Religious Naturalism

Religious naturalism (RN) combines a naturalist worldview with perceptions and values commonly associated with religions. In this, “religious” is understood in general terms, separate from established traditions, in designating feelings and concerns (e.g. gratitude, wonder, humility, compassion) that are often described as spiritual or religious. Naturalism refers to a view that the natural world is all we have substantiated reason to believe exists, and there is no substantiated reason to believe that anything else, including deities, exists or may act in ways that are independent of the natural order.

Areas of inquiry include attempts to understand the natural world and the spiritual and moral implications of naturalist views. Understanding is based in knowledge obtained through scientific inquiry and insights from the humanities and the arts. Religious naturalists use these perspectives in responding to personal and social challenges (e.g. finding purpose, seeking justice, coming to terms with mortality) and in relating to the natural world.


Main article: Naturalism

Naturalism is the “idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world”.

All forms of religious naturalism, being naturalistic in their basic beliefs, assert that the natural world is the center of our most significant experiences and understandings. Consequently, nature is considered as the ultimate value in assessing one’s being. Religious naturalists, despite having followed differing cultural and individual paths, affirm the human need for meaning and value in their lives. They draw on two fundamental convictions in those quests: the sense of Nature’s richness, spectacular complexity, and fertility, and the recognition that Nature is the only realm in which people live out their lives. Humans are considered interconnected parts of Nature.

A religious attitude towards nature

Spiritual Tree
A religious attitude towards nature

Science is a fundamental, indispensable component of the paradigm of religious naturalism. It relies on mainstream science to reinforce religious and spiritual perspectives. Science is the primary interpretive tool for religious naturalism, because, scientific methods are thought to provide the most reliable understanding of Nature and the world, including human nature.

“Truth is sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything for its own sake are not interested in other things. Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough.”

Therefore, the seeker after the truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration, and not to the sayings of a human being whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.


Religious naturalists use the term “religious” to refer to an attitude – of being appreciative of and interested in concerns that have long been parts of religions. These include:

  • A spiritual sense (which may include a sense of mystery or wonder or feelings of reverence or awe in response to the scope and power and beauty of the natural world)
  • A moral sense (with compassion, desire for justice, and attempts to do what is right – with respect to other people, other creatures, and the natural environment)

As the source of all that is and the reason why all things are as they are, the natural world may be seen as being of ultimate importance.

The interconnectivity of nature is a key postulate in religious naturalism.

The interconnectivity of nature is a key postulate in religious naturalism.

As in other religious orientations, religious naturalism includes a central story – a modern creation myth – to describe ourselves and our place in the world. This begins with the Big Bang and the emergence of galaxies, stars, planets, and life, and evolution that led to the presence of human beings. As this gives insight into who we are and how we came to be, religious naturalists look to the natural world (the source of our intelligence and inclinations) for information and insights that may help us to understand and respond to important questions:

  • Why do we want what we want?
  • Why we do the things we do?
  • What we might try to point ourselves toward?

and to try to find ways to minimize problems (in ourselves and in our world), become our better selves, and relate to others and the world we are part of.

When discussing distinctions between “religious” naturalists and “plain old” (secular) naturalists, Loyal Rue said: “I regard a religious or spiritual person to be one who takes ultimate concerns to heart.”

He noted that, while “plain old” naturalists are concerned with morals and may have emotional responses to the mysteries and wonders of the world, those who describe themselves as religious naturalists take it more “to heart” and show active interest in this area.


Core themes in religious naturalism have been present, in varied cultures, for centuries. But active discussion, with use of this name, is relatively recent.

Zeno (c. 334 – c. 262 BCE, a founder of Stoicism) said:

All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature … Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature.

Views consistent with religious naturalism can be seen in ancient Daoist texts (e.g., Dao De Jing) and some Hindu views (such as God as Nirguṇa Brahman, God without attributes). They may also be seen in Western images that do not focus on active, personal aspects of God, such as Thomas Aquinas’ view of God as Pure Act, Augustine’s God as Being Itself, and Paul Tillich’s view of God as Ground of Being. As Wesley Wildman has described, views consistent with RN have long existed as part of the underside of major religious traditions, often quietly and sometimes in mystical strands or intellectual sub-traditions, by practitioners who are not drawn to supernatural claims.

