Nature: The New American Religion – WOW

Nature: The New American Religion – WOW April 25, 2016

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?


Chris Highland 2008Bio: 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

By Source, Fair use,

By U.S. government, National Park Service – Extracted from PDF file available here (direct PDF URL here)., Public Domain,

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  • digital bookworm

    Nice article.
    I try to go to my worship services at least once a week. Luckily there’s a State Park less than 10 miles away and half a dozen large county parks nearby.

    • Linda_LaScola

      WOW! I realize that I check in every day. There’s a branch of Rock Creek National Park right across the street. Part of it was made into a victory garden during WWII and is now a community garden. They are all over town on the edges of the park.

  • DoctorDJ

    Julia Sweeney has an interesting take on Nature as a new god in her essay “Letting Go of God.”
    At about the 1:00 hour mark at

    • Elizabeth.

      Wow, Doctor… that essay is a treasure. I haven’t known Julia, & ended up listening all the way to the end. Probably will go back for the first hour. Thank you!

  • Elizabeth.

    One of your thoughts that sticks with me is how the world’s religious leaders received their insights out in nature — Jesus, the wilderness; Buddha, under the Bodhi tree, etc, and how everyone is invited in the same way to receive their own individual inspiration and insights in nature rather than only from what someone else discovered there. So when someone mentioned Tillich a few posts back and I was looking for the reference, I thought of you when I read this about him:

    “When he was only eight, upon seeing the Baltic Sea for the first time, he felt the presence of the ‘infinite.’ This early experience was repeated and extended in both scope and depth throughout his life. As he writes in his short autobiography:

    ” ‘The weeks and, later, months that I spent by the sea every year from the time I was eight were even more important for my life and work. The experience of the infinite bordering on the finite … supplied my imagination with a symbol that gave substance to my emotions and creativity to my thought…. Many of my ideas were conceived in the open and much of my writing done among trees or by the sea.’ ”

    Thanks very much for your work, Chris

    • Appreciate the refresher on Tillich, Elizabeth. Enough reading of these “liberal progressive” theologians and one comes away wondering if they are really and simply members of the New Religion I speak of!
      Secular blessings (smiling)

      • Elizabeth.

        : ) I believe you have a kindred spirit in Bruce G who commented on his R.D. post last week:

        “I find liberal/progressive Christianity to be quite frustrating. Their beliefs are often reductionist or so soft that it is often impossible to determine exactly what they belief. I’ve concluded that many liberal/progressive Christians are atheists who like to go to church.

        • Yes, and many of the progressives I know enjoy a walk in the woods much more than sitting through an hour in a tomb of theology (even with some “uplifting” music).

          • Elizabeth.

            The congregation I attend has a very interesting creative insightful young preacher that’s it’s always fun to hear. Yet as I’ve been writing my “temporary summary” (at 78) I recently wrote this:

            “Just recently I began to ask myself what it means that it’s when I’m outside and away from other people that I feel most potentially connected with whatever God may be. At church, no matter how inspiring, nor how refreshed I may feel afterward, still it feels most like I am just gathering information… I don’t really feel connected with God God’s-self. That potential is felt while I’m walking.

            “Why would the songs of birds and the airy run of deer seem to speak more of God God’s-self than anything other people do or sing? I am wondering if maybe it’s because other people seem to be more personal agents, so that one can’t get beyond their ideas to relate to God in God’s-self – though they can furnish clues. Or maybe it’s because I’m always conscious of or worrying about others’ attitude toward me, and can’t get beyond that. Thoughts in progress!”

            Slowly reading through your “Life After Faith” is a pleasure… thanks!

          • OMN, Elizabeth (Oh My Nature!). Good luck with that reading. I wrote Life After Faith while living alone in a small cabin on an island, with lots of time to write, so the book is way longer than it should be. I recommend that slow reading! (I’m considering a re-write for a much smaller book). Thanks.

          • Elizabeth.

            A second edition would be Excellent!!!! I’d want the longer version to stay available; but not only would a condensation help our attention spans, your current views on the 2010 views would make it a whole new read! I hope it works out!!!! Let’s see… er… “Natural blessings!”

          • Just the kind of nudge, nudge I need to take the Jefferson Bible approach, Elizabeth. Hack and update!

          • “Just recently I began to ask myself what it means that it’s when I’m outside and away from other people that I feel most potentially connected with whatever God may be. “

            There is immediacy in nature, and abstraction in church.

