Naturalists and Supernaturalists

I’d been using ‘creationist’ as a kind of portmanteau term to include YEC, OEC, ID and so on. It’s a little awkward in that it may be rejected as a label by ID proponents, for example.

There certainly also seems to be some confusion arising from the use of the term ‘evolutionists’.

I wonder whether a more accurate and useful language might be to talk about ‘naturalists’ as those who seek a full explanation of origins in natural phenomena and ‘supernaturalists’ for those who believe in some kind of active supernatural intervention.

The latter would encapsulate everything from Deism, or a God who ‘lit the blue touch paper’ before the Big Bang, through intelligent design interventions, seeding of life which was then allowed to naturally evolve, right through to 6 days 6000 years ago creationism.

I propose this because this seems to me to be the fundamental point of difference. Once supernatural intervention is posited, almost any ad hoc adaptation or tweak can be evoked in an explanation. The standard seems to be consistency with existing beliefs and personal plausibility.

Neither term is intended to be pejorative: the goal of this forum is enhanced mutual understanding, and this seems like one approach with promise.

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LOL - ‘naturists’ is a whole other thing. :wink:

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Evolutionary Creationism was invented to extend “creationism” to include those who accept evolution (within the bounds of, e.g., the early creeds).

The problem with the “accurate and useful” of this is what you mean by “full” and “active” and “intervention.” Also, why/how would this dichotomy be better? (honest question)

Full - supernatural explanations are never invoked at any point

Active - more than simply something like panentheism, where the universe is within God and is as it is because of innate characteristics of God. That kind of ‘passive’ supernaturalism is, I would argue, indistinguishable from nature.

Intervention - actions that occur in the natural world but do not have a natural explanation: raising the dead, changing water into wine, opening the Red Sea, that sort of thing.

I understand that particular individuals may not fall neatly into one side or the other: a Deist who believes God created the universe and then never intervened again is for all practical purposes a naturalist, with a single exception. And so on.

One of the reasons I think this dichotomy works better is things like ‘evolutionist’ being confused with ‘Darwinist’, and the confusion between cosmological evolution, abiogenesis and biological evolution.

It helps to move on from focusing on trying to debunk fine details of science to understanding that, once the supernatural is introduced, all bets are off.

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The natural/supernatural distinction is limiting and doesn’t encompass all the possible positions. It is a mostly post-Enlightenment distinction which assumes a mechanistic view of the world. The only role for God in such a picture is a deist one. Any invocations of God other than a deist God can automatically be answered with the accusation that it is “God of the gaps”, or “all bets are off”. Such statements come from a place of philosophical scientism, which regards theological statements and arguments as meaningless. Clearly, this is a losing game from the start that many Christians will not want to play.

There is a class of philosophical views where natural and supernatural are not necessarily in opposition to each other. Rather, natural and supernatural explanations can work simultaneously at different levels. One can distinguish between primary and secondary causation. To take an example, the Roman Catholic Church is fine with science and evolution, but still believes that each individual soul is created by God. Does this mean they reject the legitimacy of the science of human reproduction? Not at all. However, they do think that scientific methods may not explain everything there is about humans, especially their souls.

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I agree that the equivocation of terms is a real issue (see the intro of my piece here). I suppose the problem could continue with “(super)natural,” though I suspect there might be a way forward. I approach this as a Bible nerd, so I continue to wrestle with whether “natural” and “supernatural” were categories an ancient audience wrestled with (John Walton has raised the same point). Regardless, it is a distinction moderns wrestle with, so our theologizing must account for it.

The problem is that labels tend to stick, even when not the most helpful. We can try to change the labels, but that I find that unlikely in most instances. Pragmatically, it seems the best recourse is (a) hold people accountable for their labels (e.g., when ID folks use “evolution” but they mean so much more), and (b) painstakingly insist on specific definitions when we’re involved in a discussion.


A question: is this viewpoint self-labelled as "“evolutionary creationism” or “evolutionary creation”? My understanding was that it is the latter. A small point, but I think a significant one.

I see both in use.

I applaud the goal and I agree that “creationist” is occasionally inaccurate while “evolutionist” is not reasonably parallel to “creationist.” When the terms are used as opposites, then the result is a misrepresentation of many peoples’ beliefs, since “creation” and “evolution” are actually answers to very different questions.

But “naturalist” and “supernaturalist” aren’t going to work as alternatives, for various reasons including the fact that “naturalism” is a term that’s already taken.

My unsolicited opinion is that a better goal is to avoid using one-word descriptors of humans, whenever possible and especially when describing complex systems of thought. It might take a few more keystrokes but I think humans are worth the effort.


Yes, it’s a fair comment.

I agree, and life is much more than the natural realm. I have no objection to this.

I should have been more precise and talked about intervention into the natural world. A soul is not a natural phenomenon and cannot be weighed or measured. Someone who believes in the supernatural in that sense can also be a naturalist in relation to all natural occurrences.

The slightly dismissive ‘all bets are off’ is just based on experience with some creationists, who will simply make up explanations out of whole cloth, not drawing on Scripture or science or anything but their own fertile imaginations.

