Naturalism: Bumping into Reality

Naturalism: Bumping into Reality

Naturalism denies the obvious, reducing human beings to physical parts stuck together without reason or purpose—biological accidents, cosmic junk. No wonder they call it nihilism—nothing-ism. And when you start really believing nothing-ism about human beings, bad things begin to happen. Most of us know better, though. Deep inside, we know we’re not simply chunks of meat in motion. Reality informs us there is something wonderfully unique about humans—qualitatively, not just quantitatively. Humans are special, wonderful, valuable.

To celebrate Stand to Reason’s 30th anniversary, we’re republishing classic issues of Solid Ground that represent some of the foundational ideas characterizing our work over the decades—ideas that continue to be vital to apologetics and evangelism today.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying my nine-year-old Annabeth’s theological common sense. “Papa, why don’t atheists believe in God?” she asked.

“Well, for a number of reasons,” I said. “Partly because they can’t see him, so they don’t believe in him.”

“Can they see atoms?” she offered.

“Good point. But I think they’d say that doesn’t count since they can still detect atoms with scientific instruments, something they can’t do with God. They won’t believe in anything they can’t measure scientifically.”

“That is the weirdest thing that I’ve ever heard,” she concluded.

My fourth grader was on to something that more educated types seemed to have missed: Lots of things are real that cannot be detected by science. How did she know that? She didn’t go to grad school. Innocence often sees the obvious.

Annabeth’s insight was about the inadequacies of naturalism, modernism’s worldview conviction that reality consists completely of material particles in a physical universe governed by natural laws.[1]

Naturalism is best summed up in Carl Sagan’s famous faith statement, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”[2] No God, no souls, no Heaven, no Hell, no miracles, no morality, no sin, no forgiveness, no transcendent purpose—just molecules in motion. It’s the worldview of virtually all atheists and the methodological philosophy governing all science.

Entire cultures have been subtly indoctrinated with this physicalistic view. Even many religious people have a naturalistic impulse in their day-to-day dealings with reality, relegating whatever spiritual “beliefs” they have to the shadowlands of “faith.”

Dealing with naturalism can be daunting, until we realize we have a powerful ally working in our favor: Reality is actually on our side.

Reality, Our Ally

This is an insight I learned from Francis Schaeffer. If Christianity is true, he noted, then the worldview it presents is accurate—it describes reality the way it actually is even for naturalists who deny it. “Regardless of a man’s system,” Schaeffer pointed out, “he has to live in God’s world.”[3] This situation creates a problem for skeptics but an opportunity for us.[4]

Someone once said that reality is what you “bump” into (and sometimes get injured by) when you don’t take it seriously. Consequently, anyone who denies some significant feature of the world is headed for a collision. Skeptics are not just at odds with “religion,” then. They are at odds with reality. Their claims about the world dictated by their competing worldview are going to conflict in important ways with the actual world they experience every day.

Schaeffer called this the “point of tension,” a kind of dissonance between what naturalists say about the world and the way the world really is. Sooner or later, they’re going to affirm—sometimes without even realizing it—features of reality that make no sense given naturalism.

On the one hand, the naturalist speaks from his own worldview. On the other hand, the way he lives affirms things that have no place in his view of reality but make complete sense in ours. He is sending two conflicting messages at the same time but doesn’t realize it. He’s bumping into reality.

Atheist Richard Dawkins is a prime example. On the one hand, his naturalism dictates that morality is just a relativistic trick of evolution to get our selfish genes into the next generation. On the other hand, he rails against the God of the Old Testament as a vindictive, bloodthirsty, homophobic, racist, genocidal, sadomasochistic, malevolent bully.[5] Do you see the problem?

Clearly, Dawkins is not coming to this conclusion based on his naturalism. Instead, that’s his commonsense moral realism talking. His protest makes no sense in his worldview but is perfectly consistent with ours.[6] Dawkins is living in a contradiction on this issue. That’s the point of tension. He’s trading on our worldview, not his. Dawkins is bumping into reality.

There’s something else I want you to see, though—not just the contradiction naturalists live in, but also the explanatory power of Christian theism over naturalism. Here’s what I mean.

Important details of the Christian worldview fit nicely with the way we actually discover the world to be. They resonate with our deepest intuitions about reality. This “fit” is the classical definition of truth.[7] Consequently, Christianity has the ability to make sense of salient details of the world and of human experience that naturalism cannot.

I want to suggest some practical ways to take advantage of both the naturalists’ “bump” into reality and the superior explanatory power of Christian theism. My goal is to be shrewd and creative—to catch him by surprise, if I can—maneuvering with questions wherever possible. This is the heart of the “tactical” approach.

First, a qualifier. There is no “silver bullet”—no perfect answer, no magic apologetic trick guaranteed to change someone’s mind in a single session. Rather, my aim with people who are deeply committed to a false worldview is to try to plant a seed of doubt or uncertainty in their mind, or to get them thinking in a productive way about Christianity. I call it “putting a stone in their shoe.”

There are lots of different ways to do this with naturalism, but I want to focus here on three bumps with reality that create serious worldview problems for the naturalist yet serve to validate the Christian view. I’m going to call them “the bump of stuff,” “the bump of bad,” and “the bump of me.”

The Bump of Stuff

My starting point for this maneuver is simple: Stuff exists. Not too controversial. The naturalist cannot easily deny the existence of the material world. It’s her stock-in-trade, the only thing she’s certain about.

Here’s the fundamental question: Why is there stuff? Why is there something rather than nothing? Where did everything come from? What caused the universe to come into existence?[8]

Let me show you how this line of questioning plays out tactically in conversation. I was once asked during an audience Q&A to give evidence for the existence of God.

“Can I ask you a few questions to get us rolling?” I said to the challenger. He nodded. “First, do you think stuff exists? Is the material universe real?”

“Yes, of course,” he answered.

“Good. Second question: Has the stuff of the universe always existed? Is the universe eternal?”

“No,” he said. “The universe came into being at the Big Bang.”

“Okay, I’m with you. Now the final question: What caused the universe to come into being?”

At this point, he balked. “How do I know?” he said. “I’m no scientist.”

“Neither am I,” I admitted, “but there’s really only two choices: something or nothing. What do you think? Do you think something outside the natural universe caused it to come into being, or do you think it just simply popped into existence with no cause, for no reason?”

At this point, the skeptic who prides himself in his use of reason finds himself in a rational box. Both the law of excluded middle and the law of non-contradiction (it can’t be neither option, and it can’t be both) oblige him to choose one of only two logically possible options available.

To admit something outside of the natural, physical, time-bound universe is its cause would be to contradict naturalism. Yet, who is in his rational rights to opt for the alternative? Even if he thinks it possible the universe popped into existence, uncaused, out of nothing, it’s an understatement in the extreme to say it’s not the odds-on favorite.

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