I do a crazy amount of reading in the spare moments of my life (usually between 5:45 and 6:30 am). According to my iPad, I’ve read 30 apologetics-related books since January 1…that’s an average of almost one per week! One thing I want to do better with this blog is more regularly point readers to the best of these books for parents, either through reference posts (such as my 18 Recommended Resources for Learning About Creation and Evolution Views) or through spotlights on single books (such as my Interview with God’s Crime Scene Author J. Warner Wallace).
To that end, today I’m featuring another of my favorite books for parents this year: Nancy Pearcey’s Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Pearcey is a professor of apologetics and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University. She’s also the bestselling author of Total Truth and Saving Leonardo. I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to interview her about Finding Truth for today’s blog post.
I want to get right to her insightful words, but let me quickly give you the big picture of what the book is about. Finding Truth provides a framework of five principles that cut to the heart of any worldview. This approach can be extremely helpful for teaching kids how to evaluate the ideas competing for their hearts and minds. By teaching your children these five principles, you can equip them with much more than a bunch of data points about what other people believe; you can equip them with the critical thinking skills they need to evaluate any truth claim they encounter. That’s incredibly powerful, and it’s why I wanted to bring this book to your attention.
Pearcey’s principles for evaluating worldviews include: 1) Identify the idol (what the worldview puts in place of God); 2) Identify the idol’s reductionism (how the idol leads to a lower view of human life); 3) Test the idol—does it contradict what we know about the world?; 4) Test the idol—does it contradict itself?; and 5) Replace the idol—make a case for Christianity.
With that, I’ll let her tell you more in her own words!
1. When parents begin realizing the need to get better equipped to answer their kids’ tough questions about faith, they often feel overwhelmed. It can seem like the questions they need to study are endless. The beauty of Finding Truth, however, is that you provide “a single line of inquiry that we can apply universally to all ideas.” That big picture perspective is an extremely valuable tool for parents to teach their kids. Can you explain how you’ve seen this framework benefit the faith of teens and young adults?
I understand the sense of being overwhelmed, because I’ve felt the same way. After I converted to Christianity in college, I really wanted to have an answer for anyone who asked (I Peter 3:15). But the sheer number of competing worldviews can be intimidating: Did I have to memorize a different answer for each one? That would take a life time!
That’s why it was exciting to discover that Romans 1 offers a single, unified approach that can be applied to any set of ideas. Paul says those who reject the transcendent Creator will “exchange the glory of God” (1:23, 25) for something in creation. They will create an idol. Paul is not just talking about golden calves. He is talking about anything put in the place of God as the ultimate reality—the eternal, uncaused, self-existent source of everything else.
No one can think without some starting point. In the Western intellectual world, many people start with matter as the ultimate reality. Is matter part of the created world? Sure it is. So the philosophy of materialism qualifies as an idol in the biblical sense. The public school curriculum is based the assumption that the only reality is the material world knowable by science.
What about reason? Can it be an idol? Certainly. The philosophy of rationalism elevates reason to the source and standard of all truth.
My own students are often encountering the world of ideas for the first time, and they easily get lost in the details. When studying any worldview, I tell them, start by identifying the idol. That will take you straight to the core: Whatever is proposed as its God substitute will shape everything else.
2. In Finding Truth, you say, “It is a serious mistake for Christian parents, teachers, or churches to dismiss young people’s doubts and questions, or to think they can be overridden merely by cultivating a more intense devotional life.” I think that’s an incredibly important message for parents to hear. In your experience, what is a more impactful way for parents to handle their kids’ doubts and questions?
No one can survive on a second-hand faith. Parents need to recognize that asking questions is how children make Christianity their own. When I was in high school, I came to realize that the reason I was a Christian was because of my parents and upbringing. But my friends were Jewish or Muslim or secular because of their parents and upbringing. So obviously, that was not a good enough reason.
I started asking, How do we know that Christianity is true? Sadly, none of the adults in my life offered any reasons. Eventually, in frustration, I abandoned my religious upbringing and became an agnostic. Later I happened upon L’Abri, the ministry of Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland, where I finally met Christians who could engage with the secular ideas I had absorbed.
My experience is not unique. In researching Finding Truth, I found studies asking why young adults left the religion in which they were raised. Their most frequent response was that they had unanswered doubts and questions. Most parents are surprised to hear that. Even the researchers were surprised. They expected to hear stories about emotional wounding and broken relationships. But the number one reason given by young adults was that they had questions that were not answered.
We need to think about communication with our children as a form of cross-cultural missions. Cultural change happens so quickly today that children are exposed to ideas, values, and worldviews different from our own generation. As parents, we need to cultivate a missional mindset. It’s our job to study and learn the language and thought-forms of our children’s generation just as carefully as though we were preparing to travel to a foreign country as a missionary.
3. The first of your five principles is to “identify the idol.” In other words, God cannot be rejected without putting something else in His place, so we should first evaluate what that is. Materialism (the idea that nothing exists except matter) is an idol that teens and young adults are especially certain to encounter in the classroom. What do Christian parents most need to help their kids understand about that particular idol?
Most of the prevailing worldviews taught in schools and universities are built on the philosophy of materialism. It is the underlying assumption whether your child studies psychology (thinkers like Freud), education (Dewey), political science (Marx), biology (Darwin), or law (Oliver Wendell Holmes). That’s why it is crucial to give your child the tools to answer its claims.
Romans 1 gives us the confidence that every idol-based worldview ultimately fails. Why? Because it makes a God-substitute out of some part of the created order (see question #1). And a part is always too limited to explain the whole. You might picture a worldview as trying to stuff the entire universe into a box. Invariably, something sticks out of the box. Its categories are too narrow to explain the world as we experience it.
