What does reason require us to believe?
This month the state of Illinois added a required course in news literacy to the state’s high school curriculum. By training students to compare sources from multiple websites to see if a questionable news story is true, the state hopes to give kids the tools they need to avoid being taken in by conspiracy theories and fake news.
But will this approach work for conservative evangelicals, given their tendency to believe conservative-leaning conspiracy theories, embrace climate change denial, and succumb to paranoia about COVID vaccines? Probably not. This is because conservative evangelicals who subscribe to climate change denial and similar right-wing views tend to pay far more attention to a source’s “worldview” than to the empirical evidence for or against the source’s claims.
Although conservative evangelicals in the United States have long-held views that are opposed to the scientific establishment (with their opposition to evolution being Exhibit A), their eagerness to make “worldview” rather than empirical evidence their highest test of truth claims is a recent phenomenon.
For most of the twentieth century, American conservative Protestants who questioned the scientific establishment did so from the perspective of common sense realism, a philosophy with eighteenth-century roots that, in the hands of fundamentalists, suggested that the common person without specialized training has the ability to arrive at truth (whether scientific or otherwise) through their own empirical observations. As George Marsden noted in Fundamentalism and American Culture, the fundamentalists of the 1920s who objected to evolution did not think of themselves as opposed to science. Instead, they believed they had the ability to disprove evolutionary claims by examining the fossil evidence themselves. This remained the view of “scientific creationists” into the late twentieth century.
Conservative evangelicals’ denial of scientific claims today is no longer based primarily on common-sense appeals to empirical evidence. Instead, it is based on worldview. Sources with the right worldview are considered credible authorities, while those with the wrong worldview are not.
Much of this may stem from Reformed evangelicalism’s recent rejection of common sense realism and its discovery of Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositionalist apologetics. According to Westminster Theological Seminary professor Van Til (1895-1987), unbelievers have such different presuppositions from believers that attempting to appeal to a common set of assumptions in arguing for the faith is pointless. Today conservative evangelicalism is deeply influenced by some version of presuppositionalism, even in circles where few have heard of Van Til. Much of this presuppositionalism flies under the flag of the term “worldview.”
In advertisements for Christian homeschooling curricula, the phrases “Christian worldview,” “biblical worldview,” or “Christian perspective” are ubiquitous. “The goal for Biology (5th ed.) is not to just give students knowledge of Biology but also to teach them critical thinking . . . while applying a Christian worldview,” Bob Jones University Press’s 10th-grade science curriculum promises. “When studying topics such as creation and evolution, human cloning, abortion, and stem cell research, students are pointed to Scripture as the ultimate authority and are encouraged to develop a biblical perspective about these topics.”
Worldview language is common in Christian homeschooling curricula even at the lowest grade levels. Alpha Omega’s first-grade health textbook, for example, claims to train students to “develop basic life skills from a Christian perspective.”
But at the high school level, this language becomes so pervasive that it makes its way into the textbook titles. Homeschooling parents looking for a Western Civ literature and philosophy textbook can select Kevin Swanson’s Worldviews in Conflict. 11th graders can get Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption from Bob Jones University Press, which includes units on science, government, and arts and culture. Those looking for a high school Western Civ curriculum can get David Quine’s The Bible and Ancient Thought: Worldviews of the Western World from Cornerstone Curriculum or Quine’s Starting Points: Worldview Primer.
In nearly every case in the Christian homeschool textbook market, there is far more emphasis placed on the worldview of the text than on the academic qualifications of the author. In many cases, the authors are never identified at all, but when they are, a quick Google search reveals that few of them have had any graduate training in the academic subject areas about which they write.
Despite their flaws, Christian homeschooling textbooks that emphasize worldview reflect an important truth that an earlier generation of Christians who subscribed to common-sense realism may not have grasped: Our worldview does determine how we interpret facts. How we think about God and humanity, for instance, will shape our understanding of the issues of bioethics that the Bob Jones University Press biology textbook highlights.
At the same time, when worldview claims become a justification for ignoring empirical evidence, or when people who have no academic expertise in a subject write textbooks in that field simply because they have the right worldview, the possibility for correcting these books with empirical appeals vanishes. And with it, that language of empiricism—once a common language for all citizens—is gone as well. Before the late twentieth century, it was possible for Americans of widely differing ideologies to debate with each other using commonly agreed upon principles of empirical reasoning. But today we no longer agree on a common set of empirical facts—which means that the possibility for dialogue across ideological and religious divides is greatly reduced. To those who subscribe to some version of Van Til’s presuppositionalism, maybe that doesn’t matter. But to those who care about the American democratic project, it’s cause for concern.
After I heard about the new Illinois high school program in news literacy, I realized that my own high school-age stepson had gone through a similar program in his Christian homeschool co-op last year. As the Illinois students will soon be doing, he compared news articles from various sources. But in the worksheets he filled out, the one question that he had to answer every time was a query about the author’s worldview. He was not asked to evaluate the quality of an article’s factual evidence or empirical claims—just the author’s worldview. And if the author’s worldview didn’t match a “Christian” perspective—well, you can probably imagine the rest.
Unfortunately, the media literacy classes that the Illinois public schools will offer are probably not going to change the minds of those who claim a “biblical worldview.” But maybe the Bible itself, or the Christian intellectual tradition, can help. A worldview that closes itself off to claims that come from the “wrong” sources is neither genuinely biblical nor Christian—as both the Apostle Paul (who quoted pagan poets with respect) and Augustine (who chastised Christians who were ignorant of the philosophy of his day) recognized. It’s good to be a discerning reader who is mindful of the way worldviews and presuppositions influence conclusions. But if our worldview is prompting us to close our minds at all costs to empirical evidence, maybe it’s time to reexamine our worldview and rethink some of our presuppositions. We need to do that for the sake of our democracy, as the Illinois state government recognized. But we also need to do it if we want our “Christian worldview” to be genuinely in line with the historic Christian tradition, rather than merely a closed-minded caricature.
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of several books on religion and American politics, including God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right and The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.