The Challenge of Naturalism

At an ethics colloquium this week, I heard a professor tell a story (which I hope is okay to repeat here since both the storyteller and the subject of the story are anonymous) of a former theology student who had recently written with proud news of an upcoming publication on the topic of liturgy. She went on to tell him that she was flourishing in her job as the campus minister at a Catholic school. She had recently gotten into spiritual direction, which was going okay, despite the fact that she no longer believed in God, and overall, she was very happy with her life and career.

Wait. . . she no longer believes in God? In America, this is not as rare as you might think. While Europe is becoming increasingly more secularized, and the churches are becoming more and more empty, in the US, something else is happening. Externally, we are a very religious nation with a high percentage of churchgoers (about 47% of Americans attend a weekly religious service as opposed to about 20% in Europe). Nevertheless, there are signs that we are a nation a lot like this professor’s former theology student—involved in the act of religion without the corresponding belief. As Terence Nichols puts it in his very fine book The Sacred Cosmos:

Supernatural realities such as miracles, angels, afterlife, a sacred cosmos, and so on are rarely broached, at least in mainline Protestant denominations (and less and less so in Roman Catholic churches). God has become distant from everyday life. People may still believe in God, got to church, even pray, but without deep conviction. . .(8)

For Nichols, the problem is naturalism, “the belief that nature is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by natural causes and therefore by science. There is no nonmaterial reality, such as God.” The problem, he says, is deep and

. . . originates further back—with the separation of God from nature, a split that began in the late medieval and early modern period. This resulted in the (perceived) separation of god from everyday life that is so characteristic of contemporary secular societies. . .Ancient and medieval Christians lived in a sacred cosmos and saw nature as a window or sacrament that expressed the beauty, majesty, and glory of God. . . Sacraments make God present and invite the believer into a sharing of God’s presence. But for a sacrament to work, there has to be some similarity, some unity. . . If nature is seen sacramentally, rather than as an object to be investigated and used, it also can mediate the presence of God. Seen sacramentally, nature is a sacred cosmos, for whatever mediates God’s presence is sacred (9).

Instead of a sacred cosmos infused with the supernatural, what we have now, according to Nichols, is a universe completely subject to natural laws, where even religion (to quote E.O. Wilson), is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. This metaphysical naturalism is the greatest challenge Christianity faces in the contemporary world. As Nichols puts it,

For if nature is all that exists, there cannot be any reality that is greater than and independent of nature. Nor can there be any hope of an afterlife, nor any means to really transcend our natural condition. The consoling grace of god, which frees us from sin, addictions, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness, is, for naturalists, a fiction.

Must we then, as Christians, be anti-science in order to avoid the dangers poised by naturalism? Not at all. Christians have long held (rooted especially in the Thomistic tradition) that scientific naturalism is perfectly appropriate for the natural sciences. Science can tell us much of the world—how it originated, how it fits together, where it is headed. The laws of nature that scientists study are laws created by God and hence are very, very good.

But just because a scientist is committed to scientific naturalism, she need not commit herself also to metaphysical naturalism, i.e., the belief that these natural laws are all that exist. More specifically, a Christian evolutionary biologist very committed to the principles of natural selection need not conclude that simply because evolution exist, God does not. As Nichols points out, some of the greatest scientists were also Christian (Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Max Plank). The problem is not evolution (or any other natural “law”), but rather, when evolution becomes an all-encompassing philosophy. Science and theology are meant to be complementary, not antagonistic.

No, the solution for Christians, what Christians need to do if they are to survive the naturalist challenge, is not reject science (and hence the “natural”), but rather, they need to recover the supernatural. In a Christianity Today article, Hwa Yung writes on this,

A careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually brought me back to a supernatural Christianity. In this, I found myself out of sync with much of Western theology. Here liberals were at least consistent, but not evangelicals. Most liberals denied the supernatural both in the Bible and in the present; evangelicals fought tooth and nail to defend the miraculous in the Bible, but rarely could cope with it in real life.