            The experience of humans gets filtered through ego; Metaphors and Myths; Anxieties and attachments;

            Not so with the beaver or hummingbird.

          • Elizabeth.

            Well said, thanks, brmckay

          • Elizabeth.

            brmckay, on my walk today I was thinking about what you wrote, and an intriguing difference struck me… if I understand ctcss correctly, he might see this like a photographic negative — the principle, God’s love, is the really real, whereas matter like humingbirds and beavers are “a suppositional state of being”

            Sort of reverse views of what is really real : )

          • The term “suppositional” is difficult for me, don’t know how to apply it, but the following:

            ” It’s the human state that is a state of ignorance, not the fact that one seems to belong to whatever group. And as one (humanly) replaces the ignorance with the truth, the reality that always has been becomes more and more evident.” – ctcss

            Is pretty much what I would hope people will get from what I write.

            The “immediacy of nature” and the “abstraction of church” are still representative of relative phenomena. Therefore not representative of “reality” as such.

            Only Brahman is real. The nothing of undivided totality. But, the immediacy found in nature, by contrast to our abstractions, especially of “self”, offers clues and holds the space for transformation. At least it seems so to me.

          • Elizabeth.

            Today I happened across a little fuller description of “suppositional” states of being….

            I’ve had the feeling that you lend a little credence to matter…. but are you saying you don’t see matter as part of Brahman? ….Thanks again!

          • It boils down to a paradox. The absolute and the relative. Not in truth separate. The Entirety as God.

            I would use the classical Sanskrit term “maya” for the suppositional, or inaccurate human viewpoint that ctcss is talking about.

            The emphasis for me, being on the process of enlightenment. The remembrance of True nature.

            Matter is relative and Time-bound. Our abstracted identification with the body and mind is a dream.

            Awakening from that, the subjective experience is of eternity. The non-relative infinity that is God. What we are calling the Real.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Elizabeth — this makes me think of how many nature scenes I’ve observed inside churches. I recall a lot of statues and celestial paintings full of saints and cherubim, but no nature scenes.

      It’s more like churches shut out nature with their dark interiors and stained glass windows of Bible scenes.

      • Elizabeth.

        Maybe Chris and Bruce are right… contemporary church buildings in my denomination are tending to have large clear windows that look out on trees and sky… maybe an indication of the movement Chris describes

        Hadn’t thought of it til now, but one of my favorite religious pix has always been “Way to Emmaus,” and one of the things so appealing is the huge trees, with the human figures small

        Yes, much church architecture reminds me of a professor I frequently hear preach, who gives you the feeling that we’re peering out of that Mighty Fortress and need to dig a deeper moat, pull up the drawbridge, and add a few alligators just to make sure!! Though it could be that in some situations, the stained glass stories have been a source of beauty and relief from a hardscrabble life and bleak setting….

        Interesting observation!!

        • Linda_LaScola

          I agree about the beauty of the stained glass. One of my favorite views is of the rose windows in the national cathedral that reflect the sun at different times of day. Still, as breathtaking as that is, it keeps you focused inside.

          Since I wrote the above comment, I’ve thought of a few UU churches I’ve been in that have stark interiors, but are set in the woods and have large clear windows looking out onto a bucolic nature scene. No accident, I’m sure.

          • Elizabeth.

            ok, I’m succumbing to temptation, and since I am for many practical purposes a UU and enjoy visiting, I am going to pass along 2 of the Prairie Home Companion religious jokes that I identify with… er, that I *like* : ) ….Why are UUs such bad singers? — They’re always looking ahead to see if they agree with the words. ….&, did you hear about the UUs who burned a question mark on somebody’s lawn?! (These would be moi!)

        • I love the Taoist influence on Chinese art.

          • Elizabeth.

            interesting… any examples on line?

          • I was mainly thinking of the landscape paintings. I have no expertise in the matter but found this article interesting.

            Or a google search for stuff like this.

          • Elizabeth.

            Thank you for the “pivot to Asia,” brmckay! Very neat paintings!! & very interesting link with the Tao and internal martial arts. (Incredibly, our little Southern town is home to an authentic tai chi teacher/learner — who’s about convinced me that the interactive parts “are NOT about fighting” so I’m slowly venturing) Very much appreciate adding this Eastern perspective… very helpful and thank you!!

          • Though the impulse to mention it was inspired by Chris Highland’s article on “The new religion of Nature.”

