Should I Doubt My Religion Because There are Others?

The poet T. S. Eliot’s conversion to Christianity drew praise from one of my professors, “because for Eliot, it does not entail that any other religion is false.” I highly doubt that the Anglo-Catholic held such a progressive version of the Christian faith; nonetheless, my professor exemplifies what the philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls “a fairly widespread apprehension that there is something seriously wrong with exclusivism”[1]— that is, holding on to a religious belief to the exclusion of all alternative religious beliefs, even when these alternatives are not yet disproven.

Some believe in one God; some believe in many; some believe that God is the world itself; some believe that we will all become Gods. Any or none of these beliefs could be true—reason alone cannot establish or refute any of them beyond doubt, whatever that may look like.

How should one respond to this diversity of possibilities? Exclusivists stand firm in their religion until it is proven wrong. They may consider other religions, but from where they stand—acknowledging that they already believe in one religion to the exclusion of all others. Although exclusivists do not have sufficient reason to reject all the other options, they do so anyway. Is exclusivism reasonable?

If none of the views on the table are conclusively proven or disproven, should we not treat all of them equally, by either accepting all or rejecting all? Therefore one alternative to exclusivism is accepting all religions with a relativist mindset. For relativists, believing in one religion does not involve rejecting all other religions. Relativists either hold that many religions are true, or say that this one is true for me, while that one may be true for you. Relativism is what my professor attributed (dubitably, I think) to T. S. Eliot: I am a Christian, but I do not judge whether other religions are true or false. Relativists often compare religions to cultural customs: I eat with chopsticks but do not demonize those who eat with forks.

Relativism appears to be the most moral response to the plurality of religions. Empathy seems to require affirming as many perspectives as we can. Contradicting a religion entails deeming the values and commitments of entire nations and cultures groundless and pathetic— it is rather cruel. These moral concerns partially explain the popularity of relativism among today’s religious youths. In the 2007 National Study of Youth and Religion, in which 65% of the interviewees identify as Christians, only 27% agreed that “Only one religion is true,” while 59% agreed that “Many religions may be true.”

Relativism captivated my high school self, desperate as I was to reconcile my family’s Buddhism with my newfound conviction in Christianity. Over dinner with a Tibetan Buddhist abbot, I asked him whether a Christian can also believe that Buddhism is true. His answer was no. Buddhism and Christianity make incompatible claims about important questions; so does every pair of religions. There is no such thing as total reconciliation: what would it even mean to say that something is simultaneously green all over and blue all over—and what would it mean to say that Jesus Christ is God and that he is not? Since it is impossible to consciously affirm contradictory claims, the only way one can reconcile two different religions is to ignore the fact that they are making claims at all. This can be done by regarding religions as sets of customs or folklore; indeed, if a religion is just a story told to inspire us, or a noble lie told to rationalize morality, what is the problem with having two at once?

But doing so is the very opposite of taking religions seriously. Religions claim to describe reality. To respect them, one at least has to consider them as what they say they are—beliefs, worldviews, truth claims. Indeed, every religion is more than a set of claims and beliefs, not any less. Since religions make incompatible sets of truth claims, it logically follows that only one or zero of them can be true. The great paradox is that those who reject all religions actually pay them greater respect than those who try to affirm them all.

So another response to the diversity of religions is to reject them all. As Jean Bodin wrote, given the diversity of religions, “each is refuted by all.”[2] There are two arguments for this response: first, one should not hold a position until one knows with certainty that all conflicting alternatives are false. Since many religions could be true (i.e. they are not conclusively disproved), one should not believe in any of them. Second, the diversity of religions also demonstrates the unreliability of faith itself: if I were born in 12th century Japan, I probably would not have been a Christian.[3] So if the same act of faith can result in a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Hindu, a Roman pagan, or an Aztec, depending on the time and place of its occurrence, it seems to be a great mistake to put much stake in its outcome.

These two arguments can also support a close relative of the reject-all response: that of suspending one’s judgement. The diversity of religions may not require rejecting them all, but we should at least suspend our judgement on such a debatable issue, neither claiming that any particular religion is true, nor claiming that every religion is false.

