One World At A Time: Religious Naturalism


The story goes that as Henry David Thoreau was dying a friend came to visit. Since H.D. was so near death, the friend opined, perhaps Henry had a reflection on the next world. “Oh, one world at a time,” Thoreau replied.

From Europe in Thoreau’s time had come speculation about an “oversoul,” a universal consciousness that all consciousness comes from and returns to. This was one of the cornerstone ideas of what in Europe is called the Romantic Era. (The concept of an oversoul was strengthened in Europe and the US by early translations of Hindu texts into European languages.)

In the United States, the resulting matrix of more naturalistic religious thinking is called Transcendentalism — which, we must admit, still contained a good bit of the supernatural.

In his writing, Thoreau combined Transcendental ideas — very much in the Massachusetts cultural air of his time — with a serious study of the natural world. Thereby, Thoreau had intuited what we nowadays call Religious Naturalism. That is, a religious openness to the awe and wonder of the observable, natural universe.

Putting aside speculation on an oversoul and consciousness after death, Thoreau’s “one world at a time” sentiment rhymes and chimes with the thinking of a number of philosophies over time.

Confucius taught that speculation about the unseen is a waste of effort — we should merely act as if traditional speculations are true. In the Western World, the Stoics shared the Confucian intuition and paid homage to the traditional gods but acted as if the laws of the universe were the actions of the gods.

The Buddha shared this laissez-faire attitude about traditional other-worldly or supernatural speculation, pointing out that the human condition here and now is so fraught and dangerous that we need to focus on surviving right here and right now.

Back in the Western World, the philosopher Epicurus dismissed speculation about a world outside of this one by claiming that perfect creatures such as the gods necessarily would not and could not interact with human reality. This idea renders speculation about the the supernatural irrelevant to human well-being.

The early Humanist John Dietrich agreed with this line of reasoning, adding a tweak from science that even though perhaps we might eventually know more than we know at the present, this world and all its challenges is enough to worry about.

It’s purely speculation on my part, but my intuition tells me that awe and wonder at life and death, other living things, the seasons, and the natural world is the oldest of human religious emotions. That connection with what is larger than the “I.”

That is the essence of what has come to be called Religious Naturalism — putting aside what we in the West call theological speculation and taking it one world at a time. This is not a new concept. It’s a tradition!