Secular Threats to Christianity:
Naturalism
W. FLOYD HEINEY


Volume VI --  Number  3
Spring, 1960
pp. 52-60
(C)opyright 1960
All Rights Reserved
The Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary

    In a recent volume entitled, The Way Things Are, P. W. Bridgman, often said to be the philosopher's scientist of our generation, sums up the progress of physics and the social sciences placing emphasis on such notions as the uncertainty of knowledge. In a review of this book Leitch points to the glaring absence of things theological in Bridgman's work. Leitch says: "In dealing with physics, Bridgman touches on God ever so lightly: in the section on psychology he gives God the back of his hand, and by the end of the book, you have sensed disdain toward all things religious."1 Crucial to one's purposes in making analysis of naturalism is the consideration that such thinkers as Bridgman are controlling minds in this generation. Inevitably their attitude toward God and "things religious" is the very attitude that predominates within the academic confines of this country and much of the world.

    G. H. Clark in the foreword to Carl F. H. Henry's valuable treatise, Remaking the Modern Mind, sees the prevailing philosophy today, whether it is the less deliberate, less self-conscious views of the lay mind or the professional and technical theories of the scholars, to be the secular philosophy of humanism or naturalism.2 Typical in contemporary thinking are such statements as that of Reichenbach, noted philosopher of science, who speaks from the ranks of scientific naturalism to the effect that, "Science is its own master and recognizes no authority beyond its confines."3

    One need not undertake statistical research to annotate the claim that naturalistic thinking dominates the secular world in which the Christian lives and in which he attempts to further the work of Christ. Courses in most large American universities are grounded entirely on the natural, on theories of evolution, and on presuppositions of radical empiricism. To deny this is so is to refuse to examine the evidence.

    It is, therefore, with urgency that those concerned Christians must come to consider the nature and deleterious influence of philosophical naturalism. Naturalism, because of its enormous influence on contemporary thinking as well as its basic hostility to the truth the Christian holds to be so precious, constitutes one of the greatest foes with which the twentieth century Christian must do battle.

    Before considering the particular forms of threat presented by naturalism it would be well to attempt a definition of what will be referred to as naturalism. Admittedly the term naturalism is ordinarily used quite vaguely and perhaps has no clearly established meaning that all who call themselves naturalists would agree to accept. Perhaps the following definition of Lamprecht is typical in that he sees naturalism as "A philosophical position, often varying between extremes of rationalism and positivism, empirical in method, that regards everything that exists or occurs to be conditioned in its existence or occurrence by causal factors within one all-encompassing system of nature."4 Naturalism is defined elsewhere as "The general philosophical position having as its fundamental tenet the proposition that the natural world is the whole of reality."5 Right to the heart of the matter is the definition given by Blau in which, "The modern version of naturalism is marked by the view that whatever man encounters in any area of human experience is natural."6

    Some might object to the definitions as being neglectful of so-called religious naturalism. To this objection two remarks can be directed. First, it is felt that religious naturalism can be duly criticized under the same categories applied to scientific naturalism. Secondly, much of what appears as religious formulations imposed on a naturalistic basis in reality turns out to be a religion of vague moral aspirations and ideals completely avoiding any basic consideration of the supernatural. Even though Lamprecht suggests that naturalism and agnosticism have no essential connection, he elsewhere concludes that any naturalistic religious formulation "must so interpret the world as to make it seem alien to a certain type of theological commitment that is common to most established religions of our Western culture."7

    For the Christian all Biblical, theistic notions of God disappear even though many naturalists might exclaim that the existence of God deserves a fair and honest consideration. The God whom they mention is a far cry from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Let us never forget that to the naturalist of today, whatever his pedigree, existence is always a matter of empirical fact; and definitions of God in terms of the supernatural are rejected at the onset.

    With some notion as to what is to be meant by naturalism let us go a step further and posit the specific threats that such thinking poses to Biblical Christianity in contemporary times.
 
 


The Exclusion of the Supernatural










    First, it is obvious that any frame of reference affirming that the natural world is the whole of reality can logically have nothing to do with the supernatural. The naturalist may go as far as to say with Reichenbach: "The universe as a whole has no cause, since, by definition, there is no thing outside it that could be its cause."8 The supernatural is precluded by definition alone. If, then, the supernatural is a "boogum" of the imagination, one would have to say as does the naturalist Blau,

There is no aspect of man which is outside of nature, call that aspect what you will. You may talk of soul or spirit only on the condition that you mean thereby some aspect of man's natural behavior; but you may not describe the soul of man as immortal, for to do so would be to remove it outside of nature.9
    Let us not miss the implication of Blau's statement. If the naturalist be correct, there not only is no supernatural, but there obviously is no revelation from a supernatural Being. There is subsequently no basis upon which the Christian can erect the principles of his faith and there is no sin because sin requires a supernatural being to sin against. There is no need for redemption from "non-existent" sin, and if the vocation of the Church is the heralding of the redemptive message of salvation, the Church is out of a job.

