Is Reality Secular? An Interview With Mary Poplin (Part 2)

Mary Poplin
Wednesday, February 20th 2019

In part one of this interview with Michael Horton, Dr. Mary Poplin discussed her own journey out of secular humanism, the consequences of ideas, and the interesting blend of secular and spiritual that characterizes the religious beliefs of contemporary westerners. Here, Dr. Poplin outlines the four worldview categories she discusses in her book, Is Reality Secular?: Testing The Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews.


MSH: What are the four worldviews you mention in the book?

MP: There are two secular worldviews: material naturalism and secular humanism. Material naturalism is the idea that everything is ultimately reducible to some kind of biological or physical material. Because of that, of course, there’s not really a very strong ethic there, other than the big overcome the small. Human beings—even the ideas of love or consciousness or our religious affiliations—are somehow also just material, they’re just biological things. So the difference between Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler was just psycho neurochemistry. It’s very important in the material naturalist world to counter God as the creator, so you see material naturalists always going there. The world had to be just formed out of material; this explosion, even though we don’t know where it came from, had to have happened. We don’t know exactly how non-organic material became organic, but it did, and it was definitely a material process. So that’s where you have all the countering of a Christian can’t be a scientist, for example—which is completely ridiculous. Science basically comes out of Christianity, because people who are Christians believed the more they knew about the world, they more they would understand the mind of God.

Then there are secular humanists. The best picture of a secular humanist is really a cartoon from the Los Angeles Times when Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous existential philosopher, died. It showed him as a statue carving himself, and he had gotten down to around his ankles and the statue underneath said: Man Makes Himself. That is a perfect picture of secular humanism: We’re here alone, we get together, we renegotiate all of our terms, whether they’re governmental terms or moral terms, whatever it is, we just negotiate these as human beings. We shape our own world. Here’s what students are told: the reason that you don’t have a capital ‘T’ Truth anymore is that all we’re really doing is constructing meanings. At this point in time in the history of the world, there are certain meanings that get constructed that won’t be the same a hundred years from now. You as an individual young person are here to study and to construct your own meanings of life. There’s no ultimate point here; we’re not looking for something that’s true.

MSH: Why do you distinguish between naturalistic materialism and secular humanism?

MP: Because there are a lot of secular humanists that are not materialists at all—and the most extreme examples are postmodernists. Postmodernists believe we’re just constructing truth. Material naturalists believe there is a truth and it’s material. So there are many, many secular humanists that are not materialists. I think the confusion comes because material naturalists have no natural ethic other than the big eat the small. If you don’t have a natural ethic and you’re a human being, you’ve got to borrow one from somewhere, so they borrow it from secular humanism because secular humanists are also not religious. That’s where we see the overlap.

MSH: But they’re borrowing their humanism from Christianity.

MP: Yes. A lot of people in worldview classifications count material naturalists and secular humanists as the same thing, but they’re not. If you really look at secular humanism in the humanities and even in the social sciences, it’s not connected to science.

MSH: So would you say that naturalistic materialists are atheists, and secular humanists tend more to be deists?

MP: I think secular humanists are usually atheists or agnostics.

MSH: But at the end of the day, neither one is going to allow God himself to be the foundation of their thinking. We’re all disciples of Nietzsche now. You have a chapter title called “No Miracles Allowed.” Is this one of those dogmas of naturalism? Miracles don’t happen because miracles can’t happen? And isn’t that a kind of faith?

MP: Right. That is their faith, and even if one miracle ever happened, material naturalism is not true. So you I go to the resurrection of Jesus—if that really happened, there’s no way material naturalism is the whole story. I’m not saying that Christians don’t understand that there’s matter and that you can work on matter and understand matter and material laws. But if there are also spiritual laws that interact with material laws, then material naturalism cannot be true.

MSH: C.S. Lewis said, “God likes matter – he invented it.” What you’re saying is that every one of these worldviews has distortions of the truth that can be found truly in Christianity.

MP: Right, that’s really the conclusion of the book. I really used Lesslie Newbigin’s work. I am certain that to become a Christian, you have access to a higher rationality, a kind of higher rationality that, from these other worldviews, looks simple and foolish, just like the Bible says. The Greeks will think it’s foolish, and for the Jews it will become a stumbling block. If you admit a miracle into the mix of things, for example, people laugh at us and usually come up with some kind of material explanation for it. And to understand that there is a God that created the universe, a God that had an intention—this was not an accidental material process that was going on—you have to give up a lot of your worldview. There are overlaps, and as Christians, we have to understand where the material worldview gets outside of Christianity, where it’s compatible with Christianity, and where Christianity goes beyond it. And that’s the reason that there’s a higher rationality.

MSH: You talk about this with your own experience of being a materialist by day and spiritual-but-not-religious at night. At first it seems so paradoxical that materialistic naturalism or atheism and pantheism could be combined, but if you look at the culture, people sound like they’re atheists when they’re talking about facts, and when you ask them spiritual questions—do you think there’s life beyond death?—they start talking like Oprah! They’re basically New Agers.