Now, Yung is writing about the recovery of a more charismatic Pentecostal form of Christianity, which I am not arguing for here, but his basic point is sound. Christians need to recover the idea of the miraculous, the realm beyond science, the invisible, the graced. To describe how this might take place liturgically or in other Christian practices is beyond the scope of one blog post (though I would love to hear your thoughts), but at the very least, Christians can recover the supernatural in conversation. We can admit that knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of reason. The natural world can lead us towards God, but true knowledge is a supernatural gift, elevating the intellect beyond what it is naturally capable of.

We can also admit that simply because knowledge of God is a gift, and one which we do not experience fully in this life (see 1 John 3:2 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 for when we can expect full knowledge), we can still do theology. In other words, we can still speculate about God, and even do so “scientifically.” Thomas Aquinas tells us

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God (I, Q. 1, art. 2).

For Aquinas, the object of this science is God, and its principles are the articles of faith (things like the Incarnation and the Trinity). Sacred Scripture is important, but is of itself neither the object nor the principle of theology:

Such are the Trinity of Persons in Almighty God [The Leonine Edition reads: The Three Persons, the omnipotence of God, etc.], the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, and the like: and these are distinct articles of faith. On the other hand certain things in Holy Writ are proposed to our belief, not chiefly on their own account, but for the manifestation of those mentioned above: for instance, that Abraham had two sons, that a dead man rose again at the touch of Eliseus’ bones, and the like, which are related in Holy Writ for the purpose of manifesting the Divine mystery or the Incarnation of Christ: and such things should not form distinct articles (II-II, Q. 1, art. 6).

And in the end, although theology is a matter of disputation (I, Q. 1, art. 8), it ultimately does not get us knowledge of God, but only a certain knowledge of God’s effects, and how those effect pertain to our salvation:

Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.

Ultimately, the point of theology is not to render God understandable or to possess God, but rather, to seek a mysterious God in love. And when we talk of God (or do theology), it should be this gifted love that we communicate, especially to our friends in the natural sciences. We do not have to make Christianity “natural” in order to speak to scientists. We need rather to speak confidently, humbly, and reverently about the supernatural, and listen to what the sciences have to say about the natural. Maybe, with a little grace, we can actually get a conversation going in which the scientist learns a little about grace and eternal life, and the Christian learns a little about the world.

And this brings us back to naturalism. In terms of religion, naturalism pushes us to make all matters of faith matters of natural science. The Bible becomes an anthropological and sociological document, sacraments become merely rituals, God becomes an idea, and the afterlife becomes a naiveté. Christianity becomes a voluntary association that anybody can “do,” like the girl in the opening story of this post, rather than a graced invitation into a relationship with God. Terence Nichols expresses well the appropriate Christian response:

The greatest gifts of grace are faith, hope, and the love of God (1 Cor. 13) which, Paul tells us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us (Rom. 5:5). It is this love that allows us to love others, even enemies, and that characterizes the converted Christian life. Such a love is beyond our natural abilities. . . Christianity is not about rules and laws, guilt and fear of punishment, or extrinsic rewards. It is about grace: the experience of God’s transforming love and power in our lives that elevates and perfects our natural abilities and allows us to do more that we thought possible. In this sense, the life of every fully converted Christian moves beyond naturalism. It is god’s grace that makes the Christian practice of everyday life possible. And it is this same power of grace that one day will bring us to the resurrection, the ultimate transformation of nature, and to eternal life with God (226-27).


18 comments so far

  1. Erin W. on

    Inspiring Beth….. good work!

  2. nohiddenmagenta on

    Great stuff!!

  3. everydaythomist on

    Thanks you guys. Now go watch the Superbowl!

  4. Michael Rubin on

    This is the kind of article that I like to discuss. Are religious conservatives too strongly against evolution or are less-religious liberals too dismissive of a higher power involved in science?

    I tend to believe that religious conservatives are less flexible in this regard. The reason I believe this is because some people feel that accepting evolution would mean that they are doubting the teachings of Judaism or Christianity. This questioning of evolution could be seen as questioning the validity of God.

