Why Naturalism is Attractive — yet Inconsistent

“I suppose that other world [Narnia] must be a dream,” Jill laments [i]. 

“Yes, it is all a dream,” the Witch says. 

Jill nods slowly. “Yes, all a dream.” 

“There never was such a world… there never was such a world but mine,” utters the Witch again.  Jill and Scrubb agree, the words falling out of their mouths before they could think them:  “There never was such a world.”  

In this scene from The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis, Jill, Scrubb, and Prince Caspian find themselves trapped in Underland—a cold, unfamiliar world beneath their own. The Witch, disguised as the lovely and cordial Queen of Underland, convinces the sojourners that no other world beyond Underland exists.

The Witch casts a spell over Jill, Scrubb, and Prince Caspian, causing them to believe that Narnia–the world from which they came–amounts to nothing more than an irrational product of their imagination. 

Lewis creatively introduces two worldviews here: that of Naturalism, represented by the Queen of Underland and that of Christian Theism, represented by Narnia. 

What is naturalism and what does it have to do with The Silver Chair?

Naturalism claims that nothing exists beyond the physical world, including the existence, activity, or realm of a supernatural being. According to the naturalistic worldview, the universe is analogous to a box. Nothing (including God) exists outside the box. 

Ronald H. Nash writes, “It is important to notice that the box (the natural order) is closed. Even if something did exist outside the box, it could not possibly serve as the cause of anything that happened within the box. Everything that happens within nature has its cause in something else that exists within the box” [ii].

Although fictional, the scene between the Witch and the children in Underland reflects the naturalistic worldview as many people encounter it today. The Witch appeared beautiful and friendly on the surface. Naturalism carries a similar allure for the culture today, voicing the same message as the Witch from Underland did: that nothing exists beyond the material world. The final consensus for naturalism is that God doesn’t exist and one can enjoy their life free of submission to him.

Graphics from Worldviews in Conflict by Ronald H. Nash

Naturalism’s biggest contender is Christian theism, which affirms that God created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing) to operate in an open system. In other words, while naturalism is a closed box, Christian theism is an open box that allows God’s activity to function as a central part of reality. 

Graphics from Worldviews in Conflict by Ronald H. Nash

If you’re a Christian, you most likely hold to Christian theism. However, in modern culture and academia, naturalism prevails, often in the form of secular humanism (secular humanism seeks to explain meaning, rationality, and morality in life without appealing to God; in other words, it is grounded in naturalism). 

Some naturalists argue that God and science cannot coexist. This idea has even perplexed the church, begging the question: “Are God and science in conflict?” 

In a message Professor John Lennox presented at the Reboot conference in London, “Can Science Explain Everything?” he argues that contrary to current assumptions, God and science are not in conflict [iii]. In fact, according to Lennox, they can harmoniously coexist. History testifies to this,  as science derives from people like GalileoKeplerNewton (this one, however is controversial), Euler(page 10-11) and Maxwell, all of whom believed in God.

Maxwell, often called the Scottish Einstein, inscribed “greater the works of the Lord to be studied by all who take delight in them” on the door of the Cavendish in Cambridge, the most famous Physics Laboratory in the world.

Lennox concludes that the real conflict at hand is not between science and God but rather between the worldview of naturalism and Christian theism.

To further his point, Lennox mentions that Peter Higgs, an atheist, won the Nobel Prize for physics. A few years before that, Bill Phillips, a Christian, won the Nobel Prize for physics. They both won the Nobel Prize for physics; one an atheist and the other a Christian. Their physics doesn’t divide them. Rather, their conflict lies at the worldview level–between Higg’s naturalist worldview and Philip’s Christian worldview. 

In comparison to the Christian worldview, is naturalism a strong contender? If it exercises such a wide influence over culture and academia, why don’t intelligent Christians just adopt it? Here are 4 reasons why naturalism ultimately fails, leaving naturalists with a bleak reality to confront. 

1. According to naturalism, there is no God who created the world. The universe was not created. With no creator, humans are not created for an objective purpose. Therefore, humans have no objective purpose. 

What’s my purpose? What’s the meaning of life?

Advocates of naturalism might answer this question in one of two ways. First, according to evolutionary theory, our life purpose, just like all other life forms, can be explained by natural selection: the process by which organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. 

In an NPR article, philosopher Marcelo Gleiser writes, “All life forms have one essential purpose: survival. This is even more important than reproduction.” So our one purpose in life, according to naturalism, is survival. 

Secondly, in the blunt words of atheist Alex Rosenburg in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, “You have none.” 

So here’s where naturalism leaves you: your purpose is either to survive or you have no purpose at all, aside from that which you prescribe yourself. As J. Warner Wallace notes, “If naturalism is true, life’s meaning and purpose are simply in the eye of the beholder.”

Objective purpose follows objective truth. It isn’t the purpose you create; it’s the purpose for which you have been created by your Creator. But if you follow the logic of naturalism consistently, you just exist. You were not created by a Creator, so you’re not created for a purpose. Your life has no intrinsic, objective purpose. No meaning. Can you accept that reality?

2. According to naturalism, there is no God which means there is no moral law-giver. Therefore, morality is not objective but fluid. If morality is not objective but fluid, morality is based upon mere opinion. 

