Naturalism and morality: The only thing that’s wrong is everything you know

In my post a couple weeks ago, I considered whether naturalism is as exclusively and objectively scientific as its proponents suggest. We saw that naturalists typically begin with an a priori assumption that there is no God, which, if true, would mean the naturalistic worldview is true by default. Since the nonexistence of God is an unprovable starting point rather than an empirical conclusion, the naturalist’s foundational assumption is, in a sense, unscientific. However, it would be unwise to press that point too far. If we want to challenge the naturalistic worldview, we need to offer something more compelling than “but you can’t prove God doesn’t exist.”

There are two main ways in which a Christian can respond to the challenge of naturalism. The first is to avoid the sphere of science altogether and focus on other reasons for belief in God. After all, if theism is true, naturalism must be false, across the board. To the degree that faith or experience or historical evidence or anything else give reason to believe there’s a God, naturalism is undermined. The Holy Spirit crying with our spirit “Abba Father” offers an absolute refutation of naturalism before even a shred of scientific evidence is considered.

If naturalism is false, though, we can expect it to falter even in the scientific realm. And if there’s further evidence which might sow seeds of faith in someone’s life, why not offer it? This brings us to the second possible response to naturalism, attacking it on its own ground.

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Is naturalism ideology or science?

It’s almost always a simplification to point to a single ideology as being “what the culture believes.” With that caveat, however, it is not inaccurate to say that the opinion-makers of America–academia, media, scientists, etc.–have nearly unanimously embraced the naturalistic worldview. While even its supporters struggle to define naturalism precisely, at its heart is the simple idea that everything in the world (both what exists and what happens) can be explained through purely mechanistic cause and effect. Everything from planets to animals to ideas is ultimately the product of a chain of exclusively material “dominoes” stretching back into the unknowable past. The theory really came into its own in the 19th Century, as Darwinian evolution purported to fit the diversity and apparent design of biological life into that same impersonal progression of cause and effect.

Naturalism matters to a Christian because it is what is left over when theism is discarded. Throughout history, humans have assumed there are two fundamental sorts of “stuff” in the universe: mental/spiritual existence (things like gods, angels, ideas, and values) and material/physical existence (things like elements, molecules, and atoms). Christianity and most other theistic worldviews assume that the spiritual existed before and was the cause of the material: “In the beginning was the Word… All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Atheism, on the other hand, by definition cannot accept a preexistent and creative Mind. This leaves the atheist with a world in which everything begins with impersonal, material being; naturalism, in other words.

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