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What Do All Spiritual Naturalists Have in Common?

The Spiritual Naturalist Society brings together naturalistic strands from a wide variety of traditions, from Buddhism to Christianity to Atheism.  Is there really anything shared in common by these strands?

I think there is.  What’s more, I suspect it’s not just loose resemblance, but something absolutely fundamental.  What is it?  It’s simply the fact that…

…we explain everything in terms of nature.

Tree Outside Bokheung Middle School, South Korea, by B. T. NewbergMainstream forms of religions may understand the world in terms of God’s will, tao, dharma, etc.  But naturalistic forms all understand it in terms of nature.  For most of us today, that usually means a modern scientific view of nature.

In order to unpack that idea, let’s take a quick crash course in root metaphors.

 

What is a root metaphor?

All explanations rely on metaphors, explaining one thing in terms of another.  A root metaphor is one by which virtually everything else is explained.

According to Loyal Rue, the root metaphor fuses ideas about what’s real and what matters:

“The root metaphor renders the real sacred, and the sacred real.”  (Rue, 2005)

For example, the mainstream Judeo-Christo-Islamic traditions, which use the root metaphor of God-as-person, ground all ideas about how the world came to be and how we should behave in the creative will of God.

Other traditions use other root metaphors.  According to Rue, ancient Greek philosophy uses logos, Hinduism and Buddhism dharma, Chinese religion tao, and so on.

What I’m proposing is that naturalistic forms of traditions reject these other root metaphors in favor of nature.  This root metaphor may have replaced the others, or always existed side-by-side with them.  It may be visualized like this…

Nature metaphor Venn diagram

Naturalistic forms of religions share the root metaphor of nature.

 

Nature the explainer

Evidence for this claim is demonstrable by differences in how we explain things.

The role God plays in the Abrahamic mainstream is explanandus, or explainer (Rue, 1989):

  • Why is the sky blue?  Because God made it that way.
  • Why should we love each other?  Because God wants us to.

The metaphor of God-as-person succinctly explains how things are (God willed them so) and how we ought to live (according to God’s will).

For naturalists, such a metaphor is no longer credible.  Instead, we have come to a point where God is the explanandum, or what needs to be explained:

  • Why does God never mention kangaroos in the Bible?  Because the authors of the Bible, all too human, didn’t know about Australia.

Here, a natural explanation illuminates the nature of “God.”  Nature has become the explainer.

In Eastern traditions, the conversation gets more challenging, but still works.  Here’s a dharmic version from Buddhism:

  • How do we know karma conditions rebirth after death?  Because that is the nature of the dharma, which the Buddha perceived.

And a naturalistic version:

  • How do we know karma conditions rebirth after death?  Because we experience one moment of consciousness “dying” and conditioning the “birth” of another (birth and death have been redefined in naturalistic terms).

Nature is the explainer, and that’s what we all have in common.

Would you agree?  Or is there something else more fundamental that we share?

 

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B.T. Newberg continues this series: How do you understand nature?


References

Rue, L.  (1989).  Amythia.  Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Rue, L.  (2005).  Religion Is Not About God.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


4 Comments

  1. Love the venn graphic! I was wondering about your statement, "What I’m proposing is that naturalistic forms of traditions reject these other metaphors in favor of nature." I assume you mean "reject" in the sense that they aren't the *root* metaphor because they aren't a source of explanation, but they can still have a valuable place in our practice as "expressive metaphor" or "accompanying metaphor". Is there some concept like this? Because I still get great usefulness in my practice from notions like Karma, Tao, Logos, etc. I know many Pagans do with the concept of personified deities.

    On your question, "Is there something else more fundamental that we share?" I would suggest that compassion and the effort to improve lives (our own and others) may be more important than our various attempts at explanation of our world. Understanding our world is, after all, important specifically because of the fact that it helps us – which suggests an even more fundamental motivation. Thanks much for this article!

  2. >I was wondering about your statement, “What I’m proposing is that naturalistic forms of traditions reject these other metaphors in favor of nature.” I assume you mean “reject” in the sense that they aren’t the *root* metaphor because they aren’t a source of explanation, but they can still have a valuable place in our practice as “expressive metaphor” or “accompanying metaphor”.

    Yes, DT, exactly. In fact, I've edited the article to be more explicit about that. Thank you.

    >I would suggest that compassion and the effort to improve lives (our own and others) may be more important than our various attempts at explanation of our world.

    Interesting point. Compassion is certainly right up there in importance. I would argue that compassion depends crucially upon how we explain our world, by enabling us to perceive which beings "deserve" compassion.

    Although empathy and compassion seem to be traits biologically innate to our species, culture plays an important role in modulating their expression. For example, notions of other cultures as "barbarians" or somehow "non-humans" can severely inhibit expression of compassion. How much more inhibiting are notions of other species or nature itself in determining whether compassion is warranted or not?

    So the root metaphor we use may be crucial to unlocking expression of compassion toward other cultures, other species, the environment, etc. For this reason, I would disagree that compassion is more fundamental. However, compassion brilliantly illustrates why root metaphors are so important.

  3. I agree completely that our root metaphor is that we explain everything in terms of Nature. Could another way of saying it be – our definition of Ultimate Reality is Nature, as compared to god or tao or dharma e.t.c.?

    • Maybe… I'm not quite sure what "ultimate reality" would mean for a naturalist…

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