A Review of 'Encountering Naturalism' Book

| by Luke Muehlhauser

Tom Clark, through his efforts at the Center for Naturalism and, has become a leading figure in the advancement of Naturalism as a positive alternative to religious worldviews. (See my interview with Tom here.) Tom and I were chatting recently, and he made me realize something important.

I came to atheism by way of philosophical naturalism, but most recent atheists probably did not.

My journey from Christianity to atheism was deeply philosophical. I read the debates between two competing worldviews. It was Christian Theism vs. the dominant worldview in science and philosophy, Naturalism.

In the end, my heart longed for the Christianity of my childhood, but my mind had to assent to Naturalism. (Later, my heart caught up with my head and embraced Naturalism emotionally, too.)

So for me, the “main thing” has always been naturalism, not atheism. I called this site “Common Sense Atheism” to ride the wave of interest in atheism that was launched by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. And that worked well for me. But bare atheism – the mere denial of theism – is a small and rather insignificant position, like the denial of the existence of fairies. Far more important is that quest to develop a positive understanding of the world and how to operate within it, and that is the quest of Naturalism.

Anyway, I had been reading other skeptics and atheists as if they were also naturalists, but this was probably blindness on my part. Just because someone rejects the existence of gods does not mean she embraces Naturalism. It doesn’t mean she also rejects the “little god” within that can be an Unmoved Mover of her own actions (free will). And it does not mean she rejects non-natural moral facts that “just exist” despite there being no evidence for their existence.

Seeing this more clearly, I’m fully on board with Tom’s campaign to bring Naturalism to the masses. Like the rejection of fairies and the demonic possession theory of disease, the rejection of magical beings is only a minor first step toward a positive understanding of what is true and good in the real world.

Tom’s book Encountering Naturalism is a handy and very short (about 90 pages) introduction to Naturalism as a worldview.

Tom’s Naturalism begins with the observation that science and reason are what work. Other methods of truth-seeking have proven to fail badly in this universe. Science and reason are not perfect, but they are the best methods we have. So if we want to understand the world, we ought to use the methods of truth-seeking that work.

A commitment to reason and evidence leads to the conclusion that the natural world is all we know to exist. We have no reason to accept gods or supernatural free will.

The rejection of contra-causal free will may be scary to some atheists, but Tom shows why it need not be. The realization that we are, like other animals, fully included in nature, only gives us more control over ourselves, and more compassion for others. Moreover, this realization makes sense of moral responsibility. These claims may sound surprising, but then: you ought to read Tom’s book.

Naturalism also has implications for public policy. It implies that policy decisions should be made based on evidence and not feelings or prejudice or political expediency. It also suggests that our criminal justice system, built on theories of retribution toward beings with supernatural free will, needs to be massively reformulated.

For Tom, Naturalism does not mean the denial of human spirituality, but the embrace of a real spirituality. Naturalism says that we literally are stardust, after all, and that our atoms are literally exchanged with the rest of the Earth system. We are part of nature, and understanding this need not impede the sense of awe and connection we feel with this universe. Indeed, it may increase it.

Tom’s book covers a massive range of subjects in a few short pages, and in plain talk: science, epistemology, physicalism, free will, the history of Naturalism, self-acceptance and self-efficacy, relationships, compassion, moral responsibility, justice, environmental policy, naturalistic spirituality, homosexuality, abortion, stem cells, the soul, death and dignity, self control, the open society, morality, personal virtue, fatalism, reductionism, progress, meaning and purpose.

As such, Encountering Naturalism is good book for someone who lacks the time to work through a much longer book like Richard Carrier’s Sense & Goodness Without God.