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Naturalism arouses strong emotions. Some see it as a banner to follow, some as the enemy to fight. Theological or religious naturalism is even more controversial: Is it truly religious? And if so, is it still naturalism? However, naturalism is a clear and unified category until one begins to think and read about it. The entry will consider four contexts in which the term arises. Thereafter, some issues in and varieties of theological or religious naturalism will be considered.

Four contexts and contrasts

P. F. Strawson distinguishes in his Skepticism and Naturalism (1985) between "soft" and "hard" naturalism. Soft naturalism refers to what human beings ordinarily do and believe about, for example, colors, feelings, and moral judgments. When a painting is "naturalist," it is so in a soft sense. Hard naturalism refers to attempts to view human behavior in an objective light as events in nature. Strawson argues that these two ways of viewing the world are compatible, but if he has to choose, he opts for soft naturalism. Critics, however, argue that soft naturalism plays down insights about the structures of reality "behind" experience, and thus avoids genuine engagement with the sciences and secular thought. The remainder of this entry deals with forms of hard naturalism, as science not only extends but also corrects the soft natural understanding of reality.

Science is a human practice; its insights may be useful, but why might they be considered true? Cultures with particular social norms survived, but why would one call the intuitions and practices that have evolved good? Can one distinguish truth from mere beliefs, ethics from evolved morality? In this context naturalism stands in contrast to normative views of epistemic or moral values and procedures. Naturalists in this sense tend to deny that any demarcation between science and nonscientific activities, or between moral preferences and ethics, could be absolute. At the same time, however, such naturalists prefer science over pseudoscience and thus live by a distinction between what can be justified and what cannot. Naturalists who seek to ascribe normative standing to science and morality without introducing an absolute realm of values, truths, or procedures, may connect humble origins via a long trajectory across many thresholds to more lofty convictions that, in the end, need not be all too different from traditional ones on ethics and epistemology. For a naturalist, in the sense considered in this paragraph, the transition from description to prescription is never beyond modification, though hopefully approximating the true and good.

In anthropological reflections on the human person as one who acts, thinks, and experiences in this world, naturalism stands primarily in contrast to positions such as rationalism, which are not much interested in the way mental capacities are embodied. Naturalism invites the understanding of humans as materially constituted, owing their abilities to an evolutionary history of billions of years. Within the scientific community and within debates in the philosophy of mind, research projects such as embodied artificial intelligence and connectionism seem to indicate a shift away from the dualistic tendencies of rationalism. The challenge for the naturalist is similar to the one mentioned above: If human beings are nothing but messy natural processes, what can be said of the distinct character of consciousness, ideas, feelings, and the like?

A fourth context where naturalism arises is in contrast to supernaturalism, that is, in relation to theological and metaphysical reflections on transcendence and the ways in which transcendence might manifest itself in ordinary reality. In this context, some consider naturalism to be identical to atheism, but this need not be the case.

Naturalism and natural science

Naturalism often refers to a view of the world that follows the natural sciences as its main guide for understanding the world and human nature. Such a naturalism is not formally implied by the sciences because other logically coherent constructions may be possible, including less restrictive forms of naturalism, such as the one advocated by the Whiteheadian process philosopher David R. Griffin in his Religion and Scientific Naturalism (2000).

With respect to ontology, science-inspired naturalism holds that all objects, including human beings, consist of the stuff described by chemists in the periodic table of elements. This stuff is further understood to consist of elementary particles and forces, and beyond that is assumed to consist of quantum fields, superstrings, or whatever. Such a naturalist must grant that human knowledge has not reached rock bottom. Hence, naturalism cannot be articulated from a fundamental ontology upwards. Nor need it imply that all phenomena can be described in terms of physics and chemistry. A conceptual and explanatory nonreductionism may be possible, arguing that higher level properties and entities have their own causal efficacy, just as future entities will be real and causally efficacious even when they are produced by present ones.

With respect to history, naturalism understands living beings, including humans, as the current stage in a bundle of Darwinian evolutionary histories on the planet, which is itself a transient phenomenon in a universe that has been expanding for some fifteen billion years. These insights do not commit one to a particular view on processes near the "beginning of time," if there is one. It is with history as with ontology: Fundamental issues about the beginning of the universe and the nature of time, space, and substance need not be settled for the naturalist.

