Naturalism, or philosophical naturalism, is one of the most popular religions in the world today, although most people don’t recognize it as such because it has no obvious worship centers, clergy, liturgy, or holy book. It has adherents in every country and dominates many countries, especially among the intellectual elites in the culture. It is therefore important to understand this major religion and how it became so popular. But sadly, it has also had a very significant and largely unrecognized influence on the worldview of many Christians, which is an even greater reason for Christians to understand it.
Naturalism is known by other names: atheism, scientific materialism, and secular humanism. Atheists, secular humanists, and other advocates of naturalism will protest that their view is a religion, but would say it is the opposite of religion. So we need to begin by defining “religion.” According to the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, one definition of religion is “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” That obviously doesn’t apply to atheism. But another given by that dictionary certainly does apply: “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” Many people who hold to naturalism are just as passionate about their belief as the most convinced Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or adherents of any other religion.1
So what are the beliefs of naturalism? The most fundamental belief from which all others flow is that nature or matter is all that exists. It has always existed or it came into existence from nothing. There is nothing outside or before nature, i.e., the material universe that is studied by modern science. There is no God and no supernatural. Although nature has not always existed in its present form, what we see today is the result of time and chance and the laws of nature working on matter. Miracles are not possible, because they would be a violation of the laws of nature. Non-material things such as hopes, plans, behaviors, languages, logical inferences, etc., exist, but they are the result of and determined by material causes.
As Christian philosopher and theologian Ronald Nash summarizes:
Nature is a self-explanatory system. Any and every thing that happens within the natural order must, at least in principle, be explainable in terms of other elements of the natural order. It is never necessary to seek the explanation for any event within nature in something beyond the natural order.2
With this belief in place, other beliefs follow. So, there is no purpose or meaning to life — we are simply the product of time and chance and the laws of nature; there are no moral absolutes that apply to all people in all times; moral values are simply personal beliefs or opinions, which themselves are the result of chemical and physical processes controlling matter. Likewise, there is no life after death, for the laws of nature still apply and our bodies simply decay over time and are mixed in with other non-living matter in the earth.
The late William Provine, atheist and evolutionary professor of history of biology at Cornell University, put his naturalistic view this way:
Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either.3
The world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, similarly said, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.”4 The first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933. The first two articles of that document state, “FIRST, religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created” and “SECOND, humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process.” Flowing out of those two starting points, the fifth states, “FIFTH, humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. . . . Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.”5
It will readily be clear to any thoughtful non-naturalist that this worldview is self-refuting. If nature is all that exists and everything is the result of time and chance and the laws of nature, then the naturalist or atheist can have no trust that his thoughts are telling him the truth for they are the result of chemical and physical processes operating in his brain. In fact, in his religion or worldview, objective absolute truth does not exist. Of course, if everything is the result of material causes, then the naturalist has no valid explanation for the origin or truth of the laws of nature that he relies on to understand the world. And if there is no absolute right and wrong, then the atheist cannot object to what Hitler did to the Jews or to what Muslim suicide bombers do to innocent civilians in a shopping mall. Nor could he object if someone entered his home, robbing him of all his valuables and murdering his family. Hitler, the suicide bomber, and the robber/murderer are just doing what they think is right, but their thoughts are dictated by their own DNA, which is produced by purposeless, directionless chemical and physical processes. Of course, neither Provine nor Dawkins nor anyone else can really live according to this religion of naturalism. In fact, to live, the naturalist must steal from the Christian worldview to argue that there is some truth (including the laws of nature) and some things that are absolutely right or wrong.
How Naturalism Became a Dominant Religion
Today, the religion of naturalism/atheism culturally dominates the Western world and the communist world and is widespread among the cultural elites in many other countries dominated by other religions. In addition, many people who profess to believe another religion are significantly influenced by naturalism in their thinking, and outside of their attendance at religious services at their house of worship, they actually live like a naturalist/atheist. How did naturalism become such a widespread belief?
