The Science Behind Spiritual Naturalism
I didn’t wake up one day and decide to become a Spiritual Naturalist. I was drawn to it by the evidence. Years of learning nudged me closer and closer. But eventually, I came to realize that Spiritual Humanistic Naturalism was the best worldview available.
I want to share with you some of the evidence that drew me to Spiritual Naturalism, and some that I have discovered afterward. My desire is not to convince you, but to show you that Spiritual Naturalism is based solidly upon science and reason. I also want to show you just one way of reconnecting with nature.
I will first discuss naturalism, and then I will explore a spirituality based on it. I will give you reasons and evidence for both. But I do not have the space to be exhaustive.
The Science of Naturalism
As Richard Carrier (2005, 67) explains, “all metaphysical naturalists believe that if anything exists in our universe, it is a part of nature, and has a natural cause or origin, and there is no need of any other explanations.”. “Naturalism,” explains Thomas W. Clark (2007, 1), “holds that there is a single, natural, physical world in which we are completely included. There isn’t a separate supernatural or immaterial realm and there’s nothing supernatural or immaterial about us.”.
But is there evidence for naturalism? Yes, as Richard Carrier (2005, 68) explain, “the progress of science and other critical methods has consistently found natural causes and origins for everything we have been able to study thoroughly – for so long, so widely, on so many subjects, both disparate and related. Indeed, it has never once failed in this regard whenever a problem or question could be properly investigated. So it is a thoroughly reasonable inference that this shall continue unabated.”
In other words, science has asked nature millions of questions, in the form of experiments, and every single response has returned with a natural answer. Not once have we gotten a supernatural answer – not once. See, naturalism is not a presupposition, it is a reasonable inference based on a wealth of evidence.
“In scientific terms, writes Steven D. Schafersman (2016), “the truth of naturalism could be considered reliable knowledge, since naturalism’s statements have a great amount of empirical evidence in support of them, it has a highly-reasoned logical structure, and the statements of this logical structure have been repeatedly tested and corroborated.”
This is why science operates on the basis of naturalism. The simple fact is that there is no empirical evidence for any supernatural realm. Sure, people who have already decided that such a realm exists try to interpret science in their favor, but they continue to fail.
The Science of Spirituality
Since, according to the evidence, all that exists is nature, our spirituality should be grounded in nature. I define spirituality as the cultivation of a deeper or expanded awareness of our union and interconnection with nature.
The great scientist Carl Sagan (1994, 77) once predicted, “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”
Spiritual Naturalism, I believe is that religion. However today, we would prefer to use the word spirituality rather than religion. But the essence of what he said is still valid. Spiritual Naturalism “stresses “the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science” and, in fact, draws “forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
What is interesting is that psychology is beginning to realize this as well. A whole branch of psychology is exploring the importance of our relationship with nature. It is called ecopsychology.
What is Ecopsychology?
“At its core,” writes Charlton Hall (2015), “ecopsychology suggests that there is a synergistic relation between planetary and personal well-being; that the needs of the one are relevant to the needs of the other. In short, what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. Ecotherapy is the practical application of this knowledge.”
I like how Andy McGreeney (2016) defines ecotherapy, he says that “Ecotherapy is about creating a deeper connection to nature and feeling better for it.” This fits nicely with my definition of spirituality as the cultivation of a deeper or expanded awareness of our union and interconnection with nature. As Peter H. Kahn, Jr. and Patricia H. Hasbach (2012) explain, “We need nature for our physical and psychological well-being.”
That sounds good, but what does the evidence suggest? As Charlton Hall (2015) states, “A large and growing body of research demonstrates that nature is good for the mind as well as the body.” The fact is, writes Richard Louv (2012), “the Nature Principle is supported by a growing body of theoretical, anecdotal, and empirical research that describes the restorative power of nature – its impact on our senses and intelligence; on our physical, psychological, and spiritual health; and on the bonds of family, friendships, and multi-species community.”
Andy McGreeney (2016) gets even more specific, “There is good scientific research into ecotherapy supporting the claim that nature has a positive effect on the human condition…. we are intimately and inseparably a part of nature; we have evolved to be adapted to nature; our physical health improves faster and exercise seems easier to do in nature; our thinking, mood and spiritual sense are enhanced in nature; and we live in more satisfying and harmonious communities when nature surrounds us. When seen like this the huge benefits for us all to be more connected to the natural world become self-evident.”
