Over the last three years, I have conducted courses on Atheism and Agnosticism at the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne within the Lifestyles department. Given the diversity of participants, we would spend the first night clarifying the usage of both terms, a controversial discussion even within Atheist communities.
We typically would reduce atheism to the usual ‘disbelief or rejection of the god’ of society. In past times, that meant accusing Socrates of atheism for not believing in the gods of Athens and, even, early Christians for rejecting the gods of Rome. For us, it usually refers to the Christian god as the dominant form of worship. So atheism is a statement about our claims about reality or Metaphysics in philosophical terms.
Most saw agnosticism as a gentle form of atheism, the sort of atheism that can be declared in polite company. This is a far-cry from Thomas Huxley’s coining of the word in the 1860s to curtail any claims of certainty about rejecting god. ‘God is inherently un-knowable’ is closer to his conception of agnosticism. Again in philosophical terms, it is an epistemological claim, one about the nature of knowledge.
So, atheism and agnosticism are dealing with only limited aspects of our perspectives of the world. Therefore, neither of the concepts is an opposite of Christianity, which makes many more claims about the nature of reality and ourselves, and even on how we should behave. Enter Naturalism. Unlike atheism, Naturalism seeks to address a broader range of significant issues about life rather than be restricted to the existence or non-existence of god.
Before speaking specifically about Naturalism, let me introduce a useful way of discussing and comparing different perspectives, the world-view, a literal translation of the German Weltanshauung. Not surprisingly different writers interpret the concept in different ways. For me, world-view is an intellectual framing of our experiences, including our intuitions, perceptions, ideas, and beliefs about ourselves in the world. While acknowledging that deeply held emotions underlie our reactions to the world, I see that verbalising a perspective as a world-view makes it an intellectual process at rationalisation, similar to retelling of a dream. So a world-view provides a person and his or her community with a verbal tool set to describe, interpret, and explain experiences, emotions, and thoughts and in many cases to prescribe appropriate behaviours to be consistent with that world-view.
I would like to mention two risks when analysing world-views. I am drawing from ‘A New Science of Morality’, a talk given by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology at University of Virginia, at a recent Edge seminar. Firstly, we need to be aware of being WEIRDs, people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic societies. We are a minority in the world and need to be careful not to see ourselves as the norm. Secondly, we need to be aware that human reasoning evolved to win arguments and not to pursue the truth. Using reason to justify our actions and beliefs leads to the well-known confirmation bias.
An example of misunderstandings from seeing things as a WEIRD is our concept of self. We emphasise the individual – personal rights, personal goals, and personal ownership. When doing historical research or examining other societies, we bring an individualistic sense of self with us. However many communities interpret ‘self’ in a vastly different way, as a collective self of group identity. Jesus scholars regularly face this problem with their studies of first century Middle-Eastern societies. According to Bruce Malina, ‘Who do people [others] say that I am?‘ was and is a commonly thought of question, though rarely asked. In collectivist communities people see themselves as defined by the opinions of significant others. This is something similar to the behaviourist quip: ‘You seem okay. How am I?’
I should mention that many writers even dispute the concept of world-view, as it implies some sort of consistency of our intuitions, beliefs, and ideas. It may be more accurate to characterise our verbalisations about life as trying to normalise a changing, contradictory, patchy, and often inaccessible ‘mishmash’ of emotions and thoughts. Simple honest reflections of our attitudes seem to confirm these concerns.