The earliest uses of the term, religious naturalism, seem to have occurred in the 1800s. In 1846, the American Whig Review described “a seeming ‘religious naturalism'”, In 1869, American Unitarian Association literature adjudged:”Religious naturalism differs from this mainly in the fact that it extends the domain of nature farther outward into space and time. …It never transcends nature”. Ludwig Feuerbach wrote that religious naturalism was “the acknowledgment of the Divine in Nature” and also “an element of the Christian religion”, but by no means that religion’s definitive “characteristic” or “tendency”.

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu, traditionally the author of the Tao Te Ching

In 1864, Pope Pius IX condemned religious naturalism in the first seven articles of the Syllabus of Errors.

Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983), one of the great rabbis of the 20th century and the founder of the Jewish reconstructionism movement, early advocated religious naturalism. He believed that a naturalistic approach to religion and ethics was possible in a desacralizing world. He saw God as the sum of all natural processes.

Other verified usages of the term came in 1940 from George Perrigo Conger and from Edgar S. Brightman. Shortly thereafter, H. H. Dubs wrote an article entitled Religious Naturalism – an Evaluation (The Journal of Religion, XXIII: 4, October, 1943), which begins “Religious naturalism is today one of the outstanding American philosophies of religion…” and discusses ideas developed by Henry Nelson Wieman in books that predate Dubs’s article by 20 years.

In 1991 Jerome A. Stone wrote The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence explicitly “to sketch a philosophy of religious naturalism”. Use of the term was expanded in the 1990s by Loyal Rue, who was familiar with the term from Brightman’s book. Rue used the term in conversations with several people before 1994, and subsequent conversations between Rue and Ursula Goodenough [both of whom were active in IRAS (The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science)] led to Goodenough’s use in her book “The Sacred Depths of Nature” and by Rue in “Religion is not about God” and other writings. Since 1994 numerous authors have used the phrase or expressed similar thinking. Examples are Chet Raymo, Stuart Kauffman and Karl E. Peters.

Ursula Goodenough

Ursula Goodenough

Mike Ignatowski states that “there were many religious naturalists in the first half of the 20th century and some even before that” but that “religious naturalism as a movement didn’t really come into its own until about 1990 [and] took a major leap forward in 1998 when Ursula Goodenough published The Sacred Depths of Nature, which is considered one of the founding texts of this movement.”

Biologist Ursula Goodenough states:

I profess my Faith. For me, the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty, and my ability to apprehend it, serves as the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value. The continuation of life reaches around, grabs its own tail, and forms a sacred circle that requires no further justification, no Creator, no super-ordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose other than that the continuation continue until the sun collapses or the final meteor collides. I confess a credo of continuation. And in so doing, I confess as well a credo of human continuation

Donald Crosby’s Living with Ambiguity published in 2008, has, as its first chapter, Religion of Nature as a Form of Religious Naturalism.

Loyal Rue’s Nature is Enough published in 2011, discusses “Religion Naturalized, Nature Sanctified” and “The Promise of Religious Naturalism”.

Jerome A. Stone

Jerome A. Stone

Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative is a history by Dr. Jerome A. Stone (Dec. 2008 release) that presents this paradigm as a once-forgotten option in religious thinking that is making a rapid revival. It seeks to explore and encourage religious ways of responding to the world on a completely naturalistic basis without a supreme being or ground of being. This book traces this history and analyzes some of the issues dividing religious naturalists. It covers the birth of religious naturalism, from George Santayana to Henry Nelson Wiemanand briefly explores religious naturalism in literature and art. Contested issues are discussed including whether nature’s power or goodness is the focus of attention and also on the appropriateness of using the term “God”. The contributions of more than twenty living Religious Naturalists are presented. The last chapter ends the study by exploring what it is like on the inside to live as a religious naturalist.

Chet Raymo writes that he had come to the same conclusion as Teilhard de Chardin: “Grace is everywhere”, and that naturalistic emergence is in everything and far more magical than religion-based miracles. A future humankind religion should be ecumenical, ecological, and embrace the story provided by science as the “most reliable cosmology”.

As P. Roger Gillette summarizes:

Thus was religious naturalism born. It takes the findings of modern science seriously, and thus is inherently naturalistic. But it also takes the human needs that led to the emergence of religious systems seriously, and thus is also religious. It is religious, or reconnective, in that it seeks and facilitates human reconnection with one’s self, family, larger human community, local and global ecosystem, and unitary universe (…) Religious reconnection implies love. And love implies concern, concern for the well-being of the beloved. Religious naturalism thus is marked by concern for the well-being of the whole of nature. This concern provides a basis and drive for ethical behavior toward the whole holy unitary universe.


