Book Review
When God Is Gone Everything Is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist by Chet Raymo. Sorin Books, Notre Dame, IN, 2008; 148 pages, ISBN 1-933485-13-8, hardback, $22.95.

"This is a book about living in the portal between knowledge and mystery, between the commonplace and the divine" (p. 17).  Physicist and nature writer Chet Raymo explores the little-noticed middle ground that rejects both supernatural belief and materialistic scientism.  Describing himself as an agnostic Catholic, he still loves elements of Catholicism -- the mystical, sacramental, liturgical tradition that he absorbed in childhood -- even though he no longer supports institutional religion, theological dogma, or a belief in the supernatural: "I have given up the certainty that I know the Truth.  I no longer believe that Christians are any closer to God than right-living people of any other faith.  Faith no longer matters to me so much as attention, wonder, celebration, praise" (p. 4).  In his eighth decade, what is his personal Credo? "I am an atheist, if by God one means a transcendent Person who acts willfully within the creation.  I am an agnostic in that I believe our knowledge of 'what is' is partial and tentative -- a tiny flickering flame in the overwhelming shadows of our ignorance.  I am a pantheist in that I believe empirical knowledge of the sensate world is the surest revelation of whatever is worth being called divine.  I am a Catholic by accident of birth" (p. 22).

In considering human efforts to understand the natural world, he quotes Heraclitus' saying, "Nature loves to hide," which evokes the image of nature as a veiled goddess that mankind has been seeking to uncover.  From time immemorial people have projected their sense of self onto nature, anthropomorphizing its lives and forces, thus creating gods in their own image.  They sought simple, certain, absolute Truths.  Assessing the modern growth in knowledge and understanding, he turns to Heinz Pagels:

The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer.  Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born.  Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration -- pp. 124-5

The abandoning of absolute Truth in favor of discovering the particular truths of nature is fundamental for Raymo, as is being comfortable with admitting "I don't know."  So often people fill gaps in knowledge with speculation or wishful thinking masquerading as explanation.  Here Ockham's razor is useful in paring away some of the excess complexity that we are apt to project onto nature.  He tells an amusing story that brings home this point:

     Someone once quoted Shakespeare to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." . . . To which Quine is said to have  responded: "Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth." – p. 53

 Explaining the title of his book, and his continued use of religious language despite rejection of the supernatural, he points out that people by their natures are attracted to the "trans-sensual," what goes beyond the senses. 

All personal gods are idolatrous, especially any personal god we dignify with a capital G.  The great service to humanity of science has been to sweep the anthropomorphic gods away, or, at the very least, to show them for what they are, phantoms of the human brain.  What we are given in their place is not Truth, but reliable empirical knowledge of the world, tentative and evolving.  To be sure, science does not exhaust reality, or even begin to encompass the complexity of our interaction with the world.  The religious naturalist seeks a language of spirituality that is consistent with the empirical way of knowing. – p. 125
Raymo sees rapt attention to the particulars of nature is a type of prayer or meditation: "When we are content to admit that we do not know what lies behind the goddess's veil, every jot and tittle of creation becomes an object of our reverence and respect" (p. 47).

We don't need supernatural beings and miracles in order to celebrate the ineffable mystery of  nature or to have a feeling for the grandeur and interconnectedness of life.  Agreeing with Thomas Berry's approach, he says: "The universe is a unity -- an interacting, evolving, and genetically-related community of beings bound together inseparably in space and time.  Our responsibilities to each other and to all of creation are implicit in this unity.  Each of us is profoundly implicated in the functioning and fate of every other being on the planet, and ultimately, perhaps, throughout the universe" (p. 98). 

I found intriguing this exploration of one person's search for meaning from a scientific and spiritual viewpoint. – Sally Dougherty (March 2009)