In her new book “Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes,” Nancy Pearcey brings fresh thinking to Christian apologetics. According to Pearcey, Romans 1 is Paul’s apologetics training manual. It’s there, she explains, that Christians will find the tools they need to make sense of competing worldviews. And it’s there that we’ll be equipped to answer them intelligently, kindly, and persuasively.
In Romans 1, Pearcey tells her readers, we see that God is forever reaching out to people, providing evidence of His existence through general revelation. We see, too, that people are masters at suppressing the truth by creating idols.
As God’s ambassadors, if we’re able to identify and explain the five principles Paul lays out in Romans 1, we’ll be able to reveal the wisdom of God’s plan for all of creation.
ByFaith spoke with Pearcey about those five principles.
Early in the book you point out that God, through creation, is reaching out to us, pouring out evidence of His existence. But mankind suppresses the truth by creating idols. Why do people suppress the evidence God gives? And how does this knowledge change our view of apologetics?
In Romans 1, Paul is addressing a congregation that had not heard him speak yet, so he lays out the case for Christianity in a comprehensive way. We can test ideas about God, he says, against universal experience — evidence available across all cultures, all periods of history. What we call general revelation.
For example, we all have direct awareness of human nature. How does that give evidence for God? Since humans are capable of thinking, the first cause that created them must have a mind. Since humans are capable of choosing, the first cause must have a will.
As philosopher Étienne Gilson puts it, because a human is a someone and not a something, the source of human life must also be a Someone — not the blind, automatic forces of nature, as philosophies like materialism and naturalism tell us.
The upshot is that Christianity fits the most compelling experience of all people everywhere. The great drama of history is the tug of war between God and humanity, as God reaches out to make Himself known and humans seek to suppress that knowledge.
They do this, you say, by absolutizing something within creation. Can you explain what that means? And can you tell us why, to be good apologists, we must start by identifying someone’s idol.
It’s impossible to think without some starting point. If you do not acknowledge the transcendent Creator, then you must start with something immanent in the created order — something put in the place of God as the ultimate reality, the eternal, self-existent cause and source of everything else.
We tend to think of idols as statues and golden calves. But an idol can be anything that is elevated into a false absolute. For example, what about matter? Is matter part of the created order? Certainly. Thus the philosophy of materialism qualifies as an idol. It sets up matter as the final reality, the uncaused cause of everything else — a God substitute.
Can reason be an idol? Of course. The philosophy of rationalism elevates reason to the source and standard of all truth.
When my students are first introduced to the world of ideas, they are easily overwhelmed. I explain that they can cut through the distracting details and get to the heart by asking, “What is its idol?” When you absolutize something, it becomes the yardstick you use to measure the rest of reality.
Of course, Christians can also hold idols. In the hallway of a Christian college where I was teaching, a student was reading a book on postmodernism. “What are you learning?” I asked.
“It’s showing me myself!” the student said. “I finally understand why I think the way I do.” He had absorbed elements of postmodernism without knowing it.
A woman once sent me an email saying she was raised in a home where the rule was that Christians should never read books written from a nonbiblical perspective. “But when I read your book ‘Total Truth,’” she wrote, “I discovered that I had unconsciously absorbed ideas from secular thinkers like Rousseau and Kant.” Because she had never studied their ideas, she had no critical grid to recognize and reject them.
The lesson is that Christians must never treat idol analysis as a matter of addressing only how other people think. Scripture is addressing Christians in verses like “flee from idolatry” and “keep yourselves from idols” (1 Corinthians 10:14; 1 John 5:21). The ultimate goal of learning a biblical apologetics strategy is to love God “with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).
According to your second principle we need to “Identify the Idol’s Reductionism.” To get a handle on this, you say, we need to understand that the key word from Romans 1 is exchanged: They “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). You go on to illustrate how, when a worldview exchanges the Creator for something within creation, it minimizes one’s view of mankind. Would you talk about that?
Reductionism simply means reducing something to a lower status or value. And we can be confident that every idol-based worldview will be reductionistic. Because an idol is less or lower than God, it will lead to a lower view of God’s creation.
The connection between idols and reductionism is the foundation for all apologetics arguments. There are really only two types of questions we use to test a truth claim: Does it fit the real world? (External test.) Is it logically consistent? (Internal test.) And we can be confident that every idol-based worldview will fail both these tests. Why? Because of its reductionism.
