Is Naturalism Losing Steam?

George Marsden

George Marsden, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame

Last week, Tom and I attended the national staff meetings for InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, which continued the theme of Campuses Renewed from our national staff conference in January. Our speakers could not have been better: historian George Marsden, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, who wrote the seminal book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (see our online book discussion for more details), and University of Cincinnati Provost Santa Ono, who serves on the InterVarsity Board of Trustees and impressed us all with both his vision for higher education and his bold-yet-winsome faith. Their talks were recorded, and I hope that we’ll be able to share them with you soon. Today, however, I want to share a question generated by Dr. Marsden’s talk. Next week, I’ll have a second, related question.


Is ideological natural losing its hold in the academy?

Dr. Marsden spoke on “The Soul of the American University Revisited,” updating the conditions he identified in his landmark history of Protestant higher education, The Soul of the American University, a 1994 book based on a 1991 essay published in First Things. In Soul, Marsden traced the path of American universities “From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief;” in this talk, Marsden asked “What has changed in the past 20 years?”

Again, I hope that we’ll be able to share the audio from the talk with you, because there was far more in the brief talk than I can reproduce here. Instead, I want to focus on just one of Dr. Marsden’s points:

Today, there is good reason to think that ideological naturalism is losing its monopoly on higher education.

Marsden, like many others, distinguished between methodological naturalism, which sets aside religious considerations temporarily for the purpose of research or teaching without making claims about the truth or falsehood of religious ideas, and ideological naturalism, which rejects religious claims outright. From Marsden’s perspective, ideological naturalism is losing steam within the academy, with more and more academics recognizing that science, though powerful, has clear limits and that a full understanding of human nature requires some degree of spirituality. Despite the sound and fury of the New Atheists, Marsden feels that, in general, the academy is becoming more open to spiritual concerns.

I’ve seen some evidence on this trend in my own research:

The profound postmodern skepticism of the humanities and social sciences undercuts ideological naturalism as well, since all truth claims — e.g. “Science can explain everything” — are interpreted as claims to power. This skeptical stance doesn’t necessarily help religious claims, except so far as it exposes problems with ideological naturalism.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t counter-trends. Sometime soon, we’ll publish a review of George Yancey’s new book Compromising Scholarship, which finds evidence of bias against evangelical and fundamentalist Christians within sociology, and the Martin Gaskell case demonstrates that opposition to religious beliefs is alive and well in the academy.

What has been your own experience? Do you agree with George Marsden that ideological naturalism is losing steam?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Joy commented on March 29, 2011 Reply

    There was an interesting discussion in our astronomy group. One professor, describing a relic of the big-bang seen in the grouping of galaxies said, “It is as if God had put a ruler in the sky -” He was cut short by another professor who said “No! Not G-O-D allowed here.” Pretty blatant methodological (if not idealogical) naturalism.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on March 29, 2011 Reply

      Wow – what a reaction to a mere simile! There does seem to be something about the words “God” and “Jesus” that make people jump. How did the first professor react?

    M. Harper commented on March 30, 2011 Reply

    I think very few academics really know of the distinction you are making. I’m also not sure many know of scientism. For example, I had a discussion with one of our established chemistry professors and asked him if he thought all we could know was what we discovered through science, to which he responded in the affirmative. I pointed out the scientism of that to him. Overall, maybe Marsden is right in that there is movement, but ideological (metaphysical) naturalism and scientism are almost a default belief. The ease to which we fall into that needs to be overcome by pointing out this distinction and backing it up with good reasons and teaching that undermine the naturalism and scientism. Vigilence remains a need.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on March 30, 2011 Reply

      Excellent point. I think you’re right, and I’ve also found that few working scientists are aware of the developments in the philosophy of science over the past 50 year – or see it as relevant to their own work if they are aware of it.

      Have you found effective ways of helping others see the distinction between methodological and ideological naturalism? William Lane Craig makes some good points about the limits of science in this YouTube clip of his debate with Peter Atkins, but I wouldn’t recommend this rapid-fire, bullet-point approach in everyday conversation.

        M. Harper commented on March 31, 2011 Reply

        I agree that scientist would really benefit from a philosophy of science class. Hand in hand with this, although less abstract, is navigating the options of how science and religion relate instead of just buying that they are automatically in confict.

        Any chance I get I try to drive home that methodological naturalism in no way entails metaphysical naturalism. I think trying to make that non-sequitur as clear as possible is one of the simplest ways to get the point across. That at a minimum opens up the possibility of there being knowledge beyond that derived by natural science.

    Katelin commented on March 30, 2011 Reply

    Naturalism and scientism are both alive and well in my field. There is a strong sense that anything that can’t be proven scientifically isn’t worth knowing and in fact doesn’t exist. My own methodological naturalism as a scientist is met with skeptical and a distrust of my biases. A difficult environment.

    Observe a resent conversation with a colleague:
    “If religion is useful for the aspects of the universe that cannot be proven, as you argue, what are those aspects? I’m having trouble thinking of a single, unprovable idea that would be interesting or useful for explaing the universe we live in. Guardian angels, miracles, unicorns, prayer, the idea that the lord of the rings trilogy is literally true, magical powers, of course the idea of God himself, are all unprovable ideas. Things that cannot be proven cannot be considered to be a part of the universe, not even theoretically. Of course you can’t prove that unprovable things are not part of the universe, but this is precisely what makes them utterly useless for coming to (valid) conclusions about the universe.

    For the unprovable ideas that I was referring to, there is no empirical or theoretical way of proving it. For example, if someone postulates that there is a magical, invisible unicorn that watches over each person, there would be no way to prove this idea. Objections to the notion of a personal unicorn on grounds of a lack of evidence or viable experiment would be countered by the assertion, “well of course there is no way to find evidence for personal unicorns, they are invisible and magical!”. If you choose to be a believer in personal unicorns, you would simply have to have faith in their existence. God is included in this category of unprovable ideas.

    My argument is that the belief in God is no different from the belief in unicorns. I argue that Ideas that are unprovable without the aid of ad hoc arguments are not useful for coming to conclusions about the natural world.”

      Micheal Hickerson commented on March 30, 2011 Reply


      How frustrating! In those 3 paragraphs, I counted roughly a half dozen claims made by your colleague that can’t be proven empirically or “theoretically” (whatever that’s supposed to mean – through reasoning? logic? there’s a slippery slope).

      Have you asked this person whether numbers exist?

    Katelin commented on March 30, 2011 Reply

    Yeah…we’ve been back and forth and around and around. Pointed out her own unprovable statements, shared with her several mathematical proofs for the existence of the unprovable, and talked about modern theories of physics and astronomy. It has been an interesting conversation, if circular. Happy to share the dialog in full if you are interested. It was a relationship that really got me down for a while, but hopefully I am back on my feet now.

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