Mary Poplin’s “Is Reality Secular?”: A Review

is reality secular final

Mary Poplin, Is Reality Secular? Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews, Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013, 320 pages, $15.88.

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked that question during the trial of Jesus (John 18:38). The quest for truth has been a part of humanity’s journey through time. The ancient Greeks debated the idea endlessly, as did philosophers down through the ages. Today, the philosophical debate has been eclipsed by the rise of modern science and the demand that all truth be experimentally verifiable. Furthermore, post-modernism denies the possibility of universal truth, being skeptical of any explanation that is held to be true in all situations.

The Author

Mary Poplin holds a Ph.D in Education from the University of Texas. She is currently a tenured faculty member, serving as a professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA).

The Journey

The narrative in this book cannot be fully appreciated without some information about the journey taken by the author. Poplin describes her childhood as one of being taken to church by her parents, a church “already infected with a secularized gospel”. Other childhood influences include a heavy dose of soap operas that depicted adultery as commonplace and acceptable. Many TV shows portrayed men as weak. Her college exposure led her to take up a radical feminism and the lifestyle of the post-modern person. She mentions two divorces, two abortions, regular use of drugs and alcohol, severe depression, and frequent involvement with pornography.

Although she taught from a strongly secular, humanistic foundation, Poplin tells us she had never seriously evaluated the positions she espoused. It was not until she spent a two-month sabbatical with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India, that her carefully constructed ideology began to unravel and she began to question all her values and beliefs. Through this questioning, Poplin became a Christian, complete with all the struggles and challenges that come to the believer whose professional life is immersed in the totally secular environment of the modern university.

Four Worldviews

In Is Reality Secular?, Poplin examines four different worldviews: material naturalism, secular humanism, pantheism, and monotheism (specifically the Judeo-Christian position). For each worldview, she summarizes the basic tenets of that philosophy and then evaluates its claims. In each situation, two questions are raised: Is this position internally consistent and how well does it correspond to reality? Interwoven in the discussion are Poplin’s personal experiences and reflections of her own exposure to a particular way of approaching the world. She finds that all four positions are founded on some sort of faith statement; none of the worldviews can be empirically and scientifically demonstrated to be true. In addition, all the secular worldviews contain some of the principles embodies in the Judeo-Christian was of thinking. Finally, none of these systems is “new”; all have been around throughout recorded history.

Material Naturalism

The basic tenet of material naturalism is that the only things that exist are those that we can perceive with our five senses. This is a view in which science reigns supreme. Consequences of this approach to life include the idea that there is no purpose in life, that the universe came into existence by chance, that life arose by chance, and that science is the only truth. Needless to say, the people who advocate this philosophy reject the idea of God and any manifestation of the supernatural. This attitude pervades the practice of science, with greater than 95% of the members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences indicating that they subscribe to either an atheist or an agnostic worldview.

Secular Humanism

Closely allied to naturalism is the idea of secular humanism – human reason is sufficient to guide us, both as individuals and as groups. Therefore, there is no need for a deity and divine authority to set the standards of conduct and determine how we see the world around us. As with naturalism, the idea of God is rejected. However, in contrast to naturalism, secular humanism draws on ideas that deal one way or another with the worth of people. There are some similarities between this way of thinking and some of the values of Christianity, although the outcomes are very different.


Pantheism recognizes “the spiritual”, but certainly not in the same way as the Judeo-Christian tradition does. Poplin distinguishes between more traditional pantheism (primarily eastern religions) and western pantheism, which shows up on religious surveys as “spiritual, but not religious”. No matter what the specific approach to pantheism is, this group of beliefs has several things in common. A spiritual reality exists, not a specific divine entity, but rather an immaterial force of some sort that exists somehow both within and without the universe. Most of the pantheist religions do believe that certain acts are virtuous and that their opposites (such as lying, murder, sexual misconduct) are to be avoided.

Western pantheism looks to bring on a new era of elevated consciousness (often through the use of psychedelic drugs) to bring about a new awareness of the cosmos. Much of the focus of these different movements is on the individual. Often, involvement with the spirit world is involved.

Ironically, it was through her being open to this spirit world that Poplin began her Christian journey. Through a prophetic dream (similar to those being experienced by Muslims today in the Middle East), Jesus revealed Himself to her. In contrast to many other intellectuals who become Christians, Poplin has a very real awareness of the spirit world and the demons that inhabit it. It took over four years after her acceptance of Jesus for her to finally break free of the demonic attacks she would experience from time to time. She also describes the experiences of others undergoing the same kinds of attacks.

