Belief systems, like family members, often share recognizable features or traits. In that sense one can determine what a belief system is about by observing its traits.
People often refer to atheism (the view that no God or gods exist) as an overarching worldview. But I think it would be more correct to say that the worldview that encompasses atheism is called naturalism. Atheism, then, can be thought of as a subcategory of naturalism.
Philosophical naturalism is also called metaphysical (relating to reality) or ontological (relating to being) naturalism. Thus naturalism, as traditionally defined, is the worldview system that regards the natural, material, and physical universe as the only reality. Nature is the sum total of reality, the whole show, all that actually exists.1 It is a secular worldview without God or the supernatural.
In my experience, Christians often do not understand the beliefs of secularists. But dialogue requires some understanding of the other person’s perspective. So in order to understand the broader beliefs of secularism, we’ll focus in this brief two-part series on the common elements of the worldview of naturalism. I call these features the “family traits of secular naturalism.” Here we’ll merely seek to understand this worldview. For a Christian critique of secular naturalism, see my book in the resource section below.
Common Elements of Naturalism
The exact specifics of naturalism aren’t always easy to define because there is no universal agreement among scholars who affirm it or describe it. Yet here are four common elements of this secular worldview. Given naturalism’s cultural influence, in part two we’ll explore four more of its features.
Derived from the Greek word monos, meaning one, monism is the metaphysical view that all reality is one thing or stuff. By rejecting the supernatural, naturalists generally affirm that “everything is composed of natural entities.”2 While lacking exact agreement as to the exact nature of the one (some assert matter while others do not), naturalism generally asserts that all things in the universe can be explained by natural, physical, and material objects and forces.
Philosophical or metaphysical “materialism” (matter is the one ultimate reality) is a particular type of monism. But while metaphysical naturalists commonly affirm materialism, naturalism does not necessarily entail materialism. However, though some naturalists don’t want their worldview equated with materialism, naturalism offers few other options in terms of the nature of ultimate reality. In other words, if there’s no supernatural, then there’s just the natural or the material and its constituent elements.
The ontological theory of physicalism3 is an extension of materialism, particularly in attempts to explain the mind-body problem. This enigma refers to the enduring challenge of relating the seemingly immaterial, nonphysical, and unobservable “mind” to the demonstrably material and observable “brain” or “body”. On naturalism, the mind is often considered an extension or emergent property of the brain. But specialists in both philosophy and neuroscience insist that the mind-body problem remains a difficult—if not intractable—philosophical and scientific challenge for naturalism.
Broadly speaking, science refers to the empirical method for observing, analyzing, and interpreting the data of the natural world. This term also defines the knowledge gained by using such a method. While naturalists and non-naturalists generally agree on science’s value as an enterprise, naturalists tend to consider science as having privileged status with regard to knowledge. So scientism is the view that science is either the only reliable way of understanding the world or the best way. Some naturalists embrace the exalted principle that sums up scientism’s optimistic attitude: “Science is the measure of all things.”4 Yet it is important to appreciate that not all naturalists embrace either type of scientism.
These four characteristics exemplify the secular worldview of naturalism. In part 2 we’ll survey four more important traits. It is my hope that this series will help illumine the general beliefs of secularism, especially for Christians. Fruitful dialogue requires a level of mutual understanding and such dialogue can lead to meaningful exchanges.
Reflections: Your Turn
Of the four elements described above concerning secular naturalism, which do you find most interesting? How important is it to understand the beliefs of others?
I explain further and critique the family traits of secular naturalism from a Christian worldview perspective in “Naturalism: A Secular Worldview Challenge,” in Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test, 201–18.
- For a popular website that both explains and defends naturalism, see www.naturalism.org.
- Robert Audi, gen. ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), s.v. “naturalism.”
- For a brief but helpful definition of “physicalism,” see Peter A. Angeles, The HarperCollins Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), s.vv. “physicalism,” “physicalism (mind/body).”
- For a brief but helpful definition of “scientism,” see Angeles, HarperCollins Dictionary, s.v. “scientism.”