Finding Truth: Twilight of the Gods

Today is our third week discussing Nancy Pearcey’s Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes (see links to the previous posts below). The chapter “Twilight of the Gods” goes into more detail about the first of five principles in Pearcey's Romans-1-based template for evaluating worldviews: “Identify the idol.”

Pearcey first reminds us what follows from the fact that we’re rational beings:

Because we are created in God’s image as rational and responsible beings, we all have a philosophy—not necessarily one learned out of a textbook, but an overall view of life by which we make sense of the world. The biblical view of human nature implies that we are “incapable of holding purely arbitrary opinions or making entirely unprincipled decisions,” writes Albert Wolters. (p. 58)

Now we get to the first step for evaluating these systems of thought created by rational human beings:

[T]hose who reject the Creator will create an idol. They will absolutize some power or element immanent within the cosmos, elevating it into an all-defining principle—a false absolute. When evaluating a worldview, then, the first step is to identify its idol. What does it set up as a God substitute?

Despite the vast diversity of religions and philosophies, they all start by putting something created in the place of God. (pp. 60-61)

To identify the idol of any system of thought, we need to look for “the convictions that engage us most deeply and drive our behavior.” Since every worldview has these convictions, even atheist systems have these idols:

[I]t is impossible to think without some starting point. If you do not start with God, you must start somewhere else. You must propose something else as the ultimate, eternal, uncreated reality that is the cause and source of everything else. The important question is not which starting points are religious or secular, but which claims stand up to testing. 

The advantage of using the biblical term idol is that it levels the playing field. Secular people often accuse Christians of having “faith,” while claiming that they themselves base their convictions purely on facts and reason. Not so. If you press any set of ideas back far enough, eventually you reach an ultimate starting point—something that is taken as the self-existent reality on which everything depends. This starting assumption cannot be based on prior reasoning, because if it were, you could ask where that reasoning starts—and so on, in an infinite regress. At some point, every system of thought has to say, This is my starting point. There is no reason for it to exist. It just “is.”

If starting premises do not rest on reasons, how can they be tested? Although you cannot argue backward to their prior reasons, you can argue forward by spelling out their implications, then testing those implications using both logic and experience. (pp. 62-63)

Philosophies, she says, are a kind of secular religion. Not every religion includes a god, morality, or even rituals, but they all acknowledge a “self-existent, eternal reality that is the origin of everything else…. No other factor is genuinely universal among religions.” She concludes, “Religions are a lot more like philosophies than most people think. And philosophies are a lot like religions.”

Since secular philosophies, like religions, point to an ultimate reality, they can be evaluated, just as religions can, by identifying their idols. For example:

  • Paganism: The idol “is Nature itself, or a spiritual substance interconnecting all of nature.”
  • Plato and Aristotle: “The ultimate formative principle within the universe was what they called rational forms.”
  • Scientific materialism: “What is ultimately real is matter—molecules in motion.”
  • Marxism (a “denomination” of materialism): “Economic conditions are the ultimate explainer.”
  • Empiricism: “What we can really rely on are empirical facts—what we can see, feel, weigh, and measure…. Makes an idol of the sensory realm. Whatever is not susceptible to empirical testing is not real.”
  • Rationalism: “The sole source and standard of knowledge are ideas in the mind known by reason.”
  • Romanticism: “The ultimate foundation for truth was…the creative imagination.”

Whatever our idol is, everything else we encounter in the world is explained in terms of that idol. Or at least, we attempt to explain things in those terms; everything that doesn’t fit is “either denied, redefined, or dismissed as unreal.”

In the end, while other worldviews can teach us true things within the areas they focus on, “whatever is genuinely good and true finds its true home within Christianity.” 

Christianity alone provides what the greatest philosophers and sages have sought all along: a coherent and transcendent framework that encompasses all of human knowledge. (p. 89) 

Tell us what you thought of this chapter in the comments below. Did you find anything interesting or new? Any questions or disagreements? Next Friday, we’ll move on to the second principle (“Identify the idol’s reductionism”) described in the next chapter, “How Nietzsche Wins.”

Posts in this series:

Twitter: #STRread#FindingTruth

Amy K. Hall