Naturalism vs. Supernaturalism: How to Survive the Culture Wars

The root conflict in the culture wars is between two drastically different ways of understanding reality, one essentially empirical, the other decidedly not. The liberal-democratic political solution to such conflict is to provide a neutral public space within which differing worldviews make their case.  But the very existence of such space and our pluralist society is threatened by totalitarian ambitions for ideological conformity. This threat is best countered by promoting empiricism, not faith, as the basis for knowledge.

A slightly modified version of this appeared in the Humanist, May-June, 2006.

Irreconcilable differences

Central to the culture wars is the conflict between science and faith, and derivatively between naturalism and supernaturalism. As much as some think that science and faith constitute what paleontologist Steven J. Gould called “non-overlapping magesteria,” or domains of authority, the fact remains that both make claims about the actual world, and these claims often conflict. Was the Virgin Mary’s conception literally immaculate, and did Jesus literally rise from the dead? Does an immortal soul animate the newly formed embryo? Did God give us contra-causally free wills so we, not God, bear ultimate responsibility for good and evil? Is there a “higher power” or intelligence that transcends the physical world? Are life forms designed by this intelligence, or are they the product of random mutation and natural selection? Science and faith-based religions might well have different answers to such questions.

Science and faith often disagree because they constitute dramatically different epistemologies, that is, different ways of justifying belief, ways which lead to naturalism and supernaturalism, respectively. If you’re scientifically, or more broadly, empirically inclined, then you’ll likely place your cognitive bet with varieties of intersubjectively available evidence.Knowledge is more or less what we can observe, or that others we trust have observed or inferred from reliable observations over the centuries.Science is the ideal of such knowledge. By means of observational evidence, inferences and theories, science describes a single, natural world in which all phenomena are interrelated. If we take science as criterial for deciding what exists, the natural world is what there is. Absent convincing empirical evidence, you might well not believe in God, Jesus, souls, the virgin birth or contra-causal free will. On the other hand, if you’re inclined to faith, then evidential requirements are relaxed. Based on intuition, revelation, tradition, what the Bible says, or what you’re told by the local imam, you might well believe in categorically supernatural, immaterial entities. The upshot is that we have two very different takes on reality, one more or less naturalistic, the other at least partly supernaturalistic, driven by two very different epistemologies, one empiricist, the other not. Religions that take an empirical approach to knowledge, e.g., religious naturalism, “Einsteinian” religion, and the ontologically austere versions of Buddhism and Zen, will of course not conflict with science about the nature of reality.[1]

So how do we as a culture handle the conflict between empiricism and non-empiricism, and the worldviews they generate? Some rather strident voices on both sides see little room for compromise. The religious right (what some call the “theocratic right”) routinely demonizes scientific naturalism as the devil’s work, undermining the basis for meaning, morality, human freedom and dignity. And on the secular side, we have militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (Pen award-winning author of The End of Faith), inveighing against faith and traditional religion as (metaphorically) the devil’s work, spurring narrow-minded chauvinism, ideological intolerance and dangerous fanaticism. The hope on both sides is that the opposition will eventually dry up and blow away.

But, given that both science and faith appeal to deeply rooted human predilections, neither side is going away anytime soon. Science appeals because we are necessarily curious creatures, with insatiable appetites to understand, predict and control our surroundings and ourselves. The discovery of how things work is intrinsically rewarding, and developing the practical applications of discoveries no less so. On the other hand, faith appeals because, afraid of death and wanting our suffering on earth to be redeemed, we gravitate toward the possibility of having souls and gods that transcend mere matter. The desire for something beyond the natural world described by science, something that might confer ultimate purpose and significance to our lives, strongly motivates acceptance of beliefs which have little empirical support. Someday, perhaps, we as a species will abjure this “transcendental temptation,” as humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz calls it, and indeed the decline of religious observance in Europe suggests this is possible. But until then the consolations of traditional faith-based religion will be integral to our culture.

