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…