Reply To: Takeaways from Reddit AMA

The Gateway Forums About Religious Naturalism Outreach Takeaways from Reddit AMA Reply To: Takeaways from Reddit AMA

Todd Macalister

              (Sorry – format in my Word draft doesn’t show as intended in this memo . . .)


    After reading parts of the conversation in the “Ask Me Anything” session that featured Ursula, plus comments on this RNA Forum that followed, I want to respond to two points that Jack made (both of which I agree with) – that . . .

    the “R-word” – religious – is problematic, as it often contributes to initial misconceptions and objections; and that

    “an umbrella organization, with universally understood language and support/input from likeminded groups, is desperately needed”.

    I’ll share some thoughts on both of these (plus a potential theme to consider as a step toward a finding a name for a future umbrella organization).


    Regarding the word “religious” . . .

    Parts of Ursula’s “Ask me anything” session on Reddit gave an informative case-example that showed the extent to which questions about the “religious” part of RN were prominent, and served as both a distraction from, and an initial skepticism toward, the more interesting, positive, and helpful things that religious naturalist perspectives can offer.

    This gave a reminder that, when we introduce RN, we have 2 things to explain –

    What does it mean to be a “naturalist”?, and

    In what ways might a naturalist be religious?

    (Or, do positive things that might be associated with being “religious”?

    Or, in some cases – why would a naturalist want to identify as “religious”?

    as, for many who see themselves as “atheist” or “secular”, nothing much positive,

    and a number of things negative, are associated with “religion”.)


    One option that can be considered is that, in social media (plus some other) venues, introductory terminology might start with just one part of this, and say something like “We’ll be discussing things from a naturalist perspective, and showing how this can contribute to [such things as . . .] finding a sense of wonder and appreciation in attention to the natural world, plus a sense of connection in our shared roots with other people and creatures, taking nature to heart, etc. . . .”

    The word “religious” is not essential – as part of an initial first-impression – to convey the gist and benefits of what RN is about.

    And, as was observed, initial inclusion of “religious” invites initial objections and misunderstandings.

    However, it (inclusion/mention of “religious”) should, and easily can, be included as conversations go further –

    (where “as we see ourselves and all things in our world as having emerged through natural processes, and as we are moved by the wonders of nature – many of us view this with a type of reverence, where the workings of nature can be a core part of whatever in us, at times, feels something spiritual or religious” [or, something like that].

    So, here, being just “naturalist” can be shown as appealing and fulfilling – whether this is discussed as being “religious”, or not (again – at least in first encounters).

    And, with this, it can be possible for people to agree or align with positive aspects of self-identifying as a naturalist, without also having, initially, to actively affirm alignment with things “religious”.

    And, as a point of reference, no one speaks of groups of:

    Religious Christians

    Religious Jews

    Religious Buddhists


    In all such groups, some individuals are actively/visibly “religious”, and many are not.


    Also, it’s worth recognizing (or being reminded of) that the name “religious naturalism” had its origin in academic discussions, where philosophers and theologians, with an initial focus on things religious, considered how or whether people could be religious, with a naturalist worldview.

    For folks on Reddit and other social media outlets, the initial interest will often not be “religious”, per se, but on questions of purpose, meaning, etc. that can be described in several ways.


    (After writing the words above, an image came to mind – in which, in some of the online conversations that have occurred on RNAnet and on this Forum, our RNA participants can be seen as resembling a group or rabbis (or yeshiva students) debating – sometimes with passion – how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But as, from such discussions among rabbis came the Talmud, which is part of the foundation that keeps the traditional alive and responsive to ongoing changes in the times. And, in this, as a small group is inclined to care about and discuss theology, a larger group of those with whom they share some core beliefs pays attention mainly at holidays; where, on Passover they gather with family and friends and, while retelling the shared story, focus more on the chicken soup, latkes, and wine, but will also do this, again and again, each year.

    Here, it’s mainly the “religious” ones who dive deep into the details, while a much larger group, who often don’t describe themselves as “religious”, enjoys and gains from being part of a group with a shared framework that offers an orientation for understanding and responding to the joys and challenges in their lives.

    So, my thought here is that, in the large population of “naturalists”, only some of us will be actively interested in being (and/or, actively identifying as) “religious naturalists.” But, many others may be interested in and can potentially gain from, and may occasionally join in or have feelings related to being religious – and we want to welcome and include and be of service to these folks, as well.

    As a related aspiration, it would be a plus, in its own right, if the general public became more familiar with, and began to more actively use, the term “naturalist”.

    (One useful part of this would be to work toward having a positive term as part of often-used language – to describe someone who believes the scientific story of how the cosmos and life on Earth came to be, rather than current norm, where the biblical view remain the standard, and alternative words are negative – based on what is not believed or done – where those who do not believe are “atheists”, and those who are not involved with religion are referred to as “secular” or as “nones”.)

    And, in time it can be seen that there are naturalist Christians, Jews, Buddhists, etc., as well as those of us – at RNA and in some other groups – that explore a range of traditions and may embrace a wide range of ways of being religious.

    Also, as the term “naturalist” becomes more widely used and accepted, those of us who may have occasion to discuss or describe religious naturalism will have only one thing to explain (non-traditional ways of seeing and being “religious), rather than two things (in having to explain naturalism, as well).


    Moving to the “umbrella group” concept, as we start to think about the “core tenets” Jack mentioned, as part of the glue that could hold an umbrella group together –

    naturalist may also be a meaningful distinction to have prominent here –

    where, as some number of pantheists, Gaians, and folks who identify with other orientations that might align with RNA in a number of ways, some number of these can be seen as full-naturalists, while some others believe in a guiding spirit (and, perhaps also some other “other-than-natural” things). So, it’ll be interesting to see the extent to which, for such groups as a whole, or for how many individual members within them, there is good alignment with RN for types of things that both groups feel are important, and worth aligning/working together on.

    But, also, we can and should look further into types of things that we largely do, but in other ways might not ways, share with folks in other groups – in ways that we can all gain by active communication and cooperation with one another.