John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Naturalism as Today's Starting Point


After presenting "the big picture" of reality as he sees it, Hick acknowledges that his position is a minority one in today's world.  In contrast to any kind of religious outlook, modern society, in Hick's opinion, begins from a starting point of Naturalism.

"Naturalism, then, is the belief that reality consists exclusively in the multiple forms of discharging energy that constitute the physical universe. This includes our earth and the human and other forms of life on it, and hence the multitude of human brains and their functioning, which in turn includes the production of thought, language, feeling, emotion, and action. The status of such supposed non-physical realities as God, Brahman, Dharma, Tao, the soul or spirit, is that of ideas in the human mind, so that before there were human mind/brains to create them, they did not in any sense exist. Naturalism is thus equivalent to the qualified materialism which does not deny the existence of mentality, but holds that it is either identical with, or totally dependent from moment to moment upon, the electro-chemical functioning of the brain. In our western world, beginning around the seventeenth century, the earlier pervasive religious outlook has increasingly been replaced by an equally pervasive naturalistic outlook, and during the twentieth century this replacement has become almost complete. Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it."


I'm not as convinced as Hick that Naturalism – the belief that physical matter is all that exists – is all-pervasive in society.  Perhaps in more academic circles, and perhaps more in Hick's homeland of Great Britain, but maybe not as much in modern America.  I would argue that, although modern Americans aren't as monolithically orthodox as they used to be, we are still a religious and/or spiritual people.  Regardless, in a more academic setting, you are more likely to have to argue for a non-Naturalist worldview than to assume it.  

To assume Naturalism, for Hick, is to assume a very bleak outlook on the world.  In his chapter Naturalism as Bad News for the Many, Hick quotes Bertrand Russell, who gives a sober summary of this worldview:
 

"That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built."


Although those born is comfortable situations can ignore this depressing "big picture" and take solace in the simple joys of life, they are only for a moment.  And not only that, but the vast majority of humans throughout history have not been born in a time and place that allow them a comfortable and enjoyable existence.  Countless have been born into poverty, disease, slavery, early death.  Naturalism, for Hick, leaves neither the comfortable nor the uncomfortable with any future hope.  It is "bad news for the many."