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.1 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.
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.”3 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.
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? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.
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.
- For a popular website that explains and defends naturalism, see www.naturalism.org.
- 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.”
- Angeles, s.v. “naturalism.”
- 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.
- For a helpful article on secular humanism, see Angeles, The HarperCollins Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. “humanism.”