By / Dec 9

Which worldview is the worst worldview?

That’s an obvious question that arises from the one we started with in the last article in this series: How do we determine whether one worldview is better than any other? If some worldviews are better than others, then at least one worldview must be worse than all others. Based on criteria outlined previously, the obvious candidates for the worst worldviews are those that are built upon materialism. The adoption of materialism into a belief system automatically makes a worldview unaffirmable and unlivable.

Materialism (sometimes called physicalism) is the belief that matter is all that exists and anything that is not composed of matter (i.e., that is not a physical entity) does not exist. Most forms of atheism and almost all variations of philosophical naturalism are worldviews built on materialism. The problem for such worldviews is that by clinging to materialism they become inherently anti-intellectual and require accepting a range of beliefs that can be proven to be logically impossible. 

To understand why this is true, let’s start by examining how materialism affects what philosophers call doxastic states—states of the mind that are either beliefs or are similar to beliefs (i.e., thoughts, judgments, opinions, desires, wishes, fears). If materialism is true then all doxastic states are (a) illusions, (b) physical states, or (c) emergent properties of physical states. 

If beliefs are not made of matter, and only entities made of matter exist, then beliefs are not real; they are merely illusions. Eliminativism is the term used to refer to this theory that science will eventually prove that doxastic states do not exist. Believing that our beliefs are illusions, though, is self-refuting. Having an illusion about an illusion is a meaningless concept. And for science to produce a hypothesis (which is itself a doxastic state) that claims that doxastic states do not exist would be illogical and self-defeating. 

As noted in the last article, all false worldviews contain statements or beliefs that are similar in that they are unaffirmable. What makes most unaffirmable claims unaffirmable is that what is being affirmed is denied in the process or act of affirmation. Materialism goes even further and denies that anything can be affirmed since affirming is a doxastic state and is thus illusory. To embrace materialism requires adopting an anti-intellectual position that ideas are not real.

Many who embrace materialism are smart enough to recognize this problem and so commonly adopt a revised position. They claim that physical states (i.e., within an entity though not necessarily in the brain) produce a doxastic state with a special causal or functional role. Under this view, known as non-reductive physicalism, functional properties cannot be reduced to physical properties, but that all causality is still, nevertheless, physical.

The problem with this approach, as the late philosopher Jaegwon Kim and others have shown, is that a person can either be a materialist or believe that doxastic states are non-reductive, but they cannot believe both. Kim uses a simple diagram to show the problem:

M causes M*
P causes P*

In this diagram, P is a physical event (such as a particular arrangement of neurons in the brain) that causes another physical event, P*. M is a non-physical mental event (such as a thought) that causes M*,  another non-physical mental event.

A Teed Rockwell explains, Kim’s argument is that under materialism the top layer (M causes M*) does no real work. P can cause P* all by itself, with no help from M. There is no coherent way in which M can cause M* without P’s help, or without causing P*. If everything is physical then there is no reason mental states are needed to explain physical states.

One last option yet remains for the materialist. They can adopt reductionism, which says that physical events are identical with mental events. Unfortunately for them, this leads to two equally strange conclusions. 

If mental states (such as thoughts) are nothing more than physical states (such as clumps of neurons firing in the brain) then mental states are controlled by the same natural laws that apply to physical entities. That would mean that all human behavior would be directly caused by and contained within the laws relating to chemistry and physics. Not only would we not possess free will, we could not claim to control any action. We would be so biologically determined that we could not be considered morally responsible for any of our actions, whether good, bad, or indifferent. Every aspect of our behavior would be nothing more than physical reactions to physical stimuli produced by our physical environment.

Within such a context, ethics is meaningless. Indeed, all behavior is meaningless since there is no meaning and no way for any human action to be different from what happened.

Of course, no person can function for more than 20 minutes, much less their whole life, acting as if what they do was neither caused by their mental states and was solely the result of physical stimuli over which they have no control. Yet those who embrace materialist-based worldviews must live as if materialism is not true. They must act as if their thoughts are real, that beliefs and ideas exist, and that they are able to choose at least some of their actions. That is why worldviews based on materialism are the most unlivable. 

In the next article in this series, we’ll consider another non-Christian worldview and show why it should be abandoned as unaffirmable and unlivable.

Addendum:

There are numerous other problems with materialism, but there is one that is so bizarre that it’s worth pointing out.

If matter is all that exists, then all physical events—as well as mental events—are ultimately composed of physical matter. Doxastic states, if they are more than an illusion, must therefore be either matter or a property of matter. But of course all matter is of the same stuff—various types of particles that occupy physical space. Whether it is the material that comprises stones and plants or the human brain, it is ultimately the same.

Yet if doxastic states can be produced by matter, then matter can produce doxastic states in anything (or everything). If this is true it leads to a peculiar result. Mountains can have ‘beliefs’, car engines can feel ‘pain’, and rivers can have ‘memories.’ This is the view of panpsychism, the idea that mentality (doxastic states) is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world.

By / Nov 18

Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis. The other articles in the series can be found here.

How do we determine whether one worldview is better than any other?

A primary way to answer that question is to determine whether a worldview is true or false. A worldview that is true—that is, a worldview that corresponds to reality—would be better than one that is not. In an earlier article, we discussed that there are (at least) 10 basic worldviews, such as Christian theism, Naturalism, and New Age spirituality. Since these worldviews make claims that contradict one another, they can’t all be true (though it’s possible they could all be false). We could therefore rank the worldviews from better to worse based on whether they are truer than their rivals.