            Googling for links to provide for you sort of deflated it for me. I should have left well enough alone.

            One wall sized painting of mountain valley and microscopic people is worth a thousand words.

          • Elizabeth.

            I hope the glory will return!!!! I totally agree about the paintings, and thank you

      • The dreaming mind is nature too.

  • And, we don’t have nature with out the common ground of infinity.

    So, there is something in it for everyone.

  • carolyntclark

    WOW ! is so perfect. Back in my believing, convent life, I had a heated discussion about prayer with a Jesuit Theologian. I was explaining my closest moments to the ultimate goal, “union with God”. I described moments in awe of glorious nature when my mind and heart were spiritually uplifted with admiration of the Creator and thought “Wow, just Wow !
    He argued that a sense of awe at God’s creation did not qualify as prayer until I
    mindfully verbalized my prayer.

    • Linda_LaScola

      At that point I would nave been tempted to “mindfully verbalize” my disdain for the Jesuit theologian.

      • carolyntclark

        I stood my ground and was chided for being disrespectful.

  • Sammael Moon

    So this ‘New American Religion’ sounds very much like my current religion 🙂 Though I’ve felt a desire to connect with Nature for as long as I can recall, I didn’t consider these feelings to be religious. Eventually I realized that these moments of awe and wonder and connection to a greater unity were exactly what I (and indeed many people) wanted to find in ‘religion’. This was when I decided that “pantheist neopagan” (or “tree-hugging dirt-worshipping hippie”, if you prefer) was the best way to summarize my beliefs.

    I suppose my religion isn’t entirely secular as it seems to me that there is some sort of immanent force embodied in Nature. Of course this force doesn’t really speak to me like a human might, but there’s still communication there. (I can communicate with my cat, for example, even though there’s not an actual verbal conversation happening.)

    But there is nothing so awe-inspiring or so sacred for me as walking through the park and realizing that I am surrounded by life, on all sides, endless cycles of birth and death and birth. And then realizing that I am a part of that vast cycle (if only because I’m taking in the oxygen the trees are giving out, and giving them the carbon dioxide I exhale)…’WOW’ just begins to describe it 🙂

    • I understand the desire to hold to some “immanent force” but don’t see why. When I was living in a cabin on a NW island I still felt there was some kind of “spirit of nature”–until that became another distraction from simply accepting the wonder and beauty of the natural world. I spoke to the birds and squirrels and beetles just because I was delighted they were my neighbors. It wasn’t about spirituality at all–there was no spirit. It was just relating to other natural living things. Btw, I went through a “John Muir was a Pagan” stage and taught at a Pagan seminary for a short time. Good people. . .with some very odd anthropomorphisms. I love my witch friend and she accepts my secularity. Once again, it all comes back down, eventually, to that WOW experience. Who really cares how we label that?

      • Sammael Moon

        I agree about the WOW experience 🙂 I think everyone describes it in a way that makes sense to them, but since no two people are alike we’re not going to get two identical descriptions.

        • Linda_LaScola

          Unlike the specific rules of various religions, where people are taught that they must to think and feel and believe in certain ways.

        • mason

          The WOW, and the OUCH experiences 🙂

          There seems to be a yearning among so many humans to see Nature through Pollyanna eyes, yet even semi-rational observation reveals Nature to have an extremely primordial indifferent disposition.

          I also find it interesting that the grandest beauty in nature is most often the deadliest, and bright colors can serve as a poison warning among it’s creatures. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, famines, plagues, asteroid, comets, forest fires, lightning (100 indiscriminate strikes on Earth every second), deadly microbes,… but alas the Pollyanna eyes see friendly microbes.

          I’ve been fascinated observing the Pollyannas, with there irrational exuberance about life and Nature, and find they have a great deal in common with Little Red Riding hood.

          • I like that, Mason. Wow and Ouch! John Burroughs captured that well. He opens Accepting the Universe with Margaret Fuller’s view that she accepted the universe. Carlyle responded with “Gad, she’d better”!
            Burroughs, Muir’s friendly nemesis, never turned a blind eye to the disasters, disease and death in Nature. He said that “made it more real.”

          • mason

            If one takes a holistic look at Earth they’ll soon realize we humans and all the other species are hosts and nutrition for microbes. Wow!

          • Linda_LaScola

            But we are sure having fun in the process. and while I don’t know for sure, I bet our lives are more interesting than theirs.

