A Christian’s Perspective on Naturalism

By: James Virkler; ©2007
Jim Virkler presents a Christian’s perspective on naturalism as a world view at the November 2007 Reasons To Believe – Chicago Chapter conference.


When Bob announced last month that I was going to “unpack” the topic of naturalism as a worldview, I began thinking how “unpacking” a box of items from your office after a move from one state to another is similar to “unpacking” a concept. If you wish to find just one item from your former home’s office inside the packing box, you could summarily dump the contents out into one big pile. In so doing, one might actually locate the desired object. However, it may be damaged, and other information may be lost as well, such as the organization of the objects in the box, the priority of their importance, or how they fit with each other.

Likewise, if we unpack a subject as complex as naturalism, we must be careful not to lose the significant history of how it came to mean what it means, the different categories of naturalism we have today, and its broader implication…..that is, how this worldview has gripped and impacted our mindset and our society. This impact is highly significant, even though only about 10-15% of our population is what we could call “pure” naturalists.

Before I begin, as a brief “aside,” I would like to mention 40 pages of articles and dialogue that appeared in the ASA journal PSCF in March, 2002 on the topic of naturalism and an unusual Christian perspective on it. The author, Walter Thorson, is a theoretical chemist who has a deep interest in the philosophy of science. He happens to be married to my cousin. If you desire a mind-stretching exercise, web up Walter’s 20-page, two part article and the 20 pages of responses from twelve well-known scientists who are also Christians. But be forewarned – it’s literary red meat!

For now let’s look at a little history leading up to the embrace of naturalism. Looking back prior to what we could call the “Scientific Revolution” which began roughly five hundred years ago, Aritotelianism was dominant in science. Aristotelian science, at worst may be described as superstitious and speculative. It had influenced medieval thought about creation – for example, in the idea that Nature is a kind of sub-deity who rules here in God’s place. It was based primarily on reason and argument rather than on the scientific method we have now systematized. For example, prior to the 17th century, people embraced Aristotle’s explanations of principles and perceptible qualities, and the terms of a series of “causes” in the ascending order (1) matter, (2) agent, (3) plan, and (4) purpose (sometimes called “telos” in the Greek). There were many mistaken Aristotelian concepts embraced such as light bodies moving straight up, and heavy bodies moving straight down, heavy bodies falling faster than light ones, and all motions requiring a continuous source of action. Also accepted rather uncritically were Aristotle’s earth, water, air, fire, and ether breakdown of matter, and his idea that all science is either practical, poetical, or theoretical.

Beginning about 1500, things began to change. Conceptually, the shift was toward a heliocentric Solar System, the idea of matter as not continuous but of particle composition, correction of errant ideas about movement of bodies, forces, and inertia, and revolutionary new thinking about blood circulation. Changes in approach to the discovery of scientific knowledge included a move toward empiricism, an embrace of mechanical philosophy and revised chemical views, and mathematical certainty. In short, this was the beginning of an embrace of scientific method. Progress in science has been accelerating, more or less, ever since.

Four or five centuries removed, our modern mind now identifies with the pioneers of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the “scientific method” it fostered. I was hard pressed to winnow down the dozens of early scientific pioneers in this revolution to just a handful, but here goes. I’ll mention just six or seven and a brief statement about their contribution to scientific method and knowledge. I’ll also mention some of their theological insights they were not ashamed to express in that day. Let’s start with…

  1. Galileo, who blended careful observational skills and mathematical certainty with his discoveries in mechanics and motion. His theology? “The glory and greatness of Almighty God are discerned in the open book of heaven.”
  2. Rene Descartes, a key figure in the revolution. He used deductive reasoning to establish a philosophical framework for science, and offered an ontological proof of a benevolent God, notwithstanding the incurred displeasure of the pope.
  3. Francis Bacon, one of the first science philosophers of the revolution. He advocated inductive reasoning proceeding from experimentation. Bacon said “I would rather believe all fables of legend, Talmud, and Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind.”
  4. Isaac Newton, giant of mathematical, quantitative experimental investigation who pioneered studies in gravitation, force, and motion. His theological views were a tad questionable, but he did say “The most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and domain of an intelligent and powerful being.”
  5. Blaise Pascal experimented with laws of pressure and hydraulics. He was an unabashed Christian who expressed his belief that man is brought to God by Jesus Christ alone.
  6. Robert Boyle studied the properties of air and gases, the effect of pressure on gas volume, and early on articulated the corpuscular theory. He was one of the strongest advocates of discovering the laws that the Creator put in place at the beginning governing behavior of matter and operation of forces and energy. Thus, he moved away from Aristotelian superstitions about purposes, causes, and principles, and toward the operation of the world according to natural laws. He believed the Creator set things in motion originally and that the events we observe now are operating according to secondary laws which can be scrutinized by scientists. He was a devout Christian.

