By: Jonathan Harris
Webster’s dictionary defines naturalism as, “a theory denying that an event or object has a supernatural significance; specifically : the doctrine that scientific laws are adequate to account for all phenomena.” Oftentimes naturalism is associated with atheism. Self-proclaimed atheist Richard Dawkins, in his famous book, The God Delusion, equivocates the two giving greater clarity to what naturalists think of themselves. Dawkin’s writes:
Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles - except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don't yet understand. If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural.
Atheism and naturalism seem to be two sides of the same coin. Atheist’s define themselves based on what they deny, a belief in a deity or deities, while naturalists tend to define themselves based on what they affirm, the idea that all that exists does so in the material world. However, to be accurate, Atheism is really just a subset of naturalism. I believe the term naturalism can also be applied to certain monistic Eastern religions. While naturalism may be veiled by religious terminology in these contexts, we are still essentially talking about a world in which everything that exists does so “within the box.” Defining God as “in everything” or “part of everything” fails to make a distinction between God and nature and therefore assumes that all that exists does so within the natural realm. For the purposes of this article, I shall focus my attempt to apologetically engage naturalism more toward the atheist in a Western context than toward the monist.
This way of thinking may seem sophisticated to some people. After all, there are some really smart scientists such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking that seem so confident that “the cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be.” Shouldn’t we listen to what “science” tells us instead of trusting in “blind faith?” The answer to this question becomes much easier for the Christian to answer when we look at naturalism not from a pseudo-scientific standpoint, but rather from a philosophical standpoint. In other words, we need to examine the fundamental presuppositions of the naturalist position before even approaching the question! Only when we do this will it become obvious what our answer should be.
The Achilles heel of naturalism is that it is not actually a purely scientific/objective/impartial outlook on life. It is a worldview by which we examine life itself. Because of this fact, naturalism actually disproves itself because it assumes supernaturalism before even starting the investigative process. Allow me to illustrate. Say there was a man who claimed that all that existed within the cosmos were solids, liquids, and visible gases, but not “invisible” gases. The evidence he used to further his case was that no one had ever seen invisible gases, therefore they must not exist. However, all the while our friend talked about the non-existence of invisible gas he breathed them in order to communicate. Most people would find such a person utterly foolish, and indeed he would be. In the same way, the naturalist claims that all that exists is matter in motion, yet when it comes down to it they rely on an absolute knowledge in order to even make such a statement—a knowledge that by definition must be supernatural. This simple illustration made by Ray Comfort will help us see the problem.
If I were to make an absolute statement such as, "There is no gold in China," what is needed for that statement to be proven true? I need absolute or total knowledge. I need to have information that there is no gold in any rock, in any river, in the ground, in any store, in any ring, or in any mouth (gold filling) in China. If there is one speck of gold in China, then my statement is false and I have no basis for it.
To say that there exists nothing supernatural requires the naturalist to have some way of knowing every facet of every fact from every time, something that only an infinite supernatural being would be capable of. So in essence, the naturalist is claiming that within the knowledge he has not gained through scientific inquiry, there exists no proof for the supernatural—a highly unscientific statement indeed. Naturalism presupposes supernaturalism.
Another problem for the naturalistic worldview can be referred to as “the one and the many problem.” This problem states that if naturalism were true, there would be no way of knowing whether it was true or not. In other words, there would be no naturalists if what they argued for was actually correct. In our world there exist two categories of “things” that everyone subscribes to: universals, and particulars. The particulars refer to individual or groups of individual categories. A pencil, mind, or the concept of love would be examples of particulars. A universal however applies to multiple things, is abstract, and a general rather than a specific truth. Concepts such as the laws of logic themselves or numbers would fall into this category. Greg Bahnsen helps us see the distinction between the two with this helpful illustration.
To illustrate the function of universals in a simple way, let’s look at Huey, Louie, and Dewey, the fictional nephews of the Disney cartoons character Donald Duck. Huey, Louie, and Dewey are “ducks.” But consider: “To what does the term ‘duck’ refer?” The answer, of course, is all of them. Huey, Louie, and Dewey are particular individuals who are in the class of “ducks,” which is the general, universal organizing concept. They each share “duckness.”
A naturalist essentially believes that all that exists are the particulars. For universals to exist there would also have to be something supernatural since universals are not found in nature. Some naturalists have tried to claim that the laws of logic, mathematics, and morality are all social conventions, but for this to be true they wouldn’t be constant, and they would rely on human minds in order for them to be true. Before human minds were on the scene two plus two was not necessarily four. The universe could also have both existed and not existed at the same time and in the same sense before human beings convened and accepted the law of non-contradiction. As you can see, the naturalist has a problem here. He tries to interpret “brute facts” with organizing principles (universals) that transcend brute facts. This shows that the naturalist doesn’t really believe in his own naturalism. The naturalist has no tool available to him (universals) by which to know that naturalism is true, if it were true. Therefore, for naturalism to be true, science must also be rendered impossible since it assumes that there are universal scientific laws.
Part of evangelizing naturalists is pointing out these, and other flaws in their worldview in a humble but direct way. When it comes down to it the naturalist doesn’t really believe in his naturalism. He acts as if universals exist and as if there is a divine source of absolute knowledge. He demonstrates such beliefs in every action. Trusting his sense perception, becoming outraged at moral injustice, conducting scientific experiments, etc. all presuppose supernaturalism. Therefore, the naturalist is really a walking bundle of contradictions. Romans 1 describes this syndrome when it states, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” The naturalist in fact does know God, and it’s at this point in which we engage them. 2 Cor. 10:5 states our task in this way. “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” We show the non-believer that in reality he does rely on the God of Scripture by pointing out the contradiction, and then we offer up the Gospel as the reasonable alternative.
Comfort, Ray. “Why the Atheist Doesn’t Exist.” ChristianAnswers.Net, n.d. http://www.christiananswers.net/evangelism/beliefs/atheism.html.
D’Souza, Dinesh. What’s So Great About Christianity. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Pub., 2007.
Dawkins, Richard. The God delusion. London: Bantam Press, 2006.
DeMar, Gary. Pushing the antithesis : the apologetic methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen. Powder Springs, Ga.: American Vision, 2007.
“Naturalism - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/naturalism.
New American Standard Bible, 1995.