Religion, Naturalistic Reconstructions of

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In philosophy a naturalist is one who holds that there is nothing over and above nature. A naturalist is committed to rejecting traditional religion, which is based on beliefs in the supernatural. This does not necessarily carry with it a rejection of religion as such, however. Many naturalists envisage a substitute for traditional religion that will perform the typical functions of religion without making any claims beyond the natural world. We can best classify naturalistic forms of religion in terms of what they take God to bethat is, what they set up as an object of worship. In traditional religion the supernatural personal deity is worshiped because he is thought of as the zenith of both goodness and power. More generally, we can say that religious worship is accorded to any being because it is regarded as having a controlling voice in the course of events and at least potentially exercising that power for the good. This suggests that to find a focus for religious responses in the natural world, we should look for a basic natural source of value. Forms of naturalistic religion differ as to where this is located. Broadly speaking, achievements of value in human life are due to factors of two sorts: (1) man's natural endowments, together with the deposit of his past achievements in the cultural heritage of a society, and (2) things and processes in nonhuman nature on which man depends for the possibility of his successes and, indeed, his very life. Most naturalists locate their religious object primarily on one or the other side of this distinction, although some try to maintain an even balance between the two.

The first factor is stressed most by those who are called religious humanists. This group includes Ludwig Feuerbach and Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century and John Dewey and Erich Fromm in the twentieth. Of these men Comte has been the most influential.


In Comte's view, it is to humanity that the individual man owes everything that he is and has. It is because he shares in the general biological and psychological capacities of human nature that he is able to live a human life. And the men of a given generation are able to lead a fully human life because of the labors of their predecessors in building up their cultural heritage. Moreover, according to Comte, the service of humanity, in the many forms this can take, is the noblest ideal that could be proposed to an individual; and humanity, unlike an omnipotent God, needs this service. Thus, Comte proposed to set up a religion of humanity with man, viewed as a unitary though spatiotemporally scattered being, as the object of worship.

Unlike many naturalists Comte was not at all vague about the detailed functioning of his proposed religion. He was impressed with the ritual structure of Roman Catholicism and took it as his model. For example, in the analogue of baptism, the sacrament of presentation, the parents would dedicate their child to the service of humanity in an impressive public ceremony. Public observances were to be reinforced by the regular practice of private prayer, on which Comte laid the greatest stress. A person was to pray four times daily, with each prayer divided into a commemorative and a purificatory part. In the first part one would invoke some great benefactor of humanity; by reflecting gratefully on his deeds, one would be inspired to follow his example, and one's love of humanity would thus be quickened. The purificatory part would give solemn expression to the noble desires thereby evoked; in it the individual would dedicate himself to the service of humanity. Other rituals included a system of religious festivals and a calendar of the saints of humanity that provided the material for the prayers on each day of the year.

Some idea of the religious fervor generated in Comte by the contemplation of humanity may be gained from this quotation from A General View of Positivism :

The Being upon whom all our thoughts are concentrated is one whose existence is undoubted. We recognize that existence not in the Present only, but in the Past, and even in the Future: and we find it always subject to one fundamental Law, by which we are enabled to conceive of it as a whole. Placing our highest happiness in universal Love, we live, as far as it is possible, for others: and this in public life as well as in private; for the two are closely linked together in our religion; a religion clothed in all the beauty of Art, and yet never inconsistent with Science. After having thus exercised our powers to the full, and having given a charm and sacredness to our temporary life, we shall at last be forever incorporated into the Supreme Being, of whose life all noble natures are necessarily partakers. It is only through the worship of Humanity that we can feel the inward reality and inexpressible sweetness of this incorporation. (p. 444)

Comte had considerable influence in his lifetime, and a few functioning parishes of his religion of humanity sprang up. They have not survived, however, and a revival in our time hardly seems likely. In the twentieth century, reeling under the impact of two world wars and the hourly expectation of the death knell of civilization, we are not inclined to grow misty-eyed over humanity. Recent humanists have tended to be more critical in their reverence. The latest trend is to single out the more ideal aspects of manhis aspirations for truth, beauty, and goodnessfor religious worship. Or the emphasis shifts from man as he actually exists to the ideals that man pursues in his better moments. Thus, in his book A Common Faith, John Dewey defines God as "the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and action" (p. 42).


Unlike Comte, Dewey has no interest in developing an organized naturalistic religion. It would seem that religious organization and religious ritual are too closely associated in his mind with the supernaturalism that he rejects. For Dewey the important thing is the religious quality that experience can assume under certain conditions. Any unification of the whole self around the pursuit of an ideal end is religious in quality. Dewey is emphatic in insisting that this is a quality, rather than a kind, of experience. Whenever a person is thoroughly committed to the pursuit of any ideal, be it scientific, social, artistic, or whatever, his experience attains the kind of fulfillment that has always been characteristic of what is most valuable in religion. According to Dewey, in traditional religion this quality has been encumbered and obscured by irrelevant trappings, particularly the theological dogma in terms of which it has been pursued. In the past, self-integration in the pursuit of the ideal has been thought of as service of God, unity with God, or submission to God's will. It is Dewey's conviction that the religious quality can be more effectively sought if the quest is not carried on under this banner. To reflective men, supernaturalistic dogma will always appear dubious at best. If the quest for self-integration in the service of the ideal is too closely tied to theology, it will be endangered when the theology is rejected as rationally groundless. Moreover, insofar as the theology is taken seriously, it diverts attention from the active pursuit of the ideal. Worse, the assurance that the good is already perfectly realized in the divine nature has the tendency to cut the nerve of moral effort; in that case it is not up to us to introduce the good into the world. Thus, Dewey's main concern as a philosopher of religion is to redirect religious ardor into the quest for a richer quality of human life rather than to construct a framework for a naturalistically oriented religious organization.

