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What is Spiritual Naturalism?
Spiritual Naturalism (also called religious naturalism) is a worldview, value system, and personal life practice. The term appeared by at least 1895, but as a concept it has been around for thousands of years. A religion to some, philosophy to others, Spiritual Naturalism sees the universe as one natural and sacred whole – as is the rationality and the science through which nature is revealed. It advocates principles and practices that have compassion as their foundation, and it finds wisdom and inspiration in innumerable rich traditions and ethical philosophies from around the world.
The focus of Spiritual Naturalism is happiness, contentment, or flourishing in life, and a relief from suffering. It is a spirituality whereby we work to become wiser and to live better over time through continued learning, contemplative practices, and character development. It is by walking such a path that we become more capable of helping to make the world a better place, and in so doing, come closer to the flourishing ‘good life’.
To explain in more detail, it is helpful to take each word separately:
Naturalism is a view of the world that includes those things which we can observe or directly conclude from observations. Naturalists’ conception of reality consists of the natural world as outlined by the latest scientific understanding. As for claims for which we have no evidence, we do not hold any beliefs in these and do not make any other claims about them. It is quite possible, even likely, that many things exist which we cannot detect, but we believe in a humble approach to knowledge. With humility, we can recognize that human beings are imperfect in their ability to know all things. Therefore, we are careful to limit our claims about reality to what we can experience and measure, as well as reproduce and show to others. On all else, we are content to admit “we don’t know”.
Spirituality is the other word in Spiritual Naturalism. For many, the word ‘spirituality’ has an association with the supernatural. However, we mean the term in its more general and original sense. The Latin root word spiritus meant ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, or the essence of something. As we might speak of the ‘spirit of the law’ or ‘school spirit’, the spiritual is that which is concerned with the essence of life – or the essential things in life. Thus, a person with no sense of spirituality would be a person that lives on the surface, always dealing only with the shallow or the mundane; perhaps even a materialistic person. But to have spirituality is to be concerned with the larger, deeper, and essential matters of life and to apply ourselves consciously toward them in a committed practice or ‘walk’. This includes, as Socrates put it, the ‘examined life’, and this is what we mean by spirituality.
Because it is a general term that overlaps with many viewpoints, it is possible for a person to be a Spiritual Naturalist and several other things simultaneously. Spiritual Naturalism cuts across traditional or familiar categories. Many Humanists, Unitarians, Freethinkers, Jews, Pagans, Buddhists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, and others may also be Spiritual Naturalists, though not all of them.
It may help to compare Spiritual Naturalism to other belief systems you may have heard of:
Christianity, Islam, and Judaism
The chief difference between Spiritual Naturalists and Christians is the former’s naturalist worldview and approach to knowledge. Spiritual Naturalists prefer the methods of empiricism, logic, reason, and observation for determining what is true about our world, while Christians usually also include faith, revelation, communion, scripture, and such means as sources of knowledge. This is why naturalists do not share Christian beliefs regarding the existence of God, other supernatural entities, or an afterlife. It is also why most Christians would not consider Spiritual Naturalism compatible with their beliefs. However, when it comes to other virtues, ethics, and values, the two find many things in common. Like Christians, Spiritual Naturalists also believe in loving your neighbor, treating others as you would be treated, forgiveness, mercy, and charity. There is also a contemplative and meditative thread within the Christian tradition that can be similar to Spiritual Naturalist practices. There should be many worthy projects and causes which Christians and Spiritual Naturalists can work together on, in mutual love and respect for one another. The other Abrahamic faiths of Islam and Orthodox Judaism compare to Spiritual Naturalism in similar ways as Christianity, and for similar reasons. Judaism in general, because of its intimate expression within culture, tradition, and ritual, consists of many Spiritual Naturalist people that yet consider themselves Jewish. Lastly, there is a small but vibrant and growing movement of Christian naturalists, and we have at least two such people on our Advisory Board and feature descriptions of this view in our Resources and Member Archives.
Atheism / Agnosticism
Since Spiritual Naturalists do not have supernatural beliefs this would make many of them either atheist and/or agnostic on the subject of gods (with exceptions mentioned below). But while all Spiritual Naturalists are atheists or agnostics, not all atheists and agnostics are Spiritual Naturalists. To be such, they would also have a focus on the principles and practices of Spiritual Naturalism, and be interested in those kinds of pursuits. Also, Spiritual Naturalists are not generally concerned with telling believers they are wrong or with religious criticism, while this may be a concern of some atheists. For those atheists and agnostics that do share its values and concerns, they could easily be Spiritual Naturalist simultaneously. Having said this, some Spiritual Naturalists may find metaphorical personifications or archetypes useful. Those who engage in this kind of deity practice may be naturalists and yet not count themselves as atheistic.