    In college, I had a biology teacher who tried to give examples of why (according to her) evolution does not exist. In the middle of her lectures she would give a few reasons to back up her belief that evolution was a myth. This professor was one of many people who I believe look for any reason out there to come to the conclusion that she already had in her heart. She believes that evolution does not exist, therefore she must find reasons to prove the conclusion that she already had chosen.

    I think that the view held by most (I’m guessing most) people in the United States was said the best by Senator John McCain. He said in a presidential debate that he believes in evolution, but when he looks at the Grand Canyon, he feels that the hand of God was involved.

    I think that most Americans believe in evolution but that God was involved in the process.

    I think that many Americans’ view of faith is very fluid. On one side, we have strict religions which tell us exactly what to believe. On the other side, we have atheists who believe that there is no God and that our souls will not continue after life. Many people in the center believe in God but disagree with parts of the Torah and the Bible.

    I think that many people feel a disconnect between what they hear from religion and what they believe in their hearts on certain issues. It is hard to be in the middle because I disagree with many of the teachings, yet I do not want to imagine life without God.

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks for your thoughts. I should say that religion in general has not been overwhelmingly opposed to evolution. Pope Paul VI supported evolutionary theories in his encyclical Huamani Generis all the way back in 1951.

      I think you are right to say that “many Americans’ view of faith is very fluid.” I think a big part of the problem is education. I was amazed to ask my theology class recently how many of them thought the Catholic Church insisted that Genesis 1-3 be read literally, thus precluding the possibility of accepting evolutionary theories. The vast majority raised their hands. It is no surprise to me that in light of this ignorance of what their church actually teaches, they may be motivated to leave the Church in light of certain frustrations.

      My post, however, was on a different problem, and something I think is more pernicious. I think that most people (outside of maybe the ultra-conservative) accept evolution, but deep down, don’t really believe in God because they don’t know how. Naturalism is the idea that if God can’t be explained in material or scientific terms (as evolution can), God must be false, not evolution.

      The Grand Canyon comment is helpful. I wonder if naturalism is most challenged by the perception of beauty.

      • Nik on


        I totally agree that education (especially in the sciences) is severely lacking. Depending on how you ask the question, unfortunately the majority “accepting” evolution is very slim in the US, there is a tie, or the majority believes in creationism (, or more exhaustively, here:

        That means 124-186 million people in the US believe the literal creation account. Apart from the fact that this makes the US the laughingstock of the developed world, and that it gives scientific illiterates significant influence over a nuclear arsenal that can extinguish all life on earth, it is (less dramatically) a threat to US prosperity, technological advancement and healthcare.

        It seems to me that when discussing these things, one impediment in communication between representatives of the public and the scientific establishment is that people tend to be shocked that in science, opinions do not matter- only data does. When John McCain enlightens us on how he feels about the Grand Canyon, the scientists response must be: “who cares?” This may not always go over well. But to answer the question “if naturalism is most challenged by the perception of beauty”, I would say probably not. If I might wager a guess, the perception of beauty may say more about ourselves and our experiences than the perceived object. It seems to me that the feeling of awe at the sight of a mathematical equation or genomic sequence is also rather a driving force in the exploration of nature. I have heard people say that the deeper the understanding of a process, the more you can appreciate its beauty. Like, mastering musical theory and notation presumably doesn’t take away from the beauty of Bach (or what have you) 😉

      • Nik on

        “I should say that religion in general has not been overwhelmingly opposed to evolution. Pope Paul VI supported evolutionary theories in his encyclical Huamani Generis all the way back in 1951.”

        I don’t think the RCC should be too proud of this “achievement”, considering that “On The Origin of Species”
        was published in 1859. What is more, even after nearly 100 years, the support for evolutionary theory was not wholehearted, on the contrary (see below). The “real” admission of the veracity of the theory of evolution came in 1996(!) by JP2 (

        There is also an amusing passage in the encyclical where it says that Catholics must believe that all men literally descend from Adam (37). We know today that a single individual cannot support the generation of a population due to lack of gene pool diversity, and we have an unbroken lineage from pre-sapient homo to homo sapiens, showing there was never a single “Adam”.

        While the RCC is less hostile to science today than it used to be, it has been plenty hostile in the past and has a track record of absurd slowness in the acknowledgement of scientific facts.