To do this we need a test for the truth or falsity of a worldview. The Christian philosopher and apologist Norman Geisler proposed that the test for the falsity of a worldview is “unaffirmability,” while the corresponding test for the truth of a worldview is “undeniability.”

The two tests

Unaffirmability means that a statement or belief cannot be supported with evidence or that it contradicts itself. It is based on the most basic law of logic, the law of noncontradiction. This law states that contradictory propositions cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. Or, to put it more simply, if something is true, then its opposite is false.

Take, for example, the statements, “It is currently snowing in my house,” and, “It is not currently snowing in my house.” If “my house” refers to the same thing, then both statements cannot be true (though, again, they can both be false). The reason they cannot both be true is because that would violate the law of noncontradiction, which is a basic assumption about the nature of reality.

All false worldviews contain statements or beliefs that are similar in that they are unaffirmable. Let’s consider pantheism, the worldview that identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God. A primary claim of pantheism is that God, or the Absolute, is all that exists and that individual entities do not exist. As Geisler notes, a strict pantheist must affirm, “God is, but I am not.” But this is self-defeating since an individual entity—an “I”— must exist to affirm that one does not exist. The claim “I do not exist” is therefore unaffirmable. Since it is an essential claim upon which pantheism relies, pantheism must be false.

Claiming that a statement is unaffirmable does not mean, of course, that it is unsayable or unstatable. For example, we could make the statement, “Green taste like yellow.” While the statement is both sayable and statable, it is completely meaningless. It is also unaffirmable, but only because it is affirming something that is meaningless.

What makes most unaffirmable claims unaffirmable is that what is being affirmed is denied in the process or act of affirmation. If you were to affirm that you lack the ability to affirm anything, then you would be making an unaffirmable claim. What is unaffirmable is self-defeating, and what is self-defeating cannot be true because it violates the law of non-contradiction.

The second test for the truth of a worldview is undeniability, that is, a statement or belief is so true that we are unable to consistently deny it is true. The law of noncontradiction is an example of a belief that is undeniable. Another is the claim, “I exist.” For you to make that statement you would have to exist—otherwise, you would not be able to make the denial (“I do not exist.”). The claim, “I exist,” is therefore undeniable.

Unfortunately, few truths are as obviously undeniable as existence and the law of noncontradiction. But as we’ll see in a later article, Christian theism contains the most consistently undeniable beliefs of any worldview.

A more persuasive approach

Armed with this two-pronged test—unaffirmability and undeniability—we should now be able to convince non-Christians that their worldview is wrong, shouldn’t we?

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. As the Apostle Paul pointed out that the ungodly suppress the truth by their unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). The ungodly can find a way to deny even the undeniable.

Consider, for instance, the famous argument Dr. Samuel Johnson had with his biographer, James Boswell. The dispute was about a claim made by the philosopher George Berkeley that only the mind exists, and that matter is not real. As Boswell writes in The Life of Samuel Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus.”

Johnson’s point was that it was undeniable that matter exists—and he was right. But he was not wholly convincing. His appeal to the stone would certainly not have convinced Bishop Berkely that he was wrong. Some people can—and will—affirm the unaffirmable and deny the undeniable. Some refuse to accede to logic or reality while others merely embrace that they are contradictory. As poet Walt Whitman unapologetically stated, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

The intransigence of the unrighteous should not lead us to abandon undeniability and unaffirmability. But we should be prepared to adopt a more persuasive approach when it comes to convincing someone the Christian worldview is better.

As Sam Chan explains, when the culture was Christianized, we used to argue and teach in this sequence: (1) what I say is true; (2) if it’s true, then you must believe it; and (3) if you believe it, you must live it.

It’s TRUEBELIEVE it LIVE it

That is the logical sequence, but the way our post-Christian friends discover it is often the reverse: (1) what you see is a wiser way to live; (2) but if it’s a wiser way to live, then it’s also more believable; (3) but if it’s believable, you need to consider that it might also be true.

I can LIVE it → I can BELIEVE it → it must be TRUE

The corollary to this is that if a worldview is not a wiser way to live, then it’s less believable, and therefore unlikely to be true.

In the next few articles, we’ll apply this approach to show why non-Christian worldviews are not only unaffirmable but “unlivable” and should therefore be abandoned. 

By / Oct 14

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.

By / Oct 7

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis. The other articles in the series can be found here.

As we are using the term in this series, a worldview is a fundamental orientation of the heart that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. 

Almost all of our beliefs and values are built on the foundation of our worldview. But the worldview itself is supported by another foundation, what we could call a “faith commitment.”

Faith commitment as worldview foundation

All worldviews rely on a faith commitment. As Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton explain, the faith commitment is the way we answer four basic questions:

  1. Who am I? – What is the nature, task, and purpose of human beings?
  2. Where am I? – What is the nature of the world and universe I live in?
  3. What’s wrong? – What is the basic problem or obstacle that keeps me from finding fulfillment? (In other words, how do I understand evil?)
  4. What is the remedy? – How is it possible to overcome this hindrance to fulfillment? (In other words, how do I attain salvation?)

“When we’ve answered these questions, that is, when our faith is settled, then we begin to see reality in some sensible pattern,” says Walsh and Middleton, “Out of faith [emerges] a world view, without which human life simply can not go on.”

Consider, for example, the “sensible pattern” of reality that the early church experienced after the resurrection of Jesus. The early followers of Christ had to update their previous worldviews to incorporate this new information. In his book The New Testament and the People of God, theologian N.T. Wright summarizes the early Christian worldview using their answers to these four questions: 

Who are we? We are a new group, a new movement, and yet not new, because we claim to be the true people of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator of the world. We are the people for whom the creator God was preparing the way through his dealings with Israel. . . . 

