Naturalism’s Only Option

February 12 is Darwin Day, a holiday devoted to celebrating Darwin’s contribution to explaining how humans and animals “arrived.” Those who reject the idea of a creator God were jubilant about their newfound creation story once it was published in 1859. The problem with the evolutionary explanation, though, was that it was the only creation story that atheists would embrace, even if the evidence didn’t support it.

During Darwin’s day, Christians held a complete worldview. According to Christian theism, there are material things like planets, protons, and giraffes. There are also immaterial things like souls, angels, and an all-powerful God who created the universe and all the creatures that inhabit the earth.

The atheist worldview, naturalism, by contrast, was incomplete. Naturalism posits that nature is all there is. Only physical or material things exist. There are no souls, gods, angels, or anything immaterial. Atheists were mostly satisfied with their naturalistic worldview, but they lacked a compelling “creation” story—an account of how humans and animals got here. Even though atheists vigorously rejected the Christian account of creation, they probably had creation-story-envy.

That all changed when Darwin came along. He postulated that different species arrived not by divine intervention but by evolution through natural selection. Atheists were ecstatic. Now they had a way to explain how life emerged on earth without appealing to God. Darwin had filled in the hole in naturalism’s worldview, thereby making it complete.

The problem, though, is that atheists had no choice but to embrace the evolutionary explanation, even though the evidence didn’t support it. The reason is simple. Naturalism is a materialistic account of reality. Only physical things exist. If there is no God, then what could possibly explain how life emerged on earth? The answer must be some type of physical explanation. That’s precisely what evolution is—a materialistic explanation.

What happens when scientists discover evidence that undermines evolutionary theory or supports the Christian story of creation? It’s disqualified by definition. It’s ruled inadmissible. Atheists have no choice but to accept Darwin’s account. It’s the only option they have.

Thoughtful evolutionists admit this, too. Richard Lewontin, former Harvard University geneticist and leading evolutionary thinker, acknowledged this very point. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Lewontin said, “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to…produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive….” (Emphasis mine.)

This is a stunning admission. Remember that evolution is a material explanation. It’s a creation story that only uses matter—not immaterial things like God—to explain life on earth. Lewontin says that it’s not scientific evidence that compels atheists to accept a material explanation. Rather, it’s their adherence to naturalism and the belief that physical matter is all that exists.

One would think that evolutionists, like other scientists, base their conclusions on evidence. Not so, writes Lewontin. Adherence to material causes is “a priori”—a Latin term that means believing in something without looking at empirical evidence. In other words, there is no piece of evidence or scientific test that leads him (or others like him) to believe that matter is all there is. It’s not only presupposed as fact, but Lewontin claims that belief in “materialism is absolute” and therefore is not subject to counter-evidence.

This dogmatic belief in materialism “forces” (that’s Lewontin’s word) atheists to accept material explanations like evolution. That’s why I said they had no choice but to accept Darwin’s thesis. They also have no choice but to accept it now. It’s the only materialist explanation available.

By contrast, Christians who uphold a theistic worldview have the freedom to believe not only in material things, but also in immaterial things. When a phenomenon requires an explanation, the Christian can follow the evidence where it leads—whether it has a material or an immaterial cause.

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Alan Shlemon