Religious Naturalism - Mike Ignatowski
Kingston, June 25, 2006
Mike Ignatowski

(Segments of this sermon, including much of the story of the red knot were taken from a sermon by The Reverend Dr. William R. Murry )

The red knot is a sandpiper that lives at Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of south America during our North American winters. Every February, they begin a 9,000 mile journey north, traveling in large flocks. They stop on their way for food, always at the same beaches or marshes where they have fed for centuries. From the northern coast of South America they embark on a week-long, non-stop flight that takes them to Delaware Bay, just as horseshoe crabs are laying eggs by the millions. There they gorge themselves in order to prepare for the next leg of their long journey – another non-stop flight to the islands north of Hudson Bay. There in the long summer they mate and breed. By mid-July the female knots abandon their offspring and head south, and a few weeks later the males follow. The babies fend for themselves until late August when they, too, commence their 9,000-mile journey south. Now here is the amazing thing: The young red knots, by the thousands and without adult guides or any prior experience, find their way along the very same migration route of their parents, stop at precisely the same beaches and marshes for food, and join the others at precisely the same place in Tierra del Fuego.

How do they do it? How do they know where to go, along a route they have never traveled, to a destination where they have never been? People who study them can only guess at this time. One recent theory is that the successful journey is due in large part to the leadership of the young female birds, who apparently stop and ask other birds for directions along the way. But nobody really knows for sure. This is a wonderful example of both the mystery and the amazing nature of life on this planet.

This is a talk today about Religious Naturalism, which you may have guessed from these opening comments. It’s a growing movement that I’ve become interested in during this past year. Let me explain how this came about.

Last summer was a big year for attending conferences for me. I had the privilege of attending the UU General Assembly, or GA for short, an event I strongly recommend to everyone if you can manage it at some point. It’s a major gathering of UUs from all over that occurs every June, and Linda Anderson is there right now. Something interesting is happening there this year, and I’ll talk about that more later. One of the talks I listened to at last year’s GA was given by a famous biologists and author named Ursula Goodenough. She talked about a growing phenomena called Religious Naturalism, and how it fits into UUism. I’ll talk more about her later.

Earlier that season we attended a conference in NYC sponsored by Interfaith Voices, which some of us actually helped plan and presented at. There was one particularly interesting talk there on the religious aspects of Ecology and Stewardship of the Earth. The speaker introduced the notion of religions entering an ecological phase.

Shortly after that there was a big conference at Bard College titled “Earth and Religion” that I attended. As the title suggests, it was all about the growing religious focus on environmental issues. Clearly, there’s something happening here.

Religious naturalism has an interesting history. Although there were many religious naturalists in the first half of the 20th century and some even before that, religious naturalism as a movement didn’t really come into its own until about 1990.

It took a major leap forward in 2000 when Ursula Goodenough published The Sacred Depths of Nature, which is considered one of the founding texts of this movement. In this book she shows how nature, illuminated by scientific understanding, can generate a sense of awe and inspire an ethic of planetary stewardship. Ursula Goodenough is also responsible for coining the term “Religious Naturalism”. And as I mentioned before, she came to last year’s GA and gave on talk on this.

Two other important people in this movement visited our congregation last year, Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow. I didn’t know this, but Michael Dowd was originally a conservative Christian pastor, and had proclaimed that evolution was “of the devil” and the root of most social problems. He began to change his views when he learned more about the “The Great Story” of our cosmic evolution. He later met Connie Barlow, who was raised a UU. In 2001, recently married and living just north of NY city, they were profoundly shaken by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and began to reexamine what they wanted to do with their lives. In the months following, Michael quit his job and Connie quit her freelance writing work. They gave away all their possessions, and bought a van. Since then they have been taking their mobile ministry around the country, inspiring people with their telling of “The Great Story” of our cosmic evolution, in effect promoting religious naturalism.

Religious naturalism
So what exactly is religious naturalism?

Religious naturalism is based on a scientific worldview. You might say that we do our best to be part of the “reality-based community”.

Religious naturalism has several main points. First, it holds that the natural universe is all there is. The supernatural does not exist or is a useless concept. It maintains that human beings are products of nature and natural causes, part of one interdependent web of life.

Religious naturalism also maintains that there is religious meaning and value in nature. For religious naturalists living in a natural environment is a spiritual experience. Nature evokes some of the same feelings of awe and inspiration that a supernatural deity evokes in older religions.

Religious naturalism has a very strong environmental ethic. Many people like to think of it as promoting a “planetary ethic”.

There are two types of religious naturalism -- theistic and non-theistic.

Theistic religious naturalism sometimes uses God language, but rejects the idea of a supernatural God. Instead God can be though of as power or force of creativity within the natural universe. Others speak of God as the spirit of love that pervades all beings. (Does this sound familiar to discussion you’ve heard at the UU?).

Others speak of God and the natural world as one in the same. This later position is known as Pantheism. There is a World Pantheism Movement started in within the last 10 years which looks on the natural world as a sacred thing, but one that is best studied using reason and the scientific method. It is currently considered to be a "related organization" within the UUA, but expands beyond the UU movement. I view the World Pantheism Movement as a subset of the religious naturalism movement.

Non-theists in the religious naturalism movement do not use God language, though they often use the words sacred and reverence when referring to nature. Ursula Goodenough is a member of this group. They are very similar to humanists, but have a broader focus on the natural world than traditional humanism.

