In a recent post on the NPR science/philosophy blog “13.7”, Ursula Goodenough provided a brief introduction to what has been termed “Religious Naturalism.” Taking a cue from the idea of all religions having a foundational mythos, she offers an account of naturalism that takes the scientific narrative of our cosmological history as its mythos and that seeks to explore the various dimensions of the human response to it; hence, it is “religious”.
According to the Religious Naturalism Association (RNA) website, Religious Naturalism revolves around cosmological history on three axes: interpretative, spiritual, and moral. From the site description:
The interpretive axis entails asking the Big Questions along philosophical/existential axes. How do our science-based understandings inform our experience of being a Self? What do they tell us about free will? Death? Love? The search for The Meaning of Life? Why there is anything at all rather than nothing?
The spiritual axis entails exploring inward religious responses to the Epic, including awe and wonder, gratitude, assent, commitment, humility, reverence, joy, and the astonishment of being alive at all.
The moral axis entails outward communal responses to the Epic, where our deepening understandings of the animal/primate antecedents of social sensibilities offer important resources for developing social justice and human cooperation.
It also entails an orientation that can be called ecomorality, seeking right relations between the earth and its creatures, absorbing our interrelatedness, interdependence, and responsibilities.
What makes Religious Naturalism appealing to many is that the core theologized history of traditional religion (e.g. Creation/Fall/Redemption in Christianity) has been replaced by a scientific (*real*) account of history; what actually happened. To be fair, in the pre-scientific age, many Christian thinkers considered the theologized history to be synonymous with the *real* account and
didn’t make couldn’t make a distinction between science and theology. But most contemporary open-minded people of faith understand the relative context of the biblical texts and the philosophical difference between theology and science. As a result, they do not conflate the core mythos of their religion with a scientific account of the world, but rather understand it as an interpretation (a “Big Idea”) that exceeds the limits of science. The only trouble is that the mythos has traditionally understood itself to be synonymous with the *real* story. And many religions are currently in the growing pains of a process of de-literalization, in which the mythos is being seen as itself an interpretation of history and not history/science itself. The best example of this is an excerpt from Joseph Ratzinger’s Credo For Today in his chapter entitled “Creation”:
The clay became man at that moment in which a being for the first time was capable of forming, however dimly, the thought “God”. The first “thou” that—however stammeringly—was said by human lips to God marks the moment in which spirit arose in the world. Here the Rubicon of anthropogenesis was crossed.
This is not an understanding of the world (or of Scripture) that existed 100 years ago at the Vatican, much less in the mind of the authors of Genesis. This is the result of one theologian taking science seriously and reinterpreting a foundational mythos in its light. For all catechetical purposes, the quote above has yet to seriously influence the day-to-day education of Catholics. As a result, there is often dissonance between what is taught about science and the degree to which Catholicism actually allows science to inform belief, even at the risk of trumping a well-established hermeneutical tradition.
I suspect that Religious Naturalism will continue to gain adherents in the West from 1) the “nones” – those who do not identify with a formal religious institution, value science, and struggle to find a community of the like-minded/hearted and 2) a more scientifically-minded population within monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that leave the institutions, in part, because they are perceived as being more concerned with maintaining their characteristics which cannot be rationally justified in a human rights/science-based understanding of the world (e.g. segregated worship based on sex, the ban on women’s ordination, the teaching that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered”) rather than with the full integration of science. Religious Naturalism will also gain sympathizers from members of major religions, who are not willing to abandon their traditions, but who adhere to the idea that a scientific account of the world has intrinsic value within metaphysical meta-narratives. For example, the prominence of eco-ethics and its related issues is quickly gaining popularity among Christian ethicists and will likely be the topic of Pope Francis’ next encyclical.
Religious Naturalism is not without its own philosophical critiques (lack of a coherent account of “God”, the problem of criteria, etc.), but its emphasis on a scientific account of the world as a foundational mythos instead of theological interpretations of that account is one that resonates with the spiritual values of “billions and billions” of human seekers of the truth in all things.