“So far,” laments Eva M. Selhub and Alan C. Logan (2014), “the results suggest that we have completely underestimated the way in which the human brain is influenced by its physical environment and, in particular, by the elements of the natural worlds of water, vegetation, and animals.” Spiritual Naturalists don’t make this mistake. For us, nature is of Ultimate Concern and every part of our lives is touched by it.
Richard Louv (2012) explains what nature-deficit disorder is: “By its broadest interpretation, nature-deficit disorder is an atrophied awareness, a diminished ability to find meaning in the life that surrounds us, whatever form it takes. This shrinkage of our lives has a direct impact on our physical, mental, and societal health.”
The simple fact is that “all of life is rooted in nature, and a separation from that wider world desensitizes and diminished our bodies and spirits. Reconnecting with nature, nearby and far, opens the door to health, creativity, and wonder. It is never too late” (Richard Louv, 2012).
Richard Louv (2012) encourages us saying, “we can reap extraordinary benefits by connecting – or reconnecting – to nature. For the jaded and weary among us, the outdoor world can expand our senses and reignite a sense of awe and wonder not felt since we were children; it can support better health, enhance creativity, new careers and business opportunities, and act as a bonding agent for families and communities. Nature can help us feel fully alive.”
Introduction to Shinrin Yoku
There are many ways to reconnect with nature. We can go on Facilitated Wilderness Experiences, try Animal Assisted Therapy, plant and cultivate Therapeutic Gardens, have Outdoor Classrooms, keep plants in our office space, enjoy essential oils derived from nature, exercise outdoors, own a pet, and eat a whole food diet.
Today I want to introduce you to Shinrin-yoku. This Japanise term is usually translated as “Forest Bathing.” It means walking in the forest environment using all our senses.
First, we find a forest or patch of woods. We put away or turn off our cell phones and other electronic devices. You want to have undistracted time to come back into the present moment and really be with the birds and the trees.
Second, you want to breathe. You have a symbolic relationship with the trees, the grass, and other plants. They breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. You breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. You need each other. You are family. Feel that you are home, that you belong.
Be mindful of your in-breath and your out-breath. Feel the sensation in the nose area or in the rising and falling of the abdomen. Allow your attention to rest on the sensation for a time.
Third, you want to begin walking at a slower than normal pace. You actually want to wander, without trying to get somewhere. If something draws your attention, wander over to it.
Fourth, you want to listen, observe, and touch. Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the forest. Take it all in with an open awareness. Let your attention flow from bird, to tree, to squirrel. Let yourself become one with nature, one with the forest, one with the life that is all around you. And relax.
Fifth, take your time. This is not exercise, it is meditation. It is immersing yourself in the reality of the natural world. You are nature, you are connected with nature, feel that connection. Try to spend a half hour or more just being instead of doing.
Lastly, after you have completed your time forest bathing, notice the changes in your mood and emotions. Note the difference the time made in your mind. Notice how your body feels more relaxed, more at ease. Return often.
Nature is our home, it is where we belong. We lose this connection and it effects us. Spiritual Naturalism is about coming home. It is about discovering the sacredness of nature, and building a spiritual life on that discovery. There is such awe and wonder in nature, it can fill a void we have felt for a long time. Get outside and rediscover your true home.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
• Carrier, Richard. 2005. Good and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Bloomington, IN: Author House.
• Clark, Thomas W. 2007. Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses. Jacksonville, FL: Center for Naturalism.
• Hall, Charlton. 2015. The Mindfulness-Based Ecotherapy Workbook: A 12 Session Program for Reconnecting with Nature. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace. e-Book.
• Kahn, Jr., Peter H. and Patricia H. Hasbach. 2012. Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species. Cambridge, MAL MIT Press. e-Book.
• Louv, Richard. 2012. The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
• McGreeney, Andy. 2016. With Nature in Mind: The Ecotherapy Manual for Mental Health Professionals. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
• Sagan, Carl. 1994. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York: Random House.
• Schafersman, Steven D. 2016. “Naturalism is Today An Essential Part of Science.” Critical Thought and Religious Liberty. Accessed July 15, 2016. http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/
• Selhub, Eva M. and Alan C. Logan. 2014. You Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness, and Vitality. New York: HarperCollins.