Postmodern Christians

One of the biggest challenges facing rational people today is the rise of a peculiar form of self-imposed ignorance known as “post-modernism,” the notion that there is no such thing as truth, and that everyone lives in a kind of mutual solipsism where reality is whatever you think is true. It’s a philosophy rooted in certain “softer” sciences like literary criticism and philosophy, and a certain number of Christians are rather fond of decrying the liberalism and relativism it seems to project.

The irony is that Christians themselves are among the leading proponents of postmodernism. For example, PZ Myers had a post a while back in which this illustration appeared, copied from the Answers in Genesis web site.

The illustration’s intent is to show that the Christian and the scientist live in two different worlds, despite observing the same facts. This is postmodernism: facts are not the truth, because “truth” is something you create for yourself based on how you choose to interpret the facts. AiG would like to be able to prove that Darwin was factually wrong, but failing that, they at least want to sell you the alternate reality of the Christian “worldview.”

It’s this concept of “worldview” that sneaks postmodernism in through the back door of Christian thinking. You don’t hear about “worldview” from someone who thinks the raw, unmanipulated facts prove his position. “Worldview” is a defense, an excuse, for why the facts need to be “interpreted” in order to become “truth” (as defined by some set of preconceived ideas and preferences). It’s ordinary denialism, dressed in a philosopher’s robes.

Worldview postmodernism transforms Christianity from being an ordinary superstition into a powerful force for evil. For example, here‘s Chuck Colson invoking “worldview” as an excuse for the current economic crisis.

Our nation is in this crisis precisely because we’ve traded in a Christian worldview of work, thrift, savings, and prudence, and instead have embraced the false worldview of consumerism—of leisure, debt, and instant gratification.

That’s a false worldview, and it leads to the worst kind of idolatries. And it will also lead to our self-destruction.

And insofar as we Christians have abandoned our heritage and have bought into the idolatry of consumerism, we have betrayed not only our God, but the nation we love.

In point of fact, expert economists were sounding dire warnings years ago about the predictable and disastrous consequences that must inevitably result from the unrestrained predatory banking practices that were raising red flags even then. But “evil corporate profits” and “respect for expert testimony” aren’t really part of the conservative Christian worldview, and so rather than heed these warnings, Fox news and the Bush administration brought in specialists to basically re-interpret the facts in terms of a worldview that was more in keeping with what they wanted to believe. Result: a preventable but unprevented economic collapse.

Or consider abstinence-only sex (non-)education. According to a conservative Christian worldview, premarital sex is so bad that you shouldn’t even talk about it, except to condemn it. Rather than give kids the facts they need in order to get through singlehood healthy and childless, conservative Christians want to give them the Christian worldview only. Result? “Virginity-pledged” teens are no less likely to have sex, but they are less likely to be protected against STD’s (including AIDS) and unintended pregnancy.

Examples abound. Once upon a time, Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction were firmly embedded in the conservative Christian worldview of George W. Bush and his minions. Facts were only relevant insofar as they could be used to buttress the worldview that supported what Bush wanted to do: take revenge on some bunch of Arabs—any Arabs—in retaliation for 9/11. (And possibly for embarrassing the Bush family by burning oil wells at the end of the Persian Gulf war, but I digress.)

The thing that’s so dangerous about worldview postmodernism is that Christians see “worldview” not just as something that defines their interpretation of the facts, but as a kind of banner, a battle standard, that is to be defended against all hostile opponents, even when those opponents are the facts themselves. In worldview postmodernism, the facts are not the truth: worldview is, and if it comes to a conflict between fact and worldview, then the facts must either be assimilated or neutralized. (*cough*globalwarming*cough*)

This is the kind of thinking that makes someone like Sarah Palin into a kind of Christian folk hero. Who better to defend a worldview than someone whose success owes nothing to expertise, experience or insight? The real experts, the people who know the facts and what the facts mean, are the enemy, the source of these hostile attacks on the Christian worldview. Christians want leaders who will be worldview champions, not reality champions, and hence their disdainful dismissal of ordinary talent and expertise as “elitism.”

Psychologically, though, worldview postmodernism does make a lot of sense. Christians live in a world where God does not show up in real life, even indirectly. Colson’s article, quoted above, begins and ends with a plea for Christians to pray that God will revitalize the Church and intervene to have some kind of substantial, positive influence on the world. It’s a plea that’s 2,000 years old, and it isn’t any closer to being answered today than it ever was. This pains believers like Colson, but such are the facts—the cold, cruel, relentless facts.

