Dr. Mohler notes that I reject the supernatural, but it is more accurate to say that I reject the notion that supernatural is anything more than pre-natural. For me, and for many others, understanding has replaced belief. I don’t reject the claim that Harry Potter can fly on a broom; I understand that story as fiction. I don’t reject the seemingly supernatural things I do in my dreams; I understand the nature of the dream state and appreciate how it differs from daytime reality.
Everything shifts when we move from a worldview given by tradition and authority to one based on facts and empirical evidence. For example, evidence suggests that the only place that the so-called supernatural realm has ever existed has been in the minds and hearts (and speech) of human beings—and only quite recently.
As Benson Salem demonstrated in a 1977 issue of the American Anthropological Association journal Ethos, the notion of supernatural—in opposition to natural—is a Western invention. The ‘supernatural realm’ only came into being as a thought form after we began to understand things in a natural, scientific way. Only when the concept of ‘the natural’ emerged was it deemed necessary by some to speak of ‘the supernatural’: that which was imagined to be above or outside of nature. Previously, people everywhere used a blend of descriptive and metaphorical (dreamlike) language when speaking about matters of importance. As I wrote in the preface of my book, Thank God for Evolution:
How was the world made? Why do earthquakes, tornados, and other bad things happen? Why must we die? And why do different peoples answer these questions in different ways? The big questions that children have always asked and will continue to ask cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Ancient cultures gave so-called supernatural answers to these questions, but those answers were not truly supernatural—they were pre-natural. Prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were simply unavailable. It was not just difficult to understand infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. Without an evolutionary worldview, it is similarly impossible to understand ourselves, our world, and what is required for humanity to survive. For religious leaders today to rely on pre-natural answers puts them at odds not only with science but with one another—dangerously so. Their resistance, however, does make sense. Until scientific discoveries are fleshed into the life-giving forms of beauty and goodness (as well as truth and utility), scriptural literalism will command power and influence.
As we have collectively learned ever more about the natural, the supernatural has become ever less. After all, supernatural and unnatural are synonyms. Anything supposedly supernatural is, by definition, unnatural. And most people find unnatural relatively uninspiring when they really stop and think about it. It should not surprise us that young people en masse are turning their backs on religion and that atheists are riding bestseller lists when “the gospel,” God’s great news for humanity, is imagined as this…
An unnatural king who occasionally engages in unnatural acts sends his unnatural son to Earth in an unnatural way. He’s born an unnatural birth, lives an unnatural life, performs unnatural deeds, and is killed and unnaturally rises from the dead in order to redeem humanity from an unnatural curse brought about by an unnaturally talking snake. After 40 days of unnatural appearances he unnaturally zooms off to heaven to return to his unnatural father, sit on an unnatural throne, and unnaturally judge the living and the dead. If you profess to believe in all this unnatural activity, you and your fellow believers get to spend an unnaturally long time in an unnaturally boring paradise while everyone else suffers an unnatural, torturous hell forever. [Excerpt from my sermon, “Thank God for the New Atheists!”]