Family Traits of Secular Naturalism, Part 2

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In part 1 of this two-part series I noted that for Christians to effectively engage secularists in meaningful discussion, it is vital to understand secularists’ beliefs. I also pointed out that many people often refer to atheism (the view that no God or gods exist) as an overarching worldview, but it would be more correct to say that the worldview that encompasses atheism is called naturalism.

Philosophical naturalism, as traditionally defined, is the worldview system that regards the natural, material, and physical universe as the only reality. The world of nature is all that actually exists.It is a secular worldview because there is no God or the supernatural. In the first post, we surveyed four characteristics of secular naturalism. Here are four more “family traits” of this worldview.

5. Darwinian Evolution

Following the theory set forth by the English scientist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), naturalists assert that all life is the result of purely natural processes. Evolution2 as a biological theory holds that complex life-forms developed from more primitive life through a variety of mechanisms that include natural selection and common descent. Unfit life-forms (species poorly adapted to their environments) are eliminated in the struggle for survival, whereas life-forms better adapted to their environments survive. On naturalism, human beings occupy the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder. Thus, naturalism accounts for life on this planet without appeal to a supernatural creator.

6. Antisupernaturalism

By insisting on accepting natural causes only, naturalism by its definition dismisses the existence of the supernatural realm. Philosopher Peter A. Angeles explains this single-minded focus on the physical world: “No reality exists other than processes (events, objects, happenings, occurrences) in space and time.”Thus, on naturalism, appeals to the supernatural are considered unscientific and illegitimate. Yet, whether one can legitimately explain the physical cosmos without appeal to something beyond the natural remains a serious challenge for this secular worldview.

7. Atheism

Naturalists typically affirm an atheistic outlook, believing that no God or gods exist. Because no supernatural realm exists, a supernatural deity that affects the natural universe from the outside can’t exist. Atheism asserts that no God or gods are real entities, thereby rejecting the biblical God who (by definition) is an infinite, eternal, spiritual being. For naturalists, God is a mere human invention. Yet the overwhelming majority of human beings, including intellectuals in various fields, affirm God’s existence or a religious perspective of some kind.4

8. Secular Humanism

The philosophical viewpoint of secular humanism5 strongly embraces all seven previous family traits and also emphatically opposes belief in God, religion, and anything supernatural. Rather, it firmly endorses some form of scientism, biological evolution, and usually a materialist/physicalist ontology (state of ultimate being). Secular humanists seek to explain meaning, rationality, and morality in life without appealing to God. However, again it is difficult to ground these critical aspects in a purely natural world.

These four additional general characteristics help describe the secular worldview of naturalism. I hope that this brief series has helped to inform you of secularism’s general beliefs. Being equipped for fruitful dialogue requires a level of mutual understanding that often leads to positive outcomes.

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?

Resources

I explain 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.

Endnotes

  1. For a popular website that explains and defends naturalism, see www.naturalism.org.
  2. For a brief but helpful definition of “evolution,” see Peter A. Angeles, The HarperCollins Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), s.v. “evolution.”
  3. Angeles, s.v. “naturalism.”
  4. For arguments in favor of God’s existence, see chapters 1 and 2 in Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.
  5. For a helpful article on secular humanism, see Angeles, The HarperCollins Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. “humanism.”

