MODERN naturalism arose during the Renaissance as a vigorous re-assertion of man's right to satisfy his perfectly normal desire to know the world surrounding him. The budding movement was met with suspicion and outright enmity by the guardians of religious and political traditions. There were good reasons, of course: freedom of thought seemed dangerous, disloyal and irreligious to them, as indeed it occasionally was. But in the course of the following centuries naturalism slowly spread, assuming many forms and known under many names, and became almost inseparable from enlightenment of the minds and the emancipation of the peoples. Ever since it has been the principal motive in the growth of the sciences. It has been responsible for the turning of artists' attention toward the external world and the human body. It has been influential in combatting many political, economic and educational prejudices. It has had also something to do with a steady increase of people's interest in earthly matters and with a corresponding decrease of the authority of the Church.
By the middle of the eighteenth century the European naturalism began to assume the blunt or rebellious form of materialism, probably because of accumulated bitterness of feelings. But in America it appeared later, as an expression of admiration for scientific discoveries, and tended to assume a better-balanced form under its present name, naturalism.
Exactly what, then, is contemporary naturalism? To say that it should be regarded in opposition to supernaturalism-undeniably a European influence-is to identify it with atheism or agnosticism, which is quite incorrect, insofar as only a small minority of the scholars avowedly belonging to this school of thought would accept the interpretation, while the majority would reject and even resent it, in the Western world at least. As a matter of fact, the naturalists' concern with religion, whether they affirm or deny it, is avocational as it were and of small consequence in the performance of their tasks. In the proper light, the whole question seems almost irrelevant.