The Seminar on God and the Human Future

Fall 2017 Report on Religious Naturalism

by Alan Jay Richard

The Fourth R 31-2
March/April 2018

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If the word “God” doesn’t name a being among beings, not even the highest or supreme being, then what sorts of things does it do? Of the things it does do, are there any that remain crucial to or at least compatible with the possibility of a human future? Since 2013, the Seminar on God and the Human Future has brought together philosophers of religion, critical theorists, and radical theologians to examine varieties of post-theism. In Spring 2017, the Seminar’s topic was pantheism and panentheism, and it featured presentations by noted philosophers of religion Catherine Keller and Mary Jane Rubenstein. The Seminar took an even bolder step at the Fall 2017 meeting, attacking white Christian nationalism and focusing its inquiry on religious naturalism, a kind of passionately religious thought and community where awe and wonder are stirred by the worlds opened up by science instead of by those opened by the word “God.” The meeting was held in Boston on Friday, November 17, 2017.

Why I Don’t Call Myself an Atheist

Session One, “Why I Don’t Call Myself an Atheist,” featured Bart Campolo, humanist chaplain at the University of Cincinnati and host of the podcast Humanize Me. Campolo emphasized that he is not a scholar, but a “street-level religious leader who organizes religious communities and has been doing so for thirty years.” Instead of theory, he promised a story not so much about how he left Christianity for religious naturalism as about how he became a Christian, since, he argued, how people “get into these communities in the first place” is much more interesting than how they leave them.

Campolo insisted that, although his parents were evangelical Christians and his father is a well-known evangelical speaker and author, “a supernatural God never made any sense to me” until at age fifteen he was invited to a megachurch youth group meeting. The friendliness he met there, along with the laser lights, live music, and games, made him want to be a part of the group. He began doing and saying the things he was expected to do and say, until one day he found himself at a local McDonald’s with a member of the group asking him to accept Jesus and praying the “believer’s prayer.” Shortly thereafter, he had what he calls a “transcendent experience” at a youth retreat in the mountains. Campolo noted that although he no longer believes in God, he still believes in transcendent experiences. And “I think they’re entirely natural.”

“My ability to believe in that supernatural narrative died the death of a thousand cuts.”
— Bart Campolo

Campolo reflected on the human needs that evangelical Christianity met for him. First, it gave him a sense of identity and “a tribe.” Second, it gave him a sense of purpose and mission and with that a practice. “It clarified for me what it meant to be good.” And third, “transcendent experiences were reliably produced in this group” and these experiences “made me feel connected to other people and the universe in a way that made sense to me.” For Campolo, “the dogma wasn’t the attraction to Christianity. It was the price of admission.” Nor, he observed, did he leave Christianity because the church failed him, but rather because “my ability to believe in that supernatural narrative died the death of a thousand cuts.” After leaving the church, he was unable to find an atheist or secular community that knew how to meet the human needs that evangelical Christianity had met for him, that is, until he read Harvard humanist chaplain Greg Epstein’s description of his ministry. This led to a meeting with Epstein, which eventually led to Campolo himself becoming a humanist campus chaplain.

Based on his long experience as a community builder, Campolo argued that people are drawn to groups that provide a tribe, a practice, and transcendent experience because in these groups “you’re transformed into a better person and you participate in the transformation of other people into better people.” Campolo concluded that a community with religious naturalism as its narrative, providing these three elements and aiming at human transformation, will attract and retain members as readily as any religious group with the word God at the center of its narrative.

John Caputo (Syracuse University, Emeritus) responded to Campolo and drew attention to a conversation between Campolo and his evangelical father included in the book Why I Left, Why I Stay (2017). Caputo said it seemed to him that “they share a deeper faith but their beliefs are different.” He said it does not seem that younger Campolo had let the kingdom of God or the parables go, but that he had “productively reinvented what’s going on in the kingdom of God story.”

