I claim no expert knowledge in Religious Naturalism as I am a student who has only recently been introduced to this broad field. I work with philosophy of religion, mostly in the continental tradition, and I have a background in theology. I thank Covalence
for the invitation to present my considerations on this topic.
— Frederik Mortensen
In introductory literature the concept of Religious Naturalism (RN) is explained as a position that opts for a naturalistic worldview as the basis for religious orientation. Very different notions of naturalism seem to be at issue. But the title indicates that naturalism is central. This, however, might not entirely be the case to all contemporary representatives. When looking at individual representatives, one notices the different ways in which the concept of "naturalism" is used. This ambiguity, I think, weakens the understanding and broader reception of RN. In the following, I shall try to show this lack of clarity beginning with the case of Thomas Nagel's 'cosmic question'.
The American philosopher Thomas Nagel understands religiosity as a temperament which manifests itself in a human yearning to reconcile and understand oneself in coherence with the universal whole. Nagel refers to the religious temper as," a disposition to seek a view of the world that can play a certain role in the inner life - a role that for some people is occupied by religion" (Nagel 2010, 4). Hence, human religiosity is a natural attempt to incorporate one's conception of the universe into a conception of oneself and one's life. In short, the 'religious temper' is the human disposition to ask the cosmic question
In his analysis for the possible responses to secular religiosity Nagel is quite clear about what question is at issue in religious orientation and what the conditions for a sufficient answer include. So, when Nagel considers the potential of a naturalistic worldview as a secular basis for a religious orientation, there is already a claim put forth about why a worldview is needed, why cosmology (the study of the universe) matters to human religiosity, and ultimately how 'the religious' and 'the real' are fundamentally related.
Nagel's approach accords with central questions of RN, e.g. how can we respond to the religious aspects of our human nature on secular premises and, furthermore, how can our conception of the world support our human aspiration for meaning, values and self-understanding? In the attempt to overcome traditional religious supernaturalism, a naturalistic worldview becomes an obvious option. However, it is not as clear to what extent the proponents of RN set out to answer the same question or a common question at all. In order to see that, one needs to address the role that naturalism plays.
But it seems fair to mention that there is an unresolved equivocality in the meaning of the term "naturalism" which permeates contemporary philosophy. To indicate just two meanings, naturalism could either entail 1) merely non-supernaturalism
, which implies the rejection of a transcendent God, miracles and other entities transcendent to this world and its constitution; or it could mean 2) that the conception and constitution of the world is the one offered by the natural sciences.
The first meaning of non-supernaturalism is fundamental to RN, but the attempt to avoid supernaturalism depends on a clear determination of 'this world and its constitution.' This has led the majority of Religious Naturalists to advocate some form of naturalism in the second meaning that relies on the results of the natural sciences, and, at first sight, RN enters the science and religion debate proposing that traditional religious cosmologies should and can be replaced by a scientifically informed worldview, that is, by naturalism.
But these impressions of RN, true or not, somehow imply that cosmology is essential to human religiosity, as in the case of Nagel. The claim of naturalism is in itself a matter of cosmology and the constitution of the world.
In contrast to the grounding of cosmology in the concept of God as found in traditional theology, in an act of creation, different varieties of RN either give up the concept of God or propose new non-cosmological concepts of God or "the divine." When proponents of RN speak of God they most commonly designate the source of religious orientation and not necessarily the origin of the world. But consequently, this separation of the divine and cosmology leads to a separation of cosmology and religious orientation as such.
In keeping Nagel in mind, this is an interesting difference. Nagel's reason to consider a naturalistic stance is the search for a worldview. His basic idea is that religious orientation is achieved through one's conception of the world and the reality in which one finds oneself. But does RN ask for cosmology for that same purpose, or what is the interest in naturalism for RN?
Let me very briefly point to something concrete. For Charley Hardwick, a contemporary proponent of RN, RN is a non-supernatural Christianity with a strictly existential basis for speaking about God without violating the ontological principles of naturalism (ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality as such). Hardwick attempts this by interpreting Christianity as completely neutral to cosmology. The religious is a merely human existential matter.
