Oxymoronic: A critique of, “Christian Naturalism”

Michael Dowd recently made the oxymoronic claim that he was a Christian Naturalist on his blog Evolutionary Times.  According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, an oxymoron is a, “combination of contradictory or incongruous words . . . something that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements”—and this is precisely what Michael Dowd’s claim amounts to.

Christians believe in God—an all-powerful, all-knowing, personal agent who exists outside of space and time.  Simply put, Christians believe in the supernatural.  This is a foundational belief upon which all other Christian beliefs and doctrines are built upon.  There is no confusion on this point because the Judeo-Christian worldview is crystal clear about the nature of God—he is a person and he is the creator and sustainer of all things (this includes both material and immaterial (spiritual) elements.)

Naturalism asserts that nature is a closed system of material causes and effects—it denies the existence of God and the existence of immaterial substances (spirits or souls).  Simply put, Naturalism is a repudiation of the Christian worldview; it stands as the complete antithesis of the Christian picture of reality.  There is absolutely no confusion on this point because naturalists are very clear about their position on the nature of reality—the physical/material world is all that exists.

Accordingly, Michael Dowd’s assertion that he is a “Christian Naturalist” is incoherent and can only be explained by one of three ways:  (1) Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a Christian, (2) Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a naturalist, or (3) Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a naturalist.  Now, we can easily eliminate numbers (2) and (3), because it’s quite clear from his writings that Mr. Dowd understands naturalism.  As he says,

“I am a Christian Naturalist, not a supernaturalist . . . my focus and locus of inspiration is found in the cosmos and in this life.” (emphasis mine)

To that extent, it seems clear that Mr. Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a Christian.  In fact, we can be sure of this for one important reason:  Mr. Dowd espouses a naturalistic worldview which, by definition, rejects the foundational Christian belief that God exists.   “But wait,” you say, “Mr. Dowd talks about God all the time; he even dedicated his book Thank God for Evolution to him!”  Mr. Dowd may very well believe in god, but not in the Christian God.  This is made very clear in his book:

“What a difference it makes to be groping our way forward in faith—in partnership with God, or, should you prefer less traditional terminology:  trusting the Universe, trusting Reality, trusting Time.”  (pg. 30)

For the Christian, using terminology like, “trusting the Universe,” is not the same as using terminology like, “trusting God.”  This is because the most basic Christian belief is that God is not the universe—God is the creator and sustainer of the universe.  The universe, the complex arrangement of matter and energy, is not the same thing as a personal, immaterial, God who created matter and energy.  So, when Michael Dowd suggests—as he does throughout his book—that we can interchange these terms it becomes evident that he grossly misunderstands what it means to be a Christian.

In short, Mr. Dowd might as well take the word ‘Christian’ out of his self-description and simply call himself a naturalist—for that is what he is.

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4 thoughts on “Oxymoronic: A critique of, “Christian Naturalism”

  1. Michael Dowd made a comment about this post on my previous article: Is Evolution a Random Directionless Process?

    Here is what he said:

    Josh, I read your critique of my Christian Naturalism blog post with a smile on my face and a heart full of love and gratitude. It sounded almost exactly how I would have critiqued my own position when I was 20 or 25 years of age (I’m now 50). Indeed, the Michael Dowd of then would judge the Michael Dowd of today an utter heretic. So I can hardly blame you for doing so.

    I look forward to our conversation. As I mentioned to Cory, he’s free to join us if you’re okay with this as well. If you have the means to record the conversation, you are free to do so. Or not. I just look forward to the experience.

    Love and blessings,
    In Christ,

    ~ Michael

    I can’t imagine that you or your readers would be interested, but in case you are… here’s the entire first issue of THE EVOLUTIONARY TIMES:
    http://evolutionarytimes.org/

  2. What is the difference between the way Dowd uses the terms “God” and “universe” and the way Dawkins and others use “Natural Selection?”

    The funny thing here is that I don’t really think these guys are even naturalists anymore. Metaphysically, their idea of Natural Selection is somewhat transcendent and even a bit “wholly other.” They seem more like Paul Tillich than Charles Darwin.

    • I think you could say that about Dowd, but about Dawkins. In that, you’ve answered your own question- Dawkins would never say anything like:

      “What a difference it makes to be groping our way forward in faith—in partnership with God, or, should you prefer less traditional terminology: trusting the Universe, trusting Reality, trusting Time.”

      You could replace the words God and universe with natural selection as suggested, and he would still disagree. Dawkins would never talk about trusting natural selection- he’d just say it’s the natural process evidenced, like the laws of physics. No need to like it, or trust that it’ll produce pleasing results- we’re just stuck with it.

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