Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Problem of Religious Diversity

I. The Problem of Religious Diversity

A significant theological problem that has come to widespread attention over the last century is that of religious diversity. There are other religions whose devoted followers are often intelligent and pious, and take their traditions and religious experiences very seriously. If we question their religious beliefs, we inevitably end up wondering whether those questions can be equally applied to our beliefs as well.

If you accept that you cannot conclusively prove your religious beliefs and therefore rely on a certain amount of faith, then how can you criticize someone from a different religion who also believes on faith? Why is your faith right and his wrong? Or, to frame it as a problem, maybe your faith is wrong and his is right. Or maybe the conviction that he is wrong implies that you are wrong and every religion is wrong.

Click here to read moreIs this a uniquely modern problem? I don't think so. People have been aware of other religions for millennia. However, for whatever reason, we now see more clearly that the theological problems we raise in challenging certain other religions can easily be turned on our religion. Similarly, the defenses we give for our religion can likewise be used to defend other religions. This leaves us the problem of how we can honestly and rationally justify our beliefs.

II. Pluralism

There are multiple possible responses to this issue. One way is to accept that many different religions are valid, although there are at least two versions of this approach. Keith Ward ("Truth and the Diversity of Religions" in Philip L. Quinn, Keven Meeker eds., The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity, p. 123) distinguishes between what he calls "hard pluralism" and "soft pluralism". Hard Pluralism, advocated by among others the religious philosopher John Hick, means accepting that all religions are true except for those that claim exclusive truth, because they contradict the fundamental principle of pluralism.

Soft Pluralism claims that different religions are the different ways in which people respond to God. So while God can be manifest differently to different people, many religions can be based on a divine relationship but still be wrong on various details. In order for an argument like this work, you still have to explain why your religion is correct on the details.

III. Plantinga on Exclusivism

A third approach is Exclusivism, to deny that there is any problem. While it is easy to simply deny the problem, addressing it in a sophisticated manner is more copmlex. Alvin Plantinga does this in an essay titled "Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism" (published in Thmoas D. Senor ed., The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith and reprinted in Philip L. Quinn, Keven Meeker eds., The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity and in James F. Sennett ed., The Analytic Theist -- here is a link to a lecture of his on the subject: link). Plantinga addresses a number of potential attacks on Exclusivism and attempts to rebut them.

For example, some will argue that there is a moral arbitrariness in Exclusivism. There is a cultural and religious arrogance in believing that our faith is right and other people's faith is wrong. Plantinga points out that those who condemn the believer, who claim that Pluralism demands that you withdraw your Exclusive claim, are also being arrogant in arguing that their belief in Pluralism requires you to reject your Exclusive belief.

Others will argue that there is an intellectual arbitrariness in Exclusivism. If you cannot prove any of the religions correct, how can you justify believing in your religion? This is essentially a question of how to deal with questions that cannot be conclusively and incontrovertibly resolved. Those who attack Exclusivism would have you believe that you cannot justifiably accept any possible resolution unless you can prove it. But, Plantinga asks, is that how we deal with all such issues? When there is a case that is morally ambiguous, such as the propriety of "infidelity" in an open marriage, are you wrong for reaching a judgment even if reasonable people can reach a different conclusion? Or regarding the proper political position (e.g. bigger government vs. smaller government), is it intellectually unjustifiable to believe in a particular view even if you can't conclusively prove its correctness? We often become convinced of an idea even if it cannot be proven and reasonable people can reach different conclusions. Why should religion be treated any differently?

IV. Reliability of Religious Intuition

Then there is the issue of whether our religious intuitions are unreliable. If so many people can use their religious intuition and arrive at different conclusions, perhaps that should teach us that those intuitions are unreliable. This is not a valid argument because the fact that we do not have enough information to reach a definitive conclusion, and therefore people have to make a decision without all the evidence, does not mean that no one is right. Should it reduce your confidence in your own conclusion? Possibly, says Plantinga, but not necessarily. Some people will study the many religions, see the diversity, and conclude that people in general have no clue. However, others might find the opportunity to study different religions as a way to become more convinced in his own religion's correctness.

