International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Naturalism and Religion

by Kai Nielsen

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

Naturalism is fine as long as we are concerned with the world of stones and stars, of mountains and lakes, and processes like evaporation and cloud formation. It can also be extended to humans and animals as biological entities, even to thoughts and feelings as emergent phenomena from neuron firings. Science has accomplished all this and more. But there is the age-old need for religion, of one kind or another. In that context naturalism is not always helpful.  “Naturalism denies that there are any spiritual or supernatural realities” [29], and that makes religion irrelevant. But, as Kai Nielsen points out in Naturalism and Religion, atheism, socially speaking, can be as dangerous as dogmatic religion: take Stalin and Pol Pot for example.

So, if we can blend naturalism with humanism, that would be great, for religions certainly have deeply humanistic dimensions as well. That is the project of this erudite, insightful, and much needed volume by an eminent contemporary philosopher.

Naturalism and Religion is divided in three parts. First there are thorough discussions of naturalism and religion from many perspectives. Here, the book deals with how naturalism explains religion, and the naturalist’s assumption “that it has been well established that there are no sound reasons for religious belief” [35]. Nielsen analyzes what it means to be a full-fledged secularist. He also writes, in reference to the Resurrection, that “the notions of inert bodies being reenergized or even particles of dust being brought together and formed again into a single body… are logical possibilities,” and adds, “to say that something is logically possible is not to say much” [80]. In the discussion on the meaning of life and questions such as “What (if anything) is worth seeking”, he holds that that “such questions are neither meaningless nor questions calling for esoteric answers” [120].

Though respectful of religions, the book explains religions as having emerged from deep human needs, ruling out the supernatural. At the same time, the book accepts that religion has a deeply experiential dimension. Therefore, any amount of sound and rational description and explanation of religion has nothing to do with religious belief.

Part Two is a very exhaustive appraisal of arguments in favor of and against naturalism, as presented by various leading thinkers of our time. Here we read about challenges  to naturalism as well as the author’s exchanges with another leading philosopher, Sidney Hook. There follows, in Chapter 8, an analysis of Anthony Flew’s humanistic atheism. This part offers a rich bird’s eye view of the literature on the subject of the past few decades, and is thus both instructive and informative.

The third part of the book is a systematic analysis of Wittgenstein’s approach which challenges naturalism and secularism. Here the author points out that “there can be, and are, atheistical friends of religion, and… even some people who are antireligious religious persons” [358].

Beyond its detailed exposition, with its massive references, this work serves as a sourcebook on twentieth century perspectives and debates on naturalism and religion.