Naturalism sees social and mental life as one of the fruits of the long evolutionary process. The "understanding" of science and philosophy is one facet of this, even when it reflects upon its own emergence. Naturalism holds that this is not a vicious circularity. Rather, science and other intellectual enterprises can be seen as building upon human capacities for dealing with their environment, improved piecemeal over many generations. Science is seen as a social phenomenon that is cognitively reliable, and increasingly so. Philip Kitcher argues well in The Advancement of Science (1993) that the human, historical, and social character of science need not undermine scientific credibility.

The difference between integrity and self-sufficiency

Explanations of facts always assume an explanatory framework of laws and earlier conditions. Conditions and laws can be explained on the basis of other such assumptions. The various sequences of explanations, if pursued persistently, converge via biology and chemistry on the desks of physicists and cosmologists. Their disciplines form a boundary of the natural sciences, where speculative questions with respect to a naturalist view of the world come most explicitly to the forefront. The questions left at the metaphorical "last desk" are questions about the world as a whole, its existence and structure, and not only questions about its beginning. The development of science may change the actual ultimate questions considered at any time. However, naturalism need not imply the dismissal of such limit questions as answerable or meaningless, nor need it imply one particular answer to such limit questions.

Given the lawful integrity of the world as disclosed by the sciences, one may distinguish four views of God's relation to natural reality and its regularities, two of which might be considered naturalistic. These two views are often conflated, to the disadvantage of the religious one. First, a theist might hold that God may act against the laws of nature. Whereas on the basis of natural processes one would expect a to happen, God makes b occur. Such a view of God's relation to the world has adverse consequences for one's esteem for God's creation (which includes the laws), since created reality is apparently of such a kind that God has to interfere against God's own creation. Second, some authors in the religion and science field argue that there is enough looseness (contingency) in the web God created in the first place to allow for particular divine actions, without going against any laws of nature. This looseness might perhaps be located in complex and chaotic systems or at the quantum level. The natural order could result in a number of different outcomes, say a, b, c, and d, and God makes it that c happens rather than a, b, or d. This view depends on contingency of an ontological kind in nature, whether at the quantum level or elsewhere.

Naturalism need not deny the existence of such contingency in nature; perhaps natural reality is hazy and underdetermined. However, naturalists would in general abstain from supplementing natural reality with supranatural determining factors. Chance is taken as chance and not as divine determination. Naturalism accepts that nature is, when one considers the level of causal interactions, complete, without theologically relevant holes. As created reality, the natural world has an integrity that need not be supplemented within its web of interactions. However, this integrity is not to be confused with self-sufficiency; it does not imply that natural reality owes its existence to itself or is self-explanatory. Thus, it is important to distinguish between naturalism as emphasizing the integrity of the natural world (the third view), and naturalism as claiming also the self-sufficiency of the natural world (the fourth view).

Arguments about the self-sufficiency of reality need to be different from arguments about explanations within reality. This difference is often neglected in atheistic arguments that appeal to science, such as Peter Atkins in The Creation (1981), in which he claims that science is about to explain everything. He traces back everything to a beginning of utmost simplicity, but he cannot do so without assuming real existence and a framework wherein certain rules and mathematics apply. A naturalist need not assume the self-sufficiency of the framework when seeing the framework itself as a whole that has integrity.

Transcendence: some naturalistic options

A naturalist who appreciates the integrity and lawfulness of reality can still conceive of a creator of this framework, the ground of its existence. This is best understood as a nontemporal notion. When God is not seen as one who interferes, the alternative is not to see God as the creator who started it all a long time ago but rather to think of God as the one who gives all moments and places of reality their existence and order. In such a way, one can combine a naturalist view of reality with theistic dualism, understanding the natural world as a whole as creation, dependent upon a transcendent creator. This might be articulated with the help of a distinction between primary and secondary causality, or between temporal processes in the world and timeless dependence of the temporally extended world on God. Such a view emphasizes, as do the monotheistic traditions, the distinction between God and everything that is not God.

