Aims of Religious Orientation

November-December, 2021

This conversation began with discussion of roles religions in social groups. This included the statement: 

It seems a Religious Naturalist orientation might include an interest in the personal development aspects of religion. In my short time here, I haven’t seen this discussed much.

 . . . which led to the comments from RNA members that follow.

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I’m not aware of any world religion that doesn’t offer a path to spiritual liberation.

Different cultures apply their own names, but they all appear to have discovered that, in addition to group benefits, possible life-altering individual benefits exist as well.

I’m speaking about Salvation, Enlightenment, Nirvana, Moksha, Transcendence, etc.

It seems like a topic that RN might have an “official” position on, and possibly a particularly keen interest in, given that it is apparently the central stated focus of all religions, and the primary motivational enticement to engage the universal spiritual struggle.

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I agree we, as religious naturalists, have some obligation to clarify aspects of “religion” or “religious orientation” are important to us, and I’ll vote to make salvation one of them (although some of the synonyms might sit better with some people).

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I consider salvation, or what might more generically be called spiritual liberation, to be the heart of religion, which is to say the core of the core . . .

I’m comfortable with terms like mystical or transcendent experience as synonyms for salvation. 

I think all enlightenment experiences could be called mystical/transcendent, but maybe not all transcendent or mystical experiences culminate in enlightenment.

And it is at this point where we are all in free-fall as far as science is concerned, because it is one area that, as far as I know, science has not yet described in much detail.

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What I’m calling salvation or enlightenment is difficult to describe in literal prose, which is why it historically has been couched in metaphor or allegory. 

The following link shows the most successful attempt I’ve found at describing this in plain language, where it highlights a radical and permanent shift in identity.


Is Enlightenment a Myth?

(a 6+ minute video interview with Shinzen Young)

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This is an excellent discussion of concepts like transformation, enlightenment, salvation, nirvana, and, I might add, transfiguration.

In the video interview, Shinzen Young interestingly presents enlightenment from the context of the elimination of (or freedom from) the state of non-enlightenment – as in release from alienation from the greater world around one. He refers to this as a permanent transformation, which he describes as occurring to some people suddenly, but for other people slowly and gradually. But permanently in both cases.

I think that captures what I might, using other words, refer to as identity and orientation.

I can see alienation, followed by a resolving type of identity or unity with nature, as part of the religious aspect of religious naturalism.

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If I could add anything, it would be relative to the meditative Asian traditions, where one instead seeks a loss of the narrative I-self, an emptying out, a receptivity, in order to experience an at-one-ness, a spiritual communion with universal consciousness, as a path to Enlightenment.

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I suspect there may be countless other ways to achieve this state, in addition to meditation, and one of those may be through seeking cognitive consonance by way of worldview resolution. That is to say, seeking out of false assumptions in one’s worldview, and their replacement with assumptions that more nearly align with objective reality. 

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I suspect the science of neuro-biology will have more and more to say about both types of experiences, and about that state of mind where one becomes comfortable with the experiencing of unity with reality or Nature.

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The broad question here, as I see it, is whether there the process of mindful unity (the escape from a sense of alienation and separation from one’s surrounding world) has similarities, at its base, to the Christian idea of finding unity with a God. 

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Karl Peters wrote an article related to this: Human Salvation in an Evolutionary World View: An Exploration in Christian Naturalism.

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Also, a book by Karl Peter is germane to this conversation:

Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion, and Human Becoming

In these IRAS chapel talks, Peters discusses a variety of metaphors for the process of human transformation that we are discussing here. It is also brief and easy to read. 

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Varied views on salvation are among the main fault lines dividing the Christian denominations. But, when the scriptures are interpreted symbolically, they all tell the same story – of the hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell. 

The hero puts him/herself in the path of danger, descends into Hell, faces dragons, and is reborn. 

Then the hero brings the spoils of the battle back to the community. 


This is symbolic of the process Shinzen Young was speaking about in demythologized terms. 

The practitioner faces the ultimate existential threat – the dissolution of self.

The practitioner then slays that dragon and is resurrected/liberated from non-enlightenment, to live a life of service.

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I think RN might well be able to reconcile this very broad idea of separation and alienation as a status of mind question.

Not everyone ever experiences the frustration that comes from a sense of separation or a sense of alienation. Some experience it poignantly.

Resolving separation into a sense of unity therefore takes different routes for different folks.

I believe mindfulness language is one way to deal with the broadest concepts of human alienation and human unity with Nature, where “Nature” is used as a referent to reality as a whole. 

But mindfulness language can also be off-putting for many naturalists, because psyche is itself still a very nebulous concept.


Still, I think religious naturalism is presently an excellent combination of two words designed to get at:

whether there is significant meaning to the idea of “unifying” with reality (or eliminating alienation from reality)

such that humans, in general, can “reach a better place”. 

But, for me, the real question is whether, for a religious naturalist, something like “salvation” is found by searching for a specific state, or by something much more mundane.

I suspect the answer depends on the person, and their perceived current state.

If I feel “lost” or dissatisfied with my current state, maybe I DO want to look for some dramatic “Aha” or some nirvana.

However, since as it happens I am basically satisfied with what I have been dealt, the question becomes maintenance, rather than finding something new.

(What I have been dealt, by the way, reminds me to warp a scripture to say “Salvation is by grace, and not of oneself” — in my case by the grace of parentage and education and fortunate friendships.)

And, of course I realize I won’t be able to maintain anything forever. Rather I would want to maintain a sense of integrity (with self, with others, with the world and even the universe, that morphs as I morph – that is, age).

When it comes to society, there are ways in which I think we are lost.

Not entirely, as by many metrics we are better than we’ve ever been. 

