Of Old Trees, Stardust And Moments of Wonder: A Short Introduction To Religious Naturalism…


“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.
Try to make sense of what you see,
and wonder about what makes the universe exist.
Be curious”
(Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018)

“The sense of wonder, that is our sixth sense.
And it is the natural religious sense”
(D. H. Lawrence)

Stand under a big old tree and look up.

(The tallest trees in Australia are all eucalypts, of which there are more than 700 species. While Australia’s oldest tree is a clonal male Lagarostrobos franklinii, Huon Pine, in Tasmania that is 10,500+ years old, with individual stems 1,000 to 2,000 years old).1

Can you see the passing of time in its gnarled trunk? The network of bugs and insects burrowing into bark and foraging in leaves? Wildlife taking refuge in nests and leaf-lined hollows? Bacteria helping to nourish it with nitrogen?

Big old tress have always fascinated me. Right from the time as a young boy I learnt to climb some of their more juvenile and smaller offspring on our annual camping adventures to The Grampians (Gariwerd) in country Victoria. Now, big old trees are disappearing – fast. And their disappearance is threatening several endangered species such as the South Eastern Red-tailed Black cockatoo. Yet our very existence is rooted in the fundamental processes of trees and cockatoos and the universe itself.


Over the past two decades there has been a new ‘old’ kid developing on the progressive religiosity/ ethical block. It is a movement called Religious Naturalism. While it may be new to many it has a long pedigree, stretching from Christian medieval times through to today where it has been preserved within the academy, within pockets of Unitarian Universalist spirituality, in sections of the reformulation of Christian theology congruent with current scientific cosmologies,2 and sometimes overlapping within aspects of Religious Humanism. And centuries before all these when we take into consideration indigenous peoples nature-centric songlines or Dreaming stories that celebrate the sacred earth as the Kunapipi, ‘earth mother’.

Some of today’s advocates—Jerome Stone, Loyal Rue, Ursula Goodenough, Donald Crosby3, to name just a few—often describe it as the ‘forgotten’ religious alternative. Its resurgence has been helped by the establishment in 2014 of the >500 persons online-only Religious Naturalist Association (with membership from 28 countries) and the traction its resources and this communal connection offers. It has even made it on to one of the newer agendas of the Westar Institute: the ‘Seminar on God and the Human Future’.

As I begin let me offer a caveat or three:

i. I offer this Introduction admitting I am a self-professed non-theist religious naturalist,
ii. such personal thoughts about Religious Naturalism (RN) and its future are cast within a so-called largely ‘Christian’ society and perspective, and
iii. when one surveys the broad scope of religious thought and practice, religious naturalism in its many varieties, plays an established but small role. Maybe this is because “to date it has evolved as a fairly abstract intellectual program.” (Gulick 2018)

The ‘Lynn White’ Challenge to Traditional Religion…

In what has become a “highly debated and frequently misunderstood” lecture, professor of medieval history at Princeton University, Lynn Townsend White Jr, delivered his ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’ lecture in December 1966. It was published later in the journal Science, several months before Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon.

Citing the biblical Genesis creation story White suggested that the Judeo-Christian theological attack on so-called pagan religion effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning. Indeed, Christianity replaced the belief that the ‘sacred’ is in rivers and trees with the doctrine that the god G-o-d is a disembodied spirit whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth. White argued:

i. The Bible asserts [hu]man’s dominion over nature and establishes a trend of anthropocentrism;
ii. Christianity makes a distinction between [hu]man (formed in god’s image) and the rest of creation, which has no “soul” or “reason” and is thus.

The impact of ‘orthodox’ religious teaching tended to empty the biosphere of any sense of g-o-d’s presence in natural things. White continued:

“By destroying pagan [religions], Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” (Lynn White)

In this sense the ecological crisis—global warming, irreversible ozone depletion, massive deforestation, higher than acceptable methane gas concentrations—he went on to suggest, is fundamentally a spiritual crisis, even indicating “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.” (Lynn White)

What is Religious Naturalism?

