Can all religions be true?
Can all religions be true? In a pluralistic culture, with a multiplicity of religious beliefs, this is an important question that is worth heavy consideration, though it is often only given a mere passing thought. There are many devout individuals across the religious spectrum who are fully convinced in their minds that their religious beliefs are correct religious beliefs. Many of these individuals are kind and courteous people who are seeking to do good to others and from all appearances are seeking to live a godly life. Under these conditions, how could we even consider one person’s religion to be right and another to be wrong? If they are both good people, isn’t that all that matters? Why do we Christians think we have can say that other religions are wrong? In the age of social tolerance, this assertion, that Christianity is right and other religions are wrong, is considered to be arrogant, prideful, and even hateful. This assertion of particularism, that one religion is correct, is just one of a handful of response types to answer the problem of religious pluralism. Other noteworthy broad categories include (1) nonrealism, all religions are false in their assertions, (2) omnism, all religions are true at least in part of their assertions, (3) pluralism, all religions have an equal claim on truth. It is this final category that I will be addressing in this article.
First, there is something of importance that must be addressed. For many, including myself, this is problem of religious pluralsim creates emotional conflict. We all know some one of a different religious background who we believe are great people and have grown to have meaningful relationships with them. Thus, the way in which we respond to this problem is usually an emotional response. It feels much better to validate others than to disagree with others and you gain much better social positioning when you take this affirming position. I fully believe that those that respond to this question in this manner do so out of a desire to be loving to others. When I asserted the same thing in the past I did it with the same intentions. I wanted to be affirming because I felt like I was being a better person, I knew it wouldn’t really rustle any feathers, and I would be seen more favorably amongst my peers. However, as I have thoughtfull explored this question more deeply, I have come to realize that this assertion, that all religions are true, is far from loving and affirming. It does not validate but rather it invalidates every religion. This claim of religious pluralism tends to be more closely synonymous to the nonrealist or particularist responses to the problem of religious pluralism than it might seem at face value.
Examination of Religious Pluralism
To answer this question, we must draw out an important distinction when examining religion, especially, when we are discussing the truthfulness of a religion. This distinction involves understanding the difference between the practice of a particular religion and the assertions of a particular religion. When examining the truthfulness of a particular religion, it often stops at the practices of the religion. One may see that a practicing Mormon is being really kind to others and is spending a large portion of their time volunteering to serve those less fortunate. They may observe them praying to God, going to the Mormon church, and doing other seemingly harmless religious practices that make no imposition on others outside of the Mormon faith. Perhaps in addition to this, you observe the impact of the Mormon religion on a family as having a positive effect. On this basis alone, there is little reason to disregard Mormonism as false, especially as compared to other religions, which seem to be comparable with only slight nuances and adaptations in terminology. However, there is also not enough information to validate Mormonism as true, you can only come to the conclusion that it has practical benefit. To examine whether or not Mormonism is true, you must also examine the assertions of Mormonism. A religion can not be considered true based on the conduct of the individuals making the claims in the same way that a scientist can not be considered correct based on their conduct and how they treat others. Their assertions must be examined. It is by pressing this further examination into the assertions of different religions that we can demonstrate that all religions can not be true.
All religions maintain assertions on the nature of reality. These are wide ranging and they include claims of theism, incarnation, deification, resurrection, dualism, and many others. For each religion, their practices are generally deduced from the different assertions that they maintain. For example, hesychasm in the Greek Orthodox Church is a practice of deep contemplative prayer in an attempt to participate in an experiential knowledge of God. This practice is directly deduced from three important assertions on reality, (1) there is a God, (2) you can acquire knowledge of God, (3) experiential knowledge of God is gained through contemplative prayer. If any of these three assertions are to be considered false, then the practice is also to be considered false. This is why keeping assertions in perspective are important when assessing the truthfulness of a religion. When we do, it can be quickly and easily seen how difficult it is to maintain that all religions could possibly be considered true.
Take for example the assertion within Judaism that there is one transcendent creator God, YHWH. This comes in direct contradiction with Buddhism that is absent of a transcendent creator God. This is further complicated b other religions who would maintain that there are multiple gods. Within Christianity, the central assertion is that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah that through His death, burial, and resurrection He made atonement for those who had faith in Him. This central assertion comes into direct contradiction with Judaism, which maintains that Jesus was not the Messiah, and Islam, which maintains that Jesus did not die and was not resurrected. The contradictions between the assertions of different religions are voluminous and these contradictions exist at the very foundation of these religions. If we are to consider the assertions of religions within the scope of assessing whether or not the religions are true, and one desires to maintain the assertion that all religions are true, then they must deal with these strong and clear contradictions between different religions.
