Ursula Goodenough

The Sacred Depths of Nature


Review by Jessica Chicka (2013)

Review by Ashley Theuring (2013)

Review by Carrie Brunner (2010)

Review by Jessica Chicka (2013)

Bringing religion and science together in productive conversation regarding issues that we face in our everyday lives is a challenge. Naturalists reject the supernatural, insisting that there cannot be any causal agent/agency outside of one's lived experiences . This perspective puts naturalists at odds with religious individuals whose belief systems are built upon the idea of a supernatural being or force.

However, some naturalists find religious meaning in the natural world itself. They do not believe that one necessarily needs to abandon the notions of reverence, sacredness, or awe simply because one does not accept a notion of God as an otherworldly being. Nature itself can inspire these feelings of wonder and intimate connection.

Acceptance of religious naturalism as a worldview has been a challenge for numerous reasons. One is that the definition of religious naturalism changes depending on who is doing the defining. It can mean anything from a complete rejection of the supernatural and belief that scientific inquiry is the only way to provide meaning in the world to a panentheistic understanding of the divine, which is both immanent in nature as well as transcendstranscendent. Agreement on the meaning of religious naturalism is a challenge because the spectrum runs so wide . This also impacts its ability to be taken seriously as a movement standing on its own as a tradition. Some may question whether it needs to stand as a tradition on its own, or whether it is sufficient to act as an “add-on” to religious traditions already in place. Disagreement on the definition and role of religious naturalism in the landscape of larger meaning-making systems creates challenges in its acceptance as a true alternative.

And yet, an increasing number of individuals are moving away from traditional religious traditions, especially Christianity, because their knowledge of science and experience in the world does not mesh with the description of reality offered in these traditions. People are looking for alternatives for meaning-making systems in their lives, especially those who have experienced a sense of reverence or awe at some point in their lives . Religious naturalism either as a movement on its own or in addition to traditional religions could enable those who are dissatisfied with supernatural foci in religion to still consider themselves “religious.”

One scientist has been able to gain traction with both scientists and religious individuals. Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature explores nature from a scientific perspective, but with the allowance of feeling and wonder to come forth through one's investigations. Goodenough is a cell biologist, self-proclaimed atheist, and religious naturalist. She redefines religion to draw upon feeling rather than tradition or doctrine. In particular, she is interested in the feelings of awe, wonder, and reverence that come through not only experiencing nature, but investigating it through science. She is a reductionist, in that she investigates life at its most basic levels in order to draw conclusions about how systems and organisms operate, but that reductionism does not leave her with a purely mechanistic view of the world. The mechanisms for cellular development, bodily functions, and species evolution are awesome, inspiring, and mysterious. One is not to be afraid or complacent about the way in which life and nature is constantly changing and regulating itself. Instead they should feel a connectedness with the rest of nature and a sense of reverence toward its self-regulating processes.

Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature is an example of an accessible religious naturalism. Both scientists and religious individuals praise her work as engaging a much needed perspective for ecological awareness and care. But why is her message so broadly accepted in contrast to other scientists or theologians who identify as religious naturalists? Goodenough utilizes several strategies in her writing which that enable it to be widely accepted as a source for ecological sentiment. One is the specific content of her book. She builds her work from the starting point of biological understanding, but also incorporates contextualization as an important part. Another is the structure of her writing itself – scientific processes explained in lay terms with personal reflections made at the end of each chapter that is are not overly “preachy.” Instead, her writing style invites the reader to explore his/her own thoughts on the matter. Additionally, her treatment of religion is not antagonistic, but rather seen as a helpmeet to broaden both the scope of scientific understanding and the call for ethical treatment of the Earth. She is unafraid to use religious language when discussing scientific processes, or letting emotion or aesthetics play a part in her discovery of the world. Ultimately she is engaging the reader in a quest for a new way of understanding his/her place in the world and the inherent value and worth found in Earth and its processes, not in a proscriptive manner, but in a way that gently guides the reader to engage the world in his or her own way. In order to identify these strategies, I performed a literature review of the impact of Goodenough's work on both science and religious perspectives of ecology, including book reviews and analysis of how the book has been cited in other works. This paper will investigate her strategies of content, writing style, and treatment of religion, as well as critiques of these strategies, and propose how scientists and religious naturalists may be able to employ them as a means of increasing awareness of religious naturalism as an option for developing an ecological perspective.

Strategy 1: Content

As a cell biologist, Goodenough's religious naturalism is rooted in the study of living organisms. She believes that there is something to be said for the experience of awe and wonder one finds simply through phenomenological means, but she also believes that understanding the science behind these processes adds to an ethical framework for encountering the Earth. [1] Care for the Earth naturally arises out of our investigation of the Earth's processes because as thinking, feeling organisms we are able to see the intimate connections we share with the rest of the world as well as are awed and stunned by the universe's vastness and mystery. Although a she is a reductionist who looks at the most basic building blocks of life (RNA & DNA), she is still able to conjure a sense of wonder and amazement in her work. Her work is meant to channel new ways of approaching scientific knowledge rather than just relying on mechanistic descriptions of processes. Goodenough's writing does not reflect the cold reductionism the general public relates with science. Hers is a “methodological reductionism” rather than an “analytic reductionism.” [2] This means that she doesn't see an antagonistic relationship between parts and wholes (parts vs. wholes) but rather that parts are actually sub-wholes which emerge into wholes that may have different qualities than their parts.[3]

Additionally, Goodenough views science as not necessarily having to explain all things or necessarily have a point. In knowing that the universe itself will one day end, without any perceived rhyme or reason, and all life will cease to exist, one can be left with a sense of despair about one's own existence. In order to avoid nihilism that develops out of a mechanistic understanding of the universe, in which the point of the human existence is lost in the vast expansiveness and mystery that composes reality, Goodenough makes peace with Mystery itself:

I have come to understand that I can deflect the apparent pointlessness of it all by realizing that I don't have to seek a point. In any of it. Instead, I can see [the infinite and infinitesimal] as the locus of Mystery.[4]
Goodenough's ability to name this potential despair and offer an alternative is one of the ways her work stands out and speaks to some authors, many of them seeking to reconcile some sort of religious outlook with a scientific understanding of nature. [5] She does not deny the lawfulness or reliability of science to describe the world around us, but she leaves room for an awareness of and appreciation for Mystery in her work.