The term religious naturalism will strike some as an oxymoron, because we have grown accustomed to sensing religious as books and clericalism and big, cumbersome institutions, plus belief in supernaturalism, while naturalism often has an anti-religious perspective to it, if not, atheism. Be that as it may, RN has two central aspects, presented in either its negative or positive version. One is an appreciation of religion with a view that nature can be a focus of religious attention. The other is a naturalist view of how things happen in the world—in which the natural world is all there is, and that nothing other than natural may cause events in the world—“a robust religious/spiritual life without recourse to the supernatural, whether deity, soul, or heaven.” (Stone 2018:7)

Naturalists adopt the scientific account as their core narrative with full recognition that these understandings will certainly deepen and may shift with further scientific enquiry. They do not select features of the story that support preferred theories of nature. Hence some tend to call themselves knowers rather than believers.

Characteristics of Religious Naturalism…

We are Earthlings. We have a special connection to our planet… ’out of the stars have we come.’ We are made of the rarest material in the universe: stardust. In the words of Connie Barlow, one half of the Dowd/Barlow ‘Thank God for Evolution’ team,

“Tell me a creation story more wondrous than that of a living cell forged from the residue of exploding stars. Tell me a story of transformation more magical than that of a fish hauling out onto land and becoming amphibian, or a reptile taking to the air and becoming bird, or a mammal slipping back into the sea and becoming whale. Surely this science-based culture of all cultures can find meaning and cause for celebration in its very own cosmic creation story.” (Quoted in Dowd 2009:142)

The human story and the universe story are the same story. We are not encapsulated, separated, isolated beings. We are fully linked with our surroundings in time, space, matter/energy, and causality, and where the metaphor of ‘web’ is used to describe this interrelatedness4 —we create the web and the web creates us. Within the relational web we are also self-creative and thereby transform the web, for better or worse.5 As earth-creatures we do not live in straight lines; we truly do exist in a web, a network, a maze… from which there is no escape. When the relationality is mutually supportive, and not distorted, we truly can speak of “‘mazing grace’.” (Larry Axel)

Whatever we are, the universe is. For just as the Milky Way is the universe in the form of a galaxy, and an orchid is the universe in the form of a flower,

“we are the universe in the form of a human. And every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself.” (Swimme & Tucker 2011:2)

We are also storytellers. Even informavores—hungry for information. Our life is a bundle of stories, mostly half-finished.6 Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition, according to philosopher Daniel Dennett,

“is not spinning webs or building dams, but telling stories, and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others—and ourselves—about who we are.”
(Dennett 1991)

Many are oral narratives. Others form part of printed literature; even help shape ritual and liturgy. All religious traditions have their remote origins in the oral past and many have made a great deal of the spoken word. Both scientists and religious thinkers are involved in telling stories “as human beings travel to the moon, lead a civil rights movement, carry out a revolution, or travel a road to Jerusalem and death on a cross.” (Peters 1997)  Of importance is the need for those same storytellers to be truth tellers!

i. Naturalist views, where the scientific ‘grand story’ of nature, different from the biblical story and founded not on revelation but on carefully formulated theory—‘measurement to an astonishing degree of precision, and repeated experimentation’—serves as the starting point and provides a framework for understanding what seems real. These include a central narrative, the Epic of Evolution, that explains that everything in the cosmos shares a common heritage and that everything is interconnected, including us humans. We not only depend on nature and are a part of nature, we also profoundly influence the natural world of which we are a part.

What greater gift can there be than to be a species endowed with the capacity to perceive, comprehend, and align itself with the very forces that have governed our universe for more than 13 billion years? suggests religious studies professor David Braxton in an extended quote:

“To wrap one’s mind around the immensities of space and time is to feel awe, wonder, and humility. To see how a small planet adrift in space could have nurtured in its bosom the grand experiment that is life is to peek into Darwin’s ‘mystery of mysteries.’ To test our eyes upon the landscapes of our lives and to understand how they have enabled the formation of creatures such as us is to sense a surging loyalty to the sustained vitality of these life-giving ecosystems. Evolution outlines the grand arc of cosmic events. It forms the incredible journey the world has undergone such that we improbable creatures could emerge. It informs us of the grounds of our ecological citizenship.” (Braxton 2007:332)

ii. Religious orientation includes spiritual responses, which can include feelings of appreciation, gratitude, humility, reverence, and joy at the wonder of being alive. Wonder and awe, although not the only possible responses when contemplating the immense scale of matter, space, and time, is surely appropriate once we realise we belong to something so very far beyond us. Such naturalistic wonder and awe counts as deeply

All responses are adopted from the core scientific narrative and explored developing interpretive, spiritual, and moral/ethical responses to the narrative. “Importantly,” suggests cell biologist Ursula Goodenough,

