I recently finished reading A Religion of Nature by Donald A. Crosby. And while it wasn’t the most pleasurable reading experience, it was still an important one. Crosby, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Colorado State University, writes in the style of an analytic philosopher—which is to say that his writing is exceedingly clear, direct, and understandable, but not particularly poetic or moving. I can see where many non-philosophers would be put off by his style of writing. But I think that’s a shame, because A Religion of Nature is an important book that should be read widely, especially by Pagans.
In A Religion of Nature, Crosby takes on one of the most significant and influential claims that has been made (and often taken for truth) in philosophy; namely, that facts and values are separate things and values cannot be derived from facts. In this section of the book he draws heavily on the American Pragmatists for support for his own position, and as someone in love with John Dewey, this thrilled me. For some, this might seem like nothing more than a bunch of dry, academic, point-making. But taking on this position is a vitally important first step in arguing that values can indeed be derived from nature.
Crosby argues that values can, in fact, be derived from nature. In one of two pivotal chapters of the book, he offers an account of the values that he believes inhere in nature. Here, he uses the term “value” in two senses of the word: as things of value or worthy of being valued, and also values as principles, standards, or ideals with which we evaluate things and actions in the world. The things of value in nature are life, biological species, ecosystems, the biosphere, the diversity of lifeforms, and “the creativity that gave rise to that diversity” (Crosby 82). The ideals he argues are inherent in nature are splendor, practical values, moral values, and religious values. His argument in this chapter is clear and persuasive.
In another pivotal chapter, Crosby argues that nature can be understood as a proper subject for “religious commitment and concern” (118). He begins the chapter by arguing that the religious is set off from other sorts of phenomena because of the role-functional characteristics of the religious qua religion. Here, he argues that the religious is distinct from other phenomena in its “Uniqueness, Primacy, Pervasiveness, Rightness, Permanence, and Hiddenness” (118); categories likely to be easily accepted by pantheist and humanists, but perhaps found wanting for those who insist on the necessity of a personal god/dess for suitable religion.
I should probably note that Crosby is no pantheist. He is not arguing that spirit pervades nature. Rather, that nature is worthy of religious reverence and commitment even without conceptualizing nature as divine. Crosby’s notion of nature is not dissimilar to that of a secular scientist. In fact, he sets out to articulate a religion that it entirely compatible with a scientific worldview. And this might be his greatest strength for some readers.
However, as much as I intellectually agreed with every point me made, as much as I loved the philosophical tradition he worked within, as much as I found his argument persuasive, I did not, ultimately, feel satisfied by his account. I guess I am more of a pantheist than I realized. Because the world he described and the religion that follows from it felt a bit cold and empty to me. And no matter how much I agreed with his project in principle, I didn’t feel the potential for communion with nature in his work.
That may have something to do with the writing. He’s clearly writing for an audience of academic philosophers. There are norms of analytical writing that he’s following, perhaps even more so since his chosen topic (nature religion) is so closely associated with people much to woo-woo for philosophers’ liking (or respect). I agree with much of what Crosby says. But I am not sure I want to dwell in the world he describes.
Crafter Yearly earned a PhD in political philosophy and now works as a professor at a teaching institution in the midwest. Her research is in the areas of antiracism, feminism, and social constructivism. She was introduced to Paganism by Wiccans, but has come over time to adopt a purely naturalistic reverence for the Earth and the Universe. She lives her Paganism by celebrating the movements of the sun and the moon, connecting to the cycles of the earth through crafting handmade goods, and connecting to her body through yoga and dance. Crafter Yearly maintains a blog at: https://craftingthewheeloftheyear.wordpress.com.