Naturalism and Well-Being

This is a chapter on worldview naturalism for Macmillan's volume, Beyond Religion. It aims to show how naturalism as a comprehensive, science-based worldview can address human needs in all domains of life, from the practical to the existential. Below is the introduction, and the full text in PDF format is here. This chapter also serves as a good summary of what naturalism as presented at Naturalism.Org consists in, and why it can compete successfully with supernaturalist worldviews as a guide to life in the cosmos. 


Conceptions of human flourishing vary, but there are requirements for well-being that nearly everyone would endorse: meeting basic physical and emotional needs, having opportunities for learning, mastery and self-expression, being a valued member of a secure community, and finding one’s place in the ultimate scheme of things. These domains of well-being reflect the complexity and variety of human motivations, not all of which, unfortunately, find fulfillment in every life.

Because it speaks to all these domains - material, psychological, social, and existential - a worldview can inform the full range of human flourishing. Naturalism is a science-based worldview which situates us in an impersonal cosmos, with no god in charge and no apparent purpose. Although this austere vision of the human condition might seem bereft of resources for well-being, this chapter will argue the opposite: naturalism is a rich, rewarding, and importantly, true understanding of reality that offers ethical and spiritual wisdom, psychological stability, and practical guidance.

This chapter does not aim to justify naturalism as a worldview, although some remarks in its defense will be forthcoming, and it will be contrasted favorably with other worldviews. Rather, the aim is to show how naturalism can contribute to a conception of human flourishing that is widely, although not universally, accepted. Naturalism has ethically positive and politically progressive implications in its support for human rights for all human beings, whatever their gender, race, sexual orientation, or religious persuasion. It has humanitarian implications for criminal and social justice policies, and for our understanding of addiction and behavioral health. It affords greater latitude for personal self-expression and autonomy than do many faith-based worldviews, while providing a satisfying perspective on the existential questions of meaning and purpose in life.

However, it should be emphasized that naturalism is not the only route to such goods. Adherents of supernaturalist religions, as well as naturalistic variants of Buddhism (and those who hold no worldview at all) may reach roughly similar conclusions about human flourishing, albeit from different premises. Nevertheless, naturalism is unique in using the scientific understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos to address the many-faceted question of how to find fulfillment in life.

Worldview naturalism obviously goes beyond atheism (the denial that gods exist) or agnosticism (having no definite view about gods’ existence), by presenting a comprehensive picture of reality and the human condition which can serve as a guide to living a meaningful life. Although it has close affinities with secular humanism, which takes naturalism as its metaphysics (secular humanists usually have no truck with the supernatural), naturalism is perhaps less parochial in its orientation. It draws greater attention to the global impersonal picture – the natural cosmos and its causal laws – that sets the stage for, and ultimately shapes the human drama. Human beings are but one among trillions of natural phenomena. And naturalism shouldn’t be confused with the transcendentalism of Emerson (1836) and Thoreau (1854), which asserts that communion with untrammeled nature (think forests and glades) affords us access to a higher, true reality. Worldview naturalism sets up no deep dichotomy between human culture and commerce and the natural world from which they spring; nor does it suppose that experiences, however transcendent, necessarily reveal truths about the world.

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