Below is an essay that I wrote for the Spiritual Naturalist Society (I'm a contributing writer), but which struck them as too political for their tastes -- politics and policy-making apparently not being part of what they consider to be a "spiritual practice."
So, boo-hoo, it was rejected for their site.
I'm going to present some arguments to the Spiritual Naturalist Society folks about why no bounds should be placed around a naturalistic worldview. If there is no supernatural realm, it doesn't make sense to me to consider some aspects of a naturalistic person's life to be spiritual, and some aspects non-spiritual.
I meditate every morning. I go for a walk in nature every day. I do Tai Chi almost every day.
If these activities are "spiritual," then why isn't writing elected officials to advocate for some policy position, such as signing the deal with Iran or doing more to avert global climate change, or testifying at a city council meeting?
And also, fighting the interjection of faith-based supernatural religious beliefs into public policy debates, which, as you'll read below, was a big part of what our nation's revolutionary deistically-inclined founders strongly held to be true and good.
Naturalism needs to rule public policy debates
There’s no place for supernatural religious beliefs in discussions of public policy.
So, please, believers, leave out all mentions of God, soul, spirit, divine will, and such when you want to weigh in on abortion, embryonic stem cell research, LBGTQ rights, or other morally-fraught issues.
Being a political activist, my Christian friends (whether liberal or conservative) recoil when I speak like this. They feel it is fine to express their religious views in debates about how government should deal with matters of public policy.
After reading Matthew Stewart’s marvelously written and researched book, “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic,” I’ve got fresh argumentative ammunition to bolster my long-held contention that religious views founded on supernaturalism shouldn’t be brought into the public sphere.
(See my 2004 blog post, Religious values have no place in politics.)
The founders of our nation intended the United States to be an Empire of Reason. Stewart writes:
Human beings achieved self-government only after they learned how to discard the politically dangerous delusions that arise from the common religious consciousness. At least, that is more or less how America’s founders saw the matter.
…The cultivation of the sciences and the development of culture and the arts become not just the route to advancing the other interests of the state but the end of the state itself.
The enlightenment of the people becomes their own true religion, while the shell of tradition vanishes into empty symbols of the life of individual and collective self-realization.
True piety in a reasonable world is the pursuit of happiness through the improvement of the understanding. Call it the religion of freedom.
Stewart dives into some deep historical and philosophical waters in “Nature’s God.” Its 435 pages aren’t the easiest to read or summarize succinctly.
So here’s a couple of metaphors that, to me, do a good job of showing why Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, and other leaders during revolutionary times worked so hard to make reason, not faith, the foundation of our nation’s governance.
Imagine that you’re part of a residents’ committee charged with managing the common property of a housing development. The group is looking at a grove of trees, some of which may need to be removed to restore views.
A member of the committee interrupts the discussion. “I’m not in favor of taking down any trees,” she says. “I believe there are tree sprites, invisible fairies, living in them. The sprites would be harmed if any tree was removed.”
How could you respond to that? You want to tell the woman, “What you’re saying is crazy,” but that would sound impolite.
So you reply with, “Well, you’re welcome to your beliefs, but this committee is responsible for doing what’s best for our community. We have to base our tree removal decisions on what everybody knows to be real, not on the supposed desires of supernatural tree sprites.”
This is closely akin to how many religious people approach the question of abortion.
They believe that an immaterial soul enters the embryo at the moment of conception, or soon thereafter. Other people look upon abortion as a secular matter, a decision to be reached between a woman and her doctor based on personal moral and health concerns.
Once fervently-held religious supernaturalism enters a public policy discussion, it is difficult, if not impossible, to engage in an open debate where reasoned arguments are put forth, factual evidence carefully considered, and a fairly-arrived at decision determined.
Consider this second metaphorical example.
A group is playing poker. A hand has been dealt. The cards have been played. Everything is on the table for examination. A player with four aces prepares to pull in the chips she has won. Until she hears…
“Stop. I won this hand. I’ve got a straight flush, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 of clubs.”
“No, you don’t. We can all see your cards. You’ve got nothing.”
“Ah, those aren’t my real cards. My real cards are invisible. Only I can see them — give me the chips I’ve won.”
Who would do that?
The game has been played fairly. The only cards that count are the physical ones handed out by the dealer. There are rules for deciding which combinations of cards win out over other combinations. If someone brings in supernatural invisible cards, this makes playing a fair game of poker impossible.
Though I’ve used simple examples of tree cutting and poker playing, the same principles were at the root of why the American Republic was founded as a naturalistic Empire of Reason rather than a supernatural Empire of Faith.
