Saturday, December 07, 2013

Book Review: The Philosophy of History: Naturalism and Religion by James Stroud

With a title like The Philosophy of History: Naturalism and Religion, it is not surprising to find that the theses James Stroud defends in this book pertain to historiography and the impact of historical method on the assessment of religious claims. But what is surprising about a book with this title and focus is its similarity to the myriad introductory works of apologetics available today, which present an accessible treatment of common apologetic issues, ranging from the origins of the universe and the grounding of morality to the historical Jesus.

Stroud has two central theses in The Philosophy of History, one of which gets more attention than the other. His primary thesis is the claim that naturalism should not be assumed a priori in historical and scientific studies; an “open” methodology which allows for both natural and supernatural explanations should be employed instead of the currently popular “closed” methodology wherein only naturalistic explanations are tolerated. Stroud also defends a secondary thesis, which claims that there is a greater overlap or unity between science and history than is often recognized. In particular, he argues that certain “past singularities” (one-time historical events) such as the origin of the universe, of life, and of humanity, are, though often classified as matters of ‘origins science’, equally at home under the umbrella of history. Stroud repeatedly makes statements like “Origins science is really ‘history’ (or history as a weak science[1]…)”[2] and “…the historian is more capable of addressing questions of origin science with philosophy as an aid than the operation scientist.”[3] “Moreover,” he says, “weaker sciences such as anthropology and sociology as well as linguistics all fall under the much larger umbrella of ‘history.’”[4] This second thesis receives the most attention in the fourth chapter, “What about History?” Though interesting, this point apparently lacks methodological import, for as Stroud ventures into historical and scientific issues later in the book, they are treated in pretty much exactly the same way that they have typically been treated in recent discussion, even to the point of employing unaltered or mostly unaltered versions of arguments used by William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Gary Habermas, and others.

The bulk of Stroud’s book is a series of chapters that span much of history—from the origin of the universe to the New Testament era—evaluating naturalistic accounts of the past in light of the salient evidence. This part of the discussion extends across four full chapters, each focusing on a different historical event:

· Historical Event 1: the origin of the universe. In this chapter Stroud addresses the question of whether the universe had a cause, how to best explain the fine-tuning of the universe for life, the origin of genetic information, the origin of consciousness, and the grounding of morality.

· Historical Event 2: the origin of life: Here Stroud addresses the origin of first life and the “Cambrian explosion”, where the majority of earth’s phyla suddenly appear in the fossil record without precedent. He also addresses the origin of humanity.

· Historical Event 3: The origin of civilization. This is the longest chapter of the book. In it, Stroud discusses the sudden emergence of civilization, language, writing, and religion in the ancient world, and also examines the evidence for the historicity of the Old Testament spanning from creation and the Genesis flood all the way to the intertestamental period.

· Historical Event 4: The historical Jesus. Here Stroud discusses the historicity of the New Testament and the search for the historical Jesus.

As indicated above, Stroud’s project throughout these chapters (and the rest of the book as well) is to argue that an “open” methodology which permits both natural and supernatural explanations should be employed in place of a “closed,” naturalistic approach. But rather than arguing for this open methodology on the basis that a closed methodology automatically constitutes an unwarranted bias, Stroud defends his open methodology on the basis that naturalism is false (or at least very implausible). Aside from the fact that this seems like the harder way of approaching this problem, there is something else interesting about Stroud’s argument: His argument against naturalism is a posteriori. He explains:
…I will be taking the earlier mentioned four areas of established historicity per se, and I will give the traditional naturalistic “closed” philosophical viewpoint of it and compare the same data with an open philosophy of history…to show the strengths of this approach compared to the growingly out-of-date form of naturalistic materialism.[5]
So in other words, Stroud is going to compare how a closed, naturalistic approach on the one hand, and an open approach on the other, hold up in the face of the evidence. Which approach permits us to follow the evidence where it leads? But when we analyze the structure of this argument, something begins to look suspicious. First, this method is basically just assessing whether the salient historical and scientific data are best explained on the assumption of naturalism or not. Second, it is apparent that Stroud’s approach employs an “open” methodology, since naturalism and its alternatives alike are permitted to compete with respect to their explanatory power. It seems that a circle looms, for now it sounds like Stroud’s argument is that an open methodology should be favored over a naturalistic one because naturalism is false (or at least implausible), yet his case that naturalism is false is built on a historical and scientific case that employs an open methodology! So is his approach ultimately circular?

