Biologist presents ‘sacred’ nature of sustainability

Global warming and environmental sustainability are concerns that fit neatly within the precepts of religious naturalism, according to Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D., professor of biology in Arts & Sciences.

Goodenough, a renowned cell biologist, is the author of “The Sacred Depths of Nature,” a bestselling book on religious naturalism that was published in 1998.

Religious naturalism neither requires belief in God nor excludes faith. Rather, the movement is based on what Goodenough described as “an exploration of the religious potential of nature.”

Goodenough spoke on this topic at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting Feb. 14 in Chicago. Her symposium was titled “Toward the Science and Ethics of a Culture of Sustainability.”

Like all religious traditions, religious naturalism is anchored in a cosmological narrative, a set of stories accounting how the earth and its inhabitants came to be.

While conventional religions generally are based on older cosmological narratives such as those found in the Old and New Testaments, religious naturalism is based on a much more recent narrative.

“During the past 100 years or so, we have been provisioned with a new story that tells us about the universe,” Goodenough said, referring to groundbreaking advancements in science that help explain the “Big Bang,” the origin and nature of biological life, consciousness and the mind and humanity’s interconnectedness with nature.

“It’s a pretty big story,” Goodenough said. “It’s not ever going to be something written down on some tablet or a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. It’s understanding nature.”

Goodenough said cosmological narratives serve as a basis for three kinds of activities that are at the core of all religious traditions, including religious naturalism.

The first activity is interpretation of the narratives. Goodenough likened this process to “what the preacher says on Sunday or how Talmudic scholars revisit ancient texts,” she said.

“Scientific inquiry is the primary tool for deriving the narrative,” Goodenough said, “but the interpretive mode, in this schema, has to do with how the religious person interprets this narrative — theistically, atheistically and so forth.”

The second activity is spiritual practice, which Goodenough defined as one’s spiritual response to these stories.

This reaction includes “awe, wonder, humility and gratitude … that about which we sing and pray,” she said.

Religious naturalists exhibit such reverence toward the earth, existence and to what Goodenough referred to as “the epic of evolution,” a scientific worldview of the origins and evolution of the universe, earth and life.

The third activity, ethics, was the basis for Goodenough’s presentation at the AAAS meeting. In religious naturalism, a scientific understanding of humanity’s impact on the Earth combined with a religious viewpoint of nature gives rise to ecomorality, a planetary ethic that prioritizes stewardship of the environment.

If the cosmological narrative of religious naturalism is one based on science, then the story has taken a scary twist, Goodenough said.

Scientific evidence suggests that humanity is on a dangerous trajectory. Human activities are very likely the primary driver of global warming; experts predict that accumulation of greenhouse gases will lead to climbing temperatures, rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns.

Degradation of ecosystems is increasing human susceptibility to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis, pest-outbreaks and disease. The expanding human footprint is contributing to a mass extinction of species at a scale comparable to that of the end of the Cretaceous period, when the dinosaurs disappeared. And the list goes on.

Goodenough said taking a religious perspective of the earth (and of the science that elucidates our complex relationship with the earth) might prompt us to take better care of it.

Although Goodenough and her colleagues were viewed as “a bunch of hippies” 10-15 years ago for their take on the potential for synergy between religion and science, this attitude is changing.

“In more and more mainstream religions, you’re seeing an increased emphasis on the earth and its creatures as sacred,” she said.

This paradigm shift is due, at least in part, to a growing awareness that the old stories might not be sufficient to frame an ethic that alters the environment’s current trajectory.

She said the new story offers a basis for understanding what a sustainable trajectory might look like.