Where are we? We are living in the world that was made by the God we worship, the world that does not yet acknowledge this true and only God. We are thus surrounded by neighbors who worship idols that are, at best, parodies of the truth, and who thus catch glimpses of reality but continually distort it. . . . 

What is wrong? The powers of paganism still rule the world, and from time to time even find their way into the church. Persecutions arise from outside, heresies and schisms from within. These evils can sometimes be attributed to supernatural agency, whether ‘Satan’ or various demons. Even within the individual Christian there remain forces at work that need to be subdued, lusts which need to be put to death, party-spirit which needs to learn humility.

What is the solution? Israel’s hope has been realized; the true God has acted decisively to defeat the pagan gods, and to create a new people, through whom he is to rescue the world from evil. This he has done through the true King, Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, in particular through his death and resurrection. The process of implementing this victory, by means of the same God continuing to act through his own Spirit in his people, is not yet complete. One day the King will return to judge the world, and to set up a kingdom which is on a different level to the kingdoms of the present world order. When this happens those who have died as Christians will be raised to a new physical life. The present powers will be forced to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and justice and peace will triumph at last.

Eight basic worldview questions

The answers to those four questions are generally sufficient to reveal the contours of a worldview. How those questions would be answered by a Christian are sufficient to distinguish them, for instance, from the answers given by an atheist. But to uncover more nuanced differences between more similar worldviews—such as between biblical Christianity and Mormonism—we need a diagnostic tool that is more detailed. 

In his book The Universe Next Door, James Sire provides such a tool in the form of “eight basic worldview questions”:

  1. What is prime reality–the really real? — Possible answers are God (theism), or the gods (paganism), or the material cosmos (naturalism).
  2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us? — Here our answers point, as Sire notes, to whether we see the world as created or autonomous, as chaotic or orderly, as matter or spirit; or whether we emphasize our subjective, personal relationship to the world or its objectivity apart from us.
  3. What is a human being?  — We might say that a human is an illusion, a complex machine, a “naked ape,” or a person made in the image of God.
  4. What happens to a person at death? — We may answer that after death a person ceases to exist, is reincarnated and returned to life, or enters into another realm or state (such as Heaven).
  5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?  — Our ability to think and reason may align with reality because it was designed by an all-knowing God or our cognitive processes may have developed accidentally through the process of evolution and have no certain claim to being able to determine truth.
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong?  — What is morally right may be known because it is rooted in the character of a beneficent God or it may be mere agreement among humans that was necessary for cultural or physical survival.
  7. What is the meaning of human history? — To this we might answer, says Sire, that the meaning is to realize the purpose of God or the gods, to make a paradise on earth, to prepare a people for a life in community with a loving and holy God, and so forth.
  8. What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview?  — We can provide abstract or purely intellectual answers to the previous seven questions. But answering this last one reveals whether we truly live out what we claim to believe. As we’ll see in future articles, the failure to properly consider this question leads to syncretism. 

These questions are a helpful tool in analyzing and classifying specific worldviews. But what are the functions of worldviews? That is the question we’ll examine in our next article.

By / Sep 30

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis. The other articles in the series can be found here.

Why do you believe what you believe?

The most common reason people will give for why they hold the beliefs they do is because those beliefs are true. If we didn’t think a belief was true, we wouldn’t believe it. We embrace this view because we intuitively adopt the correspondence theory of truth, which says that whether a belief or statement is true or false is determined by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) reality. The statement “That is a tree” is only true if the object being referred to is a tree. If the statement corresponds to reality, then it is true, and we should believe that it is indeed a tree.

The correspondence theory is commonsensical and pragmatic. It’s generally reliable and useful for determining truth when it comes to what we can experience through our five senses. But what happens when we can’t agree on reality? 

When Jesus said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice,” Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” The answer depends largely on what corresponds to reality. Christians would say that Jesus’ statement corresponds to reality since Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). But why then did Pilate, like so many other non-believers, not believe Jesus was Lord? Because they found the claim to be not only false but also to be implausible. 

The role of plausibility structures

Plausibility is one of the most important, and yet least considered aspects of belief-formation. To believe something is true we first must believe it is believable, that is we must consider it as plausible (i.e., seeming reasonable or probable). We must think it is at least possible that it could be true before we can consider it to be probable that it’s true.  

Pilate likely had no problem believing that it was possible for a man to be a god, since the Romans considered their former emperor Julius Caesar to be a god. But the idea that a seemingly unimportant Jew in the backwater of Roman-occupied Palestine could be a god strained credibility. Today, though, the idea that a human man could also be a god is considered by many secular people to be far outside the realm of what could be considered plausible. 

 In both the case of Pilate and the modern secular person, the belief (or disbelief) is dependent on one’s plausibility structure. A plausibility structure is a belief-forming apparatus that acts as a gatekeeper, letting in evidence that is matched against what we already consider to be possible. It doesn’t necessarily tell us what is true, but it prevents us from believing claims that cannot be reasonable or at least potentially true.

Plausibility structures are essential to a worldview. As we are using the term in this series, a worldview is a fundamental orientation of the heart that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. The plausibility structure determines which story or presuppositions we are willing to believe. 