It only makes sense that Goodenough would focus on biology when addressing ecological crises. However, she incorporates the entire universe in her investigation of the sacredness of our reality. Everything from the Big Bang to individual cell development to species and ecosystems possess a sacred quality. Biology necessarily builds upon physics and chemistry to make sense of life systems, but it also allows for discussion of emerging traits found in organisms and species. A focus on biology also makes clearer connections of our continuity as organisms with the rest of nature, leading to a fuller appreciation for and ethical consideration of organisms and processes in the natural world. Janis Dickinson points out that older, nature-based religions had this same perspective of acknowledging this continuity through rituals and symbolism that drew upon human reliance on nature and its processes. [6] However, Goodenough differs from these ancient religious traditions because she adds in the necessity of a scientific understanding of the world to truly appreciate the Mystery that is found in nature.

Despite the fact that Goodenough's scientific perspective and ability for explanation is appreciated by many, especially lay audiences, some individuals from the science community find her efforts lacking because of her acceptance of mystery. Cheryl Schindler, author of a review appearing in Einstein Quarterly, points out that Goodenough's book glosses over many important fields of study and information which may help better cover the vast expanses of knowledge she is trying to capture in her “Epic of Evolution.” [7] In reality, however, Goodenough must put a limit on the amount of information she is willing to cover in order to continue to make the book accessible to many audiences. The task of communicating the complexities of science is not an easy one, and since her scope is so large, it is reasonable to expect that she would only select a few specific ideas to cover. Added to the need for brevity, she understandably focuses much of her work on biological subject matter because that is her area of expertise. Her book is meant as an introduction to this material and these ideas, not a magnus opum that will identify the sources of mystery in all.

Strategy 2: Writing Style

Although Goodenough is a scientist, her writing style differs from many other scientists. She takes a humble approach, citing biographic material as one of her sources, making her relatable, as well as not sounding overly “preachy” in her tone as to why individuals should accept her version of religious naturalism as the way forward. Her book traces “The Epic of Evolution,” from the Big Bang to species development and emergent ecosystem properties. However, her writing is not overly technical. She conveys the description of scientific processes in relatable terms, enabling those with only a cursory understanding of scientific principles to grasp the concepts she discusses. In doing so, she does not “dumb down” the subject matter, but instead takes great care in finding appropriate examples and illustrations to further elucidate her descriptions. For example, when discussing the production of RNA, she describes the resulting RNA strand as similar to a paper doll chain, in which each doll is a ribonucleotide connected to the subsequent ribonucleotide (doll). [8] Of course, this isn't exactly how RNA strands appear (they are not as uniform as a paper doll chain in which every doll has the same appearance), but the approximation is close enough that anyone who has seen a paper doll chain could comprehend the message she is attempting to convey.

In a book review of The Sacred Depths of Nature in the prestigious scientific journal, Science, Craig B. Anderson praises Goodenough's ability to be a “good popularizer” in that she “is not afraid to use scientific jargon but translates along the way for laypersons.” [9] Praise from within the scientific community for her ability to communicate scientific concepts to people of all backgrounds from within the scientific community adds to her credibility as a scientist. Additionally, in another review in Bioscience, she is referred to as an “ecumenical joiner,” attempting to bring together religious sentiment with scientific knowledge. She meets her goal of including everyone in on the conversation in order to create a global ethic by enabling people from various backgrounds to engage her explanations and reflections.

It is not just that Goodenough is able to convey somewhat complex scientific ideas through her writing in a way that is attractive to many audiences, it is also that she is able to do so in a contextualized manner. Her work is aimed at a goal: creating a global ethic out of religious naturalist perspectives which adds on to already existing traditions without taking away from them. She describes scientific processes, but ultimately ties them to real-world situations in her reflections. Contextualization enables individuals to relate to the concepts expressed. From extrapolating the reasons why we care for our children from the biological explanation of sex [10] to her discussion of amoeba awareness of chemoattractors and how it ties to how meanings are often expressed through the use of symbols in our human experience, [11] Goodenough finds relatable contextualized material in every scientific discussion she employs. This is not to say that other religious naturalists fail to contextualize their arguments, —many do at least mention how religious naturalism impacts their lives or the experiences of humanity as a whole—, but they often do not carry out their entire work with the careful reflection and contextualization that Goodenough's work provides. Instead, their work can get mired down in technical explanations, either scientific or philosophic, which tend to alienate the reader if he or she is not adequately versed in these subject matters.

