What Is the “Nature” In Religious Naturalism?

I am a religious/spiritual naturalist. (Religious and spiritual don’t mean the same thing, but for this discussion, they are close enough to let religious serve for both.) But I find in what I read about the subject, and in what I myself have written, the meaning of nature seems to narrow selectively to suit particular religious ideas and feelings. I discuss the topic here with some trepidation because it is about a belief at the center for a group I am part of, but I think it never hurts to take another look at our definitions.

The definition here seems clear enough. Nature, as religious naturalists conceive of it, is distinct from the supernatural and it refers to the universe of materials and forces that we perceive with our senses and that scientists infer from their observations.

But the breadth of this definition, if we follow it literally, takes us places where we may not want to go. We say, for example, that we humans are part of nature. But we might be reluctant to include as “natural” our human products such as cities, cars, computers, and pollution, all of which fall within the category of things in the universe. Moreover, nature in its raw physicality has almost none of the characteristics that we attribute to it. The light at sunset shines in various wavelengths, but without humans to admire those sunsets, they would not be enchanting. Similarly, while nature as a whole may resemble organic life in its evolution and its cycles, the natural universe is not “alive” in our sense of the word. In short, apart from certain principles of physics, nature has no universal characteristics at all, no living qualities, certainly no values.



But within it, we tiny humans seek meaning and understanding. We take strength from our traditions of gratitude and reverence for the world around us. So it is not surprising that we select from nature according to our spiritual needs. We value the fields, mountains, and oceans for the transcendence they offer from our rough-and-tumble society (though that society too is, strictly speaking, natural). And we value the cooperation and interconnection that we find at all levels of earthly life and in the cosmos itself, even though such linkages in nature are not always benign; animals or human often cooperate mainly for the purpose of prevailing over others. We find in nature what we need.

Loyal Rue has written, “Nature is enough.” I think sometimes that nature is too much. It’s too big and elusive. The definition we have assigned to the word is not so easy for us to live up to in our religious discourse.

Up into my middle age, I was intrigued by accounts of how the universe began and how it unfolded. But for the last couple of decades, that question has faded and others have taken its place. These are questions related to reviewing my life, anticipating death, and trying to grasp the underlying flow of daily life. Today, I don’t share the feelings of many religious naturalists for the universe story, but I am moved to my depths by the history of living things, as I’ve written in this blog. I too have my own slice of nature.

I share the focus that Ursula Goodenough describes in “Are You A Religious Naturalist Without Knowing It?”, a piece for NPR in 2010:

Nature is all that we know there to be; its source is a mystery; its dynamics generate emergent phenomena of increasing complexity. Full stop. How might one find Purpose and Value in such a perspective?

There are many responses, but my own is to see purpose and valuation in every biological trait, every adaptation….Traits are about something, for something. They have been evaluated and selected in their ecological contexts. Therefore, for me, the flourishing and continuation of life has deep intrinsic Value and Purpose.

“Full stop”—meaning, as I understand her, that there is nothing more that can or should be said about nature as a whole after we have noted that it is emergent and increasingly complex. Any more would be incomplete, would be to choose some aspects and leave out others.

And Goodenough writes that “There are many responses” to how we seek purpose and value given that nature “is all we know there to be.” Some find their core in the universe story, some in celebration of the earthly seasons, others in the history of living things. Perhaps we need a double vision (something our natural brains are not so good at) to hold in mind both the totality of nature that is beyond description and that portion of it that feels like our intimate spiritual companion.


Searching For Almost-But-Not-Exactly-Living Things On Other Planets

We get a steady trickle of news about evidence that a planet—either one of our own or a newly discovered one—might support or has supported organic life. Such a search is exciting, of course. But is there nothing on such planets short of life itself that would be interesting and even inspiring to the layperson, other than some dramatic landscapes?

Mars (pics-about-space.com)


What if there are entities out there that, even though they aren’t DNA-based, do have boundaries (“skins” of sorts), organized innards, an internal energy flow, and perhaps some interaction with others of their kind? They would not be “alive” in our sense of the word, but they might be a different version of it.

Here is an example of such a naturally occurring and non-living but life-like entity. This is a made-up creature, fathered only by my speculation, and I’m sure scientists as well as science fiction writers could supply more likely ones, or already have.

Let’s say that on a planet that has an atmosphere, the winds have swirled the sands and the dust around for millions of years in such a way that every so often, the dust forms cone-shaped structures a few feet high, structures that become compacted and hardened sufficiently to last for many years. Let’s say that the layers of such cones sometimes include nickel, zinc, or other components in an arrangement that produces an electromagnetic flux. In some cases, the flux is strong enough to interact with the flux from other nearby cones. Sometimes the interaction repels and damages the cones, sometimes it appears to strengthen them. Earth scientists dub these structures GERFs, Geologic Electromagnetic Radiation Formations.

GERFs would be life-like in some ways—their autonomy, energy use, and interaction. But more importantly they would be interesting in their own right as self-contained, self-sustaining systems of matter and energy on a modest scale. Mini, autonomous systems in a huge universe. A second set, along with Earth’s.

I hope we look for GERFs or their cousins out there. If we don’t, I think we limit our appreciation of our own quite beautiful, enduring and possibly unique version of life.

The Most Amazing Thing About Life

“The most impressive aspect of the living world is its diversity. No two individuals in sexually reproducing populations are the same, nor are any two populations, species, or higher taxa [categories of organisms]. Wherever one looks in nature, one finds uniqueness.” So wrote Ernst Mayr in This is Biology, published in 1997.

Grains of sand under an electron microscope (wikipedia)

Grains of sand 

This was, to an extent, a new idea to me. Clearly each species is different from the next. But I had not fully absorbed the notion that every single organism, if it reproduces in pairs, is different from every other in its species. Every individual grass plant, every tree, every insect, every ant is as different from the one next to it as two human beings are. Why? As Mayr explains, diversity ensures that some individuals will fit the environment; as the environment weeds out some versions, others will survive.

But what about the diversity in the non-biological, inanimate world? “Nature” includes not only living things but also rocks, water, air, light and other forces and materials. Aren’t they unique in their own ways? Snowflakes are famously singular. Clouds are constantly changing. So is the surface of the ocean. Air flows and spins. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen two rocks that are identical. It’s a good bet that every asteroid, planet and star is different from the others in some ways. Looking out over the dessert, the ocean, or the skies, we certainly see diversity in shape, motion, color and light.

Diversity and fertility in grass (www.kvkcard.org)


Still, I think the diversity of living things does “impress” us, as Mayr wrote, in a distinct way. The variety of the organisms in a species is more individualistic, unique, than the motions, colors and contours of the elements around us. And it captures our attention partly because of the sheer power of fertility. New life is always thrusting itself in front of us—in a sister’s baby, in a new puppy, among the trees at the back of the backyard, in the horde of ants and bees and birds of spring. In Origin of Species, Darwin wrote, “There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair.”

Diversity is the music, but fertility is the amplifier. It’s the combination that gets our attention. And we are not remote observers. We are both notes in the music and members of the orchestra.