The prevalence of religious diversity in the world should give pause to anyone who really believes in their own religion as if it is the right religion.
How do we begin to think about diversity of religions in the context of a conviction in our own?
Well, I think that’s an increasingly prevalent question increasingly relevant and prevalent question. People have made two kinds of objections to belief in a specific religion, say Christianity or Judaism, when there are these other religions also being practiced and out there so to speak.
One of them is, broadly speaking, moral objection that there’s something immoral there’s something egotistical or self-serving or arrogant or something like that in believing a certain proposition when you know that a lot of other people don’t believe – that just isn’t the right thing to do. It’s being you can’t properly say I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s like you’re thinking you’re better than this other person. Well, I don’t see that there is anything morally wrong with believing in the first place. You might not be able to stop believing. Belief isn’t really under your voluntary control.
I find myself accepting Christian belief. It’s not like I can just say okay I’m going to stop that.
I can’t do that. That’s not within my power.
But secondly and I would say in this context more important is the fact that that very claim itself is another one of those self-referentially, incoherent claims that shoots itself in the foot because the person puts this forward. He says it’s egotistical, or something- immoral in some way to believe when you know other people don’t believe that way. But that very proposition is one that not very many people believe. I mean he believes it, but not other people.
So he himself is doing just exactly what he himself is condemning. So it’s not a sensible position to be in and I would say and I can’t see anything egotistical in believing what seems to me to be right. If you don’t believe it, well, I guess I’ve got to say to myself I don’t know why you don’t but there but you’ve made a mistake. I mean people make mistakes. I make mistake, too. I don’t see much to that suggestion.
The second argument
The second suggestion is that there’s something that if you know there are other people who don’t believe the way you do on this topic, and you’d think also that you can’t convince them, you can’t think of some arguments that would actually convince them so that they would now believe the same way you do, then there’s something immoral and I’m sorry, not immoral, there’s something irrational in your continuing to believe the same way. They’re not living up to some standards of rationality. But, again I really wonder about that. Consider other areas of life, say politics, or for that matter philosophy.
I mean, philosophers disagree with each other all the time. There is a great philosopher David Lewis (who) died not so long ago. I had enormous respect for him but disagreed with him on a wide variety of points. Oh is there something irrational about that? I agree- he’s certainly as good a philosopher as I, a better philosopher. And he thought this- he thought P (and) I thought not P.
I don’t see that that makes me irrational I think about the thing again – consider all the arguments, consider objections and the like and it still seems to me that let’s say it still seems to me that people are not material objects. How can it be irrational for me to think that? I don’t see where the charge is supposed to come from. I mean what lies behind that charge – in that case. If we look at the world, our
belief system in terms of religion is very highly correlated to where we were born into the social milieu in which we grew up. Western religions are largely Christian. Eastern religions maybe Buddhists, India’s obviously Hinduism. Vast majority the Muslim world, we know.
With religion, we’re trying to approach reality. It’s not a philosophical argument; it’s not a political argument but religion is supposed to be something that’s in touch with a fundamental reality of the
Universe. Doesn’t this make it different?
Well, I don’t know. Philosophy is supposed to be in touch with reality, too. I mean the point is to come up with true philosophical beliefs not just ones that are amusing or clever. Well maybe some philosophers come up with ones that are amusing or clever. But the rest of us, don’t we want to come up with what’s true? It’s the same sort of thing, same thing in politics. I really want to come up with what are the right answers to the political questions and lots of people disagree with me. What am I supposed to do about that, though? Am I supposed to stop thinking what I think is the right answer is in fact right?
So you have to stop it. Let’s put it all together, philosophy, politics, religion, they all have a very high cultural correlation or environmental correlation. Doesn’t that put all of them into a very relativistic pattern? And we don’t believe that politics are god-given, so to speak, and that have some fundamental relationship to reality. It’s sort of the muddle through in politics but religion’s supposed to be different.
Well I don’t think it’s supposed to be. I don’t see the difference. In each case you’re trying to find out what’s true about something very important. Politics is about how to live or how to live at a communal level. Philosophy is an attempt to learn the answer to the wide variety of questions philosophers have asked and answered.