The question, then, is how to engineer a peaceful coexistence between these worldviews, one essentially naturalist, the other supernaturalist. Such coexistence wouldn’t be problematic were it not for the evangelical desire, so common to the human heart, to universalize one’s beliefs, what we might call the totalitarian temptation. We are not content to have our certainties – others must share them as well, since a plurality of worldviews raises doubts about our truth. The desire for ideological conformity is sometimes expressed in attempts to coerce belief and crush opposing views, as for instance in the international jihad of extremist Islam, for which kafirs (infidels) are deserving of death. Secular jihads that champion decidedly unscientific, non-empirical understandings of human nature and history – racism, Nazism, the triumph of the proletariat – have been mounted as well, with horrific consequences. Were it not for fanatics who insist that we must all share their worldview or die, the problem of ideological coexistence wouldn’t arise. But since they are among us, the problem is paramount.

Public neutrality and pragmatic empiricism

The liberal-democratic political solution to the problem of coexistence is to keep the state ideologically neutral, creating a public space of secular services and protections based in no particular cosmology or view of human nature. Within this space, differences in worldviews are debated, for the most part peacefully, and in theory (if not always in practice) the government doesn’t take sides. As citizens, we’re free to believe what we wish about ultimate reality, and indeed this pluralist freedom of belief is a cardinal good to be protected in liberal democracy; it’s central to the individual autonomy we cherish so highly. If we are public servants, when at work our convictions come second to the obligation to keep the public space ideologically neutral, since such neutrality is a necessary condition for everyone’s freedom of conscience.

This freedom is of course explicitly codified in the First Amendment, which protects a person’s right to hold the worldview (not just the religion) of her voluntary choice. The Founders’ intent, in response to harsh English colonial rule, and then the populist whims of state legislatures, was to secure an individual’s freedom of conscience against the tyranny of both monarchs and majorities. Thus the separation of church and state, requiring an ideologically neutral public space, became an essential democratic precept.

Such neutrality requires that when justifying public policies (e.g., on abortion, civil rights, dignity in dying), the deciding arguments must refer to this world, the physical, temporal world that we all inhabit, agree exists, and know via the senses. To justify policy based on a particular view of the world to come (should it exist), without appealing to facts about the present world held in common, would necessarily marginalize other such views. It would privilege one understanding of ultimate reality, grounded in sectarian faith or contested philosophical assumptions. This means that, whatever our worldview, we have to act as this-world empiricists when arguing for policy, citing facts potentially available to all parties to the dispute, and using shared canons of logic and evidence.

Such public pragmatic empiricism is reinforced by the realities of politics in a pluralist society.  To gain support from diverse constituents, legislators have to appeal to what the electorate has in common, namely their shared concerns about material reality, not the transcendent realm of faith, about which there is often little agreement. Trying to lock up the Christian vote by citing the New Testament might well lose you the Muslim, Jewish, atheist, agnostic or New Age vote, so the safe bet is to steer clear of explicit religion when appealing to a heterogeneous population, and cite empirical facts instead. A diversity of worldviews forces politicians to ground their arguments in the here and now, not the hereafter, which has the fortunate effect of protecting minority faiths and philosophies. Writing the New Republic, Peter Beinart says “It's fine if religion influences your moral values. But, when you make public arguments, you have to ground them--as much as possible--in reason and evidence, things that are accessible to people of different religions, or no religion at all. Otherwise, you can't persuade other people, and they can't persuade you. In a diverse democracy, there must be a common political language, and that language can't be theological…”[2]

The burden of supplying non-sectarian, empirical justifications for policy also serves us well in a very practical sense, in that policies responsive to facts about this world are likely to be more effective than those which give faith-based claims precedence. We wouldn’t, for instance, be well served in deciding environmental policy on the basis of biblically-based beliefs that the End Times are near. Rather, we’re better off sticking with the scientific, empirical evidence that, short of a catastrophic asteroid impact, the Earth has several millions of years ahead of it. Pragmatic empiricism sidesteps talk about ultimate concerns, giving us reality-based policies while avoiding conflicts between worldviews. In a recent paper, neurophilosopher Joshua Greene and psychologist Jonathan Cohen make this point in the context of the law: “[T]he law in most Western states is a public institution designed to function in a society that respects a wide range of religious and otherwise metaphysical beliefs. The law cannot function in this way if it presupposes controversial and unverifiable metaphysical facts about the nature of human action, or anything else. Thus, the law must restrict itself to the class of intersubjectively verifiable facts, i.e., the facts recognized by science, broadly construed. This practice need not derive from a conviction that the scientifically verifiable facts are necessarily the only facts, but merely from a recognition that verifiable/scientific facts are the only facts upon which public institutions in a pluralistic society can effectively rely” (emphasis added)[3].