The roots of this modern dominance of the naturalistic religion or worldview can be found in the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries in Europe that elevated human reason to the place of supreme authority for determining truth and understanding ultimate reality. As a result, such thinkers rejected the authority of the Christian church and the Bible. From this philosophical starting point, both deism and atheism became popular in those same centuries.
Deism is a halfway house on the way to atheism and holds that there is a God who created the universe and endowed it with the laws of nature and then left it to operate and develop according to those laws. So God is distant and has not been involved in the creation since the beginning. Apart from the deists’ belief in a rather vaguely defined Creator God and a supernatural beginning to the creation, they were indistinguishable from atheists in their views of Scripture and physical reality.6 In deism, as in atheism, the Bible is merely a human book, containing errors, and not the inspired Word of God, and the history and function of the creation can be totally explained by the properties of matter and the “inviolable laws of nature” in operation over a long period of time.
Deists and atheists often disguised their true views, especially in England and America where they were not culturally acceptable. Many of them gained influential positions in the scientific establishment of Europe and America, where they subtly and effectively promoted naturalistic thinking. Brooke, noted historian of science, comments on the subtle influence of deistic forms of naturalism when he writes:
Without additional clarification, it is not always clear to the historian (and was not always clear to contemporaries) whether proponents of design were arguing a Christian or deistic thesis. The ambiguity itself could be useful. By cloaking potentially subversive discoveries in the language of natural theology, scientists could appear more orthodox than they were, but without the discomfort of duplicity if their inclinations were more in line with deism.7
But the effects of deistic and atheistic philosophy on biblical studies and Christian theology also became widespread on the European continent in the late 18th century and in Britain and America by the middle of the 19th century. As Reventlow concluded in his massive study:
We cannot overestimate the influence exercised by Deistic thought, and by the principles of the Humanist world-view which the Deists made the criterion of their biblical criticism, on the historical-critical exegesis of the nineteenth century; the consequences extend right down to the present. At that time a series of almost unshakeable presuppositions were decisively shifted in a different direction.8
Historians of science agree that modern science was born in the womb of the Christian worldview. The Bible teaches that the Creator is a God of order who created an orderly world to reveal His glory (Psalm 19:1–6). Also, man was created in the image of God with a rational mind, and from the beginning man was commanded to rule over the creation (Genesis 1:27–28). Therefore, man could and should study the creation to discover that order and learn how to use the creation for the good of mankind and the glory of God.
So the biblical worldview, which had dominated the Western nations for centuries, was rapidly being replaced by a naturalistic worldview. Science became the main instrument for producing this transformation. Scientists became the priests of that religion, and through them many others were won to that faith. To understand how this happened, we need to distinguish between two broad categories of science. I like to call them operation science and origin science.
Operation science (also called experimental science or observational science) is what most people have in mind when they hear the word “science.” I define it this way:
The use of observable, repeatable experiments in a controlled environment (usually in a laboratory) to understand how things operate or function in the present physical universe to find cures for disease, produce new technology, put a man on the moon, etc.
Most of biology, chemistry, physics, medical research, and engineering research are in the realm of operation science. Scientists in these fields are studying how things in the natural world operate or function so they can manipulate, copy, utilize, or destroy (harmful) things for the improvement of human life or the environment. This kind of science works on the assumption that the laws of nature are constant and apply everywhere in the universe. Without this assumption scientists would not be able to discover cures for disease or develop new technologies. So this kind of science is essentially naturalistic in methodology: God and miracles are not considered or invoked as an explanation of how things operate.
Bible-believing creation scientists engage in operation science the same way other scientists do, for Scripture indicates that what we call today the laws of nature are simply descriptive of how God normally upholds His creation by His sovereign providence and care (e.g., Genesis 8:22; Jeremiah 31:35–36; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3). But the laws of nature are not absolute and unchangeable (so that not even God can “violate” them). He altered or suspended some of those laws at the Fall when He cursed His “very good” original creation (Genesis 1:31) because of man’s sin (Genesis 3:14– 19; Romans 8:19–23) and at the Flood (Genesis 8:21) and in other localized events when He performed miracles, such as the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:19–31), the crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua 3:14–17), and in connection to the ministries of Old Testament prophets, New Testament apostles, and Jesus. Bible-believing scientists also cannot categorically rule out the possibility of God doing a miracle today (e.g., in a supernatural physical healing), although Scripture would lead them to believe that these would be on a personal level and extremely rare.
