Naturalism: Not Gross. Not Crass. And Not Negotiable

Naturalism: Not Gross. Not Crass. And Not Negotiable October 4, 2015

When you see a Christian confronted with a non-believer asking for evidence, watch for the dance to begin.

It’s not a pretty dance. It’s a flailing mess only one step above a fistfight, really, all elbows and knees. Not all Christians even enter the dance floor; many aren’t actually all that interested in persuading non-believers, as strange as that sounds. We are surrounded by Christians and most of us non-believers get through our days without getting engrossed in these conversations from all sides. But if one enters the floor, then we can predict the conversation as if paper footstep outlines were placed on the ground to guide the dancers.

Everything I know about Morris dancing, I know from Red Dwarf throwaway jokes and this photo. (Credit: Steve Slater, CC license.)
Everything I know about Morris dancing, I know from Red Dwarf and this photo. (Credit: Steve Slater, CC license.)

The Christian will present some apologetics zinger he or she thinks is very persuasive (largely thanks to apologists’ excellent salesmanship skills). That zinger will be shot down very quickly, usually with a reference to what logical fallacy it contains (or pseudoscience it parrots or bias to which it falls prey) and maybe some mention of what evidence would actually be acceptable. Undeterred, the Christian will try another argument in lieu of evidence or bit of pseudoscience. The non-believer will discard the argument and restate the terms.

Oh, but that’s only the bow and curtsey before the dance.

Once everyone gets down to business, the Christian discovers an insurmountable task ahead of him or her.

There’s not going to be a way that any Christian is going to be able to give skeptics what we actually want in terms of evidence. That’s not because we’re so very unreasonable. It’s because what we want doesn’t actually exist for the Christian to provide, though it absolutely should exist–and would if the Christian’s claims were true.

Instead, the Christian has only one option:

To persuade us to accept and use his or her standard of evidence instead of our own.

If that believer can talk us into using his or her own reduced standards for “evidence,” then the dance contest is halfway won. They do this by trying to persuade us to discard our standards, which they generally scornfully denigrate as “naturalism,” “materialism,” or “material naturalism” (all of which I’ll shorten to simply “naturalism” here today), in favor of their own.

This tactic is dishonest, but it’s really their only hope.

Naturalism” is the Christian catch-all term for “real evidence.” They mean by this term the idea that natural laws and forces, not supernatural ones, operate in our universe. There are some more complex permutations of the idea and I’m vastly oversimplifying a lot, but that’s how Christians think of it and talk about it. If something is true, then it is real, and we can measure real things and describe them in real terms. Often we use the term “naturalism” to mean that if a claim about reality is objectively true, then it can be supported using natural laws and processes–and that if we can’t use natural laws and processes to establish a claim, then the claim is not supported (and let’s face it, probably not true either).

If a Christian is one of those “ground of being” types like Paul Tillich or one of those more deistic sorts who don’t actually claim that there is a god who interacts with the material world, then naturalism isn’t a big problem. Naturalism covers stuff that interacts with the, well, natural world, not the metaphysical world. If someone’s saying that their god is purely supernatural and only interacts with the metaphysical and never with our world, then there’s not really a way to assess that claim at all; we can discard it in full if we wish without further ado. Usually Christians who believe that way don’t make a big problem of themselves for anyone, and I’ve got no desire to start an argument if it’s not necessary.

The problem is that Christians tend to prefer a metaphysical god who constantly tinkers, bubbles through, and meddles with the natural world–yet who leaves not one single trace of its actions in the doing for us to assess. They want a god who is active in the material world yet whose activity is impossible to assess using naturalistic methods. And they want that for a reason.

They desperately need us to agree that it’s possible for a being to act in our reality without its actions being measurable in any way using any method or technique known to us because if we don’t agree with that idea, then there is no way they are going to make their case. They need a claim that can stand without any natural or reality-based evidence at all for its validity. They need a supernatural force that exists to some extent outside of the material universe, yet is thought to affect the natural world and our reality in a million different ways.

When we demand real-world evidence of their claims, therefore, we stop them dead in their tracks.

Naturalism: the Dread Pirate Roberts of the sea of Christian apologetics.

Wow, do Christians tend to hate the idea of naturalism. One apologetics site even calls it, without a hint of irony or self-awareness, “a belief-system opposed to our god.” Notice their flowchart, by the way. It’s actually not too bad. “The natural world is all that exists, so if something falls outside the natural world, it is excluded from reality.” One almost wants to say in response “Yes, and…?”

But they’re using the flowchart as a criticism, not as a statement of fact. I’d been initially planning to cite this site and its flowchart as a quick throwaway reference to general Christian hostility to the idea of what they understand as naturalism, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized that the page was actually a completely representative (if somewhat antique-looking by internet standards, though I’m nobody to talk) summary of Christians’ general teachings about the topic.

What this page outlines is exactly what Christians, evangelicals especially, are being taught. Even slickly-produced “nice” apologetics sites like gotquestions.org fall into this type of thinking. They might not fully understand what it is, but they know it’s not friendly to their brand of superstition–so they must demonize it and negate it. In pursuit of the goal of neutralizing their most deadly enemy, they tell their readers and followers (paraphrased), “Naturalism is a claim without evidence. It’s a presupposition. It’s an argument from ignorance. Gosh, those poor ole atheists just don’t understand the universe as well as we do and are cutting themselves off from purpose, love, and a full life by being so close-minded to all these ‘other ways of knowing!'” It’s like Christians learn these terms from non-believers and like an adolescent given “whiskey and car keys,” to borrow P.J. O’Rourke‘s amusingly evocative phrase, they rush right out and apply it to everything whether it applies or not. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing!