Due to the high importance placed on nature, some religious naturalists have a strong sense of stewardship for the Earth. Luther College professor Loyal Rue has written:

Religious naturalists will be known for their reverence and awe before Nature, their love for Nature and natural forms, their sympathy for all living things, their guilt for enlarging the ecological footprints, their pride in reducing them, their sense of gratitude directed towards the matrix of life, their contempt for those who abstract themselves from natural values, and their solidarity with those who link their self-esteem to sustainable living.


The literature related to religious naturalism includes many variations in conceptual framing. This reflects individual takes on various issues, to some extent various schools of thought, such as basic naturalism, religious humanism, pantheism, panentheism, and spiritual naturalism that have had time on the conceptual stage, and to some extent differing ways of characterizing Nature.

Current discussion often relates to the issue of whether belief in a God or God-language and associated concepts have any place in a framework that treats the physical universe as its essential frame of reference and the methods of science as providing the preeminent means for determining what Nature is. There are at least three varieties of religious naturalism, and three similar but somewhat different ways to categorize them. They are:

  • A kind of naturalism that does use theological language but fundamentally treats God metaphorically.
  • A commitment to naturalism using theological language, but as either (1) a faith statement or supported by philosophical arguments, or (2) both, usually leaving open the question of whether that usage as metaphoror refers to the ultimate answer that Nature can be.
  • Neo-theistic (process theology, progressive religions) – Gordon Kaufman, Karl E. Peters, Ralph Wendell Burhoe, Edmund Robinson
  • Non-theistic (agnostic, naturalistic concepts of god) – Robertson himself, Stanley Klein, Stuart Kauffman, Naturalistic Paganism.
  • atheistic (no God concept, some modern naturalisms, Process Naturalism, C. Robert Mesle, non-militant atheism, antitheism) – Jerome A. Stone, Michael Cavanaugh, Donald A. Crosby, Ursula Goodenough, Daniel Dennett
  • A hodgepodge of individual perspectives – Philip Hefner

The first category has as many sub-groups as there are distinct definitions for god. Believers in a supernatural entity (transcendent) are by definition not religious naturalists however the matter of a naturalistic concept of God (Immanence) is currently debated. Strong atheists are not considered Religious Naturalists in this differentiation. Some individuals call themselves religious naturalists but refuse to be categorized. The unique theories of religious naturalists Loyal Rue, Donald A. Crosby, Jerome A. Stone, and Ursula Goodenough are discussed by Michael Hogue in his 2010 book The Promise of Religious Naturalism.

God concepts

  • Those who conceive of God as the creative process within the universe – example, Henry Nelson Wieman
  • Those who think of God as the totality of the universe considered religiously – Bernard Loomer.
  • A third type of religious naturalism sees no need to use the concept or terminology of God, Stone himself and Ursula Goodenough

Stone emphasizes that some Religious Naturalists do not reject the concept of God, but if they use the concept, it involves a radical alteration of the idea such as Gordon Kaufman who defines God as creativity.

Ignatowski divides RN into only two types – theistic and non-theistic.

Shared principles

Biological classification

Biological classification

There are several principles shared by all the aforementioned varieties of religious naturalism:

  • All varieties of religious naturalism see humans as an interconnected, emergent part of nature.
  • Accept the primacy of science with regard to what is measurable via the scientific method.
  • Recognize science’s limitations in accounting for judgments of value and in providing a full account of human experience. Thus religious naturalism embraces nature’s creativity, beauty and mystery and honors many aspects of the artistic, cultural and religious traditions that respond to and attempt to interpret Nature in subjective ways.
  • Approach matters of morality, ethics and value with a focus on how the world works, with a deep concern for fairness and the welfare of all humans regardless of their station in life.
  • Seek to integrate these interpretative, spiritual and ethical responses in a manner that respects diverse religious and philosophical perspectives, while still subjecting them and itself to rigorous scrutiny.
  • The focus on scientific standards of evidence imbues RN with the humility inherent in scientific inquiry and its limited, albeit ever deepening, ability to describe reality (see Epistemology).
  • A strong environmental ethic for the welfare of the planet Earth and humanity.
  • Belief in the sacredness of life and the evolutionary process