But while operation science is a source of new technology and cure for diseases, it cannot answer the question of how the Grand Canyon formed, for example. How did those horizontal layers of limestone, sandstone, and shale form? They are tens or hundreds of feet thick and cover thousands or tens of thousands of square miles. How were they deposited? In an ocean? In a desert? How long did it take for each layer to form and how much time passed between the layers and how long ago did it all happen? And how did the canyon form? It is 280 miles long (including Marble Canyon at the northeast end), 4–18 miles wide, and a mile deep. Was it carved by a little water eroding hard rock over a long period of time? The work of the Colorado River? Or was it caused by a lot of water eroding wet sediments or relatively soft rock in a short period of time?
Or how did stars and galaxies and the solar system come into existence? How did the first apple trees or rabbits or butterflies or people come into existence and how long ago? How did human language come about? These are historical questions. We can’t create any of these things in the laboratory. We can’t repeat these events and observe them occurring in the present. We want to know what happened in the unobserved past to produce what we observe in the present. Operation science can’t answer these questions because it is studying observable, repeatable processes in the present. At best, we can observe, say, erosion and sedimentation events today and by analogy suggest the cause or causes in the past that produced the Grand Canyon and the layers we see exposed. But we can’t re-create the Grand Canyon in the lab, and it dwarfs any canyons and sedimentary layers we see forming in recent times.
For historical questions we need what I like to call origin science (or historical science). I define it this way:
The use of reliable, eyewitness testimony (if any is available) and presently observable evidence to determine the past, unobservable, unrepeatable event or events which produced the observable evidence we see in the present.
Origin or historical sciences include historical geology, paleontology, archeology, and cosmology. They study things in the present to attempt to reconstruct the past. As Martin Rudwick, the leading historian of geology, explains:
Even at the opening of its “heroic age,” geology was recognized as belonging to an altogether new kind of science, which posed problems of a kind that had never arisen before. It was the first science to be concerned with the reconstruction of the past development of the natural world, rather than the description and analysis of its present condition. The tools of the other sciences were therefore inadequate. The processes that shaped the world in the past were beyond either experiment or simple observation. Observation revealed only their end-products; experimental results could only be applied to them analogically. Somehow the past had to be interpreted in terms of the present. The main conceptual tool in that task was, and is, the principle of uniformity.9
The success of operation science in producing technology, curing diseases, and raising the general standard of living caused people to trust science as the path to truth about the world. This trust was passed on to the new science of geology and then further to other areas of origin or historical science. So today, many people consider scientists or the scientific consensus to be the authority for determining truth.
As seen in the statements above by Provine and Dawkins, Darwinian evolution is a naturalistic reconstruction of the past to try to explain the origin of living organisms: microbes, plants, animals, and people. However, naturalism’s control of origin science did not begin with Darwin’s theory of evolution, but over 50 years earlier with the idea of millions of years in geology. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, deist and atheist scientists attempted to explain the origin of the world and unravel the history of the rocks and fossils. They did so by rejecting the truth of Genesis 1–11 and using the assumptions of naturalism, that nature is all there is and everything must be explained by time, chance, and the laws of nature.
