Introduction and Book Organization

The religious naturalist orientation is presented as a promising candidate for grounding the articulation of a planetary ethic. The book offers access to our science-based understandings of nature, with a focus on biology, and a collection of spiritual and moral responses to these understandings. 

Key words: religion, science, planetary ethic, religious naturalist orientation,


Everybody’s Story

Chapter 1 Origins of the Earth

Narrative: The 13.8 billion year story of our universe and the 4.6 billion year story of our planet told in sparse language

Reflections: The specter of cosmic and quantum alienation is considered and a Covenant with Mystery is offered as a pathway to its resolution. 

Key words: Big Bang, universe, galaxy, star, supernova, Earth, nihilism


Chapter 2 Origin of Life

Narrative: The basic principles of chemistry and a model for the origins of life within the planetary matrix are offered in the context of emergent properties and emergent dynamics, followed by consideration of the molecular organization of present-day lifeforms.

Reflections: All organism are emergent selves with aims, goals, and purpose. Their mandate is not only to be fit and hence flourish, but also to fit in within the ecosystem where they find themselves. 

Key words: Planetary matrix, autocatalysis, autogen, emergence, animism


Chapter 3 How Life Works

Narrative: The core molecular dynamics of present-day organisms is presented, including a consideration of protein structure, enzymes as catalysts, biophysics, biochemical and signal transduction cascades and cellular homeostasis. 

Reflections: The “grunge theory of matter” is supplanted by a paean to matter, followed by a consideration of the distress we may feel in considering our materiality and an invitation to invoke the spiritual practice of assent.

Key words: Mozart metaphor, enzymes, cascades, cellular homeostasis, grunge theory of matter, assent


Chapter 4 How Organisms Work

Narrative: Organisms regulate the expression of their genes, and hence the levels of their encoded proteins, via complex feedback systems playing out in time in response to internal and external cues. In multicellular organisms, patterns of gene expression also play out in space, creating embryonic and adult forms. 

Reflections: The complexity and improbability of being a human self, of having a life, invites profound gratitude for and celebration of our existence.

Key words: DNA, gene expression, cell cycle, embryogenesis, gratitude


Chapter 5 How Evolution Works

Narrative: DNA-encoded instructions for making organisms can change (mutation), occasionally generating instructions that enable organisms to better flourish/fit in to their circumstances; such instructions then persist and spread within the population (natural selection). Instructions for core (housekeeping) activities and useful protein shapes are highly conserved. Novelty arises by subtle variation, gene duplication, and modified regulation of gene expression.  

Reflections: We are deeply related to all the other organisms in the planetary matrix, generating experiences of local and global communion. 

Key words: Genetic code, mutation, gene duplication, natural selection, communion, interrelatedness


Chapter 6 The Evolution of Biodiversity

Narrative: The three supergroups – Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukaryotes – arose from the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) and diversified to generate the millions of kinds of present-day creatures. Key features of each supergroup are explored.

Reflections: The outpouring of biological diversity invites us to deep abiding humility within the Earthly whole.,

Key words: Bacteria, Archaea, Eukaryote, LUCA, common ancestry, humility


Chapter 7 Awareness and the I-Self

Narrative: Awareness of the external environment, including other organisms, is inherent in all of life; consciousness, as used here, is the mode of awareness found in brain-based animals. The I-self is the narrative self constructed by human animals using our capacity to generate symbolic language. “Biologically we are just another ape. Mentally we are a new phylum of organism.”

Reflections: Our sense of an I-Self, which feels immaterial, undergirds the concept of an immortal soul that experiences immanence and transcendence. These experiences are considered from a religious naturalist perspective.

Key words: Awareness, consciousness, symbolic language, immortal soul, immanence, (horizontal) transcendence


Chapter 8 Interpretations and Feelings

Narrative: Awareness entails interpretations of what is perceived; in animals these are guided by feelings and emotions generated by our neuroendocrine systems. 

Reflections: The feeling states that accompany a religious frame of mind are explored, with attention given to empathy/compassion.

Key words: Emotion, feelings, temperament, empathy, compassion


Chapter 9 Sex

Narrative: Eukaryotic sex entails the coming together of two parental genomes and their assortment into new genome configurations and hence new kinds of gametes, generating new kinds of offspring. An overview of the process is given with analogies to encyclopedia volumes and shuffling of playing-card decks.

Reflections: Sex introduces the imperative that immature offspring be nurtured and our human sense that children represent the hope and promise of what we might become.

Key words: Sex, chromosome, meiosis, haploid, diploid, allele, nurture


Chapter 10 Intimacy

Narrative: Sexual mating entails the attraction/recognition of appropriate partners, and intimacy arises during sexual unions, parental nurture, offspring dependency, and sibling interactions. These relationships between humans undergird our experiences of loving and being loved, and extend to friends and to nonhuman animals. They bring us joy, but they can also bring us heartache.

Reflections: Many religious persons extend their sphere of intimacy to abiding personal relationships with supernatural gods. For those of us incapable of forming such relationships, earthly intimacy offers compelling alternatives.

Key words: Sexuality, parenting, family, friendship, personal God


Chapter 11 Multicellularity and Death

Narrative: Single-celled organisms have no obligate death built into their life cycles – they divide in two – whereas multicellular organisms produce a mortal soma and an immortal germ line that gives rise to the next generation. This arrangement allows the soma to adopt highly specialized traits, including animal brains and behaviors. 

Reflections: Death of loved ones and untimely or senseless deaths bring us deep sorrow, and anticipation of our own death can bring fear and, in many, a belief that an immortal soul will persist. The perspective is offered that it was the invention of death, the invention of the germ/soma dichotomy, that make possible the existence of our brains. 

Key words: Death, multicellularity, germ/soma dichotomy, immortality


Chapter 12 Human Evolution

Narrative: Eukaryotic speciation segregates diverging populations into subpopulations that mate exclusively with one another. Speciation in the Great Ape family generated a hominin lineage ~ 7 million years ago that gave rise to Homo sapiens in Africa ~300,000 years ago; migrants then moved out of Africa ~100,000 years ago. Our protein-encoding genes are near-identical to those of our chimpanzee and bonobo cousins, indicating that our distinctive features, notably our capacity for symbolic language, are due to modifications in gene expression during early development. We display features of domesticated species and form coalitions called cultures, tribes, and nations.

Reflections: Given our propensity to denounce human malfeasance, we are invited to also offer thanksgiving for the human distinctiveness that generates our creative gifts. 

Key words: ape, chimpanzee, bonobo, hominin, Neanderthal, Denisovan, domestication


Chapter 13 Human Morality and Ecomorality

Narrative and Reflections: Human morality derives from our communal sensibilities as a social lineage. Religious traditions mold these sensibilities into aspirational mindful virtues – compassion, fair-mindedness, reverence, and courage — that are pitted against our tendencies to be self-serving, proactively aggressive, and xenophobic. These can be broadened in scope to become eco-virtues — respecting, cherishing, nurturing, and celebrating that from which we have come and upon which we depend – sensibilities that are prominent in indigenous and Asian traditions. Ecomoral practices are suggested. 

Key words: virtue, mindfulness, proactive aggression, racism, ecomorality


Epilogue: Emergent Religious Principles

These principles include taking on ultimacy, gratitude, reverence, compassion, nurture, and a commitment to foster the continuation and flourishing of life. A weaving metaphor is offered for the integration of our religions of origins with naturalist perspectives.


The Religious Naturalist Orientation

The foundations of this orientation, infused throughout the book, are summarized here.

Endnotes 1: Legends to Cover and Chapter Frontispieces and Figures

Endnotes 2: References and Further Readings/Resources