Naturalism as a religious view

Naturalistic defenses of religion often presuppose what we can call a segregationist view. On the segregationist view, natural science and religion have their separate domains of concern: respectively, Nature, and the supernatural. On the one hand, there’s Nature—the world around us—which we study through practices like physics, biology, chemistry, and so on. On the other hand, there’s religion, which concerns itself primarily with the supernatural—with what, in some sense that requires clarification, lies beyond the ordinary world with which we’re faced on a daily basis.

The segregationist view sets the stage for a confrontation—namely, when religion or science make forays out of their respective domains. On one common use of the term, naturalism is the view that we should only accept claims about Nature to the extent that they’re consistent with the results of the natural sciences. Thus, naturalists will complain when religion makes pronouncements about Nature that aren’t: when it appeals, for example, to the operation of empirically inaccessible supernatural forces to explain natural events, or dismisses hard-earned results of the sciences by appealing to faith. From the naturalist viewpoint, religion, in doing so, at best fails to stay in its lane; and at worst, has no lane of its own besides sheer ignorance. On the other hand, trouble can brew when naturalists attempt to undermine religious claims about the supernatural by arguing that they lack the epistemic credentials required for us to accept them, or even to take them seriously at all. In doing so, naturalists only confirm the suspicion of many traditional religionists that their worldview can only alienate us from the divine.

It’s at this point that naturalistic defenses of religion often come into play. Of course, many religious people are quite willing to simply dismiss naturalism with a wave of the hand. However, not all religious thinkers are dogmatists of this sort. Many have tried to defend religion, not by fomenting more conflicts between naturalism and religion, but rather by reinforcing the segregation of religion from natural science: securing the walls between them so they can co-exist in peace, each in their own domain.

There are many ways of doing so. A classical example of this would of course be deistic views according to which a supernatural God exists and is the ultimate cause of all things, but doesn’t ever intervene in natural events. Another, more contemporary example would be religious fictionalism—e.g. the views of my colleague Natalja Deng. Roughly speaking, religious fictionalists argue that we can engage in religiously significant ways with religious claims without endorsing their truth. We can engage, for example, with religious texts in something like the way we read novels or perform the scripts of plays, and that this can provide satisfaction to the religious impulse. In this way, there can be, as Natalja has put it, religion for naturalists—i.e. naturalists of the sort who reject any commitments to the supernatural.

Much of this is by now old hat. A great deal of the modern conversation about religion takes place within the segregationist framework. And this is because most people, I’d wager, think that religion just is a certain kind of engagement with notions of the supernatural. This is why the idea that there’s a sharp divide between religion and science is usually treated as axiomatic.

Segregationism as a meme
(image source:

I’ve taken the time to rehearse all of this because Spinozian religion lies outside this framework—so much so that his views can seem incomprehensible from within it. One of the things that makes Spinoza’s approach to religious matters distinctive is that he rejects segregationism. In the view of Nature given to us by science, he finds, not a potential threat to religion, but a source of religious inspiration. This is, of course because he thinks God is Nature. Thus, as he sees things, natural science doesn’t call us away from the divine, but rather serves to turn us toward it. The more we understand Nature, the clearer a view of God we get. Science provides a path toward communion with the sacred.

In what sense, though? As I’ve claimed in previous posts, the driving idea in Spinoza’s religious thought is the notion that the authentic religious life is one in which we take joy in our finitude: in the fact that we’re utterly dependent on and vulnerable to a world that’s indifferent to us. A necessary condition on finding our way to such joy is simply understanding that we’re finite in this sense: that our finitude is so fundamental to what we are as to be completely inescapable.

This, for Spinoza, is the contribution of science to religion. Of course, Spinoza’s science of Nature takes a form that will seem quite foreign to contemporary natural science: a systematic metaphysics couched in technical jargon from medieval Scholastic philosophy. However, in many of its fundamentals, Spinoza’s views are thoroughly aligned with the spirit of modern science. The more we understand about ourselves, the more we see that we’re on a par with everything else in the world. The same principles that explain the nature of trees, mountains, and galaxies explain our nature. There isn’t, for example, one physics for them, and another for us. There’s just physics. The structure of Nature, of course, manifests itself in myriad forms—in different ways in different things. We are no exception. However, just as natural processes through which it operates give rise to the rock, and account for everything it does and that happens to it over the course of its existence as it interacts with the world; so they do with us. We aren’t anything categorically special: we are just more Nature—some among its many-splendored ways.

Spinoza’s story doesn’t end here. The appreciation of our finitude that we gain through natural science takes us, he thinks, only some of the way toward the religious life. To travel the rest of the way requires a qualitatively different form of experience—what he calls intuitive knowledge of ourselves as modes of God. Thus, to do science isn’t yet to lead such a life.