“these responses are not front-loaded into the story as they are in the [religious] traditions. Therefore, the religious naturalist engages in a process, both individually and in the company of fellow explorers, to discover and experience them. These explorations are informed and guided by the mindful understandings inherent in our human traditions, including art, literature, philosophy and the religions of the world.” (Goodenough 2014:2)

Briefly put: religious naturalism is the child of both religion and science—where both are not taken uncritically. Those who question such welcomed linkage, claim:

“[S]cience is not the same thing as nature, and to study the former is not to experience the latter. Nor is the study of the former necessarily conducive to seeking out experiences of the latter.” (Sideris 2015:147)

But advocates of RN argue against such a division: that scientific knowledge devalues nature, counter-claiming it enhances and illuminates the wonder and beauty of reality. It’s honouring nature

‘all the way down’. And who go on to explore “the interpretive/spiritual/ethical implications of these understandings.” (Goodenough 2015:176)

So gathering up some characteristics of the movement as religious naturalism “engages the religious and moral urgencies of the present” (Hogue 2010:ix), religious naturalism:

* is a humble religious path/movement that decentralises the human species within the infinitely broader metaphysical and aesthetic rhythms of the Universe;

* is a way of knowing that reveres the wisdom of collective human experience and reason more highly than any single sacred book or tradition;

* is a quest for wisdom from wherever it may come: from the symbols, myths and rituals of the world’s diverse religious traditions, from literature and the arts, from the intricate splendours of indigenous knowledges to the mind-bending ways of the modern sciences. (Michael Hogue)

And then this important additional comment from Hogue:

“For religious naturalism, there is no ‘outside’ of revelation—the whole of the cosmos rings with it, from the subatomic to the interstellar, from the unicellular to the civilizational.” (Michael Hogue)

Such a narrative stands in contract to traditional religions that have a core narrative or mythos,7 usually recorded in texts or oral accounts. Interpretations of each account are embedded in the core narrative and liberated (or controlled) by authorised clergy or interpreters, spiritual responses are elicited via symbols and liturgies, and moral/ethical edicts are built into the fabric of the narrative.

Who is a Religious Naturalist?

The capacity of the natural world to inspire a religious response from humans has long been recognised—even before the new level of stunning cinematographic visualisations as in David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet 1 & 2 and before that, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.8

Thus there is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions. “If we can go to special places, built by humans, which are designated as sacred,” writes Jerome Stone,

“surely we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognized as sacred… There is a strong monotheistic tradition of cutting down the sacred groves. What we need is to realise that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship… but is rather the acknowledgement of the awesome, and the overriding and the overwhelming.”
(Stone 1997)

Some RNs come to religious naturalism as refugees from traditional religious orientations. Others come as seekers “who are drawn by the promise of finding new layers of meaning in their experience of the natural world.” (Rue 2018:260) So with the help of some friends and drawing on RN resources, let me address a common question: ‘who is a religious naturalist?’ In so doing I offer four (4) ‘wisdom principles’ (the religious bit) coupled with five (5) short statements (the naturalist bit).

A religious naturalist:

i. explores more than one religious tradition, especially in this pluralistic day and age;
ii. seeks to discover the counterpoint between divergent themes within a religious tradition rather than glossing over them;
iii. acknowledges such exploration needs to go beyond the ‘official’ interpretations stated by any tradition—boundaries need to be pushed, and where necessary, reconstructed; iv. encourages an ‘openness’ or dialogue… where both the self and the tradition is challenged to learn and to:

A religious naturalist:

i. holds a naturalist view of how things are in the world;
ii. sees themselves as religious (or spiritual), in non-traditional ways, as they absorb the wonder of being alive and the order and beauty of the cosmos;
iii. asks “What is?” and “What matters?” questions, seeking wisdom from natural (rather than supernatural) sources, including science, art, literature, philosophy, and world religions—appreciating ancient stories as metaphor or myth, rather than as literally true;
v. respects things that clearly matter, such as ecological stability and social justice;
v. seeks to learn from and care about the natural world, including its
And in what might sound like the beginnings of an ‘open’ definition, Goodenough suggests a

religious naturalist:

“seeks to synthesise his/her interpretive, spiritual, and moral responses to the natural world into a coherent whole, a synthesis that functions as his/her version of religious naturalism, where the vocabulary, metaphors, and meanings that emerge from that search are not expected to conform to some external received credo.”
(Goodenough et.al. 2018:311)

