Thursday, December 21, 2006

Do We Really Need Another "Ism"?

Some of those skeptical about faith-based religions and other non-empirical belief systems seem equally skeptical about whole-heartedly endorsing any worldview. They don’t particularly want to sign on to another “ism,” something which might be, or turn into, a fixed creed or ideology. Or perhaps as staunchly independent thinkers they don’t want to be pinned down or pigeonholed – no labels on me, thank you very much. Although they might endorse a rational, empirical approach to justifying beliefs and not have any truck with the supernatural, they balk at describing themselves as naturalists.

Fair enough. The skeptical, independent habit of mind underlying this refusal is exactly the cognitive virtue naturalism encourages. And indeed, those suspicious of naturalism as an ism – a potentially restrictive ideology – are welcome to expose it as such. If naturalism can be shown defective, for instance because it imposes cognitive blinders, limits the range of human experience, or blunts our engagement with the world and each other, then it must yield to whatever worldview does better in these respects. (How’s that for being non-defensive?)

Absent this critique, however, those who are naturalists in all but name might consider coming out as such (although the countersuggestible among them likely won’t). Atheists, secular humanists, skeptics and freethinkers are basically naturalistic in their worldview; a science-based, rational, empirical naturalism is their philosophical lodestone, even if it isn’t always explicit. Naturalism simply names the worldview that holds the world is of a piece, not divided into the natural vs. the supernatural, and naturalists are simply those that subscribe to naturalism.

To count yourself a thorough-going naturalist is, however, to go beyond what many atheists, humanists and skeptics currently are willing to accept. Denying god is fine, but denying contra-causal free will? That’s a real problem for many. Nor will the progressive implications of a thorough-going naturalism be particularly palatable to secular conservatives. If they consider themselves true-blue naturalists, they must either formulate a naturalized notion of contra-causal agency (very difficult!), or deny there are progressive, humanistic implications of seeing that we’re fully caused creatures. Such critiques are welcome since naturalism is by definition based on open inquiry.

But again, do we really need another ism, in this case naturalism? Well, if it’s an accurate, convenient label for what you believe on careful consideration to be the case, make use of it. Not to name your worldview, after all, leaves it at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace of belief, what Susan Blackmore would call the “meme-o-sphere.”


Blogger Juno Walker said...

Yeah, Tom, I struggle with this too. I don't have anything against calling myself a naturalist, or an atheist, or a secular humanist. But I have a sneaking suspicion that there is confusion (amongst those who don't hold these views) as to what is meant by these terms. Of course, that's one of the reasons I started my blog.

I shamefully admit that I take considerable pride in outing myself as an atheist when among Christians - fundamentalist or otherwise. But I would probably shy away from calling myself a religious naturalist. I finally read Goodenough's book and it was wonderful. And I joined the religiousnaturalism group over at Yahoo. And I can't deny that I have what can only be called the 'religious impulse' of seeking meaning, and feeling wonder and awe at the natural world. But I just have this feeling that if I call myself a religious naturalist that most people won't have a clue what I'm talking about!

I like the idea of The Brights, but I don't think that meme has caught on, really. I typically just tell people I have a naturalistic worldview - and then go on to explain what that entails; and sometimes I just say I'm a Secular Humanist, and then go on and explain what that entails. A lot of explaining to do!

Oh, well. That's why we have these discussions, I guess.


Dec 30, 2006, 5:53:00 PM  
Blogger ShellyD said...

I'm happy to call myself a naturalist, now that the dictionary put to rest my one fear:

Naturalist: An advocate of the belief that the world can be understood in scientific terms.
Naturist: A nudist.

It's a crucial distinction! lol

Jan 2, 2007, 11:48:00 PM  
Blogger schemanista said...

Sign me up. "Naturalist" subsumes atheist, as far as I'm concerned but it also places me firmly in the "anti-supernaturalist" camp to distinguish me from all the other confusing varieties of atheism. I don't mind leading with my chin.

Jan 15, 2007, 3:05:00 PM  
Blogger Juno Walker said...

Tom -

I forgot to thank you for your incredibly kind plug of my blog on your Center for Naturalism newsletter.

So, thanks! I greatly appreciate it!


Jan 17, 2007, 1:34:00 PM  

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