“Religious Naturalism” By Mark Harris – Nov. 27, 2005
“Religious Naturalism” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – November 27, 2005
Opening Words – from William Ellery Channing
The heavens, the earth, the plant, the human frame, now that they are explored by science, speak of God as they never did before. Handwriting is brought out where former ages saw but a blank. Our nature is perpetually developing new senses for the perception and enjoyment of God. The human race, as it advances does not leave religion behind it, as it leaves the shelter of caves and forests; does not outgrow faith, does not see it fading like the mist before its rising intelligence. On the contrary, religion opens before the improved mind in new grandeur. The soul in proportion as it enlarges its faculties and refines its affections, possesses and discerns within itself a more and more glorious type of the divinity — learns spirituality in its own spiritual powers, and offers a profounder and more inward worship.
Dinosaurs have long been a passion of mine. My favorite book as a child was called The Enormous Egg. It is the story of a boy who discovers an oversized egg, which eventually hatches. Defying all evolutionary odds, the baby hatchling is a Triceratops. Of course no egg from an extinct species could just be hanging around to mess up our understanding of how species are born, evolve over time and eventually die out. Many children, especially boys are fascinated by dinosaurs. Whether this fascination emanates from the gargantuan size of some of them, or the fancy names, or the simple astonishment that creatures such as these once walked the earth, I don’t know. I loved the idea of digging up fossils and discovering something that old. There were lots of astounding statistics associated with them , too. Many of you also know that dinosaurs played a key role in my rejection of the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood and its assertion in BIblical creation as a scientific explanation for the origins of earth and the development of life. At that time I felt like I was being forced to choose science or religion. As I saw it then, one offered fascinating explorations of the wonders of life, and the other offered closed minded fairy tales.
I still read news articles on dinosaurs when I see them, and am quite fascinated with all the theories of how some dinosaurs managed to survive and evolve into our present day birds. Dinosaurs are not my topic today, but their evolution into birds is relevant to a controversy that has divided people in our country ever since the time of Charles Darwin. You would have thought that the Scopes Monkey trial might have resolved it. Clarence Darrow fought in that Tennessee court room so that the teacher might tell his students about natural selection. Today school boards are still fighting in court rooms over the teaching of evolution in our schools. The scientific creationists of a few years ago have reemerged in the guise of Intelligent Design or ID. They wants us to believe there are holes in Darwin’s theory of evolution. And into these holes – which are gaps in the scientific data – they want to place the designer, or God, but they can’t say the word, and so they imply it, or maybe whisper “God did it.” If someone posits that Intelligent Design is not science, but religion, the IDers say, you have a closed mind. Liberals are supposed to present all sides of an argument, so people can make informed decisions. They say we should be open to all schools of thought, just as President Bush echoed, when he weighed in on the subject last summer.
The problem is there is nothing informed about Intelligent Design. Over the past few months I have saved a large pile of magazine articles and newspaper editorials on this subject. The controversy has generated much discussion, but I can see no reason on God’s green earth to teach Intelligent Design in a science classroom. It is simply not science. Intelligent Design is a perfectly valid “religious” viewpoint on the origins of life. Even if we may not agree, we can understand that many people want to believe or are moved to testify that there is a divine power at work in creation. Some like deists say that God created a system of natural laws and left this universe to evolve on its own. Those who are involved in intelligent design may even believe in parts of evolution, but say certain gaps in knowledge lead them to believe in an outside creative force which is not part and parcel of the randomness of natural selection. There is something more than an accident. They say a divine power must be directing things. Religion exists to offer an explanation as to why we are here, such as this is the way God wants it. God created light from dark. God saw it was good. We are created in a divine image. There is no scientific proof for any of these religious statements about what human life or the universe means. This is why the divine intelligence portrayed in the book of Genesis belongs in a religion class, and not Biology 101.