Campolo replied that the kingdom of God “is the single image that I think I have dispensed with more effectively than anything else in my life.” That symbol, he explained, assures us that “there’s a destiny, a place we’re supposed to get to” and that “ultimately there will be some kind of order.” But “the epic of evolution tells me that I don’t know where it’s going” or whether the species and life to which he is religiously devoted will endure much longer. “So what I say is in the shadow of death, in the shadow of the fact that your life and my life are finite, the question is how do we make the most of them, and how do we take responsibility for the openness of existence?”

New folkways and rituals for those people who won’t believe in God constitute an essential task in which few people are currently engaged.

A seminar member suggested that while Campolo no longer believes in God, he seems to believe in the church, since he’s all about working toward a mission, singing songs, putting arms around each other, and so on. So why not just be a United Methodist, for example, since you can believe pretty much anything? Campolo replied that all those elements supposedly associated with churches are just human technologies also used successfully by labor unions, soccer teams, and pubs. He admitted that it would be correct to say that he is an evangelical humanist, since he is still driven to draw people into loving communities because of the transforming power he has experienced there. But, he added, there is a twofold difference between his evangelical humanism and his former evangelical Christianity. First, he no longer thinks there is a way of life that works for everybody. “There’s a lot of different ways to live a good life.” Second, selecting a humanist ministry over a progressive Christian ministry that might also accommodate his current beliefs is “a practical concern.” There are “a lot of people who want to see if they can try to rescue” Christianity. Meanwhile “the future of religion is on the other side of this” where “we take people who don’t believe in any kind of supernatural reality and create a community and lifestyle for them that enables them to raise children with a hope for the future and to overcome struggles and trials.” Campolo said that he expects “a huge social collapse” is coming and that “Mad Max and his machine guns” won’t be the path to survival, while communities that know how to resolve conflict, care for common resources, and create hope will. New folkways and rituals for those people who won’t believe in God constitute an essential task in which few people are currently engaged.

Karen Bray (Wesleyan University) affirmed Campolo’s remarks about identity and tribes and added that “tribalism is something we’re doing even when we say we’re not.” She asked Campolo how his community, “while knowing you need to make insider-outsider cuts, deals with making responsible cuts”? And how we do go about creating “communities that, when a complaint comes, don’t necessarily make a cut but rather change with the complaint”? Campolo responded by praising “the scientific method” because rival ideas are tested and the one that predicts things better is selected. On the other hand, science is a tool to serve a community built around values. Loving relationships are the value, with science as the tool. And in community building, “whatever’s working best, that’s what we’re going to go with.” “That works,” Dr. Bray countered, “until what’s working best for the majority is not what’s working best for the minority.” Campolo acknowledged that this happens, and that sometimes “somebody takes their preference and they stick it in the sand. And there’s no getting around it.”

Loving relationships are the value, with science as the tool.

The microphone went to Maynard Moore (WesleyNexus), who suggested that “narratives are ineluctable” and that “even if you deconstruct a narrative you’re reconstructing a narrative.” Will religion still have something to offer, he asked, if we deconstruct and really reconstruct it? Campolo responded with a definition of religion as the quest to answer life’s ultimate questions, adding that while he thinks everyone has a slightly different narrative for dealing with it, he agreed with Moore that an explicit or implicit narrative is unavoidable. Campolo suggested that the “epic of evolution” can serve as such a narrative that becomes religious when it is translated into “a process of ‘how shall we then live’”?

When asked to say something about ritual, Campolo described the opening and closing rituals for a biweekly dinner party his humanist campus group hosts. The closing ritual involves a pub song written by one of the group members, which intentionally includes a vulgar word “because we want to communicate to each other that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.”

Although cooperation may not be the universal mechanism of evolution, it has helped human beings flourish

Another seminar member asked how an honest narrative of evolution’s “wasteful and violent” reality could compete with the Christian narrative, given that Christianity’s “least of these” are usually “the first casualties of the evolution narrative.” Campolo responded by affirming with Richard Dawkins that “it’s wasteful, it’s brutal, but like somebody ends up here” is a conscious being aware of the process, and if you do, “you’ve won the cosmic lottery.” Campolo suggested that an ethic beginning from this “gift from nowhere,” without a giver, can be compelling, particularly when coupled with an appreciation of the importance of a propensity toward cooperation in the evolutionary strategy of the human species. Although cooperation may not be the universal mechanism of evolution, it has helped human beings flourish in the niche they occupy, so “if you want to thrive as a human being, love is your path.”

