage Spiritual Naturalism, as a sort of coalition of different traditions, developing “effective shared symbols and emotionally-gratifying community-bonding rituals/ceremonies/meetings.”

  • http://humanisticpaganism.com B. T. Newberg

    >I’d like to ask you B. T. how you envisage Spiritual Naturalism, as a sort of coalition of different traditions, developing “effective shared symbols and emotionally-gratifying community-bonding rituals/ceremonies/meetings.”

    Good question. Those would be best developed by the individual traditions within the coalition. For example, Naturalistic Paganism would have different symbols and rituals than Secular Buddhism, etc. At the level of the coalition, there would be shared values. At the level of traditions, shared symbols and rituals.

    That seems to be consistent with the ideas of other writers in Religious Naturalism. Loyal Rue, for example, speaks of RN as a sort of meta-myth connecting various naturalistic traditions, and DT Strain’s Spiritual Naturalist Society brings together various such traditions without expecting them to merge their symbols. Generally speaking, writers on RN have put a lot of effort toward articulating values and almost none toward symbols and rituals. Hence the value of a community like Humanistic Paganism. :-)