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The demise of naturalism

INTELLIGENT DESIGN: Methodological naturalism used to be a regulative principle for science and for all serious academic thought. Not any longer. It is now (in 2025) an outdated dogma, and the Scopes trial stereotype, as depicted in the movie Inherit the Wind, is now effectively dead

Issue: "Darwin's meltdown," April 3, 2004

IN 1980, ASTRONOMER CARL SAGAN commenced the influential national public television series Cosmos by announcing its theme: "The cosmos is all there is, ever was, or ever will be." Sagan's mantra was spoken more than 20 years before the landmark Santorum Amendment to the Federal Education Act of 2001 encouraged science educators to teach students to distinguish between testable scientific theories and philosophical claims that are made in the name of science.

In those unsophisticated pre-Santorum years, celebrity scientists like Sagan freely promoted a dogmatic naturalistic philosophy as if it were a fact that had been discovered by scientific investigation-just as previous generations of celebrities had promoted racism, class warfare, and Freudian fantasy in the name of science. The celebrities felt themselves free to ignore both evidence and logic, because the approval of the rulers of science, who had a vested interest in persuading the public to adopt a philosophy that maximized their own influence, was all that was needed to induce the media to report an ideological dogma as a scientific conclusion.

Millions of schoolchildren and credulous adults were led to accept the voice of Sagan as the voice of science and thus to believe that scientists had proved that God does not exist, or at least is irrelevant to our lives. In brief, the message of this government-promoted television series was that philosophical naturalism and science are one and the same. The series did contain scientific information, much of it inaccurate or misleading, but primarily it was an appeal to the imagination, promoting the worship of science and the adventurous vision of exploring the universe.

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The perennially popular Star Trek television series further conditioned the youth of America to dream of a technological utopia in which disease and distance were conquered and the great adventure of mankind was to explore the many inhabited planets supposedly existing throughout the universe. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, which we now know as the "century of scientism," the popular media relentlessly pursued the theme that liberation and fulfillment are to be found through technology, with the attendant implication that the supernatural creator revealed in the Bible is a superfluous and obsolete entity doomed to expire from terminal irrelevance.

Social scientists further affirmed this myth with their secularization thesis, which predicted that supernatural religion would steadily lose adherents throughout the world as public education enlightened the multitudes, and as people came to see scientific technology as the only route to health, happiness, and longevity. Problems such as pollution and warfare were acknowledged, but these too could be mastered if we insisted that our politicians heed the advice of the ruling scientists.

The cultural path that led to this apotheosis of scientific naturalism began just after the middle of the 20th century, with the triumphalist Darwin Centennial Celebration in 1959 and the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, a stunning but thoroughly fictionalized dramatization of the Scopes trial of 1925. The real Scopes trial was a publicity stunt staged by the ACLU, but Broadway and Hollywood converted it to a morality play about religious persecution in which the crafty criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow made a monkey of the creationist politician William Jennings Bryan, and in the process taught the moviegoing public to see Christian ministers as ignorant oppressors and Darwinist science teachers as heroic truth-seekers. As the 20th century came to an end, science and history teachers were still showing Inherit the Wind to their classes as if it were a fair portrayal of what had happened in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925.

Superficially, it seemed that scientific naturalism was everywhere triumphant at the start of the 21st century. Scientific rationalists were nonetheless uneasy, for two reasons.

First, literary intellectuals had pushed naturalism to the limits of its logic and drawn the conclusion that, since an uncreated nature is indifferent to good and evil, all values are merely subjective, including even the value of science. It seemed to follow that nothing is forbidden, and pleasure can be pursued without limit. Both highbrow literature and popular entertainment became strongly nihilistic, scorning all universal standards of truth, morality, or reason.

Second, public opinion polls showed that a clear majority of the American public still believed that God is our creator despite the heavy-handed indoctrination in evolutionary naturalism to which they had been subjected for several decades in textbooks, television documentaries, and museum exhibits. The seemingly solid wall of Darwinian orthodoxy was crumbling under the pressures described in the accompanying article by Jonathan Wells.

Naturalism was losing its essential scientific backing, and then it also suddenly lost its hold on the popular and literary imagination, as the American public tired of nihilism and began to count the cost of all that had been destroyed during the century of scientism. New historical scholarship reflected in a stunning PBS television documentary exposed the Inherit the Wind portrayal of the Scopes trial as a hoax, kicking off an era of historical revisionism in which book after scholarly book exposed how propaganda techniques had been employed to create a mythology of inevitable progress toward naturalism, similar to the governing mythology of the Soviet Union, which had proclaimed the inevitable replacement of capitalism by communism.

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