The ontological dualism characteristic of such a naturalistic-theistic position is unattractive to many naturalists, who are concerned that any reference to a creator or ground introduces a supernaturalism that diminishes the integrity of the natural. Such naturalists might be attracted to a pantheist view, denying ontological duality of the natural and the divine; the natural is in some sense the divine. Traditional attributes of the divine, such as atemporality and omnipresence, can be associated with the laws of nature, which are upon this view not so much rooted in a transcendent source but immanent in natural reality. Reality may be causa sui in that quantum theories may allow a temporal universe to emerge, and at a smaller scale self-organization is characteristic of many processes. However, as in the preceding case, pantheistic answers are invoking further questions and objections, just as the theistic answer always allows for the further question about why such a god would exist.

A third option is an agnostic stance. Milton Munitz defends in his Cosmic Understanding (1986) that any actual theory of the universe is conceptually bounded; there might be a dimension of reality "beyond" any such account, but it could not be expressed adequately in language. "We shall be driven, consequently, and at the end, to silence, although the 'talk' on the way, if at all helpful, will have had its value in making the silence a pregnant one, and indeed an occasion for having an over-ridingly important type of human experience" (p. 231). Similarly, in his In Face of Mystery (1993), the theologian Gordon Kaufman points out various problems with the dualistic language of theism, as if we on this side of the great divide can know that which is on the other side; our knowledge of the world in which we live "always shades off into ultimate mystery, into an ultimate unknowing" (p. 326). Emphasizing "mystery," not-knowing is a safe strategy. However, it does not offer much guidance as to particular choices to be made in life; the notion of mystery is more epistemic than axiological or ontological.

These different theological viewsthe theist, the pantheist, and the mysterianistare all generally compatible with a science-inspired naturalist understanding of reality. The way they are articulated and defended may be influenced by current scientific theories, but variants of these positions can be formulated again and again.

A different naturalistic challenge: religion as a phenomenon

Science-inspired naturalism is a challenge for religion since it presents a view of the world that differs from traditional religious images. This leads in religion and science to conflicts between science and religiously motivated beliefs, such as creationism. However, a naturalist view also considers religions as phenomena within reality. Thus, they can be studied just like other human practices. The neurosciences may inform us of aspects of our constitution that give rise to our "inner life." And in an evolutionary perspective most naturalists would explain the emergence of religions functionally along lines similar to explanations for political institutions, languages, and other social phenomena: Religions arose because they contributed to the inclusive fitness of individuals or communities in which they arose and which in turn were shaped by them. An alternative could be that religions arose as a side effect with the emergence of some other trait, such as the rise of consciousness. Thus, naturalists might see religions with their myths and rituals as valuable means of dealing with the challenges of life. However, a contested issue then becomes whether we should take the vehicles (the rituals, myths, narratives, conceptualities, etc) seriously as cognitive claims, or whether those who want to take the cognitive claims seriously should reject the functional naturalistic approach.

Religious naturalism as thick naturalism

Religious naturalism might be understood as a "thick" naturalism, with idiosyncratic elements that allow for a decent amount of coping with the vicissitudes of life, with stories that support values and motivate humans. The notion "thick" is appropriated here from a distinction made by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz between thin and thick descriptions of a culture. Whereas the one offers a fairly abstract and general (thin) description, the other concentrates on the multitude of habits, beliefs, skills, narratives, and the like, which make for a more tightly woven whole.

For the history of religious naturalism one might refer to philosophers, scientists, and theologians of various backgrounds, including Henry Nelson Wieman, George Santayana, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, Ralph Burhoe, Mordecai Kaplan, and Jack J. Cohen, and to some extent even Alfred North Whitehead and William James (there is a huge overlap between religious naturalism and American pragmatism). Beyond the last century and a half, one may go back further in time and claim to be heirs of Spinoza as well as of other pantheistic scientists. Claiming these as ancestors is to some extent appropriation out of context, but that is precisely the intellectually ambivalent practice that strengthens identity. These "ancestors" were all perceived as somewhat heretical in their times, while standing in close contact with, if not being part of, the scientific communityprecisely the mix that may fit contemporary religious naturalism.

