Jerome A. Stone

Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative


Review by David Rohr (2013)

Review by Thurman Todd Willison (2010)

Review by David Rohr (2013)

Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative. By Jerome A. Stone. State University of New York Press, 2008. 259 Pages. $26.95.

Religious naturalists do not carry membership cards. Some attend traditional religious services, some do not. Some refer to “God” and “the divine,” others forswear all theistic language. Some are philosophers, some are scientists, and still others are humanists. In his recent book, Jerome Stone set himself the unenviable task of getting this motley group together for an intellectual class portrait. The result is Religious Naturalism Today, a book whose structure conforms to its dispersed subject matter. The book describes the distinctive perspectives and themes of almost fifty modern and contemporary naturalists. Rather than attempting to summarize such unwieldy material, this review presents Stone’s definition of religious naturalism, highlights some unresolved disagreements among religious naturalists, and then offers several constructive criticisms.

After noting the circularity of defining naturalism as anti-supernaturalism, Stone affirms Charley Hardwick’s list of four basic features of naturalism:

(1) That only the world of nature is real; (2) that nature is necessary in the sense of requiring no sufficient reason beyond itself to account either for its origin or ontological ground; (3) that nature as a whole may be understood without appeal to any kind of intelligence or purposive agent; and, (4) that all causes are natural causes so that every natural event is itself a product of other natural events (page 2; Hardwick 1996, 5-6).

Despite popular conceptions, naturalism entails neither epistemological scientism nor a denial of value outside of human intentionality. In contrast to the clarity of this definition of naturalism, Stone offers only the haziest suggestion as to what makes religious naturalism religious: “I have defined religious naturalism as that type of naturalism that is similar enough to what we take as the paradigm cases of a religious orientation that the term ‘religious’ may be used” (3-4). Given this fuzziness, it is no surprise that Stone never rejects any view for not being religious enough. In contrast, process theism and ground of being theism are excluded from analysis for referring to entities that appear too ontologically distinct from nature.

With Stone’s definition of religious naturalism in hand, it is now possible to highlight three unresolved problems that span his survey. Hopefully, this will also provide a brief introduction to some of the key thinkers in the history of religious naturalism. The first major issue concerns whether or not God/Nature/the religious object should be thought of in terms of human goodness. Those answering negatively tend to identify the divine with the whole of reality and conclude that nature is utterly indifferent to human ideals and values. In Santayana’s succinct expression, “Nature is not and cannot be man’s ideal” (32). Similarly, William Bernhardt explains, “There are no rational grounds for applying moral attributes, on human terms, to the divine. ‘Evil’ and ‘good’ are terms we apply to human ways of relating persons to one another and not to the more inclusive reality within which the divine operates. Any extension of these judgmental concepts beyond the human leads to confusion and frustration” (109). However, other thinkers, apparently repulsed by the idea of exalting Indifference as their religious object, choose to identify the divine with human beings’ highest values. In this latter camp are Stone, John Dewey, and Mordecai Kaplan. Stone characterizes this position well when summarizing Kaplan: “Whereas traditional Jewish language spoke of God as just, merciful, and forgiving, Kaplan’s reconstruction is that justice, mercy, and forgiveness are divine” (182). Still others like Donald Crosby chart a middle path. While Crosby acknowledges that nature is no respecter of human concerns or achievements, he rightly insists that nature also funds the possibility of all human goods (201-2). Thus, Crosby makes a crucial distinction between moral goodness, which nature does not exhibit, and nature’s primal, axiological goodness that is necessary for human good and evil to exist in the first place.

The second enduring problem is related to the first: “what is the basis for a prophetic critique of reigning ideologies?” (193) Depending on how one responds to the question about God’s goodness, this question shows up differently, but it is a serious problem for all religious naturalists. Those who identify God with their highest ideals will inevitably find themselves in conflict with other “divinely sanctioned” values and will need to defend their deified moral principles from accusations of arbitrary projection. Religious naturalists who separate the divine from human ideals in the first place will quite naturally recognize the need to defend their chosen values. This certainly complicates the prophetic task, but perhaps it does so in precisely the right way. Rather than fighting with divine zeal, a religious naturalist is forced to challenge social ideology through rational and rhetorical persuasion. Perhaps this predicament leads to the ethical maturity Santayana exhibits when he recognizes that actualizing one good almost always excludes another genuine value (35-6).