Materialism, to be consistent, denies the reality of anything that goes beyond matter. It claims there is no mind, will, soul, or spirit. It reduces humans to biochemical machines—robots driven by purely natural forces. But is that one-dimensional view of human nature true? Clearly not. No one lives like a robot. We all make choices from the moment we wake up in the morning. 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 that I will get.”
Materialism is not true to universal human experience—to what we know about ourselves.
At the same time, Romans 1 gives us tools to make a positive case for Christianity. It says that evidence for God “is clearly seen” in creation (1:20). This refers not only to the beauty and complexity of nature, but also to humanity. You and I are part of the created order, and we too give evidence for God.
The implied argument is that the cause must be sufficient to produce the effect: Because humans are capable of choosing, the first cause that created them must have a will. Because humans are capable of thinking, the cause that created them must have a mind. As one Christian philosopher sums it up, because a human is a someone and not a something, the source of human life must also be a Someone, and not the blind, automatic forces of nature.
Or as the Bible puts it, “He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?” (Ps. 94:9). The case for a Creator fits our universal experience of human nature—what we know about ourselves.
The beauty of the Romans 1 approach is that you don’t have to believe the Bible to see that it works. That means you can use it with your children when they are not sure if they believe the Bible, or when they are struggling with questions raised by a secular school setting.
4. Your fifth principle is to “replace the idol” by making a case for Christianity. Many kids raised in Christian homes take their beliefs for granted and have never had occasion to make a case for the truth of what they believe; there’s certainly no automatic connection there. How can parents best begin to guide their kids across this common “gulf” between belief and case-making ability?
Parents are rightly concerned about the risk involved in exposing their children to nonbiblical perspectives. Yet most of us do not appreciate what we have until we know what the alternatives are. Comparing worldviews can make young people more aware of how appealing Christianity really is.
The comparison is especially effective when atheists and secularists themselves admit that their worldview is not sufficient—that they have to borrow from Christianity. For example, where does the concept of human rights come from? A prominent American philosopher, the late Richard Rorty, was himself an atheist and a Darwinist. Yet he admitted that in the Darwinian struggle for existence, the strong prevail while the weak are left behind, and therefore evolution is not the source of universal human rights. Instead, Rorty said, the concept came from “religious claims that human beings are made in the image of God.” He called himself a “free-loading” atheist, admitting that he had to borrow the concept of universal rights from Christianity.
Atheists often denounce the Bible as harsh and negative because of its concepts of sin and guilt. But in reality it offers a much more positive view of the human person than any competing religion or worldview. It is so appealing and attractive that people keep free-loading the parts they like best.
To answer your question on a more practical level, Finding Truth includes a study guide that involves composing sample dialogues on various issues. This is the same training used by professional apologists. In a real conversation, you cannot simply dump an entire paragraph on someone. You have to unfold your ideas bit by bit, in response to the other person’s questions and objections. These dialogue assignments will help your child bridge the gap between knowing something and knowing how to explain it to others.
5. One of my favorite insights from Finding Truth is this: “Worldviews do not typically come with a warning label attached to tell us what we’re getting. They do not ask permission before invading our mental space. Instead there is what we might call a ‘stealth’ secularism that uses images and stories to bypass people’s critical grid and hook them emotionally, sometimes without their even knowing it. That’s why it is imperative to learn the skill of deciphering worldviews…” I think this is precisely why so many parents end up shocked when their kids “suddenly” renounce Christianity—faith was slowly chipped away over time before they or their kids realized it. Can you give some common examples of “stealth secularism” that parents should be watching for and helping their kids evaluate?
You’re talking about cultural apologetics, a term that was coined to describe the work of Francis Schaeffer. Instead of dealing just with abstract arguments, he traced ideas as they permeate society through the arts, literature, and pop culture. After all, this is how most people pick up their ideas about life. They don’t think, “I need a personal philosophy,” and sign up for a course at the local university. Instead they absorb ideas from the books they read, the movies they watch, the music they listen to.
That’s why it is imperative for Christian families to learn the skill of deciphering worldviews when they come to us not in words, where they are easier to recognize, but in the idiom of image, story, and plot line. (My earlier book Saving Leonardo explains this in much greater detail.)
Yet even when worldviews are embedded in cultural forms, our children must have the skills to recognize and critically assess them. These are the competencies taught in Finding Truth. One of my students wrote, “The biblical method of critique you taught in this class has been incredibly helpful to me, not just in class but in my life—reading books and watching movies.”
Once your children master the five principles from Romans 1, they will be equipped to think critically and creatively about any theory in any field.
6. I highly recommend Finding Truth to all the parents who read this blog, for the reasons I described at the beginning of this post. For those who go on to read your book, what is the most important insight you hope they’ll gain for their Christian parenting journey?
First, don’t think your own kids are immune. I happened across a blog by a young Christian woman who wrote, “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 was overwhelmed by the 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.”
A central motivation for learning about worldviews should be to “love your neighbor” (Matt. 22:39)—especially when that neighbor is your own child. Parents are called to love their children enough to listen to their questions and do the hard work of researching answers.
Second, if you do not teach your children to recognize opposing worldviews, the danger is that they are more likely to absorb them without realizing it. One of my students was reading a book on postmodernism, so I asked, “What are you learning?”
“It’s showing me myself!” he replied. “I finally understand why I think the way I do.”
He was astonished at how much he had picked up from postmodernism—without even knowing it. If we do not teach our children about secular ideas, they will have no critical grid to recognize and resist them.
The lesson is that Christian parents must not treat idol analysis as a matter of addressing only how other people think. The ultimate goal of teaching our children apologetics is to foster their growth in discipleship—so they will learn to love God “with all their minds.”