Religious Naturalism

Religious naturalism is an emerging viewpoint on religion and science that, on the surface, attracts me deeply. Yet I feel I can’t really embrace it.

It has lots of good points (in my opinion):

  • It seeks knowledge through scientific discovery, and celebrates what we have learned as a culture from investigating the world. It does not claim an authority or a tradition (therefore all of these points are somewhat dependent on which religious naturalist you read).
  • It finds beauty, meaningfulness and purpose in humanity (it is therefore a humanistic faith).
  • It does not make claims for the existence of supernatural forces or beings of any kind. It (correctly, I think) says that if anything were entirely beyond the physical world, it would be entirely unknowable, and therefore irrelevant.
  • It celebrates all kinds of positive subjective experiences.
  • It acknowledges that we have subjective experiences that could be called ‘spiritual’ (the term is a problem I know, and I’ll come back to it) or ‘transcendent’. It is encouraging of such experiences, to the extent we want to have them. It is therefore a big one-up on the kind of atheism that suggests anything even remotely similar to religious experience is BS.

But it has a major drawback for me: Those who consider themselves religious naturalists use theistic terminology, reinterpreted as metaphor. They are mostly happy to talk about ‘God’ (the sum totality of truth). Or the human ‘soul’ (our subjective inclination) or even things like ‘reincarnation’ (we’re just part of the biosphere) or a ‘creator’ (emergent behavior).

It is isn’t necessary, I don’t think. In fact, I think it is problematic. It feels almost as if religious naturalists are ashamed of their atheism and want to hide it under the blanket of theistic fog that permeates our culture.

I think there are ways to understand God as an atheist (hopefully I’ll post some of the work I’m doing on the theology of atheism), but changing the definition of the word isn’t a helpful one.

Its a shame. Because I read all this stuff and I feel myself drawn in, enjoying and sympathizing. And then wham, the G word comes up, and the mood is lost. Like a lover calling out the wrong name…



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7 responses to “Religious Naturalism

  1. Pingback: Let’s Take Believers Seriously | Irreducible Complexity

  2. Here we are again, you are on a language theme. (I just commented on the “taking seriously post” — I am skipping around)

    I agree that I am uncomfortable with the language of religious naturalism.

    “Uncomfortable!” Because language comes with emotions I do not like. It almost seems like a trojan horse waiting for all the bad things I feel comes with those words to crawl out.
    It is as if I would be willing to compromise on language (which is exactly what language is) but I fear the troops running out of the belly of that horse. But more immediate, I am just not fond of the words.

    It seems our emotional reflexes are rather similar !

  3. Like a lover calling out the wrong name…(Ian)

    Lol. This reminded me of a joke.

    “I would rather her calling out his name, while Im at it, rather than her calling out my name while he’s at it.”


  4. Ian

    @t4t 😀 Love it.

    @sabio. Yup. I’m with you there. Also there is a dimension that I don’t necessarily want to hang out with the kinds of people I think will be attracted to those words. I’d like the words to be the right kind of exclusive. I don’t think Religious Naturalist terminology divide the population where I want the axe to fall 🙂

  5. atimetorend

    Possibly related post, from your side of the pond:

  6. i like Polkinghorne and Aquinas, two big natural theologians. i don’t read them as closeted atheists but taking an empirical route in their encounter with the divine. when you hear Polkinghorne describe the beauty of math and the order of the universe, you’d agree that there is a controlling force that we don’t know what to name it.. so we name it God. if we had to go further, we’d name it “the greatness of all things” or “that which is beyond the beyond” or “that to which all things return.” (reading too much Taoism for class 🙂 that’s verse 25).

  7. Ian

    @Luke – yes I posted today on different forms of borderline atheism. I think a lot of religious naturalists would deny there is a controlling force, that may stray some way to being panentheist, but I think the categories are fluid. I was more thinking of people like Goodenough and Kauffman when I wrote this. And writing this comment has reminded me why I hate classifications.

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