By David Barr
When I prepared to leave the confines of rural, evangelical middle America for the imposing halls of secular, University-of-Chicago middle America, many of my Christian friends expressed grave concerns about the dangerous ideologies I would encounter there. They mentioned atheism, of course, but their main concerns were post-modernism and moral relativism. I was warned I would encounter people who didn’t believe in objective truth, who thought everything was subjective.
Now, I did run into a lot of that stuff, especially among students with unruly hair, who smoked cigarettes, used “construct” as a noun, and said things like “Foucault.” Even students with normal hair often told me that what I believed was fine, but that there was no way to really know what was true when it came to things like religion and morality.
However, what was more striking to me was not how postmodern the students were, but how modern. They didn’t believe we could know the truth about religion, precisely because they knew that there were no such things as revelation, miracles, or a spiritual realm. It was the scientific and materialist rationalism that was the real barrier to religious belief, not the religious and moral relativism that flowed from it. So, while many of my friends denied the possibility of knowing objective moral truth, they were virtually all untroubled about scientific claims to objectivity. In questions of true and false and where physical evidence was available, folks were (if anything) overconfident in our access to truth; they thought science too capable of delivering complete answers to the big questions of life.
In college, then, I did find some relativism, but only in certain areas of thought. Today, however, I am seeing a rise in a much more thorough form of relativism, not from the halls of the academy, but from conservative evangelicals. This relativism is harder to spot because it is couched in the language of “worldviews.” If you read or listen to evangelicals regularly, you hear this word all the time. By it they mean one’s basic outlook on the world, grounded on certain controlling “presuppositions” (another word you hear a lot). For example, one person’s worldview might be based on the presuppositions that God exists, that God created the world, and that we have access to God’s word, while another person’s worldview might be based on opposite presuppositions. How the two individuals think about specific issues, they say, is obviously going to be very different based on these different starting points.
I should be clear that this attention to worldviews, to assumptions and presuppositions, is not bad. Many of the disagreements between believers and non-believers on a specific issue (say whether or not we can know what is right or wrong in a given situation) really do depend on whether or not they presuppose God exists and reveals moral truth to people.
Worldview thinking becomes a problem when evangelicals talk as if our basic access to the world around us is determined by our presuppositions even in issues of simple empirical observation. I am seeing this more and more. The more familiar relativism of postmodern theorists says we have no direct access to truth because we are constrained by the linguistic and cultural structures in which we live. In the relativism of many evangelicals today, worldviews play the role that language and culture plays in postmodernism. Many evangelicals talk as if our basic access to reality is so shaped by our worldviews that folks with different presuppositions have no common foundations (sources of knowledge, authorities, expertise) for agreement or productive disagreement, even about basic facts. This leads to all sorts of claims of media bias, to political polarization, and even to the rejection of science. It becomes impossible to trust someone with a different worldview, even when reporting facts, when you believe his or her beliefs completely shape everything he or she sees in the world.
That last bit may sound like hyperbole, so let me give you a very recent example. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the following on his podcast a day after Trump’s announcement that we were leaving the Paris climate agreement: “Oftentimes in this heated controversy [over climate change] you will hear the two positions sometimes reduced to simply the scientists and the science deniers. But…the science itself is predicated upon a worldview, and that worldview…is very clear in seeing human beings as the problem.” For Mohler, the empirical observations of scientists are so dependent on their worldviews that it causes them to see something that isn’t there. To be clear, Mohler didn’t say that everybody can agree on the science and that the different sides draw different conclusions based on their worldviews; he said that “the science itself is predicated upon a worldview.”
