Home > Agnosticism, Apologetics, Atheism, Book Review, Philosophy, Secular, Theism > Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Basic Terminology.

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Basic Terminology.

It seems appropriate when looking at a book with naturalism in the title to begin our discussion with a look at naturalism; starting more generally, working our way to the specific naturalism Nielsen puts forth. Thusly, what is Naturalism?

Naturalism denies that there are any spiritual or supernatural realities. There are, that is, no purely mental substances and there are no supernatural realities transcendent to the world or at least we have no sound grounds for believing that there are such realities or perhaps even for believing that there could be such realities. Naturalism has sometimes been reductionistic (claiming that all talk of the mental can be translated into purely physicalist terms) or scientistic (claiming that what science cannot tell us humankind cannot know). The more plausible forms of naturalism are neither across the board reductionistic nor scientistic.  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 29)

(I will go into more detail on Nielsen’s discussion on reductionism and scientism in another post.)

Nielsen continues stating that (where consistent) naturalism is a type of atheism, although it “need not be a militant atheism and it should not be dogmatic: it should not claim that it is certain that theism is either false or incoherent.” (p. 30) This fallibalism however does not mean that a naturalist should be an agnostic, that is; to be consistent such a naturalist would be “an atheist arguing, or at least presupposing, that theism is either false or incoherent or in some other way unbelievable.” (p. 30) To Nielsen naturalism is incompatible with belief in God (or a belief that God exists), therefore a naturalist cannot be an agnostic: “saying, as agnostics do, that we do not know, or perhaps even cannot know, whether or not God does or does not exist. In accepting naturalism, a naturalist is also accepting that there is no God.” (p. 30) Nielsen is quick to add however that the spirit of fallibalism is at the heart of a reasonable naturalists philosophy, that is they will “argue for atheism in a fallibalistic, and sometimes even moderately skeptical, manner: a manner characteristic of modernity including that peculiar form of modernity that some call postmodernity.” (p. 30) A naturalist should be sceptical as in the fashion of Hume, that is in a “limited and moderate sense”, although they should not, and indeed cannot be a sceptic “through and through”; moreover, Nielsen adds, that a sceptic, “limited or otherwise, need not be a naturalist, atheist, or even an agnostic as the fideistic stances of Pascal and Kierkegaard brilliantly exemplify.” (p. 30) As stated Nielsen puts a high premium on fallibalism, stating that whether or not a sceptic, a naturalist will be (if she is reasonable) a fallibalist, “but that notwithstanding, still an atheist. “Dogmatic atheism” is not a pleonasm and “fallibalistic atheism” is not an oxymoron.” (p. 30)

As a small digression here, it might be important to note that to Nielsen there is not a sharp distinction between atheism and agnosticism, that is atheism is defined as:

In speaking of an atheist, I refer to someone who rejects belief in God either (a) because she believes that it is false or highly unlikely that God exists, (b) because that the concept of God is incoherent or so problematic as to make such belief impossible or irrational, or (c) because she believes that the term “God” is being used in such a manner that it is so devoid of substance as to make religious belief, rhetorical effects aside, indistinguishable from purely secular beliefs except for the fact that religious beliefs are associated with certain religiously distinctive stories which in turn are stories which (on such an account) the religious believer, though she must entertain them in a vivid and lively way, may or may not believe. (Nielsen, 2001, pp. 56-7)

From this Nielsen adds the atheist bases her rejection on how “God” is being construed by religious people; moreover Nielsen defines his personal atheism as that of someone who rejects (i) anthropomorphic conceptions of God on the basis of (a), (ii) belief in the God of developed Judaism, Christianity, or Islam on the basis of (b), and (iii) purely symbolic conception of God such as Richard Braithwaite’s and R.M. Hare’s on the basis of (c). (Nielsen, 2001, pp. 57)

Continuing on Nielsen states that most naturalists reject the conception common to the Abrahamic theisms (“where they are being even remotely orthodox”, p. 31) that “human beings are sinful, utterly dependent on God, and can only make adequate sense of their lives by accepting without question God’s ordinances for them.” (p. 31) Moreover such a naturalism rejects that particular conception of human beings as well as the associated morality that comes with those beliefs. Naturalists believe that people can “make sense of their lives and reasonably order their lives as moral beings without any belief in God or any other spiritual realities.” (p. 31)

Nielsen states that naturalists engage in both critique and explanation of religion, and that in some cases, if successful, such investigation also becomes a critique of religious belief and practice. Some critics of naturalism such as Robin Horton have stated that naturalistic explanations of religion simply “explain religion away and are superficial to boot.” (Nielsen quoting Norton, p. 31) Nielsen agrees with Horton that Bertrand Russell’s and Baron d’Holbach’s critiques are such examples that align with Horton’s view, but others such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Emile Durkehim (both of whom Nielsen draws on quite heavily in his chapter: “Naturalistic Explanations of Religion“) do not. Nielsen argues that a naturalistic conception of religion will “explain religion as a function of human needs and of the conditions of life which give rise to those needs.” (p. 31) Nielsen does ponder what if anything would constitute an adequate naturalistic explanation of religion, citing Marx Wartofsky who states “that a viable conception of religion is one which doesn’t explain religion away, but rather explains its origins, its distinctive cultural and historical forms, its persistence in various institutions, its changing contexts and development, its continuing and present existence in the modes of belief and actions of individuals.” (Nielsen quoting Wartofsky, p. 31)

Of course I am being very vague in what a naturalism might be about, after all the number of different naturalisms Nielsen looks at reflects the large number of thinkers who have discussed, defended and criticised this philosophical tradition. It becomes difficult to define any particular naturalism as Nielsen spends much of the book comparing the naturalisms of a wide range of thinkers, against their critics, and each other; some naturalisms on offer are Nielsen’s own social naturalism, Nagel’s methodological naturalism, Hook’s pragmatic naturalism, Dewey’s (et al.) ethical naturalism, Quine’s cosmological naturalism etc. Made all the more confusing when we see that many of these thinkers held more than one naturalism to be true, or very likely true, or espoused subcategories or situational naturalisms that amount to the same thing (e.g.: “Nagel characterized his naturalism as a contextualistic naturalism and Hook characterized his as an experimental or pragmatic naturalism, though as we shall see, they come to much the same thing.” Nielsen, p.138), there are even cases of some theists holding to some form of naturalism (as in the cases of Jacques Maritain, Richard Neibuhr, and C.S. Pierce), obviously these would be very nuanced positions to both hold to the title naturalism and for these thinkers to retain their theism.

It might be better, now that we have very simply touched on some of the basic ideas of naturalism, that is its varieties, its relation to atheism, fallibalism etc, we can explore different naturalisms, what Nielsen thinks of them, how strong they fare against their critics, and some of the outlier issues involved in this worldview such as the pragmatists tendency to drop metaphysical talk, the rejection of reductionism and scientism, and Nielsen’s own use of verifiability principles.


Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

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