There is no developed naturalistic philosophy of religion that stresses the nonhuman side of the natural sources of value to the extent to which Comte stresses the human side. (Though we can find this in literature, notably in Richard Jeffries, who had a kind of religious intoxication with inanimate nature without, however, conceiving of it as suffused with a spiritual being or beings. This is a naturalistic counterpart of the nature worship of ancient Greece, just as Comte's religion of humanity is a naturalistic counterpart of an ethical monotheism like Christianity.) However, there is a marked tendency among contemporary naturalists to emphasize the nonhuman side much more than Comte or Dewey. Good examples of this are the liberal theologian Henry Nelson Wieman and the biologist Julian Huxley, who in his book Religion without Revelation has made the most coherent and comprehensive recent attempt to sketch out a naturalistically oriented religion.


According to Huxley's conception, religion stems from two basic sources. One is man's concern with his destinyhis position and role in the universe and their implications for his activity; the other is the sense of sacredness. Following Rudolf Otto, Huxley thinks of the sense of sacredness as a unique kind of experience that is an intimate blend of awe, wonder, and fascination; this mode of feeling arises spontaneously in reaction to a wide variety of objects and situations. Religion, then, is a social organ for dealing with problems of human destiny. As such it involves a conception of the world within which this destiny exists, some mobilization of the emotional forces in man vis-à-vis the world thus conceived, some sort of ritual for expressing and maintaining the feelings and attitudes developed with respect to the forces affecting human destiny, and some dispositions with respect to the practical problems connected with our destiny. The sense of sacredness enters into the second and third of these aspects. As Huxley sees it, a way of dealing with problems of human destiny would not be distinctively religious if it did not stem from and encourage a sense of the sacredness of the major elements in its view of the world, man, and human life.

Huxley, as a thoroughgoing naturalist, holds that the supernaturalistic worldview in terms of which religion has traditionally performed its functions is no longer tenable in the light of modern scientific knowledge. Moreover, he thinks that it is possible to develop a full-blown religion on a naturalistic basis. As the intellectual basis for such a religion, Huxley puts forward "evolutionary naturalism," a view of the spatiotemporal universe, inspired by modern biology and cosmology, in which the universe is conceived of as an indefinitely extended creative process, always tending to higher levels of development, with all the sources and principles of this creativity immanent in the process. The basic role of man is to be the chief agent of this evolutionary advance on earth through the application of his intelligence to the problems of life on Earth and through the building of a harmonious and stable community. A religion based on these conceptions will be focused on an object of worship that is a construct out of all the forces affecting human destiny, including basic physical forces as well as the fundamental facts of human existence and social life. God, then, will consist of all these factors, held together by the feeling of sacredness with which they are apprehended. As a start toward conceiving this assemblage as a unified object of worship, Huxley presents a naturalistic version of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. God the Father is made up of the forces of nonhuman nature. God the Holy Ghost symbolizes the ideals toward which human beings at their best are striving. God the Son personifies human nature as it actually exists, bridging the gulf between the other two by channeling natural forces into the pursuit of ideals. And the unity of all the persons as one God represents the fact that all these aspects of the divine are intimately connected.

Many thinkers, atheists as well as theists, take a dim view of all these proceedings. Since the theists' lack of enthusiasm stems from obvious sources, let us concentrate on the atheists. The issues here are normative or evaluative rather than factual. Comte and Huxley as philosophers of religion are not, with perhaps minor exceptions, making any factual judgments with which other naturalists might disagree because they are making no factual judgments at all beyond their basic commitment to naturalism. If a man like Bertrand Russell or Jean-Paul Sartre disagrees with Huxley, he differs about the value of what Huxley is proposing. His low evaluation may have different bases. First, he may feel that man or the basic forces of nature constitute too pallid a substitute for the God of theism to afford a secure footing for the distinctively religious reactions of reverence, adoration, and worship. A man like Huxley might, for his part, interpret this as a reflection of a suppressed hankering after the old supernatural deity. Second, Russell or Sartre may turn this charge on Huxley and maintain that one searches for an object of worship within nature only because he has not sufficiently emancipated himself from the old religious orientation and that this religion of evolutionary naturalism represents an uneasy compromise between religious and secular orientations. It seems clear that there is no one objective resolution of such disputes. People differ in such a way that different total orientations will seem congenial to people with different temperaments and cultural backgrounds. It is perhaps unfortunate, on the whole, that many people need to find something fundamentally unworthy in every other religion in order to find a firm attachment to their own religious positions, although it is undoubtedly true that religious discussions are more lively than they would be if this were not the case.

See also Comte, Auguste; Dewey, John; Evolutionary Theory; Feuerbach, Ludwig; Human Nature; Naturalism; Otto, Rudolf; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Sartre, Jean-Paul.


Ames, E. S. Religion. New York, 1929.

Comte, Auguste. A General View of Positivism. Translated by J. H. Bridges. London, 1880. Ch. 6.

Dewey, John. A Common Faith. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1934.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Translated by George Eliot. New York: Harper, 1957.

Fromm, Erich. Psychoanalysis and Religion. London: Gollancz, 1951.

Huxley, Julian. Religion without Revelation. New York: Harper, 1957.

Russell, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Wieman, Henry Nelson. The Source of Human Good. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946.

William P. Alston (1967)

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