IRAS, the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, will have its 67th conference Summer 2021 on Star Island, off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA
Naturalism — as Religion, within Religions, or without Religion?
The natural sciences have enabled humans to develop mind-boggling technologies. But to many, the sciences offer still more: an encompassing and coherent understanding of reality. If the sciences shape one’s view of the world, one might speak of science-inspired naturalism. What are the consequences of science-inspired naturalism for religion? In this conference, we will explore and evaluate options available to those who take science seriously. Briefly, these could be characterized as replacement, reform, and rejection.
Replacement: Religious naturalism is an orientation grounded in the sciences and relevant for our time, embedded in narratives of cosmic and biological evolution and emergence. Might one opt for “religious naturalism,” seeking to articulate a global religious orientation grounded in the sciences that stands in awe of and sacralizes nature, without invoking a supreme being? Would this appeal to those who understand themselves as spiritual but not religious?
Reform: Seek ways to develop and thereby enliven a religious tradition in ways consistent with a scientific view of reality, e.g. a ‘naturalistic Christianity’ that envisages reality as scientifically understood as God’s creation, or a naturalistic Buddhism. What are the prospects for naturalistic strands within religious traditions?
Rejection: Abandon religious discourse. A secular humanism informed by science might be a sufficiently adequate orientation to live by. If a naturalist opts for a non-religious orientation, what would be gained and what might be lost?
Challenging these categories and their boundaries, and disputing whether they need to be mutually exclusive, may help us develop a better understanding of religious traditions and of other communities of meaning-making. Questions include: 1. How well do they address reality?
Modern cosmology considers the universe as a whole. What might religious or secular varieties of naturalism contribute to fundamental cosmological questions? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is reality the way it is?
What about features of reality dear to humans, such as language-based consciousness, values, aesthetic experiences, and rationality/mathematics? Are these conceptual realities of a categorically different kind, or can they be understood naturalistically?
2. How well do they serve humans?
What resources might each orientation provide to motivate and guide our morality and enrich us as humans? How do they bring in personal and communal experience, stories, and art? What is lost when traditional worldviews give way to scientific understandings?
What about cultural diversity and ecological concerns? Do we need a scientific creation narrative, an evolutionary epic, to address climate change and the loss of biodiversity? Or can we rely on a plurality of languages and religious imaginaries?
For whom are such positions attractive? For those raised within a particular religious tradition? For scientists and the science-educated? Might any of these be resonant for ‘nones’ who may not be familiar with religious or philosophical vocabularies?
Program co-chairs: Willem B. Drees & Barbara Whittaker-Johns.