        The link to the encyclical is here (Vatican website)

        De humani generis:
        “5. Some imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution, which has not been fully proved even in the domain of natural sciences, explains the origin of all things, and audaciously support the monistic and pantheistic opinion that the world is in continual evolution.”

        6. Such fictitious tenets of evolution which repudiate all that is absolute, firm and immutable, have paved the way for the new erroneous philosophy which, rivaling idealism, immanentism and pragmatism, has assumed the name of existentialism, since it concerns itself only with existence of individual things and neglects all consideration of their immutable essences.
        36. For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.[11] Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.

        37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[12]”

      • everydaythomist on

        Slow, maybe, but faster than a lot of other denominations. And surprisingly fast considering the Origin of the Species is just one contribution to “evolutionary theory.” Don’t you think it was wise for the Church to wait just under 100 years until they theory gained more strength and backing from the scientific community? And I would not call the Church’s snail pace “absurd” per se. I might just call it prudent. Science has a bizarre way of moving just a little too fast, wouldn’t you say? For example, the Manhattan Project? Or what about thalidomide? Or for goodness sakes, even Newtonian physics. How would it look for the Church to come out and say “Well, it is established. Newtonian physics is absolutely true as the way the world works.” Then all along comes Einstein and bang, Church is wrong. It is good, and indeed, scientifically necessary to maintain an heir of humility about the absolute veracity of scientific theories. We are only scraping the surface in terms of the true majesty of the inter-workings of evolution, and I for one am more interested in discovery than stagnating the conversation with absolute truth claims. Especially when so many evolutionary theorists are guilty of metaphysical reductionism (ala Dawkins).

        Remarks on Adam and his historicity coming up later. Thanks always for your challenging comments, Nik!

      • Nik on


        “Don’t you think it was wise for the Church to wait just under 100 years until they theory gained more strength and backing from the scientific community?”

        Politically wise, perhaps. But that fits perfectly the model of a political institution, not a divine one. After all, if the RCC actually were in on divine knowledge, would they not immediately see truth for truth? I find it especially telling that Paul6 has no qualms making false naturalistic statements about evolution and Adam.

        About science moving just a little too fast, I don’t think so. Your examples refer to specific instances of science being applied for utterly nonscientific purposes with debatable outcomes. The Manhattan Project in my opinion was more a feat of engineering than nuclear physics. Even so, one could argue that the bombs served a utilitarian purpose, saving many more lives than they destroyed.
        Thalidomide remains one of the greatest tragedies in the history of pharmaceutics. From what I know, it was economic interests of the supplier Gruenenthal that led to incomplete safety testing. I have seen unconfirmed comments by someone claiming to have worked there that claim Gruenenthal even had preliminary data on animal toxicology that indicated there were problems, but they went ahead and marketed it anyway. All in all, I think this is more an ethical or organizational failure than a scientific one. Even if it were to represent the best scientific standards of the day, we could still say that it was a hard lesson based on the best information at hand and that we are better scientists for it.

        What I would expect from a divinely inspired church is to acknowledge the scientific trends rather than individual results, which we all know are subject to reinterpretation in the light of new data.

        “It is good, and indeed, scientifically necessary to maintain an heir of humility about the absolute veracity of scientific theories.” – Agree 100%

        The irony is that science never makes absolute truth claims (see my and Bob’s comments here: – Goedel’s Theorem),
        whereas religion does (Adam et etc.). So who is humble, and who is humbled here?

      • everydaythomist on

        I am constantly humbled by what my church does, both good and bad. The sex abuse crisis, for example, is a humble reminder of the human institution that is, like all of us, flawed, and sometimes outright evil. The church, in short, is divine and human. She is the mystical body of Christ and the assembly of believers. She rests on a divine founder but is run by fallible humans. Her perfection is eschatalogical, and as such, the assembly of believers need faith and hope as they journey with the church on a pilgrimage towards perfection. The same goes for her absolute truth claims: that God IS, for example, that God is good, that the world is good, and that there is still a further perfection of the world we should long for. These truth claims are not subject to the rigor of scientific empiricism but they can still be true–believed and hoped for, not demonstrated. I want my church to engage science, and I want it to do so cautiously and prudently and yes, politically. I want the church to avoid, for the most part, telling people which scientific theories should be believed, and stick instead to fostering good souls and bodies, ready and willing to do God’s work on earth. And I want both scientists and religious to stop trying to foster a war with one another, and to rather find some way of engaging in constructive dialogue toward truth, to better understand the natural and metaphysical world in which we all find ourselves pilgrims. For what it is worth, I am immensely grateful to have your voice part of this conversation. Thank you for contributing so thoroughly to this blog, my friend.