Unitarian Universalists have seemingly always been quick to affirm the scientific point of view. As you saw with Channing’s words that began this service, we have long felt that scientific explorations will open us to greater depths in our religious knowledge. In the late 19th century the Universalist Marion Shutter said that with science, validated truths replaced invented truths and evidence superseded dogma and superstition. In searching for a partnership between religion and science, Shutter said that religion had gained much from science. First, there was a quickened sense of truth, the right method of discovery. Second, there was the value of evidence rather than unsubstantiated claims. Finally, science taught religion about using methods of reasoning. That partnership has continued ever since. The problem is that religion has usually lost to the wonders of science – the space ship cosmonaut does not see God in space and the suffering person does not need a devil’s exorcism but a diagnosis of mental illness. Any number of whys have disappeared under scientific examination. Unitarian Universalism is an unusual religion because we want more scientific knowledge yielding more amazing truths about how things happen, but sometimes along the way we have been overly concerned with the endless pursuit of truth, and have lost our ability to remember the whys of religion under the weight of the hows of science.
The problem for those 19th century liberals is that they learned in the 20th century that science did not give them all the answers. Science could not tell them what was good, or what was God, but could only provide verifiable data. While understanding nature and the reasons how things happen is profoundly important, it gives no insight into moral choices, emotional support, or even the ultimate mystery behind creation. Too often the liberal response to poetic or theological understandings of the mystery behind life have been attempts to ridicule those who believe in a creator, and so we have applauded satire like the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), who created the universe. FSM is the six month old religion, created in response to the Kansas board of education’s attempt to place ID in the curriculum. While ID is not science, and should not be taught as such, the pasta whose appendage dabbles in human affairs reflects the kind of ridicule we have sometimes seen from literal rationalists who reject any religious beliefs, and this can also be a weakness in the humanist perspective within Unitarian Universalism. We have placed ourselves at the center of the universe with everything revolving around us and our needs. While we should be quick to reject religion when it is portrayed as science, we shouldn’t use our scientific evidence and rationalism to portray religious beliefs as inane or stupid. Sometimes our science has informed our religion so completely, we have ended up fearing and despising those who espouse religious beliefs. As Blaise Pascal once wrote, “There are two equally dangerous extremes, to shut reason out, and to let nothing else in.” This is why the Unitarian Universalist spiritual path called religious naturalism may be a worthy choice for those who find some limits in the humanist perspective, especially when it overly extols our own virtues at the expense of the rest of the creation we are part of.
In a text book battle in Pennsylvania, it appeared a local school board was going to implement a mandate that students be informed that evolution was only a theory and cannot be construed as fact, and that ID is an alternative explanation for the origins of life that differs from Darwin. Most of us would argue that this is a scientific absurdity. Science does not work in absolute proofs, and in fact, evolution is much more than a theory that might or might not be true. Evolution is the very foundation of modern biology and medicine, and there is absolutely no evidence that disproves it in any way. It is about as close to fact as you can get. Naturally we would argue that ID as an alternative theory should not be classified with scientific explanations. But what do we do with religious explanations? Liberals typically say any subject can be taught in school except religion, and we would not only not want a creation story taught in science, we would also want to keep it out of all the curriculum. This is why you end up with history text books of Puritans coming to America, but there are no apparent religious reasons for doing so. This wasn’t a fishing expedition. As the historian Martin Marty puts out, we cannot understand a speech of Lincoln’s or a play of Shakespeare’s unless we know religion.
The fundamentalists are upset at how secular the schools are, and the more they talk about it, the more rigid liberals become about not teaching religion. So the vast majority of the schools in America teach nothing about religion. The religious right may want the Bible creation to be told, but what if we had a religion class, not a science class, but a religion class where the students learned many creation stories. They would then understand a little more about history and culture, and why human beings are the way they are. If you teach the Cherokee creation story or what it means to be a Hindu, you are not likely to be converted to that viewpoint , but you are likely to be broadened in your perspective. So Intelligent Design surely does not belong in science, but why not in social science? When we are tone deaf to religious discussions, we let the religious right take the high ground. I believe we should advocate for teaching religion in the schools.
Part of this discussion about teaching religion is to recognize its important place in life. The role of religion is to bind us together as one. Religious Naturalism like humanism , finds its sources of meaning within the natural world, but rather than emphasizing humans to the detriment of other creatures, religious naturalism sees us especially as emergent from , and hence part of nature. Charles Darwin said that “animals, our fellow brethren . . may partake of our origin in one common ancestor — we may all be netted together.” The emphasis in religious naturalism is how we are connected to all of life and must learn to see our place among other animals and life forms rather than over them. Kenneth Miller, who is a believer in what he calls, Darwin’s God says, Our species, homo sapiens, has not triumphed in the evolutionary struggle any more than has a squirrel, a dandelion, or a mosquito. We are all here, now, and that’s what matters. We have all followed different pathways to find ourselves in the present. We are all winners in the game of natural selection. Current winners, we should be careful to say.”