Now let’s shift gears. Where do the roots of NATURALISM, today’s topic, originate? Surprise! Naturalism, as we define the term today, did not exist as an established philosophy before the 19th century. The early giants we just listed did not establish naturalism. Rather, they established scientific method.

There’s not a person in this room who would deny that the progress triggered by embrace of the scientific method has been of marvelous benefit to humanity. But that benefit was not without peril. May I give you a “homey” parallel? Most of us have raised children. In child rearing, there are several particularly perilous times.

For example, when a child learns to walk the parents can hardly contain their excitement and pride. However, the newfound independence brings with it the danger of injurious tumbles, or even the possibility of the child wandering off, becoming lost, or at least exposed to danger while exercising his newfound independence and self-confidence. Or, perhaps even worse, how about a few years later when our teenager learns to drive alone and starts to feel self-empowered and all-knowing? I’m sure you all know what I mean.

The success of scientific method resulted, over time, in a feeling of self-empowerment and self-sufficiency. Some early scientists must have thought “Look what WE have done! Do we need God in this picture?” We see the early seeds of naturalism gradually taking root. Change was slow in coming, but the change was inevitable.

By the dawn of the 19th century The Enlightenment had triggered changes in attitudes — skepticism of religious authority and a movement toward more confidence in man’s reason alone. Scientists such as Lavoisier, LaPlace, Hutton, Herschel, and Whewell abandoned supernatural explanations in favor of natural ones. Lamarck even theorized evolution decades before Darwin. Notable exceptions were few, but I must quote one – physicist James Clerk Maxwell, brilliant physicist who made landmark discoveries in electromagnetism. He said, in mid-19th century “I think that men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think that Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of.” Albert Einstein pronounced Maxwell’s work on electromagnetic fields “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.” Sadly though, in the mid-1800s, Maxwell really bucked the trend.

Science methodology had become a powerful way of knowing, and the slide toward naturalism was accelerated as Darwinism, modernism, materialism, and secularism gained footholds. For many scientists and even people in other professions, naturalism became, and has become in our day, a guiding principle of thought. It is recognized as a MAJOR worldview.

Let us now define NATURALISM, primarily using the literature of organizations like the Center for Naturalism and the Free Inquiry website. I cobbled this definition together using several sources. NATURALISM IS THE WORLDVIEW SYSTEM THAT REGARDS THE NATURAL, MATERIAL, AND PHYSICAL UNIVERSE AS THE ONLY REALITY. It is the view that nature is all there is and all basic truths are truths of nature and can be discovered by science. NATURALISM is, therefore, a metaphysical philosophy which rules out supernaturalism.

Now we must distinguish two types of naturalism – (1) metaphysical naturalism and (2) methodological naturalism. Both can be considered philosophical naturalism operating with similar basic principles that are actually not very different from one another. We, as Christians, should not prioritize one as being “better than” the other. Let’s take metaphysical naturalism first. Ken Samples, in his newest book on worldviews, reminds us that “metaphysics is concerned with the ultimate nature, structure, and characteristics of reality.” METAPHYSICAL NATURALISM is the belief that nature is all there is and that the supernatural does not exist. METHODOLOGICAL NATURALISM is the tacit adoption or assumption of metaphysical naturalism within our scientific method without either believing it or disbelieving it. Those practicing science today are generally required to be methodological naturalists. They are required to operate AS IF THE SUPERNATURAL DOES NOT EXIST.

Did scientists from the beginning of the scientific revolution always operate as if the supernatural does not exist? The answer is a resounding NO. They were not “God-of-the-gaps” super-naturalists, but on the other hand, they were not afraid to mention God as the Creator of the cosmos and the Creator of life forms in this cosmos. Their investigations were meant to discover and explain how nature operates according to the secondary laws established long ago by God, as Robert Boyle so aptly stated. They used the scientific method, but they were not methodological naturalists as we define that term today. No one had even dreamed of such a term. Of course, they were not metaphysical naturalists either.

Let me read a passage from a speech by Steven D. Schafersman, who seems to be a prominent figure in the naturalist camp.