MP: That’s why I think you find that strict atheism never grows. It’s 4% around the world, always. It’s so strange that the university, who says it’s the open marketplace of ideas, is so secular when 96% of the world isn’t. So you’re going to a place to study, supposedly the highest levels of knowledge, and they’re not dealing with what 96% of the world believes.

MSH: It’s interesting to read some of the New Atheists. With the exception of Dawkins, when they talk about the question as to whether there’s anything beyond the material, they will often start talking like an eastern mystic.

MP: Like the moral molecule, right? We have a moral molecule and a spiritual molecule, according to Sam Harris and others. You know, the interesting thing about atheists is that they spend an extraordinary amount of time focusing on something they don’t believe exists. I don’t believe in zombies, and I don’t spend much of my time arguing with people who do. Why would an atheist make arguing against God the focus of his professional life?

MSH: And doesn’t that show the truth of what Paul says when he says that all of us by nature know that God exists? It’s not something that we’re convinced of and then convinced out of.

MP: That’s a perfect example of why my mind was where it was—he says we all know those who’ve denied: their minds become darkened and though they think themselves wise, they’re actually fools. Even though I was a tenured professor, I really couldn’t think myself out of a paper bag. I saw these contradictions like the one you were pointing out, but I just threw them off. Everybody lives with these contradictions, right? I wasn’t aware that there was a worldview that could actually hold the spiritual life and the material world together.

MSH: Contrary to what the Richard Dawkinses of the world would say, when you became a Christian, you actually started thinking in a way that you hadn’t allowed yourself to think openly before?

MP: Exactly. My mind became clearer; I began to be able think in larger terms and look back at what’s behind all this. Some people argue that religion just is a biological phenomenon, and I would agree that the materialists can probably determine things about religious people by looking at their brains. If you’d have measured my brain a year before I became a Christian, and then a year after, I’m certain my chemical analyses would have been different. It was not because the chemicals in my brain changed, but because God intervened and began to clear up my mind.

MSH: The materialists are looking at effects and confusing them with the cause.

MP: Exactly. Even in their own methodology, they admit that seeing a correlation is seeing a relationship, not necessarily the effect of a cause.

MSH: You also write that according to secular humanists, religious worldviews are not only wrong, but shouldn’t even be allowed in the public square.

MP: Right. They believe that you can be religious—this is their sort of freedom of speech issue, I think—but they always believe that it’s because there’s something wrong with you that you need this. You can have it in your private time, but don’t bring it into any other area. But if it’s true—and the university says it’s about understanding truth—then what’s going on here?

MSH: Why can’t it be admitted and refuted so we can get on to something else that’s more likely true?

MP: In my class, I require my students pick an atheist book, because we’re looking at Judeo-Christianity. I read a blog by a person in the intelligent design movement, and he said that students should be taught to ask their professor, after their professor tells them, “This is the way things are,” to raise their hands and say, “That’s such an interesting idea. Tell me who are the two or three sources I could go to who have the best arguments against this.” Wouldn’t that be a great question?

MSH: That’s real education.

MP: I’m not afraid to teach Marxism. I believe the truth wins!

MSH: If you’re not afraid to face your sins because there’s a Savior, then you don’t need to be afraid to face other opinions because you have confidence in the gospel. What’s the third worldview?

MP: The third worldview is pantheism. Pantheism is the worldview behind the spiritual, but not religious. The idea is that an amorphous spirit exists, and the idea in pantheist religions is to give up desire so you don’t suffer—it’s this idea of becoming one with the universe. The danger in that is that there’s no understanding that the spiritual is not only good, but also demonic and evil. So the word ‘spiritual’ in the West has become a kind of synonym for good.

MSH: Instead of distinguishing between God and the creation (material or non-material), you have instead the distinction between spiritual—everything that’s spiritual is good—and matter, which is inherently an illusion or bad.

MP: It is, to some degree. Really extreme Hindus pretty much believe that everything is an illusion, but not all pantheists do.

MSH: Isn’t the rescuer outside of us something that distinguishes Christianity especially? And you find that more and more downplayed even in Christian churches today.

MP: It’s the only worldview with redemption. In secular humanism, you usually take what you know about yourself and say, well, it was a bad decision, but everybody else does it, or I wasn’t as bad as this person, so I’m OK. In pantheism, there’s no redemption because it’s your karma, it’s going to have to be worked off in your next life. So they have very strict beliefs about the spiritual world. They don’t have a line between spiritual good and spiritual evil.

MSH: Would you say that the amorphous constructs of Buddhism and Hinduism are what makes them so attractive to people on their way out of an amorphous Christianity?

