The Ever Shifting Sands: Should Christian Apologists Forget about Targeting Atheistic Naturalism?

No human prediction is ever 100% accurately realized, in every single detail. However, speculation about the future is part of the warp and woof of all human intellectual life. Therefore, it is my contention here that western Christians in the near future will have to contend more frequently, and more robustly, with an emerging pantheistic worldview than the current Atheistic Naturalism it has had to contend against.

are we God
Is Science showing us that the Universe is God?

Since the mid-19th century, Christian apologetics has had to deal with a Western culture increasingly dominated by a worldview that is fundamentally incompatible with Christian belief, namely Atheistic Naturalism.1 This is not to say that attempts have not been made, see here, and here.  Due to the incredible success of the scientific method in making predictions about the natural world, in developing cogent explanations of phenomena, and in creating new technologies for practical use, Naturalism has held the intellectual life of the West in a vice-grip since at least the mid 1800’s. Enough so that Friedrich Nietzsche could declare before his death in 1900 that God was indeed dead. Dead, at least, as an intellectually viable explanatory paradigm for the world around us, and our experience of it.

But, could it be that Atheistic Naturalism, sometimes called Metaphysical Naturalism, is actually the new “dead god?” Or at least a god that is very ill, perhaps even terminally so?

It was thought that this Scientific Naturalism marked the end of a certain kind of historical existence, one that was stuck on mythical understandings about the universe we live in. Understandings derived from folk religion, and later, medieval theological systems that had not yet come to know, or put to use the scientific method of observation and experiment as the true test for the real. But now it seems that the evidence from science itself is beginning to undermine this entrenched commitment to Naturalism.

One could say that Thomas Kuhn, as early as 1962, had already sounded the death knell for a sort of Scientism in his seminal work, The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, which minimally elevated the question of realism with regard to scientific progress as one that warranted serious engagement. But this was mainly a theoretical concern about scientific realism.

Recently, however, the drama that is taking place in the natural sciences themselves, is beginning to look more and more confirmatory of Kuhn’s analysis of science’s history. Two areas of scientific investigation that continue to cry out for renewed metaphysical explanation the more scientists explore, are the incredible complexity and adaptability of biological life, and the reality of human consciousness. These, along with the persistent problem of not finding a naturalistic escape hatch from the theological implications of the Big Bang Model of physical origins, make the Naturalism that science has been beholden to for so long, look more and more uncertain. However, if Atheistic Naturalism is waning, as many philosophers, and now more scientists, are suggesting, then what might Christian Apologists expect to see replacing it?

From even a cursory survey of intellectual history, one can already suspect that it will not be Theism. For there have been markers throughout the western intellectual tradition that suggest that Theism, particularly Christian theism, will usually be rejected in favor of something like Pantheism. German Pantheism of the late 18th and 19th century, for example, was a formidable foe. A voice from that time attests clearly to this fact:

The Christian faith has probably never encountered a more dangerous adversary than this German pantheism. The insidiousness of its approach and the cunning of its attack gave it a tremendous advantage. Deism, in the days of its vigor, was a straightforward, honest, enemy, dealing hard blows and ready to receive them. Pantheism came with a Judas-kiss and a “Hail, Master!” Its evil intent was hidden under pious phraseology. As one listens to its teachings, one is tempted to say with Margaret in Goethe s Faust:

“Das ist alles recht schon und gut;
Ungefahr sagt das der Pfarrer auch,
Nur mit ein bischen andern Worten.” 2 my translation of Goethe:
“That is all fine and good
The Pastor says almost the same things
Just with a few different words.”

It had also its element of truth, which gave plausibility to its claims, especially when set in opposition to the deistical rationalism. The immanence of God in the world and the human soul, which deism repudiated, it emphasized. Where deism denied miracles and revelation, pantheism made every common phenomenon of nature a miracle, and all history a continuous revelation of God. It found an intelligible, though unorthodox, meaning for the Christian mysteries of the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, and the new birth. If it denied the personality of God and the conscious immortality of the soul, it did so in language not readily understood in its true meaning by the masses. The pantheistic philosophy did not discard Christianity, but it attempted to give it at every point a naturalistic explanation. 3 emphasis mine

The Evidence of Christian Experience, L.F. Stearns (delivered at the 1890 Ely Lectures)

Evidence that a new kind of pantheism is emerging, not just in the popular realm of New Age spirituality, but in the academy, is readily available. It can be seen in lectures, like one recently given at TEDx by scientist  Rupert Sheldrake, or even in growing movements like The Third Way of Evolution movement. Maybe a kind of Scientific Pantheism is on the rise, one that will replace the way science has been done not only in the time between Francis Bacon and Newton (a theistic one), but also in the time between Darwin and Hawking.

If so, it will become increasingly important for Christian Apologists to know not just the science, but also metaphysics, since metaphysics is the primary area of inquiry that Scientific Naturalism was thought to have done away with once and for all. It will also becoming increasingly important to understand the religious systems that would embrace these new undercurrents in the natural sciences as empirical support for their claims.

“21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” – Romans 1:21-23

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