Naturalism and Nontheism

Naturalism & Nontheism2020-02-20T11:49:53-05:00

Naturalism

Ethical Culture accepts that human experience is within the realm of nature; everything we know is part of the natural world.  While it is possible that there might exist something beyond nature, so far it is unknowable to us. Human beings throughout history have created ideas of gods and spiritual forces beyond the human realm in an effort to explain aspects of human experience that seemed extranatural, but for us there exists no supernatural realm.

The human mind has marvelous ways of responding to human experience to enhance our appreciation of life.  The emotive and imaginative sides of human consciousness can fashion mundane experiences into sublime levels of connection with the natural world.  Such a poetic and aesthetic approach allows us to transcend the ordinary world by giving it depth, meaning, and beauty, but all of this amounts to bringing out these qualities latent in nature, not applying supernatural categories thereto.

Nontheism

Although the subtlety of our approach to the god question is difficult to get across, if we are going to present a clear religious view, we must be direct about our position on the idea of ultimate reality.  Throughout history, Ethical Culture has made various attempts to articulate a definitive account of nontheism: a) we make no statement on the god question, b) it is not the important question, c) we don’t make absolute statements.  A clear positive position will help resolve any ambiguities on our view of the god question.

While individual members can hold diverse views on the god question, our understanding of human reality is silent regarding both atheism and theism since these are claims regarding a world about which we believe definitive claims cannot be made.  Contemplating an absolute, supernatural, idealistic realm in which truth, beauty, and the good reside does not fit our naturalistic, relational understanding of human experience. The god idea is an expression of human yearning, a human attempt to frame ideas about the origins of the universe and the substance of human experience and valuation in a transcendent ground.  As part of the human experience, these theistic tendencies must be appreciated as an aspect of human expression. Some still find unpacking the idea of god to be useful in understanding human aspirations, but we accept that we know only that we are part of a natural process in which each individual strives to express herself. That said, nontheism is certainly more amenable to atheism than theism because in practical life we do without god, but our nontheistic account repudiates rigid types of atheism which claim definitively the absence of a god.  Such absolutist belief systems, we claim, miss the point.

What remains central to Ethical Culture’s position is that absolutist forms of theism and atheism alike miss the point that life is primarily, and ultimately, a relational, ethical experience between individuals operating within the natural world.  That is what is real. Metaphysical abstractions such as God and Truth are the matter of poetry.

Avoiding a direct statement on god by saying that our approach to living does not necessitate metaphysical and theological argumentation avoids the fact that Adler’s nontheism started something.  Adler’s vision of “a universe of spiritual beings interacting in infinite harmony” may not work for us, but he did initiate our nontheistic position with the idea that Ethical Culture replaces the idea of god with that of a community of spiritual beings interrelating harmoniously.  

Our nontheism expresses a pragmatic understanding of the nature of reality.  We want people to get past looking for absolute certainty and dogma to find their central role in constituting the meaning and purpose they give to life.  Ethical Culture offers a different starting point than traditional religions – the dynamic experience between and among a universe of spiritual beings creating and harmoniously living together and creating a shared reality.   What we offer is meaning in the doing of life.

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