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Religious Naturalism, Sacred Humanity, and God

Session Two, on “Religious Naturalism, Sacred Humanity, and God,” featured Carol Wayne White, professor of Philosophy of Religion at Bucknell University and author of Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism (Fordham University Press, 2016). White focused on five themes drawn from her work. The first theme was the compatibility of a religious naturalist position with the African-American intellectual tradition and the contribution of that tradition to humanists and religious naturalists. She argued that W.E.B. DuBois’ “antitheistic and antimetaphysical” philosophical framework did not prevent him from affirming “African-American religious expression” inasmuch as the latter addressed “fundamental issues of life or death to black agents interested in living life fully and with dignity.” Religious functionalist perspectives, including those of Kant, Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud, have also combined suspicion regarding “what religion says it’s about” with the view that “it has to do fundamentally with meeting the challenges of a full life.” But these European figures, along with many other contemporary humanists, have failed to grasp something that DuBois did grasp, which is that “black slaves and their descendants have never had the luxury of asking these questions in the abstract.” They have lived these questions, and did so “into the future,” providing a unique set of perspectives and resources to religious naturalism.

The characteristics of humans derive from hierarchies of natural systems

White’s notion of “the naturalized human” was the second theme she discussed. Any such notion, she insisted, must be drawn from “an underlying deep history of the cosmos.” The characteristics of humans derive from hierarchies of natural systems, so that humans are manifestations of “many interlocking systems” at many levels. For White, humans exhibit “evolutionary directionality” or “a trend toward complexity and consciousness” within nature. But White warns against “a particular reading” of this directionality whereby humans become nature’s “triumphant summit.” There is no single summit because “each species of animal has a niche with which it is more or less adapted.”

White’s third theme was the value of religious naturalism, with its concept of Sacred Humanity. This concept, rooted in human awareness of interdependence and responsibility, can help challenge “modernist processes of racialization” that universalize and privilege the Western human of Enlightenment thought. It rejects “dualistic binary structures” that support racialized views, exposing these structures as “highly complex categories constructed in contested discourses” that deny “the wholeness of natural interrelatedness and deep homology that evolution has wrought.”

Justice for myriad nature was White’s fourth theme. She began by recalling the eighteenth-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s argument that since the French had “discovered” that a human being’s black skin could not justify torturing and tormenting that being, the day may come when the subjection of other beings to such torment will no longer hang on whether those beings can talk or reason, but whether they can suffer. For White, this emphasis on sentience is crucial because it is the source of the experiences of aliveness, of other beings, and of wellbeing. Honoring and valuing “nature’s sentience” becomes the linchpin of a kind of expansive justice that challenges the Enlightenment’s human exceptionalism that has also removed whole groups of humans from the sphere of ethical concern.

Honoring and valuing “nature’s sentience” becomes the linchpin of a kind of expansive justice that challenges the Enlightenment’s human exceptionalism

White’s last theme was her account of “why I’m not compelled by the God concept.” Her rejection of this concept is based on three affirmations. First, all that exists belongs to myriad nature which, since it is “myriad,” is not one, and nothing exists beyond or apart from nature. Second, this affirmation leaves no room for either a personal God or any other non-natural entities. Third, myriad nature itself supplies “religious meaning, value, and significance.” These affirmations are contextualized by an ecological account of material nature, drawn in part from Donald Crosby’s Nature as Sacred Ground (State University of New York Press, 2015), which argues that nature is “a causally open but self-sufficient realm of continuity and change” where “genuine novelty and human freedom are fundamental actualities.” Such a context “compels humans to recognize our limitations” but to “appreciate our distinctive capacities.” In the ecological context of myriad nature, White concluded, human flourishing may include religion, but understanding all of this does not require us “to insert or appeal to some extra-material process or deity.”