        Curiously, you might find this article interesting on a possible response to the anti-philosophy critique in science.

  5. Bob MacDonald on

    A few sequential thoughts and coincidences – of the past 5 minutes.
    I am rereading Colin Gunton on Atonement. He is reasoning against the rationalist theories of Kant, Schliermacher, and Hegel. As I prepared to read, it was demonstrated to me that although God is like the wind, there is a difference between standing before him, as Abraham did, and standing in a full force gale which is blowing just outside at the moment. I closed the window and picked up the book – page 27, a quote from Coleridge: “It is among the miseries of the present age that it recognizes no medium between Literal and Metaphorical. Faith is either to be buried in the dead letter, or its name and honours usurped by a counterfeit product of the mechanical understanding.”

    I am not satisfied by a counterfeit understanding.

  6. everydaythomist on

    How much more beautifully Coleridge can express my sentiments than I can! I have not read Gunton, but I think I must put him on my list!

  7. Nik on

    Response, part I

    Dear Beth,

    Thank you for starting this highly interesting discussion! To begin, I concur that scientific naturalism is neutral on the hypothesis of “god.” I am being reminded that the term “naturalism” is a bit fuzzy, as when talking about it, we should distinguish (as you do) between the metaphysical naturalism (nature is all there is) that Nichols seems to be talking about, and the methodological (scientific) naturalism (how and what can we learn about nature) that is the basis of modern, well, science (

    Therefore at first approximation from a scientific point of view, whether or not “god” is in fact in nature is irrelevant. I do agree that a “Christian scientist” is not an oxymoron, however, when we look at the data we find that religiosity is sharply reduced in scientists compared to the general population ( and It also varies by scientific discipline, with Biologists being the least likely to believe. What is more, the more successful a scientist is in his or her field, the less likely he or she is to believe. Why is that?

    Young-earth creationists are quick to point out that there is a global conspiracy against them, one that somehow includes scientists from numerous cultural backgrounds, who are apparently all specifically interested in throwing a wrench into fundamentalist Christian theology.

    As a scientist, I would suggest an alternate interpretation. One might think that if nature and its laws are in fact the Christian god’s creation, I spend my life marveling and scratching my head at the complexities of god expressing himself(?) in reality. However, the closer you look at god’s purported handiwork, the more obvious the flaws become. Yes, flaws! Simply put, the Biologist finds himself confronted with randomness and immeasurable wastefulness in nature, with random and purposeless pain and suffering, and anatomy that just makes no logical sense (except if seen in the light of evolution). For a taste, I recommend you pick up a book on Parasitology, go to, or simply google “human parasite diagnosis”, then filter the search results for images. As it turns out:

    “Scientists have no idea just how many species of parasites there are, but they do know one dazzling thing: parasites make up the majority of species on Earth. According to one estimate, parasites may outnumber free-living species four to one. In other words, the study of life is, for the most part, parasitology.” – Carl Zimmer

    The principle of our being is that we must destroy other life to exist. If you believe in divine creation, then this is how god wants us to be. That leaves our Biologist hard pressed to adjust her belief regarding the “goodness of god “or disbelieve entirely. In summary, it becomes harder and harder to believe that any sane, moral or intelligent mind could have purposefully designed the reality we live in, especially since “god” is supposed to be the epitome of all these combined. It is consequently telling that of those scientists who still believe in god, the trend is to a much more agnostic or universalist view of religion.