Three prominent French scientists were very influential in this regard. In his Epochs of Nature (1778), Georges-Louis Comte de Buffon (1708–88) postulated that the earth was the result of a collision between a comet and the sun and had gradually cooled from a molten lava state over at least 75,000 years (a figure based on his study of cooling metals), though his unpublished writings indicate that he actually believed that the sedimentary rocks probably took at least three million years to form.10 Buffon was probably a deist or possibly a secret atheist.11 Pierre Laplace (1749–1827), an open atheist, published his nebular hypothesis in Exposition of the System of the Universe (1796).12 He imagined that the solar system had naturally and gradually condensed from a gas cloud during a very long period of time. In his Philosophy of Zoology (1809), Jean Lamarck (1744–1829), who straddled the fence between deism and atheism,13 proposed a theory of biological evolution over long ages, with a mechanism known as the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
New theories in geology were also being advocated at the turn of the 19th century as geology began to develop into a disciplined field of scientific study. Abraham Werner (1749–1817) was a German mineralogist and a deist14 or possibly an atheist.15 Although he published very little, his impact on geology was enormous, because many of the 19th century’s greatest geologists were his students. He theorized that the strata of the earth had been precipitated chemically and mechanically from a slowly receding universal ocean. According to Werner’s unpublished writings, he believed the earth was at least one million years old.16 His elegantly simple oceanic theory was quickly rejected (because it just did not fit the facts), but the idea of an old earth remained with his students.
James Hutton (1726–1797) in Scotland was trained in medicine but turned to farming for many years before eventually devoting his time to geology. In his Theory of the Earth (1795), he proposed that the continents were gradually and continually being eroded into the ocean basins. These sediments were then gradually hardened and raised by the internal heat of the earth to form new continents, which would be eroded into the ocean again. With this slow cyclical process in mind, Hutton could see no evidence of a beginning to the earth, a view that precipitated the charge of atheism by many of his contemporaries, though he was possibly a deist.17
Hutton is considered by many to be the father of modern geology. He laid down this rule for reconstructing the past history of the earth: “The past history of our globe must be explained by what can be seen to be happening now. . . . No powers are to be employed that are not natural to the globe, no action to be admitted except those of which we know the principle.”18 By insisting on this rule of geological reasoning, he rejected the biblical accounts of creation and the Flood before he ever looked at the geological evidence. Neither creation nor the Flood were happening when he wrote those words, and according to the Bible, Creation Week was a series of supernatural, divine acts, and the Flood was initiated and attended by supernatural acts of God.
Elsewhere Hutton wrote, “But, surely, general deluges [i.e., global floods] form no part of the theory of the earth; for, the purpose of this earth is evidently to maintain vegetable and animal life, and not to destroy them.”19 He rejected the global Flood because he insisted on a principle of absolute uniformity and was reasoning that the present is the key to the past. He assumed that the processes of nature have always operated in the past in the same way that we observe today. This was a fundamental error, for the totally trustworthy eyewitness testimony of the Creator in His Word is the key to the past and the present. But Hutton rejected that testimony because of his deistic or atheistic religious views.
Charles Lyell (1797–1875), an Oxford-trained lawyer who became a geologist, was probably a deist (or Unitarian, which is essentially the same).20 Building on Hutton’s uniformitarian ideas in his three-volume Principles of Geology (1830–1833), Lyell insisted that the geological features of the earth can, and indeed must, be explained by slow, gradual processes of erosion, sedimentation, earthquakes, volcanism, etc., operating at essentially the same average rate, frequency, and power as we observe today. He also insisted,
I have always been strongly impressed with the weight of an observation of an excellent writer and skillful geologist who said that “for the sake of revelation as well as of science — of truth in every form — the physical part of Geological inquiry ought to be conducted as if the Scriptures were not in existence.”21
This feigned concern for the Bible was actually an attack on the Bible. It would not be a problem to do geology as if the Scriptures were not in existence, if the Bible said nothing about any globally significant geological events. But it describes two: the third day of creation when dry land appeared (presumably as God raised part of the earth’s crust above sea level, which would have been a great erosion and sedimentation event), and Noah’s Flood, which was intended to destroy the surface of the earth and would have caused an enormous amount of erosion and sedimentation and buried many plants and animals that would become fossils. To a fellow uniformitarian geologist, Lyell wrote in a private letter that he wanted to “free the science [of geology] from Moses.”22 In other words, he wanted to silence God’s eyewitness testimony about the supernatural origin of a fully functioning universe of stars, planets, plants, animals, and people and His testimony about the global Flood of Noah that disrupted the normal course of nature as God initiated some processes and accelerated others to bring about His judgment of the world. Creation and the Flood were rejected for philosophical/religious reasons, not because of anything Lyell and Hutton saw in the rocks and fossils. By the 1840s, Lyell’s view became the ruling paradigm in geology.