What if Judeo-Christianity is True?

The final third of the book focuses on the truths of Christianity. Poplin works through some basic doctrines about God and Christ, and offers some foundations for a Christian apologetics. There is nothing complex about this section of the book, but rather a good review of the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

Tie-Ins to Technology

Poplin’s life journey in many ways sounds timeless – a seeker (whether she knew it or not) exploring options about life. The story could be hundreds of years old or as fresh as yesterday. However, in many ways, her story raises modern-day issues and questions.

Sexual immorality has been with us since the beginning, as has the practice of abortion. Today, with the use of fairly effective contraceptives, sexual involvement and pregnancy are often two separate issues. Poplin went through two marriages and had two abortions. We do not know the circumstances, but it sounds like modern technology was not completely effective. One growing concern today is the link between abortion and depression – a significant number of women who experience an abortion later develop serious symptoms of guilt and depression.

As this nation (and others) debate issues related to homosexuality, we learn that Poplin was involved in lesbian relationships for a time. Homosexual activists loudly claim that same-sex preferences are innate (“we’re born that way”) and unchangeable. Poplin tells a different story, one that is being heard more frequently. Lesbian behavior is very much a choice and lesbian involvement is very fluid, certainly not the fixed sexual preference that activists proclaim.

The use of drugs by Poplin shows one dilemma of modern-day practices. She employed prescription pharmaceuticals to relieve the symptoms of depression and make herself feel better (even though the drugs did nothing to bring understanding to the underlying emotional conflicts that produced the depression). On the other hand, psychedelic drugs were used in attempts to gain “enlightenment” and a deeper knowledge of self. In both situations, mind-altering materials were employed in efforts to change an outlook on life.

In addition to their material applications, science and technology generate a somewhat hidden dilemma for modern believers. Philosophical naturalism and secular humanism posit that there is nothing beyond this material world – there are no supernatural beings or events. However, a realm beyond the strictly material is a component of both pantheism and Christianity (albeit in very different configurations). Philosophical assumptions are usually not stated in scientific discourse, but naturalistic assumptions are at the heart of much thinking today.


Is Reality Secular? provides a challenging overview of contemporary approaches to knowledge and truth. Major worldviews are analyzed and their deficiencies noted. In each case, comparisons are made with the Judeo-Christian position. This book would serve as an excellent foundation for discussion groups who are interested in serious analysis of how people think today.

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About the Contributor

Donald Calbreath

Donald F. Calbreath
Donald F. Calbreath, Ph.D is emeritus associate professor of chemistry at Whitworth University (Spokane, WA). His professional writings include a book and journal columns dealing with clinical laboratory analysis and interpretation. Other publications focus on issues related to biochemistry and behavior, including consideration of ethical and theological implications of research in this area. 


  1. , though, I have a sitlhlgy different perspective on. I would say that Worldview is a foundational part of Culture, and that these 2 things give rise to Values, and Values generate specific Behaviors. So the order would be:Culture/Worldview -> Values -> BehaviorAn example of this would be American Culture is steeped in individualism, and the Worldview lying at the heart of that is one that sees God as existing, but not particularly active in our everyday lives (Deist). On a practical level, each one of us is our own god, carving out our own destiny. Thus, phrases like Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and God helps those who help themselves. This cultural worldview influences our values: We value personal success, we value personal rights, we value personal privacy. These values determine our behavior: If a family member or friend has a need, and it infringes on any of my personal success, rights, or privacy, then I preserve what I value. So, my brother comes into town last-minute, and has no place to stay, but I value personal privacy, so I will expect him to get a hotel rather than inviting him to stay, if it inconveniences me in any way. My values have dictated my behavior. Other cultures that are more communal would never dream of behaving this way. They value family and community SO much, that if said brother insisted on going to a hotel (even for a legitimate reason, like being allergic to my pets or something) this would be seen as an affront and very offensive, because it is a behavior that goes against a deeply-held value.The ironic thing is that we see such a reaction as silly and petty, because we are judging that reaction through our American cultural worldview. But which worldview is closer to a Biblical one? Certainly, the culture of the Ancient Middle East was radically communal. The challenge for us is when we see that our instincts the values that arise from our cultural worldview and give rise to our behaviors are at odds with what is in the Bible. This can be hard for us, something we are tempted to resist to justify our own position. Or we can see this challenge as an invitation to learn new ways to repent in the literal sense of the Greek root, metanoia change direction.

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