However, the idea that science’s vision of our place in the world even takes us part of the way can seem deeply puzzling. Of course, Spinoza’s use of the word “God” seems to suggest something religious. However, segregationism runs so deep that this can seem scarcely intelligible. Isn’t religion something we turn to in order to make contact with something beyond: beyond the world around us—something higher, or greater: something transcendent? And when religion takes a monotheistic form, isn’t it God that occupies the place of this ‘beyond’? Isn’t God by definition not of this world: something, in other words, supernatural?

The difficulty in adjudicating the debate between Spinoza and segregationism lies in the murkiness of these terms. To gain insight here, we must, then, ask: what is at the root of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural? It isn’t captured by making just any old distinction between the world around us and another world. For example, physicists who tell us that there are universes other than our own (say, because they accept the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics) don’t thereby posit the existence of the supernatural. What kind of distinction, then, is the segregationist making?

The distinction is driven, it seems clear, not by abstract theoretical concerns, but by deep existential ones. Thus, to get some clarity here, we ought to ask: why should this special distinction between ‘here’ (this world) and ‘there’ (that other world) matter at all to us?

Schopenhauer giving Spinoza an incredulous look

Spinoza puts forward a hypothesis, which we can illustrate by considering Schopenhauer’s eloquent expression of segregationist sentiments in his essay “Some Words on Pantheism” (one translation of which can be found here):

This is precisely why pantheism presupposes theism as having preceded it, for only insofar as one proceeds from a God and thus has him in advance and is familiar with him, can one ultimately arrive at the point where he is identified with the world, really in order to be rid of him in some decent manner. For one has not impartially proceeded from the world as that which is to be explained, but instead from God as the given; but when one soon after no longer knew what to do with this God, then the world was supposed to take over his role. This is the origin of pantheism. For it would not occur to a person in advance and impartially to regard this world as a God. It would obviously have to be an ill-advised God who knew no better way to have fun than to transform himself into a world such as ours, into such a hungry world, where he would have to endure misery, deprivation and death, without measure and purpose, in the form of countless millions of living but fearful and tortured beings, all of whom exist for a while only because one devours the other. For example, in the form of six million Negro slaves who receive on average sixty million lashes a day to their naked bodies; and in the form of three million European weavers who vegetate feebly in stifling attics or desolate factory halls, plagued by hunger and grief, and so on.…For however unclear, vacillating and confused may be the concept which we associate with the word God, still two predicates are inseparable from it: supreme power and supreme wisdom. That a being equipped with these should have got himself into the situation described above is a thoroughly absurd thought, for our position in the world is obviously one into which no intelligent being, let alone an all-wise one, would get himself.


For Schopenhauer, God is by definition a particular sort of being: one that is perfectly powerful, and perfectly good. And, Schopenhauer expresses very clearly what he means by this, and what drives him to think it. God is the being to which we turn in order to save us from the awful, fallen world in which we find ourselves. We’re helpless but to be pushed around by this world—abused, degraded, and made to suffer by it. Religion, on this view, is what we turn to in order to escape it. We can quibble about whether to make this turn: perhaps we just have to put up with our debased condition. Or, when we make the turn, we can quibble about what provides the escape route: e.g. animistic forces, gods, or God. But if we settle on this last option, it’s because we think the one and only God is that which is completely above and beyond the fallen world—the being that can’t be pushed around by it, the being that masters it, and thus the being that can be our savior.

These are, as Spinoza sees things, the existential stakes of the natural/supernatural distinction, and thus of the segregationist view of religion. Segregationists are driven by a peculiar sort of question: “Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?” And, the “this” in their question is finitude itself. The physicist who talks about other universes thus provides no solace to them, because these other universes don’t make us any less finite. Instead, they look to the supernatural: that which transcends the world and offers us the means of escaping it, and thus our own finitude. To escape the fallen world, we must therefore follow a path toward what lies beyond: e.g. appeal to it, worship it, obey it, or find a way of attaining union with it. One common way in which segregationists conceive of the supernatural’s availability for such an approach is in terms of a kind of view I discussed in a recent post. On this view, the supernatural intercedes in or determines the world around us so that it has a theodical order: i.e. by organizing the fallen world in such a way as to make escape possible or even inevitable, and thereby justifying its order to us.

I suspect that many secular-minded people would agree with Schopenhauer’s view of God, and the segregationist view of religion it presupposes; and on these grounds, would reject both God and religion more generally. In contrast, Spinoza proposes a strange alternative: a resolutely non-escapist form of religion: one in which we give up our longing to flee the world around us, and instead learn to take joy in our immersion therein. However, the segregationist view runs so deep that this can seem like a contradiction in terms. At best, then, segregationists are likely to react as Schopenhauer does. It will seem to them, that is, that Spinoza is simply using religious terms, but is doing so to express an utterly secular worldview.

In what sense, then, is Spinoza’s naturalistic view a religious one at all? In other words, what alternative is there to the segregationist view of religion? The seeds of the answer I’ll propose can be found in some reflections on religion from the contemporary American philosopher, Thomas Nagel.