Some thinkers claim that this function is so integral that the plausibility structure is the same thing as a worldview. Like worldviews, plausibility structures contain a collection of beliefs that are largely unexamined and merely assumed to be true. As James Sire says, one of the main functions of plausibility structures is to provide a background of beliefs that make arguments easy or hard to accept. 

Consider, for example, that you find your kitchen in disarray, with food and drink spilled all over the counter and floor. When you confront your child about who is responsible for the mess she answers, “The elves did it.” Whether you consider this claim to be true will depend on whether you consider it plausible. And whether you consider it plausible will depend on whether you think elves exist. Your view of elves is also going to be shaped in part by whether other people (besides your child) believe elves exist. 

The role of community

We like to think we are all “independent thinkers,” but the reality is that what we believe is largely dependent on what other people believe. As Tim Keller has said, human knowledge has a (1) rational/intellectual aspect, a (2) experiential/intuitive aspect, and a (3) social/pragmatic aspect. That is, we come to ‘know’ something well when (1) there are good reasons for it, when (2) it fits with our inward experience, and when (3) we find a trustworthy community that holds it too. 

Of the three, the social/pragmatic aspect is most likely to shape a person’s plausibility structure, and thus their worldview. “Facts, evidence, and data are surprisingly weak in making something believable,” says Sam Chan. “So which is the most powerful in determining belief? Community.”

Chan adds that whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, community determines how we believe. “We think like those around us think, we behave like those around us behave,” he says, “And we believe what those around us believe.” One of the major reasons our friends aren’t Christians, notes Chan, is that they don’t belong to a community of friends who also believe in Jesus.

In the first article of this series, we mentioned that many who attend church regularly also believe in astrology, psychics, and that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects. How can they believe things that are inconsistent, if not incompatible, with Christianity? Because along with being around other church members, they are in community with people who hold worldviews shaped by New Age spirituality. 

Indeed, social media and the Internet have made it possible to find a community where almost any belief is treated as plausible. You likely wouldn’t accept the “elves did it” excuse from your child because the adults in your life believe that elves do not exist. But if you spend enough time watching YouTube videos about how “elves are real” and in Reddit forums engaging with the “elves exist” crowd, you might soon consider it at least plausible. If you come to find the community trustworthy then you are more susceptible, and perhaps even likely, to adopt the beliefs as your own. 

‘Deconstructing faith’ because of loss of faith in community

The corollary to this is that when a person finds their community is no longer trustworthy, they are more likely to abandon beliefs they once held. Take, for instance, the essential Christian belief  that Jesus was raised from the dead. Many people who are “deconstructing” their faith don’t begin by examining the evidence for the resurrection and finding it lacking. Instead, they start with the discovery that some Christians are hypocritical and abusive—they lose trust in the community that shares their belief. As Keller says, at least some folks who go from “firm, active believers” to “complete disbelievers” through disillusionment with the church had rested their belief in Jesus’ resurrection almost completely in the social aspect.

Recognizing the role plausibility structures plays in worldview formation and how much of what we believe is shaped by community can help us better understand why syncretism has invaded the church and why disillusionment can lead people to abandon the faith. 

Next, we’ll consider how worldviews function and how they help provide answers to the most important questions about life and reality. 

By / Sep 23

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis.

Whatever happened to “worldview”?

There was once a time when the term was ubiquitous within American evangelicalism. After the Second World War, the term was popularized by thinkers such as Carl Henry and Francis Schaeffer and rapidly spread throughout the movement. Hundreds of resources—from conferences and classes, to articles and books—were produced to explain why thinking in terms of worldview and analyzing worldviews was necessary for apologetics and missions. Philosopher David K. Naugle even claimed that, “Conceiving of Christianity as a worldview has been one of the most significant developments in the history of the church.”

Sometime around the early-to-mid 2000s, though, the concept fell out of favor. Part of the reason may have been that worldview analysis wasn’t as effective as a tool against unbelief as we had assumed (for reasons we’ll consider in a future article). “If you are already a Christian, then worldview is a revelation,” wrote J. Mark Betrand in his 2007 book Rethinking Worldview, “but if you aren’t, the concept alone will not move you. In fact, it might do the opposite, driving you to the other extreme where everyone has a worldview and all worldviews are equally valid.”

The ineffectiveness of worldview analysis for apologetics has likely only grown worse since society has become even more accepting of relativism. But for evangelicals, there is a reason the concepts of worldview and worldview analysis are worth recovering: they help us understand what is going on today in our own churches and communities. 

The purpose of this series

Recent surveys have uncovered attitudes and beliefs among Christians that are concening and inexplicable. For example, almost 1 in 4 Americans who say they are Christian believe in reincarnation. Many who attend church regularly also believe in astrology, psychics, and that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects. Worldview analysis can help us to understand why ideas incompatible with biblical Christianity are increasingly accepted by people who sit beside us in the pews. 

In this series, we’ll consider a number of concepts related to worldviews and worldview analysis and explain how they can be of use to you. The goal is to help you develop a framework for identifying, clarifying, and communicating aspects of worldview that are becoming increasingly common in our era.

While you should be able to gain a better understanding of the key concepts by reading this series of articles, you should also keep in mind that every explanation is a simplification necessitated by the limitation of brevity. The explanations of the concepts are more like simple line drawings, which can show the contours and outlines, than like a high-definition photograph, which can reveal more nuance and detail.   

What is a worldview?

Let’s start with the concept of “worldview.” Despite ​​the term being used for more than 150 years, there is no single agreed upon definition of what the word means. A common thread that connects the uses of the term is that a worldview is a particular perspective on reality that affects how one forms beliefs and behaviors that affect how a person lives. 

