What is Naturalism?

What is Naturalism?

I was recently in a discussion with a person who claimed to be a Naturalist. But that is not the way he started out his life. According to his own testimony, he grew up in a Christian home. It seems that early in life there were things in the Bible that discomforted him a bit, but he was committed to being a Christian. So, when his faith was challenged, he tried to find resources that would bolster his faith. However, there came a tipping point in his life. As he studied evolution in school and read Old Testament passages that discussed things that he believed were immoral, he finally decided that the Christian faith could not be true. At that point, he deliberately disavowed God and became an atheist.

There is a real tragedy in this story. Certainly the greatest is that he walked away from a relationship with God. But that is only the most obvious result. There are other things that need to be understood, as well. In addition to his move away from God on a personal level, there was also an intellectual bankruptcy that showed itself. It is one thing to struggle to understand all of the issues that relate to a Biblical worldview. But the fact is, he demonstrated that he not only lacked a good grounding in the Bible, but also lacks a solid understanding of the problems with the one he chose to follow.

If we are serious about engaging people from different worldviews in a way that can lead to a viable witness, it is essential that we have a good sense of the essential nature of those beliefs. Let’s take a little time here to look specifically at the Naturalistic worldview so that we will know how to address and interact with those who claim this approach to believing.

Basic Premise of Naturalism

Naturalism is the belief that there is no such thing as the supernatural. There is no God, no heaven, hell or any form of spiritual reality. Mankind is purely a physical animal. To Naturalists, the only thing that exists is matter which is evolving and eternal. As a result, Naturalism assumes that there is no essential meaning or purpose for anything. Human life and every aspect of material reality are just enormous cosmic accidents. The essence of reality is nothing more than material substances which, over the eons, have evolved into what exists today.

History of Naturalism

The ideas behind Naturalism actually date back to ancient times. It seems that there have always been people who have viewed the universe as a strictly natural phenomenon. That being said, these views were not typically held by the masses. That started to change, however, in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds when philosophers began to propose new ways of understanding reality that gradually pushed God to the side. Initially, it was not a complete disavowal of God. Rather, they proposed viewpoints that simply enhanced the role of man. In the process, mankind came to be viewed more and more as a creature who was in control of his own destiny, and God was relegated to the spiritual realm without influence in the physical world.

Naturalism made its big splash of the philosophical stage, though, when Darwin connected this philosophy with physical science. With his theory of evolution, there was suddenly no need for God at all. All of material reality could be accounted for using natural means.

At that point, more and more academics began to adopt a Naturalistic viewpoint and teach it in schools and universities. The result was a rapid spread of Naturalistic thought throughout Western societies. As evolution advanced as the preferred theory of origins, the worldview concepts also began to be applied to other areas of life such as law, psychology, sociology, anthropology, religion and so on.

Belief Systems Which Come from Naturalism

No worldview is a system unto itself, but is simply a foundational set of presuppositions about the nature of reality. Then, from each worldview foundation, various specific ideologies appear which try to make sense of the presuppositions in real life. Naturalism is no exception. Some of the major belief systems which have emerged from Naturalism include Nihilism, Existentialism, New Age (to a degree), Secular Humanism, Positivism (also called Scientism), Atheism, Agnosticism, Skepticism, and many expressions of Postmodernism. Each of these ideologies take off in different directions and come to slightly different conclusions about the way the universe operates, but Naturalism is their basic starting point.

How Naturalism Answers the 7 Worldview Questions

1. What is the nature of ultimate reality?

  • The only thing that exists is matter which is evolving and eternal.

2. What is the nature of material reality?

  • Matter is eternal and everything that currently exists is the result of the eternal operation of natural laws.

3. What is a human being?

  • Human beings are nothing more than complex biological machines which have evolved to a level which allows for self-awareness.

4. What happens to a person at death?

  • At death, the individual life form simply ceases to exist.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

  • Knowledge is a chance happening resulting from the high level ofevolution of the human brain.

6. How do we know right and wrong?

  • Morality is decided by individuals or social groups. It is primarily based on what is most important for the survival of the species.

7. What is the meaning of human history?

  • History is a linear progression of events without any special meaning.

What Are the Practical Implications of Naturalism?

