The Poached Egg linked to this interesting post by Al on the Please Convince Me blog.
We live in a pluralistic society and so it is fitting, generally speaking, that all beliefs are accorded equal respect. Unfortunately, this mindset seems to have convinced many people today that all beliefs have equally validity. As it relates to matters “spiritual,” the modern skeptic thinks that no religion has the corner on truth (assuming that such a thing as “truth” actually exists). “What works for you is fine, but don’t try imposing those values on me” is a common approach. “All religions basically say the same thing,” they say, “so as long as you are sincere in your beliefs, that’s all that really matters.” What they mean, of course, is that religion has nothing to teach. It is, instead, some sort of placebo and as long as you really “believe in it,” your particular view on eternity is as good as any other.
Christianity, by contrast, does not stake out an ambiguous position. Man is in deep trouble, due to his rebellion against his Creator, and he needs a savior to get him out of the mess he’s in. Without that savior, he’s headed for a bad place, and he can’t help himself. The “good news” is that help is out there, if we are only open to it.
So, which view conforms to the way things really are? Is there one right religion, or should we remain complacent in the belief that a sincere belief will work out just fine at the end of the day?
Perhaps the first place to look for an answer to this question is within nature itself. None of us constructed this universe we happen to find ourselves in, but it certainly appears to be operating under a set of rules. If there is a “rule-maker,” perhaps he has left some clues for us within the structure of his creation, just as an artist might leave a distinctive message within a work of art. But looking to nature provides no support for the skeptic’s view, for nowhere in nature does it appear that a sincerely held, but mistaken, belief can “save” you. I may be convinced that the ledge I am standing on is sturdy, but the force of gravity is not lessened by my belief, if it is mistaken. If I have diabetes and three vials are sitting in front of me – one with water, one with insulin and one with arsenic – the “saving” power of the liquid depends not on what I think it contains, but on what it actually contains. If I mistakenly believe that the pool I am diving into is full of water, I may still suffer permanent paralysis despite the sincerity of my belief.
Take for example submarine officers from the US and Soviet navies. Both were operating nuclear power plants using the same scientific principles and both had confidence that their ships could protect them from radiation. For each officer, this confidence was based on trust that the ship’s “saving” power – its design and safeguards – was adequate to the task. The American sub employed such safeguards while the Soviet navy cut corners. Any particular American officer may have doubted his safety, while his Soviet counterpart may have had total confidence. In the end, what mattered was not the sincerity of the beliefs, but the object in which the belief was placed. And predictably, countless Soviet sailors suffered radiation sickness while their American counterparts did not.
I think there are some places where it’s fine to just belief whatever you want and every belief is valid. For example, when deciding what to eat or what to wear. But there is no reason to think that the project of developing religious beliefs is like that. Religious beliefs are about the world out there, but preferences about food or clothes are about the person – his or her own internal state.
A good lecture on truth claims and religion
Here’s an audio lecture featuring one of my favorite Christian professors, Dr. Walter Bradley. The title of his lecture is “Truth in Religion”. He tries to make the case that the kind of truth that religion ought to be concerned with is objective truth, not subjective truth.
The MP3 file is here. (31 minutes + Q&A)
Here’s a summary:
- what is pluralism?
- what is multiculturalism?
- what is relativism?
- some propositions are true culturally – just for certain groups in certain times (cultures)
- some proposition are true trans-culturally – true independently of what anyone wants or feels
- Mathematical truth is trans-cultural – it is true regardless of cultural fashions
- Scientific truth is trans-cultural – it is true regardless of cultural fashions
- Some truths are not like this – cooking traditions, clothing traditions and greeting traditions
- These kinds of truths are NOT trans-cultural, they vary by culture
- The question is – is religion true like math and science, or true depending on the culture
- Some people think that your religion depends on where you were born or what your family believes
- Religions make conflicting claims about the way the world really is, so they can’t all be true
- And these conflicts are at the core of the religions – who God is, how can we be related to him, etc.
- So if religions convey trans-cultural truth, then either one is true or none are true
- If they are not trying to convey trans-cultural truth, then they are not like math and science
- Let’s assume that religion is the same as trans-cultural truth
- How can we know which religion is true? 1) the laws of logic, 2) empirical testing against reality
- Logical consistency is needed to make the first cut – self-contradictory claims cannot be true
- To be true trans-culturally, a proposition must at least NOT break the law of non-contradiction
- According to Mortimer Adler’s book, only Christianity, Judaism and Islam are not self-contradictory
- All the others can be excluded on the basis of overt internal contradictions on fundamental questions
- The others that are self-contradictory can be true culturally, but not trans-culturally
- The way to proceed forward is to test the three non-contradictory religions against science and history
- One of these three may be true, or they could all be false
- We can test the three by evaluating their conflicting truth claims about the historical Jesus
- Famous skeptics have undertaken studies to undermine the historical Jesus presented in the Bible
- Lew Wallace, Simon Greenleaf and Frank Morrison assessed the evidence as atheists and became Christians
- There is a lot of opposition in culture to the idea that one religion might be true
- But if you take the claims of Jesus at face value, he claims to be the unique revelation of God to mankind
- Either he was telling the truth about that, or he was lying, or he was crazy
- So which is it?