  One thought on “Family Traits of Secular Naturalism, Part 2

  1. James Hassinger
    May 28, 2019 at 7:01 pm

    Frustrated by Sunday School teachers’ answers when I was 11-12, I pursued an approach to doubt anything that could not be proven independent of a cause. After doubting all, I was frightened with the only rational conclusion which I later learned was far more eloquently stated by Rene Descarte: “Cogito ergo sum.”, I think, therefore I am. This demanded I acknowledge this one, irrefutable absolute truth: I am caused; and this truth compelled me to ask why, for what purpose, for what destiny.
    It took me little time to realize science, with its dependence on empirical evidence, could never satisfactorily answer these questions. It required a few years to realize other religions, and secular philosophy would also fail. I was trapped with no plausible explanation but the Christian God.
    Yet science was the biggest challenge, especially Darwinian evolution and the secular origins of the universe. These approaches have significant flaws but I did not want to worship God just because of the inadequacy of our knowledge. After all, we might be able to fill in the gaps in our knowledge which would make a God of the gaps always vulnerable to our growing knowledge.
    Eventually a friend explained why some will never accept believing in the God of the Bible, and it is the same problem we have: we love our sin. Some of us have been blessed to learn to hate our sin too, like the Apostle Paul describes in Romans chapter 7. We live in continuous conflict, both hating the consequences of our sin while fighting the temptation to sin.
    Some of us NEVER really hate our sin, and only really regret our sin when caught, which means we regret the consequences but will continue to sin if we hope it will bevinconsequential. Never repenting, we could die and remain eternally separated from our Creator.
    We never need fear intimidation by atheists well trained and prepared to argue their world view. We only need remember after the onion layers of excuses to deny God is peeled away, the last layer will always be our love of sin. And the Christian who can identify with the atheist in sharing that love of sin, not the participation but the desire to sin inconsequentially, will always to the weak,become weak and share this common dilemma. It is why our Savior entered the wilderness, why He became flesh, why He entered our world the same as we (through His mother’s womb), and why He suffered and died and was buried. Else, we could not identify with Him.
    His resurrection proves His divinity and demonstrates His promise.
    Christianity is alone among all world religions with such a divine and human Savior. And this is why I believe.

    • May 29, 2019 at 10:25 am

      Thanks, James

      Ken Samples

  2. May 28, 2019 at 10:45 pm

    Hey I enjoyed your post, and was wondering what you would imagine the effect that a naturalist worldview would have, over time, in a person and in a community. And why?
    Thanks again!

    • May 29, 2019 at 10:28 am

      Greetings, Dave.

      I think when the implications of naturalism are understood it tends to undermine an objective basis for reason, morality, and hope in life.

      Ken Samples

  3. Sean Esperance
    May 30, 2019 at 4:32 pm

    Hi, Kenneth. Great 2 part article, it really helped me to see that not all naturalists are cut from the same mold, and that atheism is merely a subcategory of naturalism. I didn’t know this distinction before.

    I don’t have any other comments, but a question. Where does agnosticism fit into the category of naturalism, or perhaps some other category? I hear more often that not something to this effect from certain evangelists when engaging with self-proclaimed atheists: “You cannot be an atheists because that means that there is no God or gods. God cannot be disproven.” Or when the atheist acknowledges, “Well, I can’t say that there is no god with 100% certainty, I just don’t see evidence for the existence of gods and I ascribe to be atheist.” The Christian will say, “Then that makes you agnostic! Because you are unsure, you lack knowledge. Therefore there are no atheists.”

    I’m not criticizing evangelists, I am an evangelical as well, and a youth pastor. But I was wondering if you could lend me your thoughts, Kenneth. Is this a good argument to present to naturalists (atheists)?

    Also, is this perhaps a “presuppositional” type of apologetic argument? I feel like the deeper implication from this argument is that the naturalist/atheist/secularist “cannot know anything,” based on his worldview. The fact that he has logic is in contradiction to his/her worldview, and it actually borrows from the Christian worldview. I don’t know how to categorize myself, either as a presuppositionalist or something else. I, through much prayer and research, and the many great resources from RTB, am a Day Age Creationist. I am wondering, Kenneth, what category you fall into with apologetics, as I am still learning about the different approaches. Thank you very much and God bless you! It is an honor to get to post a message to you after listening to many of your podcasts.

    • May 30, 2019 at 6:01 pm

      Hello, Sean.

      Thanks for following RTB and listening to our podcasts. I’m glad you appreciate the Old-Earth perspective.

      Logically I think there are limits to disproof. Atheism is a strong claim that insists no gods are real. That is a hard position to prove.

      Yet an atheist might argue that at least some concepts of God are incoherent and thus can’t exist or be true.

      Agnosticism is a more modest claim. But even there some bold agnostics claim no one can know if God exists. But that seems to mean that they know so much about God to know no one has access. There’s tension there if not a contradiction.

      The reasoning you described above does seem similar to the way some presuppositionalists reason about God and atheism.

      I’d rather talk with non-Christians about the truth of Christianity than debate other Christians about the correct way to do apologetics. But I like an abductive approach to apologetics (inference to the best explanantion) that is often associated with a cumulative case approach to Christian apologetics.

      With my best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

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