What Does “Supernatural” Mean?

The word “supernatural” appears in the Mission Statement for the Secular Web (emphasis added):

The Secular Web is owned and operated by Internet Infidels, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization dedicated to defending and promoting a naturalistic worldview on the Internet. Naturalism is the “hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system” in the sense that “nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it.” As such, “naturalism implies that there are no supernatural entities,” such as gods, angels, demons, ghosts, or other spirits, “or at least none that actually exercises its power to affect the natural world.” And without miraculous interventions into nature from a spiritual realm, neither prayer nor magick are more effective than a placebo.

One of our contributors here at the Secular Outpost is an atheist philosopher named Stephen Law.  He has written one of the wonderful “A Very Short Introduction” books for Oxford University Press, on Humanism, and in his seven-point characterization of Humanism in the Introduction, the second point uses the word “supernatural”:

Second, humanists are either atheists or at least agnostic. They are skeptical about the claim that there exists a god or gods. They are also skeptical about angels, demons, and other such supernatural beings.
(Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, p.2, emphasis added)

Another atheist philosopher, Julian Baggini, also wrote one of the wonderful “A Very Short Introduction” books for Oxford University Press, about atheism.  Baggini argues for a close connection between naturalism and atheism, and uses the word “supernatural” in making this claim:

Most atheists are physicalists only in one rather general sense.  That is to say, their atheism is motivated at least in part by their naturalism, a belief that there is only the natural world and not any supernatural one.  We should call this ‘naturalism-with-a-small-n’ to distinguish it from certain versions of philosophical Naturalism which may make stronger and more specific claims.  It will be my claim that naturalism lies at the core of atheism.  (Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, p.4-5, emphasis added)

In the most recent Humanist Manifesto, the opening sentence refers to “supernaturalism”:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. (Humanist Manifesto III, emphasis added)

The words “supernatural” and “supernaturalism” also appear in other key statements advocating Secular Humanism (emphasis added):

Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. It advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expansion of the open society, standing for human rights and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognizes human beings as a part of nature and holds that values-be they religious, ethical, social, or political-have their source in human experience and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.  – The Humanist Magazine

Humanism is a democratic and ethical lifestance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.   – The International Humanist and Ethical Union

Humanism is a philosophy, world view, or lifestance based on naturalism-the conviction that the universe or nature is all that exists or is real. Humanism serves, for many humanists, some of the psychological and social functions of a religion, but without belief in deities, transcendental entities, miracles, life after death, and the supernatural. Humanists seek to understand the universe by using science and its methods of critical inquiry-logical reasoning, empirical evidence, and skeptical evaluation of conjectures and conclusions-to obtain reliable knowledge. Humanists affirm that humans have the freedom to give meaning, value, and purpose to their lives by their own independent thought, free inquiry, and responsible, creative activity. Humanists stand for the building of a more humane, just, compassionate, and democratic society using a pragmatic ethics based on human reason, experience, and reliable knowledge-an ethics that judges the consequences of human actions by the well-being of all life on Earth.  – Steven Schafersman

Humanism is a philosophy of life that considers the welfare of humankind – rather than the welfare of a supposed God or gods – to be of paramount importance. Humanism maintains there is no evidence a supernatural power ever needed or wanted anything from people, ever communicated to them, or ever interfered with the laws of nature to assist or harm anyone. Humanism’s focus, then, is on using human efforts to meet human needs and wants in this world. History shows that those efforts are most effective when they involve both compassion and the scientific method – which includes reliance on reason, evidence, and free inquiry. …  – Joseph C. Sommer

Furthermore, the great skeptical philosopher David Hume also wrote essays advocating skepticism about “supernatural” events and beings:

It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X “Of Miracles”, Part II, emphasis added)

The words “supernatural” and “supernaturalism” are of obvious importance to those who have a naturalist point of view, and to Secular Humanists,  and to most atheists, and to many of those who are skeptical about gods, angels, ghosts, demons, spirits, miracles, and magic.  So, it is important for Secular Humanists, naturalists, and skeptics who challenge beliefs about gods, angels, demons, ghosts, miracles, and magic to be able to answer this question:

What does the word “supernatural” mean?

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