Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 384 pp, hardcover.
There are few, if any, modern defenders of the faith who would dispute C. S. Lewis’s position as the foremost Christian apologist of the twentieth century. And yet, Lewis might never have achieved that status had he not learned from G. K. Chesterton how to unite rational and imaginative arguments, how to apply common sense to philosophical and theological debates, and how to pierce to the roots of the various “isms” of his day.
In Chapter II of Orthodoxy, Chesterton, with his trademark, no-holds-barred brio, boldly proclaims that the true madmen are to be found, not in the Church, but among the materialists. “As an explanation of the world,” Chesterton writes, “materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.”
Madmen and materialists alike are trapped “in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea”; their reductive, yet passionately clung-to systems combine “an expansive and exhaustive reason with a contracted common sense.” Both offer us a shrunken, depersonalized cosmos devoid of purpose, hope, or free will.
Chesterton’s skewering of the false pretensions of materialism is as witty as it is exact, but he quickly drops it to move on to other topics. It has long been my wish that an enterprising apologist would finish what Chesterton started and mount a full, carefully-nuanced exposé of the bankrupt, dead-end nature of materialism. That wish has been realized in Nancy Pearcey’s scholarly, but fully accessible Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes.
Professor and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University (where I have taught since 1991), student of Francis Schaeffer, colleague of the late Chuck Colson, founding editor of BreakPoint, and author of Total Truth, Pearcey takes as her key biblical text Romans 1. In it, she discerns a five-step method for testing and evaluating worldviews.
I’ve read many a book and heard many a sermon that claimed a single passage from the Bible could explain the fullness of temptation or prayer or spiritual formation. In most cases, the claim was greatly exaggerated, maintained by over-simplification and special pleading. But that is not the case with Pearcey’s use of Romans 1.
Paul, arguably the first Christian apologist, does indeed offer a powerful and effective framework for identifying the flaws and dangers in worldviews that stand opposed to the gospel. It all boils down to idolatry. When we cease to worship the Creator, we invariably end up worshiping some element of creation.
Taking her cue from Paul, Pearcey surveys the various idols upon which the various schools of modernism and postmodernism have built their systems: reason, imagination, economics, matter, transcendental ego, and so forth. But then she goes two steps further. First, she makes it clear that the existence of this idol is the only characteristic shared by all competing worldviews: including, and especially, materialism. Second, she argues that the universal presence of this idol “levels the playing field” between “subjective” religion and “objective” science.
“Secular people,” she writes, “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.” That starting point not only functions as the central, unproven assumption; it determines the shape of the worldview.
Just as Paul warns that those who serve idols will exchange the glory of the immortal God for the images of animals, so Pearcey warns that worldviews that begin with a false staring point inevitably end up reducing man from a free individual made in God’s image to a determined and dehumanized unit in nature
Deploying a simple but effective metaphor, Pearcey explains that secular worldviews reduce themselves to tight little boxes that cannot hope to contain the complexities of life. They cannot even contain (or explain) “the undeniable facts of human experience.” Rather than make “sense of the world we actually inhabit,” they “suppress” those undeniable facts in the name of their idol.
If Principles 1 and 2 call on us to identify the idol and the limitations that come with it, Principles 3 and 4 show how secular worldviews not only “contradict what we know about the world,” but contradict themselves. If materialism is true—and, though Pearcey has many good things to say about postmodernism and Islam, her main focus and concern is with refuting materialism—then human free will must be an illusion.
And it is precisely on this issue that Finding Truth performs its greatest service for the Christian community. Pearcey does not rest merely with suggesting that materialism cannot live with the consequences of its beliefs; she proves it through a series of well-chosen quotes from influential secular humanists who themselves have admitted their inability to order their lives and choices around their own materialist worldviews.
Here is a sampling that preserves Pearcey’s added ellipses and italics:
Powerful logical or metaphysical reasons for supposing we can’t have strong free will keep coming up against equally powerful psychological reasons why we can’t help believing that we do have it. . . . It seems that we cannot live or experiences our choices as determined even if determinism is true. (Galen Strawson)
No matter that the physical world provides no room for freedom of will; that concept is essential to our models of the mental realm. . . . [We cannot] ever give it up. We’re virtually forced to maintain that belief, even though we know it’s false. (Marvin Minsky)
At an important and ineradicable level, the idea of my daughter as merely a complex robot carrying my genes into the next generation is both bizarre and repugnant to me. . . . [Such a reductionistic view] inspires in us a kind of emotional resistance and even revulsion. (Edward Slingerland)
Borrowing a phrase from Kant, Pearcey explains that materialists are forced to act as if free will, and thus moral responsibility and accountability, are true, even if their system cannot support such an assertion. If fact, she catches Albert Einstein himself making just such an admission: “I am compelled to act as if free will existed because if I want to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.”
And that leads to her fifth and final principle for unmasking atheism, secularism, and other God substitutes: a splendid coup d’état in which she turns the tables on the idolaters of matter. If those who ascribe to materialism want to live lives of meaning and purpose, they not only have to act as if free will (and consciousness and rationality and intrinsic worth) were true; they have to, quite literally, “free-load” on the back of Christianity. Secularists, Pearcey explains, “borrow ideals like equality and rights from a biblical worldview but cut them off from their source in the Creator.”
Many, if not most, of the modernist and postmodernist worldviews prevalent today define themselves against Christianity, and yet, in a paradox worthy of Chesterton, they end up existing parasitically on the very faith they reject. For, apart from an active, all-loving, all-powerful Creator who made us in his image and endowed us with purpose, our substitute idols can only lead us, in the end, into the isolated, sunless cell of the madman.