Like any subculture, religious naturalism is not uniform. To the contrary, as in any living community there have arisen dialects, with different speakers giving their own interpretations to the words. There are Christian and humanist dialects of religious naturalism, as well as biological, psychological, and physicalist ones, all of which reflect upbringing, training, and heritage, as well as needs and situations. Some dialects are dialects of another tradition as well, just as the local dialect near the border of the Netherlands is considered by some to be a dialect of Dutch, whereas others treat it as a dialect of German. Thus, liberal or revisionist forms of theology may be read as forms of Christianity, as well as of religious naturalism. There is a wide range of personal styles, from the sober, minimalist, and analytical (e.g., Jerome Stone, Charley Hardwick) to the evocative (e.g., Ursula Goodenough). Religious naturalism has become an umbrella that covers a variety of dialects, of which some are revisionary articulations of existing traditions, whereas others may be more purely naturalistic religions indebted almost exclusively to the sciences. There are family resemblances, with affinities and disagreements, but not unity.

See also Supernaturalism


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willem b. drees

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Naturalism is a term that stands for a family of positions that endorse the general idea of being true to, or guided by, nature, an idea as old as philosophy itself (e.g., Aristotle is often called a naturalist) and as various and open-ended as interpretations of nature. Since the rise of the modern scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, nature has come to be identified increasingly with the-world-as-studied-by-the-sciences. Consequently, naturalism has come to refer to a set of positions defined in terms of the scientific image of nature or the methods of scientific inquiry. This brief article focuses upon explicating three versions of this modern scientific naturalism: (1) naturalism in the arts, especially literature; (2) philosophical naturalism; and (3) naturalism in the social sciences. These different naturalisms involve different ways of appealing to science, whether it be adopting a scientific stance toward human and social life, or a broadly empirical approach to inquiry in some area, or a scientific world-view, or some combination of these.


Naturalism in the field of the arts refers to art that depicts everyday subjects in a realistic manner, free from stylization, idealization, and academic convention. Although naturalism has been used to describe a style of painting since the late seventeenth century (e.g., Caravaggios), it only became an important term of art criticism in the nineteenth century when it was applied to painters such as Gustave Courbet (18191877). Naturalism as a literary category was first applied to a genre of French fiction exemplified by the writings of Émile Zola (18401902), which built on the antiromantic realist fiction of Gustave Flaubert (18211880) and Honoré de Balzac (17991850), writers who deliberately adopted a scientificthat is, detached and objectiveapproach to human life. The vision of the human depicted in naturalist literature owed much to a picture of the world suggested by Charles Darwins theory of evolution: a purposeless, Godless world of competitive striving where free will is an illusion. Under these historical and ideological influences, American literary naturalism arose in the 1890s as a reaction to the realist fiction of middle- and upper-class life of the 1870s and 1880sfor example, the novels of Henry James (18111882). Its chief exemplars include Stephen Crane (18711900), Theodore Dreiser (18711945), Jack London (18761916), and Frank Norris (18701902). The American school is typified by an anti-individualist view of humans as largely determined by environmental forces, frank and animalistic depictions of sex and violence, and an unflinching treatment of the harsh realities faced by immigrants and the working-class in modern industrialized U.S. cities.

It is important to note, however, that not all appeals to nature are to be understood in terms of an allegiance to naturalism. For example, the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882) and Henry David Thoreau (18171862)memorably, Thoreaus Walden (1854) reveal a vision of nature that challenges the assumptions of naturalism, particularly the idea that the objective is a matter of excluding the subjective. Although Emerson and Thoreau accepted that nature is everything that is distinct from ones own consciousness, they were interested in a larger reciprocity and interdependence of mind and nature that bears the influence of German philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (17241804) and F. W. von Schelling (17751854). Another example of an antinaturalist appeal to nature is the tradition of thinking about human conduct and law in terms of natural rights, or the related, but older, idea of natural law. Here the appeal to nature refers to principles or rules of conduct that are given as opposed to humanly constructed. In this tradition what is naturally given is typically understood as a matter of Gods law. Naturalism, of course, is strongly opposed to theism.


Modern philosophy recognizes two basic strains of naturalism: ontological naturalism and methodological naturalism. Ontological naturalism takes the subject matter of the natural sciences as its model of the genuinely real. A leading advocate, David Armstrong, holds that reality consists of nothing but a single all-embracing spatiotemporal system (1980, p. 149). He is representative in thinking that this implies a conception of nature as a single unified causal order. This ontological outlook is primarily meant to exclude supernatural entities such as the Christian God, demons, spirits, and soulsnone of which are the subject matter of a natural science. Naturalism can accommodate religion, however, but only to the extent that it is interpreted as a certain kind of experience which can be understood without any commitment to the existence of supernatural entities or events (e.g., angels, miracles).