Take the first question: Does it explain the world? According to Romans 1, an idol makes an absolute out of part of the created order. The problem is that a part is always too small to explain the whole. As a result, an idol-based worldview will always be too limited to explain all of reality.
You might picture a worldview as trying to stuff the entire universe into a box. Invariably, something will stick out of the box. Its categories will prove too limited to explain what humans know by general revelation.
Now consider logical consistency. When an idol-centered worldview reduces humans to something less than the image of God, that includes our human cognitive faculties. Thus any nonbiblical worldview will have a lower view of the mind, rationality, reason.
But how do adherents support their own position? By using reason. So when they discredit reason, they shoot themselves in the foot. Apologist Greg Koukl says this is how they commit suicide: When their own standard of truth is applied to their theory, it discredits itself.
These two tests are used by philosophers, scientists, lawyers, and ordinary people in daily life. What makes “Finding Truth” unique is that it explains why these tests work. It gives the theological rationale for the way everyone everywhere has to think and reason. Once you identify the idol and its reductionism, you have the tools to show (1) where the worldview fails to account for reality and (2) where it contradicts itself.
The third principle you draw from Romans 1 is that we’re to “Test to the Idol: Does it Contradict What We Know About the World?” Generally, how do false worldviews fail to account for the world we know? And why do we need to understand that failure?
This is the first of the two tests: Does it fit the real world? Let’s focus on materialism or naturalism, since it is the dominant philosophy in academia today. Materialism redefines all reality in terms of matter. Humans are said to be complex biochemical machines — no mind, free will, soul, or spirit.
But is that claim true? Does it fit the real world?
Clearly not. We all make choices from the moment we wake up every day. One philosopher jokes that if people deny free will, then when ordering at a restaurant they should say, “Just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined I will get.” It seems to be part of undeniable, inescapable human experience (general revelation) that we have the power to make choices. Atheists’ philosophy is contradicted by their own experience.
The example my students always remember best is Rodney Brooks, professor emeritus at MIT. In a book, he wrote that a human is a “big bag of skin full of biomolecules” interacting by the laws of physics and chemistry. In practice, he says, it is difficult to see people that way. But, “When I look at my children, I can, when I force myself, . . . see that they are machines.”
Yet is that how he treats them? Of course not: He says, “I give them my unconditional love” — even though he admits that love has no “rational analysis” within his worldview. Robots don’t love.
Brooks’ materialism is too small to account for his own behavior. People have a profound experiential knowledge of being made in the image of God — and that knowledge keeps breaking through, even when their worldview tells them they are machines made in the image of matter.
The fourth principle you glean from Romans 1 is “Test the Idol: Does it Contradict Itself.” In your discussion of this principle you use the phrase “self-referential absurdity.” You also talk about how false worldviews ultimately “commit suicide.” Would you tie those two concepts together?
This is the test of internal consistency. Every idol-based worldview, because of its reductionism, claims that human rationality is swamped by non-rational forces like psychological need or economic interest. But in the process, it undercuts its own claim to be rationally defensible.
Let’s illustrate with a few examples. Marxism says you believe what you do not because you are rationally persuaded it’s true, but because it advances your economic interests. But what about Marx’s own theory? To be consistent, he must apply his theory to his own claims. Did he adopt them just to advance his own economic interests? In that case, why should the rest of us give them any credence?
Sigmund Freud said you hold beliefs not because you are rationally persuaded they’re true, but because of your unconscious emotional needs, especially sexual repression. But what about his own theory? Did it originate out of his sexual repressions? The theory undercuts itself.
Postmodernism claims that human rationality is swamped by nonrational social forces, like race, class, gender, and sexual identity. But what about that theory itself? Are postmodernists just mouthpieces for their own race, class, and gender?
Evolutionary psychology says ideas arise in our brains not because of their truth value but their survival value. If you apply that theory to itself, then it is not a matter of truth either, only survival.
“It’s exciting to see how the truths of Romans 1 provide a coherent, unified theological rationale for the arguments that everyone recognizes as good, clear thinking.”
