Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society.”
Her article begins with a rather startling claim, “Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. But they believe that their own authority - the inerrant Bible - is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that human natural aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right.”
We have an error even at this early point in the editorial. It is a massive generalization to assume that conservative evangelicals assume that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. In fact, the evidence for this claim is not a scientific study ironically enough. Her evidence is the testimony of one writer, Rachel Held Evans. It is hard to generalize an entire group of the population based on the experiences of one eloquent writer. I would like evidence that this claim is true. All she does is double down on her claim that there is a, “religious tradition of fact denial.” We will see how this leads into her argument later, but keep in mind that she frontloaded her article with powerful and cutting language from the get-go.
It cracks me up that she then moves into a discussion of the phrase biblical worldview. Apparently, embracing the phrase biblical worldview shows that, “two compulsions have guided conservative Protestant intellectual life: the impulse to defend the Bible as a reliable scientific authority and the impulse to place the Bible beyond the claims of science entirely.”
You see how this connects to her first point. By default, it must be one of those “unwelcome facts” that the Bible is not reliable scientifically or not subject to scientific judgment. This must be one of those things that we don’t want to talk about as evangelicals and just throw into the closet to never see the light of day ever again.
Her presuppositions are showing incredibly obviously at this point in the article. Without any justification or argumentation whatsoever, she is making the assumption that defending the scientific reliability of the Bible is a lost errand. Never mind that people who believe that the Bible is scientifically reliable might have something to say. Perhaps they actually might even have evidence as to why they believe in certain things. They might be willing to act as private investigators and make a case. However, Worthen is convinced that having a biblical worldview automatically applies a layer of bias that nobody else in the world has and therefore makes Christians basically denying the existence of objective truth.
Her bias then shows even more obviously by citing Cornelius Van Til out of context and rather inaccurately. She compares presuppositionalism to modern cultural relativism. Presuppositionalism does believe in one absolute universal truth as Worthen says. She wrote this, but she then says that it is like modern cultural relativism and our post-truth society which denies the existence of truth all together.
Saying that one particular explanation is true and saying that no explanations are true are as different as night and day. In fact, in order to be a presuppositionalist, there is no possible way that you could be post-truth because you need universal truth to exist or you are planting your feet on nothing. You’re floating because you have a worldview that requires a necessary truth, but if you are relativist, you therefore have no truth of any kind. This is entirely illogical and is simply trying to create something out of nothing. At this point, it feels as if Worthen is looking for some type of thread to connect historical evangelicals to our modern-day debacle of a post-truth society, so she tries to slide this through. Think about it though. Her argumentation simply does not make sense in this paragraph.
She then goes on to talk about Eastern Nazarene, Point Loma Nazarene and Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson of Answers in Genesis. This is what everyone knew her article was going to be building towards. Of course evangelicals are ridiculous because they believe in a Creator. I know that evangelicals do differ on whether the earth is old or young, but a tenet of evangelicalism is a belief that God created the world ex nihilo.
Of course, Worthen cannot accept this premise, and she particularly points to the example of Dr. Jeanson who calls himself a “presuppositional evidentialist.” Worthen ridicules his position by saying that we might define this as, “someone who accepts evidence when it happens to affirm his nonnegotiable presuppositions.”
Is in this type of presuppositional evidentialism not exactly what Worthen herself is doing through this entire article? She wants to show Christians as people who deny truth and are heavily biased. That is her own presupposition, so she begins to find evidence of people and isolated situations to justify this claim. Again, she did not cite any type of scientific study to show evidence that evangelicalism contributed to the development of our post-truth society.
If anything, her argument ought to be that evangelicals are the ones who actually affirm truth. Evangelicals might not agree with everything the secular world says; I will grant her that without a doubt. As an example, evangelicals largely believe that God created the universe at some point (some are young earth while others are old earth). Obviously, secular scientists will not affirm that truth. However, this is not just a blind claim made by evangelicals. Our universe bears the hallmarks of design. Maybe this is why so many of the scientists who developed the very scientific method that we all use today were indeed Christians. Faith and science to not have to be at war. Plenty of people have been able to reconcile the appearance of the world with their Christian faith. Worthen is perpetuating this narrative that simply does not seem to be historically true
She tries to show the other side by saying, “We all cling to our own unquestioned assumptions.” However, that is my largest problem with her article. She is not even questioning her own assumptions whatsoever. She simultaneously assuming that Christians only operate on blind faith and never test their assumptions whatsoever. She makes a presupposition about other people making presuppositions, and she doesn’t back up her own presupposition with any evidence whatsoever outside of isolated personal stories. There is none of the scientific evidence that she seems to regard so highly to demonstrate that Christians indeed are the ones who are perpetuating society’s move towards a post-truth society.
She suggests that the most successful worldview is going to be one that, “is an empirical outlook that continually - if imperfectly - revises its conclusions based on the evidence available to everyone, regardless of their beliefs about the supernatural. This worldview clashes with the conservative evangelical war on facts, but it is not necessarily incompatible with Christian faith.”
This is supposed to be the final punch. It is supposed to drive home the point that she has been hinting at throughout this entire article. Christians don’t think critically about the world and are therefore irresponsible.
This is a hit piece meant to make evangelicals look ridiculous. From the beginning, evangelicals are portrayed as automatically believing that the other side is lying. That certainly is not true. Then, evangelicals are accused of always being presuppositional and automatically rejecting anything that does not fit with their worldview. This is basically saying that evangelicals will not think critically. That is not true. She wraps up by saying that Christians will essentially not play by the scientific method and reject any type of critical thought because there is some type of “war on facts.” Looking at the evidence and coming to a different conclusion is not a war on facts. The only way it is a war on facts is if Worthen is operating from a presupposition that any fact a Christian might believe that does not match its secular counterpart is wrong. From that position, obviously it looks like Christians are the ones who are trying to lead people away from truth.
She never supposes for a second that her position might be wrong and Christians might be right.
Let me propose a better path forward. Let’s not have hit pieces on evangelicals as people who are tearing down the existence of truth in society. Instead, let’s do what we can to affirm truth. Let’s not stereotype a group of people who actually believe in the existence of truth as the reason that society no longer believes in truth. That just doesn’t make sense to me.
For the record, before I wrote this, I did reach out to Molly Worthen on Twitter to see if maybe we could talk about this article in private because I had some questions that I have largely laid out for you here. As of publishing, she has not responded to me although if she ever does, I hope that maybe we can continue the conversation and maybe publish some of it here for you to see.