Literal and Poetic Naturalists vs. Paranaturalists and Antinaturalists
I would like to offer an addendum to my outline of varieties of naturalists in my last post. Although I do not believe in any gods, I do not like the term atheist because it sets me up in opposition to theism. In other words, theism is the ground against which I am pushing when using that term. As a naturalist, I do not see myself in opposition to theism because I consider that hypothesis to have failed; it makes as much sense to call a chemist a nonalchemist. Rather, theists are in opposition to naturalism, the de facto standard for objectively understanding reality. Within this context, I categorize people into four main groups.
Naturalists (including religious naturalists) come in two primary flavors: literal and poetic. Literal naturalists articulate their understanding of nature using literal terms (eg. “Creativity is an amazing universal process”). A poetic naturalist might apply an extra layer of symbol on top of the more literal understanding (e.g. “God is my name for the universal process of creativity”). Both are naturalists insofar as they affirm the four basic principles of naturalism:
(1) only the matter/energy world of nature is real
(2) nothing outside nature is necessary to account for its origin or ontological ground (a theoretical multiverse is included within the definition of nature)
(3) nature as a whole can be understood without appeal to any kind of intelligence or purposive agent
(4) all natural events are caused by other natural events in accordance with universal physical laws
Of course, these two categories don’t have hard boundaries. A literalist might not use the word God to describe nature, but she could certainly look to other symbols when expressing sublime concepts or transcendent experiences. These words are just general descriptions—there is no need to apply the literalist or poetic label to any given naturalist. Making the distinction is simply a way of helping us understand that a person who employs traditional religious language can still be a genuine naturalist.
A close cousin to naturalism is paranaturalism. The prefix para- is being used here to denote two meanings, beyond and beside. As such, a paranaturalist might affirm the basic story of the Epic of Evolution, or large chunks of it, but also accepts constructs that are not supported by evidence (e.g. “God is the source of creativity”). For example, someone who believes that consciousness arises from an immaterial soul or that magic ritual can cause change at a distance does not accept naturalist principle #4. Another paranaturalist might think that the “Universe” has a plan for him or that human evolution was guided, both violating principle #3. Or another might deny principle #1 by believing that she can consciously visit astral planes or that spirits reside in a nearby dimension. A deist is a paranaturalist because of #1-3. They might all agree with a great deal of what science has to say about nature, but they aren’t naturalists, religious or otherwise.
The final category is antinaturalism, which explicitly denies most or all of the four naturalist principles. An antinaturalist doesn’t have to be a stereotypical Evangelical Christian; it is anyone who understands the world in a way fundamentally opposed to naturalism. An antinaturalist can even be an atheist in the strict sense of disbelief in a god (Scientology qualifies here).
Antinaturalism is a more useful construct than supernaturalism because it references more than specific non-naturalist beliefs. Antinaturalism dictates how the world is interpreted, how behavior is guided, and how meaning is constructed. As such, it is a fully-formed worldview.
The difference between a paranaturalist and an antinaturalist is often one of degree, since both accept constructs that violate naturalism. Perhaps one useful difference is that paranaturalists generally want their non-naturalistic beliefs to be natural. Paranaturalists often look to pseudoscience for validation of their beliefs; they might give credence to, say, parapsychology, paranormal investigation (i.e. ghost hunting), or Ufology. Intelligent Design advocates might fall somewhere in the middle—they believe that their hypothesis is scientifically valid, but the underlying precepts are clearly non-natural. Antinaturalists, on the other hand, reject the method of science altogether. They will outright deny even the most validated of scientific theories—such as natural selection, basic astrophysics, or even geology—when they contradict their religious beliefs.
To summarize, there are two brands of naturalists—literal and poetic—and two kinds of anaturalists—paranaturalists and antinaturalists. The difference between the naturalist and anaturalist categories is based on fidelity to the basic principles of naturalism. The difference between the two in each category is not so straightforward and will frequently be a matter of degree. But by adopting such terms, we can begin to reframe the conversation away from theism as the standard to naturalism being the standard. This is long past due.