The technical term for this logical contradiction is “self-referential absurdity,” and it is a standard tool in every philosopher’s toolbox. What makes “Finding Truth” unique is that it explains why worldviews self-destruct. And thus it also gives a guide for locating where they self-destruct: Just find the reductionism. That will be the point where the worldview undercuts itself. It’s exciting to see how the truths of Romans 1 provide a coherent, unified theological rationale for the arguments that everyone recognizes as good, clear thinking.
The last principle you articulate from Romans 1 is “Replace the Idol: Make the Case for Christianity.” As you build this principle you demonstrate how atheists “freeload” so many Christian concepts. Again, could you connect these two dots for us? Why is it important to understand how atheists appropriate Christian principles?
To be relevant in making the case for Christianity, I suggest we focus on the points where secularists themselves recognize the weakness of their own view. For example, where did ideals like freedom and equal rights come from? As we have seen, the dominant worldviews in academia today, like materialism or naturalism, reduce people to robots. So they cannot be the source of these great ideals.
The 19th-century atheist Friedrich Nietzsche said they came from Christianity: “Another Christian concept . . . has passed even more deeply into the tissue of modernity: the concept of ‘equality of souls before God.’ This concept furnishes the prototype of all theories of equal rights.”
French atheist Luc Ferry writes, “According to Christianity, we are all ‘brothers,’ on the same level as creatures of God.” Thus “Christianity is the first universalist ethos.”
Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty explains that though he himself is a committed Darwinist, his own philosophy gives no basis for equal rights. After all, in the struggle for existence, the strong win out while the weak are left behind. Instead the concept originated from “religious claims that all human beings are created in the image of God.”
Rorty says he has to borrow the ideal of human rights from Christianity — and he even dubs himself a “freeloading atheist.”
British philosopher John Gray agrees: “Darwin has shown us that we are animals.” Thus the atheist ideal of freedom “is only a secular version of Christian faith—a derivative of Christianity.”
The upshot is that Christianity is so appealing and attractive that people keep borrowing elements that their own worldview cannot give them. They are all freeloading atheists.
“Christianity is so appealing and attractive that people keep borrowing elements that their own worldview cannot give them.”
You close the book by pointing out that Christians are called to be ambassadors for Christ, which means we need to defend our hope against the world’s false worldviews. Most of our readers have jobs, children to raise, and homes to maintain. Must they also marshal arguments against Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Mill, Bacon, Descartes, and Kant?
Let me answer with a personal example. I recently met a mother who tearfully related that her son had become an atheist. He had attended a state university to study psychology, a field where the dominant theories are secular — often hostile to Christianity. Freud treated religion as a sign of immaturity, the projection of an imaginary father figure into the sky. Within a semester, this woman’s son had rejected his faith background.
She now wishes she had said, “Before you go to university, let’s learn to critique the major thinkers and theories in your field, and offer a biblical perspective.” She would gladly have read about Freud, Adler, Watson, Skinner and “marshaled arguments” against their basic assumptions, if she had realized how important it was to prepare her son for the secular ideas he would encounter.
In “Finding Truth,” I cite studies asking young adults why they abandoned their childhood religion. Researchers expected to hear stories of emotional wounding. Relationship issues. To their surprise, the most frequent reason expressed was that they did not get answers to their doubts and questions.
The largest study asked open-ended questions, so these were young people speaking in their own words: “It didn’t make any sense anymore.” “Some stuff is too far-fetched for me to believe.” “Too many questions that can’t be answered.” The study concluded that the top reason young people de-convert is “intellectual skepticism.”
One young woman wrote a blog lamenting that her family gave her no preparation for attending a secular university: “My parents had absolutely no idea what went on at university, and therefore they had no idea how to help me prepare for it.” She did not anticipate the sheer number “of differing beliefs and worldviews I encountered, from professors and other students. At the time I thought they had much better arguments than I did for the validity of their views.”
This represents a striking failure on the part of the adults in this young woman’s life — first of all, a failure of love. A central motivation for learning about worldviews should be to “love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:39). Christians are called to love people enough to listen to their questions and do the hard work of finding answers.
The great advantage of the apologetics strategy in “Finding Truth” is that you do not have to master all the details of every secular theory. That could take years of study. Instead, a Romans 1 apologetic teaches you to deploy the basic principles that cut to the heart of any worldview to reveal its fatal flaws and to craft a rich and engaging biblical alternative.