Humanism is very similar to Spiritual Naturalism, such that nearly all Spiritual Naturalists would fall under the definition of Humanist. The modern conception of Humanist since the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933 has been those who are (a) naturalistic and (b) have a concern for their fellow human being. So, there is certainly a great deal of overlap and compatibility. However, there are some individuals for which overlap may not apply. While Humanism has a strong tradition of supporting and even helping to birth the animal rights movement, some Spiritual Naturalists may not prefer the term ‘Humanist’ because of their concern for all beings. Some Humanist gatherings may also tend to be more academic and secular in feel for other Spiritual Naturalists. On the other side, many Humanists relate more to the strictly secular humanist tradition, whereby they find words like ‘spirituality’ and the rituals and practices of Spiritual Naturalists to be too religious in tone. Further, many Humanist organizations focus on worthy social issues, political activity, and religious criticism, whereas Spiritual Naturalism begins with living rightly by example and with inner development as a starting point. The founder of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, Daniel Strain, is a past president of Humanist organizations, and currently a Humanist minister certified by the American Humanist Association.
Unitarian Universalism (UU)
Many of Spiritual Naturalism’s modern outlooks, tolerant dispositions, ritual and spiritual practices, and tendency to take wisdom from many traditional sources may seem very UU. Indeed, many Unitarians are Spiritual Naturalists and vice versa. However, one difference with UU congregations is that they also include supernaturalists and are not expressly naturalist and empiricist in their worldview. In that regard Spiritual Naturalism is not as broad as Unitarianism, but a good number of Unitarians are also Spiritual Naturalists and certainly a very welcome part of the Society.
Freethought / Skepticism / Rationalism
Spiritual Naturalism includes a reverence for rationality – both the rational order on which the universe operates, as well as the human capacity for reason. This certainly includes freethinking, rationalism, and a healthy skepticism (not cynicism). Like these groups, we believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, Spiritual Naturalism goes further by including a focus on personal practices and wisdom teachings designed to enhance happiness in life. This additional content may not be of interest to some freethinkers, skeptics, or rationalists, but could easily be of interest to many of them. Again, in these cases there would be simultaneous overlap.
In a way, Spiritual Naturalism could be looked at as a form of philosophical Buddhism. There are many schools and ways of conceiving of Buddhism and practicing it. Some very much include the supernatural and some are more of a ‘secular Buddhism’. Many of Buddhism’s concepts can be interpreted in naturalistic terms. Buddhism has certainly inspired the Spiritual Naturalist practices of meditation, mindfulness, compassion, and more. Therefore, there is much overlap and many people are both Buddhists and Spiritual Naturalists.
Like Buddhism, there is a spectrum of interpretation regarding many Pagan paths. On one end is a literal interpretation whereby gods and spirits are believed in supernatural terms, and on the other end, they may be seen as metaphoric personifications of fully natural forces or aspects of nature, or as useful archetypes. There could therefore be a good deal of overlap for at least some Pagans, with Naturalistic Paganism or Humanistic Paganism even being considered a type of Spiritual Naturalism. Indeed, there is a historic thread in Paganism that has seen the universe as one integrated natural whole, with a value on experience as the means for learning about it.
Pantheists also have a range of interpretation for their concepts. For those who are naturalist and empiricist in their approach, they will find consistency with Spiritual Naturalism as well.
In conclusion, many varieties of Humanism, Buddhism, Paganism, Unitarianism, Freethought, skepticism, atheism, agnosticism, and pantheism fall under the realm of Spiritual Naturalism and would be very much at home at the SNS.
Other varieties of these which tend to either believe in the supernatural or – on the opposite end – are adverse to anything with a ‘religion-like’ feel, would be less compatible. In either case, these groups would still be those with which Spiritual Naturalists would be happy to live and work compassionately and respectfully on common causes.
“Spiritual Naturalism has been described as ‘science with awe’, but a true spirituality has to be more than that. Awe and wonder are important parts of spirituality. They inspire us to undertake the journey, but they are only the ‘window dressing’ of spiritual naturalism. A robust spiritual path will have the natural world revealed by science as its worldview, but it will also consist of a set of profound perspectives and wise values. It will include specific contemplative practices designed to instill that philosophy into our intuitive way of being. It will be a lifestyle that allows us to make progress. This progress will be a steady and measurable cultivation of a character that is more enlightened, more in tune with the way of the universe, more virtuous, more compassionate; and therefore more capable of experiencing the flourishing, good life. This is nothing less than a path to freedom – freedom from fear and from the bonds of circumstance as a condition for happiness.”
–Rev. Daniel Strain, SNS Executive Director
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To learn more about Spiritual Naturalism, see the article in Wikipedia:
Photo credit: (cc) Ingo (meironke), Flickr.com.