Here’s another passage from “Nature’s God” where Stewart speaks of how our nation’s founders viewed private and public religiosity.
The separation of church and state that emerges from the early modern revolutions in philosophy and politics does not in fact imply that the modern secular state is or ought to be neutral with respect to religion in every sense of that term. Rather, this separation at least implicitly involves the creation of a certain kind of public religion.
This new public religion is indeed tolerant of every religious belief -- but only insofar as that belief is understood to be intrinsically private. It does not and ought not tolerate any form of religion that attempts to hold the power of the sovereign answerable to its private religious belief. It also does not and ought not tolerate any attempt to shield the doctrines and practices of any religion from critical scrutiny.
…In short, the state may adopt as a part of its public religion only whatever may be safely dissolved back into reason.
In the context of the American Revolution, Stewart’s mention of a sovereign doesn't refer to a king, queen, president, parliament, or congress. Rather, it means the people of the newly formed United States.
Thus it is the power of the people that isn’t obliged to answer to any private religious belief.
If someone tries to interject a faith-based doctrine that isn’t answerable to reason into a public policy question, this is as inappropriate as someone arguing that a tree can’t be cut down because of supernatural sprites, or claiming to have won a hand of poker because of invisible cards.
Here’s a succinct explanation of what Stewart means by “public religion.” Basically, it is deism, which in his conception isn’t far removed from atheism, being a naturalistic view of the universe.
The popular deism or natural religion that America's revolutionaries hoped to promote was distinguished above all by its commitment to the defining value of the Empire of Reason: the improvement of the understanding.
Thus the goal of these radical nation-building philosophers wasn’t so much to exclude God from the American Republic, as to include all of reality. This is the only way genuine understanding of what is true and good can be achieved.
In keeping with the guiding principle, it [an immanent rather than transcendent view of morality] says that whatever moves us, like whatever moves anything in the infinite universe, must be explicable. So the good always comes with reasons for its goodness; those reasons must refer to those motives that we generically identify as pleasure and pain; and those reflections on the affections can always be the subject of further reflection, elaboration, and qualification.
Given the diversity of these United States, our Constitution — as serious as it is — reminds me of a joke that begins with “A Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Wiccan, Muslim, Taoist, and Rastafarian walk into a bar…”
Except, the bar is our nation. And there are many more types of citizens than the nine I mentioned. One could argue, as many types as there are individuals living in this country, since every person is unique.
What is the common ground on which we all can stand during our debates and discussions about what is best for us?
What evidence and facts can be brought into attempts to reason our way to some sort of consensus on complex controversial issues?
The answer to both questions is Nature and Nature’s Laws. Everybody lives in the same natural world. We all breathe the same air, drink the same water, walk on the same Earth, gaze into the same sky.
Yes, humans also hold a wide variety of ideas about what, if anything, might lie beyond the physicality of this universe.
But those hypothesized supernatural conceptions divide us, while the actuality of science, and the understanding that flows from reasoned consideration of what is known to be real — that unites us.
Such was the unparalleled vision of our nation’s founders. Near the end of his book, Matthew Stewart speaks of what remains for this vision to be fulfilled.
In our tolerant age, we like to say that everybody is entitled their own worldview, that every worldview comes with its own “narrative” of the history, and that all such narratives are created equal.
So, according to the wisdom of polite society today, it’s a matter of personal preference whether the modern world emerged out of humankind’s emancipation from the shackles of religious superstition or whether instead it sprang directly from the head of Zeus, or was delivered in the form of a bountiful continent to this or that group of sectarian zealots.
But the only choice we really have is whether to be conscious or to persist in destructive delusions. Of course, it remains just as fashionable now as it was in Jonathan Edward’s day to lament the nihilism that supposedly grips us when we shed the false certainty of ignorance, and to bemoan the doom that will surely befall us when we depart from the simple faith of our fathers.
But the fact remains that the common power of humanity — the capability for cooperative action that is really just another word for our moral well-being — was never greater than after we lost our religion.
…The founding of the American Republic did not bring freedom to the slaves. It did not give justice to Native Americans. It did nothing to liberate women. And it still hasn’t prevented malefactors of great wealth from twisting the political process to their advantage.
All of these struggles fell to subsequent generations, and the provisional victories obtained thus far have been the work of those who have understood in one way or another that the American Revolution remains an ongoing concern.
The main thing we can learn now from the persistence in modern America of supernatural religion and the reactionary nationalism with which it is so regularly accompanied is that there is still work to be done. For too long we have relied on silence to speak a certain truth. The noise tells us the time has come for some candor. It points to a piece of unfinished business of the American Revolution.