Bart Campolo began his response to White’s presentation by summarizing his interpretation of the argument of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited (Abingdon- Cokesbury Press, 1949), wherein the ethical core of Christianity is separated from the context of supernatural command and punishment and inserted into the context of the challenges faced by oppressed communities with their backs against the wall. Citing White’s own opening statement emphasizing that the context of slavery and white racism did not afford African Americans the luxury of asking religious questions in the abstract, Campolo confessed that he expected to hear more about how an African- American religious naturalism might “protect the integrity of the African-American community” specifically, whereas White’s description of her proposed religious naturalism seems to eliminate “the distinctions not just between different kinds of people but between people and animals.” White replied that part of her point was to do away with “forced lines of demarcation among myriad nature.” While she recognizes that socially-constructed and contested forms of identity are embedded in real “historical expressions or articulations,” she thinks there is an irreducible tension at every level between “the one and the many” that applies not only to historically constructed identities but even organisms themselves. “If we really look at what the scientific theories suggest” about humans, she argued, “we are of the same essential reality.” So while a white cisgender male like Campolo may not have the same experience walking down the street as she does, “you are still affected” by the underlying social reality that produces these differing experiences.

Campolo then summarized an account in primatologist’s Frans DeWaal’s The Age of Empathy (Crown, 2009), wherein the belief that chimpanzees were unable to distinguish faces, previously thought to be experimentally supported, was challenged when DeWaal shifted the question from chimpanzee recognition of human faces to chimpanzee recognition of chimp faces. It turns out that chimpanzees focus on chimpanzees in the same way that humans focus on humans. “Every species is loyal to itself.” Even within species, we have “circles of concern.” I may care about cockroaches, Campolo insisted, but “if it comes down to the cockroaches or the humans, I’m sticking with the humans,” and if it comes down to his own children or someone else’s, he would choose his own. He said he thought he heard White arguing that we ought to care about all beings equally, which he regards as unrealistic. White responded by reiterating that although she does not discount circles of concern and species loyalty as forces in nature, she locates the sacrality specific to sacred humanity in its “conscious awareness of the fact that we are organisms that can relate to other organisms” which implies “a certain type of responsibility.”

Clayton Crockett (Central Arkansas State University) spoke next to offer a way of reconciling Campolo’s concept of “species loyalty” with White’s emphasis on the interrelatedness of beings within myriad nature. Crockett allowed that the species loyalty aspect of evolution “has so far done us well, but now we’re facing a deep ecological crisis because of our nature to be competitive and even to be cooperative but only within our tribe” so that we now may need to “recognize and affirm that inner connection of different forms of life and existence if we want to have a future.” White agreed and added that the ecological worldview “dethrones humans” from the center so that “we can appreciate this spectacular biotic richness and diversity.” Our very status as conscious beings means “we know there are other species and know that we are dependent” on them. So one can love one’s own species as one’s own species, and also “be in love with other species” so that “it’s never either-or.”

Karen Bray (Wesleyan University) then asked White to clarify the difference between religious naturalism and pantheism, the belief that “everything is God and God is everything.” White replied that some religious naturalists do use theistic terminology but that she is not one of them. She said that it seems to her that the God term functions as “a kind of unifying gesture” whereas she prefers “to stay with the multiplicity, the tensions, the entanglement” instead of “trying to harmonize all this radical chaos.” She added that we live within these tensions anyway and although we try to do away with through abstractions and theoretical posturing, we can’t. “So I prefer to be honest about that.”

"When I think of what is fundamentally real ... I don’t think of God.”

