Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis. The other articles in the series can be found here.
In this series we’ve defined what a worldview is, considered the role of plausibility and community in shaping beliefs, and looked at the faith commitments that underlie worldviews. We’ll consider the four primary functions of worldviews in this article.
Four primary functions of worldviews
1. Worldviews provide emotional security
Imagine what would happen if every time you asked the four questions of faith commitment—“Who am I? Where am I? What’s wrong? What is the remedy?”—your answer was, “I don’t know, and I don’t know how to find the answers.” The world would seem to be a place of incomprehensible randomness and chaos. You would likely be driven insane and be unable to function because of an overwhelming sense of existential dread.
A worldview, even a false worldview, provides a degree of emotional security because it allows a person to believe that reality is understandable. A person who believes their field burned down because Zeus hurled a lightning bolt in anger is more comforted than someone who believes the tragedy was meaningless and without a purposeful cause.
2. Worldviews are predictive
Worldviews provide a model for reality and help us to determine what is plausible, that is, what we think can and cannot happen. By knowing what can or cannot happen, we are able to make predictions about what will or will not happen. This makes it possible for us to make plans for our life based on what we predict can happen.
For example, most of us do not make a contingency plan based on whether we will be attacked by demons on our drive home from work. Even if we believe that demons are part of reality (as all Christians should), our worldviews tend to downplay the effect of supernatural evil on normal, everyday life.
We therefore make predictions based on what our worldview considers plausible and exclude anything that is implausible as improbable. If you are asked to predict why you’ll be late for dinner, you’re more likely to say it is due to heavy traffic than demonic activity.
This may seem too obvious to be worth pointing out. Yet it is precisely because our modern Western worldviews are shaped to have an anti-supernatural bias that we think this way. People tend to consider their own worldview as being “normal,” and anything that differs is considered abnormal or strange. We take for granted what is plausible and probable because our worldview filters out that which we consider implausible and improbable.
3. Worldviews are prescriptive
Just as worldviews provide models for reality that allow us to make predictions, they also provide models of reality that prescribe how we will behave within that reality. “A worldview is never merely a vision of life,” says Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, “It is always a vision for life as well. Indeed, a vision of life, or world view, that does not actually lead a person or people in a particular way of life is not a world view at all.”
Holding a particular view of reality leads us to react in a way that corresponds to that reality. For instance, if we believe we live in a universe in which God judges our actions and rewards or punishes us accordingly, it will likely lead us to act in a way that pleases him. Even if the belief does not motivate us to act in a way that pleases God, we will consider our actions a form of rebellion against that God. The result is that our worldview not only leads us to behave in a particular way (obedience or rebellion against God) but leads us to interpret our behavior based on the worldview (i.e., from an obedience or rebellion framework).
4. Worldviews provide cultural stability
As noted in an earlier article in this series, what we believe is largely dependent on what other people believe. Our worldviews are largely based on what other people believe, including the beliefs of generations that died long before we were born. What beliefs we consider plausible are generally based on the worldview that has been passed on to us by our culture. This provides continuity that allows us to cooperate from within a broadly shared framework.
Consider what happens when incompatible worldviews interact. Imagine, for instance, a salesman from the U.S attempting to sell an insurance policy to an animist from a South American jungle. Animists believe all natural things, such as rocks, have spirits and can influence human events. The animist would therefore have a difficult time understanding why they should give money to transfer the risk of financial loss against random events when all events are essentially random, and at the whim of spirits.
Insurance depends on a worldview that not only believes in naturalistic cause-and-effect relationships, but also believes that mathematical tools such as probability and the law of large numbers can help us predict what is likely to happen in the future. If a significant number of our neighbors were animists and did not believe such predictions were plausible, then insurance would be untenable.
Again, we take for granted that most people will share our “normal” worldview because one of the functions of a worldview is to provide cultural stability. But what happens when incompatible elements are found within a person’s worldview? That is the issue we’ll take up in our next article on internal coherence in worldviews.