Of course, it sometimes happens that purported secular justifications are merely a cover for religiously-derived commitments. For example, Christian judges may claim that posting the Ten Commandments at the courthouse is simply to remind us of our judicial heritage, and the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are claimed to be merely ceremonial. The sincerity and constitutionality of such claims is a matter of recent dispute. An example of more moment, perhaps, is that some abortion opponents disguise their religious concern for the embryo’s supernatural soul as claims about the sanctity of life – a secular, this-world value. The difficult task for pro-choice advocates is to prove that what seems to be a secular claim has no basis but in religious convictions, about which see here.

Despite such stratagems, the requirement of public pragmatic empiricism generally serves us well in maintaining an open society, in which minority worldviews are protected from ideological totalitarians. However, it’s important to remember that citizens and legislators are completely free to cite their beliefs about ultimate reality, supernatural or not, in policy debates, since that’s guaranteed by the First Amendment.Indeed, the public square can be populated by all sorts of worldviews clamoring for allegiance as Congress and the courts consider laws and legislation. But for the reasons given above, democratic resolutions of policy debates that result in laws and legislation must, in a pluralist culture, have explicitly secular, this-world justifications. This principle is expressed in First Amendment constitutional law by the precedent known as the Lemon Test, which requires that 1) a statute must “have a secular legislative purpose”, 2) its “principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion”, and 3) “the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.'”

Countering the totalitarian temptation: the virtues of empiricism

The perennial, obvious difficulty facing the open society is that it presumes exactly that which the ideological totalitarian contests: the paramount value of peaceful coexistence of different worldviews. The raison d’etre of the totalitarian, religious or not, is quite the opposite: to create global uniformity of belief about ultimate reality that directly drives policy; for him there is no higher value or calling. The means toward such uniformity may vary, from the non-violent persuasion of political campaigns, presently the tactic of the Christian right, to bombings, assassinations, and other acts of terror meant to cow dissenters into silence and reduce their numbers by the easiest expedient – death. But whatever the means, the ultimate objective is the same: to establish the one true view of reality in the minds and hearts of all, and have it rule their lives.

The primary threat to pluralist coexistence, then, is the totalitarian drive for ideological conformity, which is itself a function of the psychology of belief. The inability to tolerate dissent from one’s view of ultimate reality has, no doubt, multiple sources – needs for cognitive certainty, simplicity, and security, the tribalistic desire to demarcate in-group from out-group, the egoistic urge to prevail in argument and dominate others. Whatever its exact roots in the human psyche, anything we can do to lessen the totalitarian impulse increases the chances that the culture wars will remain non-violent, and that our pluralistic culture will survive.

Since our innate predilections for cognitive security, tribalism, and egoism are not about to change any time soon, the task becomes one of making the best of our psychology when it comes to holding a worldview.  This is to ask, what sorts of worldviews are least conducive to totalitarian excess, and therefore most likely to countenance an ideologically neutral public space?  Is it possible that some understandings of reality are more likely to promote a live-and-let-live stance towards their competitors?   Since a worldview involves a commitment to an epistemology, are there some epistemologies that militate against the totalitarian temptation?

A worldview based on empirical inquiry, not faith, tradition, revelation or authority, is the clear choice when it comes to combating totalitarianism.  Why?  Precisely because the content of an empirically derived worldview is held as a matter of evidence, not faith; it’s responsive to observation of a world that’s understood to exist independently of the needs and desires that faith so often flatters.  Empiricism therefore keeps us cognitively humble.  The universe may not, in fact, be built quite to our liking, so how precisely is it built?  Implicit in the cognitive norms of empirical evidence and observation is the assumption of fallibility, the idea that we may not be getting the world quite right, that we might someday have a more accurate view of reality based on more reliable and comprehensive observations and evidence. And of course this fallibilism helps to inoculate empiricists against the self-righteousness of being necessarily right.  Those committed to unfettered inquiry are unlikely to resort to threats and coercion to silence opposing views.

In contrast, adherents of faith-based views of reality that are unresponsive to evidence may be less inclined toward cognitive humility.  The driving assumption can be quite the opposite of fallibilism: my revealed, intuited, empirically non-responsive worldview is necessarily true, so any contradictions of it must be discounted as illusory and wrong-headed.  Since I am right, others must be wrong, and their beliefs stand as an insult to Truth.

