Who counts as a naturalist?
Unless, that is, they have independent means of ontological support. For god, this support comes from historically entrenched religious traditions that vigorously meme supernaturalism. These traditions, of course, take advantage of evolved human psychology: our disposition to read intention into the world, our distaste for death, and our tribal tendency to form in-groups built around shared ideology. All of these supply fertile ground for belief in a supervisory creator who has special concern for our tribe (not the other guy’s), and in an immaterial soul that survives to join him in the hereafter. So explanatory displacement notwithstanding, supernaturalism lives on.
Still, as science advances, believers feel the heat of god’s explanatory irrelevance. Writing in the New York Times about Pope Benedict’s seminar on evolution, Ian Fisher reports that
…Father Fessio and others say the pope, based on his statements and writings, remains deeply concerned specifically about the contention among some supporters of modern evolution that the theory refutes any role of God in creation.So how do we keep god in the picture? Well, by claiming he’s needed to get the ball rolling. After that, material, mechanical processes, such as natural selection, take over. We won’t find god’s intention written directly in the fossil record or in our DNA, but he still gets the credit. Not bad for a day’s work.
‘Given this ideology, the temptation or danger is real to say that you don’t have any need of God, that the spirit doesn’t exist,’ said Msgr. Fiorenzo Facchini, an Italian priest and paleoanthropologist. ‘And the church should keep guard against this and denounce it.’
This move, of course, begs the question of where god came from. For those seriously interested in explanations, this question spikes god, since positing a further mystery (a creator) to explain a more proximate mystery (the origins of life and the universe) simply multiplies mysteries. But for those wanting a fig leaf of explanatory relevance for god, his role as Very Remote Controller is just the ticket. It gives him at least a bit part to play, and thus (if we don’t ask too many questions) a quasi-rational reason to believe in him, apart from wanting to be reassured about death and our privileged place in the universe.
The same sort of dynamic, curiously enough, is being played out in a discussion among a group of religious naturalists (RNs) associated with the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science (I'm a member and a participant in the discussion). The issue, essentially, is about the scope of religious naturalism itself. All parties to the debate count themselves as naturalists insofar as they all claim that nature is all there is – there’s no additional supernatural realm. But the question that divides them is: What is nature? What is its ontology? This question has bite, since if we can’t agree about the nature of nature, then the designation “religious naturalist” may not be particularly informative.
Some RNs think that nature is, in some sense, benevolent or purposive. It has a direction - a teleology - that we participate in, for example in having evolved to become intelligent creatures. Among the most florid expressions of natural teleology is the belief in “evolutionary enlightenment” and “conscious evolution” as championed by New Age gurus Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilbur. But there are less specific, milder versions as well, in which nature includes a force for good, such that things are working out for the best. We live, perhaps, in a Panglossian universe.
What’s happened here, of course, is that god’s role as intentional creator, supervisor, and protector has been transmuted into an aspect of nature. Nature has us and our interests in mind, so to speak. But just as there is no good scientific explanatory justification for god, there’s no good scientific justification, at least not yet, for imputing to nature either benevolence or purpose. Such notions play no role in currently accepted scientific theories; they have no explanatory relevance. Instead, the same human psychology that drives belief in god is driving belief in a cosmos that has a purpose we can latch onto. People very much want there to be something more beyond chance and necessity, and even those who’ve abjured traditional theistic consolations will sometimes read into nature what they’re so strongly motivated to find.
All sorts of comforting beliefs about nature are consistent with science, since science can’t prove that nature has no purpose, just as it can’t prove the non-existence of god. Just as Francis Collins in his new book The Language of God can confidently assert that his belief in a Remote Controller is consistent with his belief in natural selection, so too can self-described religious naturalists assert that their belief in cosmic benevolence is consistent with science. There may not yet be hard evidence for benevolence, but it can’t be categorically ruled out.
The defense against what’s very likely wishful thinking is to stick to the ontology science positively supports. Without the constraint of having positive evidence for an existence claim, then there’s almost no limit to what we can claim about nature, in which case the concept of the natural becomes too loose to distinguish it from the supernatural. To count yourself meaningfully as a naturalist, as opposed to supernaturalist, therefore requires you to cite good evidence for your conception of nature. Empiricism and naturalism go hand in hand.