A third unresolved tension within religious naturalism concerns the movement’s relationship with traditional religions. At the very deepest level, this is a question about whether religious naturalism can sustain itself apart from religious organizations – not an idle speculation when one considers that two of the movement’s greatest influxes of energy came from the religiously funded divinity school at the University of Chicago (59-68, 84-101). To be sure, some of the religious naturalists Stone introduces are firmly planted within traditions, such as Mordecai Kaplan within Judaism However, most thinkers Stone presents keep a safe distance from traditional religion, restricting themselves to an appreciation for the naturalistic truths underlying religious symbols. Others like Ursula Goodenough and Thomas Berry attempt to articulate a universal, scientifically-based religious narrative that is free from the encrustations of traditional religious mythologies (158-163). Time will tell whether these scientific narratives can resonate with the same depth as ancient religious myths. In the meantime religious naturalists must negotiate between two strategies: work to naturalize existing religious traditions from within or establish a brand new religious community capable of sustaining the growth of religious naturalism.

Before concluding, a few criticisms of Stone’s book are necessary. First of all, the book lacks a coherent organization. Granted, Stone is attempting one of the first overviews of a widely distributed and internally contentious perspective. Nevertheless, a disorganized subject is all the more reason for a clearly ordered presentation. As it is, Stone’s book is neither a history of religious naturalism, nor a topical presentation of its essential ideas, nor even a conceptually structured survey of major thinkers, but a muddle of all three approaches.

Second, by refusing to define what makes religious naturalism religious, Stone obscures some of the most important questions facing religious naturalists today. Though defining religion is an extremely contentious matter, engaging any well-respected definition would force Stone to recognize that religion is much more concrete than the compiled writings of intellectuals who mostly agree about theological matters. Religion is a communal affair involving messy things like priests, rituals, moral supervision, strange symbols, and the economic maintenance of buildings and institutions. How exactly does religious naturalism relate to religion in this sense? Is it the case that most of the thinkers Stone reviews were deeply formed within traditional religions? If so, does this imply that religious naturalism represents the intellectual fringes of more traditional faiths? Or is there another community totally disconnected from historical religions that religious naturalism serves and can be sustained by? If religious naturalists want absolutely nothing to do with the communal, ritual, and institutional trappings of religion, then should they simply call themselves ethical naturalists or aesthetic naturalists? Despite Stone’s neglect, these are vital questions that the emerging religious naturalist movement must eventually answer.

Third, a more inclusive stance towards those thinkers deemed borderline religious naturalist would have helped to clarify Stone’s selection criteria. It is perplexing that Tillich’s ground of being, which is continuous with nature despite being transcendent, was excluded (9-10) while Willem Drees acceptance of a non-intervening transcendent Creator was deemed worthy of analysis. Again, it is not clear that Robert Neville’s metaphysics of creation ex nihilo, when properly understood, is any less compatible with naturalism than Corrington’s metaphysics based upon the distinction between nature naturing and nature natured. If Tillich and Neville are genuinely beyond the pale, then a detailed argument showing why they do not count would have greatly clarified Stone’s conception of the boundaries of religious naturalism.

Lastly, Stone’s presentation gets too bogged down in the details of particular authors to articulate the difficult intellectual problems all religious naturalists presently face. Whatever else religious naturalism is, it is at least a viewpoint that attempts to take modern science seriously while still affirming that human life is rich in value and meaning. However, science itself does not supply value and meaning. As I see it, the central intellectual challenge for religious naturalists is to articulate a naturalistic basis for value and meaning that is consistent with science and that does not borrow from extranatural reserves. This certainly requires developing an epistemology more flexible and subtle than scientism, and it probably requires a more inclusive metaphysics than materialism. Stone’s book is great at introducing the next generation of religious naturalists to their intellectual forbears, but less adept at introducing them to the exciting challenges that lie ahead.

Review by Thurman Todd Willison (2010)

Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative. By Jerome A. Stone. State University of New York Press, 2008. 259 pages. Paperback. $26.95.

In Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative, author Jerome Stone sends out a message akin to that of LL Cool J’s 1990 rap hit “Mama Said Knock You Out.” When Stone confidently announces religious naturalism’s triumphant return “as a new major dialogue partner in the chorus of religious and theological voices (xii),” one can almost hear him say, “Don’t call it a comeback. I been here for years!” Indeed, religious naturalism, according to Stone, has been around for years, despite a forty-one year hiatus of major scholarship in the field, which Stone places between the years 1946 (the publication year of Henry Nelson Wieman’s The Source of Human Good) and 1987 (the publication year of Bernard Loomer’s The Size of God) (139). This hiatus serves as the organizing principle for Stone’s book as a whole in that the two major sections of the book examine, in turn, the periods before and after this hiatus.

In these two sections (respectively entitled the “birth” and “rebirth” of religious naturalism), Stone provides an in-depth survey of important representative thinkers in each period followed by an analysis of key issues that these thinkers have engaged. Stone also intermittently attends to views that have intersected with religious naturalism throughout its history, including empiricism, physicalism, religious humanism, process theology, and pantheism (6-11). Stone’s overarching purpose is to increase awareness of religious naturalism as a viable option within religious discourse as well as to help navigate and clarify current philosophical and theological debates within the religious naturalist community (xii).

Stone’s work is strongest when it draws out from its narrative key issues of concern for religious naturalism in both its early and late manifestations. With respect to early religious naturalism, Stone addresses such issues as the “meaning of naturalism,” the “moral determinacy of God,” the “unity of God,” the “legitimacy of the term ‘God’,” and the “nature of empirical inquiry in religion” (123-131). These same issues arise again in current religious naturalism, but with a more acute emphasis on the question of whether nature is interpreted primarily as a morally ambivalent power or rather as a value-laden goodness with respect to the human enterprise (194). All of the debates surrounding these issues seem to stem from a fundamental split in emphasis within religious naturalism that Stone traces back to the “two major roots of religious naturalism”: “Columbia naturalism,” which, being more philosophically inclined, “tended to appreciate religion critically,” and “Chicago naturalism,” which, being more theologically inclined, “tended to construct a religious outlook to which” one “could be passionately committed” (5).

Although he taught at Harvard for most of his career, George Santayana is considered by Stone to be a key representative of “Columbia naturalism,” since his work was emphasized and read widely at Columbia University. Santayana is notable for his focus on nature as the “background of human life” (123). In this regard, he stands in contrast to John Dewey, who focused more on the “foreground” of human values and interests. This question of the “background” versus the “foreground” is, in Stone’s view, a question upon which many debates within religious naturalism still pivot. Religious naturalists who have emphasized the background have typically drawn attention to the vastness and arbitrariness of nature with respect to human interests, thus opting for a morally ambiguous view of the “religious ultimate” (194).  Thinkers in this vein have included Bernard Meland (who defines religion as an appreciative response to nature that must be “reality-centering” (89)), William Bernhardt (who defines God as an impartial “Directional Momentum” of nature (101)), Charles Milligan (who is a follower of Bernhardt and a strong advocate of pantheism (196)), Donald Crosby (who thinks of nature as both “metaphysically and religiously ultimate” (201)), and Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme (who both stress the violence and destructiveness of nature that pervades “at all levels of existence” (200)).

Henry Nelson Wieman is a key representative of “Chicago naturalism,” and he follows Dewey as a “foreground” thinking naturalist. Though Wieman was explicitly critical of humanism, his naturalism was always centered on the question of humanity’s interaction with nature, what Wieman called “creative interchange” (85).  Stone notes that for Wieman, the “object of religious inquiry” (Wieman ceased to call this “God” by his late career) is an “axiologically determinate object” that is the “source” of whatever saves humanity from evil and creates for humanity the “good” (85; 194). In this picture, as one can see, religious devotion and faith are related directly to the fortunes of human enterprise as opposed to being broader gestures of appreciation within a vast and morally arbitrary cosmos. Subsequent “foreground” naturalists who identify with this view, such as Charley Hardwick and Stone himself, have learned to distance themselves from the more anthropocentric tendencies of Wieman and Dewey. Nevertheless, they find that Wieman’s notion of a determinate source of value, which serves as the object of religious devotion, is a viable one.

