Continued from Part 1 …
UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM AND THE GROWTH OF RELIGIOUS NATURALISM
It is within the context of Unitarian-Universalism (UU) that I discover Religious Naturalism (RN). Many of the core theologians of RN are based in this denomination, including Donald Crosby, Jerome Stone, Robert Corrington and Michael Hogue. While not all UUs are Religious Naturalists, the faith does provide the growing movement somewhat of an institutional base. Religious Naturalists generally hold that:
1. The natural world is all that exists;
2. Science is a good way to know about that world, although not the only way;
3. There are religious aspects of this world.
Religious Naturalism fits with the overall UU concern for creating a more rational approach to religion ground in the reality of this world and supported by recent scientific discoveries. In the early part of the twentieth century both Unitarians and Universalists were already reading the Bible metaphorically and affirming the humanity of Jesus. Unitarians were particularly prominent as signers and backers of the original Humanist Manifesto (1933) which stated, among other things, that science and reason have important roles to play in the pursuit of religious belief and practice.
Unitarian Universalism (they merged in 1961) is a radically inclusive faith in which “all people of good will are welcome”. They tend to emphasize “deeds not creeds” and have what I would call a very thin unifying theology. My particular congregation in Santa Barbara has Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Pagans and a large non-theist /panentheist Humanist / Naturalist contingent. UUs proudly proclaim themselves a “liberal religion”, and have been instrumental in civil rights, marriage equality and environmental movements.
With the addition of a Seventh Principle in 1986 affirming and promoting “respect for the interdependent web of all existence” and of a Sixth Source in 1995 affirming the “spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions, which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature”, Unitarian Universalists increasingly opened themselves up to all Nature Religions, including Wiccans, Pagans, Druids and Religious Naturalists. The Bay Area feminist Wiccan and UU Starhawk played a central role in the adoption of this Sixth Source and is a frequent instructor at the UU Starr-King seminary associated with the University of California at Berkeley—one of the two exclusive UU theological training centers.
As implied above, Religious Naturalism is, in my opinion, a subset of the Nature Religions, in that it centrally regards the natural world as inherently sacred. Yet, ground in a scientific worldview, RN asserts that there is no ontologically separate realm which gives meaning to this world. Moreover, it claims that there are religious aspects of this world which can be understood within a naturalistic framework. We might say that Religious Naturalism is a Nature Religion without the supernatural “woo-woo”.
Naturalists do not suppose that all truths are scientific truths, what is sometimes called “scientism”. Rather, naturalists argue only that science offers the best way to understand the nature of reality. Naturalists believe that answers based in science are generally more reliable and universally acceptable than those derived from other ways. While many Naturalists are non-theists there are also those who are theist, pantheist and panentheists.
Our physical world consists of a space-time continuum composed of the basic elements as described by contemporary physics. The natural world is all that exists and there is no evidence of a special realm “out there” filled with angels, animal spirits nor deities. The “epic of evolution” is the story told by scientists and others about the various processes that have lead us from the “Big Bang” to our present moment—from hydrogen to humans, one might say. Included within that story are the processes of natural selection which have populated our world with various flora, fauna and other life forms. While firmly ground in a scientific cosmology, Religious Naturalism can be seen as a revival of ancient creation-based spirituality through its focus on cosmic evolution.
Naturalist spirituality posits an underlying unity and interconnectedness of all phenomena. It leads to mystery and wonder about why we are here or exist at all. It leads to a sense that Spirit and sacredness is at work in the cosmos. Increasingly, the scientific community refers to the Earth as if it is a sacred living organism—“the Gaia hypothesis”. It seems important to note that referring to this world by the name of a goddess acts to reclaim the sacred feminine, which had long been banished from western civilization.
To be continued …
About the Author
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.