In The Universe Next Door, James Sire defines worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move, and have our being.” 

Sire’s definition is the way we’ll be using the term “worldview” throughout this series.

Worldview as a way of life

A worldview includes the “head, heart, and hands”—what we think and believe, what we feel and desire, and how we act and react. Too often, though, evangelicals have focused on the cognitive aspects of worldview without giving due consideration to how it forms a way of life, or a Christian ethic. 

As Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton have said, “A world view is never merely a vision of life. 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 a people in a particular way of life is no world view at all. Our world view determines our values. It helps us interpret the world around us. It sorts out what is important from what is not, what is of highest value from what is least.”

In future articles we’ll consider how worldviews function in a way that give meaning, purpose, and clarity to our lives.

The categories of worldviews

Between 1960 and 2000, evangelicals tended to think of worldviews as competing systems of belief. For example, in his influential book The Universe Next Door, Sire identified nine common worldviews: 

  • Christian theism
  • Deism
  • Naturalism
  • Nihilism
  • Existential­ism
  • Eastern pantheistic monism
  • New Age spirituality
  • Postmodernism
  • Islamic theism

This type of categorization is still useful as a general framework. But a 10th worldview needs to be added to the list, which we’ll call syncretism

Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs and various schools of thought. While evangelicals have not typically considered it a separate worldview, it is helpful for our purposes to think of it as a unique entity. Sycrestic views have become so prevalent that it should be considered a separate category.

Thinking of it this way will help us better understand and discuss what is occurring in  the modern world. For instance, if they were asked to choose from the above list, many Americans would say their worldview is Christian theism. But included in their Christian faith may be a deistic view of morality, a naturalistic view of science, a nihilistic and/or existential view of culture, a pantheistic view of reincarnation, a New Age view of astrology, and a postmodern view of truth.

In this series, we’ll consider a broad range of worldviews but focus primarily on syncretism and how it affects the American church. For example, rather than examining Eastern pantheistic monism in its totality, we’ll consider how the samsara paradigm has been adopted by Christians. We’ll also consider such aspects as the functions of worldviews, how seemingly obscure concepts such as coherentism and plausibility structures are necessary for understanding modern life, and how we can develop a more biblical worldview. 

By / Aug 13

Herman Bavinck, Dutch theologian and Christian leader of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, delivered the first edition of his Christian Worldview in 1904, and later revised and republished it in 1913. Through the good work of Crossway publishers and editorial/translation work of Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, and Cory C. Brock, this important work is now available in English.  

While the notion of a world and life view has persisted for millennia, the word “worldview” was not coined until 1790 by Immanuel Kant (originally the German weltanschauung) and quickly became common-speak in the Western world. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Christian worldview had become a central theme. David Naugle argues that the “headwaters of Christian worldview thinking can be traced back to the Scottish Presbyterian theologian James Orr and to the Dutch Reformed polymath Abraham Kuyper” (Naugle, Worldview; The History of a Concept, xviii).   

Summary of three chapters

In the vein of Kuyperian thought and influence, Bavinck offers his slim, three-chapter work on Christian worldview as a front-footed, unapologetic case for believing the truth of Christian Scripture as the only story that accounts for the world as we know and experience it. 

Weighing in at only 133 pages, let not the brevity of the book deceive concerning its depth or density. Bavinck addresses three basic questions that he believes are “problems” that have and continue to confront the human mind; “What am I? What is the world? And what is my place and task in the world?” (29).  His chapter titles address these questions respectively as “Thinking and Being,” “Being and Becoming,” and “Becoming and Acting.” He ends his introduction with this preliminary answer to these questions; 

Autonomous thinking finds no satisfactory answer to these questions—it oscillates between materialism and spiritualism, between atomism and dynamism, between nomism and antinomianism. But Christianity preserves the harmony [between them] and reveals to us a wisdom that reconciles the human being with God and, through this, with itself, with the world, and with life. (sic., 29)

As a point of advice to future readers, allow the quote above to serve as a constant clarifier for the rest of the volume. With each chapter, Bavinck attacks the question at hand, though the journey between question and answer is sometimes difficult to follow. He commonly takes sharp turns down the path of rival worldviews and ideas, sometimes seeming to agree or argue in favor of the position, only to turn back just as quickly in favor of the Christian view.  

In chapter one, Bavinck argues that we are capable of knowing only because God has known first. Then, “the doctrine of the creation of all things by the Word of God is the explanation of all knowing and knowing about,” for this assumes a correspondence between the knower and the thing known (46). He continues insisting that, “the deeper one thinks this through, [the clearer it becomes that] all truth is understood in the Wisdom, in the Word, who was in the beginning with God and who himself was God. The one who denies this Wisdom undermines the ‘foundation’ of all science…” (sic, 47, italics added for emphasis).  

Bavinck’s emphasis on wisdom is noteworthy and relatively unique in the broader—and more popular—worldview literature. Throughout the book, Christian wisdom serves as the clue to worldview. Thus, in chapter two Bavinck demonstrates the superiority of the “organic” worldview over what he calls the monistic-mechanical approach on one side and the dynamic/energetic approach on the other. He argues that the organic view does justice to the oneness and diversity of creation, and to “being and becoming.”  

Bavink notes that wisdom accounts for the essence of all things, but adds that God’s will (decrees) must be joined to wisdom to account for their existence in the world. Wisdom and will, then, account for the dynamism and development in the world that the mechanistic and energetic views cannot.  

