Popularity of Naturalism- “Faith in naturalism is in reality extremely naïve and prejudiced…”
by Bill Lockwood
David Elton Trueblood, professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Stanford University, explained in his 1942 book The Logic of Belief: An Introduction to the
Philosophy of Religion, the extreme popularity of “naturalism” as a guiding concept of life. Naturalism is the philosophic principle that everything is accounted for on a naturalistic basis—matter and motion are the sole realities. To say that this continues to be the dominant theory of life and existence in our culture is to understate the case.
Faith in naturalism is in reality extremely naïve and prejudiced, perhaps even more so than the “naïve spiritualism” of ancient Greece that uncritically ascribed all phenomena in the world to the gods and goddesses behind the scenes. It might be noted that Christianity is far different from this for it begins with history and historical investigation.
Why the Popularity of Naturalism?
Trueblood gives four basic reasons why naturalistic theory has become so popular. First, the success of the scientific method. Consider how mankind has been able to change the face of the earth over the past 300 years. We can produce machines that fly and buildings that stand. “But the claim that naturalism is implicit in natural science, often assumed without argument, is far from self-evident and requires careful analysis.” (94)
Second, distrust of authority. Authority as a means of discovering truth is in disrepute, largely due to the claims of the Roman Church throughout the Middle Ages, which persecuted those who desired the Word of God in order to read it for themselves. Heavy-handed tactics and theories borne in Catholic Councils asserted that even secular governments were to be subject to the Holy Roman See.
However, as Trueblood correctly points out, the authoritative decrees of Rome have been replaced by the “scientific community” and consequently, authoritative means of arriving at truth are as popular as ever. The Roman “priesthood” has been replaced by the scientist wearing a lab coat. “The authority of some distinguished scientists is accepted unquestionably by millions who have no means of testing for themselves the scientific beliefs they ingenuously hold” (95). What a tragic irony! The naturalistic mentality believes that the way of authority is bound up with a theistic interpretation of the universe!
Third, the wide acceptance of evolution as an explanatory principle. Important it is to note here that the general theory of evolution does not spring from science itself. As one can see from ancient Greek history, evolution is far older than modern science plus it is far more philosophic than scientific. “The notion that all life has been derived from a single unicellular organism is an interesting and useful concept, but it is purely speculative and lies in an area in which scientific demonstration is entirely out of the question. It may be a reasonable faith, but nothing more.” (95)
Darwin’s theory, which is not the only evolutionary concept, believes that all the changes in species, throughout all time, have come about purely by natural selection, i.e. with no instrumentality of mind or purpose. Thus, reference to divine Mind is not necessarily refuted, but thought to be rendered unnecessary. However, modern man has allowed this philosophy of naturalism to undergird all forms of thought and education—from biology to history to literature to government.
Fourth, the desire for simplification. Man’s tendency is to inquire into origins armed with naturalistic assumptions and then be satisfied that a complete explanation has been found. For example, “we investigate the history of morals and we find, supposedly, that in the beginning morality was nothing but a set of taboos or fear of tribal chieftains. We conclude that all morality, even in its developed form, is really nothing but taboos and has no objective reality.” (96)
So also, investigation into history of religions seems to say that religion arose out of primitive fears of the unknown. “Consequently the religion of civilized men is really nothing but superstitious fears.” Trueblood quips in response, “By the same argument science could be reduced to primitive magic.” (96)
For example, the Old Testament book of Daniel includes the words from which we get “pharmacology” and “astronomy.” However, at that time, an astrologer and an astronomer were the same thing. Astronomers and astrologers were those who were considered to be interpreters of “signs, omens and dreams by which the gods revealed their will.”
Various classes of these omen-readers included magicians, theosophists, and astrologers. Though this is the root of science, no astronomer today would rely upon magical reading of omens to discover the heavens! So exactly, because most religious beliefs of the ancients arose out of primitive magic does not mean that all religious belief can be boiled down to that simple formula. Modern man desires oversimplification.
In fine, naturalism, though the dominant philosophy of academia, is naïve. Trueblood adds one more interesting note in explanation. “This contemporary naturalism deserves to be called naïve naturalism just as that of the early period of Greek philosophy does, but for an added reason. This reason is that the current naturalism is very largely accepted by those who do not realize that it is a philosophy; they do not know that it is thoroughly possible, with intellectual integrity, to accept the methods and conclusions of modern science and yet espouse a world view which is sharply at variance with that which is currently popular.” (93,94)