A couple of days ago Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum debated Bill Nye on the topic “Is creation a viable model of origin in today’s modern scientific era?” Early in Mr. Ham’s introductory remarks he suggested that Naturalism is a religion and that if creationism can’t be taught in public schools, that naturalism should be prevented as well. Is Ken Ham right? Is Naturalism a religion? What is Naturalism anyway? What is religion? What would science education be without naturalism?
Naturalism, as defined by Wikipedia, is the philosophical idea that only natural laws and forces operate in the world or that there is nothing in the world beyond what can be observed in nature. So, I guess, Ham implied that not believing in a god is a religion. That sounds self-contradictory to me. Perhaps we need to dig a bit deeper. Some philosophers distinguish different forms of naturalism. There is philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism. Philosophical naturalism is essentially the naturalism defined in the first sentence of this paragraph. There is observable nature and nothing else. Methodological naturalism centers on the process or method of knowing (which Ken Ham pointed out is the Latin definition of science) about nature. That is the scientific process. By definition, methodological naturalism excludes SUPERNATURAL explanations. So, potentially, someone could accept methodological naturalism as a way of discovering how the world works (e.g., where it came from, how it functions, etc) and embrace a supernatural worldview that gives their life meaning (why am I here?, what is my purpose?, what happens when I die?).
So methodological naturalism is clearly NOT a religion, but philosophical naturalism could be. But that begs the question, “What is religion?” Again, if we consult Wikipedia, religion is a collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. In short, it is a collection of customs that a group of people share in common. It is interesting to note the etymology of religion is fuzzy which potentially hampers determining its original definition. It may refer to holding gods in reverence, considering something carefully, or to bind together. So by the first etymology, methodological naturalism is not a religion. By the second and third definitions it could be, I suppose. I suggest the latter, because science does require careful consideration and the scientific community is bound certain processes and rituals (consider the peer-review process or the ritual associated with performing a radioimmunoassay.) Philosophical naturalism may also be a religion if reverence of nature is replaced for reverence of gods, perhaps. During the debate, Bill Nye commented on his wonderment for the natural world and the process of discovery. I must admit I have felt it myself.
Back to the original question, should naturalism be outlawed in public education? I think not. The naturalism taught in public schools is methodological naturalism and is the only way to advance scientific progress. Recognizing a creationism model for origins opens up a garbage can of worms no one (especially the religious right in America) wants to deal with. Which creation “hypothesis” do we teach in American public education? Clearly we cannot limit it to the Christian version, but where then DO we limit it? Do Americans want their children exposed to “other” religions in school? That is in indirect opposition to the first amendment.
As I said earlier, a creationist model hinders progress. How did the Earth form? God did it. Done. Now what? Instead we need to be teaching kids good, solid science methodology so they can explore the wonders of nature in an intelligent and meaningful way. The notion that we can advance technologically without methodological naturalism is simply not true. Creationism stifles wonder. It prevents kids from asking questions and more importantly from seeking answers.