Goodenough stresses that it is not important for individuals to necessarily come away from reading her book being able to regurgitate the facts discussed therein. Instead, “the point of hearing a story for the first time is not to remember it but to experience it.” [12] Her writing is personal, warm, and narrative. More like a story than a scientific account, Goodenough's writing is not overwhelming for the average reader. It encourages openness in receiving scientific information not only as fact but as a source of wonder. [13] She is, in fact, developing a new way of approaching the world that is rooted in scientific understanding, but allows itself to experience the awe and wonder emanating from these complex processes. She is promoting mindfulness in one's everyday interactions with the world, increasing one's attentiveness to the world around them without instructing individuals how exactly they should feel or respond to the great Mystery of nature's processes.

As a result of her desire for individual experience of the text rather than specific retention, she leaves room for the individual to reflect on how her approach to the world matches up with one's own understanding of the world. Her work is a jumping off point, not a dogma about how one should be a religious naturalist. In fact, she does not desire her work to be taken as an approach all on its own. She sees it adding to other traditions rather than necessarily becoming its own tradition. She does not reject religion outright. Michael S. Hogue praises Goodenough's work for the fact that she articulates normative virtue ethics that help in guiding human interaction with the rest of nature through her religious naturalist perspective. [14] By observing the ways in which human beings are kin to the rest of the world, literally composed of the same basic building blocks that all life shares, human beings should become acutely aware of the ways in which their interactions with the world can inhibit the ability for life to continue.

In addition to her insightful descriptions and reflections, Goodenough also utilizes poetry and line drawings to depict some of the wonder of nature that is not adequately expressed by prose. Literature, poetry, and artistic media speak to certain ineffable qualities of nature which cannot adequately be expressed by reductionist explanation alone. Thomas Berry, in his book, The Great Work, laments human beings inability to recognize the importance of aesthetics in consideration for the awesomeness and importance of the natural world. He states, “(w)e have, in the accepted universe of these times, little capacity for participating in the mysteries that were celebrated in the earlier literary and artistic and religious modes of expression.” [15] Goodenough, however, reignites aesthetic description as enabling human beings to connect with nature in relationship on a deeper level of phenomological expression. It creates in humanity a sense of belonging to the beauty and intricacies of nature. [16] By quoting poetry and scripture, she is able to access some of the mystery and wonderment created by nature as perceived by humans. Reading poetry and looking at carefully drawn depictions of nature help to draw out the beauty and complexity of organisms themselves, as well as our interactions with them.

Strategy 3: Religion/Religious Outlook

Goodenough is an atheist, an atheist who attends church regularly, but still an atheist. Despite the fact that she does not believe in the supernatural, she respects religion and religious outlooks on life greatly. [17] Religious naturalism, as defined by Goodenough, does not require or exclude belief in a divine force. She does not personally believe in God, but she also does not insist that others need to abandon their beliefs in order for an appropriate ethic regarding the Earth to be realized. It is because of this respect that she engages science with an open mind toward the feelings that result when encountering the natural world. Theologians such as Phillip Clayton, who are interested in religion and science conversations respect Goodenough's ability to find spiritual significance emerging from nature without the need for a God. [18] As mentioned previously, Goodenough has decided to get comfortable with the mystery that underlies all life and life's inner workings on Earth. Instead of abandoning a sense of meaning in the world because of the vast enormity and seeming purposelessness of the universe's existence, she finds hope and to some extent comfort in the Mystery that abounds in nature. For example, human beings should experience gratitude and reverence for nature when they realize that their position in the natural world as a conscious, self-reflective organism that is supported by just the right conditions is something sacred that should be revered. [19] Goodenough's faith is in a “credo of continuation” which acknowledges the complexity, awareness, intent and beauty that sees life continue itself repeatedly throughout the ages without the intrusion of outside forces.

Goodenough is not afraid to use religious language to express the kinds of feelings she achieves through investigating the natural world. In fact, Stephen Kellert and Timothy Farnham, editors of the volume The Good in Nature and Humanity, to which Goodenough is a contributor, state in their preliminary description of Goodenough's previous work that she is able to bring science and religion together through the use of a common language. [20] While her work in this edited volume is later than the writing of The Sacred Depths of Nature, one can see the beginning of this use of common language for both science and religion in her use of the terms “sacred,” “reverence,” and “gratitude.” The word “sacred” clearly plays an important role for the development of her argument as to why the Earth should be respected. The world is sacred not because it was molded by a Supernatural being, but because of the mystery that is involved in natural processes themselves. Mystery is at the heart of Goodenough's religious naturalism and her epistemological understanding of the world. Without it, there would be no cause for awe or wonder, or as she names it “reverence.” [21] Mystery means not having to ascribe design or purpose to the world, but that the emergent qualities of the world and its organisms should be celebrated for simply being all. [22] By viewing the world as more than that which human beings can manipulate for their own desires, as something unimportant, today's world misses the important point that at base, we are reliant upon nature for our very being. Science aims at explaining some of these mysteries, but at the same time does not detract from the wonder and awe that one feels when contemplating the intricate details of nature.

Goodenough's openness to expressing her experiences is another factor that plays to the receptivity of her work. As a scientist, she is not afraid to admit that the knowledge of the vast expanses of the universe frightens her. She also describes the ways in which her interactions with the world through personal experience and through scientific exploration end up sparking the religious sentiment that she expresses as her “covenant with Mystery.” [23] In a review of The Sacred Depths of Nature by Chris Clarke in the Journal Ecotheology, Clarke identifies Goodenough's precision in her descriptions of her experiences with nature as religious as one of the most convincing parts of the book:

As I read Ursula Goodenough unfolding her passionate vision, I become clear why she can truly describe it as religious. The groundwork for a religious naturalism is superbly laid – in this respect the detail and precision with which she presents the context of our human experience is an important advance on previous authors.[24]

In this way, Goodenough separates herself from other religious naturalists. She takes the time to explain how she sees the science fitting the religious framework she expresses. Instead of basing her argument for nature as possessing religious qualities on through a philosophical lens that utilizes language of metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, she grounds her work in context and emotion.