One more fact needs to be mentioned about geology at this time. The world’s first scientific society devoted exclusively to geology was the London Geological Society (LGS), founded in 1807. From its inception, which was at a time when very little was known about the geological formations of the earth and the fossils in them, the LGS was controlled by the assumption that earth history is much older than and different from that presented in Genesis. Not only was very little known about the geological features of the earth, but at this time there were no university degrees in geology and no professional geologists. Neither was seen until the 1830s and 1840s, which was long after the naturalistic idea of an old earth was firmly entrenched in the minds of those who controlled the geological societies, journals, and university geology departments.
In Origin of Species, Charles Darwin reveals how important Lyell’s thinking was for his own theory of evolution: “He who can read Sir Charles Lyell’s grand work on the Principles of Geology, which the future historian will recognize as having produced a revolution in natural science, yet does not admit how incomprehensibly vast have been the past periods of time, may at once close this volume.”23 In private correspondence he added:
I always feel as if my books came half out of Lyell’s brains and that I never acknowledge this sufficiently, nor do I know how I can, without saying so in so many words — for I have always thought that the great merit of the Principles [of Geology], was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind & therefore that when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it partially through his eyes.24
So naturalism took control of geology, then spread to biology through Darwin, and astronomers have applied the same assumptions in their hypotheses about the evolution of stars, galaxies, and the solar system. Science has been controlled by an anti-biblical naturalistic philosophical/ religious worldview for over 150 years. In the widely seen 2014 documentary television series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which has now been developed into a curriculum to teach public school children to believe in cosmological, geological, biological, and anthropological evolution,25 the well-known atheist astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson expresses this naturalistic religion memorably:
Our ancestors worshipped the sun. They were far from foolish. It makes good sense to revere the sun and stars because we are their children. The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA, the iron in our skyscrapers, the silver in our jewelry — were all made in stars billions of years ago. Our planet, our society, and we ourselves are stardust.26
Early 19th-Century Christian Compromise with Naturalism
During the early 19th century, many Christians made various attempts to harmonize these old-earth geological theories with the Bible, not realizing that they were compromising with naturalism. In 1804, the gap theory began to be propounded by the 24-year-old pastor Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), who, after his conversion to evangelicalism in 1811, became one of the leading Scottish evangelicals.27 Chalmers began advocating this gap theory before the world’s first geological society was formed (in London in 1807), and over two decades before Lyell’s theory was promoted (beginning in 1830). In part because of Chalmers’ powerful preaching and writing skills, the gap theory quickly became the most popular reinterpretation of Genesis among Christians for about the next half-century. However, the respected Anglican clergyman George Stanley Faber (1773–1854) began advocating the day-age theory in 1823.28 This was not widely accepted by Christians, especially geologists, because of the obvious discord between the order of events in Genesis 1 and the order according to old-earth theory. The day-age view began to be more popular after Hugh Miller (1802–56), the prominent Scottish geologist and evangelical friend of Chalmers, embraced and promoted it in the 1850s after abandoning the gap theory.29
Also in the 1820s the evangelical Scottish zoologist, Rev. John Fleming (1785–1857), began arguing for a tranquil Noachian deluge30 (a view which Lyell also advocated, under Fleming’s influence). In the late 1830s the prominent Congregationalist theologian John Pye Smith (1774–1851) advocated that Genesis 1–11 was describing a local creation and a local flood, both of which supposedly occurred in Mesopotamia.31 Then, as German liberal theology was beginning to spread in Britain in the 1830s, the view that Genesis is a myth, which conveys only theological and moral truths, started to become popular.
