Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science

Ursula Goodenough, Religious Naturalist

by
David Glover

Biologist Ursula Goodenough has been contributing to Zygon since 1993. In her first piece, “Creativity in Science,” she not only highlighted the experiences of creative scientist, she pointed out some of the communication, comprehension, and appreciation difficulties inherent with interdisciplinary endeavors. The specialist can best appreciate the joys and despairs of a colleague. It is she who comprehends all of the nuances in the hurdles overcome during the creative process while the nonspecialist has a much more limited understanding, and the uniformed passerby can be apathetic, or even extremely hostile, to the whole thing. Besides implying that more education can improve the interdisciplinary conversation that we are undertaking between religion and science, Dr. Goodenough concludes her first Zygon article by saying that she is one who is searching “for myths that better resonate with our [contemporary scientific] understanding of who we are” (1993, 413).

It is with her second article, “What Science Can and Cannot Offer to a Religious Narrative,” that Dr. Goodenough began to express her vision of religious naturalism in earnest. After comparing ancestor, sky, and earth cults she determines that a scientifically informed cult for the present day must be akin to the earth cults rather than to the traditional religions. She sees only the possibility of continued impasse between science and the major religions, with their sky cultic-like faith in the supernatural. She believes that a new paradigm must be developed if humanity is to experience the transcendence of scientifically informed nature. And Dr. Goodenough has set out to be an evangelist for this effort; to educate, inform, and be one of those creating a new mythic fabric for placing humanity within the ecosystem.

Dr. Goodenough shows us some of the patterns found in the fabric of religious naturalism by finding meaning in the biological phenomena of continuation. The meaning of life is for life to continue. It is the intent of every organism to continue to live in its niche, however big or small that niche may be. Everything desires to live, and this desire is what gives meaning to life. She sums this up by saying, “For me, the existence of all of this meaning and intent, and my ability to apprehend it, is [emphasis in the original] the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value. The continuation of life reaches around, grabs its own tail, and forms a sacred circle that requires no further justification, no creator, no superordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose other than that the continuation continue…” (1994b, 612).

The spiritual aspects of her religious naturalism appeared in the excerpts from Dr. Goodenough’s The Sacred Depths of Nature that Zygon reprinted (2000d). More recently she has turned her efforts to exploring what moral/ethical naturalism entails, working with Paul Woodruff (2001) and Terrance Deacon (2003) in the process. She has looked at how the scientific concept of emergence informs our understanding of how our minds work and the impact of the resulting cognitive aware on our sense of community and communal ethical behavior. This has led to her proposing that we are to gather in community with others who pursue mindful reverence (Goodenough & Woodruff, 2001). For it is by being in these intentional communities that one can be most humane, courageous, fair, and reverent—to be the most social with other humans, and other species.

To this chemist and diaconal minister Dr. Goodenough has much to say that is worthy of deliberation. There is much to “chew” over, particularly for me, when reflecting on our mindful (care-ful, intentional) behavior towards others that is fair, humane, courageous, and reverent.

Dr. Goodenough’s devotion to religious naturalism is founded in her quest for the horizontally transcendent. It is my expectation that even as she asks to be listened to that she will listen to those who appreciate vertical transcendence from a variety of religious perspectives, including scientists who are faithful Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Christians, or follow other “transcendent” traditions. For it is the process of educating, listening to, and spending time with one another, the scientist and nonscientist alike—the walking along side one another—that is Zygon’s purview. So whether or not you agree, or disagree, with Dr. Goodenough I invite you to the conversation.

Goodenough, Ursula W. 1993. “Creativity in Science.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 28 (September): 399-414.

———. 1994a. “What Science Can and Cannot Offer to a Religious Narrative.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 29 (September): 321-330.

———. 1994b. “The Religious Dimensions of the Biological Narrative.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 29 (December): 603-618.

Goodenough, Ursula. 1996. “Biology: What One Needs to Know.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 31 (December): 671-680.

———. 2000a. “Reflections on Science and Technology.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 35 (March): 5-12.

———. 2000b. “Reflections on Scientific and Religious Metaphor.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 35 (June): 233-240.

———. 2000c. “Religiopoiesis.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 35 (September): 561-566.

———. 2000d. “The Sacred Depths of Nature: Excerpts.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 35 (September): 567-586.

———. 2000e. “Causality and Subjectivity in the Religious Quest.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 35 (December): 725-734.

———. 2001a. “Vertical and Horizontal Transcendence.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 36 (March): 21-31.

———. 2001b. “A Setback to the Dialogue: Response to Huston Smith.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 36 (June): 201-206.

———. 2001c. “Genomes, Gould, and Emergence.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 36 (September): 383-393.

Goodenough, Ursula and Paul Woodruff. 2001. “Mindful Virtue, Mindful Reverence.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 36 (December): 585-595.

Goodenough, Ursula. 2003. “Religious Naturalism and Naturalizing Morality.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (March): 101-109.

Goodenough, Ursula and Terrence W. Deacon. 2003. “From Biology to Consciousness to Morality.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (December): 801-819.

Goodenough, Ursula. 2005. “Reductionism and Holism, Chance and Selection, Mechanism and Mind.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 40 (June): 369-380.


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initially prepared July 31, 2006

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