Some, such as John Hick, point to the fact that people overwhelmingly tend to accept the religion into which they were raised as proof that people's religious intuitions are unreliable. Plantinga responds cutely (perhaps too cutely) that Pluralism suffers the same defect. People only accept Pluralism if they were raised in societies (e.g. contemporary Western culture) that promoted such an idea and that if John Hick had been raised, for example, in medieval France, he would not be a Pluralist. Does that mean that Pluralism is an unreliable belief? If so, then this entire discussion is meaningless. If not, then neither is religious intuition.

V. Gellman on Exclusivism

Yehudah (Jerome) Gellman has an interesting article on this subject also ("In Defense of a Contented Exclusivist" in Religious Studies 36 and reprinted in Andrew Eshleman ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: East Meets West). His main point is to defend philosophically the idea of a "contented exclusivist", what we might call someone with emunah peshutah (simple faith). However, he also addresses the problem of religious diversity. He responds to the above objection of John Hick by pointing out the obvious: People generally form their religious beliefs through trust in the testimony of their elders rather than their religious intuitions. Therefore, he implies but does not state outright, religious diversity poses no real challenge to the reliability of religious intuitions because the existence of a wide variety of religions is not necessarily based on any religious intuition.

But even if you would argue that people do generally use their religious intuitions in determining their religious outlook, and we notice that people's religious intuitions generally confirm the religion in which they were raised, that does not necessarily mean that we have to reject these intuitions (or accept everyone's intuitions as equally valid, thereby leaving us uncertain of the proper conclusion).

VI. Good Eyesight

Consider this analogy: Let's say that I am driving down the highway and I see an exit sign in the distance. I think it says "Allentown" but my wife thinks it says "Abington". Does this disagreement of our sense of sight force me to reject sight at that distance and remain in a state of uncertainty until I get closer? Epistemically (not maritally), must I reject what my eyes tell me because my wife tells me that she sees it differently? Certainly not. This is particularly the case if I believe that my vision is better (which I do believe). Absent any other evidence (such as driving closer to the sign so we can see more clearly), I have every right to follow my own senses that I think reach valid conclusions.

Similarly, if I think that the religious intuitions of my co-religionists reach good conclusions, even better than those of followers other religions, then I have every epistemic right to utilize those religious intuitions in producing my religious beliefs. In this world, at this time, we have no way of "getting closer to the sign", of finding more evidence to religious issues. Inevitably, we have to rely on our religious intuitions to fill in the gap between the evidence and our conclusion.

VII. Starting Points

Going back to Plantinga's issue of moral arbitrariness, is there something arrogant in believing that Jewish religious intuitions are more valid than, for example, Christian religious intuitions? Are we all smarter than they? There is no need to go in that direction. I would suggest that you can say that even equally smart people will reach different conclusions depending on their starting points. If mice of equal intelligence are placed in a long and complicated maze, those who are placed close to a dead end will probably find themselves turning the wrong way while those placed close to a straight path to the end will find themselves reaching the finish. Similarly, your cultural heritage (which for Jews includes the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic tradition) is part of what defines your starting point.

I can (and do) believe that Jewish religious intuitions are more accurate than those of other religions because they are based on the Jewish cultural heritage, in which I have a good deal of faith.

VIII. Jonestown Suiciders

But wait a second. Doesn't all this pretty much mean that everyone is justified in believing their own religion? Doesn't this mean that, for example, a devotee of the Jonestown cult was rational in maintaining his religious beliefs? Gellman responds to this (p. 415 of his original article):

My reply is that in principle a person could be perfectly rational to hold a Jonestown theology. If this sounds outrageous that may be because we tend to place too much importance on rationality. Rationality is only one of the categories for the evaluation of the goodness or worthiness of belief. There are others. A belief may be rational and false, or rational and immoral. Finally, a belief can be rational and just plain crazy. It will be crazy because of its content. Admittedly I do not have an epistemology for craziness, but do believe a belief can be rational and at the same time crazy. It will be rational if the holder of the belief has worked out a satisfactory equilibrium in a criteria-belief complex, is true to the weights he perceives to be appropriately assigned to beliefs in this complex, finds that his religious beliefs simply do not squeak, and otherwise sticks to rational procedures of reasoning such as deduction and induction. All that being said, the belief may be outright crazy. Conceding rationality is not saying the final word about the worthiness or goodness of a belief. So the fact that any religious belief might turn out to be rational by my lights is not yet giving it a stamp of approval.

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