Neighbouring Movements…

Scholars who work within the RN movement indicate there are a number of related or overlapping movements. Briefly:

i. Religious Humanism – a focus on this world and rejection of the notions of G-o-d, soul, and heaven, with a devotion to human
ii. Process Theology – speaks of G-o-d as ‘immanent’, rather than ‘naturalist’.
iii. Pantheism – the identification of G-o-d or the divine with the whole
iv. Gaia Movement – uses religious language of the entire universe(s) rather than just planet

At-homeness in Nature as ‘Main Game’…

Nature and naturalism are for us today ‘the main game’ for any progressive spirituality despite the continuing influence of old-stream ‘revealed’ religion centered on Belief with a capital ‘B’.

If we think back over the past two centuries and recount the ways scientific knowledge has impacted our lives, what would top the list? I would suggest the recognition that nature is constitutive of who and what we are as human beings. Given a chance, the cosmic evolution story is too compelling, too beautiful, too edifying, and too liberating to fail in captivating the imagination of a vast majority of humankind.

We are not encapsulated, separated, isolated beings. Whatever we are, the universe is.

“The history of the universe is our history; we are all of us recycled stardust… Our very existence is rooted in the fundamental processes of the universe itself. How can we not stand in awe before the fact of our emergence as a consequence of those same vast processes that created galaxies and suns and stars and planets?” (Bumbaugh 2003)

I return to the wisdom of cell biologist and self-confessed religious naturalist, Ursula Goodenough.

She offers this powerful scenario of our at-homeness in nature…

“That we possess as part of our genetic heritage an aesthetic for the natural is readily affirmed by taking a young child for a walk in the woods or by the sea and witnessing her innate delight in all she beholds. The delight has little to do with sunsets or vistas, with order or pattern or purpose. The delight is with the particular: the ladybug crawling on the rock, the fuzzy moss, the tickly dune grass, the mucky mud by the river. Children connect with the immediate and become a part of it. The mud isn’t messy, or rather, its messiness is what makes it wonderful. Children are inherently attuned to Nature.”
(Goodenough 2001:26, Goodenough (n.d)

Horizontal transcendence. Natural not supernatural. Responding “to the nature of nature with attunement and participation and delight” in an environment “that is ongoing, changing, and unpredictable”. An experience animated by a sense of wonder, belonging, and relatedness.

We need to learn to love, not just nature in general, but a particular wetlands, outcrop of Bush Mahoganies, native grasses, granite mountain rocks, or red sand dunes. Not to ‘conquer’, but in the words of a Chinese Taoist philosopher, to ‘befriend’. As I have written elsewhere… “For me, discovering the sacred is looking carefully at… our ordinary daily events:

i. in the click-clack of two branches knocking together in the wind…
ii. in the realisation that rain is not a singular thing but made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and ..
iii. in the flares of a friend’s passion to shape peace and justice with a new vision of ‘commonwealth’…
iv. in the acorn whack on a machinery shed roof, or the love-making songs of the Green Grocer cicadas…”

But it is also important, as a UK colleague reminds us, to push strongly against any sentimental reading of nature. Nature does not always wear a naturing Mother Earth face — she sometimes wears the face of Mars, god of war and destruction in the form of earthquake, storm, fire, war and disease. My colleague writes: “We must never forget that, even as it may be for some of us religiously ultimate and worthy of our religious loyalty, ’nature naturing’ is always morally ambiguous.” (Andrew Brown)

For what it is worth, the title of Goodenough’s article is ‘Evolution is Not About Survival of the Fittest But About Fitting In’… So, as a parallel thought: religious naturalism is not about helping the traditional institutional church to survive. The dominate ‘church’ theology—especially in its Australian Protestant version—seems embalmed in conservative neo-orthodoxy and traditionalism,9 displaying a great reluctance to change.10 On the other hand many secular Australians are just not attracted to the existing churches in any form. My Canadian colleague, Gretta Vosper’s criticism11 is much more pointed:

“I don’t believe that the myth that has informed, directed, grounded, persuaded, and soothed us for the last couple of millennia is a story that can take us much further along our evolutionary trail.” (Vosper 2013)