Christian Ethics Are Precluded










    Secondly, naturalism poses a threat to Christianity because Christian standards of morality are no longer necessary, and in fact are mere naturalistic formulations. The naturalist's ethic is relative. For the naturalist there can be no absolutes with regard to morality. Christians are inclined to accept such maxims as "Thou shalt not kill" as true once and for all because God commanded them. And the Christian could say with Clark10 that such are laws in that God imposes penalties for their transgression. Morality can be grounded on Biblical religion. What ground does the naturalist offer on which to build an ethic for our society or for the world? The only ground that the naturalist can offer is the shifting sand of relativity.

    That the naturalist does not ground his morality on Biblical religion can be seen by his repudiation of Biblical morality in such statements as Burtt's, reporting that the more radical humanists regard "sex as an essentially harmless pleasure which should be regulated by personal taste and preference."11 The majority of naturalists in this country do not actively champion free-love and immorality, but one is not to assume that they, therefore, accept the Christian ethic.

    As G. H. Clark says: "The problem is this, can an empirical philosophy, a philosophy that repudiates revelation, an instrumentalist or descriptive philosophy provide a ground . . . for any moral prescriptions whatever?"(12) If sexual relationships are simply a matter of personal taste, does it not follow that all life's decisions are a matter of personal preference? How then does one go about deciding whose personal preference shall dominate? If my pleasure and preference is armed robbery and yours is some form of peaceful existence, who should get his way? There is no criterion of decision to employ; chaos results.

    We are deceived by the appearances of "Christian" principles in what is glibly spoken of as a Christian era. That personal freedoms are being taken away, that morality is to many a thing of the past, that social and psychological pathology is running rampant need not be elucidated any further than the proverbial front page of the morning paper. Amidst this pathetic scene the contemporary social religionists and philosophers frantically run to and fro attempting to convince society that it must abide by some sense of social obligation. But just where in naturalism does one empirically discover a sense of social obligation? There is none to be found. Unfortunately values do not grow in the field or emanate from the atmosphere.

    If a naturalistic world-view is left to weave the warp and the woof of our moral fabric, and it would seem that our world is dominated by such "weavers," moral decay and destruction are sure to result.
 
 


The Animality of Man Necessitated










    Of primary impetus behind the naturalistic view of ethics is the third way in which naturalism poses a threat to Christianity, i.e., the naturalistic emphasis on the animality of man. The thrust of the post-Renaissance philosophers has taken away the dignity of man as opposed to the brute and has redirected man's spirituality and potential for morality into what is called man's essential a-morality. No longer is man seen as "Created in the image of a holy God, a compound being of spirit and body destined for an eternity reflecting the spiritual decisions made in this life."13 In contemporary naturalism man is originally neither sinful nor good; he is originally a-moral. He is tabula rasa upon which events of nature impose their meaning in a chance fashion guided only by the laws of probability. One of the most advanced dictionaries of modern naturalistic psychology printed in 1958 defines man as follows: "Genus homo of the primate order, of which Homo Sapiens is the sole existing species. Distinguished from the apes by bodily structure, but chiefly by language, the use of tools, and a complex culture."14

    Discussing this matter, Carl Henry says, "It is man's upright walk, or the paucity of hair on his body, or his protruding chin which on the modern approach, is the cosmic excellence of the human species. Deep down, however, much more complex he may be, man remains on this view an animal only. And the significance of morals is purely functional, furnishing somewhat of a guarantee of self-preservation."15

    It is obvious that scientific naturalism insists on the continuity of man with the rest of nature in evolutionary terms. If man be simply a verbalizing, tool-using ape, an illegitimate child of a thoughtless evolutionary thrust, then only nature or man's aspect of nature can introduce the least particle of optimism into an inevitably pessimistic outlook. It is here that the "positive thinkers" tell the modern mind that it is necessary to transcend the pessimistic animality of his being and achieve, according to Henry, "some abiding moral scheme, or some humanly devised ethical code applied universally."16 But was it not previously concluded that no abiding system of morality could be built on the basis of relativism or personal preference? Outside of the only hope of mankind, what is left other than the pessimism, fear, anxiety and terror that grips the alert citizen of a nuclear age?
 