Maybe not. I think the best way to interpret Stroud is to read him as assuming that using a “closed” naturalistic methodology in a given historical investigation can be justified if and only if naturalism has previously been established by argument. With this assumption in mind, Stroud argues on the basis of a limited pool of important data (namely, the four historical events listed above) that naturalism does not hold up under scrutiny, and thus it should not be used as a control-belief in scientific and historical studies beyond these considerations. This interpretation allows Stroud to veer around the circularity concern. But interpreted this way, the argument of his book basically becomes an “open,” a posteriori case against naturalism, with only limited methodological implications. If it has any impact on method in the sciences and history, it is simply that, as things stand, naturalism is not plausible enough to be taken for granted in further investigations that go beyond the extensive data that have already been incorporated into the initial case against naturalism. Perhaps this is precisely how Stroud intends his argument to function, but it is not completely clear.

Because Stroud is arguing for a certain methodology to be employed in history and science, one might expect his target audience to be professionals working in those fields. But even if that is the case, the book is well suited for intelligent lay readers. It is not very technical (and there is even a short glossary included in the back), and the issues addressed are mostly handled at an introductory level, rather than diving deeply into all of the complexities lurking beneath the surface. (Unfortunately, in some cases the subjects Stroud touches on are skimmed over much too quickly.) Furthermore, because the majority of the book turns out to be a fairly surface-level treatment of a broad range of common apologetic subjects, it might prove beneficial to new students of apologetics, especially if they are looking for an entry-level, wide-ranging critique of naturalism. Readers expecting something more in-depth, more narrowly focused, or more original than that, however, will be disappointed.

Probably the biggest drawback of this book is the poor writing. There are some typos that need to be fixed, but that is only the beginning. The book is also peppered with grammatical errors, awkwardly constructed sentences, and strange word choices. In some cases this even degraded the persuasiveness of Stroud’s case because important points that would have benefited from being worded very carefully were not stated with suitable precision. Other portions are just confusing. There are times while reading the book where one gets the impression that Stroud is having a difficult time either organizing his presentation or staying on subject. In certain places he seems to be rambling. So, unfortunately, the poor writing proves to be a consistent distraction from what the author is trying to say.

Overall this book proved to be disappointing. Anyone looking for something more than just another book rehashing standard apologetic arguments pertaining to the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the historicity of the Bible (all while remaining primarily at surface-level) will not find what they are after in The Philosophy of History. On the other hand, if the writing can be fixed up a bit, this book may prove very helpful and informative for new students of apologetics. Will this book change the naturalistic leanings of the current intellectual climate in history and the sciences? That is doubtful. But at the very least it is good to see that another voice has joined the growing cry of protest against modern antisupernatural bias.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Justin Mooney is an undergraduate art and design student from Michigan. He has a passion for apologetics and is planning to study philosophy of religion in graduate school. More of his writing can be found at

[1] As far as I can tell, Stroud is less than entirely clear about what he means by the term “weak science,” but, whatever else it might be, it seems to include fields in which events and phenomena that are either not directly observable or not repeatable (or both) are studied using abductive reasoning and indirect evidence. Some of these fields are only controversially classified as sciences, which is probably why Stroud introduces the term “weak science.”

[2] Stroud, James. The Philosophy of History: Naturalism and Religion. Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing & Enterprises, LLC. 2013 p. 60

[3] P. 61

[4] P. 62

[5] P. 66


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