Philosophers and their religious practices, part 8: religious naturalism
April 16, 2015 — 14:52

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 2

This is the eighth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 456 and 7. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.

This interview is with Eric Steinhart, full Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

Can you tell me something about your  current religious affiliation/self-identification? 

I was raised as a conservative Evangelical Protestant (many of my close male family members are conservative Evangelical ministers). When I was young I was extremely immersed in my Christianity. But I essentially left Christianity when I was 18. However, I maintained a vaguely Christian theology for a long time. By the time I was in my 40s I had completely lost interest in classical theism.

Much of my interest in philosophy of religion has been driven by a series of religious or mystical experiences. I have had five or six of these. Of them, three have been overpowering, ego-shattering experiences, while three have been gentler. But all have been profoundly moving. None of them have involved God. Other philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, Hick, and Plantinga have reported their own mystical experiences. So it’s worth thinking more about how such experiences inspire philosophies.

I would not say that I really gained much new knowledge during these experiences. The content of my experiences was shaped by what I had already studied and found interesting in philosophy, theology, and mathematics. I already thought that reality was a certain way, but my thoughts were merely very abstract outlines of that way. During my mystical experiences, I saw with intense vividness that reality is this way. Much of what I have written philosophically is an effort to verbally express the content of these visions. I regard all these efforts as failures. The vision really is ineffable.

To some, the term “vision” might suggest hallucination. But I would not say that I have hallucinated. Rather, my visions are more purely mathematical. During one, which came close to the violence of a seizure, I saw the iterative hierarchy of pure sets. I had been studying a lot of set theory; but then I saw it. Along with this vision there was an extreme flood of joy, as well as a kind of pain that comes from being cognitively broken up. Another vision involved something like the totality of recursive functions on the ordinal number line, and the recognition that these functions are the meanings which produce reality as they generate themselves. The forest dissolved into a network of computations. I had already experienced something like this while reading Josiah Royce. This vision was again extremely joyous, and I knew that death is nothing.

On the basis of these experiences, as well as plenty of discursive reasoning, I identify myself as a religious naturalist. However, I do not take this naturalism to entail simply materialism or logical positivism.   Unfortunately, religious naturalism today is mostly intellectual, and has little in the way of social practice. So I am primarily interested in developing social practices for religious naturalism.   Rather than my practices driving my beliefs, my beliefs are driving my search for practices. And much of my search is for practices which cohere with my mystical experiences.

My main religious practice consists of meditative walks in the forests of Vermont or New York. I do these walks regularly. Some might wonder whether such walking can be truly religious (or spiritual); yet it is a widely discussed practice among religious naturalists. The objective is to immerse and dissolve the self into nature, to experience the unity of nature or the interconnectedness of all natural things. During these walks, I have had two mystical experiences. The first was an overpowering vision. It was perhaps the most emotionally and cognitively intense experience of my life. The second was moving into that level of intensity, but it was interrupted by another person who was also on the trail with me. Nevertheless, it was potent.

I routinely enjoy participating in various religious practices. If people invite me, I tend to go. I’ve gone to various Christian functions over these last few years. I’ve also gone to many Jewish seders. I’ve gone to many earth-centered religious gatherings. And I’ve gone to many atheist winter solstice celebrations. But since I have no regular social practice, I might be put in the “spiritual but not religious” category.

Of all these, the earth-centered gatherings have been most interesting. These gatherings are done by a group affiliated with a Universalist Unitarian church. They are held on the eight solar holidays on the Wheel of the Year, are vaguely pagan. However, the group I go to does not refer to itself as pagan, and does not identify with any specific pagan tradition. Nor does it have anything to do with the occult (I reject the occult, like I reject all supernaturalism). It is essential to stress I do not identify as pagan. On the contrary, religious naturalism is not consistent with paganism. But religious naturalists have much to learn from pagans about nature-centered liturgy.

In the group I’ve worked with, the solar holiday rituals follow a fairly standard liturgical pattern, based on British Traditional Wicca: closing a circle, calling the four directions, dancing, chanting, a central ritual, releasing the directions, opening the circle. This liturgical pattern is used by many different religious groups, including Christians. It has been used by Catholic “Green Sisters” movement. (It has intriguing relations to the Cosmic Mass done by Matthew Fox.) It has been used in spiritually-oriented raves. And Don Crosby recommends something like it for religious naturalists.

