The Myth of Neutrality

“There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.”― C.S. Lewis

We reject God a priori when we treat human reason as the ultimate standard of truth. The Apotheosis of Homer, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1827
We reject God a priori when we treat human reason as the ultimate standard of truth.
The Apotheosis of Homer,
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1827

Most of us would like to think we asses the fundamental questions of life from a neutral perspective. We imagine an “unbiased” or “objective” perspective as equivalent to standing on a tall peak, allowing us to see the land around us more clearly before committing to a belief. Even some Christians take this view, arguing that we should start from a neutral perspective and apply human reason and argument to arrive at the truth about God. Despite the popularity of this sentiment, neutrality is an illusion. There is no such thing as an unbiased, objective observer.

The idea of neutrality became popular during the enlightenment. In his essay An Inquiry Concerning the Principals of Morals, Scottish philosopher David Hume captures this sentiment wonderfully. He writes, “Nothing can be more unphilosophical than to be positive or dogmatical on any subject…When men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken.” (1)

What neutrality calls for is the sterile assessment of brute facts without any influence from our current experience, beliefs, or assumptions about reality and knowledge in general. Not only does the very suggestion of this seem impossible, but we should question why Hume’s skepticism can escape his own critique. He writes with sure dogmatism that those with sure dogmatism are unphilosophical and likely mistaken.

Scripture clearly rejects the mirage of philosophical neutralism. Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” (Matt. 12:30). This means that Jesus is either the ultimate foundation of our thinking, or he isn’t. There is no middle ground.

How could this be?

First, recognize that every human being has a worldview: A system of thought that represents our most basic assumptions about reality, knowledge, and ethics. (2) Worldviews are like an invisible pair of glasses through which we see the world, and which ground and influence all one’s perceiving, thinking, knowing, and doing. (3)

Worldviews also contain a person’s ultimate standard for truth, meaning they are ultimately self-authenticating. This ultimate standard is a basic starting point from which all other beliefs are reasoned. For example, someone who claims we can only know something is true through human reasoning can only use human reasoning itself to argue that belief. One cannot appeal to anything else to support such a standard. It is a foundational, axiomatic assumption about reality. (4)

Those who claim to be neutral often state that they have chosen their worldview through an unbiased assessment of the evidence. “Show me the evidence for God” they claim, “and I will change my mind.”

Yet this is backwards. We cannot know anything about anything until we assume a worldview. As the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen observed “If you don’t know something about reality to begin with, you can’t devise a method that separates the true conclusion from the false conclusions about reality.” (5) In other words, the skeptic who claims to form his worldview based on his own “neutral” reasoning and assessment of evidence has already assumed something about the nature of reality- that human reasoning and observation is the ultimate standard of truth.

This assumption implicitly rejects the Biblical view that God’s Word is the ultimate standard of truth, and affirms that human reasoning is not autonomous. While the Christian begins his reasoning by appealing to the ultimate authority of the bible, the unbeliever begins his reasoning by placing ultimate authority in his own mind. Neither position is neutral, and we shouldn’t pretend they are.

But doesn’t it seem natural to trust in one’s own reason as the ultimate source of knowledge until you are presented with convincing evidence that Jesus Christ really is the risen Son of God? How could Jesus say adopting such a view is equivalent to being “against” him?

The answer is explained in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Apostle writes of all who have not yet submitted to Christ, saying that “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived… So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20).

Paul explains that the unbeliever knows in his heart of hearts that God exists, yet in his unrighteousness he suppresses this truth. The result isn’t pretty. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21).

Dr. Scott Oliphint refers to this as “the psychology of unbelief.” (6) The unbeliever doesn’t just have some vague idea of a higher power, but a personal knowledge of his creator, who’s image he bears even as he rejects Him (Gen 1:27). In this way, unbelief never comes from a lack evidence or convincing argument, but from hardness of heart which leads to futility of thinking. I didn’t recognize it until later, but this was exactly my experience before Christ.

Jesus didn’t say “He who is not with me is against me, except for he who hasn’t finished his unbiased assessment of the evidence.” There is only one ultimate truth and He either reigns in our hearts, or sin does. We all have knowledge and relationship with God, but if that relationship is not based in the blood of Christ, it will lead to eternal suffering.

There is no neutrality. As John Frame puts it, “To tell an unbeliever that we can reason with him on a neutral basis, however that claim might help to attract his attention, is a lie. Indeed, it is a lie of the most serious kind, for it falsifies the very heart of the gospel—that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (7)

  1. David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning the Principals of Morals, in Essays, Literary, Moral, and Political (London, 1870).
  2. Greg Bahnsen, The Myth of Neutrality.
  3. Kenneth Funk, What is a Worldview.
  4. Greg Bahnsen, The Myth of Neutrality.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Scott Oliphint, A Worldview Framework.
  7. John Frame, Presuppositional Apologetics.
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4 thoughts on “The Myth of Neutrality

  1. Good stuff. I love Dr. Frames work in Presuppositional apologetics as it points out that we all worship something, we all put our faith in something there are no “non-worshippers”. That’s part of being human and made in the imago dei.

    I’m an acts 29 Pastor in Iowa who has been crossfitting for about 7 years.

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  2. Russell, as someone who used to hold your same worldview, I appreciate your dense and thoughtful approach on this! I think there are aspects of your argument that I appreciate, and others that I feel are an unfair characterization of a secular view on the nature of belief formation and assessing ideas based on evidence. Like you, I don’t believe that any person comes to the table without biases based on worldview and experience. You may have read Daniel Kahneman’s work on this topic already, but I’d highly recommend it if not!

    I think we all have the tendency to take our worldview and present it as the gold standard for how to make judgements. The way we bolster our value system and our experiences that confirm them is to cast anyone who doesn’t hold follow it as depraved, evil, and ignorant. It obviously helps your case by saying there is a higher power or impenetrable wisdom on your side that makes disagreeing or having a different perspective a terrifying and dire alternative.

    Why I left faith is because I realized this was something I shared with other people who also have exclusive, dogmatic belief. That feeling of “otherness” falling away forced me to apply the same level of scrutiny to my own beliefs as I do to an unbelievers. Instead of neutrality being the standard, I think striving for self-awareness in how my beliefs cause me to perceive other people and ideas is a more worthy and realistic pursuit.

    I admire the tenacious approach you take towards the causes you get behind…keep it up!

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    1. Aaron, I have not read Daniel Kahneman, but thank you for the recommendation.

      Allow me to respond to your second paragraph. You wrote: “I think we all have the tendency to take our worldview and present it as the gold standard for how to make judgements.The way we bolster our value system and our experiences that confirm them is to cast anyone who doesn’t hold follow it as depraved, evil, and ignorant.”

      We take our worldview to be the “gold standard” for making judgments because a person’s worldview, by definition, includes his ultimate standard of truth. I hope you don’t see this article as an attempt to bolster my beliefs by calling atheists depraved or evil. Those aren’t my words and that certainly wasn’t my intent. As I specifically stated, belief in God is not a prerequisite for acknowledging moral truth, or even doing good works. My point has always been that the atheist worldview cannot square with our experience of reality, specifically that moral truth exists and moral judgment is both rational and intelligible.

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