A common ground? A Unitarian and Universalist religious naturalist meditation on Darwin’s 207th birthday

Charles Darwin in 1881
Readings: Various sections from Charles Darwin's posthumous autobiography

Today, on the 12th February 1809, the naturalist Charles Darwin was born. He is of interest to us as a religious community for two connected reasons. The first is that was raised in a Unitarian family which included a number of avowed freethinkers.  This upbringing clearly had an influence on his own ability and freedom to think freely and critically. The second was his publication on 24 November 1859 of “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” a book which stands as a wellspring for what we now call evolutionary biology — a discipline which brought about radical changes in religious perspectives and belief.

It’s worth noting that since 2008 the Sunday nearest Darwin’s birthday has been dubbed “Evolution Sunday” by the Clergy Letter Project which promotes good relationships and dialogue between science and religion. I’ve supported this project for many years now and you’ll find this church mentioned on their website as well as a couple of my earlier addresses.

Darwin’s mature religious thinking moved from being a kind of deism in mid-life to a principled agnosticism by the time of his old age and death. In a nutshell an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in God or the supernatural but it is important to observe that his agnosticism did not stop Darwin from feeling strongly that the idea of the theistic Christian God was a morally repugnant one. This was, of course, because in all forms of theism the problem of evil always remains in play.

Anyway, without doubt, Darwin helped many within the Unitarian movement begin definitively to move away from theism and towards a position that today we would call religious naturalism (which, by the way, is amenable to the use of the word God but only insofar as it is used in a non-theistic and naturalistic way as you might find in process theology or pantheistic and panentheistic philosophies).

So what is religious naturalism? or, another way of putting it, who is a religious naturalist?

Well, some of you may know that I convene and moderate the online clergy page of the Religious Naturalist Association. Here’s how our web page initially answers the question:

“Religious naturalists take nature to heart. We hold a naturalist view of how things are in the world, and we also see ourselves as religious, in non-traditional ways, as we absorb the wonder of being alive and the order and beauty of the cosmos. We ask “What is?” and “What matters?” questions, seeking answers from natural (rather than supernatural) sources. Our searches are guided by the wisdom that can be found in such human traditions as science, art, literature, philosophy, and the religions of the world (which are also part of nature).”

It is important to add that, for a religious naturalist, the core religious narrative around which they gather at this point in time is the story of the universe from the Big Bang to today. As you will have heard in our readings this doesn’t mean that our world’s various ancient religious narratives need be lost or thrown away as utterly useless but they are themselves now understood as being part of nature itself — emergent natural phenomena just as we are, Jesus was, and just as are planets, stars, black-holes, dinosaurs, roses, hammers, houses, lichen, potatoes and iPads. Be aware, too, that within a religious naturalist perspective ethics and morality are also generally felt to be emergent natural phenomena rather than eternal verities front-loaded into the world at its very beginning.

Religious naturalism in this developed form is not, of course, the kind of full blown agnosticism adopted by Darwin. However, in toto, it retains a healthy agnosticism at its core because, as the contemporary French particle-physicist, Bernard d’Espagnat (1921-2015) gently reminds us, we must always remain careful not to over-estimate the reach and power of the natural sciences. Indeed he is careful to point out that “the information science yields serves to limit possible options, rather than put forward the allegedly correct one” (On Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2006, p.1). Having said that, d’Espagnat continues by noting,

“. . . while Nature — in the broadest possible sense — refuses to explicitly tell us what she is, she sometimes condescends, when we press her tenaciously enough, to let us know a little about what she is not” (ibid. p.2).

And what she has condescended to tell us, amongst other things, is that “some elements of present-day scientific knowledge casts serious doubts on such and such Platonic intuitions” (ibid. p.1). This is important to know because Christian theism is choc-a-bloc with such and such Platonic intuitions and consequently, based on good evidence, serious doubt about its truth now hangs over it.

So, in our own age, we can say that having being tenaciously pressed even further than she was during Darwin’s life, Nature is strongly suggesting to us that certain, once central, aspects of our ancient religions and philosophies about which we were once rightly agnostic — such as theism — are today now highly unlikely to be true; they are doubtful enough that, if we wish to continue to live with full pathos and a clean heart, we should seriously consider letting them go and to think about adopting another, basic religious position. For me that “new” position is religious naturalism — something I’ve been gently encouraging from this lectern now and then for a long while now.

