In the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) world, many of us tend to think of religion as the primary, if not sole, source of worldviews. If we are atheists or not particularly religious, we may not see our perspectives and values (whether right-leaning, left-leaning, or centrist) as worldviews. We may consider a scientific materialist perspective to be an indisputably judgment-free orientation rather than a perspective that requires its own inferential leaps -- at least if we believe that science puts all the big questions about the universe, and life within it, to rest, or that it undoubtedly will do so in time. In science, we seek a grand, synthetic theory of everything, built upon propositions that have been tested extensively and not disproven, yet fundamental gaps in our scientific understanding of the universe and our own experience remain, and some of them may be impossible to fill. Religious worldviews are not the only worldviews, and worldview conflicts often involve one or more parties who do not think of themselves as religious.
Though worldviews tend to develop through group-level interactions -- we send signals to each other about our respective beliefs, with communal beliefs and bonds of trust developing in tandem in the process -- a given person's worldview will also be anchored partially in individual experience. Each of us filters what we experience in the present through a unique prism that has been shaped and tempered, in part, by our family histories, our personal temperaments, the imprints left by difficult experiences (e.g., coping with a disability or a traumatic event), our differing patterns of membership in multiple affinity groups, and other factors, many of which influence us unconsciously. Intense conflict sometimes arises between members of the same moral community, despite the broader worldview they largely share, in part because of such individual differences.
Our worldviews mostly operate in the background, before conscious perception, much as our eyes (which we are largely unaware of) operate in giving us sight, the sense through we perceive much of the world as we know it. Until we brush up against others' worldviews, that is. When our worldviews collide, many of us, much of the time, reflexively defend the rightness of our perspectives. We regard them as self-evident or at least more securely justifiable -- as they undoubtedly are, almost by definition, from within our own worldview.
Worldviews evolve, though usually very slowly. Even so, a range of interpretive flexibility presently exists within most worldviews, including conservative religious worldviews -- though, as an outsider, we may not see or be inclined to accept this. Our worldviews have fuzzy boundaries, and new situations require us to weigh and prioritize competing values within them. Members of moral communities are constantly negotiating over norms and how to apply them. This is why Jayne Docherty, a professor of leadership and public policy at Eastern Mennonite University and a leading scholar and practitioner in this area, prefers to speak of "worldviewing" (a verb, something that we are always doing), rather than "worldviews."
Worldviews bind, orient, and guide
Shared worldviews bind people together, orienting them personally and socially and guiding behavior. Religious worldviews can be a particularly strong force in the lives of individuals and communities, answering "the individual's need for a sense of locatedness -- socially, sometimes geographically, cosmologically, temporally, and metaphysically."
As Docherty explains, our worldviews generate "coherent structures of expectations" that communicate both permissions and constraints. These norms partially define who we consider ourselves to be, and the degree of our fidelity to them influences how we feel about ourselves and other members of our communities. Often the normative mandates of our worldviews are clear; at other times, our worldviews simply help us to orient and chart a path, functioning more like a map than turn-by-turn directions from Point A to Point B. In either case, most of us seek to act in ways that maintain our good standing as members of the communities we inhabit.
Worldview conflicts can be intense and stubborn
Many of us feel uncomfortable when others conduct themselves in ways that are inconsistent with our worldview. A few of us respond to this discomfort by trying to influence social and legal norms in ways that constrain others' behavior -- think pro-life activism in the United States or efforts to regulate how Muslim women dress in Europe -- but most of us, much of the time, basically live and let live, arranging our lives so we mostly interact with and depend upon like-minded people.
But the discomfort is likely to be more intense, and we may feel especially compelled to speak out or take action when others' worldviews affect us personally, as they might in a dispute between a divorcing couple about whether their children will have a religious upbringing or a dispute among business partners about whether to source goods from fair-trade suppliers at greater cost than from other sources. Now it is our immediate world that may not cohere as we believe it should; our own sense of self is at stake in a dispute that directly implicates our identify-defining values. Many of us tend to think of identity dynamics as primarily fueling wars of the armed or cultural variety, but identity-anchoring norms often are at play in everyday conflict, and those disputes sometimes can be nearly as intense and stubborn.
Because the core issues in a worldview conflict often have sacred value, parties cannot realistically hope to coerce each other into their own conceptual reality. Interpersonal communication practices such as active listening and demonstrating empathy for the other's perspective and experience sometimes can be immensely helpful in a worldview conflict, but they will not mechanistically assure a smooth process when negotiating across worldviews. An intense emotional response is natural when we perceive identity-anchoring values to be threatened, but we must do more than attend to emotions wisely and sensitively. Essential as that may be, emotions alone do not tell us enough about the normative contexts we inhabit and how to achieve resolution in keeping with them. Nor can we expect to appeal to reason from a position outside another's worldview, because the other is acting rationally within his or her worldview. Finally, in many dispute contexts, a resolution can be achieved if one party is willing to pay enough money, because money can sufficiently address the other party's underlying concerns. Indeed, in a traditional dispute we might see it as "progress" if one party offered to buy the other out, trading dollars for some other thing of value (property, a legal right, or some endowment or entitlement). In a worldview conflict, however, the latest social science research suggests that even making an offer like this can backfire, causing the conflict to intensify, rather than move toward resolution.
In a nutshell, the conceptual frame of standard-issue interest-based bargaining, and many of the prescriptions that flow from it, are insufficient for addressing worldview conflict. Some of the typical orientations, process features, and skills associated with interest-based bargaining may prove useful in efforts to negotiate across worldviews, but they must be adapted to a different context.