Further to “Were you learning “survival of the fittest” in lit class and didn’t know it?” and to “Yes, you were, from your classic naturalist authors” (but maybe no one felt like pointing that out), here’s Nancy Pearcey again in Saving Leonardo:
(First, our usual caveat: The works discussed are not “literary Darwinism.” That is a version of evolutionary psychology that seeks to subsume all literature into Darwinism, whether the latter was part of the authors’ vision or not. This discussion concerns the acknowledged use of Darwinian theory by literary figures who believed in its basic message themselves. They were simply expressing their own vision; they were not necessarily advancing the view that all the other writers who do not believe in such a vision are really iterating it anyway on some kind of genetic autopilot. That is why their work endures as a worthwhile subject of study.)
Why Atheism Is Boring
Portraying humans as sheer animals “without free will” was not entirely easy, however. It proved difficult to flesh out believable characters who made no decisions but were swept along by social and biological forces—puppets of fate. It also made for characters who were incredibly dull. There can be no real character development if they are helpless victims of their environment. A professor of film studies says naturalism was frankly “boring.” When writers followed Zola’s prescription simply to report on how humans react to the environment, it resulted in the loss of a strong narrative line, creating “dramas which meander and never quite reach a resolution.”
An example is Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. The sisters desperately want to escape their provincial town and move to Moscow. But though they keep talking about it through all four acts of the play, they never actually do it. They cannot break free from the trap of family customs and social expectations. In naturalism, explains a drama historian, “man has no freedom from the environment, of which he is a product and helpless victim.” Thus in naturalistic drama, “there is never a decisive beginning or end, never a clear-cut climax or turn, because man is not expected to make a major decision.”
Audiences often find these plays frustrating and depressing. More significantly, however, a deterministic worldview produces characters that are not true to life. In reality, people do make genuine decisions. Much of the drama of human life stems from wrestling with wrenching moral dilemmas. Though naturalism was an offshoot of realism, we could say its greatest flaw was that it was not realistic enough. We all experience the moment-by-moment reality of making choices. The experience of freedom is attested to in every human culture, in every era of history, and in every part of the globe.
When naturalism declares freedom to be an illusion, it denies this universal human experience. But that is not a valid move in the worldview game. After all, the purpose of a worldview is to explain the basic data of human experience, not to deny it.
Even the novelists’ own lives did not fit their professed naturalistic worldview. Yale historian Cynthia Russett notes that the literary naturalists typically kept their intellectual life separate from their lived experience. They accepted “determinism as a theory but not something to live by.”
I would go further and suggest that they could not live by it because it is contrary to human nature.
The test of any worldview is two-fold: 1) Is it internally logically consistent? 2) Does it fit the real world? That is, can it be applied and lived out consistently without doing violence to human nature? This second question suggests a biblical form of pragmatism. After all, the purpose of a worldview is to explain the world—to provide a mental map for navigating reality. If the map does not work in the real world, then it is not an accurate guide. Just as you test a scientific theory by going into the laboratory to see what happens when you actually mix chemicals in test tubes, so you test a worldview by seeing how well it works in ordinary life.
Because humans are created in God’s image and live in God’s world, at some point every nonbiblical worldview will fail the practical test. Adherents will not be able to apply it consistently in practice—because it does not fit who they really are. Instead they will find themselves living as though the biblical view of human nature were true—because that is who they really are. You might say that the naturalists’ map of reality is too “small.” It covers only part of reality. As a result, they cannot live according to its dictates. They keep walking off the map and into “terra incognita”—terrain that their map does not account for. (pp. 148–52)
Editor’s note: I liked The Three Sisters because it can be viewed as a profound illustration of how people may simply feel and then act trapped, while the viewer questions how trapped they in fact are. At Stratford, Canada (a major theatre venue), one director wrote in his introduction to the play that, whereas the two older sisters had ties and responsibilities, Irina, the youngest sister, had nothing to prevent her from going to Moscow, which was her life goal. But for some unexplainable reason, she never actually got up and went. (The director did not offer a naturalist explanation, just an observation.) Never mind the Bible for a moment; Irina would have done better for herself even with the pagan injunction from an ancient Roman poet, “Carpe diem”, that is, seize the day; take advantage of the opportunity available now.
So is naturalism, taken seriously, even more futile than paganism?