Ultimately, Goodenough is seeking her version of religious naturalism to work as a joining force between individuals of different faith traditions to instantiate a global ecological ethic. One need not abandon his/her religious tradition to take on Goodenough's religious naturalism. Religious naturalism, rather, can inform one's comprehension of the world. Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa, in their book Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story, state that Goodenough's religious naturalism “can combine with the mythos of traditional religions, and may or may not include notions of a God.” [25] Her work seeks not to alienate those of established religious traditions, but rather bring them together in reverence for the everyday natural processes that allow life to occur and continue on Earth.

Despite the overwhelming support for Ursula Goodenough's depiction of religious naturalism as a religious venture by both scientists and theologians, there are still critiques offered as to whether her work effectively conveys a religious perspective. In a review of her book, botanist Barry A. Palevitz states that he does not believe that Goodenough's efforts to infuse scientific perspective with religious sentiment will ever be an effective alternative to traditional religion. He asserts that “people want a God that answers prayers.” [26] Likewise, from a religious perspective, Eugene E.Selk believes it is impossible “to construct a system of meaning and value from scientific theory and natural history alone…such grand systems can only be formulated within traditions.” [27] Both reviews come from a narrow definition of religion – that it must necessarily have a supernatural focus as well as develop a specific tradition. Palevitz in particular misunderstands the overall goal of Goodenough's project – it is not to create an substantial alternative to religion, but to act as a frame of reference that might be able to bring individuals from different religious traditions together. Goodenough is attempting to broaden the definition of religion to something that is based on emotional response rather than on dogma or tradition. Richard Dawkins takes issue with Goodenough's redefining of religion as well, though. He claims that if her views on nature are considered “religious” then he should be considered a “religious” man, but he is not. He states “one of us is misusing the English language, and I don't think it's me.” [28] But Dawkins' critique is mostly a game of semantics. Goodenough is trying to portray the emotion felt when encountering the natural world through scientific discovery with the language she finds most apropos, which happens to be religious. There are many points at which her descriptions of amazement at the natural world are only slightly different than accounts made by mystics within religious traditions. [29] However, focusing on emotion also draws critique, especially from the scientific community. Richard Watson faults Goodenough for focusing too much on reverence and awe while not addressing enough of the suffering and despair found in nature. [30] He paints reverence and awe as linked with only viewing the good in nature. However, these two descriptions of emotion do not necessarily have to arise from a good encounter. Awe can arise out of disbelief, reverence out of those things over which we as human beings have no control. Goodenough, however, discusses difficulties we encounter in nature, such as death. While she attempts to shed a positive light on death, indicating that it is the price we pay to be conscious, multicellular beings that produce sexually, she still recognizes that it is a difficult topic to grapple with as a human being.[31]

What do these strategies mean for Religious Naturalism?

Clearly the strategies that Ursula Goodenough employs in her writing are not perfect. However, her work is still highly acclaimed and makes her one of the more popular religious naturalists, influencing not only individuals within the circle of religious naturalism, but also those in the fields of science and traditional theology. Goodenough's approach to religious naturalism can be helpful to other religious naturalists who are interested in reaching a wider audience than those who may already be interested in naturalism as a philosophical idea. Her writing discusses how religious naturalism is a helpful tool in developing an ethic that values the Earth, leading to action on the part of those who adhere to this ethic. Therefore part of her strategy regards content focusing on an issue to which religious naturalism can specifically speak. But it is not just that she has the focus of environmental ethics that makes her work stands out. Plenty of religious naturalists are interested in engaging religious naturalism as a means for environmental ethics. It is the way that she approaches the subject matter which enables individuals to engage with her work.

Goodenough is not afraid to expose herself to her readers. She opens her book with an autobiographical account of her own formative experiences with nature, and how it both frightened and comforted her along her life's journey. She continues her personal connection with the material of her book through the reflections at the end of each chapter. She is unafraid to let the reader know who she is as a person, not just as a scientist. While some of the content she discusses is abstract, she manages to make it relevant to the reader and their life as they experience it. Other authors attempt to make these same sorts of personal connections, and when they do it often makes for the most memorable part of their work, but they fail to sustain the personal connection with the same tone that Goodenough puts forth in her work. [32] The stories that they tell are ones of suffering through which they must find hope in the world. Goodenough, instead, includes a good balance of accounts of both suffering and wonderment.

The book is not merely focused on explaining scientific processes. She enters into the journey of discovery with her readers, giving reflection on what the intricate details of life found through biological research mean in the context of her human existence. She is unafraid to express emotion and to evoke emotion out of her readers. In fact, that is the whole point of her book – to generate a mindfulness and emotional response to the beauty and wonder of the universe. Of course there is a necessary place for philosophical reflection and system construction in religious, but in order to get individuals on board with the importance of nature and its sacred qualities, descriptive and personal reflections prove to be a better way of engaging individuals on both an intellectual and spiritual level.

