Editor’s Note: As humanist communities become more popular, more Clergy Project members are being called upon to speak at them. Certainly former clergy, now non-believing, are uniquely suited for the role. They already have public speaking skills and they have a lot to say, now that Holy Scripture no longer binds them. Here is an excerpted and lightly edited talk presented at the Sunday Assembly in Berkeley, CA, April 17, 2016.
By Chris Highland
A few years ago I gave a sermon at a local church and called upon the wisdom of famous naturalist John Muir
and his side kick John Burroughs—the freethinking NY naturalist. My sermon was titled, “God is Green” and my point was that, at least for me, any sense of God has been soaked in and absorbed by Nature. Nature is the only God for me. So, finally, there is only Nature.
I have a theory. It’s heretical and apostate and infidel and blasphemous—in a nice way.
Here’s my reasoning: America has sprouted a lot of religion. Spirituality can be picked up and rinsed off in the farmers’ markets of faith all across the land. It’s a harvest planted in the compost of the continent.
But my theory is that there is One American Religion (or call it a Spirituality or simply an Experience) greater than all the rest. Millions of people flock and herd to this New Religion every year. It has more temples and sacred places than any other. It has the most inspiring Holy Book of them all. And, honestly speaking, it can boast of the Greatest God above and beyond any and all Gods ever invented by wild-fearing humans.
And most surprisingly, this faith is not even noticed by most people. It stares us right in the face but we don’t see it. Very few even know that they are members.
John Muir, John Burroughs, Thoreau and many more of their fellow saunterers practiced The New American Religion. Those wild thinkers were among the founders of this faith that is above or under and below all faiths. It’s the forgotten ground beneath all this stuff we call spiritual religion.
Who can teach us about this new American experience? Who are the clergy, the chaplains, the priests and rabbis, imams and gurus of this religion?
The National Park Service!
One hundred years ago, just after Muir died, the National Park Service was born. You could say Muir was resurrected—into thousands of rangers and interpreters and educators. Park Service people are the clergy, the caretakers, of a vast system of 400 sites across the nation; 84 million acres; 59 National Parks; 300 million visitors each year. That’s 300 million of the new faithful at Old Faithful, who don’t even know they’re in Church.
That’s one damn huge religion. It’s a faith without faith and spirituality without spirit. There’s nothing SUPER-natural about it.. We live in a new Wild World of Wonder. That’s our WOW. It’s the new form of AMEN.
In our Secular Sanctuary of Nature, we have:
- Preachers of the Gospel of Nature
- Chaplains like Thoreau, Burroughs, Ed Abbey, Rachel Carson, Gretel Erhlich and Janine Benyus
- Poets like Whitman, Mary Oliver and many more
- Choirs like the waterfalls and birdcalls, the frogs, whales and wolves
- Scriptures written by natural laws, by evolution, by glaciers, by earthquakes and tornadoes and tsunamis, disease and death (it’s not just about the happy stuff)
It’s not really a new religion. Thomas Paine preached it way back in the 1790’s. Ingersoll preached it all over America. Now, Ken Burns preaches it. What’s the message of this wild experience? Ask the scientists, the explorers. Ask the bison, the beetle and the bird. Search for it in your own brain.
[Chris’s “sermon” ended with this:]
And now, let us lift up our heads; open our eyes wide, and set free the cosmos in our craniums, for a Secular Prayer:
“Nature, Ahhh. Nature. You don’t hear us. You don’t care. You aren’t interested in Prayer, or Worship—or that we want you to look and think like us. You aren’t a person to talk to at all. But oh, you’re amazing, Nature. Full of beauty. You ARE beauty. Full of wonder. So are we. Here we are, silly seculars, talking to ourselves. Oh, and John Muir—you can’t hear us either, but we hear you. Your voice is still calling to us from across a century, out in the wilderness. Our secular evangelist reminds us, because we need reminding, again and again, to be open to the WOW experience. It’s purely secular, marvelous, amazing, incredible and earthy.
Thank you, Johnny boy. What a Wild World of Wonder we have to explore and celebrate.”
And the people said, WOW! WOW!
**Editor’s Questions** How do you think this new American religion would go over? How do you think it could be an improvement over your current or former supernatural religion?
Bio: Chris Highland served as an Interfaith Chaplain for 25 years. In 2001 he left his Christian ordination and “came out” as a non-theist freethinker. He is a teacher, writer, housing manager and a member of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Secular Student Alliance. Chris is the author of ten books and host of Secular Chaplain. Originally from Seattle, he lives in the SF Bay Area with his wife Carol, director of the Marin Interfaith Council.
>Photo Credits: “John Muir c1902Licensed Public Domain via Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Muir_c1902.jpg#/media/File:John_Muir_c1902.jpg
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20667507
By U.S. government, National Park Service – Extracted from PDF file available here (direct PDF URL here)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2884541