Here’s an example “Radioactive decay dating is wrong because decay rates were much faster around the time of the Flood”. Pointing out that a faster rate of decay would release enough radiation to kill all life on Earth and enough heat to boil all the world’s oceans (inconvenient for Noah) is simply met with a ‘God miraculously protected from all that’, and so on. Any objection at all can be similarly disposed of in an ad hoc fashion, despite no chapter and verse being available.

Certainly there are many much more thoughtful, careful, well-grounded approaches, and I don’t mean to dismiss all of those.

I still think - with the tighter specification that we are talking about natural processes and entities - the naturalist/supernaturalist distinction can be helpful… and clearer in some ways than a term like ‘evolutionary creationism’, which @deuteroKJ mentioned above.

Fair, but arguably these terms are synecdoche for belief systems rather than people anyway. I’m mostly naturalist when it comes to this stuff (but kind of agnostic), but am also a husband, father, motorcyclist, educator, metalhead… certainly no set of labels in relation to origins is any sort of label for me as a whole.

So yes, perhaps better to talk about ‘a supernaturalist claim’.

Interesting to think about whether the kind of ‘naturalist’ who is an ecologist and student of nature and the kind of naturalist who seeks natural explanations for phenomena has a small or large Venn diagram overlap.

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“Naturalism” philosophically speaking is sometimes called “atheism on steroids” or “atheism tout court” (hence the gibbering about “methodological naturalism”). It’s not gonna work.

Several people on this site including @swamidass and myself have been more comfortable with the simple descriptor of “Christian who Affirms Evolutionary Science” (CAES/CASE). This can also be widened to “Christian who Affirms Mainstream Science” (CAMS). By that I mean that I do not reject any findings or methods of mainstream science as it is practiced today. I will support and actively encourage scientific research into biological and human evolution, the origin of life, the origin of the universe, searches for extraterrestial life, fundamental physics, theories to explain fine-tuning, neuroscience, and so on. That being said I am still not comfortable with the “naturalist” label, because it tends to be associated with certain metaphysical and philosophical commitments which I don’t agree with and are not necessitated by affirming mainstream science at all. The CAES/CAMS descriptor is simpler and does not commit us into any problematic theological, philosophical, or scientific positions that have been advanced in the past.


Don’t you think the latter is actually a unique philosophical position?

Thanks. That entire piece was helpful. People threw concordism at me for trying to actively find scientific evidence for the first few days of Genesis. When I looked up the word, it seemed like it was just a pejorative against another Christian position. :sweat_smile:

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It is a distinct intellectual position but it is pretty general one which encompasses a large class of models integrating theology and science.

This is a problem that I’ve seen myself. The problem with crying “God of the gaps” is, where does it end? At what point does an argument for God cease to be a God-of-the-gaps type argument? Do we have to find two stone tablets on Mars with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them or something? It seems to me to be the naturalist’s version of the YEC’s “were you there?” – a kind of magic shibboleth with which to dismiss anything that they can’t otherwise answer by default. Heads I win, tails you lose.

On the other hand, we do need to have some sort of limits to what we can and can’t argue in terms of supernatural intervention. You could indeed appeal to miracles to fabricate any alternative view of history that you like. That’s what the Omphalos Hypothesis (and its more sophisticated variants such as the RATE project’s accelerated nuclear decay) are all about.

Personally, I take a view of that I guess could be called “anomphalism.” It probably needs a bit of discussion to try and define it rigorously, but what it boils down to is allowing for miracles as a valid working hypothesis for as yet unexplained phenomena, but only rejecting them as a get-out clause to avoid inconvenient truths that are already explained.


I think God-of-the-gaps objections need to be articulated with more care in these debates, with an effort to make a distinction between scientific and metascientific questions. Of course there are some people (mostly with a science-heavy background) who think that there is no distinction between the two, but I don’t think you need to be a theist to see that as philosophically simplistic and naive.

I think the RATE project’s proposal and Omphalos hypothesis are epistemologically different. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the people involved with RATE genuinely believed that scientific methods should in principle be able to give an approximately correct picture of the past. In principle, such a position is scientifically falsifiable, which is why they needed to postulate a specific set of hypotheses to explain their findings. The ad hoc hypotheses are ad hoc and unconvincing, of course, but they still needed them.

In contrast, someone who believes in a true Omphalos scenario is like someone who believes that the universe began last Thursday. It is not correct to say that such a position is falsified by the scientific method. A theory in physics, for example, merely provides equations governing the time evolution of a physical system given certain initial conditions. If the system’s real-world history actually started at t = 1000 instead of t = 0, that doesn’t contradict the physics, as long as appropriate initial conditions are given in both cases. Thus, Omphalism is an example of a scientifically unfalsifiable position.


Certainly. It’s one of many antidotes to scientism: Popper’s handy guide to what is scientific (what’s empirically falsifiable) and what isn’t is probably over-simple in itself, but very useful.

Presumably we’d need some sort of reason to believe or accept an unfalsifiable view, though. It is true that it’s impossible to falsify the notion that we were instantaneously created 5 minutes ago, but it’s also true that there’s no compelling reason at all to think we were.

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