At the UU General Assembly this year, I heard Ursula Goodenough speak about religious naturalism. Through her work as a biologist she has come to deeply feel a natural connection with all of life, as expressed in today’s reading. She writes, “ We share a common ancestor; . . We share genes; . . We share evolutionary constraints and possibilities. We are connected all the way down.” As a historian I always feel a profound sense of connection when I am in a forest and have a chance to count the rings from a felled tree, whether the Muir Woods of redwoods outside San Francisco or the Pisgah Forest in North Carolina, where we were last summer. Exhibits in those places both show giant old trees which have succumbed to age, and in the rings of those trees dates of history are marked – decades, even centuries back in time. I always imagine these ancients trees literally seeing the historical events that have transpired in their time. They are witnesses to it all, part and parcel of life. One also gains this sense of connection to passage and continuity by watching the popular film, The March of the Penguins, even Jay Leno has joked how Penguins will march 70 miles to mate with other penguins. What is remarkable is to see their perseverance to maintain their species – back and forth from the sea to mate, eat, give birth, protect, eat, huddle together to survive. Think of the incredible awareness in their very being, of what their genes are calling them to do. What is calling to them?
Evolution or our connectedness with everything, Goodenough implies can help gives us a religious understanding of creation that does not need to be anthropomorphized into the seven day creator with the long beard. What does it mean to be religious? Surely even the penguins give us some clue here. They seemingly do not have relationship in a conscious way as we do, but it is quite remarkable to see them huddle against the coldest temperatures on earth, to know their mates, their children, to see their great pain at times of loss. What kind of comfort do they need? As Charles Wesley once wrote in a hymn – “hide me, till the storm of life is past, . . . leave me not alone.” Critics of Darwinism have often called his science a vehicle for atheism and materialism, but in fact Darwin was a deeply religious man. Much of what the Penguins do is explainable, and we find it in the science of how. The workings of life are not mysterious at all. Yet seeing what these penguins do also moves us all to ask why?
The question of why gives us religious formulations. Many people, including me, would love to have an answer to the whys of the universe. Intelligent Designs proponents would have some God directing it all like a stage manager from beyond, but I am not sure this gives us much sense of mystery or freedom. This says the universe has to correspond to my needs, and if it doesn’t I am going to feel sorry for myself. It seems to me that the religious naturalist must feel some kind of acceptance for the whys of the universe. We simply do not know, and all of our explanations will not offer any scientific proof, but only reveal natural religious longings. It is truly a mystery beyond mystery that we need to celebrate and accept. As the Tao te Ching tells us: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.” If there be a deity, there are only clouds before it, and we cannot see. It is a mystery of why these laws or why is there anything at all? Some want to name the mystery God, and others do not. Those who do must feel humble before what they never will know. Those who do not must feel humble before what they never will know. And even if it is designed, it is not designed at our whim. The world we have inherited is not one that is predictable. It is built on freedom, and not manipulation. It is built on trial and error, and not control. Whether it is the great mystery or the great God, it is a creation built upon evolution. Evolution makes us the creatures we are – “free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices.” That freedom for believers might bring them closer to God, and that freedom might bring others closer to each other, and to the earth that has brought us forth. And perhaps they are the same thing. And perhaps they are the same thing, each touching the creative energy within every form of life – every object, every animal, every human. Every human finding those great things that bind us together – freedom, freedom to love, freedom to build community, freedom to be thankful for the life we have now.
Closing Words – from Elizabeth Rogers – Through the earth I am aware
I am a part of the earth,
I am a part of the solid, unshakable,
Of the mountain;
A part of the stark, rainwashed slabs of slate,
A part of the walls of wet and weathering gritstone,
A part of the crumbling granite of shining boulders.
I am part of what makes
The green rounded hill
With its splendors of laughing yellow gorse.
Through the earth I am aware
of what I am:
All that is firmly fixed and endures forever,
All that is shifting imperceptibly,
Being gently folded and unfolded,
All that holds the possibility
Of shattering violence of eruption;
All that is contained in
Is, and Was, and Shall Be.
For such awareness, coming from the earth,
I give my thanks today
For the earth, and my part in it.