Just as Christians are taught from infancy that arguments are perfectly valid evidence for their claims, they are taught to completely distort and misapply the big fancy words and ideas they’ve heard from skeptics’ responses to their claims.

Worse still, when presented with people’s perfectly reasonable outlines for what kinds of evidence would be acceptable, they’ve got one response and one response only:

They decide that their job is to persuade their marks to adopt their totally different (and much lower) standard of evidence.

And that often forms the bulk of their “witnessing” attempts for the remainder of the conversation. But don’t imagine they want us to extend that thinking everywhere to all claims. No, no: they only want us to lower our standards for Christian claims. Adherents of all religions make markedly similar claims. Every religion seems to have a totally different myth surrounding how the universe came into being and what kind of afterlife people can expect to see if they’re obedient followers. Further, if we substitute gods’ names in Christians’ “proofs,” generally we discover that their arguments make any number of gods and supernatural ideas sound plausible. And Christians are just as adept as we are at seeing that these claims have no credible support in the real world.

But we’re supposed to allow Christians to demand that we apply their arguments only to their own claims. Once we’ve allowed ourselves to think that feelings of certainty or personal purpose are proof, or that popularity or longevity somehow indicate objective veracity, then we’re not supposed to remember that all religions have very fervent, purpose-filled believers–and some religions have many more believers and more longevity than Christianity has. Once we move outside the bounds of using the laws of nature to measure a real-world claim, then we’re not supposed to use the new lowered standard to judge anything else but what the Christian wants us to use it for.

The tactic does come off as rather self-serving.

As far as I can see, the only reason that anybody would have for adopting Christians’ alarmingly low standards for evidence–and then applying that standard only to their claims and nobody else’s–is that it’d really, really help them out if we did.

And that’s simply not enough of a reason for me to do it.

Just a Little Bit of Magic is Still Magic.

The alternative is to fall into magical thinking, which is the term for a behavior or thought that someone might engage in to achieve a goal that doesn’t actually have any relationship to or influence on that goal. Prayer is the general gold standard for illustrating the idea of magical thinking, but there are a lot of other examples.

We might think of magical thinking as fairly harmless, but it isn’t. A few weeks ago, the Minister of Agriculture of one of the biggest and most populous countries on our planet thought it’d be awesome to tell a huge group of scientists and farmers in his country that thinking good thoughts toward their seeds would increase their crop yields. Forget advanced agricultural technology, forget all that stuff we know actually works: think your way to higher yields. Americans are busy doing much the same thing by demonizing GMO crops and idolizing organic ones, putting our faith in a host of “fatlogic” and “broscience” myths in trying to manage our weight and fitness, and generally demonstrating that we’re just as superstitious as any developing-world farmer facing the fear of a barren field just before harvest.

Fear and greed are what sell magical thinking. Either we’re tricked through the use of threats about what’ll happen if we don’t buy the snake oil being peddled at us, or else we’re enticed with greed at the thought of what we’ll gain via This One Stupid Trick. The last thing the purveyors of this nonsense want is for us to start asking a lot of questions about how we know any of it is true.

Because our society has been successfully boondoggled into seriously lowering our standards for evidence, we fall prey to wolves who seek to fleece us. If we’re not aware of what real evidence looks like, then we simply have no defense against those who are skilled in separating fools from their money.

Worse, when we waste our time with magical thinking, we’re not actually doing anything real to achieve the goal we say we want to achieve.

So if someone’s got a real-world claim, then yes, oh yes, we use real-world methods to support or discredit that claim. That’s because there has never been another way to reliably do it. If the claim involves something that impacts and affects the physical world in any way, then it should not be hard to devise a test that supports that claim. Nobody gets to have a real-world physical claim that is exempted from real-world assessment methods. Just because Christians really wish there was a way to have it both ways and to mix and match at will doesn’t mean there is.

When someone tells me to disdain and discard real evidence with regard to a real-world claim, then the discussion is over and I hold even more tightly to my spiritual (and physical) checkbook. And if the self-appointed salespeople for that claim want to turn their noses up at me for feeling that way, then it won’t worry me any more than if a salesperson at a department store gets sniffy about my not wanting to buy a particular dress. Their “paycheck” comes from selling me s0mething, so why should I care what they think if I reject their pitch? Their fit of pique is also not evidence for their claims because I know something they don’t know:

If any real-world assessment and measurement method actually showed a single scintilla of support for any supernatural claim in the world’s entire history of superstition, then they’d be all over it. Because no method does, however, they have to negate it to have any hope of persuading the unwary.

If Christians or any other folks want to persuade me, then they need to do it on my terms–or give me a much better reason for lowering my standards than “it’d really help me out if you’d lower your standards to a point where I can actually meet them.” Whining about how high my standards are only highlights how poor their case must be if they can’t find reasonable amounts of evidence for a claim that should be ludicrously simple and easy to support.

I’ll close with this observation: it was realizing exactly that last point that started me on my journey right out of Christianity. I realized that my religion’s claims, which should have been incredibly easy to prove in the real world given the scope of what we thought was our god’s involvement in this world, couldn’t be supported without lowering the standards for evidence to the point where any and all supernatural claims suddenly sprang into “truthfulness.” I began wondering why, and began seeking real-world evidence for what I truly at the time believed was my god’s hand upon the world. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that I was seeking to do the impossible, much less that I’d fail utterly. I had been told my whole life that this evidence existed aplenty, so I had no reason to think it would be difficult to find that evidence and assemble it.

And here we are today.

I’m not even the first person who, in trying to find genuinely persuasive support for the idea of a god who supposedly operates constantly in the natural universe, ended up waltzing clean out of the religion.

Shall we dance?


Yes, this post was sparked by a recent comment exchange, but it’s not particularly directed at anybody. I just wanted to call attention to the general tactic because it’s so common.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment