'There Are Two Flavors of
God People'

'Religious naturalist' Ursula Goodenough doesn't believe in God--but wants theists & non-theists alike to hold the earth sacred.

Reprinted with permission from Science & Spirit magazine.

Ursula GoodenoughWhenever I spend time with Ursula Goodenough, one of Walt Whitman's more famous lines comes to mind: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes." And as Whitman was a great nature poet, in her own way, so is Goodenough. A professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Goodenough does not believe in God, and yet in 1989 she joined the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, served as its president for four years, and still serves on its council and shows up each summer to speak at its conference on Star Island. An impeccable scholar, her textbook, Genetics, is a classic in the field and in its third edition-and yet at the same time, she is the author of a poetic and accessible bestseller, "The Sacred Depths of Nature". Above all, she is one of the forces behind a growing movement that calls itself religious naturalism and suggests that whatever our religious beliefs, and even if we have none at all, we can all come together to celebrate nature, tell the epic of evolution with awe and joy, and protect the earth. A warm, brilliant and embracing woman, Ursula Goodenough's contradictions make up a harmonious whole--sort of like nature itself


If you look at the evolutionary ladder, where do you think the sense of meaning begins? Do organisms other than humans have it?


All life has a kind of seamlessness. All creatures have to be aware of their environment, and there has been an evolution of the capacities needed for detecting increasingly complex stimuli. I have no problem calling this "meaning," since all creatures pick out meaningful facets of their environment. For the first creatures, these facets were physical and mediated by receptor proteins. Sperm and eggs find each other by protein shapes; photosynthetic bacteria find light by protein shapes. The impetus to figure out what's going on is still very much programmed into our highly complex brains.

How does meaning in humans differ qualitatively from the rest of life on Earth?

My sense is that in developed human minds, the notion of meaning has expanded beyond what's immediately out there. We're constantly trying to figure out what caused something. That's true of all sorts of brain-based organisms, but perhaps the difference in humans is that if we can't see an obvious cause, we postulate. If you're lying in bed and hear a noise outside, you might imagine it's a burglar or perhaps Prince Charming. The point is, we form hypotheses and draw up scenarios for what that stimulus might mean.

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Interview by Jill Neimark
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