She goes on to claim that in the light of both science and reason most of the myths that have sustained the human family and church theology are being found wanting “and those who have held to them are increasingly disillusioned, frustrated, and angered when they no longer work for them.” (Vosper 2013) In denominational terms when membership is declining, often rapidly, that makes the traditional institutional church almost certainly terminal. “I have no illusions about where the church is headed,” adds Vosper…

“like all Christian denominations, it will either wear itself out or veer back, dramatically, to the right and become, as religion always does, a sedative in the coming trauma of human existence. That sounds bleak. It is.” (Vosper 2017)

Religious Naturalism and Progressive Christianity…

How amenable is Christianity, in its ‘progressive’ guise, to religious naturalism? Let me approach four subjects: (i) the god G-o-d, (ii) the sage Yeshu’a/Jesus, and even more briefly, (iii) the Cultural, and (iv) the Ethical/Moral.
i. On the god G-o-d…

Twenty-first century cosmology creates a huge ‘housing problem’ for the god G-o-d. Challenging most G-o-d thought, past and present, Karl Peters suggests a g-o-d beyond an ever more rapidly expanding universe is no longer conceivable. But neither:

“is God within the universe—if God is conceived of as some kind of being, force, energy, or spiritual reality that exists along-side the physical world. The current scientific story of creation, and its physicalism makes it impossible to locate God as a distinct reality within or separate from the world as known by today’s science.”
(Peters 2018:238)

The god G-o-d (with or without the capital G) is not an identifiable thing ‘over there’.
Religious naturalism does not require a belief in the god G-o-d although it may include belief in G- o-d naturalistically conceived. For many religious naturalists the intellectual component of religious life takes the form of insight rather than specific beliefs. Allowing for the different meanings attached to language the ‘naturalism’ represented by current advocates is diverse. Generally speaking they can be grouped as:

i. those who think of G-o-d as the totality of the universe considered religiously;
ii. those who conceive of G-o-d as the creative process within the universe;
iii. those who think of G-o-d as the sum of human ideals, and
iv. those who see no need to use the concept or terminology of G-o-d yet can still be called religious.12

I admit that for much of the past 50 years my own progressive theological formation has been shaped by those whose thinking closely resembles No. (ii) G-o-d as the ceaseless creativity within the two trillion galaxies large universe we know. But having been ‘poked’ by some colleagues, a personal question niggles away: if the word G-o-d adds little to nothing to an understanding or appreciation of the creativity of the cosmos, then what is the point of using it? My response is tentative. Hence my preferred self-description is non-theist rather than atheist – the latter perceived in common ‘pub talk’ as being grouped with terrorists, murderers, and the anti-religious.
What is not ‘diverse’ in all this is the rejection of the concept of the god G-o-d who actively alters the course of natural events via episodic interventions, or acts as some kind of personal chaplain— such rejection being compatible with much contemporary progressive Christian thought! But the question of the ‘existence’ of the god g-o-d is far from settled. “Whether or not we believe that there is something more”, suggests Lutheran systematic theologian Philip Hefner,

“nature is so significant that all our beliefs must be reformulated so as to take nature into account.” (Hefner 2008:x),/P.

ii. On the sage Yeshu’a/Jesus…

Judging from what little firm knowledge we have of Yeshu’a/Jesus, he is remembered as undermining popular religious wisdom and cultural/social traditions, forcing his hearers to directly take a second look at what helped or hindered them make their way in the world. With an oral storyteller’s imagination he was able to set people free from images and ideas and religious practices that bound them into fear, and a false sense of separation from the spirit of all life.
Stories… that invoked the oral strategies used by subordinated groups to resist or subvert the imposition of authority in situations where to resist more overtly would have been not just dangerous but fatal. (Horsfield 2015:19)

Now none of this makes Yeshu’a supernatural. Or divine. Or No. 2 in a Trinity. Just human. Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, noted for publishing books that strain relations between the church hierarchy and Catholic theologians, writes:

“Born of a woman… and the Hebrew gene pool, [he] was a creature of earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth…” (Johnson 2010)

Whatever conclusion one might end up with about him, it must be a possible Yeshu’a/Jesus and not an incredible one. And a possible Jesus is a Palestinian Jesus situated in his historical circumstances—in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire sometime between the years 26-36 CE—and “who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time”. (Galston 2012:50)

iii. On the Cultural…

A challenge to the sciences naturalistic worldview comes from areas of language and cultural studies within the humanities. Some language philosophers claim the natural sciences are “culturally and historically contingent, and there is no way of standing outside of the influences of culture and history…” (Hogue 2010:viii). Or to turn it around as Hogue does: is ‘nature’ a construction of ‘culture’ or is ‘culture’ a construction of ‘nature’?
It is the suggestion of this Presentation/Paper that in religious naturalism these questions are being profitably engaged. As religious naturalists assert: we are webs of reality, woven out of the threads of culture, biology, and cosmos… With a new worldview story to tell.

