Worldview Sampler
Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism
What is a worldview?

World-view, world view, or worldview (noun): (1) The overall perspective from
which one sees and interprets the world. (2) A collection of beliefs about life
and the universe held by an individual or a group. [Translation of German
Weltanschauung] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English
Language, Third edition, 1992

For an overview of common, worldviews, see the Worldview Sampler. For a
comparison, see Religious Worldview and Nonreligious Worldview.

More about worldviews

A worldview, whether religious or nonreligious, is personal insight about
reality and meaning, often termed a "life understanding." Each of us has a
worldview. It is our own discernment. It develops in part because we have
sought some understanding of our own significance.

Human beings everywhere are desirous of certitude by which to live their
lives. There are what appear to be universal queries for understanding of
important aspects of life and living. An individual's worldview makes reply to
these universal human queries.

A worldview consists of basic assumptions and images that provide a more
or less coherent, though not necessarily accurate, way of thinking about the

The personal insight comprising a worldview will encompass notions of the
existence or nonexistence of the supernatural and a deity or deities; the
origins of the universe and of human life; the source of morality and values
and identification of what is good or evil; how to live one's life; the meaning
of life and of death; and so on. To greater or lesser degree, people have
qualms regarding their ultimate concerns and obtain reassurances from
worldview coherency.

Much of any person's worldview is shaped by his or her culture and
upbringing. But, the worldview is not merely a philosophical byproduct of a
person's culture, like a shadow.." As A.F.C. Wallace in Culture and
Personality (1970) states:
“(A worldview is) the very skeleton of concrete
cognitive assumptions on which the flesh of customary behavior is hung.

Accordingly, he continues, the worldview of an individual “…may be
expressed, more or less systematically, in cosmology, philosophy, ethics,
religious ritual, scientific belief, and so on, but it is implicit in almost every
act.” It is a person’s internal mental framework of cognitive understanding
about reality and life meaning.

Developing a Worldview

No infant has a worldview. Each person’s "life understanding" takes shape
over time as the individual grows and develops, as he or she engages in
new events and experiences, interacts with others and with his or her
surroundings, and derives answers to inquiries about life and living from
fellow human beings. Any individual’s worldview is internal and, in the fine
scale, unique.

The “players in” and “process of” early worldview formation for any child vary
across cultural and other variables that influence the child’s upbringing (e.g.,
rearing communally or within a nuclear family). In the United States, the ones
who supply answers to queries and facilitate the formation of a youngster’s
worldview are usually parents and/or close family of the child. Their influence
during formative years is powerful, as would be that of any other significant
adults in the child’s life.

Along the way of gaining their worldview perspectives, youngsters hold to
their formulation (assumptions/images) with varying degrees of firmness and
cognitive maturity. Influences in modern society (e.g., powerful television and
other media; “popular culture”) more and more have some bearing on both
the process and outcome.

Altering a Worldview

An adult’s worldview may, but need not, remain consistent. Aspects may
gradually evolve as the person proceeds through his or her life, or there may
be events that compel radical reformation of outlook. For example, exposure
to new ways of thinking through education may induce varying degrees of
changed perspective. Vivid experiences or persuasive encounters may
engender dramatic alteration of outlook. Exposure to different cultural
practices or mores, or changes in geography or living circumstance, or
significant tragedy or success—such experiences may revamp one’s way of
thinking about life and meaning.

Purposeful attempts to modify another person’s worldview understanding
may not be successful. Much interior stress and internal conflict (for the one
who is the target) may attend such an endeavor. [D. H. Esbenshade, using
creationism and evolution as his example, has discussed educators’
challenging of students’ worldview cognition in “Growing Pains,” Religion &
Education, 26(2).] To the extent that the undertaking directly confronts the
coherency of an extant worldview, the individual may resist or oppose the
undertaking. And even a person induced by intimidation or persecution to
change external expression of worldview may privately hold fast to his or her

Perpetuating a Worldview

Since, as Wallace phrased it (above), the “flesh” of customary behavior is
hung on the “skeleton” of assumptions and images in the worldview, there
are stakeholders in the process of any youngster’s development. Whoever
most controls a child's early environment will likely be most influential in
directing the developmental course and bringing about desired ends.

Stakeholders can hope to produce a preferred outcome by exposing a
youngster to selected experiences and instructing him or her by way of
narratives and rituals (along with related plaudits, censure, etc.). A
conformist indoctrination process also may involve screening out of
alternative worldview narratives and experiences, or at least careful
managing of a youngster’s acquaintance with them. Even a broad-minded
approach, one which does not seek to restrict exposure to alternate
assumptions or images, will involve instilling certain "interpretations" and
offering up "guidelines." Conveyed as "helpful" (for understanding the
universe, living life well, gaining meaning of it all, etc.), the intent is that they
frame the child's outlook thenceforth.

American parents or guardians will invest to varying degrees in the
transmission to progeny of their understandings of life and meaning. (Some
care deeply about their child’s development and attempt to inculcate their
own cognitive accounts and traditions with regard to “life understanding.”
Others may devote far less attention to consciously influencing their child’s

The nation’s own warrant is signaled through the process of education
conducted in its public schools. This warrant ideally is neutral across the
varied worldviews. The public education concentrates on interpreting the
world in secular fashion according to authenticated standards of knowledge
(with broad inter-subjective validity) and molding conduct around common
values of civilized society (with a concomitant respect for the individuality of
personal conscience).

For concerned stakeholders within a household, the picture is more
complicated than was customary in times past. No longer can a family as
readily control major interactions of the child within a general locale, with the
family acting as a unit to accommodate its outlook to local mores. The
complexity of and rapid changes within today's culture are bringing many
more factors to bear. Technological developments (e.g., television and other
electronic media) may increasingly hold sway in shaping of a youngster's
worldview. These, along with changes in society at large and in schooling
have broadened the reach of additional stakeholders (e.g., advertisers) into
the household.

The contemporary situation doubtless presents intense conflicts for those
parents who seek a high degree of command over the shaping of their
child's worldview. (Some may opt for greater control through private
schooling or resort to home schooling.) Even the most liberal of parents may
be challenged by an inability to channel experiences for their progeny toward
what they hold in mind as a hoped-for outcome.

“As the twig is bent, so grows the tree” is a maxim that expresses well the
significance of early influences on the worldview of any person. But as long
as life continues to be lived, a “life understanding” is susceptible to

Corrections and comments are invited. [Last updated: 8/18/06]
Author: Mynga Futrell, Ph.D.