Finally, Bavinck’s final chapter calls its readers to recognize that we are designed to conform to God’s laws and norms in the world: “You shall love the true, the good and the beautiful with all your soul; and you shall love God above all else and then your neighbor as yourself” (95). This isn’t accomplished by individualism, communism, or autonomous reason, but only by the Christian faith. “Christianity is not exclusively a teaching about salvation, but it is salvation itself, brought about by God in the history of the world,” centered on the person and work of Christ, concluding with the end of the ages (115-116).   

Three takeaways

First, Bavinck’s consistent pushback against individualism and autonomous reason remains timeless counsel that we do well to heed today. In our day, as in Bavinck’s, the temptation to assume center stage as though the function of human reason is the beginning of wisdom remains a fatal flaw in the pursuit of right living in God’s world.  

Second, Bavinck’s awareness of the broader disciplines is exemplary. He was not only conversant and up to date in the sciences, but his unique ability to penetrate the assumptions, methods, strengths, flaws, and plausibility of differing views yields insight that remains valuable even more than 100 years later.  

Finally, as noted above, the emphasis on divine wisdom is commendable and unique. While I have concerns about an over-intellectualized understanding of wisdom in the book, Bavinck rightly and repeatedly returns to God’s wisdom as essential for a proper view of the world. 

Bavinck’s work is an important addition to the last hundred years of Christian worldview literature. It will quickly become a classic volume for Christian philosophers, theologians, and worldview teachers everywhere.   

By / Jun 20

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said that we live in the “age of the world picture.” One of the things he meant was that the way we think about things has now become an external object of contemplation rather than being simply the way we actually think about things. We now not only think a certain way, we think about the fact that we think a certain way, and so we want to talk about it.

This is why we Christians write books and have conferences about “worldviews.” Whereas once we had a worldview, we now want to talk about the fact that we have one—and presumably that some other people have a different one. Who are the people who we expect to read these books and come to these conferences? If they are people who already think the way we think they should, then why do they need to come? And if they are people who do not already think this way, then why would they want to come?

What did we know before we knew we had a “worldview”? How did we think when we didn’t know how we thought?

In fact, our need to talk about the way we think is a sure sign that, in fact, we no longer think this way. The very reason we objectify the things that had formerly been subjective is to preserve them. We use the process of objectification as a sort of intellectual formaldehyde and put them on exhibit.

We talk about the “Christian worldview” not because we have it, but because we want to preserve it. And the reason we want to preserve it is because we worry that we don’t have it anymore.

This is also the case with the word “culture.” We have committed it to the museum—the Museum of the Mind—to be put on display with all the other things that are extinct or the survival of which has been put in question.

We talk about culture because we no longer have one.

The reason we no longer have a culture is because a common culture requires shared values and shared values presume a shared religion. This is why T.S. Eliot, in his essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” said that religion and culture are two sides of the same coin. Not only is a one-sided physical coin impossible, so is a one-sided cultural coin. In traditional cultures there was never such a distinction. It is only in more recent centuries when such a distinction was even thought possible.

What we in America are now going through is what Europe went through in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the “first time in Europe,” said A.N. Wilson, “a generation was coming to birth who had no God or no God of any substance, and who found it difficult to justify religion except in the most basic Utilitarian terms.”

When a culture is disconnected with its religious foundation, it has two courses open to it: It can try to maintain them without it, or it can abandon the values that were tied to its religion altogether.

The chief historical examplar of the former approach was the Victorians. England, like most European countries in the nineteenth century, was fast abandoning Christian belief. But unlike some continental European countries, it tried to preserve its Christian morality. This, as historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has pointed out, was the great Victorian experiment.

The chief examplar of the opposite view—that without the religion go the values, was Friedrich Nietzsche. While Himmelfarb admires the Victorians for their cultural pluck, Nietzsche despised them for not taking their intellectual beliefs to their logical conclusion.

By the expression “death of God,” Nietzsche meant simply the cultural death of Christianity in the West. Christianity, he rightly pointed out, had lost its power as a societal force—it no longer exercised the unchallenged influence it once did over the minds of Western man. The Victorians, he believed, had seen this too, but they were acting as if God was still culturally alive. Nietzsche had little but contempt for this. He used the word “Englishman” as a pejorative for anyone who tried to preserve Christian morality without the explicit Christian belief that supported it.

In his book The Gay Science, Nietzsche spoke of a cave in the East in which, for many years after the death of Buddha, one could still see his shadow: “God is dead,” he said, “but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow may be cast—and we—we must vanquish even his shadow.” The shadow of Christianity was cast over the culture long after it had itself ceased to be believed—a shadow the “Englishman” clings to and Nietzsche reviles.

Nietzsche and many later existentialists were wrong in their belief that God did not exist. But they were right in thinking that if he did not, then morality (as well as every other cultural belief) were no longer rationally or culturally tenable. Nietzsche was impatient with the length of time it took for shadow to abate. In places like France, this realization came more quickly, in England, much later. This process of secularization has taken longest in America, a nation, as G.K. Chesterton was still able to say in the early twentieth century, “with the soul of a church.”

It is hard to identify exact dates for this cultural change, but the tipping point in British culture—the point at which its morality caught up with its religious disbelief—seems to have been about the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf famously (and somewhat recklessly) set a date: “on or about December, 1910,” she declared, “human character changed.”

