Introducing my new research project: A philosophical and theological exploration of ‘religious atheism’ and ‘religious naturalism’

Via my LinkedIn-account I already announced that from February 1, 2015, I have a new halftime position, as a researcher at the Dominican Study Centre for Theology and Society in Amsterdam (see http://dsts.nl). It’s a position for one year, and I intend to do a lot in that time.

The project that I will be working on is titled: The spirituality of ‘belonging without believing’: a philosophical and theological exploration of ‘religious naturalism’ and ‘religious atheism’. I’ll try to give a brief description of what I will be working on for the coming year…

If one looks at the media coverage concerning religion, it’s not difficult to get the impression that the domain of the religious can be cut up in two categories. On the one side there are the fundamentalist believers, creationists, and the countless believers that ‘know for sure’. On the other hand there’s the bunch of militant atheists, like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, who equally claim to ‘know for sure’. Because the media often only cover the extremes of these antithetic groups, it often seems as if both religious belief and atheism are mainly about different though related forms of ‘knowing with certainty’.

That this conclusion is erroneous was recently confirmed by the Czech philosopher and priest (and Templeton Prize winner) Tomas Halik, who in an interview for the Dutch religious newspaper Het Nederlands Dagblad (28 November 2014) was quoted saying that the main difference is not between ‘believers’ and ‘nonbelievers’ but between the ‘seekers’ and the ‘arrived’. The latter group knows for sure and has no longer any questions or doubts. ‘And’, Halik says, ‘among both believers and atheists that group is shrinking’.

Now, there’s quite some research done concerning the spirituality and ideas of religious seekers and doubters, especially among sociologists. But what about atheist seekers and doubters? Do these exist? Well yes, but that group has received much less attention so far. In the research project that I will be conducting this year at the Dominican Study Centre for Theology and Society (DSTS) in Amsterdam, I will focus on this specific group. The perspective that I will be working from, is that of philosophy of religion and theology.

‘Religious naturalism’

First of all, I intend to focus on the group of religious naturalists. These are quite often scientists who through their scientific activities and their view of nature have developed a somewhat Spinozistic spirituality, but who also often use language they borrow from e.g. a Christian-religious discourse. Examples are the American biologist Ursula Goodenough and the astronomer Chet Raymo, who both call themselves explicitly ‘religious naturalists’. A number of religious naturalists have recently decided to become slightly more institutionalized, and have organized themselves into the Religious Naturalist Organization (RNA, see http://religious-naturalist-association.org/). The number of members is growing rapidly. They are a pluralist bunch, and include even some theologians. To get an impression, just take a look at the RNA website, and look at the board of advisors. (As a matter of fact, I recently was accepted as an RNA-member as well.)

‘Religious atheism’

Then there are the publications of several scholars and thinkers such as André Comte-Sponville, Alain de Botton, Thomas Nagel, and the late Ronald Dworkin who can be said to belong to the group of religious atheists (as e.g. Comte-Sponville and Dworkin explicitly call themselves). Religious atheists reject god concepts in general, but they seem to be looking for a spiritual metaphysics (often inspired by the sciences) in which ethical and esthetic intuitions have their proper place. For instance, Dworkin and Nagel are ‘moral realists’, philosophers who claim that moral norms and values exist objectively in reality. This is a position that is also often held by theists, and both Dworkin and Nagel are aware of this. As a consequence they try to develop a position in which they can defend their moral realism without the need to appeal to a deity.

Belonging without believing

‘Religious naturalism’ and ‘religious atheism’ are conceptual umbrellas that try to cover a quite wide diversity of spiritual approaches. They are forms of ‘multiple religious belonging’ be it perhaps in the form of belonging without believing. On the one hand these approaches seem to indicate a transformation of religious belonging, for example by distancing themselves from certain god concepts or transforming these god concepts in a philosophical manner (e.g. into a form of Spinozism). But they also borrow concepts, language or rituals from religious traditions (such as Christianity or Buddhism), and infuse these with new meanings. For instance, Goodenough speaks about a naturalist ‘creed’ and the atheist Raymo writes about his ‘sacramental view’ of nature: both use religious concepts and adapt them to their naturalist perspective.

Opportunities for dialogue

What for me as a philosopher of religion and a theologian is the most interesting about these groups of spiritual or religious atheists is that, in contrast to more militant atheists, those belonging to one of these groups don’t feel the need to attack religion in general. They are anti-theistic, but not anti-religious. Instead, they try to delve into religious traditions to uncover the ‘intuitions’ that underlie these traditions and to embed these intuitions in an open, process-like, view of life that is constantly evolving, in process of becoming, a process that is never finished. But also a view of life that has no need of god concepts, though it does show openness to forms of thinking and discourses that allow for experiences of transcendence. As Goodenough emphasizes in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, both religious naturalism and religion seem to get their juice from the same basic intuitions.

I thus think there are opportunities here for a constructive dialogue with seekers and doubters from traditional religions, believers who are not interested in faith as a form of ‘knowing for certain’ but who live faith as a spiritual perspective on the world, who see faith as a way of life. In my research I focus specifically on the Christian tradition, since I know this one best. Since a couple of years my conviction that, at least in Western society, the God of classical theism is dead, has become stronger. The philosophical defense of classical theism (e.g. through ‘proofs’ of God) is in my opinion a rearguard action. My own theological and religious ideas have become increasingly ‘atheistic’, in the sense of: taking leave of classical theism.

And I am not alone in this. Many theologians and philosophers of religion nowadays tend toward ‘post-theistic’ god concepts, i.e. concepts that radically depart from classical theism and that tend to start from personal, subjective experience for a renewed reflection concerning transcendence. It is here that I see a lot of resonance between post-theistic ideas and the ideas of religious atheists and religious naturalists.

Beyond the polarity of atheism and religious belief

Perhaps, post-theists and religious atheists and naturalists can become conversation partners in the spiritual quest for a worldview that remains silent about God, but that leaves room for transcendence. Both post-theists and religious naturalists and atheists at least seem willing to go beyond the polar opposition between atheism and theism. The question that thus is on the table is whether these atheist approaches, that seem to resonate with more mystical and spiritual approaches (e.g. Meister Eckhart), can become conversation partners for those religious believers who see their faith more in terms of a path or a quest, but want to remain within the terrain that is outlined by their religious tradition? Could such a conversation itself perhaps become a source for a twenty-first century spirituality for those who, in the words of Charles Taylor (A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press 2007, 636), ‘acknowledge some good beyond life’?

This is something I want to explore in more detail in the coming year. My aim is to write a Dutch book on these matters. I also aim to distribute the results of my research to a broad audience via weblogs and websites, newspaper articles, articles in popular journals, etcetera.

(This text was also published on the site “Nieuwwij.nl”: http://www.nieuwwij.nl/english/new-research-project-exploring-philosophically-theologically-forms-religious-atheism/.)