Design, Secular Naturalism, and “Acceptable” Worldviews

TrilobitesThe conversation (at Jesus Creed) on the post last week Darwin’s Doubt and Intelligent Design was interesting. Several years ago I had (and posted about) an e-mail conversation with a friend and colleague about intelligent design and the place for the Christian worldview in the academy in general and science in particular. This conversation is worth another post (a lightly edited repost), and as this has been a particularly busy time (including giving and grading an exam late last night), today is a good day for it. This colleague is a Christian, he supports intelligent design research and inquiry – but his faith does not hinge on evidence for design. He respects Francis Collins and his stand, and appears comfortable with the general evolutionary tree of life including common descent. But there is a significant issue that goes beyond “proof” of God or of design. The issue is one of consistent worldview and approach to intellectual life.

I put some of our correspondence (with permission) up for consideration, so you get his words directly, not just my interpretation.

A major problem in the whole area, I feel, is the different assumptions about who has the burden of proof. Origin of Life advocates seem to put the burden on skeptics. As long as some hypothesized mechanism might conceivably get around whatever issue is raised, then the skeptic has been defeated, even if no evidence is available to back up the proposed mechanism. I think they [the naturalists] feel this is fair, since they believe that naturalistic scenarios have proven so successful in science that anyone who doubts a naturalistic scenario must prove rigorously that no natural explanation can possibly work, or else it is reasonable to fall back on a naturalistic explanation, even if it is highly speculative.

I am uncomfortable with this, since it would be easily extended to the origin of the universe, and to the life of Christ as well, which, interpreted naturalistically, would require that we believe his reported resurrection was due to fraud or error, since this is theoretically possible and is a naturalistic scenario. In this way, the Christian worldview is excluded not just from science, but from history, and then from all intellectual discourse.

As you read on – consider this question:

What place does Christian thinking have in the academy? How does this thinking distinguish itself? In the sciences, in the social sciences, in biblical studies?

On the other hand, if miracles are a live option in history, then they are a live option as an alternative to naturalistic explanations in science. So, I take the viewpoint that if origin of life researchers find good evidence for spontaneous origin of life, then I will be willing to accept this idea and I wouldn’t see this as being in conflict with my faith, since God can choose to create life through the laws of Chemistry, if He wishes. But for me to believe in naturalistic explanations even if the evidence doesn’t support them commits me (I feel) to interpreting the world naturalistically as a basic assumption regardless of evidence. To be consistent, then, I would then need to apply the same approach to history as I do to science. This would be the end of my Christian faith, as it would require me to abandon belief in a supernatural explanation for Jesus’ life, if a naturalistic explanation is even remotely possible. After all, this is what we do with the origin of life, and other puzzles in the sciences.

In another message:

The difficulty for me comes in deciding whether a Christian worldview is a contender in the academic setting. Science and other knowledge, such as historical knowledge, cannot be severed from each other. Thus, the methods of scientific inquiry spill over into other areas, including historical inquiry. And this inquiry is now comprehensive – it seeks to understand all of human experience, including historical and religious. Thus, a scientific-historical inquiry into the origins of Christianity must, following this reasoning, seek a natural explanation of Christ and the origins of the church. Likewise, it seeks to understand our religious experiences and why we believe in God and Christ through a natural process, such as evolutionary forces. This implies, by methodological naturalism, that we must seek to understand our belief in God, not on grounds of His existence and that He has impressed this knowledge on us, but on grounds of evolutionary forces, neurological processes, and so forth. We must seek to understand how our minds make us believe in something for which there is no real evidence, where “real evidence” here can only be what falls into the realm of the natural. The goal is to explain how and why we believe in something like a resurrection. It is taken for granted that this belief is ungrounded from rationality, since it implies a miracle, which is a priori rejected.

If one accepts methodological naturalism consistently as the basis for academic inquiry and rational thought, it follows that Christianity and religious belief have no place in the university, or in rational discussions, except to do autopsy on them. We must concede that a scientific-historical understanding of Christianity must be built with no reference to the possibility that He rose from the dead. We must accept that our own beliefs must be explained in evolutionary and neurological terms, without reference to the possibility that they are true. If we do this, what do we say to a Christian who wishes to become a historian of the first century church in academia? What do we say to a Christian in a department of religious studies? I think a retreat of a Christian worldview from the pool of live options in the intellectual community reduces our knowledge of God to mere “private feelings” and not universal truth.

Oxford from aboveI think he makes many good points here, worth discussion. The attitude in academia and much of intellectual life today demands rigorous secular naturalism. Faith is ridiculed and not allowed a place at the table, especially in the US. The world view of secular naturalism and secular humanism makes it hard to stand as a Christian in the sciences. I think that it is even harder at times in the social sciences and humanities. But if we take our faith seriously it is not something bracketed off to a corner. It permeates all parts of life, including our intellectual life, our approach to academic disciplines, and our work life. Intellectual integrity demands a coherent, consistent approach to problems and a willingness to consider and incorporate all of the evidence

As I reflect on this, the thinkers who have had the biggest impact on my growth as a Christian are those who look at the evidence rigorously and allow the Christian worldview a place at the table. This is most apparent in areas of theology and biblical studies. The academic method is naturalism. Dominic Crossan explicitly rules out miracles in the books I read (because they don’t happen), J. A. T. Robinson the same. In contrast NT Wright argues from the evidence with a mind open to the work of God, both miraculous and “natural” (see for example The Resurrection of the Son of God or Surprised by Hope). CS Lewis (Mere Christianity and many other works), Larry Hurtado (Lord Jesus Christ), Scot (Jesus and His Death), and Pete Enns (Inspiration and Incarnation), provide other examples of a similar approach. I could list others as well. These authors will encounter resistance in the secular academy – but it comes for allowing a Christian worldview, not for presenting weak scholarship. NT Wright has had an enormous influence on me – not because I always agree with him, but because he was one of the first “modern” writers I read who modeled for me what seemed a viable approach to rigorous thinking that also takes the Christian worldview seriously.

In my experience, the most damaging works are not the secular writers, Dominic Crossan or Bart Ehrman for example, but the Christian apologists who present untenable arguments and rely on foundations built on sand, what I have called elsewhere “evangelical ghetto thinking.” These are arguments that appeal to the faithful, make no sense to the outsider, and become stumbling blocks for the Christian student and scholar as he or she advances into graduate school and beyond. The question is raised – if this is the best Christianity has to offer as a response, can there be any validity to Christian faith? This is a question that I struggled with for many years.

The same is true in any discussion of science – the damage done by shoddy intellectual work in the name of Intelligent Design compounds the problems in the academy by providing no ground on which Christian scientists, students, and scholars can stand; subjecting the Christian worldview to unnecessary ridicule; and providing an excuse for dismissing it from the table. I appreciate Stephen Meyer’s heart for Christ, I think his approach to intelligent design is worth having on the table for discussion. I am not interested in disproving design arguments. I find the unfortunately weak science in some of the intelligent design literature disturbing because it indicates poor scholarship, uncharitable treatment of others by failing to interact with arguments and data fairly, and introduces problems for Christians and seekers alike who are troubled by the science and faith questions. I am interested in promoting critical thought, evaluating the arguments on their strengths, and pointing out the weaknesses where they exist. Failure to do so will undermine any possible good arising from the consideration of design.

Thoughts, opinions, comments?

How do you think the Christian worldview can find a place at the table?

Who has had the greatest influence on your thinking and why?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you would like to comment please see Design, Secular Naturalism, and “Acceptable” Worldviews at Jesus Creed.

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