At some recent point, probably not determinable, America reached its December 1910. Our culture has caught up with our lack of faith. The loss of religious influence—and the decline in morality—is now not just palpable, but pronounced. The acceleration of this change over just the last five to ten years is astounding. This is particularly the case with issues involving marriage and sex, always the first aspects of conventional morality to suffer from secularization. We now have a President elected from a party whose convention featured the advocacy of same-sex marriage, a position the mere mention of which would have been politically poisonous only four years before. The United States Senate, at the end of 2013, passed a gay rights bill by a comfortable margin that would have had a hard time finding many votes at all ten years ago. And then there is almost a complete collapse in decency standards on television and other media.

Culture is no longer on our side.

Although happening at different times the process of secularization and consequent “de-moralization” of society (Himmelfarb’s expression) in both Europe and America followed the same pattern. It started among the intellectual classes and filtered down to the general public. It has never been a big secret that cultural elites tend to be more permissive in their moral views than the masses. The common man, Chesterton argued with some plausibility, has always been the great bulwark against moral corruption.

In America, the problem of the divergence in worldviews between the cultural elite and the general public has long been an acknowledged fact. Even before the Williamsburg Charter Survey confirmed the societal fissure in 1987, Peter Burger had already observed that America was a “nation of Indians ruled by Swedes”: conservative and religious at the bottom and liberal and secular at the top. This is significant because the values of the upper classes have always had a prescriptive force, which is why culture, as the ancients said of fish, rots from the head first.

In different societies, these cultural elites have been differently constituted. In nineteenth-century continental Europe, with religion on the wane, it became the philosophers who were imparted intellectual and moral values. In England, it was the literary elite who were the cultural rock stars. What was once dictated by a royal court was, in nineteenth-century Germany, produced at the University of Heidelberg or Jena—and Tubingen, from which the “higher criticism” of the Bible was worked out. In England, after the turn of the twentieth century, it was the Bloomsbury Group (of which Virginia Woolf was a prominent member), made up of poets, playwrights, novelists and essayists.

With the exception of John Dewey, America’s philosophers never had the cultural influence of its novelists. Josiah Royce and C.S. Pierce were not unimportant, but they were eclipsed culturally by Hemingway and Faulkner. And philosopher William James never achieved the influence of his novelist brother Henry.

But in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the writer and the novelist has fast given way to the celebrity, a person, as Daniel Boorstin put it, who is “famous for being famous.” In America, the rock stars are, … well, rock stars. We are now less likely to pay attention to what some academic philosopher or literary figure might have said in a treatise or a novel (indeed, it’s hard to even think of the name of a prominent American contemporary philosopher) than to what Bruce Springsteen or Bono might have said to Piers Morgan in an evening interview on television.

And if the celebrity is a celebrity psychologist, all the better. Dr. Phil now occupies the cultural place once inhabited by Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham.

Elite intellectual classes have always dictated intellectual and moral fashion, and traditionally this has been a good thing: they promoted values that were good, and these values were universally shared. In fact, when we use the word “culture,” we almost always mean the culture of an elite. Greek culture was not only the product of Athens, but enjoyed almost exclusively by Athenians. And Roman culture was the culture of Rome. In fact, when we speak of culture, we almost always refer to a city: Athens, Rome, Alexandria, Vienna, Paris. In America, it would once have been New York. Today, it is Hollywood, which dictates our morality more effectively than any college of cardinals ever did.

In previous times, if someone did not participate in the kind of high culture centered in the city, they participated in some kind of folk culture. But such folk cultures—less explicitly articulated, less universal, less institutionalized, and, unlike high cultures, more dependent for their existence on geographical isolation—are fast disappearing along with the local and regional communities that sustained them.

Beginning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the influence of the intellectual elites turned mischievous. In what has been referred to as the “treason of the clerks,” the intellectual class began to abandon the traditional conceptions of the good, the true and the beautiful of which it had traditionally been the champion. Both high culture and Folk culture have been replaced by popular culture, creating a kind of low monoculture, egalitarian and relativistic in nature and impatient of the traditional values that characterized all prior cultures.

All this is not to say that those who dictated culture were always themselves good—only that, whatever their actual practice, they acknowledged the good. According to Julien Benda, “Humanity did evil for two thousand years, but honored good. This contradiction was an honor to the human species, and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world.”

It is tempting to say that this was simply a hypocrisy we no longer need, but we should think about this long and hard. We need to ask ourselves whether a culture without hypocrisy is better or worse than what is even now replacing it. Hypocrisy has been the universally acknowledged sin only because there was always a standard someone could uphold while he violated it. But we are now entering a world in which, particularly on matters of sexual morality, hypocrisy is no longer even possible because there are no shared values that we can be hypocritical about.

The high values we all once shared are no longer common to the Church and to the wider culture. The first problem this causes is simply that it is harder to be moral. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Shadows on the Hudson, about Jewish refugees in New York in the years after World War II, the protagonist, Hertz Grein, finds himself in the home of a friend with whose wife Grein is having an affair, unbeknownst to his friend. While the wife is in the kitchen preparing coffee, their conversation turns, ironically, to adultery. “Today,” says Grein, who is wrestling with sin, “man can do everything but make up his mind.”

“What do you mean by that?” asks his friend Luria. “You’re speaking in riddles.”

“I’ll give you an example,” says Grein. “Our fathers and grandfathers knew that it was forbidden to lust after another man’s wife, so they didn’t lust. If they did they smother the desire in themselves, never admitted it, never let their bodies get the best of them, and lust gradually wore off. Modern man can be given every demonstration that he’s forbidden to do something, and he’ll still do it. I know this from my own life.”

