My Credo as a Religious Naturalist
Religious Naturalism is the concept I use to find my place in the oneness of being. It helps me organize my thoughts in a more useful manner and provides me with a religious interpretation of the natural world.
I find myself alive, surrounded by many objects - some living, some not. I inhale. I exhale. I feel the warmth of the sun on my skin in the summer. I feel the bitter sting of the cold wind in the winter. In the autumn I smell different odors than I do in the spring. What am I to make of all these sensations?
Through the contingency of numerous life events I find myself in a compelling culture. This culture has shaped me into the individual I am today. It has influenced my thinking from the day of my birth. Yet I am not like anyone else in my culture. I may be of it but I am also a distinctive addition to it.
The differences I feel are due to both the biological differences between individuals of our species and to the wide variety of experiences that each member of our culture has experienced during his or her lifetime. While similar to those of others, my experiences are unique to me; no one else has had exactly the same set of experiences I have had.
Everyone tries to make sense of their experiences. I am no different in that respect. While the interpretations of others of their experiences can be instructive to me in my understanding of my experiences, they can in no way be the basis for the analysis of my experiences.
Most of us are born into a loving family with parents who want to teach us what life is all about. Our parents necessarily try to teach us what they have been taught by their parents and other family members. They will supplement that with what they have learned for themselves through their own experiences.
Often—though not always—we are told of experiences and the interpretation of those experiences that are deemed very important to the teller. An example that comes to mind is a religious conversion experience. This is very important to the one who has experienced such an experience, and they naturally want to transmit their understanding of it to their children and other loved ones.
Often the importance of this experience is conveyed to the listener with such strength that the listener also wants to have such an experience. This is especially true when the teller is one in a position of authority—such as parent, priest, or teacher. The listener wants to have such an experience, if for no other reason than to validate the person in authority, and to be perceived as a loyal member of the “tribe”, whether a family, extended living group, church, synagogue, or mosque.
We are born into a culture that already has many explanations for experiences previously occurring. We then try to find our own experience to match those interpretations. To me this seems backward! Should we not begin with an experience and seek to interpret it with the best and most robust tools available? Is not life itself simply the activity of acquiring through experience more data points that help us refine our analysis for those experiences? I have chosen to do this!
Since the Enlightenment science has been our most robust and accurate process for understanding experience. Through the scientific method, based upon evidence and observation, experiences have yielded their secrets with spectacular results.
The English theologian and philosopher, Don Cupitt, has defined religion as “the complex of ideas and practices by means of which we try to reconcile ourselves to, and make the best of, life in general and our own lives in particular. Religion is about coming to terms with life and learning how to live and how to die.” This definition does not prescribe where the complexity of ideas come from or how best to live that life. We are at liberty, if we choose, to do that on our own.
I have chosen to make sense of my life by using modern science rather than explanations passed down through outmoded traditions. I find that my meditations on “life—my life” instill within me a sense of awe and wonder that I am a part of this wonderful yet frightening thing called existence. This results in my inclination to Religious Naturalism.
Like other Religious Naturalists, I understand that my source of meaning is to be found in the natural world because I am emergent from, and hence a part of Nature. This understanding instills within me feelings that I consider religious: awe, wonder, amazement, gratitude, humility, and reverence. I am compelled to better understand my place in Nature, in space, in time, and where I am on the universal tree of life. This self-knowledge contributes to an existential integration of my inner being with the totality of Being itself, - an integration that all of us pursue continuously throughout our lives.
It is, as the poet Mary Oliver writes in “Wild Geese”, what the astute birds reveal to those who will listen: “your place in the family of things.” Religious Naturalism helps me to more clearly see this relationship. It is a perspective that other liberated modern thinkers may also find enlightening and satisfying.
Alton Jenkins - January, 2008