Not all Christians went along with these old-earth ideas in geology in the early 19th century. A number of theologians and scientists, who collectively became known as the scriptural geologists and some of whom were very knowledgeable in geology, raised biblical, geological, and philosophical arguments against the old-earth geological theories and the various old-earth reinterpretations of Genesis. Their Christian opponents largely ignored their arguments. But many Christians still held to the literal view of Genesis because it was exegetically the soundest interpretation. In fact, up until about 1845, the majority of Bible commentaries on Genesis taught a recent six-day creation and a global catastrophic Flood.32
The Continuing Christian Compromise with Old-Earth Naturalism
Phillip Johnson was a long-time professor of law at University of California Berkeley and the driving force behind the modern Intelligent Design movement. His first book on the subject of origins was Darwin on Trial (1991), in which he persuasively showed that the scientific evidence did not support the theory of evolution. He avoided discussion of Genesis and the age of the earth but made it clear that he was not a young-earth creationist. Elsewhere he wrote about the origins debate:
To avoid endless confusion and distraction and to keep attention focused on the most important point, I have firmly put aside all questions of biblical interpretation and religious authority, in order to concentrate my energies on one theme. My theme is that, in Fr. Seraphim’s words, “evolution is not ‘scientific fact’ at all, but philosophy.” The philosophy in question is naturalism.33
Johnson and the other old-earth advocates in the Intelligent Design movement (led by the Discovery Institute in Seattle) apparently have not gone back far enough in their historical studies. He appears to think that naturalism only took control of science after Darwin, or maybe even at the time of the 100th anniversary of Darwin’s book. Speaking of the famous international celebration of about 2,000 scientists in Chicago in 1959, Johnson writes:
What happened in that great triumphal celebration of 1959 is that science embraced a religious dogma called naturalism or materialism. Science declared that nature is all there is and that matter created everything that exists. The scientific community had a common interest in believing this creed because it affirmed that in principle there is nothing beyond the understanding and control of science. What went wrong in the wake of the Darwinian triumph was that the authority of science was captured by an ideology, and the evolutionary scientists thereafter believed what they wanted to believe rather than what the fossil data, the genetic data, the embryological data and the molecular data were showing them.34
Nancy Pearcey likewise seems historically shortsighted. In her excellent discussion of the victory of Darwin’s theory, she speaks of the Christians who tried to make peace with Darwinian evolution. She states, “Those who reformulated Darwin to accommodate design were hoping to prevent the takeover of the idea of evolution by philosophical naturalism. They sought to extract the scientific theory from the philosophy in which it was imbedded.”35 But those Christians and many before them had for over 50 years allowed and even advocated (albeit unknowingly) the takeover of geology by naturalism and then advocated the day-age theory or gap theory and local Flood theory to save the old-earth theory. I attended the ID movement conference in 1996 where Pearcey originally presented her paper on this subject. When in the comment period after the presentation I remarked about philosophical naturalism taking control of science decades before Darwin through old-earth geology, and referred to my just-completed Ph.D. work on this matter, I got no response from anyone, either publicly or privately. It seemed that the old-earthers did not want to know about naturalism’s involvement in the development of the idea of millions and billions of years of history.
William Dembski has been a prominent voice in the ID movement. He clearly sees naturalism’s control of biology when he writes:
Why does Darwinism, despite being so inadequately supported as a scientific theory, continue to garner full support of the academic establishment? . . . Why must science explain solely by recourse to undirected natural processes? We are dealing here with something more than a straightforward determination of scientific facts or confirmation of scientific theories. Rather we are dealing with competing worldviews and incompatible metaphysical systems. In the creation-evolution controversy we are dealing with a naturalistic metaphysic that shapes and controls what theories of biological origins are permitted on the playing field in advance of any discussion or weighing of evidence. This metaphysic is so pervasive and powerful that it not only rules alternative views out of court, but it cannot even permit itself to be criticized. The fallibleness and tentativeness that are supposed to be part of science find no place in the naturalistic metaphysic that undergirds Darwinism. It is this metaphysic that constitutes the main target of the design theorists’ critique of Darwinism.36
But what Dembski should have said is:
In the creation-evolution controversy and the age-of-the-creation controversy we are dealing with a naturalistic metaphysic that shapes and controls what theories of biological, and geological and cosmological origins are permitted on the playing field in advance of any discussion or weighing of evidence.