Jeffrey Robbins (Lebanon Valley College) suggested that the key distinction between a pantheist and a religious naturalist may lie in “intrinsic value versus extrinsic value.” For the pantheist, the word God adds something because it identifies the value in things whereas for the religious naturalist, the word God is not necessary to do that. “But,” Robbins asked, “would you make the further argument that the concept of God is an obstacle to seeing the intrinsic value in things?” White said it depends on how people are defining the term God, which can be used in different ways, but urged the scholars to think about whether retaining the word God really serves a crucial religious function once theism is jettisoned. “When I use the term, it doesn’t do anything for me. When I think of what is fundamentally real, what invigorates me, gives me a sense of awe, wonder, purpose, how I see myself, I think of nature; I don’t think of God.” White was asked whether this means that she doesn’t view nature as a unity, as all-encompassing. White replied that making a unity of nature is “a human desire” and “it’s OK to do that” even though she still prefers to stay with the tension, but that there simply is no reason to regain the term God “when I’m so enamored of nature.”

Jordan Miller (Wheaton College) asked whether Spinoza’s formulation “God, or Nature” might be applicable to the question of a distinction between pantheism and religious naturalism. “Are we just playing with terms here?” he asked. “When we push them, do the distinctions break down?” White responded that she does not think the distinction between God and nature is only a language game. It is about a name or a naming that elicits reverence in you, about “living with conviction and in a sort of way that has purpose and value in each moment that you exist.” For her, she reiterated that name is nature.

Want to join the conversation?  Attend a Seminar on God and the Human Future at the next National Meeting.

Critical Report on Christian Nationalism

In Session Three, “Critical Report on Christian Nationalism,” eleven scholars gave brief addresses to the public and fellow scholars on “Trumpism” and its connection to Christian Nationalism. Clayton Crockett began the session by offering a definition of American fascism as a link or a “bundling together” of three things: (1) white southern Christianity, (2) American nationalism and exceptionalism, and (3) neoliberal corporate capitalism. Given this definition, he suggested, the most important response is “to context and undo” these linkages.

Daniel Miller (Landmark College) argued that majority white evangelicalism is a pernicious force and that there are no sound sociological reasons for believing that it will moderate politically. Instead, it must simply be opposed. Karen Bray argued that our “stand your ground” culture is about property, literally the ground, and that property is assumed to be white and Christian. Three kinds of feelings “defer an accounting” that might untangle these connections: submission to an authority, a pull toward innocence and avoidance of guilt, and a moody victimhood that calls Black Lives Matter a “hate group” and espouses “Make America Great Again.” The result is the assumption of a “right to maim,” or to remove from others “any place to stand.” Mark Lewis Taylor (Princeton University) noted that the notion of church-state separation has always masked a Christian nationalism through the very terms it uses to separate the religious from the secular. Moreover, the “instrumentalization of religion” for expansionist and imperialist purposes is “one of the great constants” of U.S. policy. He suggested that we respond by naming and acting persistently against U.S. imperialism and that Christian theologians work on critiques of U.S. imperial Christian nationalism that are driven by Christianity itself.

The notion of church-state separation has always masked a Christian nationalism through the very terms it uses.

Jordan Miller, presenting a statement co-authored with Westar Fellow Hollis Phelps, argued that Trumpism names “a series of accelerating political, social and environmental crises buttressed by a nihilistic capitalism.” It must be faced and changed as a condition, and not as an anomaly to be addressed through lifestyle choice and “resistance” within existing institutions. The theological task is recognizing that the ground of our being is at stake, that it is found in the material conditions of our existence, and that “we must change our affairs through the transformation” of those conditions. Alan Richard (Realistic Living) argued that Dwight Moody’s business-oriented evangelism rescued evangelicalism’s “common sense” consensus on biblical interpretation from its ethical humiliation in the theological crisis of the Civil War, helped restore a feeling of “white unity” between North and South at the expense of African Americans, undercut the authority of denominational Protestantism and the local congregation, and instilled the feeling of opposition between God’s sovereignty and social justice demands that became the core of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American white Christian nationalist identity.

Sarah Morice Brubaker examined how the enforcement of online social interaction policies intended to protect feminist and other online spaces from interference by internet trolls failed to anticipate the reactionary response that followed. That amounted to the development of an extensive far right online presence, the far right use of the internet to terrorize and economically destroy opponents, and the use of the internet for organizing violent rallies like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. She ended by asking, “What are the theological categories for saying, ‘We’re excluding you from the conversation but we’re still going to keep an eye on you and care about you?’” and “Where does that responsibility end?”

