Religion Without Supernaturalism

Can there be religion without supernaturalism and superstition? Of course. Surely you’ve heard of religious naturalism? Now, naturalism takes various forms including but not limited to cosmological naturalism, methodological naturalism, ethical naturalism, scientistic naturalism, social naturalism, and religious naturalism. I am only concerned with the latter here.

The American philosopher and theologian Jerome A Stone offers the following definition of religious naturalism:

‘Religious naturalism may be defined as the affirmation that there are one or more aspects of the world to which religious responses are appropriate.’

Religious naturalism exists in its own right as a religious movement, and it also subsists in a number of the world’s religions including (most especially) Buddhism but even Judaism and Christianity. However, even in the case of those religions that are supernaturalistic in their orientation and thought forms, the natural world is by no means unimportant, and most religions in their earliest forms were naturalistic in orientation and thought form. Indeed, as David Suzuki has pointed out:

‘All religions explore the place of people in the natural and social worlds around them. They provide explanations for mysteries such as death and disorder, and use myths and moral teachings to relate human and nonhuman spheres. The earliest forms of contemporary world religions, such as Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, presented an animated, integrated world similar to that of traditional worldviews. As Lao Tzu puts it in the Tao Te Ching:

“The virtue of the universe is wholeness,
It regards all things as equal.”

But some of those world religions have shifted ground over the past centuries, supporting the development of a very different picture of reality and our place in it.’

The prominent progressive Christian theologian James Luther Adams saw Jesus as a leading exponent of naturalistic religion, at least as regards his teachings and his methods of teaching. Despite the assertions of many in the mainstream churches, Jesus for the most part used a rational method of analogy---he always taught in parables, and taught nothing but parables---appealing to empirical experience self-evident to any Jew, gentile, or Samaritan. You may also recall that when the Scribes and Pharisees went to Jesus, asking that he show them a ‘sign’---that is, some miracle (whatever that word means)---so that they might be convinced he was a true prophet, Jesus said to them, ‘Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign’ (Mt 16:4).

Jesus left them and went away, but he made it clear that the only ‘miracle’ that can attest a prophet’s teachings to be true is the change---a change for good, that is---that the prophet makes in the hearts of his hearers. I could give you many other examples in the scriptures of where Jesus repudiated the proposition that a belief in the supernatural is necessary in order to attest to spiritual truth. The English poet and critic Matthew Arnold wrote,’ Suppose I could change the pen with which I write this into a pen-wiper, I should not make what I wrote any the truer or more convincing.’

Insofar as the Jewish scriptures are concerned, a Baptist minister, the Rev Geoffrey Thomas, has rightly noted:

‘There were just three periods of miraculous activity during the Old Testament dispensation. There were virtually no wonders wrought by Abraham and the patriarchs, or the judges, nothing during the reign of David, in the period of Isaiah and Jeremiah, or at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. The first period of miracles was during the exodus from Egypt, and the second was under the prophesyings of Elijah and Elisha, and finally in the Old Testament during the time of Daniel in Babylon there were some extraordinary signs.’

Even the prophecies contained in the Hebrew Bible were not really about fore-telling but about forth-telling, that is, speaking out on issues immediately at hand. Enough said.

For religious naturalists such as the cell biologist Ursula Goodenough and the philosopher Donald Crosby nature is both ultimate reality and a religiously ultimate object in and of itself. In the words of Professor Crosby:

‘I regard nature as both ultimate reality and as religiously ultimate. There is nothing beyond it, outside of it, or over against it that is needed to explain its origin, continuing existence, or irrepressible creativity. Nature itself, without a God, Goddess, gods, or animating personal spirits of any kind, is for me an appropriate and, indeed, the most appropriate focus of religious commitment and concern especially for our ecologically conscious times. Thus, I am neither a monotheist, a polytheist, a pantheist, a panentheist, nor an animist, and yet I claim profound religious value and meaning for the immanent, self-contained powers of nature admittedly impersonal though they be that produce, suffuse, and sustain us and all other forms of being.’

Religious naturalists are not all a bunch of godless pagans or earth worshippers. They may be ‘God people’ or ‘non-God people.’ As to the former, Professor Goodenough, who incidentally belongs to the latter, has written:

‘There are two flavors of God people: those whose God is natural and those whose God is supernatural. Certainly there are a lot of people within religious naturalism who have no problem with God language - God as love, God as evolution, God as process. People see God as part of nature and give God-attributes to the part of nature that they find most sacred. I encounter people like that all the time.’

However, few modern religious naturalists would view nature itself as ‘God.’ Most religious naturalists don’t deify the universe. In his book The Humanist Way Edward L Ericson writes:

‘The philosophical and religious naturalist refuses to divert human idealism and effort to the vain and untestable attempt to account for the existence of reality as a whole by postulating some external ‘divine’ or ‘supernatural’ power that, as popular religious supernaturalism contends, must be propitiated and worshipped. The naturalist sees no ground for supposing such a being to exist, or for investing human resources in pursuit of a will-of-the-wisp so footless in logic or meaning.’

Religious conservatives, even a few religious liberals, and many militant atheists object to claims by religious naturalists from time to time that the latter are ‘religious’ and have ‘religious faith,’ but the phenomenon of religious naturalism is nothing new. With its historical roots going as far back as Baruch Spinoza in the second half of the 17th century---not to mention its long association with and embodiment in various eastern religions---the phenomenon now known as religious naturalism has a long, well-established and, for the most part, distinguished history, particularly in the United States of America. Its ‘spokespersons’ include such notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Mordecai Kaplan, George Santayana, John Dewey, and Henry Nelson Wieman (who called his belief-system ‘naturalistic theism’). William James, although not a religious naturalist in the strict sense, nevertheless favoured empirically-based naturalistic reinterpretations of supposedly supernaturalistic phenomena.

Naturalistic religious faith----faith being understood as living with courage, confidence, and hope---involves all of the key elements of a supernaturalistic religious faith, such as piety, awe, reverence, devotion, mystery and surrender, contains elements of both immanence and transcendence, and satisfies the tests of both ultimacy and intimacy. Further, religious naturalism is and can genuinely claim to be concerned about what is truly sacred---life itself. Show me anything more wonderful than that!

Any attempt to define or otherwise understand religion that does not take into account the phenomenon of religious naturalism is bound to be inadequate not to mention downright misleading.

I mentioned the words ‘immanence’ and ‘transcendence’ above. Can those terms really apply to religious naturalism? I think they can. Donald Crosby sees immanence and transcendence as being the two things that permit appreciation or recognition of a thing being a religion, and he has demonstrated that religious naturalism satisfies both of those things. Its immanence can be found in its rejection of all notions of supernaturalism and its repudiation of all theories of intelligent design or underlying purpose, while its transcendence is three-fold: first, we human beings, as ‘creatures of nature,’ have the capacity for self-transcendence; secondly, there occur transformative events that transcendent our expectations and lie outside or beyond our conscious will or control; and, thirdly, there is the transcendence, both in time and space, of nature itself over human beings, together with our utter dependence upon nature for the continuance of our lives both physically and otherwise.

I have often written that supernaturalism is the enemy of all true religion and all that is good and meaningful in it. There, I’ve just said it again.

Note. The substance of this article first appeared as a post on the author’s own blog on 29 August 2014.