Goodenough is also not overly critical of traditional religions. Perhaps this is because of her experience of being an atheist who still finds a home in a church community, even though she does not share the same belief systems. In a way, she may be more like many of the people who are considering religious naturalism as a metaphysical construct. As peoples' knowledge about the world and its processes increases through scientific investigation, the ability to accept a worldview that relies on supernatural beings or events is less attractive. However, some individuals may still feel ties with their religions of origins despite the cognitive dissonance created by their understanding of the world and their religions' perspectives. Goodenough, in attempting to articulate a religious naturalism that respects religious perspectives and adds to them rather than takes away from them, makes it possible for individuals to still operate within their religious tradition while acknowledging the sacredness of nature. She does not dictate how one's practice of religious naturalism should look, but suggests ways in which we experience nature in our everyday lives and how these interactions can be perceived as sacred, especially through scientific investigation. Because she is not interested in discussing religious naturalism from a specific religious perspective, she is able to address a larger audience who can potentially fit her global ethic within their own belief structures.

Goodenough's work should serve as point from which scientists can learn how to engage with religious individuals in order to work together on some of the great ecological challenges the Earth faces. In providing content that is accessible to the lay audience and writing in a style that conveys her personal experiences as well as describing important scientific information, she is successful in bridging a gap between scientific language and people's everyday experiences, even if those experiences can be described as “sacred” or “religious.” Perhaps, if scientists were better able to convey this type of information with the same degree of compassion and intent that Goodenough possesses, our ecological crises could be adequately addressed by from both scientific and religious perspectives.


[1]Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) xvi-xvii.

[2]Michael S. Hogue, The Promise of Religious Naturalism (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010), 213.

[3]Goodenough, 45-46.

[4]Ibid., 11.

[5]For example, see: Fuller, Robert C. Wonder: From emotion to spirituality. (Chapel Hill, NC. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2006), 127, Thomas Dunlap, Faith in nature: Environmentalism as religious quest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 10, William P. Brown The seven pillars of creation: the Bible, science, and the ecology of wonder (New York or Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 4, John F. Haught "Is nature enough? No." Zygon® 38, no. 4 (2003), 770.

[6]Janis L. Dickinson, "The people paradox: self-esteem striving, immortality ideologies, and human response to climate change." Ecology and society 14, no. 1 (2009): 34 [online] http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss1/art34.

[7]Cheryl Schindler, “Review of The Sacred Depths of Nature, by Ursula Goodenough,” Einstein Quarterly Journal of Biology and Medicine 16, no. 4 (1999), 224.

[8]Goodenough, 22.

[9]Craig B. Anderson, “Two Realms and Their Relationships,” Book Reviews of Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, By Stephen Jay Gould, Seduced by Science: How American Religion Has Lost Its Way, By Steven Goldberg, and The Sacred Depths of Nature, By Ursula Goodneough, Science, Vol. 286, no 5441 (1999): 907-908.

[10]Goodenough, 129.

[11]Ibid., 110–114.

[12]Ibid., xxi.

[13]See: Chet Reymo, “Sacred Science,” Book Review of The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough, Skeptic, vol. 7 no. 2, (1999),

[14]Hogue, 195.

[15]Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), 17.

[16] F. Leron Shults praises Goodenough’s work (with other religious naturalists) for enabling human beings to aesthetically connect with the universe as a way of locating themselves and evoking emotional response of being in harmony with the world. Christology and science. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2008), 111

[17]Goodenough 173.

[18]Phillip Clayton “The Emergence of Spirit: From complexity to anthropology to theology,” Theology and Science, vol 4, no. 3, 300.

[19]Goodenough, 170.

[20] The Stephen R. Kellert, and Timothy Farnham, eds. The good in nature and humanity: connecting science, religion, and spirituality with the natural world (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2002), 9.

[21]Bron Taylor refers to Goodenough’s reverence for nature as being a part of Thomas Berry’s larger movement to “consecrate scientific cosmological and evolutionary narratives.” “A Green Future for Religion?” Futures vol 36 (2004), 999. Additionally, William P. Brown connects Goodenough’s use of “sacredness to discuss nature as harkening back to previous religious positions, Brown, 4.

[22]Goodenough, 29-30.

[23]Goodenough, 17.

[24]Chris Clark, Review of The Sacred Depths of Nature By Ursula Goodenough, Ecotheology vol 13 (2002), 96.

[25]Karl, Giberson and Donald A. Yerxa. Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story. (Lantham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 141.

[26]Barry A. Palevitz, “Falling Off a Tightrope: Compromise and Accommodation in the War Between Creationism and Evolution,” Reviews of Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution by Kenneth R. Miller, Rocks of Agesby Stephen Jay Gould and The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough, BioScience, vol 50 no 10, (2000), 927.

[27]Eugene E. Selk, Review of The Sacred Depths of Nature By Ursula Goodenough, Journal of Religion and Society vol 3, 2001, [online] http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2001/2001-r8.pdf

[28]Richard Dawkins, A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on hope, lies, science, and love. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 146.

[29]Hildegaard von Bingen as an example.

[30]Richard A.Watson, “Three Biologists and Religion,” A Review of The Sacred Depths of Nature By Ursula Goodenough, Reason For Hope: A Spiritual Journey By Jane Goodall, and Rocks of Ages By Stephen Jay Gould, Quarterly Review of Biology, vol 75 no 2 (2000), 160.

[31]Goodenough, 150-151.

[32]Examples of authors who make these connections are Karl Peters Dancing with the Sacred, 115 – 116, who discusses the peace he makes with his wife’s stomach cancer and eventual death, and Michael S. Hogue’s discussion of his daughter’s congenital heart defect and how it challenged his experience with the natural world (The Promise of Naturalism, xvii-xix). However, neither Peters nor Hogue are scientists, which may alter their focus a bit.

Review by Ashley Theuring (2013)

The Sacred Depths of Nature. Ursula Goodenough. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998; 978-0195136296). $19.99.

