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 a variety of beliefs and classical philosophies, a network of local chapters, and a very 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, exactly what the connections are between these values, is not always evident. How does rationality imply compassion and happiness? How are they derived from the belief in naturalism? For me, spirituality calls for an understanding of how these elements fit together because they are all building blocks of the larger picture that we seek to find our place in.

Many people find their spiritual resource in the universe as a whole, in the cosmos and its physical foundations. 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, if there is one, of my being alive? 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 purposes are being alive and, through various forms of offspring (biological, societal or creative), remaining “alive” after death. Whether that amounts to a lofty purpose or 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 helpful in figuring out how to conduct my 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. One is competition, including, for humans, its manifestations as envy, greed, and violence. Competition is necessary at times and, for humans, tempting much of the time, but it 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. When it is successful, cooperation results in survival and flourishing for most of the organisms involved.  Cooperation and its family of positive, harmonious relations with others is on the whole preferable to competition because it leads to less mortality and greater flourishing, the goals of life itself.

The third question is whether there is any consolation to be found in science and nature 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, in addition to its incredibly long past, a future that is in all probability very long as well.

Here then are the connected rungs on my ladder of Spiritual Naturalism. It starts from the simple fact of living things, which leads up a step to the drive to survive and reproduce as life’s purpose, up to the two strategies for survival that form the roots of right and wrong, and finally to the totality of life as a something-larger that we can feel a part of. Spiritual Naturalists can embrace nature, rationality, and compassion not only because we value them but because they follow from each other.