I am deeply impressed with this liturgy. The rituals are emotionally intense. During these rituals, I have seen again much of the content of my earlier visions. But the experience is gentler and more controlled (perhaps because it is in a ritual context, with highly patterned and scripted interactions with people and things). So I am interested in helping religious naturalists to develop equally intense rituals.

It is unfortunate that philosophers of religion show such little interest in the religious communities outside of traditional Christianity. There are many, many groups involved with these new types of Western religiosity and spirituality. They are building new forms of practice. I’m interested in these novel religions, in their practices, in the ways those practices support living virtuous social lives, in the beliefs that lie behind the practices, and the rationality of those beliefs.

You write that as a religious naturalist, you are interested in religious practices that “support living virtuous social lives”. Do you think that religious practices contribute to human flourishing (social lives and otherwise) in some distinct way? Is it their emotional intensity? In other words, why should naturalists care about religious rituals?

I think religious practices, performed socially, can contribute significantly to human flourishing.  One way they contribute is by helping to integrate many disparate facets of human expression into a coherently structured whole.  They often involve all the arts (singing, dancing, reading, and so on) performed in artistic contexts (sculpture, imagery, and architecture).  They help to coordinate thought, emotion, and behavior.  And they help to coordinate the individual and the social aspects of life.  They are among the deepest and richest meaning-making activities.  Probably the most important aspect of religious practice is the way it produces synchrony, harmony, and unity.

Religious activities produce unity through coordinated action (speaking, chanting, singing, gesturing, dancing, etc.)  The resulting behavioral harmonies can produce an awareness of unified patterns of activity larger than the self.  They can make you aware of powers greater than the self, powers which animate those unitary patterns.  They can make you aware of a larger network of relations, a network in which you participate, but in which your boundaries become dissolved.  All these harmonies point immediately to the unity of the religious social group.  But they can point to even larger patterns, deeper powers, and deeper unities.  For theists, those depths are personal; they contain gods or goddesses.  But religious naturalists tend to be atheists.  Religious naturalists tend to talk about patterns, powers, and unities which are impersonal.

I think the core of religion is the realization that you are embraced by patterned powers which exceed you and which will save you.  Because these powers are patterned in a benevolent way, they are powers in which you can place your faith, which you can learn to trust.   But trust and faith are emotional, and, most importantly, they need to be learned through practice.  You gain trust in others as you work with them, as you solve problems together.  You have to learn to trust your friends.  Rituals help theists gain trust in divine people.  You can feel like you’re working with God when you pray.  But trust doesn’t require personality.  The powers in which we can place our faiths need not be people.  You can place your faith in impersonally patterned powers.  You can trust algorithms, you can trust the laws of nature, you can trust arithmetic.  Religiously, you can place your faith in utterly impersonal laws of karma.

One of the crucial tasks for religious naturalists is to argue for natural powers in which we can place religious faith, powers which we can trust, powers which are not people but which nevertheless care for us.  If religious naturalism can’t do that, then it will fail as a religion.  So far, it has failed.  It’s merely an intellectual movement.  It involves the appreciation of the aesthetic features of nature, so it involves emotions like awe and wonder.  But it fails to arouse faith and trust.  Religious naturalism doesn’t yet have the resources to provide comfort in times of stress.  And you can see this in the fact that, so far, it doesn’t have any social unity.  To remedy this failure, I’m interested in showing how nature contains powers of salvation, and I’m interested in developing practices for emotionally gaining faith in those natural saving powers.  Other people and groups are working toward similar aims, but right now this is just beginning.

Could you summarize, or give a flavor, of your philosophical work on religious naturalism, especially on how nature might contain powers of salvation,  and on how practices can help religious naturalists gain faith? 

Many people think naturalism entails some very narrow kind of physicalism, nominalism, or, worst of all, an extremely nasty form of logical positivism (in which statements that aren’t empirically verifiable are false).  But I prefer a wider and richer kind of naturalism, which permits consistent extensions of science.  On my view, people like David Lewis and Max Tegmark are naturalists.  And I prefer to think that the foundational sciences are the formal sciences of mathematics, information, and computation.  But this naturalism has no room for disembodied minds, whether human or divine.