    But back to Nichols:
    “If nature is seen sacramentally, rather than as an object to be investigated and used, it also can mediate the presence of God. Seen sacramentally, nature is a sacred cosmos, for whatever mediates God’s presence is sacred (9)”

    This argument does not make any sense to me: did god not command human to “subdue it: and have dominion over… every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen1:28)? It would seem that Nichols is outside of Christian theology.

    Again Nichols, defining naturalism as metaphysical naturalism:
    “the belief that nature is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by natural causes and therefore by science. There is no nonmaterial reality, such as God.”

    “For if nature is all that exists, there cannot be any reality that is greater than and independent of nature. Nor can there be any hope of an afterlife, nor any means to really transcend our natural condition. The consoling grace of god, which frees us from sin, addictions, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness, is, for naturalists, a fiction.”

    How do I arrive at a metaphysical naturalism?
    “Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is an enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world. (”

    “Natural science: a naturalistic approach to the study of the universe, which is understood as obeying rules or laws of natural origin.” (

    I am a subset of the universe (universal reality). I accept that the universe follows laws. Therefore any meaningful law will have an effect on the universe. Any effect on the universe can be measured as a change within the universe. Anything that is in principle unmeasurable, is irrelevant to the universe, as it cannot have an effect.

    Note that this view takes no stance on the accuracy of current descriptions of natural laws, nor does it say that measurements must be possible with current tools. It simply states that if there is a “god”, he must be measurable to be relevant, i.e. within the universe.

    In this light, the “consoling grace of god etc.”, appears as irrelevant emotional babble.

    To be continued.

    • Nik on

      Response, part II

      Erratum: it should be “immeasurable”, not “unmeasurable.”

      So far, I have touched on the Wilson quote: “even religion is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences.“ As you are aware much more than I am, there is a whole chain of sociological and historical explanations that put the foundation of Christianity in a secular perspective. This rant is already too long, so I will only mention it.

      Now you say: “As Nichols points out, some of the greatest scientists were also Christian (Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Max Plank). The problem is not evolution (or any other natural “law”), but rather, when evolution becomes an all-encompassing philosophy. Science and theology are meant to be complementary, not antagonistic.”

      Stephen Jay Gould calls this the “non-overlapping magisteria.” In theory, you would think that everybody could be happy with this “live-and-let-live” attitude. The problem is that it deliberately ignores that the major religions make naturalistic claims and have consequently often interfered with scientific endeavors. These claims have tended to be disproven, or at least are without supporting evidence whatsoever, which in turn irks the religious establishment, who then proclaim to be “under attack from science.”

      The strategy of the Christian religious moderates has been to concede the failure of scripture to accurately describe natural events, but rather stress the metaphorical character of biblical stories. But once you strip the bible of its folklore, what remains? What is the metaphorical character of the bombardment of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:36)? What are we supposed to learn from Deuteronomy 2:33-34 (“33 the LORD our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. 34 At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed[a] them—men, women and children. We left no survivors.”

      Says Hwa Yung: “A careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually brought me back to a supernatural Christianity” (what empirical evidence?)

      Now I like the idea of everybody “just getting along.” But unless Christians reject all false naturalistic claims made in the bible, I just don’t see that happening. False claims such as that any breaking of natural laws actually occurred- that would include much of the old testament and pretty much all of Jesus’ miracles. Surprisingly, this seems to be possible, as I have spoken with Christians who would interpret all biblical miracles metaphorically (Jesus “feeding” the 5000 and 4000). However, the resulting form of Christianity does not seem to be particularly attractive to many. Christianity without resurrection after physical death, anyone? Perhaps this can be remedied by education, but I wonder if it is not easier to discard religion altogether.

      “Christians need to recover the idea of the miraculous, the realm beyond science, the invisible, the graced. […] We can admit that knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of reason.”

      In one form or another, I hear this one a lot. It appears to me as a last resort argument, as it is typically not the first argument brought to bear. In calling for blind faith in the face of overwhelming reasoning, it is like the Nuremberg defense of the religious. It is a conversation stopper, because what more can be said? I believe it, you don’t. My point is that no matter what anybody says, my beliefs do not absolve me from personal responsibility. Or you.