He writes: "If the content of faith is an existential self-understanding we are not constrained at the outset by any metaphysical preconditions. Undertaking such an effort from a naturalist point of view will not import them ... naturalism will not so much dictate what faith must say as constrain what it cannot say. It frames the theological task but does not define it in detail. Though theological propositions must be consistent with naturalism, naturalism alone will not prescribe their positive content. If, following Bultmann, faith requires no anterior "creedal" convictions, if it is not tied to any particular world view, and if on entirely independent grounds we are convinced that philosophical naturalism gives a true account of the world, then we may ask what the Christian confession looks like from this perspective." (Hardwick 1996, 4)
As should be obvious, the traditional idea of God's transcendence is impossible on naturalistic grounds. But the idea — or should I say the rhetoric — of transcendence is not completely given up. In an attempt to revise the traditional concept of transcendence Jerome Stone proposes an understanding of religiosity as meaningful experiences (Stone 1992). Stone suggests that "occasions within our experience elicit responses that are analogous enough to the paradigm cases of religion that they can appropriately be called religious" (Stone 2003, 89). Stone occasionally uses cosmology rhetoric in order to underline that his idea of 'experiences of transcendence' does not violate the laws of nature. But when the religious is a matter of the meaningful potentiality of experiences and not a matter of the fundamental constitution of nature, and our place within it, we are left to ask if cosmology is not in fact completely left out of the picture, out of the understanding of human religiosity. Despite the claim of naturalism, the irony of both Hardwick's and Stone's varieties of RN is that they indirectly suggest that cosmology, naturalistic or not, is irrelevant to the matter of human religiosity. There seems to be a lot of rhetoric that implies that naturalism plays a role, but it does not. One simply does not gain self-understanding and religious orientation through
a conception of the world.
In the work of other adherents of RN like Ursula Goodenough, religion is practiced as a mystic contemplation of scientific knowledge (Goodenough 1998). Here, at least, one finds the conception of the world and its constitution to be centrally at issue. When Nagel asks for "a view of the world that can play a certain role in the inner life", he asks whether an answer can be found in
the view of the world. And someone like Goodenough could actually be said to provide an answer to such a question by means of a naturalistic worldview. But in the cases of both Stone and Hardwick it is not the worldview itself, but the circumstances of human life — on an existential level — that provide religious orientation. Hardwick and Stone seem to release religion from the obligation to ontology in a way that makes the scientific question about reality, cosmology and nature rather superfluous and irrelevant. As I see it, their proposals of RN are primarily defensive and aim for immunity from scientific criticism rather than constructive use of a naturalistic conception of the world. RN, in the varieties of Hardwick and Stone, takes science out of the discussion, rather than bringing it into the discussion for constructive purposes.
Unearthing the question to which RN is the answer is a difficult task. More examples could have been given to show that there are several different, maybe too different, questions at issue in RN. At least in their orientation towards naturalism, one could argue that the varieties of RN are too different in nature and in their individual agenda to be gathered under one clear label. Naturally, the future of the concept of RN depends on the clarity and univocality of the label itself. To achieve such a clarity and univocality we still need to know what the question is to which RN purports its answers.
- Goodenough, Ursula. 1998. The sacred depths of nature. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Hardwick, Charley D. 1996. Events of Grace: Naturalism, Existentialism, and Theology. Cambridge University Press (1996), Hardcover, 325 pages.
- Nagel, Thomas. 2010. Secular philosophy and the religious temperament. In Secular philosophy and the religious temperament : Essays 2002-2008. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
- Stone, Jerome. 1992. The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence : A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- ———. 2003. Varieties of Religious Naturalism. Zygon 38, no. 1 (March 1): 89-93.
Frederik Mortensen is a Ph.D.-student from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, who has only recently been introduced to the field of science and religion. He works with philosophy of religion, mostly in the continental tradition and supported by a background in theology. His own project, called 'The Religious and the Real', is a discussion of the notion of the 'the world' in human religiosity. Mortensen draws on multiple resources from modern philosophy, but centrally points to the anthropological insights of German philosopher F.J.W. Schelling (1775-1854). Schelling's writings, in which he gave up his dedication to philosophy of nature, has gained increased attention over the last couple years. The number of publications and translations of Schelling at 'SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy' reveals an increasing interest from various academic fields. Mortensen hopes his work can contribute to a broader understanding of the relevance of Schelling and his adherents to contemporary philosophy of religion.