How to Assess the Truth of a Religion

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 27, 2009 in General Atheism,How-To

detective

How are we to tell if a particular religion is likely to be true? By what criteria can we assess the religions available to us?

Many criteria have been offered. Here, I will comment on the merit of each.

Logical consistency

Nearly everyone1 agrees that the central claims of a worldview must be logically consistent, for a statement cannot be true and false at the same time. A worldview which holds that “the universe is eternal” and “the universe began to exist 5 billion years ago” should be immediately rejected.

Consistency with known facts

If a religious claim contradicts what is known in another field, this may be grounds for rejecting the religious claim, unless the religious claim is better supported than the other knowledge. For example, if a religious system claims that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, but millions of pieces of solid evidence from multiple fields of consistent research conclusively show the earth to be much older than that, then this gives us cause to reject the religious claim. If the religious claim is central to the religion, then the whole religion may be rejected.

Overall coherence

Do the claims of a religion make sense together? There may not be logical contradictions within the system, but are all its claims plausible when considered together? Do they “hang together” well?

For example, the overall coherence of Christianity seems very weak to me. It claims both that (1) God is all-loving and that (2) God eternally tortures the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived. Those may be logically consistent, but it is extremely implausible that both are true.

Christianity also claims that (3) God is just and that (4) God revealed himself only to a single, small tribe, and then several centuries later, to that same tribe (but this time he said, “Now, tell everyone else.”) Now, (3) and (4) may be logically consistent somehow, but I don’t see how they are plausible together. Other examples abound.

But this kind of coherence is not as important a criteria as the first two. For example, the Standard Model of particle physics and General Relativity do not quite “hang together” perfectly. And yet, they are both extremely well-tested theories of nature, and we know they are at least mostly correct. So even though the Standard Model and General Relativity do not quite hang together just right, that is not enough to reject a worldview which loosely holds to them both (while understanding that they need revision, pending further data).

Adequate answers to important questions

It is claimed that for a religion to be plausible, it must have adequate answers to questions that humans care deeply about, such as:

  • What is the nature of Ultimate Reality?
  • Why I am here?
  • What is my purpose?
  • What happens after death?
  • What is moral?

I do not see the weight of this criterion. Why is a religion more likely to be true if it answers these questions? Because we want these questions answered? Many things that are true do not answer the questions we would like it to answer. Perhaps it happens that there are no good answers to these questions, or that we cannot know the answers to these questions.

Existential plausibility

It is often claimed that a religion is more likely to be true if it is existentially plausible; that is, if it is capable of being lived out by humans. For example, if a religion claimed that pain does not exist, and thus one should never seek medical attention, this would be a very difficult live out. Here’s another defense of this criteria:

…if a religious system includes the claim that right and wrong are mere illusions, but then one feels the existential need to live  in accordance with certain moral values, then the religious claim, if not the system as a whole, should probably be rejected. (Chad Meister, Introducing Philosophy of Religion, page 40.)

Meister claims that if one “feels the need…” to live a certain way, then one should consider the religious claim untrue. I don’t know how this principle can be rationally defended. This is “inner feeling” epistemology, and would serve to vindicate a wide diversity of mutually contradictory propositions (because people have strong inner feelings that contradict other people’s strong inner feelings).

Why should we assume that the truth about the universe will be easy for us to live by, or comforting, or nice? I see no reason to assume this.

Popularity

Since Christianity is the most popular religion today, Christians are tempted to say that the popularity of Christianity is evidence that it is true. But many popular beliefs are false. And what about when Christianity was not the most popular religion in the world? What did that say about its truth?

Conclusion

I think there are at least three good criteria for assessing the truth of a religion – or really, any worldview. The core claims of the worldview should be logically consistent and generally plausible together. Also, the claims of the worldview should be consistent with well-established facts.

The other criteria listed above are not helpful, for they do not reliably track with truth.

  1. A few people, particularly Zen and Madhyamika Buddhists, have argued that religion need not be logical. But it’s not clear what that even means, for one must use logic to even understand the claims of a religion. Moreover, these same people use logic in every other part of life – why deny it in religion? []

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

John H November 27, 2009 at 10:06 am

For example, the overall coherence of Christianity seems very weak to me. It claims both that (1) God is all-loving and that (2) God eternally tortures the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived.

I am not sure either of these is quite accurate. #1 is close – but “God is love” is a bit different from “God is all-loving”. Next, of course, is that while God may be all-loving of people – He is not all-loving of sin.

#2 is supported by what? Certainly, there are Christians who are universalists – who believe all are saved. There are Christians who are annihilationists – who believe that there is heaven and death but no hell. Even for folks who believe in heaven and hell, I am not where the foundation for “God eternally tortures the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived” exists in scripture. Do you have some stats from God I haven’t seen on the numbers saved and the numbers lost? Have you accounted for those that believe that no one is in heaven or hell yet until the final judgement? How about those that believe that souls are in heaven but those that are destined for hell still are asleep until that final judgement. Anyway, a little study in Christian eschatology for those that either think that pair was coherant or that Christianity has some fixed and clear view of the end times.

Christianity also claims that (3) God is just and that (4) God revealed himself only to a single, small tribe, and then several centuries later, to that same tribe (but this time he said, “Now, tell everyone else.”)

Again, the creation of a false dichotomy. #3 is true, but #4 is wrong on two counts. First, the Hebrews were told that their role was to be a witness to the nations prior to Christ – they didn’t really do that. Second, Christianity doesn’t believe that was God’s only revelation to the world. Paul:

Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

So the general Christian belief is that there has been a general revelation to humanity through God’s creation, and inside each person (see here), that some have willfully chosen to ignore entirely; or replaced with animisim, paganism, idolatry, humanism, and such.