The Religious Naturalism Story
Every religion needs a story, and religious naturalism gives us a meaningful story, the epic of our cosmic evolution. That story can be thought of as a religious story because it calls us out of our little self-centered worlds and enables us to see ourselves as part of something that is much much bigger.

You’ve probably heard this before, the epic of cosmic evolution. It begins with the big bang, then continues as one long spectacular process of change and development unfolding in the universe.

If we are asked where we come from, we can now accurately say that we come from here. (picture). This is a Hubble telescope picture of an interstellar gas cloud. Here, stars that have already lived out their entire lives have exploded in supernovas billions of years ago and seeded the gas clouds with all the heavy elements such as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen, which were created deep within their cores from primordial hydrogen atoms. The very elements in my hand have originally come from such a gas cloud. And many billions of years from now, when our Sun ends its life cycle, these very same atoms will in all probability return to such an interstellar gas cloud, where they may later form into new planets around new stars, potentially supporting new life forms. We are profoundly intimately related to the universe.

This next picture from Hubble is of a reasonably typical galaxy, showing the immense complexity of billions and billions of stars that it contains. This type of galaxy is called a whirlpool galaxy. I should take a moment here to point out that some people have also referred to religious naturalism has “neo-Saganism”. More about Carl later.

This next picture is of two colliding galaxies. It is believed that most galaxies go through one such collision sometime in their life. It should be noted that such collisions play out over a time period of the order of 100 million years, well beyond any type of time frame we can imagine in any meaningful way.

This final picture is from a series of one of my favorite sets of pictures, called the Hubble deep field exposures. In these photos, they pointed the Hubble telescope at a completely blank area of the sky with no stars, and took the longest exposure possible just to see what they would see. What they saw on the pictures was a huge collection of distant galaxies, too faint to see on normal pictures, stretching off into distant space as far as the eye could see. To me, this is an extremely awe inspiring insight into the immensity and grandeur of the universe.

While astronomy fascinates me, equally inspiring is the 3.5 billion year history of the development of life on this planet. It’s hard to fully comprehend that I am the beneficiary of such an immensely long and immensely complex process, and that I am fundamentally a relative of every other life form on this planet sharing more in our basic biological characteristics than most people appreciate. I just wish I had more time to go into more depth about this fascinating history.

Why Religious Naturalism Makes Sense as a Religious Movement
You may think that this is all pretty cool, but why does it make sense as a religious movement?

Among its multiple purposes, religion serves to help us define who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and how we should act. It defines moral priorities.

When most of the main religions were founded, environmental issues were not receiving much attention. Now, because of the increased population growth and technological capabilities, our relationship with the environment, and the need to have a sustainable interaction with the environment is becoming one of the key moral issues we face today. It’s time for this to enter the focus of religions, and this is happening.

Religious Naturalism and UUism
This approach has a long tradition in our UU heritage, beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his great essay on "Nature." This reverence for nature is now embodied in our 7th principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

There is a brand new UU group called UU Religious Naturalists. Ursula Goodenough promoted this at her talk at last year’s GA (even though she is not a UU herself), and another speaker will be doing so again at this year’s GA. I have sample information and membership forms that you can look at after the service. The recent cover story in the UU World, entitled "The Wonder of Evolution," is another good example of interest in religious naturalism among UUs.

Currently there is no separate Religious Naturalism organization, and certainly no official institutions. But like all great modern movements transforming society, it has its own Yahoo discussion group.

I want to take a moment to tell you about something that’s going on at GA. Each year the UUA votes on and announces a major Social Action statement at GA. Last year it was on reforming the criminal justice system. This year it is on Global Warming. According to the process, congregations have one year to feed back comments on an initial draft of the statement. We did so after discussions in January and February that some of you may remember. Our main comment was that the initial draft was too bland – it did not reflect the urgency and moral imperative of the situation. Many other congregations felt the same way. The new revised draft presented at the GA this week did not change that much, and when it came time to vote on it, 50 amendments to it were proposed by the delegates to strengthen the language. After a rather chaotic and highly emotional debate on Friday, voting on it was postponed, with the majority of the delegates insisting that a newer draft be written up, one the captures the urgency and moral imperative of the situation. I watched the online video of that debate, and it got pretty interesting. The new draft will be presented for debate and voted on today. I’ll be very interested in seeing how that turns out.

Final commentary

Developing an environmental planetary ethic is profoundly important to our society, and religions may turn out to have a profoundly important role to play in this . Religions for thousands of years have held a longer world view than politicians. Politicians make laws and settle disputes. Religion sets agendas and values for society. Religion is at its best when it gives us a larger perspective on life than what we might normally have. Religious leaders can have the power and the vision to look forward 50, 100, 200 years. Politicians don’t. Religious leaders have earned respect from their followers and I think followers will listen to them should religious leaders band together and talk with a unified voice about an environmental planetary ethic.

Religious naturalism also adds a potential new twist to an environmental ethic. The purpose of life and of religion, according to Ursula Goodenough, is to enable the continuation of life on earth for as long as possible. One of her favorite metaphors is that life is like a coral reef. We each leave behind the best, the strongest deposit we can, so that the reef can grow. But what’s important when you stand back and look at the big picture is the reef itself. That is the humility of the religious naturalist movement, a humility that says it is not simply about my personal salvation, but the salvation of life itself.

Let me finish with a comment from Carl Sagan. Many years ago he stated the following:

“A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”

That religion is beginning to emerge, and I’m proud to say that it’s finding a welcoming home within our UU communities.

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This page last updated: June 30, 2006 by Donn