Luria thinks he has the answer: “Well, that’s a very fine example,” he says. “But it’s simply because our parents had faith and we do not.”

“Faith alone,” argues Grein, “does not enable a person to make up his mind.”

“What else does one need?”

“Organization. Just as patriotism is not enough to win a world war, so faith is not enough to win the war with oneself. One needs strategies and tactics, all the generalship of war. Our fathers and grandfathers did not fight alone. They had an army. They had fortresses, trenches, commanders and subordinate officers. They had uniforms.”

In other words, it is hard to be moral without a whole network of outside support. Just ask anyone who has sent their son or daughter off to a secular college—or for that matter, many ostensibly Christian colleges.

But the problem of being moral is subordinate to another problem. The fact is that, however much those who formed the high culture fell short of honoring it themselves, they at least acknowledged the values they fell short of. And this is the chief difference between our modern culture and past cultures—the chief characteristic of the new monoculture: We not only violate moral standards, we deny that there are moral standards to violate.

There are many who would argue that there is no more sin today than there was one, two or three hundred years ago. This may be true, but it is beside the point. The point is not that people acted differently than they do now; the point is that they believed differently than they do now. As religious sociologist Will Herberg observed a generation ago about the moral crisis of our time:

… consists primarily not in the widespread violation of accepted moral standards, … but in the repudiation of those very moral standards themselves. And this, indeed, is our time’s challenge to morality; not so much the all-too-frequent breakdown of a moral code, but the fact that today there seems to be no moral code to break down.

… To violate moral standards while at the same time acknowledging their authority is one thing; to lose all sense of the moral claim, to repudiate all moral authority and every moral standard as such, is something far more serious. It is this loss of the moral sense, I would suggest to you, that constitutes the real challenge to morality in our time.

Given that our culture has undergone a fundamental transformation, what do we do about it? The approach Christians have taken in the past to the problem of the loss of moral sensibility is to do everything they could to make everyone—themselves and others—more moral. This might have worked when there really was a moral majority, but it will not work in a culture in which the majority doesn’t share the same morality. It is trying to bring back Buddha’s shadow.

Again, the primary problem with our culture is not that too few people are moral, but that too few people agree on what morality consists of.

For Singer’s protagonist Grein, the answer is to join an Israeli commune, where he grows a beard and sidelocks, wears the girdle during prayers and the fringed ritual undergarment. “Whoever wants to serve God must wear God’s insignia,” he asserts. But this is the path of isolation. It is the path of the Amish, who have the benefit of having taken steps to preserve their culture at a time when they still had one.

On the other hand, there is the path of participation and engagement: Refusing to isolate ourselves and try, in some sense, to be salt and light to the culture. And yet how does a Christian in good conscience participate in a culture that has metastasized in so many ways into something evil?

I suspect the answer is somewhere between these two extremes. One does not have to completely drop out of culture in order to resist its temptations. But to do this requires the formation of some kind of subculture that does not isolate one from the larger culture, but creates a cultural space within which the religious values one holds are able to be believed and practiced, as well as transmitted to the next generation.

I will give just one example of how this is already being done. There are certainly more.

My wife and I homeschooled our four children. And when we did it, we participated in the community of Christian homeschoolers in our area, which is part of a larger movement nationally. After having observed the homeschooling movement over a number of years, both locally and nationally, it has become very clear to me that what has been created is not just a movement of individual families educating their children. What has been developed is a subculture. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it does serve the purpose of preserving and transmitting Christian values in a way even many modern churches have a hard time doing. And it is growing dramatically.

It doesn’t isolate you from the culture around you, but it does create enough culture space within which healthy cultural values can be maintained. It gives you, in Singer’s terms, a uniform to wear without joining a commune.

I have seen this in my own family. Of my four homeschooled children, two (both boys) have married in the last several years, both to young girls who were themselves homeschooled. Their addition to our family has preserved and strengthened the culture of our family because those who have come into it share the same values, and those values will be handed on to our grandchildren.

We want to think that, because the problem of the decline in culture and the disintegration of shared values is a big problem, it must require a big solution. We want to treat our cultural malady with policy prescriptions and new laws. But this is not the way in which cultural change happens. It doesn’t happen through politics: It happens instead through the smaller cultural institutions out of which our culture is made up. Sometimes big problems don’t require big solutions, they require small solutions. Lots of them. Edmund Burke spoke of the “little platoons”: “To love the little platoon we belong to in society,” he said, “is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind.”

This is done by families and by the networks of relations between families. Alan Paton, in his book Cry, the Beloved Country, speaks of the three things that had corrupted South African society, and they are the three things that corrupt any society: the “sickness of the land,” the “broken tribe,” and the “broken house.” The first of these is the least familiar to us. In South Africa it was the abuse and consequent barrenness of farmland, destroyed through lack of care. Writers such as Wendell Berry have written here in America of the cultural consequences of the despoliation of our environment. But the broken tribe and the broken house are terms we should understand. The decline of the family is reaching crisis proportions. And in our lust for individuality, we have let lapse the local institutions and voluntary associations that once constituted the local loyalties that wed our culture together. With an entertainment culture at odds with our values and without these little loyalties to transmit what values we still have in our churches and families, there can be little progress. Even if we had them, the ill health of these institutions would prevent us from passing them on.

With the help of our churches, we need to establish these little platoons once again.

Martin Cothran
Martin Cothran is the editor of Classical Teacher magazine and is the author of Traditional Logic, Books I & II and several other textbooks on logic and classical rhetoric. He also serves as senior policy analyst with the Family Foundation of Kentucky.