The kind of religious naturalism I’m working on is deeply inspired by the work of Karl Peters and Donald Crosby, especially Crosby.  Crosby was a process theologian who became an atheist, and has developed a kind of process-philosophy approach to religious naturalism.  My own approach is to revise and develop many of Crosby’s ideas using recent work in analytic metaphysics and the formal sciences.  Of course, the result of this is some Big Metaphysics, which people may not like.   Much of this is in my recent book, Your Digital Afterlives.  I’ve presented the religious interpretations at several conferences, and I’m currently writing it out in several articles.

Both Crosby and I argue for an ultimate natural power which produces a sequence of universes.  The power is impersonal and mindless, but regulates itself, and its self-regulation is algorithmic. The algorithm is much like the old Stoic logos.  But all this Big Metaphysics is atheistic.  Using ideas from axiarchism, I argue that the algorithm, the logos, always acts to increase value.  It’s a kind of natural providence.  There are always evils, but they emerge from conflicts among the goods.  Over the long course of cosmic evolution, in which universes beget universes, every existing thing is improved in every way.  Acting on your life, the logos will produce your future counterparts, which have better lives in better universes.  The logos is a kind of natural providence, which acts on lives in accordance with karmic laws.  Karma is algorithmic, and it can be progressive rather than merely retributive or compensatory.  This leads to a theory of rebirth which resembles old Theravadic Buddhist ideas in many ways.

If this metaphysical picture is correct, then it can be interpreted religiously.  You can’t worship the ultimate natural power – you can’t petition it.  But you can arouse it in yourself through rituals involving dancing, chanting, singing.  Here there are links to the hyperarousal trances in many old religious traditions, and in very new activities, like spiritual raves or the Cosmic Mass.  And you can have emotional relations with the logos, with the algorithm, even though it is entirely mindless.  Computer science shows us that mindless processes can nevertheless be very intelligent.  Just like you can be grateful to Siri or Google, you can be grateful to the logos.   You can give thanks to it in religious rituals.  As a kind of natural providence, the logos cares for you.  You can learn, through ritual practice, how to attune yourself with it.  Such attunement can involve visualization and meditation.  It can involve speaking, singing, dancing.

The Big Metaphysics provides a background for a liturgy which is surprisingly widely practiced outside of Christianity, and even by some Christians.  The liturgy is used by many Pagan groups (including Atheopagans and Naturalistic Pagans), by pantheistic groups, at many raves, in the Cosmic Mass, and in the celebrations of “Earth Holy Days” by the Catholic Green Sisters.  Many Unitarian Universalist groups do parts of this liturgy.  The liturgy is usually  celebrated on the eight solar holidays – the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days in between.  It involves gathering in a circle, calling the directions, performing central rituals that regulate arousal and often induce trances, performing visualizations, grounding, releasing the directions and opening the circle.   I don’t have room here to go into the details about how the liturgy is correlated with the underlying metaphysics, and I’ve written about it elsewhere.

The practices involved in this kind of religious naturalism help to build trust in the logos and the ultimate natural power.  These practices are intensely physiological.  You learn to feel in your flesh that nature is ultimately working for the good of all things.  These rituals arouse gratitude, compassion, joy, and hope.

I suspect your position it pretty unique (except for Crosby, perhaps) within philosophy of religion. This is striking – as many others (e.g., Schellenberg, Draper) have observed, most philosophy of religion is concerned with classic theism, and most of it with the issue of propositional religious beliefs. Do you think the field of philosophy of religion needs to be more pluralistic? How could we accomplish that?

At first glance, my position does seem unusual within current analytic philosophy of religion.   But if you look deeper, the situation becomes more interesting, and my own views become more historically mainstream.  Analytic philosophy emerged from British and American idealism.  It included highly religious thinkers like Josiah Royce, one of the main bridge figures from idealism to analytic philosophy.  My own work emerges from Royce (and I’ve written about his theology).  Philosophy of religion has a rich recent history, including idealism, transcendentalism, deism, pantheism, process theology, and so on.  Consider John Hick, an analyst extremely well-versed in many religious traditions.   Current analytic philosophy of religion contains people whose theologies are far from classical theism.  I’ll only mention one of my heroes here, namely, John Leslie, who has given me much support.