This is just as relativistic and subjectivist as you find in postmodern critical theory, and it bothers me for the same reason. Both take some reasonable observation about the difficulty or elusiveness of objective truth or a completely neutral perspective, and then extend that worry to a whole swath of knowledge where we actually get on pretty well. Do language, culture, and worldviews make it hard for folks see things the same way on certain issues? Yes, of course. However, isn’t it amazing how much human beings have been able to figure out together? Isn’t language magnificent? How wonderful is friendship with people different from us? We know science is never completely successful in transcending the perspectives of scientists. However, scientists from across every culture, ethnicity, and religion have been able to collaborate to eradicate polio, send people to the moon, and invent the shiny piece of witchcraft I’m typing on right now. Why get hung up on the limitations of perfect communication, when the fruits of actual communication are so incredible? We have accomplished remarkable things (and, of course, many terrible ones) without the benefit of a universally shared perspective.
My point is this: all of human civilization hangs on the possibility that individuals with different worldviews can know what one another are talking about and see things in the same way, at least enough to work together on the shared tasks we need to accomplish to survive and thrive. Our lives depend on there being enough of a shared perspective on things for us to cooperate to get things done, despite our persistent lack of a completely shared vision of reality. And most things do work that way. Science works for the same reasons math and air conditioner repair work: solving the problem in front of you doesn’t depend on your worldview, just your view of science, math, or HVAC.
Climate scientists don’t need to share foundational presuppositions about the value of human beings, the existence of God, or the best flavor of Starbursts. They just need to agree about methods, theories, and evidence. This is good, obviously, since as in every field of science, climate scientists don’t agree about the meaning of the cosmos: they are evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and pretty much everything else. Their shared pursuit of knowledge across perspectives would be impossible if science really were “predicated on a worldview.”
This is also true in politics. Politics is a realm of making those decisions we have to make in the absence of unanimity and certainty. It is about making the best compromise possible based on the best evidence available. No ideology, faith, scientific consensus - in short, no worldview - delivers to humanity anything like a complete plan for governing a 350 million-person, multiethnic, and democratic superpower in a globalizing age. This means we all have to do the best we can with what we’ve got. We have to work together to figure out what to do, because none of our worldviews is specific and detailed enough to tell us everything. It means we have to develop new expertise and figure things out in our novel context.
This means we all have a lot to learn about the world and we have to trust people different from us who are helping to produce that knowledge. We cannot think everything we hear is relative to the speaker’s subjective condition. There just aren't enough people like us to be that picky about our experts. We may disagree with experts and give reasons for doing so, but we have to stop dismissing expertise on the grounds of “bias” and “worldview.”
What do we do instead? Here’s my simple suggestion: bracket concerns about worldviews and presuppositions for when the issue requires them. For everything else, let’s agree on appropriate standards and trust those in those cases. Let's not go to the car mechanic who agrees with us about the place of human beings in the cosmos, but go to the one that has the best record fixing cars. Let's not test news sources based on whether the reporters are liberal or conservative, but on their integrity and journalistic standards. Let's not support a transportation bill because we like that party’s religious ideology; let's support the bill that will fill in the potholes. Let's not trust the talk radio host (or seminary president) on climate change because we like the stuff he or she says about Jesus; let's trust the experts who know what they're talking about.
Now, to be clear, many scientists and other experts aren't helping their reputations among evangelicals. Environmental scientists often include anti-human language in their writing. Physicists often talk as if their work disproves God’s existence. Neuroscientists can undermine personhood. Evolutionary scientists are prone to materialist reductionism. Bill Nye says crazy Bill Nye things. You don’t need to listen to them on this stuff. That isn’t science, and the scientists harm their cause when they mix it in with their work. We don’t need to listen to scientists when they happen to say something on a random subject. We do need to listen to scientists about science.
To distrust expertise on the basis of the expert's worldview is to say that basic knowledge of the world around us really is relative to the person trying to know it. It is to say that knowing how to pave a road or how to measure the distance a glacier has receded are subjective, not objective, forms of knowledge. This is subjectivist relativism, plain and simple, and it is crippling American politics and making global progress on shared problems unnecessarily difficult.
If I had a friend heading off to college, that is the relativism I would warn him about first.