Hardwick is a non-reductive physicalist, meaning that he believes that “nothing exists except mathematical-physical entities” while also holding that “nonphysical things, specifically emergent properties, such as consciousness and intention, are real” (146). Thus Hardwick is able to affirm a determinate source of value, based in physical entities, while still recognizing that valuation itself is an emergent property rooted in a morally neutral physical world. To have religious “faith” in this source of value is to have an existential, valuational stance of “opennesss to the future” within the world (146). Stone’s own view, which he calls a “Minimalist Vision of Transcendence,” hovers close to Hardwick’s, also stressing a religious “openness” to “norms and resources that are beyond our narrowly perceived present situation yet are not resident in a different realm” (145). However, Stone is more particular and pluralistic in emphasis than Hardwick in that he believes that determinate sources of value are “relatively or situationally transcendent,” meaning that they only relate to specific situations and can actually come into conflict with one another (195).

Also of interest to Stone are the religious naturalists who have ridden both sides of the fence on this debate, such as Sharon Welch, Gordon Kaufman, and Karl Peters. Sharon Welch began her career with an axiologically determinate view of the religious object of inquiry, but she has now shifted to a morally ambiguous view upon considering more closely the ways in which religious experience can cause people to be “cruel and destructive” (148). Welch now holds that “religious experience is amoral” (207). Gordon Kaufman currently “stands with one foot on both sides of the issue” since he views the “cosmic and abstract scope of God” as “valuationally neutral to the human perspective” while still granting “that the specific trajectory productive of us is indeed good from our perspective” (203). Similarly, Karl Peters straddles the issue by emphasizing nature’s evolutionary selectivity as a good for humanity while also acknowledging that nature is neutral about what it selects to save or destroy.

In his conclusion, Stone gives a sensitive assessment of what it means to be a religious naturalist living in the world today, which involves the incorporation of both anticipation of determinate good as well as appreciation for cosmic uncertainty. Stone sees both an “upside” and a “downside” to holding these orientations in tension with one another. The upside is that “we can celebrate the wonders of life” and “we can aspire to nobler living” (227).  Religious naturalists “need not debate with science” nor “fan the flames of religious hostility and wars” nor be “burdened with unnecessary guilt and outdated moral codes.” Rather, they “can nurture in themselves an openness to the world, human, nonhuman, and domesticated. They can train themselves in mindfulness. They can often find joy in useful work and the consolation of love” (228).

The “downside of religious naturalism,” according to Stone, “is that one does not have the solace and comfort of a super mind, of divine intervention, of an ultimate explanation, nor of immortality. There is no cosmic companion to assuage moments of loneliness” (227). Stone grants that this is a difficult pill to swallow and may outweigh the advantages of religious naturalism for many. But religious naturalism seeks to “make sense of our lives and behave appropriately within the total scheme of things” (226). Therefore, it cannot for comfort’s sake turn away from the realities of nature, even though nature ultimately refuses to satisfy humanity’s deepest longings for meaning and fulfillment. Religious naturalism, in Stone’s view, has to accept nature’s inadequacies in this regard and yet still strive for and anticipate whatever minimally transcendent good that nature has to offer.

Stone is perhaps a bit too fatalistic in this final appraisal. One gets the sense that when Stone weighs the “upside” and “downside” of his view, he only settles on religious naturalism because he has simply calculated it to be a better option. He would rather have relatively transcendent good in the face of a morally ambivalent universe than succumb to despair. What Stone fails to communicate in all of this is any sense of how religious naturalism produces within him a kind of compelled devotion that could be genuinely analogous to traditional conceptions of religious faith. Stone still seems to be making a calculated wager on religion by the end of his book, and this unfortunately attenuates the overall impact of his treatment. Nevertheless, Stone’s treatment is masterful. It bears the stamp of one who truly loves religious naturalism as a school of thought and who cares enough to preserve all of the various and intricate intellectual details of its fascinating history. Stone’s nuanced efforts to present religious naturalism to a new generation helps to push this tradition into the mainstream of religious discourse as a viable option for those who might greatly benefit from it. And for this contribution, Stone is to be highly commended and thanked. But don’t call it a comeback. Just read Stone’s book, and continue the exploration of a tradition that continues to thrive upon rich, historical roots.