An Atheist’s Place in the Big Tent of Sacred Naturalism

An Atheist’s Place in the Big Tent of Sacred Naturalism October 28, 2015

By Ed Gibney

This is the atheist channel on Patheos, right? So why the new blog on something sacred? The first four Google definitions of the word “sacred” all involve religious or holy connotations, yet I—a thoroughly confirmed sacred naturalist—am also a hard-nosed atheist and a materialist/physicalist philosopher. How do I reconcile these seemingly contradictory stances? How might you?

In the first five Patheos posts of this blog, we’ve seen many different definitions of what it means to be a sacred naturalist, none of which have talked about supernatural gods. We’ve seen the sacred as stillness, quiet, mystery, and purity. It’s something set apart, or causing feelings of magic, awe, joy, gratitude, focused attention, heart-opening, or being in touch with some greatness beyond oneself. The sacred can be found within oneself or in nature, art, relationships, or even every particle, person, or event in one’s life. That’s a big, slightly fuzzy, and definitely diverse set of opinions. And while I only agree with most of them, I cannot deny a single one of them. Even the magical ones. There might be magic and sacredness in the unknown that is certainly “out there.” If you’ve ever tried to prove to someone that God doesn’t exist in that realm, then you’ll know it’s impossible to disprove anything from out there. Personally, I don’t respond to the unknown with awe and reverence; I have instead come to appreciate Wittgenstein on this. He’s the famous co-founder of the analytical school of philosophy who said, “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” So how might we speak clearly about all of these definitions of the sacred and the range of emotional responses to its presence?


Google’s last definition of “sacred” offers a way that works for me. There, the sacred is that which is “regarded as too valuable to be interfered with, sacrosanct.” That’s the non-religious definition of sacred that I identify with. And since we can’t touch it, perhaps that’s why the sacred takes on so many different definitions that we all respond to in our own way at various times of our lives. Perhaps that’s why this tent of Sacred Naturalism that we’ve seen on Patheos is so large. And if I may, I’d like to add another illustration of the sacred to enlarge it even further. This will require a brief story.


A few years ago, at a dinner party with several of my wife’s new academic colleagues, I got into a rather heated debate with a (self-described) radical Marxist professor of sociology. I don’t even remember the point of application anymore, but he made some remark about how economics shouldn’t be used for some analysis or another. Let’s say he said it shouldn’t be used for discussions about environmental preservation. In fact, he argued it couldn’t be used for this. I have an undergraduate degree in engineering and followed that with an MBA so this type of view was very new to me. I’d been taught over and over that we can measure anything. I said this view on ignoring economics sounded to me like someone saying you couldn’t use physics to measure the universe. The Earth is a finite place. There is a supply of things, and a demand for things. To study this relationship is economics. To deny this relationship exists is to therefore deny reality. You won’t be surprised to hear that we quickly moved away from the subject (and eventually away from each other).


 Antelope Canyon


I spent a lot of time over the next several days though trying to make sense of this argument. The professor and I were very much on the same side in terms of wanting to preserve the same things, but I couldn’t figure out how we could just ignore measuring the world. As is always the case when I encounter some new idea, I needed to determine if I should adopt this stance, discard it, or find a way to incorporate it into my worldview. Eventually, I realized we were trying to say the same thing. While I believe the world is a finite place, any supply of “widgets” becomes vanishingly small whenever those things are deemed irreplaceable and individual. The cost of replacing irreplaceable things in this world essentially runs to infinity, and these infinite values cause a breakdown in the use of classical economics. So to me, it’s not that economics shouldn’t be used where the world is full of intrinsic value—the limitations of economics can be used to show just precisely how high intrinsic value actually is. In the case of businessmen calculating the return on their investment while trying to use up natural resources, we might therefore speak “their language” and still hope to persuade them to set some things aside, to hold some things as…sacred.


In Alice Andrews’s first Sacred Naturalism post here on Patheos, she reminded us of Jonathan Haidt’s idea that: “Sacredness refers to the human tendency to invest people, places, times, and ideas with an importance far beyond the utility they possess.” However, using this rational analysis from economics, perhaps that importance isn’t actually beyond the utility it possesses. How many things in our lives can be considered irreplaceable? How much of it gets to the point where economics breaks down, where values run to infinity? As we’ve seen in the wide-ranging definitions of where the sacred can be found, we know that almost anything can be imbued with this personally infinite value. And those are the people, places, times, and ideas that we logically hold as sacred, in the definitional sense that they are sacrosanct, too valuable to be interfered with.


This discussion of the sacred as infinitely valuable and provoking strong feelings has some precedent in the history of philosophy. It’s not perfectly equivalent, but in Immanuel Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764), Kant divided his observations into two distinct modes—the mathematical sublime and the dynamical sublime. For Kant, the mathematical sublime occurred wherever our imagination failed to comprehend natural objects that appear boundless and formless, or that appear absolutely great. Kant felt this failure of imagination was then immediately countered, for psychological reasons, by the pleasure we take in asserting the concept of infinity.[1]In other words, even if we can’t see the end of something, it feels good to see far. For his dynamical sublime, Kant described that mode as the feeling we get when we contemplate a sense of annihilation of the self at the hands of a vast might. In other words, whenever the power of nature threatens us with an infinite end to our finite lives. Kant felt that exposure to both of these types of the infinite sublime would help us to develop our moral characters, and I can’t help but think that he would agree this is what sacred naturalists are trying to do.



I know this has all just been one more in a long list of descriptions of Sacred Naturalism, but that’s okay. It doesn’t matter how we all get here. As the mission statement for the group says: “…Because Sacred Naturalism hopes to unify all these seemingly disparate people, it is important to stress the common perspective shared by all sacred naturalists, while recognizing that sacred naturalists are epistemically diverse…but [they all] find a home in the ‘sacred’ – seeing the importance of sacredness in one’s life.” That’s key. As I’ve defined it, we all have sacred things in our natural lives, and we all hold them apart as infinitely important. We can all be sacred naturalists.   So what’s next? What will we all do when we get together in this big sacred tent? I’m sure we can find many things in common to work together towards. And we have some good guides to follow for setting up communities like this, such as Auguste Comte’s Church of Humanity, Alain de Botton’s Atheism 2.0, and Michael Price’s Secular Community Revolution. But nothing here has been set down on stone tablets. It’s an exciting time in the world where many people are trying to build communities as religious replacements. I know there are other options out there to consider, but if you’ve found your way here to this one, come on in. Check out the group. I know I’m glad I did. In fact, Sacred Naturalism is fast becoming infinitely valuable and irreplaceable to me.

Ed Gibney is a writer and evolutionary philosopher who blogs about his beliefs and the fiction it inspires at


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