iv. On the Ethical/Moral…

As in the comments On the god G-o-d above, the moral concerns of religious naturalism “is not derivative from or dependent upon supernatural commitments”. In the words of one contemporary religious naturalist, “human folly has created the conditions for global, systematic, immediate, and chronic threats to the integrity of natural and social systems”, and the “only adequate response to these threats is to wise up to a new means for global solidarity and cooperation.” (Rue 2000:20-21)

Rooted in the cosmological ‘epic of evolution’ and ecocentric morality, religious naturalism provides a new intellectually relevant, socially plausible, and morally significant basis for global solidarity and cooperation in response to global moral challenges. (Hogue 2010:143)

Where to Now for Religious Naturalism?

Because religious naturalism is unique in its outlook compared to most Western religious traditions it is appropriate that several other lingering questions be addressed:

* does RN seek to go down the track of becoming a new, separate religious institution?
* is its future primarily for individual RNs, gathering as an online association with little to no institutional embodiment at all?
* could it become a subgroup grafted onto or within existing religious traditions—progressive Christianity? Buddhism? Judaism? Religious Humanism? Atheist Assemblies? Without the baggage of the old
* can RN sustain itself apart from religious organisations—that is, recruiting creative, largely compatible allies and secular RNs outside religious traditions for fellowship, collective enjoyment, and a stimulus to ethical/moral behaviour, to help secure a more substantial role?13
These are no idle questions or speculations especially when one considers that many of today’s advocates “were deeply formed within traditional religions” and that “two of the movement’s greatest influxes of energy came from the religiously funded divinity school at the University of Chicago.” (Rohr 2013) In the words of one advocate: religious naturalism is already in the air, but it is not yet a robust mythic tradition because the ancillary strategies are not in place.
To help shape some of those ‘ancillary strategies’ perhaps something of the spiritual vitality and expressiveness of progressive Christianity’s ritual/practices, combined with intellectual integrity,14 could become a template for some RN communal activities in the future.15 Less-like ‘worship’ and the more-like ‘celebration’.16 And certainly not the passive, spiritual interiority that has been cultivated by dualistic New Age movements, detaching many from the world. Indeed, some claim novel religious visions only become vital when grafted onto existing religious traditions with vibrant spiritual practices, ritualised enactments, and communal celebrations. Plus, a careful consideration of the most heroic heretics of the tradition—where courage is the key to change. (Gulick 2018:319; Rue 2007:415)

Religious naturalism needs both the voice of the rational—to keep any community free from sloppy sentimentality—as well as the concern of the creative artist—the rich, deep, not entirely rational forms of expression shaped by metaphor, the poetic, myth and parable—to strike a chord and resonate within. Ideally the two should function ‘in stereo’—simultaneous but different. Less ‘either/or’ and more ‘both/and’. Any fully mature religious naturalism, in the opinion of another, will have to exhibit robust expressions in each of those areas. (David Braxton)

While initial reaction to such suggestions a decade ago was not encouraging, the warning still gets an airing in some quarters: “if religious naturalism ever hopes to be more than merely an intellectual exercise, it needs to define genuinely religious ways of living.” (Steinhart 2018:341)

Coupled with this is the ongoing challenge of publicity, or as some have said, evangelism. On the downside, religious naturalism is not nearly as ‘marketable’ as traditional church neo-orthodoxy since “one does not have the solace and comfort of a governing super mind” (Stone 2018:12) who understands or intervenes on our behalf, promises perks like redemption or immortality, or pays bonuses in this life. On the upside, one does not have to fret over the doctrine of original sin ensconced “in bogus metaphysical terms” (Rue 2018:264), question why the god G-o-d is allowing bad things to happen to good people, or to go through the intellectual gymnastics of traditional religions, especially the so-called conflicts between religion and science. In short, it is a

“perspective for exploring and expressing the spiritual parts of ourselves in ways that, to modern science-influenced eyes, can seem real.”
(Todd McAlster 2018. RNA eMail chat group)


Religious orientation only lives while we are making it up, while our imaginations and creative juices are firing and we are ‘composting’—crafting (religiopoiesis)—new angles, new narratives, new metaphors within the particular context of the moment because these things are liberating.

That is: what matters most for the religious life, is imagination and experimentation. Engaging the mind imagining, not just thinking.
In the end, such crafting (religiopoiesis) “is centrally engaged in finding ways to tell a story in ways that convey meanings and motivations” with the goal being to come up with “such a rich tapestry of meaning that we have no choice but to believe in it.” (Goodenough 2000:565-566)

Generally speaking, Religious Naturalists do not take any particular religious tradition as the normative framework for their expressions of religious naturalism. They do not work from within but alongside traditional religion. However, it is the hope of a growing number of people that the religious ethical worldview of RN will eventually be the default worldview of most people.
In the public sphere, debates continue between naturalism and spiritual or religious or dualistic world views. In a time of ecological vulnerability and dislocation of the social fabric, contemporary religious naturalism’s conceptions of and attitudes toward nature and religiosity have much to commend it. Especially its willingness to entertain radically new approaches, “and explore trackless places and experiences” (Michael Hogue) as it engages with some of the most pressing religious and moral issues of our times.
Because the task of religious faith (the has) and the purpose of religious life (the does)

“is to re-read what is going on in the world and to re-connect to those purposes and values that, in our best collective judgment, through the critical examination of faith, will most truly and effectively inform our negotiations of what’s going on in the pivotal twilight between the religious moral present and future.” (Hogue 2010: 227),

Religious naturalism is an emergent religious ethical orientation that engages this task and purpose in meaningful naturalistic ways…


A loving ‘nana’ to three grand children, she has been a volunteer teacher’s aid at the local public schools for nearly ten years. Reading, Science, and Maths are her helping specialities. But this day it was an outdoors activity – tree planting.
Down on her knees with the children, hands deep into the earth, one seven year old with tiny, dirty hands, looked up and said:

“When I grow up I want to be a tree planter…”

Then pausing, her head cocked on one side, the seven year old asked:

“How do you be a tree planter?”

Before an answer could be given, the regular teacher called:

“Time. Everyone back in the classroom.”

As they walked across the oval towards the classroom and regular teaching, the nana helper said:

“Well, I’m not sure how you’ll do it in the future, but today you are a tree planter…
“And you can consider yourself a tree planter for all your days on one condition.”

