A Review of Donald A. Crosby’s A Religion of Nature, by Crafter Yearly

A Religion of Nature [Image from State University of New York Press's Website]

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.

The Reviewer

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.

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9 Comments on “A Review of Donald A. Crosby’s A Religion of Nature, by Crafter Yearly

  1. Thanks for this. The book has been on my to-read list for a while. Reading your review, I’m not sure I want to read through it word-for-word, but I will certainly take a closer look. Seems like it might be good to reference or cite if ever I should need to bolster certain arguments. (Who, me?) Your review also provides fodder for my gut feeling that Naturalistic Paganism adds something vital to generic Religious Naturalism. It’s not the only specific instantiation of Religious Naturalism to do so, I’m sure, but it’s been the form that has captured my imagination and my heart. The question remains, for me at least: What is the substance and the character of this “something vital”? It seems to add a fullness, warmth, heat, spice even. I’d like to inquire into this further.

    • Thanks for your comment, Bart. I am glad my review was useful to you. I think it’s interesting because I find myself in this liminal space: I’m too much of a pantheist for the secular humanists and too committed to rational argument and evidence for many pagans. No matter whose books I read, I feel like I’m on the outside.

  2. This certainly sounds like a book I would like to read since it appears that I would share its basic position: that nature just as scientists see it is a source of values and not the opposite of them. The values that interest me in particular are related to evolution, to the competition that can mean death and the cooperation (and altruism and moral sentiment) that can bring survival. Does he discuss those?. It also sounds as if he believes, as I do, that in the long run, if and how we find spiritual values in a secularized nature will be an important cultural development. (And I too write in pretty dry language sometimes. It just tumbles out!)

    Brock

    • Those really aren’t values he discusses in this book. The point for Crosby is to show that nature can be the object of religious devotion. He doesn’t actually offer a system of ethics that are taken from natural phenomena.
      Have you read Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid? He specifically argues that altruism is natural to humans and other animals, drawing upon evolutionary ideas. Perhaps you’d be interested in that book, too.

  3. It’s a good book, though it is written in an academic style. It’s serious philosophy, and it can be tough going for those who aren’t used to very dense writing. I agree with some of it, disagree with other parts of it. (Since we’re both academic philosophers, Crosby and I have met at various conferences, and have long been talking about these issues. As a fellow academic, I think his work is of the highest quality.) And I think reading this book would indeed be very useful for any Pagans, especially naturalistic Pagans. Crosby is a militant foe of supernaturalism and of superstition, so he’s very critical of mainstream Paganism. He despises the occult and everything New Age. He’s a naturalist. He has a new book on symbolism and ritual for religious naturalists (actually, there’s not much ritual in it, sadly). It’s called More than Discourse. Since it’s in hardback, it’s not cheap.

    • Well, there was… And the essays that have been published on HP are essays that originally appeared there about a year ago. Once my essays started to be published here, I made the old blog private. When I started writing I didn’t anticipate a large humber of strangers reading my essays and many were quite personal. Being a completely overworked second year professor, I didn’t have the time to go through and remove just the personal bits. I’m sure you can understand.

  4. Thank you for this review! This book is now high up on my wish list. Particularly the line, “he sets out to articulate a religion that it entirely compatible with a scientific worldview.” gets me interested. As someone who has done just that, I am always interested to see what others arrive at when they make a similar attempt.

    • I’m so glad it was useful to you. I should say that I loved your last essay, esp. the bit about the triathlon in the order of evolutionary development. What a fun idea!

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