Christian Nationalism is a term of abuse for “the phony nationalism of so-called Christians” on display in Trump Time

John Caputo argued that Christian Nationalism is a term of abuse for “the phony nationalism of so-called Christians” on display in Trump Time, but when we use the term that way we hand the terms “Christian” and “nation” over to the right. Caputo offered Martin Luther King and Richard Rorty as examples of thinkers who refused to do that but who also refused the “cruel joke” that America has always been great, opting instead for the “dream of the America to come.” Joe Bessler (Phillips Theological Seminary) reminded the fellows that Westar Institute began against a background of resurgent fundamentalism, noting that this session’s discussion “should be in the wheel house of this body.” Insisting that Trump is a phenomenon and not a person, he compared the dilemma of the GOP legislators who have acknowledged something wrong in the executive branch to the dilemma faced by the character Denver in Toni Morrison’s Beloved when she realizes that unless something is done, unless she “leaves the yard,” the haunting engulfing her family will do real damage. He concluded by citing Morrison’s post-election essay to argue that the “haunting” engulfing white America is a narcissistic wound resulting from the perceived loss of privileged status and power. He insisted that this cannot be exorcised unless people are willing to leave the yard.

Namsoon Kang (Texas Christian University) argued that Christian nationalism is “itself an oxymoron” since “God is a kind of symbol for cosmopolitan ideas.” She identified several threats posed by Christian nationalism: the politics of hatred, the politics of extreme nationalism, the politics of religious capitalism, the politics of U.S.- centric imperialism, and, drawing on philosopher Hannah Arendt’s argument that “evil is the absence of thinking,” the politics of non-thinking.

Christian nationalism is “itself an oxymoron” since “God is a kind of symbol for cosmopolitan ideas.”

Robin Meyers (Oklahoma City University) built a case for the rise of Christian nationalism as an attempt at “a kind of emergency restoration of the maleness of God and the whiteness of God and the straightness of God and most of all the in-charge resoluteness of God.” J. Kameron Carter (Duke Divinity School) closed the session with a presentation on the condition of “post-racial.” Arguing that “the logic of the racial” works not through exclusion but through “violent inclusion, engulfment through death,” he identified the “post-racial” as the “heightened afterlife” of this violent inclusion consisting of, first, the disavowal of racism as a mediating structure and, second, the ritual eruption of inclusionary violence meant to keep society properly ordered. This complex and redoubled relay between disavowal and violence is “a psychosocial affective condition” that can be understood as a form of melancholia, an inability to mourn and release the lost object, with “a society organized racially through whiteness” as the lost object. Carter concluded by suggesting that Trump is “a repository of this melancholic affect” for owners of whiteness “now unable to cash in or realize” that status and is thus “more in structural alignment with the condition historically of blackness.”

The Fall 2017 meeting of the Seminar on God and the Human Future moved the exploration of new ways of thinking about God in a post-theistic context even further toward the edge of theological thinking by featuring and interacting with religious naturalists who do not use the word God, by considering whether the word God is an impediment to flourishing religious community, and by offering eleven thoughtful and pointed assessments of the threat of Christian nationalism. In doing so, it spoke powerfully to the questions of what is getting done in the name of God after theism, what do we want to keep getting done in the name of God, what can no longer be done with it, and what can’t yet be done without it.

Fall 2017 Ballot Items

Westar academic seminars conduct periodic votes on propositions related to their research topic. Both scholars (Fellows) and public members (Associates) cast votes in response to scholar presentations and recommendations. Voting does not, of course, determine the truth–it only indicates what the best judgment is of a significant number of people sitting around the table. Learn more about this tradition at Westar.

Although Associate members were present and able to vote, only Fellows cast ballots on these items.


Religious naturalism is compelling enough to dispense with the concept of God.

Fellows...Somewhat Agree...   

The word “God” is independent of the flourishing of religious communities.

Fellows...Somewhat Agree...   

The Fourth R 31-2

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