Such a simple thing
    you give me,
Just a lens—a piece of glass that bends the light.

Simple in design,
    But hidden,
Deep inside—Inside itself it gently bends.

Kindly bending light,
    and bending,
Then at last—I see the vision that was yours.

“Now I see” I laugh,
    I thank you,
For this gift—you have graciously shared with me.

It seems only appropriate to respond to Ursula Goodenough’s “daily devotional booklet,” The Sacred Depths of Nature, with a poem of appreciation for the gift of sight given to us within these pages (xviv). It is a gift handed delicately to a wide range of readers in the form of a short and simple book, which is meant to open the reader’s eyes to the wonders of “The Epic of Evolution.” Goodenough’s book focuses on two major themes: “How Things Are” and “What Things Matter” (xiv). Each chapter is broken in half. The first half explains the reality of our world’s cosmology in accessible scientific language and the second half reflects and develops an ethos from the cosmological reality. It is clear from the introduction that Goodenough intends this book to be a constructive work. She creates a space for the development of an underlying ethic which would not be based on one single culture or religion, “but would seek to coexist with them” (xvi). Goodenough believes an underlying ethic would provide a common ground for people to use to communicate and respond to each other (xv). She is not intending to create this ethos herself, but rather develop a space for its “articulation” by untangling a cosmology from “The Epic of Evolution.” She sees the creation of this ethos as a realistic, “global project” (xvii). Certainly this is a beautiful vision, but I am left wondering whether this vision of an ethical, global ethos is possible or oxymoronic.

Mystery becomes a major theme for Goodenough. Rather than using any type of theistic or religious language to describe ultimate concern, Goodenough chooses to use the “locus of Mystery” as the central reality to her cosmology (11). The reality of the universe in all its infinite greatness can be a frightening and hopeless experience. Goodenough has found that focusing on the idea that “Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe” brings her comfort and mitigates her own nihilistic fears (13). Goodenough does not wish to further understand Mystery. In fact, she leaves it undefined and manifold, writing “to assign attributes to Mystery is to disenchant it, to take away its luminance” (12). Instead of pinning down the universe’s meaning in one form, such as a religious tradition, Goodenough accepts the universe in all its complexities (47). These early ideas around the multiplicity of nature are helpful and beautiful, but unfortunately are replaced with more normalizing claims later in her book to the detriment of her argument.

Other themes present throughout Goodenough’s work are notions of physicalism and emergence. Because she is a biologist, it makes sense that she incorporates a strong preference towards physicalism. She argues early in her chapter on the “Origins of Chemistry,” that “like everything else, chemistry is reducible to physics” (18). But later, she unpacks this idea, arguing that life is “something more than the collection of molecules” (28). There is something more to life than just the layers of chemistry and physics underneath, something “unique to living creatures, processes that have no counterpart at simpler levels” (28). Here she argues for an emergent reality, in which there is “Something more from nothing but” (28). These two ideas, physicalism and emergence, are not necessarily contradictory, but Goodenough does not dig into these tensions as far as might be necessary to set up a clear understanding of her cosmology at this level.

Goodenough expands her theme of emergence, arguing that our need to be “Known” as something special can be met by this reality. By understanding our own unique existence as emergent, we are freed to “sing [our] own song, with deep gratitude for [our] existence. With this comes the understanding that [we are] in charge of [our] own emergence” (60). This is a wonderful image and a very strong point for Goodenough’s atheist approach, which allows her cosmology to provide a sense of comforting uniqueness for which humans long; however, I find the assumption of humanity’s agency troubling. This assumption assumes a lot about individual lives. It assumes we have enough agency in our lives with which to construct our own emergence, but many in our world, the subaltern, are often left without the power to change their situation. It is also assumed we are in control of our lives in a way which does not always fit with individual experiences of poverty, oppressive cultural settings, or tragedy.

Another major theme developed by Goodenough is humanity’s intricate connection to nature. A key component to developing a global ethos from Goodenough’s cosmology is to fully consider humanity’s “deep genetic homology, with the rest of the living world” (72). She makes this point in a number of ways; for example, in her chapter on biodiversity she explains that everything alive on Earth today has a common ancestor in the first single-celled organism. For Goodenough this reality of kinship, should call us to care for other creatures, especially in regards to the “preservation of their habitat and their dignity” (164). Another human instinct that is often cultivated within religious traditions is the instinct to pair-bond, which is extended to a theistic God. In many theistic religions, God is described in love-language as a Lover or the Beloved. Goodenough reflects on the possibility of extending this instinct in order to cultivate instinctually strong “earthly relations” (140). She also points to our human uniqueness for language and symbolic thinking as the loci for developing compassion and empathy, which we can extend past our kin, and appears in religious traditions as the golden rule (114). Our uniqueness for these types of emotions and our ability to extend them to all of nature is why Goodenough argues humanity must act as stewards of the planet (171).

One of the themes I found most compelling was Goodenough’s approach to death. A person’s response to tragic death seems to be hardwired. “Our sorrow at the death of others is a universal human emotion that transcends cultural and religious particularities” (150). Goodenough points to this shared response as one of religious naturalism’s approaches to death. I am left unsatisfied by Goodenough’s treatment of this approach. Taking Goodenough’s point further than she is willing to go in her book, the reality that we share this reaction as a human race reveals to us the underlying nature of tragedy and its place within the human story. Tragedy has always been with us and yet never makes sense. This would be a wonderful place for Goodenough to return to her covenant with the “locus of Mystery.” Unfortunately, the abysmal side of mystery and nature seem to be missing from her book entirely. The other approach to death within religious naturalism is to understand “death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love” (151). This is a striking reflection on death, based on the reality of our biology. It creates a compelling space for death in which it becomes a necessary aspect of human consciousness and life.