Naturalism controls all of science and all three aspects of evolution: biological, geological, and cosmological. But Dembski apparently doesn’t see this control in geology and astrophysics, for elsewhere he has said:
I myself would adopt [young-earth creation] in a heartbeat except that nature seems to present such strong evidence against it. . . . In our current mental environment, informed as it is by modern astrophysics and geology, the scientific community as a whole regards young-earth creationism as untenable.37
However, it is not nature that presents strong evidence against believing what Genesis 1–11 so clearly teaches. It is the naturalistic interpretations of the geological and astrophysical evidence that is against young-earth creation. And the scientific community as a whole regards as equally untenable Dembski’s and others’ rejection of biological evolution and advocacy of intelligent design. Rejecting biological evolution while at the same time accepting millions of years reveals a serious failure to recognize or admit the role of anti-biblical naturalistic assumptions controlling the interpretation of the scientific evidence.
Even a few young-earth creationists do not seem to see naturalism’s control of all of science. Nelson and Reynolds state in their “debate” with old-earth proponents, “Our advice, therefore, is to leave the issues of biblical chronology and history to a saner period. Christians should unite in rooting out the tedious and unfruitful grip of naturalism, methodological and otherwise, on learning.”38 But there never will be a saner period, because the problem here is not intellectual, but spiritual. Sin will continue to darken the minds of people who do not want to submit to their Creator and His Word, causing them to suppress the truth (Romans 1:18–20 and Ephesians 4:17–18). Nelson and Reynolds are also mistaken when they say that “the key thing is to oppose any sort of attempt to accommodate theism and naturalism.”39 No, the key is to oppose the accommodation of biblical revelation with naturalistic interpretations of the creation, which is what all old-earth reinterpretations of Genesis are attempting to do. The issue is not a vaguely defined theism’s marriage with naturalism but rather the adulterous union of biblical teaching and naturalism.
Thus, fighting naturalism only in biology will not work. Ignoring the Bible, especially Genesis, and its testimony to the cosmic impact of sin and God’s judgments at the Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, even while arguing for design in living things (and even God’s designing activity), will not lead people to the true and living God, but rather away from Him and His holy Word. Nor will fighting naturalism only in biology, while tolerating or even promoting naturalism in geology and astronomy, break the stranglehold of naturalism on science.
In his book about his “wedge strategy,” Johnson explains how Christians should proceed in what he thinks is the coming public dialogue between religion and science. He says, “The place to begin is with the Biblical passage that is most relevant to the evolution controversy. It is not in Genesis; rather, it is the opening of the Gospel of John.”40 He then quotes and discusses John 1:1–3 and then Rom 1:18–20. While those passages are certainly relevant, they do not directly address the creation-evolution and age-of-the-earth debates, as Genesis does. Furthermore, John and Paul clearly believed Genesis was literal history and based their teaching on Genesis, as Jesus did.41 The following year, in an interview in 2001, Johnson also stated:
I think that one of the secondary issues [in the creation-evolution debate] concerns the details of the chronology in Genesis. . . . So I say, in terms of biblical importance, that we should move from the Genesis chronology to the most important fact about creation, which is John 1:1. . . . It’s important not to be side-tracked into questions of biblical detail, where you just wind up in a morass of shifting issues.42
On what basis does Johnson make the assertion that the most important fact about creation is John 1:1? He has never provided a theological or biblical argument to defend this assertion. It is difficult to see how Johnson’s comments indicate anything but a very low view of and indifference to the inspired inerrant text of Genesis 1–11. I suggest that Johnson’s failure to see (or to explain to his listeners, if he does see) that the idea of billions of years of geological and cosmic history is nothing but philosophical naturalism masquerading as scientific fact is the reason that he avoids the text of Genesis.
So the “wedge” of the ID movement does not appear to me to be a wedge at all. It is simply a nail, which will not split the foundations of naturalism, as Johnson hopes. It will not lead the scientific establishment to abandon the naturalistic worldview and embrace the biblical view of creation, nor will it lead most people to the true God, the Creator who has spoken in only one book, the Bible.
