Spiritual Naturalism

The Spiritual Naturalist Society is a young and growing organization with articulate approaches to its religion/philosophy, a broad-minded invitation to reflect on other beliefs and classical philosophies, a network of local chapters, and an effective director in Humanist minister DT Strain. I want to comment on an excerpt from SNS’s thoughtful introduction.

Spiritual Naturalism… is a worldview, value system, and personal life practice. …Spiritual Naturalism sees the universe as one natural and sacred whole .… [It embraces] the rationality and the science through which nature is revealed. It advocates principles and practices that have compassion as their foundation….The focus of Spiritual Naturalism is happiness, contentment, or flourishing in life, and a relief from suffering.



These facets of spiritual naturalism fit together well. They are for the most part consistent with one another and they are an appealing combination. They seem to follow from the starting point that the universe is a natural phenomenon and not a supernatural one. But how they fit together, what the connections are between these values, is not always evident. For me, spirituality calls for a sense of what the connections are, how the pieces of the larger picture fit together.

A physicist (I’m hearing Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory jump in) and many others might find his or her spiritual connections in the context of the universe. But for the questions I have about life, the entire universe is not a very helpful source. My questions are three: what is my purpose in being alive, what is a moral way to live that suits that purpose, and what consolation is there in the face of death? For those questions the cosmos is too big, I am too small, and, well, the universe is not alive.

What is alive is the evolution and the history of earthly life itself over 3.8 billion years. This is the aspect of nature that resonates most for me, the history of things that twitch and struggle and reproduce and die. So I’ve thought hard about whether and how science’s portrayal of the history of life sheds light on my questions. Could the facts of evolution and biological history tell me anything about my purpose and my values?

The responses that follow are summaries of the topics on this blog. I’ve tried here to highlight the connections between them.

What is the purpose of my being alive, if there is one? What does the information we have about life on earth tell us about what the purpose and meaning of that life is? Everything follows from this question. If science and nature can not tell us or even suggest anything about the question of human purpose, then there may not be much point in looking to science and nature for inspiration. But if science and nature can give us a clue about our meaning and purpose as humans, then other aspects of a spirituality that is in harmony with science might fall into place. And the clue that I see, right under our noses, is that what every living thing has in common is the effort to stay alive and reproduce. From bacteria to human beings, living things strive non-stop to survive, to thrive, to reproduce, and to avoid suffering—to carry out the continuity that is the essence of being alive. Life’s purpose is being alive and, through biological, societal or creative offspring, remaining “alive” after death. Whether that amounts to a lofty purpose or only to a disappointing one depends on a person’s viewpoint. But it is valuable to me because, above all, it seems true and because it leads to other observations that are useful in figuring out how to conduct one’s life.

If the purpose of life is essentially this self-perpetuation, then whether something—an action, a relationship, a goal—is worthy or not depends on how effectively it supports the continuity of lives, our own and others’. Science tells us that organisms survive by pursuing two main strategies dictated to them in large part by their DNA. One is competition (including, for humans, envy, greed, and violence), which is necessary at times and tempting much of the time but often leads to suffering and death. The other path is cooperation, pursued by organisms in a variety of ways (including for humans compassion and love) and which, when it is successful, results in survival and flourishing for most of the organisms involved. Compassion belongs among the traits of the spiritual naturalist because it is part of nature’s generous “cooperation option” for surviving. .

The third question is whether there is any consolation to be found for the hard fact that I will die. Here it has not been Darwinian evolution but rather the sheer length of the history of life that has spoken to me. I think often of the “chain of life” made up of one living link interlocked with another over billions of years, the endurance of Dawkins’ selfish genes. I count as my ancestors those who lived not just a few hundred or a few thousand years ago but also those who lived 3.8 billion years ago. That is a stunning heritage for us all. As for near-immortality, the chain of life has not only an incredibly long past but also, one can safely assume, a very long future.

Here then are the connected rungs on my ladder of Spiritual Naturalism, starting from the simple fact of living things, up to the totality and history of life as a something-larger that we can feel a part of, to the drive to stay alive as the purpose that is built in to us, up to the two strategies for survival that form the roots of right and wrong, good and evil. Spiritual Naturalists can embrace nature, rationality, and compassion not only because we value them but because they follow from each other.



The Sixth Mass Extinction

Here’s how many people, if they are not in denial about it, view the current environmental crisis: global warming has begun, weather will become more extreme, and the changes in temperature will impact agriculture, the habitability of sea coasts, and the survival of some species. The last item—species extinction—sits like an afterthought in such a summary. The description minimizes the prospect that we may be entering the sixth of the planet’s massive extinctions.

The first five mass extinctions took place over the last half billion years as the results of sustained volcanic eruptions, large meteors, and ice ages. They lasted for millions of years. Today, though, in the popular imagination, they seem like little more than fantastical events deep in our past that are pictured occasionally in magazines and science fiction movies.

dinosaurs and meteors

A picturesque extinction. Dinosaurs looking alarmed. (rainbowdolphin.com)

The current mass extinction is man-made. Called the Holocene extinction for the present geological epoch that began in 10,000 BC, it results from the steady increase in human numbers and, in modern times, from not only global warming but also the destruction of environments such as rainforests, from overfishing, pollution, and the movement of invasive species and diseases around the world. It seems likely that each of these plagues is just getting warmed up.