MP: Definitely, especially when it’s westernized. Steve Jobs and Richard Gerst said they were Buddhists, but the foundation of real Buddhism is that you give up desire, which of course is a desire in and of itself, which they never admit. None of the western pantheists are really into that. There was a very interesting study in Great Britain where they compared three groups: one group was spiritual and not religious, one group were atheists, and one group was religious—most of whom were Christians. What they found was that the spiritual-and-not-religious group was the least healthy—they were the group that was most likely to be addicted to drugs, smoking, to have mental health problems, all kinds of things—and the least likely to have an advanced education. Next to them were atheist, and then further from them were Christians. Christians were more likely to have more education; they were least likely to be doing drugs or have mental health problems. In comparison, university students today have been immersed in this idea that there’s a spiritual world—everything from Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings to the Marvel movies. I think that most of them actually do believe that there is something called a spiritual world, but if you’re going to try to live your life the way you want to live it, you’ve got to find a spiritual world that doesn’t have big demands.

MSH: One that doesn’t have a God outside and above you.

MP: Or a list of dos and don’ts. For example, in Buddhism, they have a list of dos and a serious lists of don’ts. Hinduism is a little different because at certain ends of it, everything is just an illusion, so why would it matter.

MSH: But when it moves to America or the west in general, it becomes basically “It’s all good.”

MP: If you take Christianity too far west, you end up with a good feeling thing—”I’m going to be a good person,”—that’s especially prevalent in some of the major denominations where they go with the flow of whatever the tide of the culture is doing, which downplays some of the ethical requirements. I think one of the things that makes people shy away from real religions is that they all are pretty demanding. You have to be pretty strong to hold on to orthodoxy in western Christianity.

MSH: A leading pastor from India came to one of our White Horse Inn Weekends, and he was saying that when they have Joel Osteen or Benny Hinn come to India, they have to have the events at the airport because the tarmac is the only place large enough to seat everyone. He also said that a great many of those people are actually Hindus, because it makes sense with their Hinduism. Is there a kind of merging of all of these worldviews in the soup of American spirituality?

MP: Yes, I think so. That’s what people are attracted to. The problem with that is that there’s no “there” there. Everybody wants to be good or says it’s possible to be good, but how do you do that?

MSH: I determine it myself?

MP: I determine it myself, or my little group determines it.

MSH: It’s not about whether it’s true, but whether it’s calculated to give you your best life now.

MP: Does it work? Are you going to be happy? Happy is not in the Bible.

MSH: You find when you become a Christian, you have more trouble than you did before. You say that the most significant distinction between Judeo-Christian and the new age pantheists is that spiritual is not synonymous with goodness. Can you unpack that a bit?

MP: In the United States, if you hear the word “spiritual” on any news show or any show anywhere, most people translate that to mean, “good,” and that’s indicative of how we think about ourselves—we think we’re good. We might have been living incredibly awful lives, but we think we’re good, and we were attach ourselves to some amorphous spirit that was good that would make us good. So we go to seminars like “The Course in Miracles” or transcendental meditation that are supposed to make us calmer. This is all over the university wellness clinics.

MSH: As long as it’s just a technique and not a belief.

MP: It’s a technique for you to become peaceful, because if you’re peaceful, then you’ll make the right decisions. I think the biggest difference between pantheism and Christianity is this issue of desire. They want to get rid of desire so that you don’t suffer; that was Buddha’s whole issue. Christianity recognizes that desire can be wrong, just like Buddha did, but they also recognize that desire can be good. The Bible says that God wants to give you the deepest desire of your heart, and that forms the purpose of your life.

MSH: So it’s not desire that’s evil, it’s good desires versus evil desires (depending on your object.) It sounds like in so many of these ways if you go straight to Jesus, the incarnation, the cross and the empty tomb, his being raised on the third day, you basically cut right to the heart of what distinguishes Christianity from all these worldviews. That’s the major difference. What’s the fourth worldview?

MP: The fourth worldview is monotheism. Judeo-Christianity is the one example in my book, pretty much. I think I spend one page on the difference between Islam and Christianity, but this is the one I believe has the most signposts for truth.

MSH: Why Judeo-Christian instead of Trinitarian Christianity?

MP: Well, I’m not really a theologian. I’m definitely a Trinitarian, but I use the term Judeo-Christianity to be inclusive of the Old Testament. It’s like Jurgen Habermas says, everything we love about the west came from the Judaic principles of justice and the Christian principles of love.

MSH: The only reason I ask is—are there some distinctives from Christian Trinitarianism, an especially Trinitarian view of God rather than God as one person in both Islam and Judaism, that sets us apart as a different world view?

MP: Absolutely, and it is that. It is that God actually came and became man, and we have the Holy Spirit—all of us, all the time. But in Islam, God is very distant.

MSH: Just a law giver.

MP: A law giver and a judge, without any chance of redemption.

Michael Horton is the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine.

Mary Poplin is the professor of education at Claremont Graduate University. She is the author of Finding Calcutta: What Mother Theresa Taught Me about Meaningful Work and Service and Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews.

Read part III.

Wednesday, February 20th 2019

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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