International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative

by Jerome A. Stone

Introductory Essay by Karl Peters

Thinking in religion and science involves an underlying world view or metaphysics, implicitly or explicitly. One such world view is naturalism.

Jerome Stone writes that naturalism “is a set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world.” It claims that “there seems to be no ontologically distinct and superior realm (such as God, soul, or heaven) to ground, explain, or give meaning to this world.” And it affirms that “events and processes of this world [can] provide what degree of explanation and meaning are possible in this life” [1].  Religious naturalism “is a type of naturalism that is similar enough to what we take as paradigm cases of a religious orientation that the term ‘religion’ may be used” [3-4].

With this working understanding Stone, in encyclopedic fashion, offers portraits (from a paragraph to several pages in length) of over fifty-five philosophers, theologians, and scientists from the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (almost all from the United States). These include various kinds of both theists and non-theists. There are also short chapters on religious naturalism in literature and in some of the world’s religious traditions.

Some of the issues analyzed are: the meaning of naturalism, the legitimacy of the term “God,” whether God is the source of only good or of both good and evil, whether God is one or a multiplicity of factors and forces, the nature of empirical inquiry in religion, naturalist sources of religious insights, the relation of religious naturalism to religious traditions, and its relation to contemporary culture. Ideas highlighted at various points in the book include: ambiguity, creativity, ecology, emergence, ethics, evolution, grace, hermeneutics, holism, humanism, mythology, pantheism, sacredness, salvation, scientific inquiry, and transcendence.

The rich detail of the book is organized into two main sections. The first describes significant thinkers and their publications from the early 1920s to 1946. The second considers issues addressed by various thinkers from 1987 to the present. In between, according to Stone, the predominance of positivism in philosophy and neo-orthodoxy in theology contributed to the eclipse of religious naturalism. The revival, beginning in 1987, is what Stone calls “the rebirth of a forgotten alternative,” the subtitle of the book.  This rebirth was facilitated by some members of The Highlands Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought and of The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, their respective journals The American Journal of Philosophy and Theology and Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, the Empiricism in American Religious Thought group of the American Academy of Religion, email lists, and web sites.

Stone concludes the book with an account of what it means for him to live within the parameters of religious naturalism, giving a pragmatic analysis of the pros and cons of its real-life implications. An excellent bibliography and index add to the book’s rich detail.

As a clearly-written analysis of how one can think theologically in the context of the naturalistic world view assumed by the sciences, this book is a valuable introduction to the rich diversity of religious naturalist thinkers today.