“What’s that?” asked the seven year old. “You keep planting trees…”17

#1. “If you accept a clonal life form as a tree, even that ancient Huon age pales into insignificance against the 43,000- year-old King’s Holly (Lomatia tasmanica), also found in Tasmania. Once you accept that a common, genetically identical stock can define a tree, then the absolute “winner” for oldest tree (or the oldest clonal material belonging to a tree) must go to the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis). It may be more than 60 million years old.” (Brack & Brookhouse 2017)
#2. Over the years those who have helped lead this formulation of a ‘naturalistic Christian faith’ within the academy include: Samuel Alexander, Henry Nelson Wieman, Arthur Peacock, Ian Barbour, Keith Ward, Karl Peters, Ann Pederson, Philip Hefner, Donald Braxton, the early Bernard Meland and the later Gordon Kaufman, and others…
#3. Of these four RNs theologian Michael Hogue says: “They… illustrate especially well the constructive potential of religious naturalism as an important contributor to religious ethical thinking amidst… the heretically immanent post- traditional religious conditions of the ethically vulnerable moral present.” (Hogue 2010:ix)
#4. Some have challenged this understanding because the image of a web is too meagre and simple for the reality. A web is flat and finished ‘and has the mortal frailty of the individual spider’. And although elastic it has insufficient depth
#5. Axel, R. C. “Meland and Loomer”, 7
#6. “Subverting your World with a Handful of Stories” A poem by John Cranmer. The telling of stories/ is at the heart of making a new world/ they have inherent within them/ seeds of many possible futures/ that take root in the most rocky of soils/ and surprising places of uncertainty/ creating strongly blooming imaginations/ that have decided to live for ever.
#7. The core myth of Christianity is the assertion that Jesus of Nazareth—also named ‘the Christ’—is the incarnation of the one, true God. As such, he provides the fullest disclosure of the nature and personality of God.
#8. Sagan once predicted that a religion inspired by scientific knowledge of the universe would eventually emerge to rival the traditional faiths. Such a religion “might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
#9. “Neo-orthodox theology is a fancy term for traditionalism. It identifies a theology that begins with the absolute sovereignty of God and, from there, moves to the apologetic defense of traditional Christian doctrines.” (David Galston 2018)
#10. “…many Christian theologians (such as Karl Barth and Harvey Cox) have insisted that the loss of the God of the cosmos and the death of the divinities of nature are to be applauded rather than lamented. The true God is revealed in history rather than in nature.” (Keen 1969:108)
#11. Vosper’s criticism is of the United Church of Canada. A similar criticism of the Uniting Church in Australia says… “While the Uniting Church in Australia has many strengths that flow from its greater size and resources, it has failed entirely in its reforming function that its three former denominations once represented in the life of the church at large and the community in which it lives. Non-conformity is now dead in Australia, and the Uniting Church is moving rapidly towards the same fate.” (John Gunson)
#12. See Sigal Samuel. “Atheists are Sometimes More Religious than Christians’, The Atlantic, 31 May 2018, Global.
#13. As if in response to such questioning, current RNA secretary Michael Cavanaugh, when reflecting on Earth Day 2018, raised some possible future scenarios for RN: “Will it be through organizations like ours, or sister organizations like humanist groups or natural spiritualism groups? Will it be through the slow modification of other worldviews like mainstream religions, or through the growth of unitarianism? Will it be through academic achievements or through blockbuster popular books? Will one or more celebrities help popularize the ideas? Will it be all of the above, or perhaps just a slow evolution of culture, one person at a time? Will it be through the adoption of some sort of ritual or set of rituals? Will it involve celebration, exhortation, or some combination of emotions?” (RNA Newsletter April 2018)
#14. As an example see my book: When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations.
#15. As I have said in another place… Ritual provides us with a tool to think logically, emotionally, and ecologically. During rituals we have the experience, unique in our culture, of neither opposing nature or trying to be in communion with nature; but of finding ourselves within nature, and that is the key to sustainable culture. (Hunt 2018)
#16. Jennifer Berit Listig suggests: “What we need is the courage and context to come together, to fuse our core visions, and the insight to shed what we no longer so that we might compost it into new life.” (Listig 2018:111)
#17. Story inspired by Trevien Stanger ‘Tree Planter’
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OnLine Resources
Religious Naturalist Association (RNS) <http://religious-naturalist-association.org/>
Religious Naturalism < https://religiousnaturalism.org/> The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) < http://www.iras.org/>
Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science (Zygon) < http://www.zygonjournal.org/>
The Great Story (Connie Barlow) < http://thegreatstory.org/home.html>
Thomas Berry < http://thomasberry.org/>
Brian Swimme < https://storyoftheuniverse.org/>
Mary Evelyn Tucker < https://www.humansandnature.org/mary-evelyn-tucker>
Creation Spirituality/Matthew Fox < http://www.matthewfox.org/>
Nature’s Depths/John Palka < https://naturesdepths.com/>
Environment 360 < https://e360.yale.edu/>
Big History Project < https://www.bighistoryproject.com/home> International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) < https://www.issr.org.uk/>
Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion < http://www.ianramseycentre.info/> Unitarian Universalist Religious Naturalists < https://uurn.weebly.com/index.html> Green Churches Network < https://greenchurches.ca/>
Sacred Naturalism < http://sacrednaturalism.org/index.html>
World Pantheism < https://www.pantheism.net/>
Naturalism  < http://naturalism.org/>
The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale <http://http://fore.yale.edu/>

From The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (Revised)…
“We find our sources of meaning within the natural world, where humans are understood to be emergent from and hence a part of nature. Our religious quest is informed and guided by the deepening and evolving understandings fostered by scientific inquiry. It is also informed and guided by the mindful understanding inherent in our human traditions, including art, literature, philosophy, and the religions of the world.

“The natural world and its emergent manifestations in human creativity and community are the focus of our immersion, wonder, and reverence. We may describe our religious sensibilities using various words that have various connotations—like the sacred, or the source, or god—but it is our common naturalistic orientation that generates our shared sense of place, gratitude, and joy.

“We acknowledge as well a shared set of values and concerns pertaining to peace, justice, dignity, cultural and ecological diversity, and planetary sustainability. We may differ on how these concerns are best addressed, but we are committed to participating in their resolution.”

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