But especially when it comes to climate change, which should challenge every religious naturalist, and where we seem in huge need of salvation.

But in this case as well, I don’t think of it as an aha or a nirvana or a specific state, but rather the state of living within the carrying capacity of the planet

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Talk of salvation makes me ask:

“Tell me – what, exactly, do I need saving from?”

Maybe evolutionary mismatch?

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I agree that evolutionary mismatch is a substantial part of the cause of many challenges we all face, and that one of the main roles, and contributions, that religious orientations play is in helping to frame what is happening, and why, and to point to practices and paths that can help us respond.

As you mentioned, this contributes to environmental changes that are current global concerns. It is also a big part of personal/psychic challenges, where, in a rapidly changing modern world, the technologies, diverse populations, types of activities, paces of life, and relationships in families, etc. are all affected by the mismatch where, as E. O. Wilson framed it, the world we live in is not the world to which our brains (and feelings and ways of thinking) evolved to.

As was discussed with respect to salvation, with this condition as a given, a prominent challenge – for individuals and for groups – is to find ways to navigate these waters and, through better understanding of causes and implications, find strategies that can reduce tensions that can come from this and point toward greater peace and peace-of-mind.

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Your post raises a great question. 

What would be the main strategies to navigate life, both personally and socially
(with the full understanding that different strategies may work better for different individuals and societies)?

I’ll throw out one — grace. 

Individually if one looks for ways to treat others (and oneself) kindly and gracefully, being slow to wrath and so on, it will help one avoid the pitfalls of life, which is to say, it will keep one from getting lost.

In society, I think the equivalent is compromise. That is, if one is willing to compromise one is showing that they don’t hold themselves higher than they should, which is a major characteristic of grace.

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To the extent we can study psychology with the tools of science, we can study spiritual liberation. 

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Science now understands the physical nature of this planet and human behavior far better than in the past, partly because it has destroyed unworkable myths (demons cause disease, for example).

So, with this more advanced understanding, what can we do to demolish old unworkable myths today? 

What are the ethical principles of living in our present age–the equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount and the Commandments? 

RNA might try to schematically formulate them and in so doing go a long way in defining itself and its purpose.

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Physical life seems to lead to a variety of “ways” of dealing with the “I / it“ situation – as a pattern to follow (as opposed to waking up each day with a blank mindset). So we have categories of patterns that develop.

Chose one, 

or try different ones, 

or simply accept the one you “inherit”.

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In my years of doing inter-religious dialogue work, . . . a major challenge was always that the Christian members had difficulty thinking in any terms other than their own, and then that the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) had the same difficulty. . . . 

It was just plain hard for members of those groups to think outside the boxes of their particular religions.

It strikes me that “salvation” is one of those terms, having and propelling a Christian bias (my Jewish wife and rabbinic friends, for example, aren’t and never have been looking for salvation). I say this not to put down Christianity or the Abrahamic faiths but to regard them as registering one particular perspective (actually three, when one sorts and separates Judaic, Christian, and Islamic). 

So, one might say, out of a Christian bias, 

“In my tradition we see people as being troubled in a certain way, and then needing and seeking salvation.

How do you in your tradition see people, and what do you see people then needing and seeking? Is it similar or different?”


A glance at the table of contents of Stephen Prothero’s book, “God Is Not One,” shows some of the difference(s). His chapter titles are:

1. Islam: the Way of Submission

2. Christianity: the Way of Salvation

3. Confucianism: the Way of Propriety

4. Hinduism: the Way of Devotion

5. Buddhism: the Way of Awakening

6. Yoruba the Way of Connection

7. Judaism: the Way of Exile and Return

8. Daoism: the Way of Flourishing

The main point is that they sound different key notes. 

And perhaps music is a good parallel, for different styles of music “do” different things. 

Classical symphonic, classical chamber, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, classical rock and roll, hip-hop, classical jazz, smooth jazz, African-American call and response, Hindu chanting, etc. – all are music. All use notes and rests and rhythms and forms; some are 8-tone, some are 12-tone. 

And at the same time, they are not the same and don’t have quite the same effects.
Some make me want to get up and move, dance; some make me want to close my eyes and go inward; some make me want to leave the room and others want to pile in to the room; some get me humming along and it would be appreciated, and others would have people turning and looking at me for humming or singing along.

One can also contend, that the religious traditions, at their best, yield up treasures of behavior and wisdom–different treasures and different wisdom–for us to explore scientifically.

It’s a conversation, a dialogue, we’re seeking to have, with some similarities and some differences; some making us want to get up and dance, and others to be quiet and go inward. 

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Nice analysis. 

Now, take another look at the chapter listings and let us know if anything ties them all together (i.e., something other than the concept of salvation)?

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They are all powerful tools to help us navigate the world.

In other words, if I use Christian (or Jewish, or Hindu) language – taking it seriously but not literally, it can help me navigate the world. 

What I don’t think one can do is work without any tool-kit at all.

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Well, what ties them all together to my mind is the term “The Way”.

Life is a journey. Religion helps us on that journey. It helps by showing us the way. 

The Way is simply the act of being on the journey.

Salvation is the ultimate destination for some religions. 

Other religions, it is the journey itself that counts.

I like the appellation for Taoism as “the Way of Flourishing” That is a nice way of putting it, although I would not use that myself. A lot of what I take out of Taoism is that “The way”, if you will, is just to be aware of the Tao.

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Seems to me they are all about a journey of transcendence. 

All human cultures have to find a way to transcend certain of their evolved traits that would otherwise be troublesome in the context of this “new” thing called civilization. They are all stories of self-refinement – for the sake of not only individual liberation, but also of group success.

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