This failure to see the full extent of the influence of naturalism in science, even by a person warning about the danger of naturalism, is further illustrated in a paper by one of America’s greatest evangelical philosophers, Norman Geisler. In 1998, Geisler was the president of the Evangelical Theological Society. As such he gave the presidential address at the November annual meeting of the ETS.43 In it he warned of a number of dangerous philosophies that are assaulting the church and having considerable influence. The first one he discussed is naturalism, which he said has been one of the most destructive philosophies. Therefore, he devoted more space to it than any of the other dangerous philosophies that he discussed. As far as his remarks went, it is a very helpful warning about the dangers of naturalism. He even said that, “James Hutton (1726–1797) applied [David] Hume’s anti-supernaturalism to geology, inaugurating nearly two centuries of naturalism in science.”44
What is terribly ironic and very disappointing is that Geisler has endorsed the writings of Hugh Ross, who promotes naturalistic assumptions and thinking in the church by persuading Christians to accept millions of years and the “big bang” as scientific fact. Also, in Geisler’s own Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, published in the year after his ETS presidential address, he tells his readers, “Most scientific evidence sets the age of the world at billions of years.”45 But it is not the evidence that sets the age at billions of years; it is rather the naturalistic interpretation of the evidence that leads to this conclusion. Because of this confusion of evidence and interpretation of evidence, Geisler rejects the literal-day interpretation of Genesis 1 and believes that the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 have gaps of thousands of years, even though he says that “prima facie evidence” in Genesis supports literal days and no genealogical gaps in Genesis.46 After laying out the various old-earth reinterpretations of Genesis (all of which are based on naturalistic interpretations of the scientific evidence, have serious exegetical problems, and have been refuted by young-earth creationists) he mistakenly concludes, “There is no necessary conflict between Genesis and the belief that the universe is millions or even billions of years old.”47
But Geisler is not the only evangelical philosopher who is highly trained to spot philosophical naturalism and yet has missed it in this issue of the age of the earth. I am not aware of any leading evangelical philosopher who is a convinced young-earth creationist. Paul Copan, who favors the day-age view and whose book That’s Just Your Interpretation is enthusiastically endorsed by Ravi Zacharias and J.P. Moreland, says:
Second, the ultimate issue here is not young-earth versus old-earth creationism or even creationism versus evolutionism (although I myself do not find biological evolution compelling). Rather, the crux is naturalism (all reality can be explained by and operates according to natural laws and processes) versus supernaturalism (a reality exists beyond and is not reducible to nature — God, miracles, and so on). What is most critical is that God created; how he created is a secondary matter.48
Herein we see the bewitching influence of naturalism imbedded in old-earth thinking that causes men to ignore or reject God’s clear Word. The crux is naturalism versus biblical teaching. Genesis just as clearly teaches when and how God created as it teaches that He created.
Naturalism is a religion, a worldview, and a philosophy. It dominates science and the thinking of most of the cultural elites in the world. This study shows the error of the statement of C. John Collins in his highly endorsed book on science and faith. Collins is an old-earth proponent and respected Old Testament scholar. He states at the end of his book’s section on geology, “I conclude, then that I have no reason to disbelieve the standard theories of the geologists, including their estimate for the age of the earth. They may be wrong, for all I know; but if they are wrong, it’s not because they have improperly smuggled philosophical assumptions into their work.”49 He could not be further from the truth on this subject. Without the uniformitarian assumptions of philosophical naturalism controlling geology, there is no evidence for millions of years.
So the age of the earth matters enormously, if we truly want to fight naturalism’s control of science and if we want to be faithful to the inspired, inerrant Word of the Creator of heaven and earth, who was there at the beginning of Creation and at the Flood and has faithfully and clearly told us what happened.
The evidence is abundant and clear. The enemy has invaded the holy citadel. Naturalistic (atheistic) ways of thinking have captured the minds of millions of people around the world and increasingly polluted the church over the last 200 years through millions-of-years, evolutionary “scientific” theories, and through liberal theology. Will we take up the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), especially Genesis 1–11, and help expel the enemy of naturalism? The only alternative is to ignore the invasion and pollution and further abet it by compromise with the evolutionary belief in millions of years.