Worldview postmodernism offers believers an irresistible lure: the chance to define truth in terms of whatever seems right in their own eyes. Inside a Christian worldview, everything is just the way it ought to be, and that’s unbelievably satisfying. I remember when I was a devout Christian, my favorite books, even into adulthood, were The Chronicles of Narnia, because the divine Jesus character, Aslan, behaved the way a loving God ought to behave: showing up to help when needed, interacting in person with those he loved, and in general behaving like he really did care enough for his creatures to want to spend time with them. So much better than anything real-world facts had to offer!

The other big appeal of worldview postmodernism is that it’s difficult to become an expert in real-world facts, which is why we have to divide it up into smaller areas of specialization, whereas it’s trivially easy to create a selfishly satisfying worldview, which is why nobody offers a PhD program in “The Way I Think Things Oughta Be, Dammit.” Let’s face it, not everybody can learn all the stuff you need to know to be a Nobel-prize-winning economist, and physicist, and biologist, and so on. But everybody can have a worldview. You don’t even need to be right about what you believe, you just need to be willing to argue in favor of it. And at that, you don’t even need good arguments, as long as you cling to them stubbornly and self-righteously.

Is there a cure for worldview postmodernism? I hope so, but it won’t be easy. Postmodernism is much more addictive than any mere pharmaceutical, because if you demonstrate to the postmodernist that his worldview is wrong, he’ll just decline to incorporate your facts into his worldview.

Our best bet is to try and educate the young, to teach them the difference between facts and worldview, and to demonstrate why it is important to equate “truth” with the former rather than the latter. Unfortunately, a lot of parents won’t want their kids to learn this kind of critical thinking. They’ll want to pass on their own worldview, like a legacy (or a family curse). If we try to make this part of the public school curriculum, expect resistance.

Where there’s Internet, there’s hope, though. At the very least, we can make this information available, and fight efforts to regulate and restrain the free exchange of ideas. Worldview postmodernism is self-destructive in the long term, so there’s some hope that the survivors will learn from their ancestors’ mistakes. Assuming there are survivors.

Like I said, it won’t be easy. But we do need to try.

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4 Responses to “Postmodern Christians”

  1. Luke Says:

    I like Richard Dawkins’ take on this:

    “I shall not waste any time on fashionable claims that science is just the white, western, patriarchal view of truth. Science works. That is why when you go to an international conference on cultural relativism, you go by Boeing 747 rather than by magic carpet.”

  2. InTheImageOfDNA Says:

    I recently read a good book on this topic called “Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism” by NYU philosopher Paul Boghossian. He says that among professional philosophers this issue variously called epistemic relativism, factual constructivism, etc (which would also include your term worldview postmodernism) has few adherents.

    I do think it shouldn’t be dismissed too readily (as Boghossian argues as well) for its gist should be taken into account. The fact that we as humans often form our beliefs clouded with desire, social group status/conformity, etc is something to always keep in mind.

    However, in the end it is a bankrupt and invalid philosophical viewpoint in its extreme forms such as this ludicrous example from AIG demonstrates. There are independent facts that warrant conclusions that are the best approximation of truth.

  3. John Morales Says:

    I suspect this may muddy the waters, but I think post-modernism is often confused with post-structuralism.

  4. Modusoperandi Says:

    “Facts were only relevant insofar as they could be used to buttress the worldview that supported what Bush wanted to do:”
    Put “Get US bases the hell out of Saudi Arabia, preferably moving them to a space occupied by an unpopular and weak regime; weak enough militarily but rich enough in natural resources that the war to unseat that regime would be paid for by its successors. This win-win-win scenario helps keeps the House of Saud’s foundation of sand from shifting (and gets their oil) and keeps bases in the MidEast and gets the other guy’s oil too.” (as recounted in some works by Gwynne Dyer).
    It looks almost pretty at first glance.

    “The real experts, the people who know the facts and what the facts mean, are the enemy…”
    But that’s because they keep coming up with the wrong answer! “Darwinism”?! Old universe?! Common descent!? Atheism?! Outrage!

    “This pains believers like Colson, but such are the facts—the cold, cruel, relentless facts.”
    There you go again. Hemmed in by “facts”. If you ran on simple, absolutist ideology (where what you believe things are is more important than what things actually are), life would be a lot simple. Abstinence-only sex-ed makes perfect sense once you realize that kids won’t do it if they don’t know how to do it with a margin of safety (do you realize just how complicated sex is? There’s no way they could possibly figure it out on their own), and with the proper worldview, we’re winning in Iraq. In “fact”, we’ve already won, it’s just taking some time for everybody to realize that. It’s hard for the Iraqis to realize that they’re free, I guess, when their neighbour is using a powerdrill on their kneecaps.