Naturalism: Methodological Atheism

Justification of Choice

Early on in this week’s reading, Sonderegger describes the notion of “methodological atheism” as that “conviction that God cannot be a reality or dimension in the principled means of knowledge in the modern intellectual world.”[1]  I found this idea particularly pertinent in this postmodern context, primarily because this kind of ideology is rampant not only among academic and intellectual elites, but even among seemingly evangelical people.  Thus, understanding the notion of methodological atheism will help individual ministers learn how to deal with specific pastoral issues in ways that can prove genuinely effective.

Its Meaning

Elaborating further on the idea of methodological atheism, Sonderegger asserts, “Its fundamental axiom is that God cannot be an element in the explanatory models used to take account of the data or event under study.”[2]  It is important to note that the concept or idea of the existence of God is not necessarily in question; it is just that God is not needed in order to account for the reality of other things.  So, according to this methodology, God may or may not exist, but that is not really relevant to scientific inquiry.  It matters not that God either is or isn’t; rather, all that matters is that we have a methodology for explaining how things are, and God need not be included in this methodology.  It seems that pragmatism has won the day: God is not necessary in the postmodern context because reality, according to naturalism, can be explained without and apart from God.

Sonderegger continues by giving numerous examples of how God is apparently left out of much academic discussion.  She then makes the audacious (yet correct) claim that “it is a signal truth of Western professional academy that the Reality of God is not considered a necessary condition for sound and respectable intellectual work.”[3]  So not only is God not even a necessary category in academic thought, it appears by implication that intellectual work can be sound and respectable with no view to God at all.  That is, in Western academia, atheism has so penetrated the core faculties that it is seemingly more effective and respectable to not refer to God in academic work.  That, Sonderegger claims, is methodological atheism.

Its Significance for Life and Ministry

Sadly, this type of methodological atheism is ravaging the church as well.  Following Paul’s argument in Romans 1:23, we might argue that the Western church has “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man…and created things.”  Programs and self-sufficiency have replaced the weightiness of God.  It might be said that God hardly factors into any of our thinking in life and ministry.  Programs have replaced pastoral ministry.  A sense of gravity about the holiness and glory of God seem to be lost on many churchgoers (myself included, oftentimes).  It appears that it is possible, even for professing evangelicals, to float through life functioning in this kind of methodological atheism.  It is not that they don’t claim to believe in the existence of God, nor is it that they don’t profess to love and worship him.  It is just that from a pragmatic standpoint, God is distant or, at worst, totally irrelevant to our lives in the 21st century.

And this notion must be combated wholeheartedly.  We must acknowledge our own weakness and failures, but we cannot be content to remain there.  It is imperative that we move forward, always increasing our understanding of God and his nature so that we might regain the sense of the glory of God.  Only when we have been entranced by the majesty of God will we begin to do away with the notion of methodological atheism in our own lives.

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 54.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 56.

Thanks for reading.  Have a question or comment?  Leave it below.

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