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.