The “Chosen People” were chosen to create another revelation to the whole world: to provide an example of what folks were choosing to willfully ignore – ya know “light and salt” and “a city on a hill” in a dark world.

I would think the first part of analyzing a world view is actually understanding it. Where does this fall in my task of analyzing your worldview to see if it is coherant?

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Brian G November 27, 2009 at 12:16 pm

(2) God eternally tortures the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived.

What evidence is there for this claim? As a Catholic, I was taught that we can’t even be certain that Judas is in hell. I don’t know how we make any positive claims about the “vast majority” if we can’t know about Judas.

Also where is there room under your criteria for modification of a belief system / world view in light of new evidence? If this isn’t valid, at least in principle, then we’ll have to throw out science. Science has disproven itself by it’s own methods many times over.

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Ryan November 27, 2009 at 12:59 pm
Derrida November 27, 2009 at 2:41 pm

The only way to assess the truth of a religion is to assess the truth of its claims, as these are the only aspects of a religion that can be deemed true or false.

How do we determine whether the truth claims of a religion are true or false? The same way we evaluate any other set of truth claims: clarify what the claims are and if they’re meaningful, determine whether they’re logically consistent and consistent with known facts, then look for corroborating and falsifying evidence. It’s a simple three step mechanism: meaning, logic, evidence.

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Haukur November 27, 2009 at 5:22 pm

John H: So the general Christian belief is that there has been a general revelation to humanity through God’s creation, and inside each person (see here), that some have willfully chosen to ignore entirely; or replaced with animisim, paganism, idolatry, humanism, and such.

Hey, maybe the general revelation *is* that paganism, animism, idolatry and humanism are the way to go? Wouldn’t that be more consistent with the facts? When left to their own devices people have always had paganism, animism, idolatry and (under some definitions) humanism – in contrast, the only people who’ve ever become Christians are those who have had Christianity preached to them. Long before Plantinga and Craig, Iamblichus had this all figured out:

For an innate knowledge about the Gods is coexistent with our nature, and is superior to all judgement and choice, reasoning and proof. This knowledge is united from the outset with its own cause, and exists in tandem with the essential striving of the soul towards the Good … we are enveloped by the Divine presence, and we are filled with it, and we possess our very essence by virtue of our knowledge that there are Gods.

So, maybe it’s actually paganism that is properly basic?

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lukeprog November 27, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Ryan,

Yup, I agree with your points.

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John H November 27, 2009 at 9:31 pm

Haukur: So, maybe it’s actually paganism that is properly basic?

Maybe – other than Christ. That, again, is the key point

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Edson November 28, 2009 at 2:43 am

“(1) God is all-loving and that (2) God eternally tortures the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived.

John H, your response to the above was scintillating,refreshing, and to me, the ideal response ever. I will probably use your answer next time when confronted with such kind of question.

Frankly, before I read yours,I had no idea how I could respond to the “Hell Problem” without coming out rude to an atheist.

You know,I am kinda direct guy, uncompromising and most likely would have responded that ” Yes God is all-loving-to-men but still He will cast unrepentant sinners to Hell and yet remain all-loving! See how unintelligent my response would be! Thanks for giving me the tricks.

On the other note, why should the presence of hell prevent anyone to love God? God has given you life, reasoning,health,in some people money,power, skills, yet you ignore these gifts and concentrate on the hellish things,isn’t it a bit being pessimism? Come one, our God is expecting us to do better than this.

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Emmanuel J. Karavousanos November 28, 2009 at 3:41 am

Religions are a dime a dozen. That alone must say something about their legitimacy. And gods? There are over 2,500 Deities listed in the Encyclopaedia of Gods, a book by scholar Michael Jordan. The key to consciousness has been and is, in the analysis of familiar, obvious and known things. The basis for this is in Whitehead, Hegel, Huxley, Heraclitus, Gibran, Shaw, Holmes, Jr., and others. We now KNOW why a mystical experience — the onset of the mystical state — occurs. Higher consciousness, ultimate reality, mystical state are, as most know, one and the same.

Emmanuel J. Karavousanos
Author and speaker

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daniel November 28, 2009 at 11:56 pm

With regard to denying the need for reason in religion:

Not all religion is made of truth claims. Look to JZ Smith’s book Map is Not Territory, chapters 10-13. I think his discussion of red parrots and the third map have value.

Respectfully, I think you’re reflecting a modern Christian/anti-Christian literalism that religion is a set of beliefs made of a series of true, possibly true, or false propositions in a set body which can be accepted or denied. It’s a high “christology” of religion that doesn’t hold up well in reality, despite when you advance for debate a series of propositions on the basis of their belief by millions of people. What of indigenous south american christian syncretism, chinese pluralism, or the reform Jew who though on questioning professes no belief in the usual jewish propositions still heads to synagogue each year?

Obviously, you’re arguing for your common sense atheism, but go check out wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases and remember we’re human, only human, and that’s all we’ve got to work with. If you look only to logical proof or disproof of truth claims, you’ve under/overestimated humans. Derrida commented accurately above. But in assessing truth claims, (again, see JZ Smith and the red parrots) you are ironically privileging religion.

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lukeprog November 29, 2009 at 1:11 am

daniel,

Thanks for the book recommendation. Yes, I’m responding to religion that makes truth claims, and operating from a modernist perspective.

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danielg December 11, 2009 at 12:47 am

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