The Psychology of Naturalism

Naturalism and the ‘subtraction story’

In Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age he asks a question at the heart of dialogue between Christians and Atheists: Why was it in Medieval times that almost no one seemed to doubt God’s existence whereas for many in our times its almost impossible not to doubt his existence?

Max Weber put it starkly:

“To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently…The arms of the Church are open widely and compassionately for him.”

quoted in Taylor, p55

These are examples of what Taylor calls ‘subtraction stories’. The assumption is that in medieval times they had religion as a tool for explanation. They believed in an ‘enchanted’ world of magic, demons, and evil spirits where a belief in god gave them comfort. But now we have science we can leave that world behind and are now free to face reality as it actually is.

Science has shown there is no evidence for the existence of god(s)

The story is often presented as a simple and obvious discovery: through careful and objective reflection on the data we have come to the conclusion that that there is no need to believe that a god(s) exists: “this is just the way things are, and once you look and experience, without preconceptions, this is what appears”. (Taylor, p560) Therefore there is no alternative from Naturalism other than to return to earlier myths and illusions.

Since this is such a ‘simple and obvious’ discovery rarely are data cited to back up this claim. The evidence is presumed to be so overwhelming to be beyond discussion. While this might be self evident to those who embrace the Naturalist worldview, it sounds very unconvincing to the Christian. Few Christians would deny science has had a profound influence on our understanding of the world and led to unimaginable technological innovation. But there seems little justification on this basis to abandon our Christian faith or belief in God. Why then if the arguments for Naturalism are far from conclusive why is this worldview so compelling to many?

The moral of the story: leaving behind childhood comforts to embrace the ‘world as it is’

The subtraction story doesn’t only have a rational imperative (embracing ‘reason’ and the ‘assured findings of science’) but also a moral imperative. It is this moral imperative that Taylor argues is the most attractive draw of Naturalism. It is only when science is woven into a story of rugged individualism where as adults we renounce the childish comforts of meaning and god’s providential care that this story becomes obvious and compelling.

The 19th Century was full of ‘conversion’ stories of brave men reluctantly rejecting the comforting beliefs of childhood. Taylor quotes an example from a poem by Hardy:

“How sweet it was in years far hied

to start the wheels of day with trustful prayer

To lie down liegely at the eventide

And feel a blest assurance he was there!

And who or what shall fill his place?”

Taylor, p592-593

More recently Stephen Jay Gould spoke of the old stories of a loving god who created the world as a way to escape the harsh realities of the world:

“I think that the notion we are all in the bosom of Abraham or are in God’s embracing love is – look, its a tough life and if you delude yourself into thinking that there’s all some warm fuzzy meaning to it all, it’s enormously comforting. But I do think its just a story we tell ourselves” .

quoted in Taylor, p561

Or Richard Dawkins:

“I think we should take our courage in both hands, grow up, and give up on all gods. Don’t you?”

Richard Dawkins, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, p278

Religion is seen as the result of a childish lack of courage. Only the unbeliever has the courage to be an adult and face the harsh realities of life revealed by science without illusion or consolation.

The traditional subtraction story of our Western culture tells us how science won over religion as a competing explanation for the world, Taylor offers an alternative explanation. Rather than a natural consequence of observed reality the rise of Naturalism reflected the changing sense of identity brought about by the rise of modernity. A new formation of identity arose as a result of these historical events centred on the disengaged individual seeking power and control over themselves and nature which made Naturalism seem compelling.


In conclusion, we’ve looked at the claims of the Naturalist worldview and as a Christian they seem far form convincing. While the subtraction stories of Naturalism are asserted as an inevitable consequence of the rise of science and the only viable conclusion to draw once the old myths and legends have been debunked. It seems equally possible these subtraction stories are driven by a particular set of values popular at the rise of modernity.

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