This page will offer brief reflections and background information related to key elements in the conference statement. Discussion on the meaning of these terms is intertwined with reflection on substantial issues. Thus, the following is very provisional. We will need the conference (and more) to clarify what we mean by those terms, and with the help of such terms articulate what we think about reality and religion.
I. Naturalism as a philosophical term II. Religious naturalism III. Naturalism within religious traditions
I. Naturalisms in philosophy
‘Naturalism’ is a word used in many different ways. In the context of this conference, it refers to philosophical views that consider insights and methods of the natural sciences central to the understanding of reality; the conference statement speaks also of science-inspired naturalism. A resource on the internet is the article by David Papineau in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In this article, a distinction is made between Ontological (or Metaphysical) Naturalism and Methodological Naturalism. Ontological naturalism assumes that the sciences are informative on ‘what there is’. A major form is physicalism, the view that everything consists of the entities described by physics. Some philosophers have argued that such a naturalism is too restrictive, given the character of moral and aesthetic values, mathematics, consciousness and agency. One alternative is ‘liberal naturalism’ — see books such as Mario De Caro & David Macarthur, eds., Naturalism in Question (Harvard University Press, 2004) and De Caro and Macarthur, eds., Naturalism and Normativity (Columbia University Press, 2010). Methodological naturalism is the position that in scientific explanations one should not refer to any non-natural entities. In the context of reflections on religion and science, a recent defense of methodological naturalism is John Perry and Sarah Lane Ritchie (one of our speakers), “Magnets, Magic, and Other Anomalies: In Defense of Methodological Naturalism,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 53 (4, December 2018), 1064-193. Other usages of ‘naturalism’ or ‘naturalist’ occur in the arts (suggesting a strong correlation between representation and that which is represented) and to refer to field work in biology. Such usage of ‘naturalism’ depends upon a distinction between nature and culture/ lab/ art, whereas for a philosophical naturalist human culture and technology are within the domain of that which is ‘natural’. Thus, natural is not to be limited to wilderness or beautiful sunsets. Excluded, in this context, are supernatural entities and claims about their influence in the natural domain. However, defining ‘supernatural’ depends on defining ‘natural’. As a view of science, science-inspired naturalism might be contrasted with instrumentalist or outspoken empiricist views of science (e.g. as advocated by Bas C. Van Fraassen), when science is treated as a helpful tool for technological purposes or for predictions, but not as a reliable source of insight in the fundamental characteristics of reality. In the domain of philosophy, naturalism might be contrasted with other philosophical orientations such as transcendental idealism (going back to Immanuel Kant) and existentialism with its stark distinction between humans and natural processes. Given its broader orientation, whether ‘liberal naturalism’ is a form of philosophical naturalism might be disputed.
II. Religious naturalism
Religious naturalism is a term used for positions that are naturalistic in their understanding of the world, while arguing that this naturalism allows for attitudes that often are associated with religion, such as awe and wonder, morality and reverence. It avoids, however, the dualism of a theistic tradition (god as creator of material reality) or other such forms of metaphysical dualism. A modern science-inspired example is Ursula Goodenough’s The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford University Press). Various ways of understanding religious naturalism are presented and discussed in Donald A. Cosby and Jerome A. Stone (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Religious Naturalism (Routledge, 2018). On contemporary religious naturalism, very informative websites are Religiousnaturalism.org and Religious-naturalist-association.org; see also ‘worldview naturalism.’
III. Naturalistic strands within religions
Within existing religious traditions, there may also be individuals and communities that articulate a version of their tradition that they consider naturalistic. One might consider this a strategy that is fairly common within religion and science, at least among the more liberal minded theologians. Examples from within Christianity include Arthur R. Peacocke, All That Is: A Naturalistic Faith for the Twenty-First Century (Fortress Press, 2007); Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Fortress, 1993); Charley Hardwick, Events of Grace: Naturalism, Existentialism, and Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Karl E. Peters, Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion, and Human Becoming (Fortress Press, 2008), Christopher Knight, Incarnation and Contemporary Science (Fortress, 2007), and Sarah Lane Ritchie, Divine Action and the Human Mind (Cambridge University Press, 2019). As authors relating to other traditions, one might think of Nidhal Guessoum, Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science (I.B. Tauris, 2001) and Owen Flanagan, The Boddhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized (MIT Press, 2011). Naturalistic reflections within religious traditions might rely on the distinction between methodological and ontological naturalism (accepting the first but not the second), offer a suitable understanding of the character of religion and its role in human lives, and/or an emphasis on presuppositions of science and limit questions about reality as understood via the sciences. Some such strands are naturalistic about reality, but are dualistic in envisaging God as the creator of that reality with its naturalistic coherence.