Belief systems, like family members, often share recognizable features or traits. In that sense one can determine what a belief system is about by observing its traits.

People often refer to atheism (the view that no God or gods exist) as an overarching worldview. But I think it would be more correct to say that the worldview that encompasses atheism is called naturalism. Atheism, then, can be thought of as a subcategory of naturalism.

Philosophical naturalism is also called metaphysical (relating to reality) or ontological (relating to being) naturalism. Thus naturalism, as traditionally defined, is the worldview system that regards the natural, material, and physical universe as the only reality. Nature is the sum total of reality, the whole show, all that actually exists.It is a secular worldview without God or the supernatural.

In my experience, Christians often do not understand the beliefs of secularists. But dialogue requires some understanding of the other person’s perspective. So in order to understand the broader beliefs of secularism, we’ll focus in this brief two-part series on the common elements of the worldview of naturalism. I call these features the “family traits of secular naturalism.” Here we’ll merely seek to understand this worldview. For a Christian critique of secular naturalism, see my book in the resource section below.

Common Elements of Naturalism

The exact specifics of naturalism aren’t always easy to define because there is no universal agreement among scholars who affirm it or describe it. Yet here are four common elements of this secular worldview. Given naturalism’s cultural influence, in part two we’ll explore four more of its features.

  1. Monism

Derived from the Greek word monos, meaning one, monism is the metaphysical view that all reality is one thing or stuff. By rejecting the supernatural, naturalists generally affirm that “everything is composed of natural entities.”2 While lacking exact agreement as to the exact nature of the one (some assert matter while others do not), naturalism generally asserts that all things in the universe can be explained by natural, physical, and material objects and forces.

  1. Materialism

Philosophical or metaphysical “materialism” (matter is the one ultimate reality) is a particular type of monism. But while metaphysical naturalists commonly affirm materialism, naturalism does not necessarily entail materialism. However, though some naturalists don’t want their worldview equated with materialism, naturalism offers few other options in terms of the nature of ultimate reality. In other words, if there’s no supernatural, then there’s just the natural or the material and its constituent elements.

  1. Physicalism

The ontological theory of physicalism3 is an extension of materialism, particularly in attempts to explain the mind-body problem. This enigma refers to the enduring challenge of relating the seemingly immaterial, nonphysical, and unobservable “mind” to the demonstrably material and observable “brain” or “body”. On naturalism, the mind is often considered an extension or emergent property of the brain. But specialists in both philosophy and neuroscience insist that the mind-body problem remains a difficult—if not intractable—philosophical and scientific challenge for naturalism.

4. Scientism

Broadly speaking, science refers to the empirical method for observing, analyzing, and interpreting the data of the natural world. This term also defines the knowledge gained by using such a method. While naturalists and non-naturalists generally agree on science’s value as an enterprise, naturalists tend to consider science as having privileged status with regard to knowledge. So scientism is the view that science is either the only reliable way of understanding the world or the best way. Some naturalists embrace the exalted principle that sums up scientism’s optimistic attitude: “Science is the measure of all things.”4 Yet it is important to appreciate that not all naturalists embrace either type of scientism.

These four characteristics exemplify the secular worldview of naturalism. In part 2 we’ll survey four more important traits. It is my hope that this series will help illumine the general beliefs of secularism, especially for Christians. Fruitful dialogue requires a level of mutual understanding and such dialogue can lead to meaningful exchanges.


Reflections: Your Turn

Of the four elements described above concerning secular naturalism, which do you find most interesting? How important is it to understand the beliefs of others? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.


I explain further and critique the family traits of secular naturalism from a Christian worldview perspective in “Naturalism: A Secular Worldview Challenge,” in Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test, 201–18.

Check out more from Reasons to Believe

  1. For a popular website that both explains and defends naturalism, see
  2. Robert Audi, gen. ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), s.v. “naturalism.”
  3. For a brief but helpful definition of “physicalism,” see Peter A. Angeles, The HarperCollins Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), s.vv. “physicalism,” “physicalism (mind/body).”
  4. For a brief but helpful definition of “scientism,” see Angeles, HarperCollins Dictionary, s.v. “scientism.”


About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.

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