Now, the assumption of infallibility is of course by itself not enough to drive totalitarianism of the sort which demands utter conformity.  There are many irenic, live-and-let-live non-empiricists who, although quite certain in their beliefs, have no burning evangelical desire for ideological dominance.  But it’s also clear that, absent the brake of fallibilism, the totalitarian impulse finds freer rein.  Indeed, it’s hard to find an example of an ideology that seeks to universalize itself that doesn’t ultimately rest on some unquestionable truth about the universe or human nature, whether it be Aryan superiority, the existence of Allah, the divinity of Jesus, or the final and benign rationality of unregulated markets.  Were ideologues suddenly to question their certainty, the totalitarian impulse, whether peaceful or violent, religious or political, would lose a good deal of its steam.  So overall, the world might be a less contentious, more tolerant place if we moved towards empiricism as the basis for what we believe about it.  And as noted in the "Public neutrality and pragmatic empiricism" section above, the evidential requirement is precisely that which keeps us focused on this world when shaping policies that affect all citizens in a democracy.  So a commitment to the empirical stance not only avoids ideological inflexibility, it’s the cognitive basis for democratic pluralism, in which those of widely differing views of ultimate reality can interact peacefully and effectively in this reality. 

Avoiding totalitarian empiricism

Of course empiricists and naturalists (those who hold a naturalistic world view) are sometimes accused of wanting to ruthlessly universalize the empirical stance – of wanting to stamp out non-empirical modes of justifying belief and the supernaturalism that follows.  And indeed, some like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are notoriously intolerant of faith, seeing in it the summum malum of human error that threatens our very existence on the planet.  The quicker we can overcome the human propensity to believe in propositions for which there is no evidence, the better our chances for survival.  The enemy is faith itself, and in his book The End of Faith Harris calls for its extinction, saying that even religious moderates, by countenancing non-empiricism, aid and abet religious extremists whose agenda is literally global domination. 

By the lights of this article, Harris’s point against faith is well taken, since if there’s a causal connection between non-empiricism and totalitarianism, then the decline of faith should increase tolerance and the prospects for pluralism.  However, in his anti-faith fervor, Harris sometimes seems to betray the very freedom of conscience that’s at the heart of Western democracy and that his empiricist epistemology requires.  He says "Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene" (p. 46).  And, even more provocatively, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them" (p. 53). Such statements invoke the ideological absoluteness and (taking him at his word) the sometimes draconian tactics of the fundamentalist faiths he so opposes.

In an open society, we must continue to tolerate the existence of faith-based worldviews so long as their adherents harbor no malign intent against us, as best as we can determine.  To even detain, much less kill, someone for their beliefs alone, absent clear evidence of such intent, would make us no better than the conspirators who destroyed the World Trade Center.  To defend science and reason in this fashion would be to undercut the essential context of their deployment – a culture in which beliefs are arrived at via an individual’s educated encounter with the world, not via coercion.[4]

We must distinguish between faith, which need not be coupled with totalitarianism, and totalitarianism itself, especially that which has declared literal war on opposing worldviews.  Yes, we’d be better off if non-empirical beliefs about ultimate reality and human nature didn’t hold sway, and we should do all in our power to non-coercively encourage science and critical thinking, in the classroom and the wider culture.  And we must, as Harris and Dawkins recommend, call faith-based convictions widely and loudly into question, not be politically correct about respecting them.  But inveighing against “the mad hordes of religious imbeciles” as does Harris in a recent article in Free Inquiry, is clearly counterproductive in attacking believers, as opposed to their beliefs.[5]  Empiricists should be secure enough in their epistemological commitments that they need not ridicule and thus further alienate their opposition.  They need only model their preferred approach to propagating reliable knowledge: not taunts and insults, but rational, evidence-based arguments which expose flaws in the opposition’s assumptions and reasoning.