The concept of emergence has grown in popularity with many Religious Naturalists. It helps explain how a complex Universe and life by self-organization have risen out of a multiplicity of relatively simple elements and their interactions. The entire story of emergence is related in the Epic of Evolution – the mythic scientific narrative used to tell the verifiable chronicle of the evolutionary process that is the Universe. Most religious naturalist consider the Epic of Evolution a true story about the historic achievement of Nature. “The Epic of Evolution is the 14 billion year narrative of cosmic, planetary, life, and cultural evolution—told in sacred ways. Not only does it bridge mainstream science and a diversity of religious traditions; if skillfully told, it makes the science story memorable and deeply meaningful, while enriching one’s religious faith or secular outlook.”

A number of naturalistic writers have used this theme as a topic for their books using such synonyms as: Cosmic Evolution, Everybody’s Story, Evolutionary Epic, Evolutionary Universe, Great Story, New Story, Universal Story. Epic of evolution’ is a term that, within the past three years(1998), has become the theme and title of a number of gatherings. It seems to have been first used by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson in 1978. ‘The evolutionary epic,’ Wilson wrote in his book On Human Nature, ‘is probably the best myth we will ever have.’ Myth as falsehood was not the usage intended by Wilson in this statement. Rather, myth as a grand narrative that provides a people with a placement in time—a meaningful placement that celebrates extraordinary moments of a shared heritage. The epic of evolution is science translated into meaningful story.”

Evolutionary evangelist minister Michael Dowd uses the term to help present his position that science and religious faith are not mutually exclusive (a premise of religious naturalism). He preaches that the epic of cosmic, biological, and human evolution, revealed by science, is a basis for an inspiring and meaningful view of our place in the universe. Evolution is viewed as a spiritual process that it is not meaningless blind chance. He is joined by a number of other theologians in this position.

Notable proponents and critics


Support for religious naturalism can be seen from two perspectives. One is individuals, in recent times, who have discussed and supported religious naturalism, per se. Another is individuals from earlier times who may not have used or been familiar with the term, “religious naturalism“, but who had views that are compatible and whose thoughts have contributed to development of religious naturalism.

People who have been supportive of and who discussed religious naturalism by name include:

  • Chet Raymo
  • Loyal Rue
  • Donald A. Crosby
  • Jerome A. Stone
  • Michael Dowd
  • Ursula Goodenough
  • Terrence Deacon
  • Loren Eiseley
  • Philip Hefner
  • Ralph Wendell Burhoe
  • Mordecai Kaplan
  • Henry Nelson Wieman
  • George Santayana
  • Gordon D. Kaufman
  • Stuart Kauffman
  • Stanley A. Klein
  • C. Robert Mesle
  • Karl E. Peters
  • Varadaraja V. Raman
  • Ian Barbour
  • Robert S. Corrington

People from earlier times, who did not use the term, religious naturalism, but who had compatible views, include:

  • Lao-Tzu
  • Albert Einstein
  • W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Aldo Leopold


Religious naturalism has been criticized from two perspectives. One is that of traditional Western religion, which disagrees with naturalist disbelief in a personal God. Another is that of naturalists who do not agree that a religious sense can or should be associated with naturalist views. Critics in the first group include supporters of traditional Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religion. Critics in the second group include:

  • Richard Dawkins
  • John Haught

Prominent communities and leaders

Religious naturalists sometimes use the social practices of traditional religions, including communal gatherings and rituals, to foster a sense of community, and to serve as reinforcement of its participants’ efforts to expand the scope of their understandings. Some other groups mainly communicate online. Some known examples of religious naturalists groupings and congregation leaders are:

  • Religious Naturalist Association
  • Spiritual Naturalist Society
  • Unitarian Universalist Religious Naturalists
  • Religious Naturalism Facebook Group
  • World Pantheist Movement – largely web-based but with some local groups.
  • Universal Pantheist Society founded 1975 – Pantheism is an intercepting concept with religious naturalism
  • Congregation Beth Or, a Jewish congregation near Chicago led by Rabbi David Oler
  • Congregation of Beth Adam in Loveland Ohio led by Rabbi Robert Barr
  • Pastor Ian Lawton, minister at the Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, West Michigan and Center for Progressive Christianity

Religious Naturalism is the focus of classes and conferences at some colleges and theology schools. Articles about religious naturalism have appeared frequently in journals, including Zygon, American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, and the International Journal for Philosophy and Religion.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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