Who am I? Part 1: The Flawed Worldview of Naturalism

This article comes from the 2019 ENDURE Apologetics conference held at CSU.

Today in the realm of relationships, chaos and confusion reign. The traditional institution of marriage has been unstable for a long time now – way before same-sex marriage became legal in the U.S. and other countries. The hook-up culture tells us to have sexual encounters without getting emotionally involved, though the negative psychological effects of noncommittal sex are significant.[1] More and more people – especially men – don’t have strong friendships in their lives.

Many people will be quick to diagnose the causes of the relationship difficulties of our day. I submit that a fundamental contributor to the relationship chaos of our day is an erroneous worldview. Does that surprise you? Many people don’t even know what a worldview is, yet they have one, and it shapes how they live life with others. Your worldview is “the conceptual lens through which [you] see, understand, and interpret the world and [your] place within it.”[2]

A fundamental worldview question is, “Who am I?” Not just who am I as an individual (I’m a father, and professor, etc.) but who am I as a human being. Your answer to this question will affect your relationships. Broadly speaking, there are two major options when it comes to who we are as humans. You can think that humans are created by God, or you can think that humans are the product of random natural processes. The first option reflects a theistic worldview; the second comes from the worldview of naturalism.

Naturalism is the view that all of reality can be explained in terms of the material world. So, the naturalist worldview holds that human beings are the product of an evolutionary process that began with matter, and through time and chance resulted in the creatures we are today. The fundamental implication of naturalism for the question of human relationships is that there is no design or purpose for human nature. If was no intentionality in how humans came to be, then there is no truth about what a human ought to be.

The realm of human relationships is a part of ethics – how we should live and what we ought to do. To paint with very broad-brush strokes, there are two major ways to think about ethics as a naturalist. The first approach understands ethical truths as relative – this is ethical relativism. On this view, how I ought to live, and what things are right and wrong, are determined by my personal commitments. So, if you believe you should be kind to others, then that’s true for you. But if I believe that I should seek to amass the most stuff for myself that I can get, then that’s true for me. Now if moral relativism is true, the relationship chaos and confusion of our day isn’t surprising. Assuming relativism, if someone thinks that he should stay in a marriage only so long as it makes him feel happy, and now he’s no longer happy, then it’s right for him to leave.

Ultimately, though, we know deep down that moral relativism isn’t the true account of how we ought to live. We know that there are some things that a person should not do, even if they sincerely believe that it’s OK to do them. To take just one example, even if someone sincerely believes that it’s permissible to abuse another person because it brings the abuser pleasure, we know that’s wrong. In fact, there are very few consistent relativists. Most people, in their reflective moments, acknowledge that there are some actions that are right for everyone, and some actions that are wrong for everyone.

The second naturalist approach to ethics is utilitarianism. Utilitarians begin by claiming that it’s a natural fact that pleasure is good (with the corollary that pain is bad). We also recognize that it’s not just our own pleasure that’s good; other people’s pleasure is good as well. So, what each person should do in any situation is the act that brings the most pleasure for everyone involved. (This means that the consequences of our actions determine their moral value.) Utilitarianism recognizes that when we’re considering which action will bring about the most pleasure, we can’t just consider immediate pleasure; we must consider various factors, including the long-term effects on everyone involved in terms of pleasure and pain.

Utilitarianism is a more plausible approach to ethics than relativism. This view recognizes that there’s something outside of the individual that determines what is right and wrong. Utilitarianism acknowledges that there are times that I may have to act in a way that decreases my pleasure for the sake of bringing pleasure to others.

But there are major problems for utilitarianism. First, a naturalist has no basis for saying that pleasure ought to be pursued! If naturalism is true, then all we can say is that pleasure is something that people prefer. That’s a descriptive fact. But how can that mean that everyone ought to do the action that brings about the most pleasure for everyone?

Utilitarianism also faces another fundamental problem – if held consistently, it implies that injustice is right. Consider the following example:

A group of 25 people living in a small community is tired of doing all their day-to-day chores. So, they decide to choose 1 person and force that person to do all the chores in the community. They choose this person through a random drawing. The person who “wins” the drawing – Bob – is forced to do everyone’s chores. Bob is obviously experiencing pain through having to do everyone’s work, but everyone else is happy to have the leisure afforded to them through not having chores to do.[3]

For the sake of calculation, let us say that each day Bob experiences 20 units of pain. But each of the other members of the community experience 1 unit of pleasure. So, there is a surplus of pleasure over pain as a result of this decision, which means that, according to utilitarianism, this action was the right thing to do. But what we’ve just described is a situation where a community has enslaved a person! We recognize that regardless of the results, slavery is unjust and wrong. In light of these criticisms, we can see that utilitarianism is an inadequate approach to what is right and wrong in relationships.

Though exerting great influence on modern culture, naturalism is a false worldview.  It encourages relational chaos and injustice.  Naturalism is unable to account for moral truths that we all know, such as the fact that abuse and slavery are wrong. The Christian worldview, on the other hand, can make sense of truths we know deep down about how we should interact with one another, and it provides the only sure foundation for living well in the midst of the confusion and chaos of our day.


[1] Justin R. Garcia et al., “Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review,” Review of General Psychology 16, no. 2 (2012): 161–76.

[2] Tawa Anderson, W. Michael Clark, and David K. Naugle, An Introduction to Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralist World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 8.

[3] This example, as well as the analysis, is based on a similar discussion in Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009), 345.

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