Worldview is a term originating with the 18th century Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and it expresses the idea of how people make sense out of the things that happen around them. To describe our perception of the world, he wrote:
“If the human mind is nonetheless to be able even to think the given infinite without contradiction, it must have within itself a power that is supersensible, whose idea of the noumenon cannot be intuited but can yet be regarded as the substrate underlying what is mere appearance, namely, our intuition of the world” [Weltanschauung]. (1790 :225)
Since Kant, many have found the term helpful in describing a view that provides people with meaning and understanding for phenomena occurring in their particular cultures or societies. For example, David Naugle argued that a worldview is constructed by how people reason, interpret and know. In this manner, it explains the reality a person confronts. He stated that worldview is, “best understood as a semiotic phenomenon, especially as a system of narrative signs that establishes a powerful framework within which people think (reason), interpret (hermeneutics), and know (epistemology)” (Naugle, 2002: xix). Such narrative signs are characteristically found in three salient features of worldview. Worldview, then, is created by the degree in which one’s culture, belief system (whether religious or non religious) and ethnicity/race interact to explain the perception of reality (see figure 1).
Culture, ethnicity and religion are all salient features that contribute to the manner in which people make sense of events in their world. Each feature addresses the questions of ultimate meaning as well as personal and social identity. They are deeply embedded in an individual and provide the framework of assumptions that are collectively held and which govern social relations thus offering cohesion and peace among groups of people. In other words, where a worldview is shared there you will find a people who live at peace with each other. As such, I suggest that culture, ethnicity and religion coalesce to form the framework from which people make sense of phenomena happening around them. Each contributes in manners of degree to the way in which we perceive reality. When there are competing worldviews vying for prominence mutual understanding is imperative in order to sustain peace.
Culture and Ethnicity
According to Clifford Geertz and many others, culture is a, “historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (Geertz, 1973:89). These cultural patterns, or symbol systems, are webs of social and psychological processes that give life meaning. Geertz argued that these cultural patterns define who people will become. He noted, “Becoming human is becoming individual, and we become individual under the guidance of cultural patterns, historically created systems of meaning in terms of which we give form, order, point, and direction to our lives” (Geertz, 1973:52).
Fredrik Barth argued that culture is a result of an ethnic group’s organization rather than a primary characteristic of it. Therefore, it is inadequate to think of classifying people as members of ethnic groups according to particular characteristics of the culture. He suggested that there is no one-to-one correlation between ethnicity and culture (Barth, 1969: 12-14). However, Barth stated that some cultural features maintain ethnic boundaries. An ethnic group has a “continual organizational existence with boundaries” that distinguishes the group as diverse.
George de Voss defined an ethnic group as a “self-perceived inclusion of those who hold in common a set of traditions not shared by others with whom they are in contact” (De Voss, 1995:18). Typically, shared religious beliefs, language, common ancestry and a degree of historical continuity characterize those traditions. According to De Voss, ethnic identity is a subjective social process based on a real or deliberate creation of a past to justify social belonging (1995:17).
Whereas culture is achieved, ethnicity is ascribed. As an ethnic group reorganizes itself and creates new social realities, culture changes while leaving the identity of the group intact. Cultural characteristics can be shared across ethnic boundaries. However, ethnicity is more about relationships between people who share a common identity, both ancestral and cultural, rather than about structured patterns of society. Ethnic groups, then, share a common historical memory, cultural particularities that serve as constraints of identity, and often territorial boundaries that reinforce “us” and “them.”
Religion and Beliefs
In addition to culture and ethnicity, religion and beliefs play a significant role in forming a worldview. Emile Durkheim defined religion in terms of a system of beliefs and practices related to the sacred that united a community (1994:44). Geertz’s definition of religion is perhaps more instructive.
A religion is (1) a system of symbols which act to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (Geertz, 1973:90)
While comprehensive in nature, Geertz’s understanding is relatively complicated. Steve Bruce defined religion simply as consisting of “beliefs, actions, and institutions which assume the existence of supernatural entities with powers of action, or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose” (Bruce 1996:7). All three definitions-Durkheim, Geertz, Bruce-contribute to an understanding of religion as a system of beliefs and rituals whereby individuals, concentrated in groups of like-minded adherents, relate to spiritual beings.
Religion then relates to culture and ethnicity because it deals with the way in which humans relate to the world around them and in particular to the unseen spirit world. It helps people find meaning and solutions to their own weaknesses and failings as it provides a framework in which a person can interpret the world. In so doing it gives practitioners security in understanding the questions of why things are the way they are. Religion is the aspect of one’s worldview which deals with the spiritual realm and its manifestations in the human realm.
In societies where there is an absence of religion, ideological beliefs replace the supernatural with other dogma that are equally as powerful in forming and influencing worldviews. While some might speak about a postmodern, Marxist, scientific materialist, or political and even Christian worldview, these are quite properly understood as ideologies which are expressed uniquely among different people in different cultures. As such, ideologies, no matter if secular or non-secular, make up a component of one’s worldview. In other words, no matter what one believes or how they behave in a society where they belong, everyone has some form of worldview. That is, we can often identify distinct worldviews in spite of the fact that there might be a shared ideology.
Thus it is at the intersection of religion (or beliefs), ethnicity (or race), and culture that we find worldview. Succinctly stated, a worldview is the way a people (race/ethnicity) in a society (culture) explain (beliefs) phenomena happening around them (worldview).
Barth, Fredrik. 1969. “Introduction,” in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, ed. Fredrick Barth (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969), 12-14.
Bruce, Steve. 1996. Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
de Voss, George A. 1995. “Ethnic Pluralism: Conflict and Accommodation,” in Ethnic Identity: Creation, Conflict and Accommodation, ed. Lola Romanucci-Ross and George A. de Voss. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira.
Durkheim, Emile. 1912. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Karen E. Fields, 1995. New York: Free Press.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Culture (New York: Basic Books.
Kant, Immanuel. 1790. Critique of Judgement, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, 1987. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Naugle, David. 2002. Worldview: The History of a Concept. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.