In the final chapters, Goodenough summarizes several of her major propositions for future work towards developing a universal ethos. One of the most important points for Goodenough is the notion of “taking on ultimacy.” She writes, “the important part, I believe, is that the questions be openly encountered. To take the universe on—to ask Why Are Things As They Are?—is to generate the foundation for everything else” (168). Here Goodenough is arguing for the development of capaciousness in one’s world-view. Goodenough wishes to leave us with an open posture that explores the depths of reality with an open-mind. This also includes postures of gratitude and reverence.

Goodenough finishes her book arguing that the cosmology she is communicating with this book can fit within any religious context because of its scientific veracity. “Once we have our feelings about Nature in place, then I believe that we can also find important ways to call ourselves Jews, or Muslims, or Taoist, or Hopi, or Hindus, or Christians, or Buddhists. Or some of each” (173). While Goodenough’s simple approach is an asset throughout most of her book, here it becomes a detriment. Goodenough’s ultimate goal of building a single cosmology that can act as a common ground for all peoples is flawed. There is a dangerous simplification in the possibility of developing a single “origin story.” While every aspect of Goodenough’s “Epic of Evolution” is “true” in a factual sense, narratives always include lenses and infinite perspectives from which to understand them. In the gentle hands of Goodenough, the “Epic of Evolution” is told beautifully and simply, but there are dangers in meta-narratives even when they are based on science. Goodenough has ignored the abysmal side of nature and in her simplification of her ethical reflection we are left without any warnings of the dangers of totalizing cosmologies and positivist science.

Review by Carrie M. Brunner (2010)

The Sacred Depths of Nature. Ursula Goodenough. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998; 978-0195136296).  $19.99.

The opening notes of a classical sonata establish the base for the rest of the piece, as the composer introduces the thematic content that provides the listener’s center throughout the composition. Unfortunately, not many people know or care about Sonata Form. In fact, one could say that the sonata’s existence is endangered in today’s culture. Ursula Goodenough, a cell biologist, uses the metaphor of a sonata to describe portions of her religious naturalism. She describes her book as a series of devotionals on scientific topics, offering explanations of and reflections on each topic. Each of these subjects is chosen to form a religious bridge between How Things Are and Which Things Matter (xiv). It is her goal “to present an accessible account of our scientific understanding of Nature and then suggest ways that this account can call forth appealing and abiding religious responses – an approach that can be called religious naturalism” (xvii). Along with her form of religious naturalism, she seeks to provide a planetary ethic that works with existing religious traditions in individual cultural contexts, while concurrently uniting these traditions with a mutual motivation for life’s future on Earth. Goodenough dissects life’s brilliant sonata to show the world how beautiful it is, so that she can rescue it from extinction.

In the first chapter, “Origins of the Earth,” Goodenough details a condensed version of the history of the Universe. She takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Big Bang, through 15 billion years of expansion of space, including the formation of chemical and physical elements, stars, galaxies, and the Earth. Then, she asks us to reflect on these scientific truths, and addresses the impending sense of nihilism that comes with the knowledge that we are so small in the midst of all this space that is the Universe. She addresses this philosophical conundrum by challenging the reader to completely ignore the desire for a purpose in life. Instead, she asks us to embrace the Mystery with awe and wonderment; surrendering the need for answers to the Big Questions is a driving force in the religious naturalism she describes.

Her second chapter is devoted to the emergence of chemical and cell systems, and the processes that became the basis for life on Earth. By describing the intricate complexities of these processes, she embraces the incredible fact that they came to be at all. The amazing series of coincidences that science claims allowed these emergent functions to develop is inexplicable. This inexplicability is where theology often comes in, but Goodenough questions the Anthropic Principle that states the Earth must have been designed since chemistry flows perfectly from physics to create life as we know it, branding it a circular argument. For her, the true miracle of life is that it occurred at all, and for the religious naturalist this is enough.

She addresses reductionism in her third chapter, “How Life Works.” Responding to the traditional comforting reply to reductionism –there is a life-giving force beyond the mere matter we are made of – she turns to the Mozart metaphor. Her point is that when a Mozart sonata is taken apart in order to comprehend it more accurately, it loses some of its surface mystery. But while Mystery decreases, beauty and meaningfulness only increase with understanding. Goodenough’s reply to the alienation, or the “long existential shudder” (33) of reductionism, is that with greater understanding comes greater appreciation. She acknowledges her yearning for something more – a vital life force – but explains that the only way to live with a truly scientific understanding of life is to surrender, or assent, to the mechanics of existence. Only this informed assent can produce a joyful celebration for life.

While describing Evolution, Goodenough cites the musical patterns required for a successful sonata. Evolutionary patterns are biological at their basic level, with genes being the very center of the patterns’ dynamics in relation to the whole creature. After reducing ourselves to a series of chance mutations and gene expressions – variations on the sonata’s original theme – she asks the question: despite this, are we sacred? Her answer is a resounding yes, “by virtue of [the self’s] own improbability, its own miracle, its own emergence” (59). Then, against all expectations of throwing her hands up again in acceptance, she turns away from determinism and asserts that the self (which is made up of an individual’s cells’ countless reactions to decisions, which are influenced by other decisions, and so on) chooses the emergence of its own self-knowledge. For Goodenough, the choice to delve deep in exploration of the self is inherently sacred, and this sanctity flows not from above, but from the grace of the individual.