As I’ve gotten more into religious naturalism, I’ve turned more to the American tradition in philosophy of religion.  There are organizations like the Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought.  IARPT holds its own conferences and has a journal.   IARPT includes thinkers like Don Crosby, Robert Neville, and Karl Peters.  There is the Institute for Ecstatic Naturalism, which is also closely associated with the American tradition, and which holds a yearly conference.  I just went to the 2015 Ecstatic Naturalism Congress.   And there is the Center for Process Studies, which holds yearly conferences (the “Whitehead Conferences”).  I’ll be speaking at the 2015 Whitehead conference.  There’s the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS), which holds yearly conferences, and which runs the journal Zygon.  The Journal of Religion, Nature, and Culture focuses on religious naturalism.  And there are lots of humanist and atheist conferences which deal with both religious humanism and religious naturalism.

Many philosophers develop their religious ideas in journals and conferences that lie outside of those affiliated with Christian theism.  For example, many philosophers probably think of Graham Priest as just a logician – yet he has done extensive and deep work in Buddhism.  And there are plenty of other similar examples.  Philosophy of religion does have some diversity, but current analytic philosophy of religion does tend to be extremely narrow in its interests and methods.  I agree that greater diversity is needed, but I’m not very interested in applying the same methods to a wider range of existing religions.  I’d like to see philosophers start to ask questions about religion itself.  What is religion?  What are the religions of the future?  Every philosopher of religion ought to try to design a new religion, a religion which differs deeply from old religions.

The religious landscape in the West (and especially the North) is changing very rapidly.  You only need to look at surveys like the ARIS 2013 College Student Survey, or surveys recently done by the Pew Forum and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).  More and more young people are practicing new religions, or practicing older religions in new ways, or turning away from religion to something else.  As the Millennials grow up and start doing philosophy, fewer and fewer of them will be interested in old-fashioned analytic theism, and more and more of them will be interested in new kinds of religious thought.

Many thanks to Eric Steinhart for this interview!






  • I’m very interested in mysticism and religious experience, but Nature just doesn’t do it for me. One tree looks pretty much the same as any other to me and I can’t imagine anything more boring than hiking. But can’t think of anything that produces a slam-bang religious experience more efficiently that high-church churchiness—church buildings and their furnishings, elaborate, exotic rituals, smells and bells, all the music and art, and the historical romance of church history: instant transcendence!

    Christianity is dying—that’s true. It will be a terrible loss. Not the loss of ‘old-fashioned analytic theism’, which was never popular amongst the Folk—or most philosophers. But the loss of the cultural package: the myths and symbols, the art, music, architecture and liturgy.

    What happens next? On the best case scenario a neo-Hellenistic syncretism, a variety of new cults, myths, symbols, rituals, buildings and high art. But that’s not here yet, and would take centuries to develop, if it happens at all. More likely what’s coming is a dead world, where sports events replace liturgy, the cult of celebrities replaces the cult of saints (and earlier cults of gods and heroes), commercial products become our icons and shopping malls become our cathedrals. A world where, apart from a few adepts who experience transcendence on nature walks, there is no spookiness, no mysticism, no bliss.

    I wish churches would reinvent themselves, ditch preaching and teaching, and become nothing more than cultic centers maintaining buildings as spooky, sacred spaces and doing elaborate, exotic ceremonies. And send the message that participation doesn’t involve commitment to any doctrinal package, whether ‘old-fashioned analytic theism’ or anything else.

    April 18, 2015 — 9:52
  • Phil

    Wow, great interview, thanks, very interesting.

    I’m the opposite of H.E. Baber above, nature is everything to me, and anything created by humans seems a dim imitation at best. Not an argument with Baber, just discloser of my own situation.

    I’ve come to sense there is an inherent conflict between philosophy and what is often called “mystical experiences”, given that philosophy is made of thought, and the experiences appear to be defined by the absence of thought.

    I sense the experiences have value unto themselves and do not require any kind of explanation or analysis. They are like a bowl of food, nourishing on it’s own, even if one has no idea where the food came from or what it is called etc.

    When I first discovered nature I used to always bring cameras and try to capture the beauty. That urge has passed, as it’s simply not possible to capture nature with a camera.

    I suspect in time the urge to explain nature experiences will pass as well, for the same reason.

    July 13, 2015 — 10:44
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