 


Biblical Terms Are Re-defined










    A final threat posed to Biblical Christianity by naturalism exists in terms of the easy dismissal of scriptural truths by naturalistic "explanations." Not only are sacred truths explained away, but the temper of the times is to attack Christianity vehemently for persisting in superstition in the midst of scientific innovations to the supposed contrary. To maintain belief in the supernaturalness of Christ, to believe in miracles, and to accept the objective historical facts of the Bible is to the naturalist, the ultimate of dogmatic deception. Religious belief is simply an irrational deception of the unconscious. God is viewed as the "father figure" of the immature adult, who still needs dependency satisfaction via a parent. Eschatological notions are seen as compensations for failure to achieve in this life. As Sidney Hook says,

In a world full of dangers and surprises, in a world of time, pain and contingencies, it is not hard to understand the psychological place of religion . . . religion is a form of faith, emotion, not knowledge: when it is something more than this and competes with science or technology, it becomes superstition.17
    As to prayer, it is good psychological exercise and may have the therapeutic value of unburdening the troubled mind or cleansing the conscience. Of course, prayer carried too far becomes an "undoing" mechanism of neurotic proportions. Sin is for the naturalist nothing more than unfortunate home conditions combining with a predisposition for anxiety. The result is neurosis, the cure of which is often to calm down the conscience and remove the guilt that has resulted. Even though the most recent trends may stress such concepts as sin, guilt, etc., let us not confuse these words with the Biblical ones. The degree of similarity is ever so small.

    Jesus, in the terms of Hirsch or Lomer, is a delusional, paranoid schizophrenic in need of psychological help because of his delusions and lack of contact with reality. Although further examples of naturalistic interpretations of Biblical words could be sighted, let this final word by a few naturalists suffice.

    Hook declares that the naturalist is reasonable in his belief even if he turns out to be wrong about God and survival, while the supernaturalist with respect to the same data is unreasonable even if he turns out to be right.18 Santayana declares that faith in the supposed supernatural is a desperate wager made by man at the lowest ebb of his fortune. Lamprecht is not as gentile in his analysis, for he says, "No more immoral advice could be given to our time than the not-infrequently uttered exhortation of some popular preachers that morality would be a sham unless God exists."19 So the Christian is charged with superstition, unreasonableness, intellectual dishonesty, and finally with immorality!
 
 


What Can Be Done?










    The patient reader must be asking, "What has all of this to do with me?" What can the Christian do to counteract the threat posed by Naturalism? Several suggestions can be made.

    In the first place, the Christian must heed the words of Paul: ""Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world and not after Christ" (Col. 2:8). Even though Paul's words were directed primarily against the vain philosophy of Judaistic-Gnosticism in the first century, they can in principle apply to the vain philosophy of every generation, especially to the philosophy of scientific naturalism in the twentieth century. The saints of Christ, commissioned with the task of evangelizing the world, must come to grips individually with naturalism, provided they are assured that naturalism has captured the academic and popular heart of our social order and has replaced the emphasis on the supernatural in many lives. This means that every Christian must, to the best of his ability, take on the burden of fighting the battle against naturalism. Our seminarians must be more ably acquainted with the tenets of naturalistic thinking in order to make a more adequate polemic against them. Leaders in the cause of Christ must feel obligated to pen apologetic works taking these contemporary problems into consideration. In short, the Restoration Movement must confront the world, whether it be the village in India or the philosophical journal in America, with a satisfactory critique of precisely what relativistic, scientific naturalistic systems of thought can or cannot say about the precious truths that embody Biblical Christianity. Perhaps too long we have avoided academic responsibilities in favor of the "practical."

    In the second place, all Christians must feel the necessity of making a defense in this generation. Great Restoration leaders fought the fight of their day; we must carry on the work in our generation, for new foes rise up unceasingly from one generation to the next. Too often our appeal is to the past whereas answers must be in terms of the present.

    Biblical Christianity cannot exist in harmony with naturalistic thinking. The two positions are in fact mutually exclusive in that the Biblical position demands a theistic view of the world, a supernatural God, who has revealed His divine will to man in an objective history, who has presented Himself in an incarnation and still chooses to have intercourse with His people through His written word. The naturalist will not allow validity to any of these considerations. With them, naturalism must make way for a noble and eternal heritage for man in God's Kingdom.



 
 

Endnotes

1. Addison H. Leitch, "Review of Current Religious Thought," Christianity Today, 4 (1959), p. 44.
2. Carl F. H. Henry, Remaking the Modern Mind. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing  Company, 1948, p.9.
3. Hans Reichenbach, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957, p.214.
4. Sterling P. Lamprecht, Naturalism and the Human Spirit. ed., Yervant Krikorian. Morningside Heights: Columbia university Press, 1959, p.18.
5. Joseph L. Blau, Men and Movements in American Philosophy. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1953, p.315.
6. Ibid., p.315.
7. Lamprecht, op. cit., p.30.
8. Reichenbach, op. cit., p.208.
9. Balu, op. cit., p.317
10. G. H. Clark, "Can Moral Education Be Grounded on Naturalism?" Bulletin of the  Evangelical Theological Society, 1 (Fall, 1958), p.21.
11. Ibid., p.21.
12. Ibid.
13. Henry, op. cit., p.244.
14. H. B. English and A. C. English, A Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytical Terms. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1958, p.303.
15. Henry, op. cit., p.245.
16. Ibid., p.259.
17. Sidney Hook, American Philosophers At Work. New York: Criterion Books, 1956, p.244.
18. Ibid., p.257.
19. Lamprecht, op. cit., p.31.


Scanned:  Michael Riggs
Edited:  Matthew Honig