Many scientists who investigate ultimate causes believe that as scientific knowledge increases, support for belief in a designer or creator becomes weaker. The science profession is populated with many practitioners who do not connect any of their observations in the physical or biological world with design theory or supernatural creation events. Even when their investigations approach a dead end, they are unwilling to explore the possibility of action by a supernatural agent, at least as part of their scientific studies. They are known as philosophical naturalists.
Their refusal to let scientific inquiry stray toward a non-natural explanation for any observed phenomena--for example, the sudden appearances of novel life forms in the fossil record--is due to a commitment a large number of scientists have made: that science investigates only natural causes. We must acknowledge that there are advantages to this stance, such as avoiding over-spiritualizing accounts of physical phenomena which yield their secrets by applying knowledge of existing physical constants and laws of science.
In the past 150 years, many scientists drifted inexorably toward a naturalistic bias and a belief that God does not exist. This has become a major worldview in modern times. This worldview is known as philosophical naturalism, metaphysical naturalism, or ontological naturalism. Those who embrace this form of naturalism do not believe in a transcendent God.
In the last quarter century an interesting term has become popular. Paul de Vries, formerly of Wheaton College, first used the term methodological naturalism in a 1983 conference. In 1986 in Christian Scholars Review, he made a distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Methodological naturalism says nothing about the existence of God, but philosophical naturalism denies the existence of God. There are interesting statistics about how many scientists are methodological, and how many are philosophical. Evolutionary scientists lean heavily toward philosophical naturalism. In other words, according to them, there is no God.
Methodological naturalists may believe in the existence and agency of God, even if they proceed with their work as if God does not exist. Methodological naturalists’ discoveries are based upon existing physical constants and scientific laws. I believe methodological naturalism is a good operating principle for scientific discovery. When I taught science in public school, I did not feel handicapped by adhering to a scientific method which discovered and recognized nature’s laws, even though I did not teach my lessons from a strictly theological perspective. However, on the occasions when a student inquired, "Do you believe in God?" I replied, "Yes, I do" without hesitation.
Early scientists such as Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, and Maxwell were methodological naturalists, although that term would not be used for centuries. They studied the physical constants and laws divinely established in the beginning and were not hesitant to acknowledge God as the omnipotent and omniscient creator and sustainer of everything. Their beliefs did not alter the quality of their scientific investigations. Many naturalistic scientists claim that mention of God as a possible agent anywhere along the timeline of cosmic history brings the work of science to a halt. Historically, this did not occur.
Many philosophical naturalists have become vocal expressing their worldview. They openly and enthusiastically deny the existence of God. The natural world is self-caused, they claim. Their belief is tantamount to a religion--a belief system which has a powerful hold on them. Many scientists are intolerant of theistic religious claims, an intolerance which has flooded into our secular culture--such as our public school science classrooms--to overwhelm and, in some settings, make illegal even the suggestion that supernatural agency may account for certain observations.
Many Christians in the community of faith are suspicious of science as a result of this situation, even when the science conclusions are sound and cogent. When good science contradicts their firmly held fideistic beliefs, some brand it atheistic science. There is no such thing as atheistic science, or theistic science, for that matter. But our conclusions about ultimate reality may be filtered through naturalistic or theistic worldviews. Science is a method of investigating God’s created cosmos. In Isaiah 40:26a we have a command and a question: “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?” (NIV). Scripture exhorts us to investigate the cosmos and then make an informed decision about what it tells us. Our ability to investigate the cosmos scientifically is one of God’s most treasured gifts.