It is important to note that ontological naturalism comes in more or less reductive forms depending upon ones attitude to the social (or human) sciences. Typically, naturalists favor a reductive formbecause they tend to share a skeptical attitude to the social (or human) sciencesclaiming that the natural world is nothing but the world posited by the explanations of the natural sciences exclusively (e.g., physics, chemistry, and biology). This, in turn, leads to a sharp contrast between the scientific image of the world and the manifest image of everyday human experience. Consequently, contemporary metaphysicians ask how we can place items in the manifest image (e.g., reasons, meanings, moral goodness, and aesthetic values) within the scientific image. Such debates within naturalism are often conducted in a semantic key. That is, the question is one about how we are to interpret the core concepts of a target nonscientific discourse given a scientific view of nature. For instance, how are we to account for or refer to anything in nature? If not, are the sentences in which it occurs true or false, for our thought and talk about moral goodness? Does the term good refer to anything in nature? If not, are the sentences in which it occurs true or false, or do they play a nonfactual role? The semantic project of accounting for the function of nonscientific concepts in this way is called naturalization. Just how revisionary of ordinary ways of thinking this project is depends upon two important questions: whether there are irreducible and indispensable nonscientific forms of understanding, and whether one accepts the legitimacy and distinctiveness of the social sciences.

The second strain of philosophical naturalism is methodological naturalism, which takes scientific methods of inquiry as its model. It holds that nature as a whole is properly studied by the same empirical methods as those employed by the natural sciences. Because human beings are a part of nature, this implies that the study of human nature is continuous with the study of nonhuman nature. It also implies that knowledge is, properly speaking, scientific knowledge. W. V. Quine draws the radical conclusion that there is no a priori knowledge, thereby undermining traditional philosophy (see especially Quine 1964 and 1969). The question whether philosophy has any autonomy in relation to science has subsequently become an important topic of dispute.


Naturalism in the social sciences is usually understood as a form of skepticism about the legitimacy of the social sciences or, less drastically, the doctrine that the posits of these sciences are reducible in principle to the posits of paradigmatic natural sciences such as physics. However, there is nothing in naturalism itself that requires this dismissive or reductive approach to the ontology of the social sciences, and not all naturalists share it (e.g., pragmatists such as John Dewey). Notwithstanding, most writers in the social sciences understand naturalism primarily as a methodological doctrine: the view that the methods of inquiry of the natural sciences (e.g., the attempt to discover laws or law-like regularities, empirical testing and corroboration, a clear distinction between facts and values) are no less applicable to man than to naturethat is, to the study of people, society, morality, politics, and culture. Such methodological naturalism is often coupled with a rejection of the influential idea defended by Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911), Max Weber (18641920), and others that there is a fundamental difference between the scientific understanding of nature (Erklären ) and the sort of empathetic understanding of human beings that involves seeing things from the subjects point of view (Verstehen ).

An important debate in philosophy and the social sciences is whether we should follow the naturalistic identification of nature with the scientific image of the world. John McDowell, for example, has argued that it is a metaphysical prejudice to treat the disenchanted world of the natural and social sciences as exhausting our conception of nature. What it arguably leaves out of account is a richer conception of the world revealed to critical human thought and experience, one that includes sui generis normative phenomena such as reasons, meanings, and values.

SEE ALSO Atheism; Industrialization; Kant, Immanuel; Modernization; Natural Rights; Philosophy; Realism; Science; Scientific Method; Secular, Secularism, Secularization; Theism; Thoreau, Henry David


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David Macarthur

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nat·u·ral·ism / ˈnachərəˌlizəm/ • n. 1. (in art and literature) a style and theory of representation based on the accurate depiction of detail. 2. a philosophical viewpoint according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted. ∎  (in moral philosophy) the theory that ethical statements can be derived from nonethical ones. ∎ another term for natural religion.

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naturalism (in art)

naturalism, in art, a tendency toward strict adherence to the physical appearance of nature and rejection of ideal forms. Artists as diverse as Velázquez, J. F. Millet, and Monet, have followed naturalistic principles.

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Naturalism. Art in which the artist represents objects as they are, rather than in a stylized manner.


Chilvers, Osborne, & Farr (eds.) (1988);
Jervis (1984);
Jane Turner (1996)

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