The world is teeming with hundreds of religions, all making different claims and demanding different lifestyles. What are we to make of this?
There are six basic responses to religious diversity:1
- atheism: all religions are false.
- agnosticism: there’s no way to tell which religion, if any, is true.
- religious relativism: each religion “works” for its adherents, but there is no truth about religion that transcends tradition.
- religious pluralism: all religions are correct, they just offer a different path and have a different perspective on the Ultimate Reality.
- religious inclusivism: only one religion is fully correct, but it’s still possible to attain salvation or nirvana through another religion.
- religious exclusivism: salvation can be attained only through the one true religion; all others are mistaken.
Let’s examine these, in reverse order.
The dominant view. Most people think that only their religion is correct and provides the way to salvation. Some exclusivists think that other religions are partly true, or even that God is working within all religions. But exclusivists contend that they alone have the worldview that corresponds to reality. One merit of this view is consistency: after all, the world really is one certain way, and not also a contradictory way.
It seems arbitrary and cruel that billions of people would miss out on salvation just because they were born into the wrong religion. One answer to this is religious inclusivism. According to inclusivists, only one religion is fully true, but true religious seekers of all religious traditions will find salvation, at least in the afterlife. One difficulty with this view is that each religion has tended to claim exclusive truth. Why would God send Jesus to claim he was the only path to salvation if he really wasn’t? Or if Islam is the correct religion, why would God send Mohammad to claim that his was the only path to salvation, when it really wasn’t?
One objection to both inclusivism and exclusivism is that there is no neutral way to decide which religion is correct, or privileged. Some have replied that religion is a matter of faith, not rational assessment. This view is called fideism. Others have replied that a particular religion is true because its claims are warranted by evidence and argument, or because believers “just know” their religion to be true.2
Religious pluralism (such as that of John Hick) says that God is like an elephant surrounded by blind men. One man touches the elephant’s tail and says “The elephant is like a rope!” Another touches the trunk and says, “No, it is like a snake!” Another touches one of the elephant’s massive legs, and says, “You’ve both got it wrong; it is like a tree!” Another touches the elephant’s side and says “Nay, brothers, it is like a wall!” Just as the blind men experienced the same elephant in different ways, religions experience the same Ultimate Reality in different ways. Some experience it as a personal God, others as Brahman, others as a plurality of deities, and so on. How we experience the Ultimate Reality depends on our culture and education and modes of thought.
Another illustration of pluralism is borrowed from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. A society that has rabbits but not ducks will look at the picture on the right and see a rabbit. A society that has ducks but not rabbits will look at the same picture and see a duck.
But then, if Ultimate Reality is experienced in such diverse ways, what can we say of Ultimate Reality itself? Is it personal or impersonal? Is it good or evil or indifferent? Moreover, it is hard to see how a Theravada (atheistic) Buddhist could be experiencing the same Ultimate Reality as a fundamentalist Muslim.
Another view is that religions are true or false only in relation to the broader worldviews of their adherents. The main defender of this view is Joseph Runzo. Runzo agrees with Hick that religions make mutually incompatible truth claims and that one’s worldview affects how one experiences Ultimate Reality. But, he says, there is no universal truth about religious claims; each religion is “true” only in so far as it fits within the broader worldview to which it belongs.
This has some advantages of pluralism. For example, it offers a stronger account of the beliefs of each tradition, for it says they are each making true claims. But religious relativism conflicts with what religions themselves teach. Muslims do not teach that Allah is the only God with respect to the worldview of Islam.
(If you think relativism is incoherent, you are not alone.)
The agnostic sees a bewildering array of belief systems about undetectable realms and magical beings and despairs that we could ever know which one of them is true, if any. He thinks religious truths, unlike scientific truths, are unknowable.
Believers object that one can know which religion is true by seeing which religion’s claims best fit reality, or which religion has the most impressive miracles, or which religion tells the most hopeful story.
I am an atheist, though not because of religious diversity.3 There is no valid inference from “A great diversity of religions make mutually incompatible claims” to “All religions are false.”
But religious diversity does provide a problem for certain religions, like Christianity. Christianity teaches that God is all-loving and all-powerful, and yet he chose to reveal his saving truth by way of a human sacrifice in a remote corner of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago, and will forever torture everyone who hasn’t heard of this or can’t believe it.
But how could an all-loving God do something so unloving, so unfair? One response is to say that it is possible, however unlikely it may seem, that everyone who hasn’t heard of Jesus would not have believed even if they had heard of him, and God knows this. Another response is to say that “God’s ways are beyond our ways,” and his sense of justice is superior to ours though it seems contemptible to us. A third response is to say that we all deserve eternal torture, and God is welcome to choose, for his own purposes, which of us he will save.4
I fail to see how these responses make the Christian God concept any less monstrous.
Which theory better explains vast religious diversity?
- An all-loving God wishes to clearly reveal his means of salvation to the world.
- People evolved to see agency where it is not (because mistaking wind in the grass for a lion is better for your genes than mistaking a lion for wind in the grass), and this manifests itself differently from culture to culture.
The latter, I think. Religious diversity does not make (1) impossible, but it does make it very unlikely.
- This list is taken from Chad Meister’s Introducing Philosophy of Religion. Meister himself derived his list from the works of Joseph Runzo and Harold Netland. [↩]
- This latter view is defended by Alvin Plantinga, who argues that for Christians, belief in the Christian God is properly basic, as is our belief in other minds or the external world. [↩]
- I’m an atheist because no religion has provided good evidence to show that its fantastical claims are true. See My Story. [↩]
- For example, see Ronald Nash’s Is Jesus the Only Savior? [↩]