Religion is basically an attempt again to come to grips with what’s most real, with what’s most basic in reality. And it’s true and it can be worrying that at each of these cases there is what you call something like cultural involvement. A lot depends on where you’re born and what your cultural milieu is but that’s true all across the board for everything not just for that. The same thing goes for science if I’d been born let’s say, in 5th century Athens, I would have a wholly different idea of what the world is like from if I’m born as when I was.
It’s maybe a good thing to bring up – because in today’s world that’s not the case. Maybe if you compare temporarily over time, science is different but in today’s world in general there is uniformity among all different cultures and what a mathematical proof is and what the standard model of physics are in the different problems. So there’s a uniformity whereas in these other areas there isn’t.
Well there isn’t uniformity over time what I believe on these scientific matters depends in part on when and where I was born, and in that regard it’s like these other things.
Now we might say in the case of science we really know. Some people will say, oh here we really you know- this is really a hard evidence we’ve got so we really are learning, knowing these things.
But I’m kind of doubtful about that too. I mean if you if you look at the history of science almost all the important theories that were put forward at one time were later on rejected. Sometime the rejections are, you know, of really, really powerful and deep character. Say the change from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics. It’s not just like it’s a presification (sp?) of quantum mechanics. It takes a very, very different stance towards physical reality. So, I mean, how likely is it that five hundred years from now what we think in science will be thought then? I don’t know I’d be a little pessimistic about that.
Dealing with politics we’re as human beings trying to muddle through how we all fit together in a society. There’s no attempt at all to say that that this is something somehow founded in some ultimate reality of the fundamental nature of the universe. But religion does make that claim- that makes a difference.
Well maybe I’m not so sure. In the case of politics one thing that is fundamental and important is what we think about human nature. What sorts of beings, human beings are and what is good for them, what makes them flourish or what flourishing for them is. Those are very deep and important questions about reality, a reality which to us is extremely important, namely ourselves. And a religion, is it seems to me, in that very same neighborhood. So what should I do you know? I see that there are other religions but again I think about my own. I reflect on my own religion. It seems to me right I can’t do anything other than go with it. What else can I do? I can’t say, well, since these other people don’t think that I’ve got to stop thinking it. That seems to me not to not to be a sensible response.
But do you take the step and say therefore they are wrong? Many people in today’s world look for similarities, complementarities among different religions and make the metaphor that’s like you know a blind man looking at an elephant and then one feels the tail, and one feels the trunk, and one feels the leg, and everybody’s a different view but they’re really saying the same thing. Do you believe that all religions are looking at the same entity and seeing different elements of it?
I think there is some truth to that. I mean you’re really asking me two questions. First do I think that beliefs that conflict with mine are wrong, mistaken? Well of course I do. I mean it can’t be that they’re both right if they’re in conflict you know. If you say, George is wearing a red shirt and I’d say, George wearing a green shirt we can’t both be right. And I’ve got to think you’re wrong.
And the second one could it be that all religions are sort of like groping after the same reality? There I think there is more a likelihood so to speak. I mean if you take the most prevalent religions: Christianity Islam Judaism Hinduism. There is a certain respect in which they’re very similar and all of these religions there is something like God – there’s either God or something like God. And the three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam it’s just God, I mean their God who is omnipotent, omniscient, totally good, created the world deserves our worship and obedience and so on. These religions are really at that level quite similar. In Hinduism there isn’t any person exactly like God or rather they’re Hindu. Hindus are, you know, (hito?)theists rather than monotheists. There is a being who’s much like God, but then lots of other sort of lesser deities but again, there’s a being who’s very much like God. And most of the world’s population believes in something that the vast majority in fact in a being very much like God. So one way to think about it, I suppose, is that these different religions all are thinking about God. They’re all in contact with the same being but they differ with respect to some of God’s properties or some of the things God has done. For example, Christians think that the second person of the Trinity became incarnate and became a human being. And it makes more sense with there to make the kind of suggestion you’re making – there’s one fundamental reality that there are these different approaches to but, I guess, I would add to that, that these approaches can’t all be right. Where they’re inconsistent, then some of them are wrong. And I guess as a Christian I’d have to say beliefs that are in conflict with Christian beliefs are mistaken.