Tag Archives: science education

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.


Who is responsible for a child’s science education?

I woke up this morning at 5 am hoping to grade a few papers that I have lingering from last week.  Instead, my mind is replaying and sorting, and trying figure out why some folks think the way they do.There are some in this world who firmly believe that if a phenomenon is not observable, that it is untouchable by science.  I guess because we have no way of verifying, with absolute certainty if our hypotheses about the past are true (whatever truth is!).

I enjoy doing science.  Or as Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory said, “Peeling back the mask of nature.”  I think many children are the same way; curious, imaginative, observant.  We have a public school system that is supposed to nurture this natural curiosity and aid in its development.  All kid sin american public school take “science.”  By the time they graduate they have had, earth science, biology, chemistry, physical science, and maybe even physics.  Then I get them…

When I get freshmen in General Zoology they are primed to begin their study to become doctors, veterinarians, physical therapists, dentists, and the like.  Then the bomb drops.  They have to learn about evolution.  Being most are from Oklahoma, this is the first time they have been exposed to the idea.  They should have been exposed to evolution in high school, yet most have not.  Needless to say there is lots of chair squirming for the several days we talk about natural selection, the endosymbiont hypothesis, and the origin of life.

This should be a pretty cut and dry series of lectures, but this year a student attempted to trap me in the reducio ad absurdum. Where did the first elements come from.  Where did the stars com from, why did the big bang happen….  She wanted me to say God made it happen.  I didn’t.  and I
 never will….in Science class.

There is a fundamental disconnect in american society.  We don’t know what science is and how to distinguish from non-science.  Our public schools need to do a better job teaching kids what science is and is not.  Religion is not science.  Just because science does not have an answer does not mean we should make recourse to a divine power.  Parents and teachers who do not know science shouldn’t teach it.  Pastors, priests, and preachers should mind their own business.  Help people with their moral compass, feed teh hungry and cloth the poor.  Holy books are not science books.  Don’t get me wrong.  Holy books are important, but they don’t tell us how the world works.  They tell us how we should work in the world and how we should treat this world in which we live.


My cereal is gone and I have to get those papers graded, so I will leave this post as a very rough sketch of what I wanted to say.  I welcome any comments anyone may have.




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