Michael S. Hogue

The Promise of Religious Naturalism

Review by Jessica Chicka, 2013

The Promise of Religious Naturalism. By Michael S. Hogue. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2010. 253 Pages. $69.99.

An intensive exploration of religious naturalism’s potential for creating a needed ecological ethic for today’s global context, Michael S. Hogue’s The Promise of Religious Naturalism is an informative and accessible volume. Claiming that secular environmentalism fails to meet the social and moral tasks of environmentalism, Hogue finds promise in the work of religious naturalists Loyal Rue, Jerome Stone, Ursula Goodenough, and Donald Crosby. His method for engaging with these authors is what he calls “appreciative criticism” (xxiii), in which he discusses the importance of developing a contextual framework for engaging each of the writer’s works, then compares and critiques their perspectives. Based on the analysis and comparison of these authors’ thoughts, Hogue constructs an ethical framework based in religious naturalism that will be able to address global ecological crises. His work is incredibly detailed and much of the book is spent in providing explanations of the religious naturalists’ works with his comparisons and criticisms sprinkled throughout. However, his work could benefit from an expanded focus on construction, as the general ethical frameworks he provides only give glimpses into the ways these frameworks could potentially be applied.

Hogue’s notion of contextualization serves as the basis for developing an ecological ethic out of religious naturalism. Contextualization describes the dynamism present in religious ethical development, as situations are constantly shifting and often antithetical ideas must be held in tension with one another. For example, morality in the present context is in a liminal state between morality of the past, which created the situations we face today, and morality of the future, which is how we would like to see the world (3).  Religion, too, is shifting; in the modern period it became acceptable to choose and critique one’s religious adherence rather than blindly accept that which is given through traditional authorities (11). This choice allows for the notion of what is considered religious to expand beyond traditional boundaries, including ascribing religious traits to one’s experience of the natural world, rather than relying on supernatural elements. However, as an emphasis on human ability expands philosophical, scientific, and religious horizons, it also amplifies human impact on the earth, creating a global ecological crisis. Each of the authors Hogue engages recognizes the importance of contextualization for the development of religious naturalism in light of the ecological crisis, and names the importance of religious naturalism as a resource for ethically engaging these problems.

Just as contextualization is important in providing the basis for an ecological ethic of religious naturalism, Hogue finds it important to make sure that his readers have a foundation in theory and method of religious naturalism and ethics before analyzing any of the authors’ works. He provides accessible and detailed explanations as to why theory and method are important for living a religiously moral life. In doing so, he sets forth the basic theories of naturalism, religion, and ethics that are applicable to religious naturalism. His task is not only to justify naturalism as a viable option for religious devotion, but to link that reverence and awe to ethical theory. His ethical theory argument focuses on a meta-ethical and normative ethics, which serve as the basis for applied ethics in given situations (77). Having this groundwork in ethical theory advances Hogue’s ability to adequately compare the ethical theories proposed by each of the author’s he investigates, and later attempt to construct a religious ecological ethic that will provide the promise and task of religious naturalism in today’s context.

The majority of Hogue’s book is spent critically engaging with the works of Rue, Stone, Goodenough, and Crosby. He selects these authors because their work is generally accessible and mediates between religious naturalists who are highly technical (Neville, Wildman) and those who express popular views of religious naturalism (Raymo, Dowd). Each of the authors comes to religious naturalism from different perspectives. Rue’s position naturalizes religion, emphasizing the idea that religions are cultural systems which are controlled by the same evolutionary dynamics found within nature (87).  Stone advocates for a religious naturalism, which makes the phenomenological argument that all that conduces to good in nature should be the basis for how we orient our lives (99). Crosby describes a religion of nature, which identifies all nature (both what is perceived as “good” and “evil”) as metaphysically ultimate (109). Finally, Goodenough develops a naturalistic religiopoiesis which attempts to craft a new religion out of nature from the perspective of natural sciences rather engaging in theological reconstruction from previous traditions (122). The diversity of these perspectives allows Hogue to identify the commonalities between each as well as how their differences can either complement each other or provide opportunities for pluralistic engagement.

Hogue explicates why each of these writers’ perspectives should be considered religious and how they view religious perspective as playing an important role in shaping the human relationship with nature. Central to this discussion is how each of the authors perceives religious naturalism fitting into the larger framework of religious traditions. For Rue and Crosby, religious naturalism supersedes traditional religions. There is no point in trying to reconcile religious naturalism with traditional religions, because traditional religions are focused on supernatural entities and are unable to adapt to new social and cultural information (94). Stone and Goodenough, however, believe that religious naturalism can be incorporated into (or at least open to) traditional religious perspectives, coexisting and supporting those perspectives to lead to a richer appreciation for nature and the human place and responsibility within it. Hogue ultimately ends up choosing to side with the latter camp, emphasizing his late modern idea of “reflexive religiosity” in which the religious naturalist is simultaneously sympathetic and suspicious toward traditional religions (225-6).

Ethically, each author has his or her own unique perspective to offer, built on his or her understanding of religious naturalism and its functions. Hogue reviews all of these perspectives and ends up affirming aspects of each to create his own ethic. Rue utilizes a metaethical naturalist framework to describe his “federated eco-morality” (143), which holds in tension personal wholeness, social cohesion, biological viability, and ecological integrity as values that should be upheld by a religious naturalist system. Although this position creates problems in articulating specific ways in which to go about enacting a religious ethical life, his work sets up the framework upon which normative and applied ethical work can develop. Stone, Goodenough, and Crosby, on the other hand, offer a good deal of the practical applicability that Rue’s ethical framework lacks. They each focus on a form of virtue ethics, which create ecological standards that individuals should attempt to achieve. Each of these virtues reminds the individual who aspires to attain them that he/she is an integrated participant in the natural world as well as possesses the special function of moral consciousness, which makes him/her responsible for ensuring the flourishing of community and nature. Hogue highlights this emphasis on the special role of humanity as well as the ambiguity of nature as important aspects of an ecological ethic because they empower human beings to act responsibly while reminding them that nature will continue to operate in ways that are not always perceived as pleasant or good.

In the final chapter of Hogue’s book, he attempts to construct what he believes the promise and task of religious naturalism to be for the future. Utilizing his appreciative criticism model, Hogue relies heavily on continuing to analyze and reconstruct the arguments made by the other authors throughout the book into a general pluralistic religious ecological ethical perspective. However, I found his constructive element somewhat lacking. While appreciating his comparative and critical analysis of each writer throughout the book, I was anticipating a more expansive constructive aspect to his work. That does not mean that his final argument was not compelling. In arguing for both a reflexive religiosity as well as the potential for religious naturalism to contribute to interreligious actions for the good of the earth, I believe that Hogue is on the right path moving beyond metaethical and normative ethical perspectives to applied ethics, making his task applicable to everyday life. This perspective has potential for guiding a whole book on contemporary religious applied (social) ecological ethics.

Overall, this book is a great resource for those interested in either religious naturalism or ecological ethics. Because Hogue spends so much time describing theory and method as well as contextualizing the need for an ecological ethic, one has all of the tools one needs to read and understand his book without having formal introductions to either of these topics. His selection of Rue, Stone, Goodenough, and Crosby’s works as conversation partners was also a good choice in that their work is generally accessible and offer varied perspectives. Additionally, Hogue’s writing style, while sometimes laborious in its detailed summaries, assures that the reader understands the ideas and concepts he conveys in his analyses and critiques.