Using all legal means, we must defend against threats to an open society, whether these be bomb plots or unconstitutional encroachments on church-state separation.  Some among us would prefer that it not remain open, but our defenses against them must be proportional to their tactics and the threat they pose.  Zealots of any stripe, whether religious, white supremacist, Marxist, or atheist, must all be tolerated so long as they accept the procedural constraints of pluralism in promoting themselves, even if their goal is ultimately the end of pluralism itself.  We can (and must) fight them on the field of non-violent political discourse and action, keeping openness our first priority both as a means and an end.  We will try to persuade them out of their various racist, dogmatic, millennialist, and otherwise non-empirical, anti-pluralist convictions, so long as they limit themselves to trying to persuade us. But if they seek to destroy the neutral state via coercive, extra-legal means, we of course have coercive, but legal remedies.  Tolerance reaches its limit when the conditions of tolerance itself are threatened, so force is sometimes necessary to keep society open. 

Reassuring supernaturalists

For supernaturalists, whether of traditional religions or the New Age, the fact that our society’s neutral public space requires a pragmatic, this-world empiricism might seem an affront to faith, and thus a victory of sorts for naturalism.  But this isn’t the case. Naturalism, as a worldview that admits only of natural processes and entities, and which therefore denies the existence of gods, souls and spirits, results only if we take scientific empiricism, broadly construed, as our sole epistemology. Doing so is, of course, entirely optional in an open society.  So naturalism doesn’t inhere in our public pragmatic empiricism; it requires the additional, philosophical assumption that we should place our cognitive bets with science in deciding what ultimately exists. Therefore supernaturalists should not see the secular state, supporting an open society, as enshrining naturalism. 

We can reassure the forces of faith and non-empiricism that naturalism as a worldview isn’t assumed in public policy or discourse; it’s just that to have public discourse among diverse participants, we must all partake of a this-world empiricism. This means, for example, that to teach good science in public school isn’t to teach materialistic atheism, since no one is forcing students to adopt the empirical stance in deciding all their beliefs. But it is to teach an essential skill for negotiating the modern world. If supernaturalists can see this, and understand that their worldviews are not threatened by the secular framework required for pluralism, they’ll be more likely to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward naturalists, and more broadly, toward secular pluralism. Naturalists will of course advocate for empiricism as a reliable, evidence-based foundation for a satisfying understanding of our place in the cosmos, but that’s strictly on a par with Christians, Muslims and Jews advocating their faith-based epistemologies and worldviews. Making the public case for one’s worldview, whether naturalist or supernaturalist, is protected under the First Amendment.

Beyond giving us the satisfactions of naturalism – a unified, effective understanding of ourselves as fully included in nature – advocating a thorough-going empiricism confers important public benefits.  Since maintaining a democratic, open society requires keeping totalitarianism at bay, and since totalitarianism feeds on non-empiricism (as argued in part 3 above), there’s good reason to champion the empirical stance as a safeguard to democracy.  Naturalists, who take empiricism all the way in thinking about ultimate reality, are therefore among democracy’s best friends.  But naturalists must not overreach in combating faith and supernaturalism, lest they themselves end up in totalitarian excess.  And they should remember they have good allies among liberal religionists, most of whom value pluralism over ideological conformity.  To keep the culture war a war of ideas, not weapons, all protagonists must remember and be thankful for what they have in common: a battlefield of neutral public space, provided courtesy of the pluralist, open society in which they so fortunately find themselves. 

TWC, March 2006


[1]  Quoted in Discover magazine, Richard Dawkins says “Einsteinian religion is a kind of spirituality which is nonsupernatural....And that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow less than supernatural religion. Quite the contrary. . .It is something bigger, something grander, something that I believe any scientist can subscribe to, including those scientists whom I would call atheists." From Stephen S. Hall, “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Discover, Vol. 26 No. 09, September 2005. About religious naturalism, see

[2] From “Morally Correct,” The New Republic Online, November 18, 2004.

[3] Greene, J., Cohen J. (2004), “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (Science B), Theme Issue on “Law and the brain” 359, 1775–1785, endnote 1.

[4] Regarding the quotes from The End of Faith above, Harris reassures me in personal correspondence that 1) our intolerance of non-empirical beliefs should be expressed by publicly exposing their implausibility, not by coercive measures that stifle freedom of conscience, and that 2) we must have good evidence of intent to act on dangerous beliefs before any pre-emptive interdiction is justified. Nevertheless, these quotes still stand as good examples of rhetoric that secularists should avoid in promoting naturalism.

[5] In “Rational Mysticism,” Free Inquiry, October/November 2005 Vol. 25, No. 6. Another example appears at the Huffington Post, where Harris says: “Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved…”