Naturalism believes that since there is no ultimate moral purpose or meaning in anything, it is simply up to the creatures who are capable of contemplation to invent their own meaning. Up until this point in evolutionary history, only the human animal has evolved to a level high enough to experience a sense of moral values or purpose. As a result, only human beings need deal with this issue. In a nutshell, Naturalism asserts that there is no innate value or meaning to human existence. Each individual must find their own meaning for life. In its essence, this meaning will be subjective. It includes whatever an individual decides will make life meaningful and worth living. It may be different from individual to individual, but that is okay. There is nothing that can objectively be called right, truth, purpose, or meaning. This does create difficulties, though, for the Naturalistic framework. Human beings do, indeed, have a sense that there is something that is objectively true, right, purposeful and meaningful. Naturalism has to assert, though, that what we sense is not an objective reality, but is simply an evolutionary tug to ensure the survival of the species. Basically that means that even though nothing can be considered objectively right, humans need a sense of right so that we will not destroy each other. Therefore, this sense of right and wrong are coded into our genes to make us think there is an objective morality, even though it doesn’t actually exist. This proposition is considered to be true as it relates to truth, purpose and meaning, as well.

As a result, when humans come to the understanding that these things are not actual reality, the individual is “freed” to become his own God and create his own morality and meaning. This is intoxicating for many people who cross over to this way of believing, but it is clearly unlivable. As various people decide their own morality, the decisions that they make invariably begin to bump up against the decisions others have made. Since there is no objective way to arbitrate the differences, “right” becomes nothing more than the will of those who are able to impose their choice on the others.

There are two broad categories where Naturalism has been profoundly expressed in human society. The first relates to personal morality. Here it is considered that there is no objective right and wrong and people are free to indulge in any pleasure that they so desire. The second relates to the imposition of power by those who have the means to enforce their will.

How Does Naturalism Deal with Specific Culture War Issues?

Naturalism is not simply an abstract philosophical concept. The ideas that it asserts are actively played out in the real world. Below are examples of different life issues with a brief explanation of how Naturalism would view them.

Life Issues – Abortion, Euthanasia, Suicide, Genocide, Murder, “Right to die,” Terrorism, War

  • None of these issues are seen to be wrong, in and of themselves. They are understood to be good or bad depending on the needs of society at large at any given moment and in any given circumstance.

Sexual Issues – Adultery, Bigamy, Polygamy, Exhibitionism, Fornication, Homosexuality, Pedophilia, Pornography, Bestiality, Prostitution, Rape

  • None of these activities are believed to be wrong in and of themselves. They are good or bad depending on the needs of society at large at any given moment and in any given circumstance.

Personal Integrity Issues – Cheating, Fraud, Greed, Lying, Profanity, Revenge, Theft

  • Most Naturalists would probably frown on someone who participated in these personal integrity activities. That being said, the activities themselves are not considered to be objectively wrong. If they are viewed negatively, it is only because they have a high likelihood of being disruptive to the smooth operation of society. There may, though, be exceptions.

Physical Health Issues – Alcohol abuse, Drug abuse, Gluttony, Obesity, Smoking, Overwork, Lack of exercise

  • Since the survival of the species is the highest belief, it is considered a bad thing to participate in activities which would destroy the self. It is not that any one of these things would necessarily be considered immoral, since morality is defined by humanity. In fact, any of these might be fine to a degree. They are bad only to the degree that they compromise the viability of the society.

Industriousness Issues – Gambling, Hedonism, Laziness, Begging, Mooching

  • None of these things is necessarily considered to be immoral. They are bad only to the degree that they compromise the viability of the society.

Relationship Issues – Bigotry, Child Exploitation, Domestic Violence, Hatred, Divorce, Prejudice, Slavery, Torture

  • None of these are wrong, in and of themselves. They are good or bad depending on the needs of society at large at any given moment and in any given circumstance. There are cases where any of them might be considered good as they strengthen one’s own group at the expense of one’s enemies. On the other hand, some of them may cause a weakening within one’s own group and might be considered wrong if that happens.

Church-State Issues – Posting of Ten Commandments, Religious symbols on public property, Praying in school, Praying at public institutions, Government money to religious schools, Government money to religious charities, Religious organizations meeting on public property, Religious symbols included in public symbols, Religious words in the pledge of allegiance

  • Typically, Naturalists would take issue with mixing “religion” with public life as the acceptance of spiritual reality is viewed to be superstition. Even though most Naturalists would not consider themselves religious, Naturalism, itself, is a faith position and, therefore, a religious movement. This religion, though, is atheistic and objects to any religious expression that acknowledges God or a non-empirical approach to understanding reality.

Summary

The truth is, there are hard questions that every worldview must answer. But our Biblical faith still provides the best answers to those important life questions. While we may struggle with particular issues, it is important that we understand and be able to express the massive problems associated with Naturalism and make sure that our own witness is not drowned out by a worldview that ultimately has less to offer. We owe it to ourselves to be well versed in our own faith and the faith of others in order to fulfill the Biblical mandate and be able to give a reason for the faith that is within us.

© 2007 Freddy Davis