Is Naturalism a religion?

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.

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About benevolentheathen

I am an Associate Professor of Biology at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. I teach courses in ecology, evolution, and behavior with an emphasis on terrestrial vertebrates, especially reptiles. In recent years I have become increasingly interested in the interplay between science and religion. I consider myself spiritual, but not religious. I am continually reassessing my thoughts and ideas about God, faith, and religion and how they fit into my empirical worldview. View all posts by benevolentheathen

3 responses to “Is Naturalism a religion?

  • LScott

    Beautifully written! As Lao Tzu said, “all is paradox.” In truth, there is a power that commands the universe and all existence. It is Great and Powerful and Beautiful and Glorious! It is beyond thoughts and beyond human existence, yet it sustains our every moment of consciousness, our every breath.
    “God” is a loaded term because people perceive “God” in different ways. To some, God is Jesus. To others God is something different. So when speaking of “God,” for clarity, I am refering to the ONLY power that gives life to ALL. God, as I would say it, then, is the power that commands the universe and all life. So God did it all. Done! And it’s true! Yet, it is for us to awaken to this reality and explore and discover this for ourselves. We can believe what we want to believe.
    We cannot (read that: shouldn’t) deny the fact that SOMETHING is giving life to everyone…to the whole universe and beyond…It is God. We are “in” God. Literally inside of God. God commands all to exist and here we are. As a thought exists in our minds, we too, as “thoughts”, exist within the mind of God. God is thinking us into existence. God has power over all things.

    • benevolentheathen

      These are interesting ideas. Instead of UA being “in God” some Christians believe God is in us. An idea known as panentheism. For some I guess it is more comforting knowing God is in them than vice versa. What so you think about that. I still hedge toward agnostic atheism, but does the game change if we consider energy to be God. Not metaphorically, but literally. Life then may be considered an emergent property of complex organization…

      • LScott

        I love how you think As particles in the whole, God is in us as we are in God. To reach the pinnacle of this reality, we have to lose ourselves to find ourselves (to totally quote patrick swayze “bodhi” from the movie point break lol)…in truth, only God exists…only God is REAL.
        Any-”thing” that exists in the universe, having come into existence by God’s will, is not God. God is beyond this universe and everything in it. The universe and everything in it is only a small faction of God’s commanding might. We can begin to understand God by reflecting on life as we know it and by studying everything. But to truly come to KNOW God on a personal level, we need to engage in deep meditation wherein we work to transcend all ego. The living energy that animates life flows from the Divine, the Living God.
        Life is definately an emergent property of complex organization as far as I’m concerned!

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