      In the past, it was possible for the believer to seek refuge in personal experience. After all, how can I prove that what you feel isn’t the hand of god? However, the more we begin to understand about neuroscience, the harder this argument will be to make. We already know that we can trigger out-of-body experiences or “feeling one with the universe” kind of experiences by tricking the brain with electrodes ( or drugs ( or just optical tricks (

      It may be possible to eventually develop a sort of Turing Test ( for religious emotion using magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain or some similar technique. Although current efforts have not been successful, there seems to be some connection with spontaneous or induced temporal lobe epilepsy (

      My experience is that there is an economy in a person’s worldview. Occam’s razor applies, though people seem to be so vested in certain beliefs or practices that they will require a lot more counteracting evidence than others. That is just as well, because naturalistic evidence continues to pile up the more science we do, while the bible/(enter holy book here) does not improve.

      “This metaphysical naturalism is the greatest challenge Christianity faces in the contemporary world.”

      It seems to me that religious interpretation and practice have always responded to social or natural scientific advancements, and today is no different. Ultimately, the existence of god cannot be proven or disproven. What I think matters is that religious people and organizations will finally be held fully accountable for their acts (discrimination, hate speech) and should not receive any freebies (tax exemptions!). The rest will take care of itself.

      Best wishes, and thank you for “listening” –

      • Bob MacDonald on

        Nik – that’s a pretty good rant. But I don’t think any of us religious or otherwise want to defend violence, bigotry, or stupidity – e.g. read psalm 38 – a direct reminder of a healthy conscience. I love Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, and I haven’t heard a good response (though I have written some and continue to – but argument is distracting.) The issue of after death – is not subject to verification in this ‘life’ by definition. So we lack language. I am not convinced that your words present all that there is to know and to be known by in life. Words don’t do that – material action does. Those miracles represent material action – the making real that words do. By the word of the Lord are the heavens made. It is present and presence that ‘matters’ that makes ‘sense’. Neuroscience will see but will not perceive. You should pride yourself on your 100% natural explanation. But you have proved nothing. As you say the ultimate is provable unprovable as all science is provably incomplete by Godel’s theorem.

        I wrote a sentence on this in my commentary on psalm 46 which I will post on my Poetry of Christ blog in a month or two. It has to get past my delayed reading and editing. But it ends with a question posed in Lamentations 2 – a poem I strongly recommend. “Who will heal you?”

      • everydaythomist on

        I was not defending Hwa Yung in his entire argument, only a part. And I agree, the Bible should not be read for naturalistic arguments, but rather as providing certain revealed first principles for a supernatural argument. Forgive me for any confusion.

        As for your neuro-theological claims, I am fully on board and excited about finding out which parts of the brain are responsible for certain religious experiences. But neuroscientists will tell you themselves that this science, if properly conducted and drawing conclusions appropriate to the discipline, will not be able to answer if God is ultimately the cause of the brain behaving the way it does. Aquinas holds that God works though secondary causation (like evolution and the mechanisms of the brain) in order to bring the universe to its ultimate perfection. That means that God need not be the immediate efficient cause of any particular religious experience, but may in fact be its formal cause (in the structure of the brain) or its final cause (in what that religious experience is directed towards, namely, a relationship with God).

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks for so many great thoughts. I can’t respond to all of them now (it is my anniversary AND I have a fever) but I will try and respond to at least a few of your thoughts.

      As for biologists being the most likely to not also adopt some sort of metaphysical and/or religious stance, I would say that is because the object of biological study is most empirical and most narrow–life. It is relatively easy to find explanations for the questions biologists ask. Chemists and physicists, on the other hand, are really looking at the “stuff” of the universe, with increasingly complex and unanswerable questions. The biologists might ask, “Why do homo sapien sapiens have characteristic X?” but eventually, the physicist is asking “Where did the universe come from?” Physics naturally leads to metaphysics as its “sequel” (and indeed, Aristotle’s Metaphysics was Part II of his Physics in the same way his Politics was Part II of his Ethics).

      As for the flaws in the universe, Aquinas himself addressed this problem, both in the Summa and in De Malo (On Evil).