The path forwards involves three separate paths. A person seeking to affirm the above can (1) deny the law of non-contradiction, (2) reinterpret or restate all of the contradictory assertions in an attempt to remove the contradiction, (3) postulate an account for religious truth that allows all of the religions to maintain truthfulness. The first is complicated, technical, counter-intuitive, and creates a mess of complications throughout the rest of one’s worldview. The second is overly tedious and would require an unending effort of creative syncretism. The third is the route taken by most religious pluralists who desire to maintain the truthfulness of many religions.
John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis
The most sophisticated philosophical account has been articulated by John Hick in his pluralistic hypothesis. In this hypothesis, Hick maintains that while religions make contradictory truth claims, the different religions can be considered true without being considered the all-encompassing truth. All religions are just finite, historical responses of experiences to the single transcendent, ultimate, divine reality and they are true in regard to capturing within their own cultural context their experience of the ultimate divine reality. This ultimate divine reality, according to Hick, is unknowable, and the experience of it can not have a literal application to the ultimate reality. At most, capturing these experiences can be an approximation of the ultimate reality but they ought not be considered reflective or even analogous to the ultimate reality. This hypothesis provides grounds for the justification of having one’s own, sincere, religious beliefs, but it does not allow for one religious persuasion to have grounds for exclusive status in capturing ultimate reality. There have been many supporters of Hick’s hypothesis as well as strong criticss. I will note three personal charges with this hypothesis that demonstrate that the hypothesis sets itself against what most who desire to affirm religious pluralism would like to do.
Charge of Reduction
The first charge is the significant reduction of religious assertions. At the heart of religious realism is the idea that religions are making truth claims that correspond to reality. However, under this hypothesis, religions are at best articulating a temporal, cultural interpretation of reality that can be a justifiable, true, belief, however their beliefs don’t maintain a universal truthfulness. For the Christian, this means that the God that they believe in is not the ultimate transcendent reality, there is, under this hypothesis, a reality that transcends this mere “persona”, YHWH, of the ultimate reality. Thus, it logically follows that if this is to be the case, then YHWH is not worthy of worship for Christians or Jewish individuals, instead it is this unknowable conception of ultimate reality that is worthy of worship. Furthermore, for Christianity, Jesus would continue to be God incarnate, however, He is only a mere approximation of ultimate reality, though we can know nothing literally true about ultimate reality from Jesus. This reduction occurs across every religion and it involves reducing the assertions to an unrecognizable state that eliminates the thrust of the charges being made and I have reasonable doubt that any individual whois devout in their fate would be willing to agree with this reduction of their faith.
Charge of Close Non-Realism
The second charge is the employment of a transcendent, unknowable reality by John Hick. This unknowable reality creates a close non-realism in which the assertions of various religions don’t have a literal truthfulness to them in capturing the ultimate reality. These assertions are merely cultural interpretations of a brush-up with the ultimate reality, but the content of these assertions can only be considered approximations at best and they don’t have an ultimate truthfulness. However, an assertion on the ultimate reality that can not capture reality, can not be considered real in the sense that religious realists would assert. Though Hick does not quite arrive at non-realism as an Atheist would, his epistemological foundations tend farther from being able to make truth claims on reality. One would believe that the starting point for a pluralist like John Hick would be the idea that all religions are true, but it seems to be founded on the idea that all religions are false and they can not capture reality.
Charge of Religious Novelty
The final charge of this pluralist hypothesis by Hick is that it is not an effort to allow for the truthfulness of multiple religions. Instead, it is itself a religious system, making assertions on ultimate reality, namely that there exists an unknowable ultimate reality that has been experienced by many different cultures in a dynamic fashion. Though in its depth of content, it is a relatively weak religious system, it is still a religious system. As a religious system, it contradicts the other religious systems that it seeks to maintain.
There are other charges that could be presented against this thesis of religious pluralism, however, these serve as a demonstration that a thoughtful espousal of religious pluralism involves an immediate divergence from the emotional appeal of affirming religious pluralism, as it begins with a denial of the literal truthfulness of various religious assertions.
This exploration of an attempt to articulate a logical coherence to religious pluralism serves to demonstrate its militancy against the emotional allure of religious pluralism. At its logical conclusion is just another religious system attempting to capture reality that sets itself against other religions. If one rejects this hypothesis, they are left with either finding another hypothesis that will likely end up with the same problems as John Hick’s hypothesis or they will be forced again to deal with the contradictions leading to either (1) omnism, which begins with the thesis that all religions are partially false, (2) nonrealism, which begins with the assertion that all religions are false, or (3) paritcularism, one religion is true. Lord-willing in the future I will address omnism and nonrealism and will provide a defense of particularlism.
What do you think? Do you believe that religions can all be true? What hypothesis do you hold to? Why do you believe that we should maintain the truthfulness of all religions? Let me know in the comments below.