The appalling reality of child abuse, genocide, and natural disasters suggest that the world is flawed at best. Something isn’t right. But what? Naturalism cannot logically answer that question.

While disagreements on morality within naturalistic circles abound, there are generally two views naturalists claim: (1. There is no morality and (2. Morality is a cultural invention.

If there truly is no moral standard by which to live, humanity is destined for tragedy. For example, according to naturalism, there is no objective moral grounds on which to logically claim that torturing a baby, murdering someone, or committing theft is wrong. 

If, however, morality is reduced to a cultural invention, the implications of that are equally terrible for the world. 

One could claim that the crimes committed by Nazi soldiers during the Holocaust were not wrong because at the time, it was culturally appropriate for the soldiers to follow Hitler’s inhumane orders. Or that pedophilia, which was prevalent and culturally acceptable in the Greco-Roman world (before Christianity spread and dramatically upended the culture) was okay because culture said it was okay. Never mind the children harmed by that ideology.

Naturalism ultimately fails to answer the question of morality, reducing morality to mere opinion or cultural invention. In fact, Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro argue that, “Our experience of outrage over evil is very much supported by the theistic worldview…” [vi] but in the end, cannot be supported by naturalism. 

So even though naturalists observe something is wrong with the world, naturalism cannot tell them what is wrong. And even if naturalists are outraged by the evil of the world, their worldview does not support their reaction. Can you believe something your experiences do not affirm? 

3. According to naturalism, everything can be explained by science. But science cannot teach humans the meaning of life or how to value it. Therefore, everything cannot be explained by science.

Every time you strike a match, burn a candle, build a fire, or light a grill, science explains that you witness a combustion reaction: when a substance reacts with oxygen gas, releasing energy in the form of light and heat. 

When you throw a ball in the air, Newton’s Law of Gravity assures you that it will fall to the ground because the earth has a large mass and gravitational attraction. 

Even the computer or smartphone you’re using right represents years of scientific exploration.

Science is wonderful and I will not deny that it has produced enormous good for the world. Yet it still cannot explain a number of things, such as existential questions like our purpose and the problem of sin, as we’ve already discussed. But also aesthetic experience, beauty, logic, math, and ethics. Goetz and Taliaferro write, “After science, we still need help deciding what to value; what is right and wrong, good and evil, how to believe and cope” [vii]. Science is not the end of the story; it enables us to explore the world, but leaves us with questions that remove us from the realm of science. 

To claim that science explains everything is a false statement, misleading humanity and giving science a savior-like role it was never intended to have. If a worldview rests upon a false idea, there is no sugar-coating it: it simply is not true. 

4. Naturalism is self-defeating 

Alvin Plantiga, a Christian theist philosopher, proposes that since our cognitive faculties aim at survival value, not truth value, you cannot have confidence in any of your beliefs on naturalism, including the belief that naturalism is true. For this reason, the naturalist has no good reason to believe that naturalism is true. Naturalism is self-defeating. Contrary to common assumptions, it cannot be rationally affirmed. 

The bleakness of naturalism; the beauty of Christian theism 

We began with Lewis’ illustration of two worldviews at the beginning: that of naturalism, represented by the Queen of Underland and that of Christian Theism, represented by Narnia. 

Naturalism continues to appeal to the modern mind, but its approach to life leaves one to grapple with their life’s purpose, measure their moral standards by their idea of right and wrong, and build their life philosophy upon the false idea that science explains everything. Naturalism is inconsistent both on the level of human experience and logic. 

At one point in his talk to Atheism US, Rosenburg opens the floor for questions. After listening to Rosenburg argue for naturalism, an audience member admits, “This is rather bleak.” A bleak view of life naturalism is indeed, much like Underland. 

Yet perhaps Narnia looms ahead. Perhaps the bleakness of naturalism compels us to seek something more—something better. A worldview–a story–affirmed not only rationally but experientially as well. A story that is not only true but also beautiful and good. A story that not only captures the mind but satisfies the innate longings of the heart. 

I believe that story is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Life’s objective meaning, the existence of objective truth, and the experience of beauty and goodness cannot be affirmed by naturalism. Yet in the Gospel, they can be affirmed by Christian theism. The Christian worldview is not only logical but also enchanting, for there truly lies a Narnia beyond Underland.


Note: While GalileoKeplerNewtonEuler, and Maxwell believed in God, this does not mean they were all orthodox Christians. The main point is that they were theists and believed God and science could co-exist.

Bibliography:

[i] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, 148

[ii] Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews In Conflict, 121

[iii] “Can Science Explain Everything?” by Professor John Lennox 

[iv] Gleiser, “Does Life Have A Purpose?” 

[v] Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, 2

[vi; vii] Goetz and Taliaferro, Naturalism: Interventions, Chapter 1

[viii] Alex Rosenberg Talks to Atheist UK: The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

For Further Study:

2 comments

  1. The article is thoughtful, well researched/sourced, logical in its conclusions. In addition, it is a well-paced read.
    It reaches a celebratory climax and carries the reader with it as it goes dancing off to its conclusion.
    Katelyn not only has a good mind and great heart, but she has genuine skill and talent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Cia! We are truly blessed to have Katelyn on our team. It’s evident that the Gospel is the centerpiece of her writing. So, Katelyn, thank you for your dedication and contribution to this ministry!

      Liked by 1 person

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