Procedural, methodological naturalism in all areas of intellectual inquiry (except theology) meant the procedural, methodological suspension of belief in supernaturalism, and I think this, more than anything else, led to the rise of liberal religions and the free thought and humanist movements, and the reactions against them, the fundamentalist religions and religious movements. The spread of methodological naturalism in scientific, religious, political, and economic institutions in late nineteenth century created the modern world and the concomitant psychological crisis of meaning in which people still find themselves today: THEY DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE ABOUT THEMSELVES AND THE WORLD IN A UNIVERSE DEVOID OF TRANSCENDENT MEANING AND PURPOSE, and therefore attempt to find solutions in pseudoscience, the paranormal, strange cults, and extreme political, social, and economic ideologies, as much as in science and traditional religions.

To Schafersman’s statement I’d like to add one by RTB scholar Fuz Rana in a letter he just sent out, dated September, 2007.

Apathy about life’s meaning and purpose largely stems, I believe, from a naturalist/materialist worldview. This philosophical system maintains that reality consists exclusively of the physical, material universe. The universe and everything in it, including human beings, find ultimate explanation in the laws of physics and chemistry. To put it simply, naturalism (or materialism) rejects the supernatural.

Even though only 10-15% of the U. S. population formally embraces the strict worldview of metaphysical or ontological naturalism, it has had a shocking, fundamental influence on our culture, similar to the way postmodernism as a worldview has influenced our culture, even, in some cases, our CHRISTIAN culture. To demonstrate that point, here are some quotes I gathered from popular naturalism websites. They relate to consequences of the embrace of naturalism all across different disciplines – not just science. You will hear some of these statements coming from liberal social activists and politicians, proof that the influence of naturalism extends far beyond the core of 15% of our population.

  1. We are the evolved products of natural selection, which operates without intention, foresight, or purpose
  2. Naturalism as a worldview is based on the premise that knowledge about what exists is best achieved through the sciences, not personal revelation or religious tradition
  3. Under naturalism there is a single, natural world in which phenomena arise
  4. Human beings act the way they do because of the various influences that shape them, whether these be biological or social, genetic or environmental
  5. We do not have (what many people think of as) free will, that is, being able to cause our behavior without our being fully caused in turn
  6. We don’t exist as immaterial selves, either mental or spiritual, that control behavior
  7. Individuals don’t bear ultimate originative responsibility for their actions, in the sense of being their first cause. They couldn’t have done other than what they did
  8. Naturalism calls into question the basis for retributive attitudes, namely the idea that because individuals could have done otherwise, they deserve punishment
  9. Values derive from human needs and desires, not supernatural absolutes
  10. Mental illness, addiction, obesity, and other behavioral disorders are too often misunderstood as failures of will
  11. Virtues and faults of people are not a matter of will or self-chosen character
  12. The allocation of resources is understood not to reflect on what is deserved on the basis of self-cause virtue, but on what is needed for each of us to live a desirable life
  13. We can no longer take or assign ultimate blame for what we do
  14. Naturalism is premised on taking science as our way of knowing about the world, not tradition, intuition, sacred texts, or pronouncements
  15. By acknowledging our origins in evolution, the naturalist perspective also enhances our feeling of kinship with the other species

One last statement about how Christians in the field of science should go about their science. Even the RTB scholar team, in the March 2002 Message of the Month, stated that we operate our science under the umbrella of what they called “weak methodological naturalism,” which, they explained, meant taking full advantage of a scientific methodology in which we discover and apply laws authored by God. This would be a source of disagreement if we were to expect to use this term in the secular science community, because there is no such term as “weak methodological naturalism” in that community.

Steven Schafersman claims that “All theistic scientists adopt such methodological naturalism, as well as the 40-50% of the U. S. population who accept science and evolution but believe in God, the view known as ‘theistic evolution.’” Schafersman breaks down the population this way: “No more than 15% of Americans sincerely believe in (metaphysical) naturalism; 85-90% are metaphysical supernaturalists with about half of these being methodological naturalists when it suits them.” I assume he means when they study or practice science.

Let’s close this part of the presentation with an inspirational passage in Romans 1:19-20:


I’ll read several more provocative statements by Schafersman, in the hope that they will provoke a lively discussion session:

“I maintain that the practice or adoption of methodological naturalism entails both a logical and moral belief in ontological (metaphysical) naturalism, so they are not logically decoupled.”
“Do theistic scientists think they are playing a game, in which they do science during the day with naturalistic methods, but at night go home and leave naturalism behind in the laboratory, since they don’t really believe it describes a true picture of reality?”
“I merely want to suggest that supernaturalistic methodological naturalists may wish to examine their metaphysical beliefs more closely, since I think they are illogically engaging in self deception.”

Terms related to naturalism, metaphysical naturalism, methodological naturalism:

Atheistic materialism
Naturalistic humanism
Pragmatic naturalism (involves ethical, social, political components)

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