One may have already observed that the first argument is based on a rather arbitrary standard, and perhaps unwarrantedly strict too. Why must we accept the principle that one should not take any position as long as there are possible alternatives to it? Scientists do not: every accepted scientific theory has alternatives which cannot be demonstrated as false. And as Plantinga observes, “The variety of philosophical belief rivals that of religion: there are Platonists, nominalists, Aristotelians, Thomists, pragmatists, naturalists, theists, continental philosophers, existentialists, analytic philosophers (who also come in many varieties).” Should philosophers shrug and go home because “each is refuted by all”?

Against the second argument, Plantinga pointed out that if I were born in, say, 12th century Japan, it would be just as unlikely for me to have been an atheist or agnostic, as to have been a Christian. If this argument puts any pressure on religious belief, should it not do the same for unbelief?

One may retort that religious belief is based on faith, whereas atheism and agnosticism is based on reason, and since the argument challenges the reliability of faith as a way of knowing, it leaves atheism and agnosticism unscathed. But it is far from clear that atheism and agnosticism do not require faith. Whether atheism is compatible with reason is also an open question, since some of the most accomplished philosophers— Ancient Greek and Christian—believed that they have conclusively demonstrated the existence of God.[4]

Most importantly, Plantinga points out that the principles behind the “reject-all” and “suspend-judgement” responses to religious diversity are self-defeating. The principle underlying the “reject-all” approach is that when faced with a diversity of positions, none of which is conclusively ruled out, one should reject all of them. The principle underlying the “suspend-judgement” approach is that in such a situation one should suspend judgement, neither adopting nor rejecting any position. By contrast, the principle underlying the “exclusivist” approach is that one should keep one’s current position in spite of the possibility that some other position is true. Why should we limit the application of these principles to religious diversity? We have another kind of diversity right before our eyes: the very diversity of approaches one can take in response to diversity itself.

Just as there are a variety of possible religious beliefs (Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, etc.), there are a variety of possible approaches for responding to religious diversity, including exclusivism, “reject-all”, and “suspend-judgement.” So can the “reject-all” and “suspend- judgement” principles withstand being applied to themselves? The “reject-all” principle, as applied to the diversity of approaches, demands the rejection of all possible approaches. The “suspend-judgement” principle demands refraining from either adopting or rejecting any of the approaches. But what do these demands even mean? You can tell those dazzled by the diversity of religious options that the reasonable response is to abandon all beliefs, or hold their judgements in suspense; the problem, though, is that to apply your principles consistently, you would also have to tell them not to respond. Advocates of the “reject-all” and “suspend-judgement” responses to diversity are really just exclusivists, one level down.

A powerful motivation to avoid religious exclusivism is the intuition that if a given set of positions have not been demonstrated as either true or false, the intellectually honest response is to treat all of them equally. To exclusively hold on to one whether it be chosen by oneself or given at birth—seems arbitrary. But the fact that many religions are possible does not mean that they are all equally possible. With the little we know, we may not be able to demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt the truthfulness or falsity of a certain religion, but we can gather clues or hints for or against it, making it more or less likely true. Instead of dismissing a question just because many answers are possible, the more diligent course of action is to investigate the options. For example, we can survey arguments from the apologists of various religions.[5] Instead of fantasizing a view-from-nowhere on the important questions of life, it is far more honest and productive to acknowledge that we always already have some premonition, or prejudice if you would like, of where the answer may lie.[6] These can be more or less definite, and we may hold them with greater or less confidence; exclusivism is simply to hold rather definite beliefs with a substantial degree of confidence. Exclusivism does not entail ceasing to learn about the other positions, or sticking to what we currently believe no matter what. It simply means that the presence of alternative positions is not a good enough reason to give up our own.

 

 

1 Alvin Plantinga, “A Defense of Religious Exclusivism,” in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998).

2 Plantinga, “A Defense.”

3 John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, (New Haven: Yale Univer­sity Press, 2005), 2.

4 See, for example, Five Proofs for the Existence of God by Edward Feser.

5 Classics in Christian Apology include Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis and Summa Contra Gentiles by St. Thomas Aquinas. I leave the recommendation of apologetic works for other religions, and works challenging various religions, to your friends who adopt the respective points of view.

6 Nobel-Prize Laureate and chemist Michael Polanyi describes how scientists are led in their research by a “hunch” or aesthetic intuition of how the truth would look like.

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