Turning again to music, Goodenough points out that Brahms’ compositions did not merely appear in his head devoid of influences. Rather, when Brahms' music is examined, the echoing of earlier composers is also heard. Such is Evolution, which Goodenough defines as “changes in the frequencies of different sets of instructions for making organisms” (64). These changes occur through a process that brings together the randomness of mutation and the selection of environmental traits. Like Brahms, Evolution is portrayed as a series of cumulative changes, and the complexity that arose through Evolution as “selections of selections of selections” (71). This chapter introduces her argument for environmental conservation, referencing that humans are “connected all the way down” (73), and thus are living in a natural community that is bound together by a shared evolutionary history.

Goodenough draws out values and religious principles from the results of Evolution, demonstrating that religious naturalism provides a framework for ethics. In Chapter Six, “The Evolution of Biodiversity,” a “deep, abiding humility” is suggested in response to the revelation that humans are in fact parts in a larger network of life (86). The next chapter, “Awareness,” explores the distinctiveness of humans through their self-awareness, a feature shared by a very small amount of the animal kingdom. She describes Awareness as the ability to respond to experience, and self-awareness as “the awareness of awareness” (99). She explains mystical experiences through this mental phenomenon of being self-aware, but seems reluctant to step on any religious toes. She belabors the fact that whether or not this is true doesn’t matter in the end, because, in regard to mystical phenomena, “all of us are transformed by their power” (102), and she encourages us to seek Immanence, and to lose ourselves in its blessing.

Emotions spring from awareness, and from emotion come meaning, value, and symbols. In this way Goodenough addresses morality. She informs us of the harsh reality that basic emotions are indeed hardwired functions of survival, and feelings are results of these emotions. Acknowledging that the disclosure that we aren’t unique in regard to having emotions might be a bit rough, she comforts us with the fact that our ability to derive symbols really is unique (as far as we know). The religious framework she provides is derived from our experience with meaning, value, and symbols. Compassion for others in light of the desire for justice is paramount to our religious experiences within this framework.

Goodenough also explains the emergence of biological relationships, as necessitated by procreation via eukaryotic sex. Following a complex explanation of the intricacies of DNA, and evolutionary strategies of sexual reproduction, she reveals that this compares favorably to how we care for one another in our everyday relationships. The catch is that in addition to caring for other humans, we must also be in a caring relationship with the Earth, recognizing nature as a “tangible source of renewal” (129). Sex creates sexuality, producing the mutual “Need for Other” (133). She extends this notion to include religious need, for monotheistic religions “suggest that the most stable and fruitful outlet for passion and dependency is in relationships with the Divine” (136). Personal relationship with a deity is at odds with religious naturalism, so she subtly calls for us to exchange this association for relationships in the natural world.

Finally, at the end of the life cycle comes death, and Goodenough tackles the horror of non-being by framing death as the price paid for consciousness. She is able to find meaning in death because of the gift of conscious life, which would not be biologically possible without eventual death. She returns in her final chapter to speak more on human distinctiveness in light of our commonalities with the rest of the natural world, especially with apes. But instead of becoming depressed about the fact that, once again, we really aren’t that special, “religious naturalism exhorts us to celebrate human distinctiveness with the same full-throated thanksgiving that we celebrate the whale and the spotted owl” (165). Despite humans being no more unique than other creatures, we should wonder at our distinctiveness, through our special abilities to create art, to critically analyze the world, and overall, to be religious.

Goodenough reflects on the preceding topics in her section, “Emergent Religious Principles.” In this, the coda to her sonata, she identifies gratitude, reverence, and preservation as the major principles associated with the religious naturalism she proposes. In “Taking on Ultimacy” she suggests “a covenant with Mystery” (167), encouraging that Big Questions be asked not in expectation of an answer, but to “generate the foundation for everything else” (168). Her “Credo of Continuation” asks us to preserve nature – including ourselves – with gratitude and reverence for life’s existence. For, “we may be the only questioners in the universe… we are also, whether we like it or not, the dominant species and the stewards of this planet” (171). Comparing religious stories to the Epic of Evolution, she identifies religious naturalism as a response to this story, a response that calls us to live spiritual, ethically responsible lives.

The religious naturalism that Goodenough introduces is only the first step on the path towards living a religiously naturalistic life. As mentioned in her introduction, her principles are meant to be employed in a way that causes nature to receive the respect and care it deserves. However, this larger goal is often lost and forgotten amidst the myriad of details in the scientific explanations offered each chapter. At times we may wonder if she is poking fun at herself when, after a two-page explanation, she says things like “and that’s basically all there is to biochemistry” (39). These scientific details can be overwhelming at times, but as Goodenough mentions before Chapter One, she does not expect her readers to remember all the information; she wants us to take in the experience.

This book is an honest, accessible, and eloquently written reflection of a religious naturalist struggling to live with the issues that often arise from science. However, does her reflection convince us of The Sacred Depths of Nature, and does this reflection provoke us to create the planetary ethic for which she seeks to provide the building blocks? I believe that it does. One of this book’s strengths is that Goodenough’s writing has the ability to resonate with any member of the general public who has encountered the pressing realities of Evolution and felt the religious conflicts that result. In this book Goodenough, a scientist, is venturing onto theological turf. Therefore, I find it easy to forgive when she does not provide more than a loose definition of “sacredness,” even though it may have assisted her theological position. She may also be too subtle in how her form of religious naturalism will work practically. However, the groundwork that she lays for her readers is thoughtful and accessible, and I think that part of the beauty of this book is that she leaves the practical vision open to the reader’s imagination.