Despite this caveat, the concept of world-view provides a useful way of talking about fundamental perspectives and, particularly, for contrasting religious with non-religious ones. We need to remember that in reality a person’s perspective is based on deeply held beliefs or assumptions developed from his or her familial and cultural backgrounds. So someone growing up in an Islamic tradition, especially if educated in a Madrassa, will hold a perspective dominated by an Islamic world-view. He or she may later question aspects of that view although it is hard to imagine any fundamental change. Similarly, my view developed in a very secular household where religious practices were seen as cultural artefacts. Christian concepts like God, Christ, and The Trinity hold little real meaning for me and are empty of feelings. In summary, my approach is to see a world-view as an intellectual rationalisation of our attitudes and a way of enabling discussion and some possible change
Perhaps more controversially, each world-view is underpinned by foundational beliefs or truth claims that, I suggest, we are unable to prove or disprove. Within a world-view itself the language tool-sets are built from those very assumptions, which cannot be then used to verify them. Similarly, the tool-sets of other world-views are based on different sets of assumptions and are again problematic for challenging the assumptions of others, in any independent way. None of us have a god’s eye view. Or as Albert Einstein once put it, ‘Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.‘ So is the only alternative a Post-modernist ‘free-for-all’, where all world-views are of equal value? No, I believe there are ways of comparing the efficacy of world-views, but more on that later.
What are those fundamental questions? We even have to be careful about what questions we pose, as questions themselves include and exclude issues. Framing the question controls the nature of the dialogue.
So, not surprisingly, Evangelical Christian world-views always include questions about a personal-style god, which would be meaningless to those from many Eastern religions without personal gods. So here are some questions:
- What is our reality and what does our ‘world’ consist of? (Metaphysics)
Possibly where has it come from and where is it going to?
What am I and what is my position in the world?
- How do I know? How can I know truth? What is knowledge and truth? (Epistemology)
- Why do I behave as I do? How should I behave? (Ethics)
- And, possibly more specific questions like: what is the nature of history? (events linked for causes and effects only or linked by some grand narrative – reoccurring cycles, pre-Christian or linear progress to a greater goal, Christian)?
Unfortunately the term world-view has been usurped by Christian writers. Just check the Internet or books at the Amazon site. So these writers’ categorise world-views in Christian’s terms with the underlying questions being Christian questions, such as ‘Is there a personal God?’ Then the assessments are from an Evangelical Christian perspective. For example, The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire presents a catalogue such as Naturalism, Christianity, Existentialism, Nihilism, Post-modernism, and so on with the Christian world-view being shown to be more comprehensive and fulfilling. No surprises there.
Previously I mentioned a possibility of comparing world-views, even though we are inevitably within our own view. We can consider three aspects:
- Coherence or internal consistency (internal conflicts of explanation?) Are there some parts of the world-view that is inconsistent with other aspects? Often these differences are rejected by supporters or patched over by apologetic arguments.
Note: internal consistency is often an adequate measure of truth for post-modernists.
- Correspondence to experience (explanatory powerful?) How well does the world-view account for the range of our experiences? Of course, the confirmation bias haunts any analysis about explanatory power. Does a materialist view of the human being provide explanations that meet our needs? Does a loving, all-powerful God reconcile with the death of a young baby?
- Comprehensiveness (any gaps?). Here atheism or theism falls short of a comprehensive world-view. Science may similarly do so.
Every world-view has short-comings. For example, the ‘Problem of evil’ – presence of gratuitous suffering with an all-powerful, all-loving god – presents an Achilles’ heel for an Evangelical Christian world-view. Reconciling our inner-world of consciousness with a strictly materialistic view of the world is perhaps another one.
 URL: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality10_index.html
 Bruce Malina, “Understanding New Testament Persons”, ed. Richard L. Rohrbaugh, The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 44.
 Malina emphasises that (1) self was interpreted by a group understanding; (2) there was little sense of self-reflection, no associated concept of internal psychological processing; (3) complete separation of sexes with vastly different roles and responsibilities; (4) personality characteristics were seen as expressed behavioural terms only e.g. knowing a women is have had sexual intercourse with her; (5) physical characteristics and deformities were signs of permanent personal qualities.
 Susan Johnston audio lecture Religion, Myth & Magic http://www.audible.com/pd?asin=B0031UCWWA
…religion is a system of beliefs and behaviors that formulates and answers questions that are important, recurrent, and must be answered. (Page 8 for accompanying guide)
 Sire James M., The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th Edn. (Nottingham: Intervarsity Press, 2009)1 comment