What in the Worldview Are You Talking About?

If you listen to or participate in any sort of debate or discussion about atheism and Christianity, then it doesn’t take very long before you hear the word worldview from the Christian side of the discussion. The worldview concept has been part of Christian apologetics for quite some time and it now appears so universally in apologists’ presentations that I’m inclined to make a drinking game out of it. One common approach is for the apologist to attempt to position the Christian worldview beside a competing one, examine the features of each one by how they answer certain questions, and show how the Christian worldview is more reasonable and consistent than the other one. This tactic is often employed in the one-on-one debate format.

The emphasis there is on convincing the audience. Most people aren’t practiced in analyzing logical argumentation on the fly, so style points are easy to score. When an apologist’s opponent challenges a definition or attempts a deconstruction which involves some technical language, the apologist can play the “I’m just a po’ country boy” card to garner the audience’s favor and make it seem like their opponent is working hard to get away from something very simple. We know this is a rhetorical trick, so let’s take a peek behind the curtain and see what’s really going on.

Come Again, Sire?

As originally used by Kant and Hegel, worldview can be understood as the fundamental presuppositions we make about the world around us which inform how we interpret, evaluate, and interact with it. When asked to define worldview, apologists generally offer one similar to this. However, their actual operational definition has been given to them by James Sire who defines it this way:

So what is a worldview? Essentially this: A worldview is 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) that 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…A worldview involves the mind, but it is first of all a commitment, a matter of the soul. It is a spiritual orientation more than it is a matter of mind alone. [1]

This definition attempts to smuggle in a tremendous amount of baggage, particularly the notion of worldview primarily being a commitment and a spiritual orientation. Not only is this fundamentally circular in that it presupposes parts of its conclusions, but it also spiritualizes everything. Lip service is paid to the mind but every issue is ultimately a spiritual issue which reflects the “fundamental orientation of the heart”. From the outset, the apologist is trying to play with a stacked deck. An entire system of spirituality has been presupposed without justification or clear definition. If left unchallenged and unexposed, the apologist will make the debate into a sermon illustration during closing remarks. Worldview is a broad concept, so precision is needed when defining it in order to keep the discussion manageable and focused. It’s also needed in order to keep the game honest, but hey, where’s the fun in that?

2, 4, 6, 8! Everyone Equivocate!

Since the apologist is operating under the definition of a worldview as a fundamentally spiritual orientation and since every issue is a spiritual issue, the apologist’s entirely spiritual worldview is justified in their mind. Most Christian apologists view the Bible as the sole source of absolute truth, so their worldviews conform to their interpretations of the biblical text. I say interpretations of the text and not the text itself because, if challenged with a contradiction or difficult passage in the text, the apologist will generally have some sort of explanation at the ready. These explanations don’t come from the text itself but rather from the apologist’s framework of biblical interpretation in order to synthesize the Old Testament with the New Testament and provide a coherent overall view of the Bible and its message. In other words, the apologist’s systematic theology is the apologist’s worldview. They equivocate the two. Whenever the apologist says “worldview”, they mean “systematic theology” and this is the case even when speaking about their opponent. Remember, every issue is a spiritual issue. Therefore, every discussion is a theological discussion.

Same Difference

The apologist appears to be evaluating two comparable worldviews by a fair standard. Don’t be fooled. Look a little closer. The apologist is evaluating two very different theological systems by the standard upon which one of them is based. Of course there will be differences, sometimes very stark ones. Of course only one will be consistent with the standard. And of course the apologist will declare victory when their own theological system is evaluated by their own standard and found to be in compliance. The game is rigged. In truth, worldviews can be structured very differently and personal standards will vary. Understanding of the worldview structures and agreement upon evaluation standards are required before any honestly fair appraisal can take place. This takes work and can get technical at times. But for the apologist who plays to win, obfuscating differences, deriding philosophical rigor and declaring “if you aren’t like me, you’re wrong” plays better to the crowds.

Oh Do Tell

Another drinking game could be made out of the number of times the apologist tells the opponent what their worldview is rather than asking them. In the mind of the apologist, there is such a thing as an “atheist worldview”. In truth, there is no atheist worldview. As Christians have been told countless times, atheism is simply one answer to one question. It doesn’t automatically entail anything else. There is no authority which must be strictly followed and no rigid monolithic structure built on binary formulations of every question or proposition. What apologists miss is that there is no “theist worldview” either. Theism is also simply one answer to one question. Worldviews may be theistic or atheistic, but that is merely one feature of them. One pixel in the big picture. To reduce a person’s entire worldview down to how they answer one single question is both unfair and insulting.

Worldview is a bit of a sprawling concept in that it encompasses such a wide variety of subjects and is shaped by such a large number of influences. Yet it’s accessible enough to be grasped without much difficulty. Even though apologists and others often try to smuggle in much more loaded definitions, some careful work on the front end will expose this trick and save much confusion later in the discussion. It also offers opportunities to quote the great Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”



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