Naturalism and the religious temperament

Thomas Nagel in 1978
(image source: Wikipedia)

In his essay “Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament”, Nagel tries to identify a question that he thinks helps to drive the human impulse to religion. He calls it the cosmic question (CQ), which he states like this: “How can one bring into one’s individual life a recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole, whatever that relation is?” (5)

To be gripped by the longing for an answer to CQ (whether one thinks it can actually be answered) is, in the terms of Nagel’s essay, to have a religious temperament. This strikes Nagel as an appropriate term for this longing in part because CQ is a question that religions frequently attempt to answer. This fact helps to explain their perennial appeal. Further, it’s a question that secular philosophy—especially in the analytic tradition—has often tended to neglect. To understand why he says this, we need to distinguish CQ from other sorts of questions to which secular thinkers have devoted a great deal of thought.

First of all, Nagel points out, CQ isn’t merely a theoretical question—one that asks after a proper description or explanation of the world and how it’s put together. Rather, it has both cosmological and practical dimensions. To answer it, that is, you would indeed need a story about the nature, structure, and/or history of the world as a whole, and how our nature fits into it. An interest in such a story is what the religious temperament has in common with endeavors like physics and metaphysics. However, a complete answer to CQ requires more: it requires some story about how it would be appropriate to live in light of or in response to the fact that the world as a whole has a certain character, and that we occupy a certain place in it. CQ seeks a vision of the world that will teach us how to live.

This combination of the cosmological and the practical helps us see the importance of CQ to religion: the answers that religions give to it are among their defining features. For example, Christianity has both elements. First, there’s a cosmological story: a personal God created everything, including us, and he so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son Jesus Christ to die for our sins. But in addition, there’s a story about what kind of life is the appropriate response to the fact that the world, and we, are like this: a life grounded in love for and obedience to God, and in gratitude for the grace made possible by Christ’s sacrifice. I’d venture to say that most Christians would regard both the cosmological and practical elements here as essential to Christianity. Someone who believes that God is the creator, and that Christ’s sacrificial death really took place, but who shrugged and responded “Who cares? What’s it to me?” wouldn’t be a Christian. Similarly, someone who accepted Christianity’s practical norms, but without believing the cosmological story to which they respond, would likewise not be Christian.

Nagel points out that CQ’s practical dimension doesn’t merely concern morality. Morality concerns how to live in response to persons. An answer to CQ can, of course, include an account of morality. Religious answers to it often do. However, CQ has bigger fish to fry: it doesn’t ask how to live in response just to persons, or indeed how to live in response to any particular things: it asks how to live in response to the world, generally speaking.

I would add a bit more. CQ’s practical dimension isn’t merely prudential, either. An account of human happiness or flourishing merely concerns our nature, whereas CQ concerns the nature of everything. Further, CQ isn’t merely the most general instrumental question. An instrumental question presupposes some end. That is, it doesn’t put that end into question, but rather simply seeks after the means to it. In contrast, part of what’s at stake in CQ is the question of what ends are worth pursuing to begin with.

Notice that nothing in CQ, by itself, suggests any distinction between the natural and the supernatural, or any theodical view of the world. Segregationists presuppose that an answer to CQ must take a particular form. The world around us, as they conceive of things, is simply a part or aspect of something larger and greater, such that what lies beyond this world is something that affords escape from it. Such views have been so dominant in traditional religion that they can make it hard to see any alternative.

Spinozian religion, though, provides just such an alternative. It answers to the religious temperament in Nagel’s sense. Spinoza argues for a cosmological picture that in many of its fundamental elements just is the picture of the world and ourselves we find in natural science. Then, he offers a vision of the kind of life in which we live in recognition of the world and ourselves, understood in this way. In such a life, we don’t try to escape our place in the world, but live in joyful recognition thereof. To use the same common idiom, we see ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves, but this ‘something larger’ is just the world around us in its endless diversity and mystery. As suggested in the title of this post, for Spinoza, a naturalistic view of the world isn’t something we need to reconcile with our religious views. Rather, for him, naturalism is a religious view.

Now, this, by itself, merely suggests a way of understanding Spinoza’s views as religious ones. It doesn’t, however, tell us why we should convert to Spinozian religion. Segregationists could very well concede that what we have here is a religious view in some sense, and follow this up with a decisive “No thank you!” There is, in other words, the further question of what a Spinozian religious life would look like, and what there is to recommend it. In particular, as I mentioned in the post from two weeks ago, it can easily seem as if there’s little about our finitude in which to take joy. I will begin to address this further question in the coming weeks.

Works cited

  • Nagel, Thomas. “Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament.” In Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002-2008, 3-18. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. “Some Words on Pantheism.” In Parerga and Paralipomena: Volume 2: Short Philosophical Essays, trans. Adrian Del Caro, ed. Christopher Janaway, 105-8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

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