The first five extinctions saw the loss of more than half of existing species, most often around 70% or more (apart from microbes). The most recent mass extinction, about 65 million years ago, included two memorable elements that have earned it some reknown. A six-mile-wide meteor hit the Yucutan peninsula and its impact on the climate wiped out the dinosaurs as well as an estimated 75 percent of other species. (For comparison, the normal rate of extinction is a few percent annually, as species evolve into new ones or succumb to competition or normal environmental change.)

timeline of mass extinction

The first five mass extinctions. The dinosaurs came into their own after the Triassic-Jurassic extinction and went out with the Cretaceous-Paleogene one.

The severity of the current, sixth, extinction is debated. According to Wikipedia, estimates run between 100 and 1000 times greater than the normal extinction rate. Ten years ago, E.O. Wilson famously predicted the loss of half of the current species 100 years from now. The exact rate aside, the losses have already cut across the organic spectrum. Amphibians, including frogs and toads; bird populations; fish species; invertebrates, mostly insects; plant species—all have declined. Mammals are vulnerable because they are dependent on plants and other animals down the food chain. In part because humans live almost everywhere on the globe, our species is not likely to be pressed to extinction anytime soon. But we can’t know the long-term impact of the next several decades’  addition of billions more humans and their demands for water, minerals, meat, and cars.

No matter whether the current extinction turns out to be a major one or only a middling one, its severity will earn it a place among the turning points for life on the planet. We—all organisms—are part of the chain of life that is billions of years long. That chain has been tested in the past by meteors and volcanoes. It’s painful to think that it will be tested this time by one of its own.

Spirituality in “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”

Secular spiritualists, although they trust in nature instead of the supernatural, may or may not as individuals understand much about science. And scientists, who study nature in detail, may or may not find spiritual meaning in it. The relationships between these two groups and those two topics, nature and spiritualism, are complicated.

The recent tv series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey illustrates some of the complexity on the science side. The series is full of imagination, it is visually striking, the music is stirring, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s voice is expressive and friendly. In the videos we travel the breadth and depth of nature. The series is about science first and foremost, but its mode is inspirational, so it’s worthwhile asking whether spirituality comes into the picture. The answer is, seldom. I’ll mention three examples.

Cosmos: the tree of life  (igorotjournal.com)

Cosmos: the tree of life

One reference to spirituality appears in the second episode as Tyson discusses evolution, DNA, and “the tree of life.” He says, “Accepting our kinship with all of life on earth is not only solid science; in my view, it’s also a soaring, spiritual experience.” I was glad to hear Tyson assert that something can be both solid science and a spiritual experience at the same time. But the phrase “in my view” reflects his caution. Tyson knows his comment is controversial. It might irritate both scientists who reject religion and, if any of them are watching, the religious who reject evolution. In a different cultural climate, perhaps, he would have given the statement more authority by leaving “in my view” out.

Another episode in which Tyson alludes to the spiritual aspect of scientific knowledge is the final one, in the very last sentence. He stands with the ocean and sky behind him.

If we come to know and love nature as it really is, then we will surely be remembered by our descendants as good, strong links in the chain of life, and our children will continue this sacred searching, seeing for us as we have seen for those who came before, discovering wonders yet undreamt of, in the cosmos.

...in the cosmos (space.com)

…wonders yet undreamt of, in the cosmos

On the last phrase, Tyson turns from the camera to look out over the water and sky. Fade to black. The phrase “chain of life” caught my attention. While not a spiritual concept to most people, it is very much one to me. Unlike the evolutionary tree of life, the chain is an image of length and connectedness, a metaphor for each organism’s overlap with and dependence on the one that came before it. The tree is about kinship and variation, the chain, about persistence through time. However, Tyson here doesn’t seem to be thinking of links as symbols for each and every organism. In speaking of “good, strong links,” he is referring specifically to humans who “know and love nature”—scientists and others. Spiritually, the images of the the chain of life is narrowed rather than broadened here. I think it has greater potential.

The third spiritual reference, “this sacred searching,” appears in the same sentence. Because we know and love nature, our children will pick up where we have left off, “seeing for us as we have seen for those who came before.” Tyson like other scientists is keenly aware that their research rests on the shoulders of earlier scientists. We owe it to them, he says, to take the next steps in understanding nature. The search is sacred because it is a commitment. But this use of sacred applies to scientists only. There is no sense, for example, of a sacred mission to discover more in order to help those in the future, or to make lives better for our children, or of any other sacred promises that all humans can participate in.

Worship from afar   (blog.cbeinternational.org)

Worship from afar

So Tyson’s allusions to the spiritual aspects of nature concern mostly the work of scientists themselves. In Tyson’s view and perhaps that of many of his colleagues, scientists at work studying nature already feel intimately involved with it, perhaps almost “inside” it, as they try every day to tune in to its mysteries and marvels. This perspective is quite different from that of non-scientist nature-lovers who worship nature but would hardly claim to understand how it works. Much as they feel a part of nature, they feel also, I think, that they are on the outside looking in at nature’s essential mechanisms. These contrasting perspectives are, as I said, complicated. We all need more discussion about them, and maybe after the current debate over creationism tapers off, we can have it.