          • ctcss

            Perhaps, but if one is already a victim, rather than a seeming beneficiary of nature, then “interesting” could be an ironic synonym for a long, drawn-out tragedy.

            Is that something to rejoice over? Especially if it is someone whom one loves who is the victim?

            While I personally love the beauty of nature, I don’t really have much desire to encounter the Beltway Sniper aspect of it. That’s why I worship God rather than nature. I can’t see exulting in chance since far too much seems to be at risk from it. The concept of God I worship doesn’t step on anyone by accident, or out of malice.

          • Linda_LaScola

            The issue here is microbes just trying to stay alive, not humans victimizing other humans.

          • ctcss

            Perhaps I misunderstood what you were saying, but I brought up the Beltway Sniper as an example of an agent of chance without remorse of concern for what got in the “cross-hairs”. One can be a victim of an indifferent human as well as an indifferent disease or an indifferent force.

            Nature is very much indifferent to the tragedy that it causes.

      • mason

        Everything is God, including me, you, the Redwood trees, Europa, and the Zika virus.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Sammael – I bet you don’t think that because you can communicate with your cat, that your cat might be god. Perhaps the same goes for nature, why not?

      Just because you have a sense of communication with nature needn’t mean there’s a supernatural force at work — just a natural one.

      • Sammael Moon

        I’d entirely agree that this “force” at work in nature is natural, not supernatural, at least as far as I understand it. (And I’d never claim to understand it fully!) I suppose the vastness and complexity of this natural force is what makes me regard it in a worshipful way, if I had to put my finger on it.

  • axelbeingcivil

    If you’re gonna worship something, might as well be the thing that shapes and controls your life, right?

    • Linda_LaScola

      Good point, axelbeingcivil — religions “of the book” invent characters for us to love and fear and situations for us to avoid or attain, but with nature, it’s there for us to figure out on our own.

  • soter phile

    While I’m personally not a fan of Dawkins, he certainly puts this article’s optimistic assessment of nature in stark relief:

    “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
    —Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

    • mason

      and we’re just left with our love, family, arts, science, nature, sports, etc etc etc…and that’s more than enough for me!

    • Well, even Darwin felt wonder, awe and delight in the natural world. He’s one patron saint of the “new religion” of Nature (not limited to America of course).
      btw, just watched Dawkins and Krause in the film “The Unbelievers.” Some interesting conversation. Not a terrible film. I just felt maybe something was missing. . .oh, yeah, Nature, beauty, something more than endless words against religion.
      My article presents one option for common ground for humans and other wildlife. Then again, is Nature an “option”?

  • mason

    Chris….I love the religion, ancient and new as it is, and you’ve presented it brilliantly! I think it’s also called Pantheism.

    “How do you think this new American religion would go over?” It’s going over quite well especially with the younger generations. I talk to people regularly and explain what a Pantheist is and quite often the response is, “Well, that’s really what I believe.”

    “How do you think it could be an improvement over your current or former supernatural religion?” It has been my “religion” for a long time; atheist defines what I don’t believe, pantheist defines what I do believe. It’s been a huge improvement without all the myth, lies, demonizing of other theisms and non-theisms, mental filters, superstition, etc. etc. infinitude,…and Sundays Free.

    • Have to disagree on this, Mason. Not a theism. Respect for Nature is not anthropomorphic in any way and Pantheism holds to a supernatural. I do not. But, you’re right to see an association. . .close but not.

      • mason

        When I say religion I don’t mean theism regarding nature. Pantheism, as I understand it does not hold to a supernatural; the material Universe and “God” are identical, not anthropomorphic at all. God is not a deity, or personality, just the Universe in its entirety. I realize some of the definitions get slippery. If one’s “God” is the impersonal/indifferent material Universe how could pantheism be called a theism, except theism is in the name? 🙂 It’s an irony, a way of doing something with the word God that makes the Universe God.

        • I agree, Mason, our semantics and labels present problems here. Pantheism is in the eye of the god-beholder, I suppose. I think some hold to the name as a vestige of a god or super. I don’t choose to do that. There is no god or supernatural or worship at all in my understanding of this “new” Nature “religion.” (I have to keep putting the words in quotes!). I am certainly playing with the old terms here–but, eventually they have to go. I simply suggest our National Parks and wild lands are the best replacement for any religion–“sanctuaries” for everyone, faith or no faith.

  • There’s an interesting relationship to this versus what this one rationalist blog identified as a kind of ‘Grand Theory of Religion’, see: