Pluralism


J.W. Wartick has a nice article on the failure of religious pluralism. He makes the point that while religious pluralists want to affirm all religions as being valid, they can only do so at the expense of charging all religions as false. It’s quite the paradox, similar to hitting people to demonstrate your love for them.

While pluralists charge all religious traditions as false in order to affirm them, their own views are presented as objective truth. They do not claim to know the true nature of the Transcendent anymore than the next guy, but they do claim to be the only ones who know the true nature of religion. How convenient.

Inclusivism is the doctrine that while no one can be saved apart from Christ, one need not have conscious faith in Christ to be saved.  So, for example, while a good Buddhist may not trust in Christ for his salvation, since he is a good Buddhist Christ applies the merits of His substitutionary atonement to him. 

The NT is opposed to inclusivism.  It is quite clear that one must exercise conscious faith in Christ to experience salvation: 

John 3:14-18  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, [15] that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. [16] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. [17] For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [18] Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 

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Many people think religious claims are untestable, making it impossible to make an objective, reasoned choice as to which religion you should adopt.  You just have to pick the one that fits your personal preferences, your family tradition, etc.  Mark Mittelberg challenges this view in his book, Choosing Your Faith In a World of Spiritual Options.

Mittelberg starts with a question that religious people often do not even consider: Why choose any faith at all?  His answer is interesting: because you don’t have an option.  We all place our faith in something.  The question is whether or not that faith is justified or not; true or not.  Contrary to popular belief, answering this question is possible.

Before he delves into the principles by which we can test worldview claims, he discusses and evaluates six faith paths that most people use to determine their beliefs, showing how each is deficient: (more…)

Franklin Graham was invited to the Pentagon to offer a prayer on May 6 for the National Day of Prayer.  The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (of all entities) is objecting to Graham’s invitation because he has called Islam an “evil” religion, and they say his presence will offend Muslim soldiers.  So now the Army is considering rescinding the invitation.  Maybe I failed to get the memo, but the last I checked part of religious freedom is the freedom to think one’s own religion is true, and all others are false (and perhaps even evil).  

This is what religious pluralism gets you: censorship of anyone who thinks their faith is actually true, and is willing to spell out the logical corollary to this belief, namely, that other religions must be false.  That religious view will not be tolerated by the preachers of religious tolerance.

Some theists and religious pluralists claim that God is wholly other; so transcendent as to be incomprehensible to finite minds.  They assert that nothing can be known about God – He is ineffable.  No propositions we humans can formulate about Him can be true.  

This perspective is fundamentally flawed.  Not only is it self-refuting and contradictory, to say no human concept of God can be true of God (since the concept of ineffability is a human concept), it also results in absurdities.  For example, if there can be no true propositions about God, then the proposition “God exists” cannot be a true proposition.  But surely this is absurd.  The ineffability of a being, X, depends on the existence of X.  If God is a real entity, then at the very least the proposition “God exists” must be a true proposition about God.  

If God’s transcendence means there is no congruence between the thoughts of God and the thoughts of man, so that whatever we know God does not know and vice versa, that would mean if we know the proposition “God exists,” God Himself cannot know it.  But surely any conscious being must be aware of its own existence, and thus it is false that our thoughts can never match God’s thoughts.  Indeed, as Christopher Neiswonger once noted, if we can’t know God’s thoughts, then we can’t know anything at all because God knows everything!

While humans cannot know every truth about God, this does not mean we cannot know any truths about God.  Indeed, on the Christian worldview, God is not wholly other, purely transcendent, and absolutely silent.  We are made in His image, He is immanent, and He has revealed Himself to mankind, communicating to us many truths about Him.  While we cannot comprehend the depths of these truths, they can be known and apprehended.

Unless you have been vacationing in a cave somewhere in the nether regions of the Congo, you’ve probably heard of the brouhaha that has developed over Brit Hume’s advice to Tiger Woods:

Tiger Woods will recover as a golfer. Whether he can recover as a person I think is a very open question, and it’s a tragic situation with him. I think he’s lost his family. It’s not clear to me that — whether he’ll be able to have a relationship with his children.

But the Tiger Woods that emerges once the news value dies out of this scandal — the extent to which he can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith.

So my message to Tiger would be, “Tiger, turn your faith — turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”

Many liberals are furious that Brit Hume would make such comments, for a variety of reasons.  The primary reason appears to be that he is claiming Christianity is true over and against Buddhism.  That is a politically correct no-no, labeled “intolerant.”  We’re supposed to act like our religious beliefs are no more true than the next religion’s.  How tolerant is that requirement?!  The fact of the matter is that religious claims are usually exclusive and contradict competing religious claims.  Given this fact, if one really believes the tenets of their religion, they cannot help but to think their religion is true and others’ false.

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Marcus Borg, like so many other theological liberals (although I must admit that Borg is so liberal that even a lot of theological liberals would disown him as such), claims God is ineffable.  During a recent debate between Borg and William Lane Craig, Craig pointed out that to say God is ineffable is to say that no human concept is applicable to God.  But since ineffability is a human concept, it doesn’t apply to God either.  This is self-refuting, and thus cannot be true.  Great point!

Religious pluralists often claim that religious beliefs are culturally relative: the religion you adopt is determined by where you live, not the rationality/truth of the religion itself.  If you live in India you will probably be a Hindu; if you live in the U.S. you will probably be a Christian.  One’s personal religious beliefs are nothing more than a geographic accident, so we should not believe that our religion is true while others are not.

This argument is a double-edged sword.  If the religious pluralist had been born in Saudi Arabia he would have been a Muslim, and Muslims are religious particularists!  His pluralistic view of religion is dependent on his being born in 20th century Western society!

A more pointed critique of this argument, however, comes from the realm of logic.  The line of reasoning employed by the pluralist commits the genetic fallacy (invalidating a view based on how a person came to hold that view).  The fact of the matter is that the truth of a belief is independent of the influences that brought you to believe in it.  While the observation that one’s religious beliefs are often determined by where they live is valid from an empirical standpoint, what follows from that observation?  Nothing.  While I may be a Christian because I live in a society in which most people are Christians, it does not mean that my Christian beliefs are not true.  The truth of Christianity depends on the veracity of the claims themselves, nothing more and nothing less.

During an interview at Cambridge University William Lane Craig was asked how postmodern students reacted to his “rational approach.”  He said:

Frankly, I don’t confront many students who are postmodernists. For all the faddish talk, I think it’s a myth. Students aren’t generally relativistic and pluralistic, except when it comes to ethics and religion. But that’s not postmodernism, that’s modernism. That’s old-style verificationism, which says things that are verifiable through the five senses are factual, but everything else is just a matter of taste (including ethics and religion). I think it’s a deceit of our age to say that modernism is dead.

Craig echoed similar sentiments in To Everyone An Answer on pages 21-22:

[E]nlightenment rationalism is so deeply imbedded in Western intellectual life that these antirationalistic currents like Romanticism and postmodernism are doomed, it seems, to be mere passing fashions. After all, no one adopts a postmodernist view of literary texts when reading the labels on a medicine bottle or a box of rat poison…In the end, people turn out to be subjectivists only about ethics and religion, not about matters provable by science. But this is not postmodernism; this is nothing else than classic Enlightenment naturalism–it is the old modernism in a fashionable new guise.

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To say it is impossible to know anything about God is self-refuting, because it is itself a claim to know something about God: that he is unknowable.  How can one know that about an unknowable God?  To know He is unknowable is to know something true about Him, and thus He is no longer unknowable.

It has become quite common for people to assert that we cannot know anything about God, or that anything we ascribe to Him is neither true nor false, but simply meaningless. God is said to be ineffable. This assertion is often offered in the context of evangelism. In our attempt to persuade someone to become a Christian, we make certain truth-claims about God, and are met by the “God is ineffable” response, effectively shutting down the conversation. What can you say to such a person? I would suggest you ask a simple question: why? Why should we think God is ineffable? Typically, the reasons proffered will include “Because God is wholly other,” “Because God transcends language,” or “Because God surpasses human categories of thought.”

Do you notice something amiss about these responses?: They all ascribe certain characteristics to God’s nature, and these characteristics are thought to be true descriptions of God. In essence they are saying it is true that God is wholly other, and transcends human language and categories of thought, and this is why nothing can be true of God. Or similarly, they know God is wholly other, and transcends human language and categories of thought, and this is why nothing can be known of God.

This is self-refuting. They are claiming to know certain truths about God, that make it impossible to know truths about God. The advocate of an ineffable deity is left in the strange situation where he is unable to provide any reason for thinking God to be ineffable, without having to claim to know something true about Him. If the “ineffabalist” cannot provide a reason for thinking God to be ineffable without giving us true knowledge about Him, there is no reason to think God is ineffable.

“We should respect other people’s religious views.”


While we should respect the person holding false beliefs, why respect the beliefs themselves? Would we respect the belief that grass is purple, or water freezes in the oven? No, we would consider the beliefs irrational. We might even confront the individual about the absurdity of their beliefs. So why not do the same when it comes to false religious beliefs? As Richard Dawkins wrote in A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love:


Why has our society so meekly acquiesced in the convenient fiction that religious views have some sort of right to be respected automatically and without question?” Dawkins asks. “If I want you to respect my views on politics, science, or art, I have to earn that respect by argument, reason, eloquence or relevant knowledge. I have to withstand counter-arguments. But if I have a view that is part of my religion, critics must respectively tiptoe away or brave the indignation of society at large. Why are religious opinions off limits in this way? Why do we have to respect them simply because they are religious?


“I just prefer to focus on faith.”

Faith is not a blind commitment of the will in the absence of reason. Faith is a reasoned judgment in reality. Faith’s proper object is truth. If what we have faith in does not correspond to reality, our faith is in vain. You see, faith is not virtuous in itself. It derives its value from its content. Faith is virtuous if (and only if) its contents correspond to reality. If it doesn’t, it can be destructive. To survive in the physical world we must determine what is true and false, good and bad. When we fail to properly distinguish between the two the results can be disastrous. If true beliefs help me survive in the real world, why should we think true beliefs are irrelevant to our survival in the spiritual? If false beliefs can be destructive in the physical realm, why not believe that they can be equally destructive in the spiritual realm (assuming both realms are real)? If one’s faith is in Allah, and yet Islam’s description of Allah does not correspond to the way God really is, then faith in Allah is faith in a non-reality. While one may sincerely believe in this non-reality, it is a non-reality nonetheless, no less fictional in nature than Superman. Sincerity does not make an untruth magically become true. So the issue is not faith, but the content and object of faith. If we have no reason to believe the content of our faith is true, or that the object of our faith corresponds to reality, then our faith is vacuous.


“Everyone is an individual, and I feel God respects that and works with us right where we each are in our lives.”


Why should I believe that? Why should I believe that is what God thinks? Just asserting it does not make it so. I could equally assert that God is angered with those who think He is accepting of whatever anyone chooses to believe about Him, and however they choose to seek Him. Would you find that persuasive? Of course not, because I did not supply you with any reason to accept my assertion as being true. All I did is tell you what I feel. But what I feel and what God thinks may be two very different things.

Over the next couple of days I am going to post a quick 1-2 response to five different empty slogans of religious pluralism. Here are the first two: 

 

 

 

“I feel each person has a right to believe as they choose.”

 

I agree in the sense that a person should not be coerced into believing anything. They should have the liberty to choose what to believe or not believe, but what they choose to believe should be determined by whether those beliefs are true to reality. If those beliefs do not correspond to reality, why believe them?


 

Clearly not all religious beliefs can correspond to reality because they contradict each other at vital points. God cannot both be one and be many; God cannot both approve of and disapprove of homosexuality; we cannot both be resurrected and be reincarnated at death, etc. Someone’s beliefs are mistaken. Determining whose beliefs are right and whose are in error matters because beliefs have consequences. True beliefs have positive consequences, and false beliefs have negative consequences (whether in this life or in the life to come), both in the physical realm and in the spiritual realm. That is why we ought to be concerned about who is right and who is wrong when it comes to religious questions, and use our best thinking to sort the truth from the error.


 

 

“People should believe whatever works for them.”

 

Discussions about religion are never helped by appeals to empty slogans like “whatever works for you.” Beliefs about spiritual things should not be based on their utility or our personal preferences, because reality is not concerned with what we prefer to believe about it. You may like to believe you are invisible and won’t be harmed by standing in the path of oncoming traffic, but reality has a way of converting those who don’t take it seriously! The only reason to believe anything is because it’s true; i.e. it corresponds to the way the (spiritual) world really is.

In the last post I addressed the argument that all religions must be human inventions because they are markedly different from one another, and tend to be limited to a specific culture and/or geography. A more common “argument” against religion comes in the following form: “You are only a Christian because you were born in America where Christianity is the cultural religion. If you would have been born in India, you would probably be a Hindu. You believe in the religion you believe in because you inherited it, not because it is true.”


 

I put parentheses around “argument” for good reason: this is not a valid argument against the truth of religion in general, or Christianity in particular. As an empirical observation, it is undeniable that one’s religious beliefs are largely determined by where they live, and/or the religious beliefs of their parents (an accident of history, not the result of critical examination and rational reflection). But does it follow from this that the object of all religious faith must be a human invention? No. It is non sequitar.


 

This sort of thinking commits the genetic fallacy (invalidating a view based on how a person came to hold that view). The fact of the matter is that the truth of a belief is independent of the influences that brought one to believe it. While I may be a Christian because I live in a society in which most people are Christians, it does not mean that my Christian beliefs are not true. The truth of Christianity depends on the veracity of the claims themselves, nothing more and nothing less.


 

It is not important how someone came to hold the view they hold; all that is important is the soundness of the reasons for which they hold the view they do. If I was born in India I would probably have been raised a Hindu, and might even be a Hindu today. But that would not change the fact that Hinduism is false, and Christianity is true. The empirical observation that people tend to inherit their religious beliefs tells us nothing about the truth value of those beliefs.


 

This argument is a double-edged sword that can be turned against the atheist as well. American atheists were born in America, and educated in a school system where scientific naturalism and secularism are the prevailing philosophies. Is it any wonder, then, why they believe in no god? If they had been born in Saudi Arabia they would probably be a Muslim theist. Does that mean scientific naturalism is therefore false? Of course not! The truth-value of scientific naturalism, Christianity, and Islam must be determined on the merits of those views themselves.


 

This “argument” also ignores the conversion factor: instances in which large numbers of people of one religion convert to a different religion. Think of Christianity. Christianity originated in a thoroughly Jewish culture. People who held Jewish beliefs abandoned them by the thousands in favor of Christian beliefs. Pagans did the same. Why? Because they found something to be true of Christianity they did not find in their own religion. The claims of Christianity were so compelling that they abandoned the religion of their parents/nation. It was a matter of truth, not inheritance.

Most skeptics and all atheists think of religion as a human invention because (1) religions differ greatly from one another, and (2) religious views are often culture-specific. Let me address each in turn.


 

Religions differ from one another


 

It is reasoned that if God exists and is knowable by man, everyone should be in basic agreement about who he/she/it/they is/are. Instead, religious views are often very different: God is one, God is many; God is personal, God is impersonal; Jesus is God incarnate, Jesus is a heretic; the world exists, the world is an illusion. Skeptics conclude that either God is unknowable by man (in which case the whole question of religious truth is irrelevant), or more likely, God does not exist to begin with. Religion is just a human invention, and the variegated expressions of religion reflect the variegated creativity of man.


 

Both conclusions are flawed in that they confuse epistemology with ontology. Just because people have different answers to the same question (epistemology) does not mean there is no correct answer (ontology), or that no one knows the correct answer. If ten math students give ten different answers to the same math problem, it does not mean there is no correct answer, or that none of the students possess the correct answer. Difficulty in knowing a thing does not translate into an inability to know that thing, or the lack of a thing to be known in the first place. At best, the existence of a multiplicity of religious beliefs only highlights a possible epistemological problem associated with knowing God. It is not a good argument against the existence of God/gods (an ontological issue).


 

If the Bible is to be believed, the problem is not so much with epistemology as it is corrupted volition. Deep down men know the one true God, but in rebellion they will to suppress that knowledge, making up religions that are more palatable to their tastes. Think Romans 1-3.


 

Religious views are culture-specific


 

This is the more important of the two reasons. When you look at religion on a global level it becomes readily apparent that religious perspectives are often specific to a particular culture or geographical locale. It is claimed that the most reasonable explanation for this phenomenon is that religions are mere cultural inventions passed on from generation to generation. They don’t spread beyond the culture because—as an invention—they are not the sort of things that are accessible to, and discoverable by men outside the community in which they arose.


 

The observation that religions tend to be isolated to a particular culture and geography is true. The question is why that’s so. Is it because they are human inventions, or is there some other reason? I think the atheist is largely correct when he concludes from the multiplicity of geographical and culture-specific religions that religion is a human invention. Indeed, because they are markedly different from one another, they can’t all be right about God. At best, only one of them can be right, relegating the rest to human imagination. Where the skeptic errs is in his conclusion that all religions must be mere human inventions. Indeed, one religion could be the correct one.


 

But how could it be that only one culture has the truth about God, and none of the others (this isn’t to say there is no truth to be found in false religions, but only that on the macro-level, one religion is true and the rest are false)? It could be that God only chose to reveal Himself to one people, or it could be that all but one people remained faithful to the truths God revealed to them about Himself. It could be any number of other reasons as well. The point is that we need not conclude all religions are mere human inventions because they tend to be cultural and/or geographical-specific. That conclusion does not follow from the premises.


 

My next post will address a similar argument against religion.

Melinda Penner had a terrific post today on the topic of offering prayers in a public, multi-faith setting. Modern notions of pluralism and tolerance, coupled with political correctness have resulted in an assault of criticism against Christians who invoke the name of Jesus in public-lead prayers. Doing so is said to be insensitive, intolerant, and guilty of excluding those who do not share our faith. Penner argues that this perspective is mistaken for the following reasons:


 

  1. Prayer always involves a recipient. To offer a prayer necessarily entails addressing it to someone, whether that someone is named or not (not “to whom it may concern”). In the case of the Christian, the object of our prayers is Jesus. Speaking the name “Jesus” at the end of a prayer only enunciates to everyone what they already know: that the Christian is praying to the Christian God—“not a committee of generic deities of all faiths present.” No one expects the prayer leader to abandon his beliefs while offering the prayer, so no one should be surprised or offended when we name the person we are praying to.
  2. Offering any prayer at all—even a generic prayer—will exclude atheists. Should we, then, not only be prohibited from addressing our prayer to a specific God, but also prohibited from offering public prayers altogether?
  3. The only alternative is to require prayer leaders to pretend that their beliefs are not true, or only allow religious pluralists to lead public prayers. Both options discriminate against Christians.
  4. It requires that Christians hide their religious convictions in public.
  5. Those who bear the burden of tolerance are the listeners, not the speaker. “Tolerance doesn’t censor, it encourages expression even’t when the belief isn’t shared.”

I would encourage you to read her post.

There’s a good post at Right Reason addressing when we should stand up and fight for a particular religious liberty and when we should not. Given the direction of our society, this is a very relevant piece.

Should we tolerate hatred and racism? Should we tolerate rape and pedophilia? No. Not even postmodernists would be willing to say yes to this. Clearly, then, tolerance has its limits. John Locke argued that while there is much we should tolerate, there remain some things that are simply intolerable. Our job is to figure out which is which. One thing is clear: tolerance is not a blank check to allow any sort of behavior that man may choose to engage in.

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