Am I a Nat?
In the April 9, 2007 issue, Newsweek published a debate between Rick
Warren, a Californian pastor, and Sam Harris, an author on atheism,
called The God Debate (see a archived copy here). In it,
Warren asks, "Why isn't atheism [and he could have said, agnostics]
more appealing if it's supposedly the most intellectually honest?"
To which, Harris responded, "Frankly, it has a terrible PR
While it is funny, it has an element of truth to it. Warren pushed the
issue and Harris explained:
It is right next to child molester as something you don't want to
be. But that is a product, I would argue, of what religious people
tell one another about atheism.
One important strategy in warfare is to dehumanize the opposition, and
to not only paint them as stereotypes and caricatures, but to give
them a label. It helps if the label is degrading, but that often
doesn't matter. People on both sides of the "God Debate" have been
guilty of perpetrating (and living down to) such characterizations.
In 2003, Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert came up with an idea to give a
more positive label for atheists and their friends, calling them
brights. The goal was to help overcome the preconceived notions
of immorality and intolerance "without casting that world-view as a
negative response to religion."† It became famous once
Richard Dawkins began pushing it as a meme.
Well, it certainly backfired, since even such a label as
bright comes across as pretentious, and essentially both sides
failed to embrace it.
In philosophy we already have a term for those whose approach to
gaining knowledge limits itself to natural, physical, and material
explanations without the need for the supernatural. It is called
naturalism or naturalistic. So why not just use that term?
While it may be accurate, most people assume that it refers
to someone who enjoys the great outdoors or they are confused with
naturism. Granted, such a confusion could make the monthly meetings
a bit more interesting. But the biggest problem with the term is that
it lacks a bit of pizazz. So, may I suggest using the term, Nat.
I personally find the term much more positive since it doesn't define
itself by what it isn't… like atheism is defined as "not a theist".
Of course the downside to this term may show up when speaking about
it, as people may mistake the term for gnat‡‡"Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel." --Matt 23:24 …
an obnoxious little fly. However, this may help popularize the term as
So now I want to pose the question, Am I a Nat?
As I gaze around the universe searching for knowledge, I fully expect
that unknown answers will have natural explanations. This perspective
comes from a long history of ideas once attributed to the supernatural
becoming understood to having purely natural causes.
But this is just expectation, and until we know otherwise, I'll just
However, I like to think of myself as rational. That is, by applying
Occam's Razor, I prefer the easy and logical answers. Of course, when
looking at the Really Big Questions, we just don't know the answers,
and the theories and models we propose are often pretty
complicated. (Can you say string theory? I'm sure you can, but can
you count all of those dimensions?)
What about the Search for Meaning?
Personally, I feel I have great meaning and purpose for my life, however,
this purpose is not due to any need for a supernatural influence.
I have written a few essays††See Meaning, Quality and Determinism and Meaningless Evolution
on how meaning should be personal and becomes richer as
our purpose is discovered and internalized.
Elsewhere, Sam Harris has noted (see this copy) that
relationships may be dearer, more cherished and appreciated when
viewed as not lasting forever:
…religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine
that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness
beyond the grave. [We] tend to be quite sure that life is
precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully
lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they
need not last forever to be made so. [We] tend to find this fear of
meaninglessness-- well, meaningless.
What about Spiritual Experiences?
Here is the question that really intrigues me… does taking a
naturalistic outlook preclude one from spiritual experiences? For
the majority of people a spiritual experience is defined as an
experience of the divine, and might as well be translated as
But if by spiritual, one means something from the core of our being,
then love, passion, ecstasy and other emotionally-charged insights
into our personal meaning and place in the universe, is certainly not
beyond the bounds of a Nat.
Of course, the motive and explanation of such experiences is what
defines a Nat, but does relying on non-supernatural causes cheapen the
experience or lessen its power to transform our lives?
For me, it has actually been the opposite, for when I think over my
spiritual experiences, I am still filled with curiosity and wonder.
The fact that my daughter shares almost all of her genes with a
chimpanzee does not make me love or value her less.
The fact that a series of chemical and electrical reactions in the
brain of my son is the trigger of his affection does not make his
hugs any less sweet.
So, yes, I am a Nat. And my life has never been so rich or blessed.
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