Naturalism: The Secular World & Life

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(The following is excerpted from the excellent book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test, Kenneth Richard Samples, BakerBooks, 2007.)

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Nature is the Whole Show

Naturalism, as traditionally defined, is the worldview system that regards the natural, material, and physical universe as the only reality[1].  The world of nature is viewed as the sum total of reality, the whole show, all which actually exists.

The Britannica Concise Encyclopedia defines naturalism as “the theory that affirms that all beings and events in the universe are natural and therefore can be fully known by the methods of scientific investigation.”  Naturalists typically view the universe as closed and uniform system of material causes and effects with nothing existing outside the realm of nature. All reality is located within the exclusive domain of the spatiotemporal world of physical objects, events, processes, and forces.

The universe stands ontologically on its own—complete, self-contained, self-sufficient, and self-explanatory.  Naturalists reject both a supernatural realm of existence and immaterial agencies or realities such as God, angels, and immaterial human souls.  Secular scientist Carl Sagan expressed the position of strong naturalism in a famous statement from his television series, Cosmos: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”

Yet while the earlier definition holds consistent among naturalists, a great deal of diversity nevertheless exists in their specific philosophical worldview.  Naturalists readily disagree amongst themselves.  Michael Rea, a philosopher who has written extensively about naturalism, notes these differences, especially with regard to the fundamental question of being: “The house of naturalism is a house divided.  There is little agreement about what naturalism is, or about what sort of ontology it requires.”

Naturalism’s Distinctive Features

An affirmation of the naturalistic worldview frequently involves eight (8) important beliefs that can be identified as varieties of or subcategories within the broad worldview known as metaphysical or ontological naturalism.  These points might be considered its so-called family traits.[dt_divider style=”narrow”/]

      1. Monism – From the Greek monos, meaning “one,”…all reality is one thing or stuff.  While lacking unanimity as to the exact nature of the “one”…naturalism asserts that all things in the universe can be explained by natural, physical, and material objects and forces.  Naturalists agree that the physical universe…is the one fundamental reality from which all things are derived.[dt_divider style=”narrow”/]
      2. Materialism – Matter is the one ultimate reality.  Everything can be reduced to or explained in terms of matter or is ultimately dependent upon it.  Nonmaterial entities or substances—souls, spirits, and angels—simply do not exist.  And, because the God of the Bible is an immaterial nonphysical being, materialists dismiss God as nonexistent and illusory.[dt_divider style=”narrow”/]
      3. Physicalism – The application of materialism to explain the phenomena of “mind” (or consciousness) is often called physicalism. This theory entails the idea that all realities can be described and explained using only the vocabulary of chemistry and physics…mental states are identical to brain states, so that sensations and the like are nothing more than neurological conditions taking place in the human brain.  Physicalism outright rejects…the view that the mind and body are distinct substances but nevertheless influence each other in a two-way causal connection.[dt_divider style=”narrow”/]
      4. Scientism – “Science” refers to the empirical method for observing, analyzing, and interpreting the data of the natural world.  While naturalists and nonnaturalists agree on its value, naturalists tend to consider science as having privileged status with regard to knowledge…”Science is the measure of all things.” Definitely more than science, scientism asserts that science is either the only reliable method (strong scientism) or the best, most dependable method (weak scientism) for obtaining genuine knowledge.[dt_divider style=”narrow”/]
      5. Darwinian Evolution – Following the theory of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), naturalists assert that all life is the result of purely natural processes.  Evolution as a biological theory asserts that complex life-forms developed from more primitive life through a variety of mechanisms.  This process is thought to produce genetic variations within species that eventually result in the emergence of new species.  Evolutionary theory postulates that human beings evolved from lower primates…and is a necessary explanatory component in the overall worldview of naturalism.[dt_divider style=”narrow”/]
      6. Antisupernaturalism – Naturalism by its very definition dismisses the existence of the supernatural realm…and asserts that because nature is the exclusive reality, all phenomena can and must be adequately explained within the matrix of the cosmos without recourse to supernatural explanations.  Appeals to the supernatural…are considered unscientific and illegitimate.[dt_divider style=”narrow”/]
      7. Atheism/Agnosticism – Naturalists are typically atheistic in outlook, believing that no God or gods exist.  Because no superntural realm exists, there can’t be a supernatural deity to affect the natural universe from the outside.  Atheists believe…the human mind invented God…he is illusory.  Agnostics assert either that they personally do not know if God exists (soft agnosticism) or that no one can know if God exists (hard agnosticism).  As an extension of the 17-18th century Age of Enlightenment, hard agnostics also assert that certainty in respect to non-science-based knowledge is impossible.[dt_divider style=”narrow”/]
      8. Secular Humanism – Secular humanism strongly embraces all seven previous points or family traits of the naturalist worldview. From the humanist perspective, morals, values, and societal norms find their source, foundation, and justification in the conventional agreement of humankind.  Humanism’s value system typically reflects such principles as libertarianism (maximizing individual liberty), utilitarianism (promoting the greatest good for the greatest number), relativism (subjective and changing standards), and pragmatism (truth is found in workability that results in positive human consequences).  Great confidence is placed in science and technology’s capacity to solve human problems.  The advocates of secular humanism view death as the extinction of human consciousness and the loss of individual and personal identity forever.  Secular humanism can be summed up in the statement: “Man is the measure of all things.”  Humanists have formalized their beliefs into various Manifestos and Declarations.


[1] Despite the invalid claim of being “neutral regarding religion,” Naturalism is the preponderant secular worldview philosophy that substitutes for religion and is taught in the Western world’s public schools.  Most graduates of public schools are more-or-less naturalists by default.  [Note: This footnote does not appear in the original.]