      “The perfection of the universe requires that there should be inequality in things, so that every grade of goodness may be realized. Now one grade of goodness is that of the good which cannot fail (this, Aquinas holds, is God). Another grade of goodness is that of the good which can fail in goodness, and this grade is to be found in existence itself; for some things there are which cannot lose their existence as incorruptible things, while some there are which can lose it, as things corruptible (corruptible here means “able to die”).

      As therefore the perfection of the universe requires that there should be not only beings incorruptible, but also corruptible beings; so the perfection of the universe requires that there should be some which can fail in goodness, and thence it follows that sometimes they do fail. Now it is in this that evil exists.” (I, Q. 48, art. 2).

      In other words, Aquinas’ cosmology is hierarchical with all things existing for the glory of God the Creator, and some things existing for other created things. Thus, for the leopard to glorify God in its existence, it must eat gazelles, and for the allele to glorify God in its existence, there must be “junk DNA.” Now, from our perspective, as part of this hierarchy, many of these “corruptibles” seem evil–the parasites for example. But Aquinas is not so much anthropocentric in his cosmology that he misses the fact that the whole universe glorifies God in its existence, and not just humans. I marvel when I read about parasites (or for me, retroviruses, which I think are one of the most beautiful things on earth, even if they cause immeasurable havoc on human beings.) This isn’t waste, per se, or at least, you can’t prove it’s waste, but it is bad for humans.

      As for your thoughts on science, I am using the term in a particular, albeit Aristotelian way, which Aristotle explores as episteme in the Posterior Analytics (an awesome text if you are interested). For the sake of convenience, I will go ahead and quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

      We have scientific knowledge, according to Aristotle, when we know:

      the cause why the thing is, that it is the cause of this, and that this cannot be otherwise. (Posterior Analytics I.2)

      This implies two strong conditions on what can be the object of scientific knowledge:

      1. Only what is necessarily the case can be known scientifically
      2. Scientific knowledge is knowledge of causes

      He then proceeds to consider what science so defined will consist in, beginning with the observation that at any rate one form of science consists in the possession of a demonstration (apodeixis), which he defines as a “scientific deduction”:

      by “scientific” (epistêmonikon), I mean that in virtue of possessing it, we have knowledge.

      Science proceeds deductively by first principles which are beyond deduction (i.e. logical proof). For example, A cannot also be “not A” (the principle of non-contradiction). These first principles are known by the natural light of intelligence. In other words, we may not be able to prove that A cannot be not A, but it “rings true” according to a certain fittingness (convenientia). Theology is a science in this since because it also proceeds from undemonstrable first principles (the articles of faith) which cannot be proven (e.g. that God is triune) but “ring true” to the believer according to a certain fittingness (convenientia).

      Now, for the natural scientist as you have described it, you are absolutely correct that those things which can be measured are beyond the scope of concern for the natural scientist. In other words, when the physicist begins to ask questions like “why is there a universe rather than no universe?” or “what is the ultimate (i.e. first) cause of the universe’s existence,” the scientist is no longer doing natural science, but rather, metaphysics (philosophy) or theology if she or he chooses to rely on revealed first principles.

      You won’t see me on this blog defending young earth creationists because I am a Thomist and I assert the autonomy, yes autonomy, of the sciences. Methodologically, a theologian (or a Bible scholar) cannot tell you how to do physics, but in the same way, physicists cannot tell me, a theologian, how to do theology. There are separate, though overlapping at times, spheres of scientific concern. For a physicist to say that “god does not exist” is to no longer do physics, but to rather collapse physics into a reductive form of pseudo-theology. In the same way, it is just as reductive for a Bible reader to say that the earth is 6000 years old. And this is why I think that physicists or biologists or chemists can be friends with theologians. We are doing different things and learning different things about the universe we live in. And thus, we should proceed respectfully and humbly, aware of the limitations of our fields and not resorting to terms like “irrelevant emotional babble.”

  8. […] human behavior is shaped in non-material (i.e. linguistic) ways (this relates to an earlier blog post I wrote on metaphysical naturalism. Anderson would critique such naturalism from the opposite […]

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