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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
- 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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