Increasingly scholars and pundits invoke the term “worldview” to describe our new breed of politics, in which groups appear unwilling to enter into a dialogue with others who think differently. Take, for example, the US, where the political debate between Republicans and Democrats has led to polarization and a souring of relationships. Similar conflicts are going on in Europe, between for example populists and anti-populists. Yet, if one assumes that worldviews are mutually exclusive, one quickly ends up with a way of thinking that allows for ‘alternative facts’ – or alternative interpretations of the facts - and hence a lack of understanding. Religious scholar Todd Weir concludes, therefore, that ‘it is healthy to resist thinking in terms of worldviews.’
Text: Gert Gritter, Communication / Photos: Hesterliena Wolthuis
Weir has been researching the history of the term ‘Weltanschauung’ (worldview), defined as a systematic ordering of reality, based on science, religion or ideology. One distinctive attribute of a worldview is that it is a closed thought system that refuses to accommodate ideas that do not fit into it. ‘The concept “Weltanschauung” appears to be enjoying something of a comeback. The news media, for example, are asking “what is Trump’s worldview?” and they refer to a “clash of worldviews” between supporters of Brexit and those who oppose it. The term has a long history – one that is worth examining.’
Born in 1965 in Straubing, Germany to American parents, Weir grew up in the US, but always felt drawn to his German origins, hence his longstanding interest in Germany, German history and the German language. As a historian, he conducted archival research on the GDR but found the sources he was reading ‘mind-numbing’. ‘The closed nature of the Marxist-Leninist discourse made my research terribly boring. It was so circular, so restricted, so reduced.’ Maybe it was this experience that led to his fascination with the concept of ‘Weltanschauung’ – and the practical objections associated with it.
The concept ‘Weltanschauung’ came into common usage in Germany during the ‘Kulturkampf’, the nineteenth-century power struggle between secularism with its ‘new’ scientific ideas and the ‘old’ Christian perspective represented by Catholicism and Protestantism. Weir argues that secularism should be seen not just as a force acting against the existing Christian confessions, but as a confessional force in its own right. Secularism had a clear worldview and was integrated into the political system. In many respects, then, it can be said to have become Germany’s fourth confession, after Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism.
Many worldviews have come and gone since the term was first coined by Immanuel Kant around 1790, during the French Revolution. Communism in the Soviet Union, Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany were all founded on closed ideological systems that explained everything and rejected any ideas that conflicted with it. When Hitler talked about Nazism, he was seldom heard to refer to it as an ideology - he invariably used the term ‘Weltanschauung’.
Conservative Protestants, especially evangelicals, have become the foremost advocates of worldview in America today. ‘They are fascinated with worldview,’ Weir says. To find out why, we need to delve back a long way. Remarkably, the Christian ‘Weltanschauung’ was born out of the secular worldview that preceded it. Secularists had argued that their worldview could order and explain everything based on modern science and technology. It was a system of thought that left no room for religion. In response, both Catholics and Protestants seized on this powerful idea, but filled it with Christian content instead. They took what the secularist ‘enemy’ had and imitated it in an effort to outstrip him.
Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) played a prominent role in giving structure to this movement. As well as being Prime Minister from 1901 to 1904, Kuyper founded the Free University in Amsterdam, began his own paper (De Standaard), created the first political party in the Netherlands (the Anti-Revolutionary Party) and established a reformed church (which in 1892 joined with another group to become the ‘Gereformeerde Kerken van Nederland’). From the safety of this reformed stronghold, his followers felt able to resist the forces of modernism and Catholicism. These developments paved the way for the pillarization of Dutch society, which did not start eroding until well after the Second World War.
When Kuyper visited America, he preached on Calvinism as a worldview and his ideas were warmly received. After WWII, evangelical fundamentalists in the US followed Kuyper’s example and developed their own press and media as well as their own schools and universities. Furthermore, they used worldview to develop a philosophical defense of faith, by arguing that Christians did not have to argue with nonbelievers about the facts of the bible, because they approached it with radically different assumptions or presuppositions. Different worldviews mean different truths, different ways of reading the bible.
Weir says, ‘I think the idea of a worldview is bad for democracy and bad for science. People no longer talk to each other, because they assume that they do not share any common ground and that there is no basis of mutual understanding. If each camp assumes that it has its own truth, there is simply no platform for any form of dialogue. It is very difficult for people to let go of their own assumptions if they are not open to change. The same applies in the scientific world: being convinced that you are right is not scientific.
This can easily lead to people saying they don’t need to explain or justify anything. Advocates of your ideas agree with you anyway, and it’s not worth wasting time on those who disagree. In other words, talking in terms of a worldview can be used as an excuse for withdrawing from public debate. You don’t need to listen to anyone else anymore, because you know you are right. American pragmatic philosopher Sidney Hook observed this type of reasoning being used by the Soviets in the 1940s. They said that the working classes lived in a different reality and therefore had a different truth. In fact, it was an easy way of protecting intellectual ideas in the Soviet Union from external attacks. Similarly, some orthodox Christians defend their faith by stating that their worldview gives them a different perspective on reality and truth.
In the 1990s, following the fall of Communism, the end of ideology was declared, and with it the end of the conflict between ideologies. Since then, in the political world, ideals have disappeared and the differences between political parties have all but faded away. So why has the idea of worldview recently been making a comeback? One explanation may lie in the fact that it is useful for connecting religion and politics. In fact, it has always developed on the frontlines of political battles over religion and secularism. It enables people like Trump and Wilders to say that Islam is the enemy or foreigners are the problem. The danger, though, is that thinking with worldviews leads to further polarization.’
Todd H. Weir is Professor of the Cultural History of Christianity at the University of Groningen’s Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. His specialist field is Germany and the transnational history of religion and secularism. Before coming to Groningen, he held positions at Queen’s University in Belfast, Humboldt University in Berlin and the University of Washington. Weir is director of the Centre for Religion and Heritage. His current research examines how the concept ‘worldview’ has developed over the last two centuries in the confrontation between secularists and Christians. In September 2017 he won the 2016 Jacques Barzun Prize for the best book on cultural history, entitled ‘Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany: The Rise of the Fourth Confession’. In 2017 Weir gave a Tedx Talk called ‘What’s in a worldview?’.
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