I bring it before you as a live religious option once again not only because of the coincidence that today falls on Darwin’s birthday and Evolution Sunday but also because last week an email with a pamphlet  popped into my inbox from a North American Unitarian Universalist (UU) initiative called “UU Common Ground”  (which I distributed to the congregation). They, like me, feel that if we wish to survive as a relevant and attractive liberal religion we urgently need to develop “clarity about who we are and what matters to us; clarity about what vision has called us into being, and what promise we serve.”

This often looks impossible to achieve not least of all because of the great diversity that self-evidently exists among us. But it has long struck me and UU Common Ground members that, in truth, there is hidden amongst most everyone who enters into a Unitarian church these days a religious naturalist core which, potentially at least, could gift us with great clarity about who we are and what matters to us and great clarity about what vision has called us into being and what promise we serve.

So now, for your consideration, here is how one writer on the Common Ground website poetical and ethically frames what a corporate religious naturalist statement might look like in the Unitarian and Universalist context.

We believe that the universe in which we live and move and have our being is the expression of an inexorable process that began in eons past, ages beyond our comprehension, and has evolved from singularity to multiplicity, from simplicity to complexity, from disorder to order. 

We believe that the earth and all who live upon the earth are products of the same process that swirled the galaxies into being, that ignited the stars and orbited the planets through the night sky, that we are expressions of that universal process which has created and formed us out of recycled stardust. 

We believe that all living things are members of a single community, all expressions of a planetary process that produced life and sustains it in intricate ways beyond our knowing. 

We hold the life process itself to be sacred. 

We believe that the health of the human venture is inextricably dependent upon the integrity of the rest of the community of living things and upon the integrity of those processes by which life is bodied forth and sustained. Therefore we affirm that we are called to serve the planetary process upon which life depends. 

We believe that in this interconnected existence the well-being of one cannot be separated from the well-being of the whole, that ultimately we all spring from the same source and all journey to the same ultimate destiny. 

We believe that the universe outside of us and the universe within us is one universe. Because that is so, our efforts, our dreams, our hopes, our ambitions are the dreams, hopes, and ambitions of the universe itself. In us, and perhaps elsewhere, the Universe is reaching toward self-awareness, toward self-consciousness. 

We believe that our efforts to understand the world and our place within it are an expression of the Universe’s deep drive toward meaning. In us, and perhaps elsewhere, the Universe dreams dreams and reaches toward unknown possibilities. 

We hold as sacred the unquenchable drive to know and to understand. 

We believe that the moral impulse that weaves its way through our lives, luring us to practices of justice and mercy and compassion, is threaded through the universe itself and it is this universal longing that finds outlet in our best moments. 

We believe that our location within the community of living things places upon us inescapable responsibilities. Life is more than our understanding of it, but the level of our comprehension demands that we act out of conscious concern for the broadest vision of community we can command and that we seek not our welfare alone, but the welfare of the whole. We are commanded to serve life and serve it to the seven times seventieth generation. 

We believe that those least like us, those located on the margins have important contributions to make to the rest of the community of life and that in some curious way, we are all located on some margin. 

We believe that all that functions to divide us from each other and from the community of living things is to be resisted in the name of that larger vision of a world everywhere alive, everywhere seeking to incarnate a deep, implicit process that called us into being, that sustains us in being, that transforms us as we cannot transform ourselves, that receives us back to itself when life has used us up. Not knowing the end of that process, nonetheless we trust it, we rest in it, and we serve it.   

Do you find yourself in broad agreement with these things too? If you do then you’re a religious naturalist of sorts and, were we all to find ourselves in agreement with these affirmations, then we’d be a community of religious naturalists, a religious naturalist church and, if that’s what we are, shouldn’t we be promoting this core aspect of our religious life more explicitly as we already do in a quiet way in the evening service?

Of course, I realise I’m may well just be plain wrong in feeling this underlying core religious position exists amongst most of us here gathered. But whether I’m right or wrong, it’s now two-hundred-and-seven years since Darwin began to move our tradition towards adopting a religious naturalist position and since it is one which ever more closely chimes with our current state of religious, philosophical and scientific knowledge of how the world is and our place in it, isn’t it perhaps time we at least seriously thought about consciously and publicly adopting it, promoting it and, above all, practising it?

Over to you . . .

In terms of how one might begin to develop a religious naturalist practice here is a link to a fine and helpful essay written by a friend of mine, the philosopher Ed Mooney, called "Letting Creation Step Forward: A Plea for Immersive Contact." Thanks to Ed for kindly allowing me to make this available to you here.