A couple of years ago, exhilarated after attending a Unitarian Universalist church service for the first time, I reported to my millennial daughter that I had found a church with services that she might enjoy as well. She responded that she doubted this was the case.
“You see, Mother, church is for people your age. Even an atheist-friendly church is for old people. You went to church as a child and you miss it. People my age don’t miss it because we never went in the first place. We don’t need religion.”
I shook my cane at her, smacked my dentures onto my gums, and rasped, “Impertinent rascal! In my day, we respected our elders.” But, I begrudgingly had to agree. Apart from the children dragged to church by their parents, the UUs are mostly 40 plussers.
I don’t regret raising my kids unchurched. They are strong people with reliable moral compasses. They vote, pick up litter on Earth Day, and work in honourable professions despite their bare bones atheism. But my daughter got me thinking- why isn’t atheism enough for me? Why do I seek out groups like the UUs, meditate semi-regularly, haunt the Humanistic Paganism website, and try to carve meaning from the ordinary? Then, along came an early January challenge: to write on the compelling topic, “What Does Naturalism Means to You?” Now there’s a kettle of worms!
Naturalism rests on the atheistic premise that there are no deities pulling earthly puppet strings. No spirits are nudging our bicycles away from heavy trucks because we have good luck amulets hanging from our handle bars. No ghosts are trying to communicate with us from other realms through rainbows or albino squirrels. No fairies are messing with us when our keys go missing. We won’t win at the track because the favoured bay carries a jockey wearing purple silks, or Jupiter is aligned with Mars. Until we find other beings, it’s just us earthlings here on this planet, living and dying, in this solar system, in this average galaxy.
But this basic atheism seems starkly Soviet Block. Atheism all by itself strikes me as two dimensional, monochromatic, and devoid of animating sparkle. Atheism rejects; it is a word which is defined by what its subscriber cannot countenance. It tells us what isn’t but not what is. To touch the wonder of what makes this ancient world spin and hearts throb with love, we need something more. For me, that is naturalism, a philosophy that is paradoxically simple and profound.
Naturalism posits that one thing happens, and another thing happens because of it. Solar energy thaws ice in spring, seeds swell with water, their coats burst, and new plants emerge. Schools neglect to teach adolescents about birth control and safe sex, condom sales drop, and the teen pregnancy rate soars. The favoured bay is better conditioned than the other horses, gallops the fastest, and we profit on our gamble. I’ve over-simplified this principle, but with only minor embellishments and footnotes, it is the foundation of the scientific method and all we require to approach big questions with intelligence and curiosity. Naturalism is a way to make sense of the world without recourse to divine intervention or luck.
Naturalism also liberates. It provides the only moral principle we need to live well and that is that our actions have consequences. There is no need for a naturalist to follow weird orders such as rejecting false idols and meat-eating on Friday, or to ask what Jesus would do, or to read The Secret. Assuming we like planet Earth and our fellow earthlings, and we want the best for them, all we must do to behave decently is to consider, “what will happen if I do X?” Will I flush oily paint down the sewer, or take it to the hazardous waste depot? Will I eat the last cookie in the jar, or split it with my hungry room mate? Naturalism is a rational, portable guide to doing the right thing for free-thinking people who are suspicious of dogma and religious authority. It is self-reliant, practical, and empowering.
Atheism and naturalism are two sides of the same coin. Atheism proclaims what is not, and naturalism proclaims what is. These two perspectives are deeply meaningful to me. And what of Paganism? I think it is a way to celebrate our existence on this tiny blue planet. But that’s another article.
About the Author: Renee Lehnen
Renee Lehnen is a registered nurse and recent empty nester living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. With her new found free time, she enjoys outdoor sports, working on local environmental projects, and gazing at the sky wondering, “What does all of this mean?”